Michael Simmons knows that Brett, the narrator of his novel Pool Boy (Roaring Brook), is something of a brat. "All he does is complain," he says. "He's completely self-absorbed, he doesn't really care about anyone else."
But Brett's been through a lot: the former rich kid lost his money—and his stockbroker father—when his dad got busted and imprisoned for insider trading. And he's not without redeemable qualities. To Simmons, he's a little bit like Calvin from Calvin and Hobbes. While Calvin causes lots of trouble, he's also funny. And, he says, "Calvin also has a very sweet, soft side to him. I hope that comes out with Brett, at least by the end."
While this is Simmons's first novel, he is not new to writing. After earning a master's in history from the University of Wisconsin at Madison, he decided while working toward his Ph.D. that he'd rather be a writer. He then went to Washington University in St. Louis, where he earned an MFA in creative writing.
Now, living in Brooklyn, he freelances for Scholastic's reading programs and other educational packagers. He has also published short stories in literary journals under his real name (the name Simmons is actually a pen name—his mother's maiden name—that he is using for his young adult novels so readers won't confuse his two voices). "They're generally about cranky old men who are almost as dislikable as Brett is," he says of those short stories.
The idea for Pool Boy came to him while he was doing some research for Scholastic. "I had read a bunch of articles about mothers in prisons and what it was like to be estranged from their kids," he says. "It's really heartbreaking stuff." After he nailed Brett's voice, the story flowed quickly; he finished a draft of the book after "a month of incredibly disciplined work."
Simmons equates the process of writing a book with acting. "Once you start to assume this role, you can go spontaneously or extemporaneously, and write from that voice," he says. In fact, several of the essential plot points "came to me on the fly," he says, including Brett's summer job cleaning swimming pools.
After finishing the book, he found an agent, George Nicholson at Sterling Lord Literistic, who placed his book with Roaring Brook. There, Simmons worked with editor Neal Porter, whom he felt really trusted him. Together, they worked on bringing Brett's soft side into the novel's foreground. "Some editors can be bullies, and with Neal, all his suggestions were phrased in the interrogative," he says.
Simmons is also working with Porter and Roaring Brook on his next book, Vandal, due out in about a year. It's about a talented teen—the lead guitarist in a Kiss cover band—whose brother gets into serious trouble. "It's basically about the love that the guitar-playing brother, the good brother, learns to feel for the bad brother.
These days, Simmons says, he is dividing his time between his own work and educational writing. He says he gets up early in the morning and writes until midday—leaving his afternoons free to watch shows like Ricki Lake and Married with Children. He says it's a thrill to walk into a bookstore and see his book, and hear from people who have read it. "I think sales are being driven by my mother," he says. "I think everybody in my family, from seventh cousins to immediate family, has several copies of my book that my mother sent to them."
And what does he hope readers walk away with after finishing Pool Boy? "I wasn't much of a reader when I was a teenager," he says. "I kind of hope that some 15-year-old kid who hates reading is maybe forced into reading this book, reads it, and at the end of it, decides it wasn't that bad."