Over a span of 35 years, Chris Crutcher has penned an autobiography, two short-story collections, and a dozen novels for young adults, among them The Crazy Horse Electric Game (1987), Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes (1993), Whale Talk (2001), and Period 8 (2014). A former educator and child and family therapist for the Spokane Community Mental Health Center, the author has won three lifetime achievement awards for his work. Today, the author adds to his list of fiction credits with Losers Bracket, a novel that centers on Annie Boots, a teenage basketball star torn between her well-to-do foster family and her birth family, which includes an addict mother, an absent father, and an older sister who is a single mother to a troubled young son. PW spoke with Crutcher about the genesis of his latest novel, the influence that his therapy work has had on his fiction, and how these volatile and violent times are fueling his creativity.
You give so many of your protagonists heart-wrenchingly difficult paths to navigate as teens. Do you often draw from your experiences as a therapist to create your characters and storylines?
Every fictional character I have ever created has been rooted in a human being I know. I don’t have the imagination to create them out of thin air. Over the years, as I’ve listened to people’s stories, the truth floats to the top, and I have taken that and put it into my characters and their stories. And that lets me hit the ground running. So much of my life has been in that world of therapy, and the stories I’ve heard there have always informed my fiction. If it hadn’t, I would be a completely different writer.
Is it then safe to assume that the family situation faced by your latest heroine, Annie Boots, who can’t disentangle herself from her birth family, was inspired by a real-life situation?
When I began thinking about Annie, I looked back at some of the cases I’d known that entailed an understanding of the rules of family bonding and attachment. We saw that even when we removed kids from really bad and abusive homes, these scarred kids would do whatever they could to get back to their families—their mothers especially. I was astonished to see it happen over and over again, even with children with really horrible home situations.
And Annie Boots is a case in point?
Yes—this is Annie’s dilemma. She was taken out of her family situation at an early age, but she keeps going back. In my work, I’d see this all the time—it’s a resilience that some kids have, while others crumble—and it’s still an unanswered question for me: why do some individuals have such intelligence and emotional capability that they, in a sense, can outthink their development? Some kids, like Annie, are smart enough to know that they may not have been given the family they want—but they were given the family they need. She recognizes that her foster family is passionate about her athletic abilities and other parts of her life, but she has a powerful connection to her crazy birth mom and sister—and anyone who’s a Boots. She can never get rid of the longing and the gut feeling that she has to get back.
Despite the hurdles you place in Annie’s path, you tell her story with humor. Do you consider that an essential ingredient in your fiction?
That may be the most important element of my fiction. I left room for humor in Annie’s story—sometimes it gets too dark if you don’t leave room for humor. I think this speaks again to the connection in my world between my writing and my therapy work: when you’re laughing, it is hard to feel bad at exactly that same time. If you can look at your situation with humor, that gives you some sense of hope, and gives you a better chance of thinking your way out to a place where you can influence what happens next.
Annie Boots is your first-ever female narrator. What inspired you to tell the novel in her voice?
Actually I did start to write Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes in Sarah’s voice, but I decided I couldn’t pull it off—even though she was the mover behind that novel. But I realized, when I started Losers Bracket, that I really wanted to use a female narrator, and I somehow knew that I’d have no trouble with Annie. I knew she had to be a tough kid, and I’ve seen that same toughness working with girls who, like my character, have deep scars inside. So I decided to give it a shot.
Would Losers Bracket have been a different novel if you wrote it from a male perspective?
Yes—I think it would have, partly because there really is a difference in gender. One thing that has become clearer and clearer to me is that feminine existence involves a combination of emotional intelligence and frontal lobe, or rational, intelligence. Men are fine with the rational but are not big on the emotional. The balance of the two is what creates genius and insight, and in my mind Annie has both. You’d have to be very careful if you wanted her to be your girlfriend, because you’d certainly live in danger! But once you understand her, your own emotional intelligence will increase. Otherwise, you shouldn’t be around Annie—she’s an emotional minefield.
Have you moved on to another book project since wrapping up Losers Bracket?
I’m working on a nonfiction book for now I’m calling a YA Profiles in Courage, a collection of essays about real people who have taken stands under pressure, and have changed my idea of what a hero is. I used to think Superman was a hero, but he can’t be a hero if he’s bulletproof—and can only be defeated with Kryptonite.
I am also working on a re-edit of a novel I wrote quite a while ago—about the aftermath, years later, of a shooting that took place in a mall where kindergartners were visiting Santa. I am editing it based on what I’ve seen in the aftermath of the school shooting in Parkland, Florida. I am 71 years old, and those students who have stood up and spoken out have rejuvenated my writing career. These are the kids I write about, and then am criticized for creating a character who is too smart to be a teen. I haven’t yet created a character who is nearly as smart as David Hogg and the other Parkland students.
So you are inspired by the words and actions of teenagers who are taking a stand against gun violence?
I have been very aware, since Trump’s election, that there’s toxicity in the air, and I can feel an emotional illness if I hear or read too much of what he is saying. If he weren’t so rich he could be someone I’ve met in my therapy work. His narcissism is so profound—in almost all cases it wouldn’t be treatable—and it has bled out into the culture. The current administration has taken us to a scary place, and I don’t know how we’ll get out. But during the March 24 marches throughout the country, teens gave me hope and reinvigorated me with their statistics about all the new young voters we’ll have registering in the next few years. Watch out, Mr. Santorum and Paul Ryan. If you don’t see the train coming, you are going to get run over.
Losers Bracket by Chris Crutcher. Greenwillow, $17.99 Apr. ISBN 978-0-06-222006-6