If a strange girl from your town asked you to pen her biography, would you? While The Riverman‘s main character Alastair Cleary said yes, author Aaron Starmer might not have done the same. In this interview, Aaron Starmer discusses the inspirations behind his new book, his personal paradise, and “digging up the story beneath the story.”
Bookish: In The Riverman, the first book in a planned trilogy, a boy named Alastair is asked to “pen the biography” of a strange girl named Fiona. If someone like her came to you at age 12, would you have taken it on?
Aaron Starmer: I don’t know, actually. Probably not. I was a little shy, but that wasn’t the main obstacle. It would have been a trust issue for me. What’s her angle? Is she trying to trick me? Is this an elaborate scheme to embarrass me? Will I be laughed at? Alistair has similar feelings, but he gets past them pretty quickly. It would have taken me much longer. The things I used to worry about were pretty ridiculous (tiny stains on my shirt, my occasional stutter, etc.), but then again, kids will tease you about ridiculous things. To give you an idea of what life was like in my middle school, I’ll tell a quick story.
When I was in 7th grade, there was this kid who wanted to look cool, and guys with earrings back then were considered cool. One earring, mind you, and only in the left ear. During lunch one day, this enterprising tyke went into the bathroom, dipped his ear in ice, then sterilized the metal tip of a faux-diamond stud with a lighter, and pierced his own ear. He walked triumphantly back into the cafeteria, blood dripping from his lobe. Was he celebrated like he had hoped? Of course not. He was laughed at, because he didn’t realize how mirrors worked. He thought he’d pierced his left ear, when really he’d pierced his right one. For some reason, piercing his right ear meant he was “gay” (enlightened, we were not). Mortified by the reaction, the kid ran back to the bathroom and pierced the other one. Now he had two bloody lobes. All for the sake of looking cool and not looking “gay.” So yeah, if a girl asked me to write her biography, the entire affair would be fraught with anxiety.
Bookish: Fiona recounts to Alistair her adventures in a place called Aquavania, a magical realm where stories come to life. If you had your own world to create, what would it look like?
AS: A number of people have asked me this question and I’ve answered it differently each time, which I think speaks to something. Our desires and dreams change as we get older, but also day-to-day. Right now, the winter weather is back and my daughter kept me up at night with a cold. So I’m thinking about napping on a hammock in the tropics. Check back in a few days and my paradise will be different. I don’t know if I’d ever be fully satisfied with a place of my own creation, but I’d love to visit somewhere that someone else has created. Surprises are what really excite me. And someone else’s world would be full of surprises.
Bookish: You set the book in upstate New York in 1989. Why did you decide to place this book in the not so distant past?
AS: A lot of reasons, all subtle but all important to me. It’s funny: Some adults who read children’s books just assume that kids want all stories to be contemporary whenever possible. And sure, I could have set The Riverman in 2014, but I could have also set it in southern California, and no one is questioning that decision. The time is as important as the place, even if you don’t hit readers over the head with it. 1989 might seem like the not-so-distant past, but to a 12-year-old, that’s two lifetimes ago. I wanted readers, young ones especially, to have a bit of distance from the story and the narrator. I wanted to give it all a small sense of otherworldliness, because the past is otherworldly.
This is the realm of their parents’ childhood, just as books like The Outsiders were the realm of my parents’ childhood. And even though I tried to steer clear of the hit songs and TV shows, etc., that defined that era, there were very specific things going on then that speak to the novel’s atmosphere. It was the end of the Cold War, but the height of hysteria around drugs, AIDS, and ritualistic abuse of children. In a way, it was the last gasp of free-range childhoods. When I was 12, my neighborhood was always swarming with kids on bikes, or out playing flashlight tag, or Capture the Flag. Maybe I’m not looking closely enough, but I don’t see that much anymore. Finally, the passage of time will become an essential theme as you read other volumes of the story; 1989 will mean something different.
Bookish: The Riverman came from three stories you were trying to write. What was it about those stories that didn’t work separately but were perfect all together?
AS: I don’t know, actually. I think they were too much idea and not enough plot. I liked the ideas, which included a realistic story of a dissolving friendship, an odd story about a first date that flirts with the supernatural, and an epic story set in another realm where children are gods. When I thought up the character of Fiona, who’s like a 1980s version of Carroll‘s Alice, I realized that her story could glue these other stories together. Her experiences could be a bridge between fantasy and reality, a way to explore friendship and first love and the magic of creation. And there was an immediacy to her story that these other ones lacked.
I often tell young writers to put ideas aside if they’re not working. You might revisit them sometime down the line. There’s actually a line in The Riverman that I wrote about 13 years ago. I salvaged it. I was having a conversation with another author once, and I described this process as pulling copper pipes from a derelict old house. In other words, there’s always some value in whatever you write. Sometimes it takes some digging to find it, though.
Bookish: In YA and middle grade books, it’s not very often you find a funny female character. But Fiona is hilarious and very witty. Was this a conscious decision on your part—to showcase a type of girl that is underrepresented?
AS: I don’t think it was overly conscious. In general, I like to create witty characters. They’re fun to write and fun to read. I did want to make sure that she wasn’t too “spunky,” though. In middle grade books, the heroines often feel like variations on Scout Finch—spunky, tomboyish types. Fiona is witty and brave, but she’s also depressed and scared. She’s upfront, but mysterious. Her contradictions are important. She can be hilarious, but about things she takes very seriously. I think what’s underrepresented in all characters is complexity. Heroes and heroines are too noble, villains too evil. I’m more interested in how identities are constantly shifting.
Bookish: On your blog you were counting down the 99 things that inspired you to write The Riverman. Can you pick out two or three and elaborate on what it was about them that inspired you?
Too many conflicting emotional interests are involved for life ever to be wholly acceptable, and possibly it is the work of the storyteller to rearrange things so that they conform to this end. In any case, in talking about the past we lie with every breath we draw.
In Maxwell’s novel, a man looks back on a murder that happened when he was child. It explores the reliability of memories and the malleable perceptions of children. Neil Gaiman‘s recent The Ocean at the End of the Lane explores similar themes, but with supernatural elements. The Riverman falls somewhere between the two. But I can’t call Gaiman’s book an inspiration, because I read it after I was done writing my book.
However, another big inspiration is the music of Daniel Johnston, particularly the songs “Some Things Last a Long Time” and “Devil Town.” Johnston is a songwriter who gained underground fame in the 1980s from the self-recorded cassettes he handed out at concerts and bars in Austin, Texas. On the surface, his music and voice are grating and often unlistenable, but beneath that are some stunning melodies, lyrics and emotions. Amazing songcraft. It’s no surprise that many popular artists (Beck, Wilco, Lucinda Williams, et al) have covered his songs. Johnston has been diagnosed with schizophrenia and manic-depression, and his songs are quite obviously informed by his illness. Which leaves people asking, “Does his art arise from his illness, or is it obscured by his illness?” Similar questions are asked in The Riverman in regards to storytelling. Fiona talks about “digging up the story beneath the story,” and she’s really talking about finding that hidden melody, about figuring out where the inspiration came from.
Bookish: You used to write for the travel industry and you have done quite a bit of traveling yourself. What was your most epic traveling adventure?
AS: There have been many memorable adventures, but most were too short to qualify as epic. When I was seven years old, my family moved to a small town in Australia for six months and that had a profound affect on my view of the world. Twenty-three years later, my then-girlfriend (now-wife) and I quit our jobs and decided to explore Australia’s smaller neighbor, New Zealand. We bought a car and spent three months driving and hiking and camping. We visited as many towns and trails as we could. I grew a ratty beard. Early in the mornings, I sat with a laptop and wrote. I began a book that turned out to be my first published middle-grade novel, Dweeb. It was profound and wonderful experience. And to those who’ve never been to New Zealand, I can only say that it’s true: Middle. Friggin’. Earth.
Bookish: Do you have a favorite indie bookstore?
AS: I live in Hoboken, NJ, where we have a population of about 50,000. The next city over is Jersey City, which has a population of 250,000 or so. Between the cities, there are only three independent bookstores (in other words, one for every 100,000 citizens), so I’d like to highlight all three if I may.
In Hoboken, there’s Symposia, which deals primarily in donated used books. But it’s also an essential meeting space for the community center. In Jersey City, there’s the family-owned Tachair, which sells used and new books, while hosting music and art. Also in Jersey City is the new branch of WORD, which opened a couple of months ago and is doing the same great things it does in its Brooklyn sibling. Support them all!
Aaron Starmer was born in northern California, raised in the suburbs of Syracuse, New York, and educated at Drew University in Madison, New Jersey. His novels for young readers include Dweeb and The Only Ones, and his travel writing has appeared in numerous guidebooks. He lives with his wife in Hoboken, New Jersey.