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Sarah Collins Honenberger on J.D. Salinger

GalleyCat caught up with children’s writer Sarah Collins Honenberger (pictured) to talk about her book, Catcher, Caught. The author explained how her book engaged with J.D. Salinger‘s The Catcher in the Rye. Here are the highlights from our interview.

Q: What role does The Catcher in the Rye play in Catcher, Caught?

A: Whether you love Holden or hate him, he engenders strong emotions. The self that’s revealed in his depressed unreliable state of reporting is a self that many of us recognize in some deep part of our younger selves, that place where we were teetering on the precipice between childhood and the adult world. Almost 16, Daniel has just read the book TCITR as required reading when he’s diagnosed with leukemia.

At first he’s attracted to Holden’s ‘devil may care’ kind of bravado, but as he deals with growing sicker and the isolation from school and his friends, he runs up against a lot of the issues Holden raises. Holden is a phantom friend for Daniel, someone who he feels understands what he’s facing when his parents won’t let him be part of the decisions. Daniel feels as if he’s running out of time in much the same way that Holden does, as his mental health deteriorates during his recitation.

The New York Times ran a story that today’s teenagers find Holden to be whiny. I hated to think that Holden would be lost as an anti-hero. Like Daniel, Holden is a kid who reflects a basic morality I believe teenagers have, but get confused about because of the way the adult world reflects the wrong values. I wanted to use 21st century issues to draw those readers back to Holden and that kind of moral debate on friendship, love, family, taking personal responsibility for your actions.

So far, readers and reviewers say Catcher, Caught stands on its own, and I intended that a reader could appreciate and enjoy Daniel without having read Salinger’s book. But as a writer I loved the challenge of trying to capture in my own writing, with a modern day kid the teenage angst that makes Holden so real and memorable.

Q: What similarities and differences are shared by your protagonist, Daniel Solstice Landon and J.D. Salinger‘s, Holden Caulfield?
A: Both boys are intelligent and sensitive, worried about the adult world hurtling at them faster than they expected. Neither boy believes that the adults are doing a great job with the world, but they both see it’s more complicated the closer they get. Isolation skews their perspective, affects their decision-making, sometimes for the worse, and they each grow increasingly desperate. Although they want to experience and understand the adult world, it raises new anxieties and requires new skills, skills they’re not sure they have.

Holden has strong sibling relationships as does Daniel, but his parents are the opposite of Daniel’s. More traditional, more distant emotionally, Holden’s parents are not a large part of Holden’s spoken story, partly because his depression causes him to distance himself from them. I would say they are a large part of the motivation for his actions and his emotions. As Daniel’s parents are for him.

Q: What advice can you offer children’s writers who want to incorporate “tough issue” subjects such as cancer in their work?
A: Early advice from one of the first agent’s who read one of my manuscripts: it can’t be too dark. You need to exercise a sense of humor. Barbara Kingsolver did it so expertly in The Prodigal Summer. She can make you cry and laugh in the same paragraph. She’s one of my literary heroes. Reviews for Catcher, Caught have mentioned the book’s humor and straightforward approach, without wallowing in the grief that obviously devastates any family where this kind of illness invades.

Q: Describe the process you underwent to get your three books published.
A: Long story or short?  (Short: Perseverance and amazing grace.)

Long: When I first started writing fiction again in my forties I read Noah Lukeman’s The First Five Pages and Sol Stein’s How to Grow a Novel. I went to writing workshops to learn what to do and what not to do. I tried the agent route with an earlier book (not yet published, needs substantial re-writing), and found their disparate analysis of one manuscript very discouraging. Who do you believe?

You question your ability to write anything worthwhile. Since 1996 when I won my first short story award and then other publications and awards and a creative arts fellowship, I never ran into anything in my life that was so out of my control as snagging a publisher. One lit mag editor told me finding an agent was like gambling. You invested the time and effort you felt was reasonable, and then you cashed in and tried the direct route. In 2005 I started sending queries about White Lies to small presses. Longstreet Press, after a recommendation from a friend who knew the editor there, bought it. They filed bankruptcy eight months later.

Cedar Creek’s editor knew me and my writing through a statewide writers’ group. She read the manuscript and agreed that the timing was right for a vaccine story. At that point there was no novel out there, only a medical tome Evidence of Harm and Barbara Loe Fisher’s A Shot in the Dark about the death of her daughter from the DPT vaccine. I was Cedar Creek’s first fiction. They’d done all non-fiction before White Lies. I did all the publicity and event scheduling. It made me appreciate librarians and Friends of the Library groups and bookstores.

In January 2009 Cedar Creek released my second book Waltzing Cowboys.  Both novels were nominated for Library of Virginia Fiction award, a great honor for me. I found the tumor in February and spent the rest of the year with chemo, radiation, and surgeries, very few book events. Another piece of serendipity, my very generous and talented writing conference teachers and some of the writers I’d met at festivals like George Singleton and Patricia McCormick at the VCCA fellowship wrote endorsements for my books.

Q: What type of research did you do in medicine, law, and ethics to write Catcher, Caught?
A: A combination of conversations with parents of sick children, the hospital literature for parents and patients, and online research, including all the alternative treatments centers that advertise online. One of my son’s college friends had leukemia at 9 and lost a leg. He was an inspiration, so upbeat, funny. He has his own book actually, Just Don’t Fall Down. He’s been a motivational speaker since high school. The kernel of the idea started during law school when I ran across the Christian Scientists’ insistence on no doctors and no germs.

Research on legal issues began with a social worker friend who mentioned a case which inspired the Virginia Legislature to change the law on minor’s right to direct their own medical care.  I started noticing other states were confronting the same issues. I read newspaper reports on parents and state governments at odds over treatment for minor children. And my family law practice had given me lots of exposure to social services issues and parental rights in court.

White Lies raised some of the medical ethics questions, like what part of treatment a doctor controls versus parents. I talked with some medical ethics classes and medical school personnel and lots of doctors at book events for White Lies. Med students have to deal with these kinds of issues as part of their education. Like all grad students, they love to debate.

Q: You were interviewed in the past by NBA winner Kathryn Erskine. Both of you practiced law prior to becoming writers. What is it about lawyers converting to fiction writers as second careers?
A: Kathryn has a natural talent for simplicity in her prose, not sure it is in any way related to her lawyering.

Some judges I know joke that what lawyers write is often very creative. Of course we’ve chosen law and words, and not the numbers of accounting or business. But I believe good lawyers work on understanding people and their motivations. Also law is about conflict and any writer worth his salt knows that there’s no story without conflict.

Q: I know Catcher, Caught only just came out in December 2010, but what’s next for you?
A: Lots of book clubs and festival panels. I love talking books. Watching people’s faces when I read is about the most fun I’ve ever had, except maybe holding my babies in the delivery room.

But what am I writing?  Not a cancer memoir. One thing I learned last year in the chemotherapy room, is that everyone else’s story is much worse than mine. Still having those insidious cancer cells in your body does change how you look at the world. The novel in progress, Seen and Unseen, features the friendship that develops between a 14 year old African American girl and an older Caucasian woman, a cancer survivor, who witnesses the drowning of the teenager’s younger brother. Another small town river story, based on an actual drowning.

And maybe the future holds a movie of Catcher, Caught.  Salinger never let them make The Catcher in the Rye.  So this may be the right time for Daniel and Holden on the big screen.

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