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Original Essays

Monsters and Nose Pickers

by Barry Yourgrau (2005)
One afternoon a couple of years ago I suddenly had a thought: how about a book of stories for kids which operated like anti-fairy tales? Instead of everything turning out for the best, why not have everything somehow, one way or another, with gruesome and spiteful unfairness, turn out for the worst?

I thought this was a terrifically funny idea. Who secretly doesn't love bad endings? I believe I jumped to my feet and stalked around the room cackling my head off, rubbing my hands at the subversive possibilities. (So much for authorial dignity.)

I was further excited because going short and nasty would allow me to use tactics of my adult fiction. Conversely, kid's literature and a kids' perspective have always influenced my writing, even when — or particularly when — the subject matter is at its most "adult." I like provocative innocence: Wind in the Willows eye on a Bukowski guy. (The wonderful Japanese translator of my book Wearing Dad's Head said he kept pulling his hair because in Japanese the "I" of a child and "I" of an adult are different words, and my first-person narrator kept switching between them.)

So that's how the idea of NASTYbook was born, to the sounds of cracked giggling by a grown man all alone in a room. Being "young at heart," I think they call it. (Understand now why I stare in amazement if anyone asks why I think I'm qualified to write for children when I don't have any?)

The first twisted yarn I came up with was "You'll Find Out," an over-the-top cautionary tale in the manner of Struwwelpeter, about a young nose picker who gets a monstrous, wormy lesson in why he really should lay off with his finger. I'm a recovering nose picker myself; I will always remember the horror of a magazine photo I saw as a kid, of worms flapping from a man's nostrils. So I blended my own disturbing memories with a kids' lit convention, and gave everything a nice, rude, ridiculous twist.

This was my MO for NASTYbook, besides just generally unleashing my inner imp.

Next to come was "My Friend Bill," an unfriendly "imaginary friend" story, about a made-up bear who dumps his young creator because he finds him so boring. And then "Parents," more outlandish rejection, wherein really cool parents announce to their dull son that he's simply not cool enough to be theirs. And just like that he's shown the door! (Fear of abandonment, anyone?)

Around this time I'd started reading Hans Christian Andersen, and paying attention. I was startled, and thrilled, by the untrimmed pathos, the slyness, the brutality of his magical tales (which he meant for readers of all ages). With a nod to The Little Match Girl, I invented a brief tale about a monkey who accomplishes every monkey's yearning dream, of escaping from the zoo... or does he? I wanted to sound a note of unexpected pathos among all the nasty hijinks. But with a little wink, too. I tucked other poignant surprises elsewhere in the book. Just so the reader can't take anything for granted.

So what were my influences, then? Well, first and foremost I'm a comic writer. Meaning, I have this voracious, existential need to make people laugh. Woody Allen is always with me: early and middle Woody Allen, I'd say, of the stand-up comedy and great films, before he became the "late Woody Allen" of today's various embarrassments. Maybe that's NASTYbook's tagline: Hans Christian Anderson meets Woody Allen up to Crimes and Misdemeanors?

Over the years people occasionally mention Roald Dahl after reading a piece of mine. Most flattering; but actually I'd never read Roald Dahl. In fact I deliberately avoided him. I read a lot, you see, but I avoid intently, too. Because for me reading is an acutely intimate, almost (almost?) neurotically personalized act. However last month my editor announced, Aw, come on already, and gave me James and the Giant Peach. I found it pretty terrific; I've read and admired a couple of Dahl's adult stories since.

As a kid, I enjoyed the English master Saki; his droll macabre tales of mischief made a big impression. My cuddly ax murderer story, "Panda," is an homage to Saki's delightfully bloodthirsty little pets. But mostly as a kid I read Classics Illustrated comics (comic book versions of classic adventure stories). Wind in the Willows and other children's greats I only got to in my twenties. I confess that when I was suffering the broken heart that led to my book The Sadness of Sex, I read (ahem) Anne of Green Gables, and wept. (What didn't make me weep back in those days?)

But the main outside influence on NASTYbook was a TV series: The Twilight Zone, which I watched in the early '60s as a youngster newly arrived from TV-less South Africa. So spooky was it, and clever, and atmospherically, chillingly, mysteriously fateful. In the Twilight Zone you paid for your mistakes and flaws — heck, you paid gruesomely for just being alive at the wrong moment!

Which leads to my other big influence, the fiction writer whose spirit The Twilight Zone itself drew from. Most people think this was Roald Dahl. But it was a man named John Collier. Ray Bradbury writes how, when Rod Serling was mulling over the idea for the series, he asked Bradbury for some books to read, and Bradbury gave him a stack, with Roald Dahl (of course) among them. But on the very top of the stack he put John Collier's stories.

Collier was an Englishman who wrote scripts in Hollywood, from the '30s through the '60s, for films like I Am A Camera and Sylvia Scarlett. He also wrote short stories that were similar (I now see) to Roald Dahl, only more debonair and cosmopolitan. They're witty, diabolical, fantastical, delightful concoctions. Collier never wrote for children; but his sensibility translates. I first stumbled across him one college summer, and I loved the stories right away (his novel, His Monkey Wife, about a man who marries a chimp, is a little hard going). He was out of print for a long while; but happily a collection, Fancies and Goodnights, has been brought back, with an intro by Bradbury and a blurb from Michael Chabon, another big Collier fan.

So I also like to think of NASTYbook this way, as my modest but enthusiastic knockoff of The Twilight Zone and John Collier, retooled for kids.

And like anyone with the soul of a comedian, I drew for NASTYbook, like I say, on my own private reserves of the good old timeless stuff of comedy and childhood: anxiety, fear, shame, greed, envy, etc. "Snip Snip," my yarn about a poor kid mysteriously compelled to go around his neighborhood clipping everyone's toenails, came from the painful memory of how my dear old dad would make me cut his toenails. Or, considering that I'm still myself afraid of the dark, it wasn't hard to come up with "Dark" and p-poor s-scared Maurice, who feels like I do, and with alarmingly good reason. Though the book's final story, "Goblins and Their Crimes," about an impoverished author of exquisite literary prose who turns to writing kids' books to try to score big bucks in today's boom market, and in the process recklessly insults the good name of goblins everywhere — this story has nothing to do with me (he said, tugging his ear and rubbing his nose). Does the venal writer triumph in the end? Excuse me?

So what's the difference between writing for kids and for grownups? (NASTYbook, mind you, is cross-listed for adults.) I love that remark by another writer: "I write the same way for kids as I do for adults, only better." Indeed. In my case, I made a point of narrative clarity, of making the stories accessible to ten-year-olds. I opened up to pop culture — a witch casting spells on the Internet, ghostly young forms skateboarding (on midnight roofs). Naturally kids, girls as well as boys, are my major protagonists. I discovered, and got to indulge, my weird personal animus against teddy bears (go figure). I laid off sex. I embraced bodily embarrassments, those evergreens of children's entertainment: zits, farts, gunky braces on young teeth, the occasional loss of a head. And I used proper names, which in my adult fiction I almost never do. Maybe for you seeing "Oscar" and "Priscilla" and Dainty Dave" and "Bloody Herbert" in your work is no big deal ; but it is for me. I've always loved names, actually — and aren't the names from our childhood a whole other magical country?

Technically speaking, I wrote as I write for adult readers — in the present tense (the tense of movies and dreams), and by hand, pencil and paper, to start off. Both are crucial. Last year I published a kids' novel, My Curious Uncle Dudley, my attempt at innocently "old fashioned" whimsical tale of magic. The book, I'll note, is in the past tense, and I wrote it all on a word processor. The result was quite different from my usual stuff.

Which leads to what's upcoming. NASTYbook is first of a series of NASTYbooks, you see, a series unified not by format, nor by a cast of ill-treated orphans (somebody took that idea already) — but by an overall Nasty spirit. Next up will be a novel, Another NASTYbook: The Curse of the Tweeties. All I can say is, think Alice in Wonderland meets... Adam Sandler? There'll be moments where the book turns into a manga comic. And I'm delighted I did a first draft by hand, in present tense and short takes. I was always afraid these techniques would be too intense to sustain over the length of a novel.

But I'm afraid no more! (He said, right before his editor cancelled the book in disgust) (I'm joking) (Man, I'm joking.) spacer

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