Wednesday, October 17, 2012: Kids' Maximum Shelf: Colin Fischer
by Ashley Edward Miller , Zack Stentz
Colin Fischer, the 14-year-old hero at the center of this extraordinary debut novel from screenwriter team Ashley Edward Miller and Zack Stentz, is like no one else we've met in children's literature.
As a teen with Asperger's syndrome, Colin may find social interactions challenging, but he is "high functioning," brilliant and focused. On his first day at West Valley High, the wrong student is accused of bringing a gun to school. And even though that suspect, Wayne Connelly, has made life miserable for Colin for as long as he can remember, Colin knows that Wayne eats too neatly to have smeared cake icing on the gun, and he is determined to prove his innocence and find the true culprit. Why? Because, as Colin observes in a completely different context on an entirely different matter, "Who the truth helped and how much was irrelevant." He believes in getting to the bottom of things.
Miller and Stentz achieve a remarkable feat with the narrative voice of the novel. Although Colin is not the narrator, the omniscient voice "gets" Colin and unspools the series of events in much the way Colin might--just the facts, without judgment. A generous smattering of entries from Colin's notebook, which he uses to record his days and his interactions with others, offers readers insight into how Colin's mind works. A black-and-white photo of Basil Rathbone hangs over Colin's bed (as a footnote explains, to Colin, Rathbone was "the definitive inhabitant of the role of World's Greatest Detective"). Readers will observe that Colin gravitates to another mind that's working differently. When he begins to piece together the puzzle of who might be the true owner of the gun, Colin creates an FBI-style web of suspects, "categorized... by their social, academic, geographic, and socioeconomic cliques" and coded by colored yarn. Colin's pursuit of the truth takes him to Wayne's home and literally outside of his comfort zone, as the two travel bus routes far beyond the Northwestern corner of the San Fernando Valley, where the Fischers make their home. It quickly becomes clear to readers that as Colin works on solving the mystery of the gun's owner, he is also figuring out Colin--and learning that his own life is, in many ways, a mystery to be solved.
Although Colin begins his first day of high school with Wayne shoving his head into a toilet bowl, and other peers clearly bully him--such as Rudy, who sets his cell phone to rattle Colin until he barks like a dog ("Colin wondered idly if there were some connection between Rudy's popularity and his penchant for cruelty")--the authors also populate the novel with allies at the school. Melissa Greer, who has always been kind to Colin, continues to befriend him, even though the summer has been kind to her--her braces are gone, and she's developed a figure ("Your breasts got bigger," Colin tells her. "She was used to Colin, but never quite prepared for him"), and others call her "hot." And the gym teacher, Mr. Turrentine, emerges as one of the most quietly redemptive characters, treating Colin like every other student, but also taking the time to teach him how to shoot a basket and pronouncing him "a damned basketball prodigy."
Colin's parents--a rocket scientist father and a mother who serves as project manager at NASA--give him every means of support, from providing a trampoline in the backyard ("bouncing helped him relax, focus, and think") to giving him ample warning when they're about to touch him ("coming in for a landing," they say; "He understood their need for contact," the narrator explains. "He had read about it in a book"). His 11-year-old brother, Danny, however, understandably finds it difficult to see everyone make so many allowances for his older brother. In a denouement as dramatic as Colin finding himself with Wayne in a gun dealer's house in their attempt to track down the owner of the gun at school, Danny does the one thing he knows will undo his brother.
The authors create a magnetic character--though he's a creature of routine, Colin still manages to surprise us. Because of his unique perspective, Colin says things that society prefers not to mention, and offers truths that get to the core of human existence. The extensive footnotes let readers inside Colin's favorite films and obsessions, and offer insight into his strategies for navigating his world and--in a direct parallel to solving the novel's central mystery--for navigating the unknown. But it's also a strategy for living: "For Colin,... to learn a thing was to know a thing; to know a thing was to understand a thing; to understand a thing was to face it without fear." Readers will take this hero to heart; Colin's next adventure cannot come soon enough. --Jennifer M. Brown
Ashley Edward Miller and Zack Stentz: Life Is a MysteryAshley Edward Miller and Zack Stentz met on the Internet. They were arguing in a chat room about Star Trek on the same side. "We discovered we had aspirations to be writers and that our voices and interests were the same," Miller recalled. They lived 2,500 miles apart and didn't meet for roughly three years into their writing partnership. They now live a mile and a half apart in Los Angeles. Here they offer a glimpse into their dynamics and the birth of Colin Fischer, their first novel.
Zack Stentz (l.) and Ashley Edward Miller
Your work involved primarily screenwriting. What inspired you to write a novel with such an unusual hero?
Zack Stentz: Ash and I had written an earlier form of Colin Fisher as a television pilot that was widely read and appreciated but never bought, about a teen with Asperger's solving mysteries. Maybe if he were a doctor, lawyer or cop, there would be an audience for it.
Ashley Edward Miller: Doogie Howser was, what, 16?
ZS: The screenwriters strike of 2007 literally sidelined us. We're working dogs. If we're not working, we pee on things and chew on furntiture.
AEM: Our wives don't appreciate that.
ZS: Neither of us had written a novel before. Over the next year and a half, we wrote the book; 95% of it was written in two big bursts, by the end of which we had a manuscript. We sent it to our agency's big kids' lit guy, Eric Simonoff, and he said, "I think I can sell this," and two weeks later, he did.
How did you find the narrative voice, which isn't Colin's but is so simpatico with him?
AEM: When we wrote the original script, it was experimental, even for the screenplay form. We had some Walter Mitty–like things that were happening with Colin. He'd spell out words over people's heads. When we translated that into a novel, we had to figure out how to convey those storytelling techniques, the internal vs. external experiences. That's how we came up with the opening narration [in notebook form].
ZS: The chapter introductions [as notebook entries] are where you're completely inside Colin's point of view, and we pulled off what I think was a fairly nice trick, having the footnotes in the body of the book from a third-person point of view yet impressionistically conveying what it's like to think like Colin.
AEM: The footnotes came out in that voice, and then we'd think of things that amused us. One example is "the best movie of 1988... Die Hard.... Loud but good." We thought, "That kind of works." Even though the narrator has a different voice than Colin does, we wanted to make those voices compatible. The narrator is getting into the head of Colin.
ZS: An example would be that you never see someone else's emotions described directly but rather through their physical mannerisms.
Those design elements also highlight that Colin's life is a puzzle he must solve--attempting to read people's facial expressions and body language.
ZS: You hit on the theme that runs throughout the entire novel that we like to sum up as: "Life is a mystery."
AEM: Colin is constantly having to decode the world around him. We all have to, but he has to read a situation that requires analysis--things can lead him to the wrong conclusion. He doesn't know what he doesn't know, in a Rumsfeldian sense.
Tell us about Coach Turrentine.
ZS: We're doing two things with that character. We wanted to take the stereotype that you see a lot in kids lit and TV of the bullying gym coach and turn it on its head. With kids like Colin, if they're very lucky, they get a lot of help from trained professional therapists, but also people like Mr. Turrentine, who are accidental therapists, who know exactly how to reach someone like Colin in a way that's tough but fair.
AEM: He sees Colin for who he is. No agenda for Mr. Turrentine as far as Colin goes: "Any questions? Okay, didn't think so, moving on." This is a student who needs instruction. Everyone else has an agenda motivated by their emotions. The parents with their fear of what's going to happen to our son next. The brother and his resentment. Even Dr. Doran, the principal, looks at him, and he's among the problems she must solve.
ZS: A level of trust develops between Colin and Mr. Turrentine.
Your portrait of Colin as a teen with Asperger's is so convincing. Have you been exposed to children or others with autism spectrum disorders?
AEM: My firsthand experience is with my partner, and I'll leave it there.
ZS: I am on the Asperger's spectrum myself, and I have three kids, two of whom are on the autistic spectrum. There are big elements of imagination in there but also elements of autobiography and close observation. I think with all of our writing, not just this subject, what Ash and I strive for is a specificity of detail that makes someone feel authentic.
AEM: We didn't want the story to be about Asperger's, or autism, or dealing with it or living with it. They were facts of life for the people in the story. But ultimately Colin is a boy, and people would see the universality of it. On The Sopranos they only use the word Mafia once, and the one guy who says it gets killed. "Terminator" was only uttered once. Colin himself, because of how he's wired, can seem distant from the people around him in ways we don't understand. It would have been a colossal mistake to distance him from reality and then distance us from him.
ZS: By having Colin as a main character, you take everyone's feelings of outsiderdom and then "turn them up to 11," to use a Spinal Tap phrase. That's what Gene Roddenberry did so well in Star Trek--having a curious outsider look at a social structure to help you see it more clearly. Spock and Data are two of Colin's heroes. --Jennifer M. Brown