Author Brent Runyon spoke with Children’s Bookshelf about his transition from autobiographer to novelist, and his new coming-of-age story, Surface Tension.
Five years ago, after writing The Burn Journals, your memoir of your adolescent years, you mentioned that you wanted to go on to write novels, and you have. How is writing fiction different from writing an autobiography?
Fiction is like building a house from scratch. You know that there will be walls and doors, a kitchen and bath, but you’re not sure where they’ll be. Writing a memoir is more like restoring a house. Everything is already there. It’s a present-tense remembering of the way things were. When I write a novel, I still make it as true and real as I can. There’s the same kind of emotional truth there, but it doesn’t hurt as badly to write it out. I have the freedom to take pieces of life and arrange them any way I want. I write about what life could have been like.
Are “pieces of your life” present in Surface Tension, which traces a boy’s four summers spent in his family’s lakeside cottage?
Yes, although there’s a fair amount of exaggeration there. Like Luke’s family, my family had a vacation house that we returned to every summer. It was a cottage on the Finger Lakes in a little area called Sheldrake. Some of the neighbors in the book are based on neighbors we had. For example, we had a minister neighbor who put up a Confederate flag. Like Luke’s father, my father sneaked out and took it down.
What was your main goal in writing Surface Tension?
One of my main goals was to capture the feeling of the setting: the spongy wet grass, the pebbles under your feet, the lake / summertime experience. I wanted to show how summers can connect to other summers like there is no in between. It became an interesting way to tell the story of a kid growing up.
There seems to be a connection between the young Brent depicted in Burn Journals and Luke, the protagonist of Surface Tension, since both have profound experiences with fire. Was this link intentional?
It wasn’t something I was consciously trying to do. The story [Surface Tension] just came together the way it did and it felt right. Going into a burning house felt like something I’d done. I knew the heat and smoke of fire and could relate to what Luke was experiencing in that burning house. Also, I remembered a cottage that had burned down when I was a kid. It was such a dramatic event, having something so permanent as a house suddenly disappear. It fit with the theme of Surface Tension—how things can seem so permanent, like they’re never going to change, but then of course they do.
How has becoming an acclaimed author affected your life?
It really hasn’t made a difference in my daily life, although recently I’ve had the opportunity to work as a reporter for the Falmouth Enterprise, a local, family-owned paper published in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. Now I’m the guy taking notes in the back of board meetings. It’s a real different kind of writing—it took some adjustment not being able to use “I” and to hold back on the metaphors, but I love going to the police station and the fire station—there's that fire thing again—to get reports. I get to write stories about all sorts of people.
Have any news items inspired subject matter for stories?
Yes, some of the reports are working their way into the book I’m writing now.
Can you say anything more about that book?
It’s another YA novel about a troubled boy, but I don’t want to say much more because it’s still in a state of flux.
Will Nancy Siscoe, who edited your previous books, be your editor for this one as well?
Yes, we’ve had a great working relationship. She’s very patient and has a good insight into what works and what doesn’t.
How did the two of you find each other?
After I wrote the whole draft of Burn Journals, the first scene was broadcast on This American Life from a Chicago radio station. The host mentioned that I was looking for a publisher, and two people got in touch with me. One of them was Nancy. I sent her the manuscript and she accepted it. It was great!
In what ways have you changed as a writer over the past several years?
I guess I felt that I had to write Burn Journals, but the books I write now I want to write, so I guess there’s been a change in attitude. But I still write from the same places, and I’m still an impulsive writer. I write in a rush of memory. It’s my collaborator, Christina Egloff, who brings in the analytical side.
Has Christina worked with you on all of your books?
Yes, we used to work together at a radio station, and she was the person who first encouraged me to write Burn Journals. We’ve been collaborating ever since. She’s great at breaking things down and putting them back together. She can pinpoint what a story’s really about, and she’ll finally get the credit she deserves in our next book. Her name is in the contract.
How important is audience to the two of you? Do you discuss how teens will respond to your books?
I hardly ever think about audience. I just try to tell a story for me. I write the kind of story I would like to read. I think Christina is the same way. Because of this, we sometimes we take longer than Nancy would like us to take with the writing. I remember when we were working on the last bit of Surface Tension. We had about 21 different endings, and it was taking us close to two weeks to finish. At one point, I said to Christina, “Is anyone going to really notice if the canoe trip ends one way or another?” She said, “It doesn’t matter if anyone else notices. We’ll notice.”
Surface Tension: A Novel in Four Summers by Brent Runyon. Knopf, $16.99 ISBN 978-0-375-84446-1