Michael Perry’s foray into young adult literature
Neil Gaiman, Carl Hiaasen, even James Bond author Ian Fleming are all famous authors of adult books who made the successful transition to writing for young people (Fleming wrote Chitty-Chitty Bang-Bang, in case you were wondering).
It is a very, very short list.
Add Michael Perry, author of several popular adult nonfiction works including Population 485, Coop, Truck: A Love Story, and Visiting Tom. Perry’s latest book is a new venture for him; a middle grade novel (ages 8-12) titled The Scavengers. The book, published by HarperCollins, will be published Sept. 2.
“I’m constantly reading my work out loud as I’m writing. I just love the taste and rhythm of words. I’m heavily influenced by poetry.” – Michael Perry, on reading The Scavengers aloud
The publisher’s promotional tagline for The Scavengers is “Holes meets The City of Ember.” When Mike took time to meet with me before rehearsing with his band, The Long Beds, I mentioned that it read more along the lines of “Coop meets The Hunger Games.” He laughed and said someone at Harper called it “Little House on the Prairie meets Mad Max.”
Here’s a brief description of the book so that you can make your own comparisons.
The Scavengers is a dystopian science fiction novel set in a time when climate change has gotten out of control. The government has taken advantage of this situation and relocated most of the country’s populace to Bubble Cities. Twelve-year-old Maggie is the book’s heroine. She renames herself Ford Falcon, after the model of the car where she sometimes finds shelter. Maggie and her family scavenge a living in the country. They refused the government’s “invitation” to resettle. Their neighbors Toad and Arlinda – along with a feisty rooster named Hatchet – live nearby and provide a sense of community.
It’s dangerous to live outside the Bubble Cities. Solar bears, a genetic cross between polar bears and grizzlies, with a touch of coyote DNA, roam wild. There are also the GreyDevils, zombie-like folks who are usually passed out from consuming something nasty called PartsWash. They are slow moving, but can overwhelm travelers with their sheer numbers.
Mike added touches of humor throughout the novel. Toad and Arlinda own a one-eyed dog named Monocle and a three-legged cat named Tripod. There are also lots of examples of wordplay, mostly in the form of Pig Latin and spoonerisms, where parts of words are swapped. A battleship becomes a “shattlebip” and Toad’s mode of transportation inspired by prairie schooners is named the “Scary Pruner.”
As Toad says, “I just lang love-uage!”
It is within this setting that Maggie’s family goes missing. The reader is taken along on her quest to find them.
I began our interview by telling Mike I was guessing that his inspiration for the book came from gazing over his land in the country and imagining what would happen if Big Brother took it over. He said I was close.
The story is, in his words, “a conglomeration and confluence of several things.” An editor from Harper contacted him a few years back. She admired his adult books and asked if he had ever considered writing for young people. It wasn’t on his mind and politely told her no. Later on, Mike had an idea about a fictional character who eventually became Maggie.
At the time, Mike was also concerned about the whole national health care issue and providing for his family. One winter, he wrote and wrote and then had his agent contact that Harper editor, to see if she was still interested. She was and Mike signed a contract. He worked on the book for three more years.
The New Auburn native, who now lives near Fall Creek, enjoyed the challenges of not only writing fiction, but also writing for young people for the first time in his career as well as freedom from the fact-checking that nonfiction requires. At the same time, the fictional characters became very demanding of him.
Mike used to make fun of his author friends who “inhabited the minds of their fictional characters.” But then he wound up doing the same thing with Maggie. He just let her run, and she provided the direction of the book.
The more he wrote about her, the easier it became to get into her mind. Mike is a great respecter of genres. He made no assumptions about writing for kids. He learned to not worry about talking a certain way to kids. Mike mostly wanted to share a good story with them.
Maggie is not necessarily a composite of his own two daughters, but Mike admits his radar was up when he was around them and picked up some clues about what it’s like to be a kid again. He also relied on his own memories of childhood, recalling the pleasures of reading good books, like those of Louis L’Amour, on the front porch of his home near New Auburn.
Mike didn’t actively pursue nor avoided other children’s books while writing The Scavengers. His whole family is very knowledgeable of quality young people’s literature. Listening to audio books is a staple activity on family car trips. Some favorites over the years included the Harry Potter series, the Percy Jackson series, and the Little House books. Mike let those stories flow over him. He pointed out the beautiful writing of the Little House books in particular; they had a simple nature to them yet they still told a good story. For his own book for kids, Mike’s mantra became: “Just tell a good story.”
In addition to the books listed above, The Scavengers also makes a wonderful read-aloud experience for any family. The 41 word opening sentence (the length itself breaks all the rules for children’s literature, but in a good way – reminiscent of rule-breakers like J.K. Rowling, Maurice Sendak, Judy Blume, and Dr. Seuss), is begging to be read aloud: “The old car was sunk to the bumpers when I discovered it, but my first thought was how good it would be to sleep in there and hear the rain drumming on steel rather than splattering against our tattered old tarp.”
Here’s another fun passage to read-aloud: “ ‘Snooky holer-tables!’ is Toad’s way of cussing without really cussing. What he’s really saying is ‘Holy snooker tables!’ Dad told me snooker is a game where you try to shoot balls into the holes of a table. Toad has never played, he just likes the goofy sound of it. Twist it with a spoonerism, and you’ve got your own Toad Hopper cuss word.”
Mike was not conscious of “breaking rules” when writing for kids, but found it interesting when I pointed out the strengths of The Scavengers being a great read-aloud.
“I’m constantly reading my work out loud as I’m writing,” he said. “I just love the taste and rhythm of words. I’m heavily influenced by poetry.”
Maggie is also an admirer of words and poetry – there are several references to Emily Dickinson woven into the story. In a recent interview with the Star Tribune, Mike said, “I like the idea of fine literature in roughneck circumstances.”
For Mike’s adult fans, he hid Easter eggs throughout the book — those small, hidden messages for insiders. The book briefly mentions a musician who lives in the country named “Bon Hiver.” Maggie’s father owns a T-shirt with “Bon Hiver” on it. The T-shirt with this spelling actually exists. For Mike, it was a sweet way to make fun of a friend.
Maggie and her companions also travel to a town named Nobburn. Toad and Arlinda are somewhat modeled on his friends Tom and Arlene, the landscape in the book is similar to rural western Wisconsin, and there’s a reference to Interstate 94; these are all little nods to where he’s from.
The character of Hatchet is also modeled after every rooster Mike has encountered; all of them nasty and egotistical. Mike remembers one little rooster that could only get halfway through its crowing. In the book, Hatchet frequently lets loose with a “Cock-a-doodle … aaack-kack-kack-kack!” Mike likes the contradiction of the bird’s ego and its failure to complete the crow, the rooster’s distinguishing characteristic.
The Scavengers ends with some unanswered questions. The book itself asks, “Where did the GreyDevils come from? What are the GreyDevils?”
Mike’s response: “Let’s just say this. It’s a two-book contract. Yes, there will be a sequel. I’m figuring out the answers to those and other questions while writing this second book.”
Work on the sequel of The Scavengers is currently on the backburner, though, with priority given to the final touches on two upcoming adult books. One is a nonfiction book about essayist Michel de Montaigne and the other a work of fiction that features a long-term bachelor living in a small town in northern Wisconsin. Mike grinned and said, “I wanted to stretch my boundaries.”
The latter is about a factory worker who owns a couple of beefers and a milk cow. On Christmas Eve, the cow gives birth to a calf that has the image of Christ on it. It’s a humor novel with the working title The Jesus Cow. Mike added that he always wanted to write a novel where a water tower explodes. Hang on to those images until the release date of that particular book, sometime in 2015.
In the meantime, watch for Michael Perry as he hits the road himself in September. He hopefully won’t be fighting off GreyDevils, like Maggie and Toad on the Scary Pruner, but instead will be promoting the publication of The Scavengers at a library or bookstore near you.
EXCERPT: The Scavengers
The Scavengers is Michael Perry’s first dive into the world of young adult fiction. The following is an excerpt — the introduction, actually — wherein we meet the story’s narrator and protagonist, Maggie.
The old car was sunk to the bumpers when I discovered it, but my first thought was how good it would be to sleep in there and hear the rain drumming on steel rather than splattering against our tattered old tarp.
I was Maggie back then. Maggie, the name my parents gave me. A nice name. But these weren’t nice times. We were tired and hungry, and the GreyDevil bonfires were burning brighter and the solar bear howls were getting closer, and every morning as I strapped my SpitStick across my back and set out to scavenge, I found myself thinking I needed a better name. A stronger name.
I mean, the name Maggie was fine, it just seemed kinda underpowered.
So when I scrubbed the moss from the side of that old car overlooking Goldmine Gully and saw the chrome letters – Ford Falcon – I climbed up on the hood and stood there with my steel-toed boots planted wide and I wedged my fists on my hips and I announced that Maggie was yesterday, and from this day forward I would answer only to Ford Falcon. Ford, because we had a lot of rivers to cross. Falcon, because, well, if you have a lot of rivers to cross, a pair of wings can’t hurt, and then once you get across the river it’s likely you will need sharp eyes and an even sharper beak.
Yes. I know. I named myself after an old dead car. Worse yet, it’s not even a cool car. It’s a station wagon. Station wagons were how parents hauled kids around during the time between covered wagons and minivans. These days you won’t see a minivan unless it’s being pulled by a horse, and even horses are hard to come by.
But if you see me you will know me because I wear a vest made from the hide of a beast that tried to kill me and lost. I skinned that beast myself, and also I skinned the lettering from that old dead car and stitched it to the vest across my shoulder blades using copper wire so that in polished chrome the world can read my name and know it: Ford Falcon.
The Scavengers will be out Sept. 2 via HarperCollins.