PW: From your very first novel, Running Loose (Greenwillow, 1983), you have dealt with adolescent outsiders. What first attracted you to the kind of fringe characters who emerge as heroes in Whale Talk and in so many of your novels?
CC: I think I probably first noticed the attraction when I was teaching and directing in the dropout school down in Oakland, Calif. [1972—1981]. There were about 120 kids from K-12. I got a real close look at them, and went from there to working with abused kids and abusive families—a rich pool to draw from. I'm amazed at the heroism that lurks there, among people who deal with these kinds of incidents in their lives. If I were in their shoes, I don't even know if I could get up in the morning.
PW: Originally you had a different framework in mind for this cast. Can you talk a bit about the unpublished novel they inhabited first?
CC: I was sitting here writing one day about five or six years ago, and the telephone rang. It was the TV station not far from my house. There'd been a shooting in the junior high in Moses Lake, Wash. This was before Jonesboro, Ark., or Paducah, Ky., or Springfield, Ore. Looking back, I now realize it was the granddaddy of the modern shootings. A student had shown up dressed in a longrider's coat and hat—like a Clint Eastwood cowboy—and had a couple pistols with him. He walked into his afternoon math class, shot his math teacher, another kid, and planned to take the others out one by one.
I kept thinking that in all the years I have worked in abuse, I probably know six or seven kids that could have done [something like that]. At the time, there's no way to predict [who might be capable of such an act] among those disenfranchised kids. The business of predicting is not only undoable, it's a mistake. In trying to [predict], we alienate them further.
[When I was writing that novel] it started feeling awfully topical. I found myself paying attention to the news while I was writing, which is a really bad idea. After I finished it, I felt I had a good first draft and sent it to Susan Hirschman. I was at TLA in Dallas when Columbine happened. There was no way in the world my story could come out and not look like exploitation. [Columbine] also changed the consciousness—from an artistic point of view, the story was dead.
PW: Was it difficult to transplant these characters from that previous setting to Whale Talk? How did you go about constructing this new novel?
CC: The thing I had to do was completely let go of the other story. I had only three or four scenes I could use. I had to get some of the images and some of the weight of that story out of my head to tell this one. But the story I wrote is a better one than the one I threw away.
PW: Your narrator, T.J., possesses confidence, a strong sense of right and wrong, and a mesmerizing narrative voice. Do you think your work with teens has helped you to introduce such fully formed personalities into your novels—not just this one, but your previous work as well?
CC: I think it does. Certainly working with teens keeps me up to date with language and with certain kinds of thinking. I often feel like I have to go back to that 17-year-old Chris Crutcher, and that forms the core voice. I can draw on teens from 1964 to 2001 to find a part of the voice I need. You have to be careful not to use anything too colloquial or you date the book. You aren't going to find too many kids like T.J., but a character like that, you make him smart enough so that he can wonder about things that I think I have answers to as an adult. So you get a fairly wise but still adolescent character.
PW: In the past you've mentioned the importance of Scout's voice in To Kill a Mockingbird when you were an adolescent. Do you think about the power of that voice when you create your narrators?
CC: I don't think I'll ever lose the feeling that I had when I read To Kill a Mockingbird—Harper Lee was going back into her childhood. I grew up in a real small town—Lee's was in the South, mine the Northwest—but small towns have a lot in common. There was such a revelation in knowing that a story could be told like that. Not only was it the first real story that I read, the first good story, but Scout's voice just captivated me.
PW: Do you think there's any way for parents, teachers or others who work with teens to recognize the signs of teens who are becoming disenfranchised? Do you have any suggestions on how to reach out to those teens?
CC: I do. I can tell when they're becoming disenfranchised—I can't tell which ones will open fire. There's a certain amount of adolescence that's about separation. It may come out in aggressiveness, or whatever it takes them to push away. The frustration for a parent is that you might be available all the time, but the kid may approach you only about 10% of the time. What we call a stage of development [adolescence] is the cutting edge of the teen's own life. If we look around and they're not talking to anyone, or only talking to kids who seem wounded, then we've lost them and the capacity to engage them.
Someone once asked me if I'd write a nonfiction book about adolescents [for parents]. I'd write two things: "Don't judge. Don't take it personally." When you behave as if what they're doing and thinking is important, they'll come back, and the times they do approach you are the magic times.