When Terry Trueman's son, Sheehan, was born in 1979, Trueman wasn't sure that he would make it through another day, much less live to write about it. The cerebral palsy that severely crippled his son threatened to overwhelm Trueman, who nevertheless eventually turned his fear, shock and grief into the narrative poem Sheehan and then the novel Stuck in Neutral.
Stuck in Neutral won Trueman the Michael L. Printz Honor Book Award and also the notice of actor Craig T. Nelson. Nelson's nephew, a good friend of Trueman's accountant, passed the book along to the Spokane-native actor, who was reportedly quite taken with the story.
"His production company, Family Tree, bought the initial option rights to both Stuck in Neutral and Sheehan," says Trueman. "They'll have to make a decision in October whether to option it for another year, and they're flying me down to L.A. for that in another week or so."
As Nelson started out in Hollywood as a writer, it's no surprise that he's co-authoring the script with Trueman. "We're co-authors right now, but I think Craig envisions performing the father character in Stuck in Neutral," he says. "The plan right now is for it to be a feature film."
In addition to the film projects, Trueman is also working on a three-book deal for HarperCollins, including the short story collection Bad Boys, which will also feature Spokane writers Chris Crutcher and Terry Davis. We sat down with him a few weeks ago to talk about the difficult circumstances which led to his writing career.
PM: For readers, can you differentiate between the works Sheehan and Stuck in Neutral, since to some degree they speak about the same subject?
TT: I tried to capture in Sheehan the depth of emotional and spiritual reality that at least some people go through and I went through in dealing with having a badly injured child. Stuck in Neutral is told from the imaginative point of view of what life might be like for my son Sheehan. Sheehan the poem is probably misnamed; it should be called Sheehan's Dad, because it really is told from the point of view of a father of a badly injured child and what the father goes through.
PM: When did you first come up with the idea of turning a very personal story into writing?
TT: I really started the Sheehan poem at the time we were finally getting into court over our litigation on behalf of Sheehan and ourselves for what we felt was medical malpractice at his birth. Going back into court and being forced to look at the medical records and all the huge, blown-up photographs of the birthing brought all of it back to me in a rush, and at that time, 12 years after Sheehan had been born, I had enough perspective to actually step in and write the poem from that revisiting of those memories of that experience.
Stuck In Neutral started out as a horror story. I didn't have any sense of it having any humor in it, any fun in it, or being based as it turned out to be, primarily in irony. I had it as a horror story. A young man trapped in a body with total cognition, who nobody knows is intelligent, seeing death come towards him and not being able to do anything about it.
PM: Death by father.
TT: Death by his father euthanizing him. And thinking what a horrifying entrapment that would be for him. But as soon as I started writing it, this Holden Caulfield-esque sort of smart-ass voice came popping out of this kid, and the next thing I knew he was writing the story and I was just jotting down notes. His character really did take over. I may have invented him, but a lot of the things that are in him I like to think of as his alone.
PM: In the poem you reveal exactly what is going on in your mind after Sheehan's birth and to what degree you're moved emotionally by that. Do you feel guilt?
TT: I feel less guilt now than at other times in my life, but I will always feel some guilt about not having been able to handle the difficulties of Sheehan's birth and life better than I have.
PM: That's not something a person ever gets over?
TT: I can't speak for all persons. It's something I hope I never get over. I hope I always feel some guilt about not doing a better job with that.
TT: I don't know if everything happens for a reason in life, but this did happen to me, and my nature is to try and figure out the reason, to try and understand it. Everything I come back to when I try to understand it is that this happened to me because in some way I needed this to happen, to become the human being I am today.
PM: In Sheehan you write about your own consideration of suicide. In Stuck in Neutral -- and we won't tell readers how it ends -- but you focus on the father possibly killing his son to spare him the torture of what he imagines his son's life to be. How familiar are you with those questions?
TT: I don't think I ever really very seriously contemplated ending Sheehan's life and that's not because I am such a good guy, or was afraid, or anything else. I just think now it's because of some certain level of faith that I have about what life is about. Earlier it was whatever combination of internal processes that would have made it really difficult for me to be sure enough about what Sheehan's life is like to do something like that. But, the suicide scene in Sheehan is true, where I put the gun into my mouth and contemplated pulling the trigger, and he was sitting in my lap when I did that, when he was two or three years old. Although even as I say in that scene, if you read it carefully, I know I am not going to do it, I just want to see what it feels like.
PM: And, the way I read Sheehan, that moment with the gun is the climatic point where in fact your heart opens up. It sounds like you were a terrified person beforehand and then something went on at that moment.
TT: Yeah, I think so. I think there was a certain break there, although I don't think it was as clear and clean as it was presented in the poem. I was working with a counseling therapist during that period of my life, and I think a lot of other factors were involved in helping me get to the next place I needed to go emotionally and spiritually with the situation that had happened with Sheehan. So it wasn't just that one moment, although I think that moment is representative and symbolic and certainly was a part of that shift, that Sheehan is some kind of impossible, incomprehensible gift.
PM: What does happen inside the human being that allows for this change, for a person to come out and feel differently?
TT: Many people have injured children or even lose children to death and handle it with grace. But many people don't do it as well, and that is really what the Sheehan poem is about -- exploring why I failed to handle it in the ways I did, why it was so troubling and difficult for me to handle it in the way that I did. Which was really a way of forgiving myself and having compassion for myself, which is fairly selfish on the one hand, but also necessary in order to feel compassion and forgiveness for others, I think.
PM: So are you saying that's part of what had to happen?
TT: Yeah, forgiving myself and forgiving God and forgiving the universe for this thing, the beginning of it was in that moment in the poem. Realizing that this is an incomprehensible gift, this thing that had happened. For Sheehan and me there is no ending; that was the most important line in the poem. I wanted to say that to the reader, because we Americans love stories that have nice bows wrapped around them and a happy ending. Lassie barks, they pull Timmy out of the well and we all live happily ever after... But for Sheehan and I, there is no ending, and for people with kids like Sheehan [who is still alive], there are no endings, it just goes on and on.
PM: Some might perceive your telling this story as using tragedy for personal gain.
TT: As a writer, I have always wanted to write about the material that comes to me, or is a part of me. I don't want to invent stories about what it's like to live on Uranus Nine's 15th moon. It doesn't interest me to make up that stuff. It doesn't interest me to write just to see my name in print. What interests me about writing is being able to figure out how to use language in a way to touch human hearts and emotions and spirits, and in a way to communicate my heart and emotions and spirit to others.
PM: What's life teaching you?
TT: I feel now that anything I get from my life this point forward is just gravy. I'm not planning it ahead at all. I have so many great things opening up before me right now, and to just to try to step in and live those moments that are so filled with grace and good luck. I am thrilled to get to do it, and, if I am fortunate enough to live a long time, I guess I'll take each thing as it comes.