Growing up in Brooklyn in the early 1950s, Avi had a first-hand brush with some of the fallout of the Red Scare. In his latest novel, Catch You Later, Traitor, the author introduces Pete Collinson, a young Brooklynite whose father is rumored to have Communist Party affiliations in 1951. Shunned by his friends and shadowed by an FBI agent, Pete channels his fictional detective hero, Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade, to search for the truth behind the accusations, and discovers unexpected facts about his family’s political entanglements. Avi, whose many awards include a Newbery Medal for Crispin: The Cross of Lead and two Newbery Honors, spoke with PW about the factual and fictional amalgam of his latest novel, due from Algonquin Young Readers on March 10.
This novel is billed as your most personal novel yet – is that accurate?
It both is and isn’t. The book is fiction first of all, yet a lot of the incidents are true. The Collinson family is an invention, but my father was accused of being a Communist. I don’t believe he actually was, but he did, like Pete’s father, go before one government subcommittee or other – I’m not sure which – and was told to go home. He didn’t get arrested like so many others, including Dashiell Hammett, who went to jail for refusing to name names of Communist sympathizers – names, it would appear, that he did not even know.
Your seventh-grade protagonist is visited by an FBI agent – was that scene grounded in fact?
Yes, that part is absolutely real. I was home alone, and an FBI guy came to the door and asked if my parents were there. When I said no, he said that he’d like to talk to me, and I told him I did not want to talk to him. I have no idea whether he came to talk to my parents or really wanted to talk to me, but I never told my parents, because I was scared. People have said to me, “The FBI wouldn’t come knocking on the door like that,” but that part of the book is entirely real – I can say, “Yes, they would – and they did.”
What are some of the other parts of the novel that came from your own boyhood?
Mr. Ordson, the blind man in the novel whom Pete has a job reading to, was inspired by a blind man whom I read to as a boy when I was 13 or 14. He wasn’t very important to my life, but I took that experience and turned it into something important in the book. Yet what happened to Pete at school – his teacher’s and his classmates’ reactions to the rumors about his father – was very real. And I used to hang out in the same bookstore where Pete has a part-time job. I have an affection for bookstores, and I wanted to put this one in the story. That’s how it works – the book is a mix of things. I invented a lot of the details, but the politics are real. And I think I was energized by what is real.
So you agree, then, with the adage that writers should write what they know?
I know students are always being told that, but I always say that you should write what you feel – that’s stronger and a much better place for any writer to begin. The facts you can always find, and other things you can make up. Not long ago, I found the first notes I took for Catch You Later, Traitor, and to my astonishment I realized that in one way or another I worked on this book for eight years, and thought about it for a long time before that. It’s a long and difficult process to write about what you know, and during that process I had to keep pulling back from the facts of my own life and make the story more fiction. In 1951, you had to be very cautious about what you talked about. Even at my age now, I’m not comfortable talking about politics. That was bred into me. So that element presented another difficulty for me.
Yet there are lighter aspects of the story – Pete’s affection for, and emulation of, Sam Spade, and his switch of allegiance from the Brooklyn Dodgers to the New York Giants. Did either of those plot twists come from the heart?
I definitely have an affection for detective fiction, and when I first read Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, that book and its author made an enormous impression on me as a reader and a writer, and led me to other hard-boiled American writers like Raymond Chandler and Ross McDonald, among many. My hope is that Pete, in his narrative, manages to honor the style and words of those books that he, and I, love to read.
And the Giants did come from behind to beat the Dodgers to win the pennant in 1951 and, like Pete, I actually did switch my loyalty to the Giants that year. I was 13, and I think it was my own declaration of independence. That’s a crucial part of the book.
So Pete’s love of detective fiction and baseball were intentional additions to balance the darker political undertones of his story?
This is a novel for young people – I was not writing a political treatise here. It was a difficult time for Pete, and those parts of his life were very important to him. At the beginning of the book, Pete says that he “stopped being a kid” the day he learned the rumors about his father. After the Giants win, his best friend Kat, a Dodgers fan (who is, by the way, my favorite character in the novel – and a total invention) says to Pete, “Wait till next year.” And Pete thinks, “And just like that, I felt like a kid again.” That’s the very last line in the book, and it capsulizes what I wanted to do in this novel.
Catch You Later, Traitor by Avi. Algonquin Young Readers, $16.95 Mar. ISBN 978-1-61620-359-7