Chris Crutcher's new book, Deadline (Greenwillow, Sept.) stars a tiny teen with absolutely nothing to lose—so he tries out for his small-town Idaho football team.
Is there really such a thing as an eight-man football team?
It's very common where I'm from: Cascade, Idaho, population 943. Cascade was actually the big town in the area. It's all these little logging towns, each with their own high school, and everybody's got to field a team. If you've seen Friday Night Lights—that was just like my town.
Did you play football yourself?
They put a mirror under your nose and if you fog it up, you get a uniform. I was a 122-pound offensive guard. I'm lucky to be alive.
So you were a little guy like Ben—the main character in Deadline, who has just learned he has perhaps a year to live and is preternaturally calm about it.
He had to be calm about the prognosis or it would've been just another book about a dying kid. I wanted to talk about life and use impending death as the conduit. It's the old parlor game question — what would you do if you had one year to live? And how is that different if you haven't really lived yet? I mean, I remember being a kid and when people asked me, 'What do you want out of high school?,' I would say "out of high school." High school is all Ben has known and he wants to spend the rest of his time there wisely.
I'm assuming this book he uses to challenge what he's being told in history class—Lies My Teacher Told Me by James Loewen—is a real book about how school curriculums perpetuate myths that uphold the status quo.
It is. By the time a kid goes to college, if he's taking math or science, at least he knows, or you hope he knows, some basics. But if you're teaching history in college, you have a lot of damage to undo. You basically have to start over because so much of what a kid has already learned is just wrong. What's worse is, I saw some statistics that said only 30 percent of college students take a history class, and only 50 percent of all Americans have a college degree. So we have a lot of people running around this country who don't know Woodrow Wilson was a white supremacist, and think Christopher Columbus was this great guy who had nothing to do with establishing the slave trade. That's scary. I wanted Ben to care about the quality of what he knows.
The narrator of your last book, The Sledding Hill, was already dead. Now the main character in Deadline is terminal. Is death on your mind?
Well, when I turned 50 I realized I was now going to start counting backwards, in terms of the years I had left. Then I turned 60 and I just stopped counting. I don't have a fear of death, but I have an awareness that there's a time limit. My last two books were dedicated to teens who had died tragically.
Tell us about them.
Well, Whale Talk was dedicated to Ben Dodge, this 15-year-old kid in Missouri who was coming home from a picnic and volunteered to switch seats with some girls. They rode up front; he rode in the back. There was an accident and he was thrown from the truck and killed. I was speaking at Northwestern Missouri State in Maryville and his dad drove up to meet me, and brought a couple of my books. He wanted me to autograph them so he could donate them to the library in his son's name, so his son would always be there in that way.
And Zach Clifton—Sledding Hill is dedicated to him. He was this kid in Illinois who just loved Whale Talk and took the novel and condensed it for his debate team. He was going to deliver it at the state competition until he died. I was going to Anderson's (Bookshop, Naperville, Ill.) for a signing and Becky Anderson called me to tell me this debate team was coming to give me a copy of the thing Zack had written that he had planned to deliver at state. They buried this kid with a copy of Whale Talk. I asked if there was some place we could meet in private and we sat in the storeroom surrounded by boxes of books and we talked for a long time and I praised them. I told them we keep people alive by the acts we commit in their name.
I think I am going to weep.
Becky still can't talk about this without crying either. But those two incidents, just in terms of the emotions they summoned up, made me want to write about what it's like for the people we leave behind. There's probably nothing we do as a human being that's more important than learning to grieve. We're born and we start losing things.
And teenagers don't yet realize that life is finite…
But they're not supposed to. It's a developmental thing. The value of a story like Deadline is kids get to look at death at the perfect distance. They can put the book down. They can experience the story, rub up against it, but it's not real life.
And they can start thinking about what's important in their own lives.
Telling the truth. The most important thing, the thing that Ben has to learn himself, is that's there's no alternative to telling the truth.
It helps, too, that the book is very, very funny.
The juxtaposition of tragedy and comedy is everything for me. The tragedy will tell itself, but if I'm going to be writing about death, I have to make sure I get the humor in there.