Don’t run! This isn’t going to be about Charles Dickens…but it is how I felt yesterday afternoon being questioned by two classes of 6th graders at the British-American School in Tijuana, Mexico. My good friends, teachers Will Kay and Maria Rocio Moreno organized this Q&A session as part of the festivities celebrating Book Month at the school. Despite being nervous as hell (speaking to children is infinitesimally more pressure for me than the usual presentations to peers), it went off brilliantly. The kids were phenomenal and asked great questions that kept me on my toes. They all listened carefully and were engaged the entire 40 minutes. One of the boys pretty swiftly stumped me with: “How do you start writing a book?” A dozen different answers came to my mind, including the logical cop out: “well, son…you simply sit down in front of your laptop and go to it.” (In my head I hear this as Foghorn Leghorn would say it)
I had to politically dodge my way out of “Do you like ‘Twilight’?” (most who know me are aware of my allergic reaction to anything “vampire;” me being Romanian and all) but I think I answered it in a fair enough way that no one was upset. And I am somewhat ashamed for not having (and probably planning to never) read “The Hunger Games.” But that’s the way it is; there are some novels I refuse to read. I think it’s fair that the kids learned that. One of the boys asked me why I came to America, and I had difficulties trying to explain what a political defection was, without boring the classes to tears. I think I struggled my way through that one valiantly, but I’m not sure they quite understood; if I had to take one back, that would’ve been it.
“What inspires you?” was one of my favourite questions, because, for me, the answers change almost on a daily basis…or, rather, rotate. And the other was: “Are you ever afraid that people won’t like what you write?” This is a brilliant question, because it deals with a subject struggled with and being probed by artists in all milieus. I’ve always admired and respected the modal Jazz guys who went out there on that stage and hung themselves out to dry, playing something different every night, every note, really. To me, that is the epitome of courage. There are even books on this hard subject (“Art and Fear: Observations on the Perils of Artmaking” is one that comes quickly to mind), and artists battle this fear of rejection every day, because it happens every day…and sometimes with impunity. I won’t give my answer here…it was for the kids to have, but the question really resonated with me.
“What is your favourite jelly bean flavour?” and “What do you think about bunny rabbits?” had the most whimsy. They both came out of left field, but I love Left Fielders. Right-handed batters usually hit that way, and I’m a righty so…there’s your fly ball right back at you; I dare you to get me out.
The one question I’d anticipated was “What is your all time favourite book?” That’s easy. For me, hands down, it’s F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby.” I first read this in my teens, and have come back to it several times in the subsequent decades. There isn’t any time that I read this that I don’t get blown away by the brevity, the mastery upon language, and the pristine beauty with which Fitzgerald socially and politically eviscerates his generation. The theme of “Gatsby” is timeless, as proven by our recent struggles and devastating events that were bestowed upon the Middle Class by the 1 percent-ers. This was the easiest one to answer (albeit most controversial, but art is subjective thus you can have your Grapes of Wrath or Ethan Frome or War and Peace, and I will keep my Gatsby).
We finally concluded with Will Kay asking for a book recommendation for the classes. I was surprised, but I quickly picked Jules Verne’s “Journey to the Centre of the Earth” and a collective “Whoaaaaaaaa!” was let out. At first I thought I had recommended a crappy novel; it turns out all the kids had heard of it, and they approved nearly unanimously. The “Whoaaaaaa!” as it turns out, was a most positive reaction. I am giddy about that; when I was eight or nine I was a Jules Verne FREAK. I devoured them all, even at the cost of having nightmares about some of those creatures down there, twenty-thousand leagues under the sea. Captain Nemo was my hero for many years.
I am so grateful for having been given this opportunity; it was easily the highlight of my year. Children, to me, are what’s most important….not necessarily having them–there are many of us who cannot be or choose not to be parents–but interacting with them, speaking with them, being friends with them. And the connection that ties us to them all is: books. Glorious books!