When you’re 19 years old and you go out to a bar, you hope you don’t get carded. When you’re 34, you hope you do. The way we relate to our own ages undergoes many facelifts. Teenagers often brag about their ‘old souls’, while the middle-aged are proud to be ‘young at heart’. It seems no matter how many birthdays we’ve celebrated, we want to be any age but our own.
One of the perks of writing works of fiction is an outlet for fanciful desires. Draw a character, and jump into his or her shoes, or his or her age. When I was in my mid-twenties, the protagonist of my crime thriller Bang, Bang was 38 years old. Why make Izzy 38? I honestly couldn’t say. I didn’t know anyone who was 38. I had no real personal insight into the mind-set of a man two years away from 40. It sounded like a good age to be tired enough of whatever you were doing in life to stop doing (in Izzy’s case, robbing drug dealers). 38 sounded grizzled and world weary, and likely just enough distance from my own age so that I couldn’t possibly confuse my protagonist with my self.
Seems only right that now that I’m in my mid–thirties, I’m subtracting years instead of adding them. I keep thinking 11 or 13. I’m drawn to odd years rather than even. There is again enough distance from my own age to make the character a separate creation. I’m less romantic about the veiled, edgy dangers of the real world, and more prone to nostalgia. I’d rather spend time with good kids with good hearts than lost causes and small-time drug dealers.
As I read and reread young adult novels, certain characters, scenes and dynamics would trigger almost physical memories. Good YA has the power to recall moments that moved your world when you were a child, like Harry Potter’s first birthday cake, or when Bambi was running away, the gunshot fired and you knew (spoiler) that Bambi’s mother was gone forever. A YA novel can make even an adult reader more vulnerable to its story, as the tales recall a time when we were more vulnerable to life. Every experience was newer, more magical, and more devastating. I don’t remember when my parents had that dreaded conversation with me about death. I’m sure they did; they had to. But I do remember when faceless hunters shot Bambi’s mother dead.
It wouldn’t surprise me if most of our earliest exposures to death were presented to us through the fictional lens of our favorite young stories. Kids grow at such a rapid clip, and the stories they digest serve a more vital developmental purpose. They see their heroes leave home, confront their fears, and return stronger—almost a psychological metaphor for getting through 3rd grade. A child’s responsibilities are to read, experience and learn. They aren’t’ reading as downtime from their jobs, right before they pay the house bills. They aren’t taking a break from life when they read; they are living it.
One of my old favorites was a Japanese manga (though I didn’t know that term then) called The Lone Wolf and Cub. It was the story of a father and son, roaming feudal Japan as the baby cart assassin. Something in those stories has influenced most everything I’ve written in one obscure way or another. That feeling of complete immersion is what I’m trying to replicate when I tell any story. I recall those books as a waypoint for my writing. The old style ink-penned, black and white art of the father and son resonates to this day. I even pick up a charcoal stick and draw them from time to time.