Acclaimed playwright and author Clay McLeod Chapman is the creator of the relentless storytelling sessions THE PUMPKIN PIE SHOW. He has contributed to several anthologies and authored two novels. Currently, he is writing a trilogy of children's novels titled The Tribe—book one, HOMEROOM HEADHUNTERS (Hyperion), hit shelves last month. Visit him at claymcleodchapman.com. THE TRIBE: HOMEROOM HEADHUNTERS features a shadowy group of students who are outsider figures, but also run the school in a mysterious way. How did you set out to avoid the stereotypical cliques and school-hierarchies found in pop culture?
I write them out of my system, basically. I think the first draft of HOMEROOM HEADHUNTERS was steeped with stereotypes—something along the lines of a film adaptation of LORD OF THE FLIES as written/directed by John Hughes. My editor, bless him, helped kick the clichés out.
But I also think there’s something to be said about taking a stereotype and putting your own spin on it. We’re dealing with archetypes here. It’s a fun challenge to take characters we’re all familiar with—the dunderheaded school bully, the stern principal—and subverting them somehow. Let’s muddy them up so that they’re not so black and white. That way, readers have to actively ask themselves: “Well—what do I really
think of this character?”
I think there’s a point in HOMEROOM HEADHUNTERS where you can sympathize with the school bully, even after all the mean things he’s done throughout the book. When something like that happens, the reader has a chance to stop and consider the complexities of actual people, that no one is ever truly Type A or Type B, and that sometimes it’s not so easy to put somebody in a box because they are “the bully” or whatever stereotype you can pin on someone else in real life. Reviewers have noted that amidst the spitball fights and toilet jokes there’s some serious relational conflict between Spencer Pendleton, protagonist of The Tribe series, and his mother. How do you balance the gross-out appeal and weightier subject matter?
It was definitely a balancing trick that I hope I got right. I totally believe that humor is a wonderful tool that writers can use to explore weightier topics. Humor establishes a certain level of trust between reader and writer. If we’re laughing, we let our guard down a little—and now that we trust our author, he or she can throw something a little heftier our way. And we’ll catch it. Because there’s that trust, see? What’s the line from Mary Poppins? “A spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down…”
The topics I tackle in the book—finding your own voice within middle school society, bullying, struggling against that sense of isolation in school, being on the outside of its million-and-one cliques, feeling distant from your own family—are all issues that merit discussion. But I didn’t want my readers to feel like I was delivering some Message. So I gave them permission to laugh. That way, we acknowledge the complexity of the situation. I’m not suggesting that we crack a joke at inappropriate moments—but I do believe humor in all of its forms, whether it’s gross-out, satirical or punny, is a fruitful mechanism for helping us understand, for coping, for seeing things in all of their various raw details. You’ve mentioned that your own experiences of being bullied inspired the rogue group of anti-bullies in The Tribe series. Which anti-bully characters did you take solace in and relate to when you were in school?
The movie STAND BY ME was a pivotal import into my subconscious. There’s no denying its impact on my creative life. I had to be, hmm, nine or ten when it first came out? It was Rated R, for sure—but that didn’t stop me from watching it on the VHS player in my friend’s basement over and over again. I still have distinct memories of Gordie, Chris, Vern and Teddy coming into contact with that pack of bullies by the train tracks. How clenched my throat was when Kiefer Sutherland’s character pulled out his switchblade.
I’ll come clean and confess that the culminating moment in HOMEROOM HEADHUNTERS is a complete riff on a certain scene revolving around a pie-eating contest and a bottle of castor oil.
The movie eventually led me to Stephen King’s novella “The Body,” which led to other Stephen King works, which led to Edgar Allan Poe, then H.P. Lovecraft. King was a total gateway book for me. By reading his work, I learned all about the authors who had influenced him—so when I ran out of King’s books, I read them, only to read their influences, and on and on up the literary family tree…
I’m crossing my fingers that HOMEROOM HEADHUNTERS can be a gateway book to the novels it references, to those works of classic literature that changed my world when I first read them. If kids are tempted to pick up a copy of LORD OF THE FLIES or CALL OF THE WILD or CATCHER IN THE RYE after finishing mine—mission totally accomplished. On your blog you said this about your anxieties of reading in front of a writing class at Rutgers University, “Writing workshop students can smell your fear. They eat the weaker writers.” What are the top fears that surface when reading your work aloud to a crowd?
I’ve been performing in the downtown NYC theater scene for nearly twenty years now, but I’ve never been more terrified then when I stood before 600 middle school kids in Idaho and read from HOMEROOM HEADHUNTERS for the very first time. I was petrified. Absolutely petrified. Middle grade is a totally new, completely unchartered terrain for me. Middle school was the undiscovered country as far as I was concerned. In the back of my head, I kept asking myself—What if they think I’m just some old dude trying to be hip and they see right through me? What if they don’t like the book? What if I make a complete fool out myself?
(That last one wouldn’t be too-too hard, with or without the book.)
But you know what? The craziest thing happened. The students got into it! Really into it. The teachers too. The book, just by the sheer nature of its first-person narrative, comes alive as soon as I read aloud from it—and Spencer, our narrator, gets to put his foot in his mouth for one and all. He becomes a palpable person for the audience to hear. They think of him less as a literary figment and more of a human being with a story to tell, not to mention a lot of faults that make him all the more real.
Students tend to conflate me with Spencer, thanks to the first-person narrative. Which is kind of fun. I’ll admit—there’s a little bit of myself in Spencer. I think a lot of students will find a bit of themselves in him, too. Several have so far. Some have come up to me after a reading and confided—“That guy’s a lot like me.”
I can’t stress this enough: It is so much fun to read from this book before a large crowd of middle school students. I will go anywhere and everywhere and I will read this book for anyone and everyone who is willing to listen. Have book, will travel—you know? What I’ve learned thus far is that sixth graders ask the best (and most) questions, seventh graders play their cards closest to the chest, and eighth graders will laugh the loudest. Your storytelling creation, The Pumpkin Pie Show, has been described as a mix of literature and theater. Teachers often find themselves at that intersection when performing read-alouds. What tips can you offer for a solid performance?
I’ve always believed that first person narratives make great theater. MOBY DICK? “Call me Ishmael?” Get an actor behind that and—POOF: You’ve got yourself a monologue. A rather long monologue—but still. Shake and Bake Theater. How cool is that?
I believe book readings carry a certain stigma. Most folks think of them as arid affairs. But it doesn’t have to be! After several weeks of reading from the same chapters from HOMEROOM HEADHUNTERS, the text has ingrained itself into my system. The more I read it, the more it’s memorized, until I’m not even looking at the pages anymore. For listeners, that creates an interesting sensation: The guy said this was a book reading, but he’s not even looking at his book! He’s talking directly to us!
It blurs the line between what we as an audience think a book reading is supposed to be and something a little more theatrical, something a little more alive and in-the-moment. And real! Almost real. It’s happening in the here and now. No two readings are the same because no two audiences are ever the same. That’s what makes theater so special. It’s raw and in the moment. It’s not a movie. It’s now and never again.
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