What Starts the Story Working:
An Interview with John H. Ritter
by Dr. Teri Lesesne, President of ALAN
(Teacher Librarian Magazine, March 2001)
In January 2001, John sat down with Dr. Teri Lesesne, the current President of ALAN (the Assembly on Literature for Adolescents of the National Council of Teachers of English) and Book Editor for the NCTE publication, Voices in the Middle, for a quick chat. Listen in as John talks about his source for ideas, the benefits of his Writer-in-Residence program, and what he hears from his readers.
Teri Lesesne: Someone once compared writing to the way an oyster creates a pearl. It begins with a tiny piece of sand, an irritant that the oyster strives to cover over with layer after layer. What is the sand in the oyster for you? What starts the story working? Is your work character-driven or theme-driven? Is there some other genesis?
Ritter: I don't believe in choosing between character- and plot-driven novels. To me, the greatest stories are a finely woven blend of both. That's what I shoot for. Of the two, character comes easier for me, so I fret more about my plots. That becomes the sand in the oyster—or the ointment—for me. What if a left-handed boy is forced to be right-handed? What's the best thing that could happen? What's the worst? Or what steps, what events, would lead an angry and bitter kid to learn to embrace his enemies as a way of freeing himself from the prison of his emotions? How does one get over that wall? These kinds of questions nag at me until I can answer them. That's how my books begin.
Lesesne: How does being a writer in residence, someone who is in daily contact with kids, affect your writing? I imagine there are some concrete results you see from this as well as some more ethereal consequences?
Ritter: Yeah, no doubt. For two years I spent one day a week at a school on the Camp Pendleton Marine Base where I typically worked with three or four classes on various aspects of the writing process. I'd give mini-lessons on story ideas, revision, plotting, whatever the teachers asked me to address, then come back in a few weeks and do follow-up.
It helped me develop my presentation skills, it helped the teachers learn the techniques of a professional writer, and the kids really got excited about their own writing projects.
In one class the teacher asked me to model interviewing techniques, and the students went home and interviewed family members on their history. A lot of them came from other countries, so the stories became dramatic memoirs, recorded now for the first time. Such as the boy who wrote about his father's boat trip out of Vietnam and how the boat people had to survive a pirate attack on the open seas.
In another class a boy wrote about being both nervous and excited about the summer. In August his dad was being released from prison after four years, and the boy didn't know what he would say to him. That started a lesson on letter writing. We talked about how putting our thoughts on paper helps us to organize them, and that often we can say things more articulately—and more personally—on paper than we can face-to-face.
So to me, that contact with the kids was the real pay-off. Aside from being constantly reminded of their energy and emotions, the social structures of childhood, and the wide variety of character and cultural types in a typical school these days, I also benefited from hearing their stories. The fact that I was able to assist them in recording those stories was an "ethereal consequence" that I felt not only resonating through me, but through the whole community.
Lesesne: What do your readers write you? What do they want to know more about?
Ritter: It's funny, but I get an amazing amount of letters from kids who love the similes and metaphors in my work. That, of course, I attribute to good teaching and the fact that more teachers these days are asking kids to respond to literature using higher levels of thinking. But the kids love "becoming detectives," as I call it, and searching for deeper meaning in the text.
Recently, the letter that made the most impact on me came from a boy who posted his message on my Web site's bulletin board. He drew a direct connection between Tyler's problem in Over the Wall and the two fathers in MA last July who were in a fatal fist fight at a youth hockey practice. He grasped the whole concept of "saving face" that forces men and nations alike to fight rather than walk away if their pride is at stake. A "text-to-society" connection, I think one teacher called it.
But that's one reason why I wrote the book. I mean, what can we expect? As long as our culture continues to glorify fighters and warriors, we will always have fights and wars. And letters like his show that the kids are making the connections.
Beyond that, I get many letters from readers who personally identify with my characters. Adults will tell me about being forcefully switched from their natural left-hand orientation. Old and young will write about the abuses they've suffered from rigidly religious parents. For Over the Wall, I get letters from former soldiers who talk about the sadness of war and the crying need for more civility in today's highly rude, angry, and violent world.
Lesesne: Winning a major award for your first novel, Choosing Up Sides, must have been rewarding and a bit terrifying. How did you react to the news?
Ritter: I was ecstatic. Since my wife, a school teacher, had been a longtime member of IRA, the significance of being recognized by that distinguished organization was not lost on me. But rather than being terrified, I actually felt a sense of relief. After being worried for months as to how Choosing Up Sides would be received, then to know that a diversified national committee had selected it as the YA book of the year, it was like this huge burden had been lifted. And I cried. I just did. Man, you don't know. This is a scary business. And any recognition, large or small, goes a long way, believe me.
Lesesne: What wisdom/advice can you offer teachers who want to connect kids to books and reading?
Ritter: Read out loud, number one. It's amazing how children respond to read-alouds. But that alone is not enough. A teacher has to sense the opportunities to stop the story and open up discussion on what's taking place. What did the author mean by a certain line? Is there a secondary meaning to a certain word or phrase? What are the characters thinking at this point? Eventually the kids will pick up on that. As I say, they love being detectives and spotting symbolism and metaphors once the concept is introduced.
I'd hope that the classroom experience would turn into something that might fill the void of those dinnertime discussions that families never seem to have anymore. Let it be a Socratic experience, full of questions and ponder. Then you'll see the higher levels of thinking kick in.
Plus, hearing the text out loud turns kids on to the rhythms and musicality of language. Soon they'll not only be grabbing the books for themselves, but they'll be writing in that same fashion.
Lesesne: Whose writing inspires you as a reader and as a writer?
Ritter: I keep several novels near my desk and I'll pick them up and thumb through from time to time. At the moment you'll find The Grapes of Wrath, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Francisco Jimenez's The Circuit, Richard Peck's A Long Way from Chicago, and several by Chris Crutcher.
I'll pick them up some days just to get my juices flowing. Along with the language, what I look for is rhythm and nuance. Steinbeck was a master at painting a scene with characterization. So was Twain. That inspires me. In Jimenez and Peck, I look for subtleties and mannerisms. And with Crutcher, I just like to bound along in the whitewater of his prose.
But I find inspiration anywhere. In song, in poetry, in conversations at a shopping mall. And that's what writing is to me. It's a conversation I'm having with my invisible audience as we walk across America. Laughing. Singing. And a little bit in love.