I am thrilled to be part of the blog tour celebrating this unique and important book! I was lucky enough to draft some questions for author, M. Evan Wolkenstein about his book and life and his answers are thoughtful, honest and moving!
Can you tell us about Turtle Boy, the character and the book?
Will Levine is an introverted 12-year-old grader who wishes he could spend all his time with his turtle specimens, rather than adventure out into the world. He is called “Turtle Boy” because kids at school say he looks like one – but it’s a double meaning: he hides in a shell of his own creation. Turtle Boy is the story of what happens when this shy and awkward kid, as part of his Bar Mitzvah, is sent to visit RJ — who is the exact opposite: extraverted, brash, a punk-rock drummer — but who is confined to a hospital room. RJ has a bucket list, and no one to help him accomplish the tasks, except for Will.
Turtle Boy, Will, is a fascinating character- troubled, bullied and unwilling to socialise outside his comfort zone. Is he inspired by you and your own experiences?
Yes, I had the same facial condition Will is diagnosed with — and while not everyone noticed the way my chin receded — it only took a few cruel kids and a silly nickname to make me miserable at school. While I was a bit more outgoing than Will, Will is a part of me, and I drew his emotional life from my own. That said, as you discover through the book, Will is incredibly resilient, funny, clever and resourceful. Those qualities, and the support of friends and families, got me out of my comfort zone and into the world…and maybe Will can do the same!
A Jewish protagonist is a breath of fresh air and the book has plenty of Jewish traditions highlighted. How important was the authenticity of these for your story?
Very important. Growing up, it was nearly impossible to find well rounded, fictional Jewish role models. Rather, in the TV shows and movies I saw in the 80s and 90s, Bar/Bat Mitzvahs were mainly mocked for comedic effect, and Jewish life was reduced to stereotypes and the same, repeated tropes.
But growing up, I was proud to be Jewish and loved the sprinkling of Yiddish my family spoke, the Passover seder, and the melodies in synagogue. At the same time, I was a troubled kid and I wasn’t always in the mood for what Hebrew school had to offer. Now, thirty years later, I teach Jewish studies at a Jewish high school, and I make it my job to provide complex, interesting, and nuanced answers to my students’ questions. And when they don’t have questions, I try to provoke them with my own eccentric and unusual way of practicing Judaism. I wanted the Judaism portrayed in Turtle Boy to be exactly that: complex, interesting, and nuanced, and eccentric.
Some aspects of Jewish life never changes. Many Jewish kids aren’t thrilled about going to Hebrew school. But Will experiences a wide range of Jewish experiences — and while some of them are frustrating, many are surprising, exciting even, and by the end, Will invents a new form of Jewish expression so unique – he may be the only person on earth practicing it. Still, this new way of “doing Jewish” is deeply Jewish and authentic in its core. And I hope it provides a model of a way to live, wherever we are in life: balancing heritage, tradition and innovation.
When Will is given an opportunity to complete his Bar Mitzvah Community Service with RJ, he is reluctant and scared of hospitals after the death of his father. Stepping foot into the hospital and out of his comfort zone is an incredible scene. Was this a challenge to convey and were there other scenes that were difficult to write?
Yes – some of those scenes are so emotional, I both laugh and cry when I read them, even today. What I discovered by writing Turtle Boy is that creating a scene that is emotionally powerful, so as to pull straight from the deepest part of my heart, but which will protect the reader from being overwhelmed, takes many, many drafts and revisions. Too intense is like trying to drink from a fire hose. I had to learn to have a light touch, then ease into a bit more intensity, and provide humor to balance it out. This took drafts. Revisions. Do-overs. I wrote complete garbage, literally groaning about how awful it was — only to return and extract a line here and a line there.
This was a great lesson for life. We need to try things and fail and mess up and tread onwards, fixing, fixing, fixing along the way. To quote Brene Brown: “I’m here to get it right. Not to be right.” When we apply this thinking to whatever we do: writing, football, school, friendships, love – we can learn and grow, and the water will come from the fountain at the perfect pace.
RJ has a bucket list…Do you have one? If so, what is next on your list?
I’m proud that many of the things I’ve had on my bucket list I’ve done! I’ve backpacked through India and Egypt, I’ve lived and studied in Israel, I’ve played in rock bands, I’ve done Capoeira (a Brazillian martial art-dance), and I’ve gotten married and become a father! Writing a book – that’s something that’s been on my bucket list since I was a teenager. There’s a few things that are still on my list that I may never get around to: I love Pop-and-Lock dance, but watching two Youtube videos a year and practicing the moves for 5 minutes probably won’t get me very far.
Now, I’m focusing on being a great dad and husband. Some bucket-list items aren’t something we cross off a list – they’re things to commit to for the rest of our lives.
Will and RJ form an unlikely friendship and they learn to accept each other and stick up for each other- who is your go to person for help and friendship?
Two people I turn to constantly: both are wise, thoughtful, and hold me accountable to the highest standards of behavior. My wife, Gabi, who is an author, a feminist, and the best mother to our daughter imaginable… and my best friend, who has been just enough years ahead of me in life to offer wisdom and perspective on each life stage as I encounter it.
That said, I once heard a speaker say that in order to succeed, we must all assemble a board of supporters, cheerleaders, and kind critics. The friends we make, the colleagues we cultivate, and the people we love — they are on our board. I have an inner circle of around ten people who are confidantes, trusted sources of comfort as well as critique, and they, collectively, are my RJ.
If you didn’t write Turtle Boy, what else might you have written?
When I began writing Turtle Boy, my fiction-writing ability was like a ball of roots, underground. I was a pretty prolific writer twenty years ago and then, strangely, the well seemed to dry up. I moved on to drawing and reading and making music and blogging about men’s style and fashion. Then, one day, I drew a comic strip that evolved into Turtle Boy, and my author self emerged from the soil, up into the light. I wrote this book, and now I’m at work on a sequel…so the answer to the question is: without Turtle Boy, I might not have written anything!
Were there any alternate endings you were considering?
The final scene of Turtle Boy is, I hope, a beautiful image – and at some level, I’d been picturing that scene from day one. I knew I needed to steer Will closer and closer to that place. But the details and the road map to get there were murky. I tried to take some shortcuts and I tried to make Will’s path easier for him, but it didn’t result in an authentic story. Robert Frost has this great line: “The only way out is through.” And Will needed to go through every difficult step to find freedom.
What do you hope readers will take away from reading Turtle Boy?
I hope that young people see that the journey of going from whatever shell they may find themselves in to freedom is one of many baby steps, baby steps, and then, one day, a giant leap. There will be angels to help you along the way. Find the people who put love into the world and keep them nearby.