Sunday, May 12, 2013

Vince Vawter and Anna Olswanger: Two Writers for Young Readers — and Grownups Too

Posted By on Sun, May 12, 2013 at 11:53 AM

The house at 1458 Vinton in Midtown Memphis may have been home for decades to well-known artist Dolph Smith, but before that, it was where Vince Vawter grew up. Vawter's book, Paperboy (Delacorte Press/Random House), is about coming of age in a city set to see some major changes too.

The novel takes place largely in Vawter's Midtown neighborhood in 1959, and the first-person narrator is an 11-year-old named Victor Volmer III, who has taken on the paper route of a friend for the month of July. That newspaper is the Memphis Press-Scimitar, where Vawter himself once worked as a reporter before moving on to managing editor of the Knoxville News Sentinel and publisher of the Evansville Courier & Press in Indiana. That paperboy is a lot like Vawter when he was 11, but there's enough leeway in the story to make Paperboy fiction not memoir.

Vawter has now retired with his wife to a home on 10 acres outside Knoxville, but on Tuesday, May 14th, he returns to his hometown to discuss and sign Paperboy at The Booksellers at Laurelwood, beginning at 6 p.m. It isn't like he ever left Midtown for good, though. In a recent phone interview, Vawter talked about the writing of Paperboy, but he talked too about that house at the corner of Vinton and Melrose and about the return trips he's made to Memphis over the years. Has he been inside the house since Vawter's family moved to East Memphis in 1960? Or was it 1961? Vawter can't recall the exact year. But he's sure of one thing:

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"Several times I've found myself going over there, ready to get out of the car and knock on the door. But for some reason I never did. I haven't been in that house since we moved, because I'm wondering, Do I really want to go back in? I've got such great memories of it. And would those memories just get in the way?"

Those memories, instead, have gone into the pages of Paperboy, a debut novel with all the makings, according to Anna Olswanger — Vawter's agent (and a native Memphian too) — of an award winner. But Olswanger, of Liza Dawson Associates in New York City, is more than a literary agent. She's an author as well, and her latest book, for younger readers, is simply called Greenhorn. Both Paperboy and Greenhorn aren't as simple as they look, however. How and why? First, a few words from Vince Vawter.

Your novel is aimed at a middle-school audience, but adult readers — and especially those in Memphis — can appreciate it too. Did you start out with younger readers in mind?
Vince Vawter: It took 10 years or so to write Paperboy, and it started as a book for the general audience. But after talking to Anna and after she talked to a few editors, they thought the book could be redirected to a younger market. I at first said no, I don't think so. But then I saw how that might work. The story itself didn't change, but the writing did. It improved, because I was able to focus on the story itself and not try to be the world's greatest novelist … try all the writer tricks.

Having said that, I think Paperboy can be read on a middle-school level and on an adult level. It's a simple, little story but not a simplistic story.

You're a seasoned newspaperman. You're used to sticking strictly to the facts to tell a story.
That was tough. I had to somehow get out of my newspaperman's ways of thinking. I thought it would be easy, but it was not. I had to learn to show and not tell. I had to learn not to let the facts get in the way of a good story. When I found myself struggling with the fact that something in the story didn't actually happen that way, I had to think that's fine, that's okay. This is fiction!

I'd thought about writing a memoir, but to be honest, I think memoirs are a dime a dozen. So, I thought the better story was through a novel. And as my character Mr. Spiro says, sometimes you can find more truth in fiction, which, I think, is true.

Any problems putting yourself into the mind of an 11-year-old boy — a boy a lot like you as an adolescent, including your character's stuttering?
There was period where I got very invested in the book. I spent many hours a day working on it and thinking about me. Unbeknownst to me, my family could tell that my speech had really deteriorated. I still have elements of stuttering, but while I was going back in my mind to when I was 11, a lot of my old speech patterns returned — bad speech patterns. And I didn't realize it.

When a person who stutters is an 11-year-old, it's about the worst age imaginable. You're trying to figure out who you are and what you're all about and then this "monster" is on you. Writing Paperboy was a journey back in time for sure. It brought back some rough times.

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Your book begins: "I'm typing about the stabbing for a good reason. I can't talk." In fact, the whole story is told as a typed manuscript. There's even a picture of you, age 8, at the end of the book, sitting and smiling behind a typewriter.
I see the typewriter as a character in Paperboy. After I started the story, I remembered what a friend my typewriter was when I was growing up. It was how I was able to communicate not with other people but with myself … to see words coming out of my fingers instead of out of my mouth.

Your agent: What was her role in getting your book to press?
I took drum lessons at the music store that Anna's father, Berl Olswanger, had on Union when I was young, but I didn't know her when she lived in Memphis. I may have seen a blurb about her in the Rhodes College magazine — about her working as a literary agent in New York. She graduated from Rhodes. And I just called her one day. I said, "Anna, you don't know me from Adam. But can we talk a minute?"

It grew from there. Anna is not only a good agent. She is an editor — a brilliant editor. She seized on what I was trying to do immediately. She helped me immensely.

Is the portrait of your parents in the book an accurate one?
Fairly accurate. My father was indeed a CPA, flew his own plane, etc., just like Victor's father in Paperboy. But the only character in the book who doesn't have a real-life counterpart is Mr. Spiro, a customer on Victor's paper route. And well into the writing of the book, I had to think, Okay, who is Mr. Spiro, exactly? Then I figured it out. Mr. Spiro is Vince Vawter at 60 years old. He's the glue that holds this story together. I wish there'd been … I think my life would have been easier, if there'd been a Mr. Spiro.

But there was a "Mam" — the book's black family cook and housekeeper — in your own life?
There was, and I guess Paperboy is about her as much as anything. Growing up, I worshipped her. As far as I'm concerned, she raised me.

And the neighborhood junk man, Ara T, who lives in a shack near a Midtown alley?
One of my editors at Random House asked me about him. She said that Ara T couldn't be real. But I said he's as real as can be, even though Ara T is a composite character of several of the black men in my neighborhood when I was growing up. I can still see their carts in the alleys. One of those men was found dead and under some hedges in my back yard. I guess he'd died of alcohol poisoning or something. And I do remember men in Midtown who were living in old garages and coal sheds. I was certainly never afraid of them. I kind of liked them. They did odd jobs in the neighborhood. But I didn't talk to them much, because I didn't talk to anyone very much.

Because of your stuttering.
The King's Speech was a great movie, but it's about an adult who stutters. It's entirely different with an adolescent. It's such a lonely world, and I guess I had in the back of my mind … any young person who stutters … if they read this book, they'll see that they're not alone, that it's probably only going to get better.

I wrote the book, because I knew I had to. It was something I'd always wanted to do. I never thought about reviews, about book signings. I just wanted to tell my story. I never thought about the aftermath. Now, when I read reviews, I think: Well, who wrote this book?

So this is a thrill. It all amazes me. But I guess that's what I signed up for.

***

"As an agent, I attract a fair number of queries about Holocaust-related books because of my interest in Judaica. I rarely ask to see these manuscripts, and I've never taken on the authors as clients. I know I can't sell their work. Not many editors, especially of children's books, want to buy books about Jewish suffering."

So wrote Anna Olswanger in Publishers Weekly last September. But Suzanne La Rosa isn't one of the editors Olswanger was referring to. La Rosa is publisher of NewSouth Books, and she already knew Olswanger, because years ago, she'd published Olswanger's antic crime caper for children, Shlemiel Crooks. And now, NewSouth has published Olswanger again.

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This latest title, though, is no farce. Greenhorn, illustrated by Miriam Nerlove, is a small book and it's a small story, but the bigger story is off the page: It is the Jewish Holocaust, and the boys in a Brooklyn yeshiva in 1946 certainly know of it. They know too that one of the new boys at the school is a Polish orphan and Holocaust survivor named Daniel, and in Daniel's possession at all times is a small tin box. What's in the box? The other students want to know, and they rib him about it. They even steal a look at its contents. But another boy at the school, Aaron, plays no part in his fellow students' bullying of Daniel. He befriends the newcomer, who can't at first speak English at all. Aaron, a stutterer, knows how difficult language can be. He knows what being an outsider means. But by the time this story ends, both Daniel and Aaron know what hope can mean between two friends.

Rabbi Rafael Grossman, who served at Baron Hirsch Congregation in East Memphis for many years, knows this story well. It is, in fact, his own story, with Grossman the Aaron character. Olswanger first heard it from Grossman himself in the 1980s. She was a member then of Baron Hirsch, and she was on a trip to Israel that Grossman headed. That's when Olswanger heard him tell the story. Decades later, that story has inspired Olswanger in Greenhorn. And what better client for Olswanger to have to help her tell it: Vince Vawter.

"I'd send Vince excerpts, asking: Is this authentic?" Olswanger recently said by phone on the subject of Aaron's stuttering. "I'd checked with a speech therapist first, and she explained all about hard consonants and vowels. Vince convinced me to keep it simple."

Vawter reminded her of something else: the satisfaction in discovering a new writer, a satisfaction that Olswanger compared to peeling the layers off an onion to get to the core talent.

"It's there," Olswanger said. "And my job is to peel those layers away. As a literary agent, I work hard with my authors to get their manuscripts into shape for submission. So, in that sense, I am an editor too. My job is get the story to the point where a publishing house will make an offer. Then the author has to be prepared to make more revisions for that publisher's editors."

Don't know exactly what Olswanger did as agent for Memphian Nell Dickerson and her recent book of photographs, Porch Dogs, but marketing — cross-marketing — must have been on Olswanger's mind: dog lovers, porch lovers, Southern dog owners and porch lovers. Marketing was certainly on her mind with Paperboy:

"In Vince's book, you have the Southern reader, you have the subject of stuttering, you have coming-of-age, you have the racial aspect.

"With Greenhorn, there's the Holocaust, stuttering, bullying. What I've learned as an agent, in this world where it's so hard to sell a book, is that the more markets you aim for, the better your chances of success."

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There does, though, remain the difficult topic of presenting the Holocaust to young readers. Olswanger's well aware of the difficulty.

"Greenhorn looks like a book for young readers, but it is tough. There have been one or two adults who told me, 'You know, you have to be careful about the age group.' But those are the guidelines for the publisher too. This book is certainly not for very young children. But the reaction from parents, teachers, and librarians has been good.

"The book came out last December, and it takes awhile for reader reaction. We're trying to get Greenhorn into museum bookstores, and we're trying to reach teachers. But it's like herding cats. And it's such a different world now. We're trying to reach bloggers. My hope is that the book has merit and that, step by step, we'll reach the people who can use it as a resource."

Any luck reaching one source: the real-life Daniel? The last we hear of him — it's included in the afterword to Greenhorn — is that in 1981 Rabbi Grossman encountered him serving as a pediatrician in a Jerusalem hospital. "What about the box?" Rabbi Grossman asked. "I have a family now," Daniel said. "I don't need the box. I buried it in the back yard."

It would be a wonderful story, Olswanger said of finding Daniel, should he still be alive, today.

It would also be Anna Olswanger's kind of story.

"I see myself as a writer who tries to hear and capture stories that wouldn't be told otherwise. I'm also the kind of writer who doesn't know where I'm going until I'm getting there. I do write an outline, but I don't know where a story's going, because writing itself is a form of thinking. The act of writing shows me where to go."

Olswanger made the same point in that piece she wrote for Publishers Weekly:

"As I began to write the story of Greenhorn, I also began to discover what I was writing about. Because when I really listened to this story, I heard in it something deeper than suffering, something deeper than loss. The little boy, who wouldn't speak when he came to America, who wouldn't let the tin box out of his sight, made a friend. … And then he let go of his box. The little boy moved on."

Olswanger has moved on too — from Memphis to the New York area — but the music her father, Berl Olswanger, made still sounds in her memory and imagination and even in terms of her career.

Books, agent, booking agent … as Olswanger added in an email after our interview:

"What I want to write you about this morning is how I see my father and his talents coming through in my own work. I think it is because I heard him practice the scales on the piano every day for almost 28 years. And not only did hearing that rhythm give me a sense that everything was right with the universe, it gave me a sense of rhythm in my writing and in my evaluating other people's writing.

"I hear the 'song' of a manuscript as much as I read it. I can tell you when a sentence needs to be long or short, based on the sound, more so than the content. That is what I try to help my clients with. I give them another 'ear.' And as I've learned more and more about my dad since he died, I've discovered what an excellent arranger he was. He could take someone else's composition and bring out a surprising new aspect. …

"And my dad was a booking agent. He was a phenomenal pianist and performer, but he also made a living booking other performers. I feel I'm doing something similar as a literary agent."

And indeed, Anna Olswanger is. Just ask a paperboy turned newspaperman turned novelist named Vince Vawter. •

For more on the authors, visit vincevawter.com and olswanger.com.

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