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Young at heart 

by Sheri Boggs


His could be called the voice of a generation. Chris Crutcher's prose is sharp, quick-witted and pulls no punches. His characters -- oddballs, bad guys and heroes alike -- lodge themselves in your mind long after you've turned the last page. But are his books written for and read by his own generation, the children of the '60s and the baby boomers? No, the generation Chris Crutcher writes for is the one loosely called Generation Y, readers who are in their teens and early 20s.


In person, Crutcher is friendly, approachable and opinionated, which is not surprising if you've read any of his books. The Spokane author has penned six novels for young adults (including Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes, Ironman and Chinese Handcuffs) as well as a short story collection, Athletic Shorts. His latest book, Whale Talk, is -- like many of his previous works -- set in Spokane. The story of a self-described black-white-Japanese youth named T.J. (a necessary abbreviation of his given name, The Tao Jones), Whale Talk centers on both T.J.'s experience of what it means to be a person of color "in a part of the country where Mark Fuhrman has his own radio show," and also, his attempts to assemble the first ever swim team for his high school, which doesn't even have a swimming pool. Swimming isn't the only sport in Whale Talk; Spokane's own Hoopfest shows up throughout the book, and is the setting for the book's final showdown.


Although T.J. excels in athletics, he is no stranger to feeling like a misfit himself, which influences his choice of teammates -- the school's misfits and losers, the ones who wouldn't seem to have a snowball's chance in hell of ever earning a letter jacket. Crutcher's voice -- that of the good-natured smart-ass -- permeates the book throughout and makes for some mighty compelling reading. But underneath T.J.'s capable and upbeat narrative is the echo of another voice, that of the hopeful underdog. And in this society where success and fitting in are everything, coming across that small voice is surprisingly comforting.


"One of the reasons my stuff is as popular as it is, is because everybody has that voice. We've all been the underdog sometime," says Crutcher. "We know about what it feels like to be humiliated, to be embarrassed, to be afraid and to worry that people are going to scorn us or whatever. So it's a voice that touches people even if they're confident."


Crutcher, whose novel Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes pivots on the intense friendship between an overweight boy (Eric "Moby" Calhoun), and a fire-scarred girl (Sarah), says that he gets letters from both the popular kids and the not-so-popular kids.


"The most gratifying letter you can get is the letter you get from a kid that says, 'You saved my life,' " he says. "But I got a letter from this girl the other day who wrote to say, 'I think I am one of those people who would treat Moby and Sarah bad. I've realized I need to stop doing that.' And she went on to talk about how she's a cheerleader and very popular but that she doesn't want to treat people that way anymore. And that's the thing about writing; you put a story out there and you don't know where it's going to land."


It's also safe to say that you can't predict how a story is going to land. At one time, Crutcher was one of the 10 most banned authors in the United States, on a list that included Mark Twain and Kurt Vonnegut.


"I don't think I'm on the top 10 list anymore," he laughs. "But I figured I was in pretty good company with Twain and Vonnegut. I know I'm still on the top 100 list though."


So why is a writer -- beloved by librarians, teachers and kids alike -- considered dangerous enough to have his books banned?


"Oh, they get you for everything. There's been a long controversy over the issues in Sarah Byrnes -- abortion, abuse... But if you worried about offending everyone, you'd never get your story done," he says. "There are people out there who think that kids are going to read a Chris Crutcher book and all of a sudden kids everywhere are going to start cussing -- like I could start anyone cussing. That kind of stuff, it bothers me that we worry about that and we don't worry about some of the other things we could be worried about."


Crutcher finds controversy nearly everywhere he goes, whether it was the time he was speaking to a high school class in Kansas when the conservative then-state representative brought a TV news reporter and video camera to hopefully catch Crutcher in the act of warping tender young minds or whether he's taking local radio station News Talk 920 to task for giving Mark Fuhrman his own radio show.


"It's not far off from the scene I describe in Whale Talk. I was driving to my house, and I hear this voice on the radio, and I thought, 'Jesus that sounds like Mark Fuhrman. I thought it was a Saturday Night Live skit, but unfortunately, this was not a joke. They were talking about image, and he was supporting Nordstrom's decision to fire an openly gay employee, and I called in and said, 'Let's talk about image. Number one, he's [Fuhrman] never apologized for what he said. All he does is make excuses. And second, if you want someone to talk about crime, I'm sure there are a lot of cops around here who know more about Spokane police work than he ever will."


One of the concerns that has most ignited Crutcher in recent months is the issue of violence in the schools and how unwilling most politicians are to tackle the dangerous contribution of guns.


"It was just after the Santana High School shootings, and I'm in San Diego when the Secretary of Education comes onto The Today Show. Katie Couric is trying to get him to address the business of guns, and he will not do it. He keeps saying, 'I don't want to talk about the instrument.' And I'm in my hotel room in San Diego, and I'm screaming at him "Talk about the instrument! You do not wound 13 and kill two with a knife, or with a baseball bat, or with a chainsaw!"


Crutcher's take on guns being very much the problem with youth violence comes from years of practice as a therapist working with children and adolescents.


"Part of the business of adolescence, by nature, is that impulsivity. Being contrary, being in conflicts and resolving those conflicts is what becoming an adult is all about. But you throw guns in the middle of that, and it's crazy," he says. "This whole thing about trying teenagers as adults and making punishment a preventative measure doesn't take this into account. It's not part of the thinking process that takes you to that place of rage, where all that's going on in your head is, 'If I'm that mad, I want to do something that hurts. I want to hurt somebody else and I want to hurt myself.' "


Crutcher began writing for young adults a little more than 20 years ago, when the young adult market was still relatively new. As such, he's seen a lot of changes in the field.


"I'm in a place at the upper end of young adult literature, which is perhaps not a very smart place to market. They tell you that you need to write to the junior high market, and a lot of young adult authors consider 14 the upper end; I consider college age the upper end of who I'm writing to," he explains. "The fact that a Robert Cormier (The Chocolate War) even exists is just absolutely amazing to me. He's the one who kind of opened it up for the rest of us to tell our stories, to tell stories about real kids. And there are a lot of good authors out there now taking the same chances, like Christopher Paul Curtis, who wrote The Watsons Go to Birmingham. Someday, they'll even call us 'real' writers."


While Crutcher's books are marketed to a teenage market, he finds that there's really no difference between writing for teens and adults.


"They're marketed away from older people. I know a lot of really good adolescent literature that adults would like, but they're not going to find it on their own. When I wrote The Deep End, which is an adult novel, there's no difference in the storytelling between that book and my young adult books. Maybe the adult character has more experience and the ages are different, but the storytelling is exactly the same."


Perhaps adults will discover Crutcher when the film treatment of Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes is completed. Crutcher wrote the screenplay and will have a producer's credit at the end of the project, which is currently in negotiation. Crutcher has seen his written word mangled in the cinematic version (he was less than pleased with Angus, based on one of his short stories) and is determined not to let that happen again.


"You learn a lot. You learn how Hollywood works and how haphazard it is, and how afraid they are of taking a shot and failing," he says. "A lot of stuff gets watered down that way. But it's a good screenplay. I've been over it quite a few times, and there's very little fat in it -- no pun intended."


As challenging and incendiary as Crutcher might be to some, others embrace his ability to write about all that is real, warts and all.


"I've been really fortunate. I've had a lot of fearless editors. I had one introduce me once, 'This is Chris Crutcher. He breaks all the rules.' "

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