The Young Adult fiction market has exploded over the last several years. Locus magazine (May 2006) estimates that the amount of Young Adult genre books published in the U.S. has more than doubled in the last decade. Much of this growth is due to the astounding success of the Harry Potter series by author J.K. Rowling. As a result, publishers have begun to publish more Young Adult books and to re-package the genre to appeal to adults as well as young readers. The audience for Young Adult fiction is growing by leaps and bounds. Suddenly, the Young Adult novel has gained a respectability that, while long past due, is most welcome.
I've been a reader of Young Adult novels ever since I first grabbed "Sargasso of Space" by Andre Norton off the shelf of a local paperback shop and lost myself in a science fiction world that even a teenager like myself could understand. Not only did I read the novel with a great sense of wonder, I enjoyed the fact that many of the characters in the novel were just like me. And now, at 51, the simplicity and brevity of the Young Adult novel still appeal to me. It seems to me that many modern Science Fiction novels are just too long and overly technical to engage me. I often turn to a good Young Adult novel for clear, simple writing that treats me as a smart reader and allows me to enter into a fictional world with ease. Many Young Adult novels are often more creative and genre-bending than their mainstream counterparts. Garth Nix, Nancy Farmer, Meredith Ann Pierce and Michelle Paver have all written books that I found as entertaining and moving as most of the adult novels I read in 2006.
Which brings me to the recently published (August 2006) Young Adult Science Fiction novel, "The Softwire: Virus on Orbis 1" by PJ Haarsma. Original, intelligent and immersive, "The Softwire" is a perfect example of why the young adult novel is so good. I was very fortunate to have lunch with the author of this excellent novel on a sparklingly clear Los Angeles Sunday afternoon. We met at a Little Tokyo restaurant called East, and over a superb Japanese box lunch, my partner, Lisa Morton, and I talked with PJ Haarsma about "The Softwire".
PJ Haarsma is a handsome, stocky man in his thirties who speaks with passion about how "The Softwire" came to be written. PJ was at a cross-roads in his life. Twenty years of success in the world of advertising had left him feeling uncomfortable and unhappy. He told me that he wanted to "do something creative" with the second half of his life. He was tired of how advertising paid little attention to the products it was actually trying to sell, and since he didn't want to be a part of that world anymore, he quit his advertising job and decided to become a filmmaker initially. He wrote and produced the film "Devious Beings" in 2002, but once again, he found himself living in the same world as the one he just left. Hollywood was all about finding work and playing the game. This was a far cry from the creative, happy life he wanted to build for himself.
So, PJ quit Hollywood and decided to become a novelist. Although he never considered himself a writer ("English was my worst class in school", he says), he started "journaling" until one day Johnny T (the main character of "The Softwire) appeared on the page. PJ started asking himself "what if" questions about the character and about the world this character might inhabit. Eleven months later he had written what would become "The Softwire", a first person young adult novel centered around a young man born parent-less on a space ship during a voyage to the mysterious Rings of Orbis. The bulk of the novel is about Johhny T's struggle to understand who and what he is after he arrives on Orbis 1, for Johnny T is a "softwire": a person who can interface with computers using only their mind. This fact becomes a catalyst for the various alien races that want to use or obstruct Johnny's unique ability.
After friends helped him place the book with a New York agent, PJ decided to take the first good offer that came. So, not three months after finishing his first novel he was signing a 4 book contract for a Softwire series.
PJ's descriptions of working on the "The Softwire" indicated that the writing was a great joy for him. This pleasure in writing comes through very clearly in the novel. He likes his characters (even the villains) and there is such a sense of wonder in the writing that "The Softwire" story draws you in exceptionally well. You really care for Johnny T. and his friends. I think this is partly due to the fact that PJ is writing a kind of self-portrait in Johnny T, and after meeting him it becomes obvious. Both author and character are curious, sensitive and intelligent people with a special ability that makes them stand out from others. In Johnny's case it's his softwire ability; with PJ, it's his determination to free his creative self in order to become more alive.
While the novel loses a little momentum in the middle sections where the plot becomes more of a mystery than SciFi, the pace is generally quick and suspenseful. And it's clear to me that PJ is interested in the deeper questions of identity and friendship and otherness, as opposed to trying to create the strangest alien or self-conscious (and lengthy) descriptions of scientific phenomena that plague so many modern adult Science Fiction novels.
In discussing the writing of "The Softwire", PJ indicated that originally he had written the novel entirely in the third person point of view, but somehow it didn't quite feel right, so he re-wrote the opening chapter in the first person and asked his wife, Marisa, and selected friends to read both and tell him which version they liked best. The first person account was the favorite, so he re-wrote the entire book from the first person point of view. This was not an easy task since it meant a complicated re-working of the story from just Johnny T's perspective. Considering the fact that Johnny was raised in a starship with minimal exposure to the common metaphors and phrases that we would expect from a normal Earth boy, this wiped out whole sections of the book. But ultimately all of PJ's hard work paid off. Johnny is a completely sympathetic and compelling character and you follow his thoughts and fears each step of the way. PJ was telling me that he wants to use the game to tell other points of view as the series progresses. Perhaps even publishing a novel in two parts: one would be the story from Johnny's point of view; and another would be the same story, but told from his closest friend. I think this is a marvelous idea.
What I find most impressive about PJ Haarsma is the range and variety of his ideas. Interested in technology and the Internet, he decided to "extend the world of the Softwire novel" into an online flash-based game, and so he commissioned hand-picked artists and programmers to create the "Rings of Orbis". Interestingly, the game allows you to interact with the world in the same way as the young adult characters in the novel. This is a unique idea and one that will allow for a lot of imaginative growth as future novels of the series come out in August over the next three years. I spent several pleasant hours as the character "Etheleon" exploring and trading in beautifully designed 2d worlds. At present, PJ tells me, there are 2200 players who have signed up and are playing regularly in the game. It was a completely unique experience to read a novel and then find yourself as a player in a game that takes place in the same world. PJ is so excited about developing the "Rings of Orbis" site that he worries it will take over his writing. I don't think he has much to worry about really, since both the game world and the novel world will probably give him new ideas for many years to come.
PJ is a self-professed "bulldog" about promoting his book and companion on-line game. After heroic diligence, he even managed to get NASA to work with him on a grade-school level presentation that, as PJ tells it, "gets kids absolutely thrilled by the end". PJ told me that he managed to sell 1,000 of his books in Canada while touring schools there with his NASA program. He's excited about the prospect of doing the same thing in the Los Angeles area schools. With his winning personality and great ideas, I don't think he'll have much of a problem if he can just get a presentation to the right people.
As I was talking with PJ Haarsman, I had the growing feeling that his publisher, Candlewick Press, was missing a golden opportunity in using PJ's ability to promote "The Softwire". Any smart publisher would be overjoyed to have such a self-promoting author, but Candlewick seems to be stuck in an older, traditional model of how publishers interact with their authors. One where authors are supposed to just stick to the writing and let the publisher handle everything else. Unfortunately, you won't find a link or a mention of the "Rings of Orbis" game on the Candlewick site. Something that PJ found extremely frustrating. This is really too bad, since an author who sells 1,000 copies of their own books, has a free online game designed around his novel, and has children and adults enthused about "The Softwire" series, should be rewarded with co-operation and enthusiasm. I sure wish Candlewick would wake up.
"The Softwire" series books will come out in August over the next three years. I'll certainly be reading each one as it comes out. Thank God, PJ is resisting the urge to sell them to Hollywood. He mentioned that he wanted to first create the world himself so he can keep the details consistent. Nathan Fillion (of Serenity fame) has recorded the first three chapters of the book. They are available as a download at IGN.com. After listening to the recordings, I sure hope he finishes the whole novel.
Two hours of lively and engaging conversation with PJ Haarsma has left me with even more respect for "The Softwire" and it's author. It's not easy to leave a successful career for another in which you will have to start all over. I congratulate PJ Haarsma for re-building his life in a way that makes him creative and happy. It takes courage to step out and do something you've never done before.
PJ spoke to me of extending "The Softwire" into many more books than just four. He also has an idea for a horror series where he wants to "create a new horror hero, like Dracula or the Frankenstein monster". In conversation, his imagination and enthusiasm seemed boundless. And you know, while he was telling me about his ideas, he just kept smiling and smiling. I think he's found what he was looking for.
I'd like to thank PJ Haarsma for meeting with me and for being so forthright in conversation. And, of course, my partner, Lisa Morton , who paid for the lunch and proofed this review.
The Softwire: Virus on Orbis 1 (Book one synopsis)
When the children on the seed ship, Renaissance, are orphaned in outer space, thirteen-year-old JT and his sister Ketheria are forced to work as knudniks on the Rings of Orbis. Instead of beginning the new and better life he had hoped for, JT and his sister spend their days sifting through trash for their new Guarantor.
But JT soon discovers that he is the first human Softwire - he has a special gift that allows him to enter any computer with his mind. And when the central computer on Orbis mysteriously malfunctions, the Citizens point their fingers at the newcomers, especially the Softwire.
Before long, JT is embroiled in a struggle between the Keepers who rule Orbis and the Trading Council, which wants him dead. As he learns to harness his newfound ability, JT uncovers a virus wreaking havoc inside the computer. Now he must convince the powers that be on Orbis that the virus is real before they make war on each other and destroy his new home - along with JT's dream of a better life.
-The short YouTube video was created from footage taken with a cool CVS disposable camcorder that I recently hacked. It's a really cool camera that's idiot proof.
Like all poets, David Lynch divides contemporary audiences with his insistence on creativity and his fearless use of abstraction in creating his films. His recent film, INLAND EMPIRE (the title was intended by Lynch to be capitalized), is a challenging, but ultimately rewarding work that requires the kind of free-form viewing that most American audiences refuse to do. Which is why you won't find INLAND EMPIRE on many of the year's best lists of films, although I consider it the best film of 2006. But our culture needs poetic filmmakers like Lynch. Cliche after cliche; sentiment after sentiment; stereotype after stereotype, film-goers are buried under a mount of banality that conditions us to reject the unusual and distrust the ambiguous. David Lynch asks us to "go for a little buggy ride with him" in his films. And he takes us to some pretty strange places because he uses his imagination freely without the constraints of genre or form. He collaborates with wonderful artists like Laura Dern, Dennis Hopper and Jack Nance. And they all say he is unique and "fun" to work with. This is because David Lynch wants to involve other people creatively with his work without "fear" (as he puts it in his book). And this combination of generosity with his collaborators and insistence on creativity make him highly influential to those (like me) who are inspired by his work and want to learn from him.
And so David Lynch has written a book, published in December, 2006 by Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin. His last book was "Images", published in 1994. This new book, "Catching the Big Fish", is a result of his continuing practice of transcendental meditation and his creation of a foundation to encourage young people to practice meditation in school to help them with the stress of growing up and give them a tool to cope with life. While David talks about TM in the book, he doesn't hit you over the head with it, or pitches any kind of sales talk. Smartly, he clearly states that TM is not a "religion", but a method to achieve personal freedom. He states he has used TM continuously since the 70's and it has aided and, at times, guided his creativity.
He feels much calmer and able to cope with the difficulties of life and of his job as a filmmaker.
"Catching the Big Fish" is the closest thing we have to an autobiography of David Lynch. The phrase refers to meditation (or daydreaming) as a way of "fishing" for ideas in the big stream of consciousness he believes exists in all of us. If you want to catch little ideas you fish in shallow waters, if you want big ideas you have to go deeper. While the analogy might seem simplistic, it is remarkably apt, especially when David begins to relate the many ways his "fishing" expeditions have helped him in creating his films or coping with depression or disaster (remember "Dune", anyone?).
Broken up into 82 short chapters, each with their own chapter title, "Catching the Big Fish" is very much in the style of the modern writers like Barthes or Wittgenstein who chose to write in short, epigramatic style. The chapter title announces the topic and then David riffs on the theme for a short while and then stops. The movement of the book is light and quick, which lends itself to re-reading (which I intend to do). David's writing style is almost exactly like he speaks. Short, compact sentences that illustrate his ideas perfectly. While reading the book you feel as if David Lynch is talking to you on the front porch is a large rocker with a robin singing in an oak tree nearby.
"I went to a psychiatrist once. I was doing something that had become a pattern in my life and I thought, 'Well, I should go talk to a psychiatrist'. When I got into the room, I asked him, 'Do you think that this process could, in any way, damage my creativity?'. And he said, 'Well, David, I have to be honest; it could'. And I shook his hand and left"
Some of the stories in the book are ones that David has told for the last decade (they are still interesting in spite of their familiarity), but most of the book is original and unique. He discusses the casting process, his working methods, the development of some of his most famous films. And he openly addresses issues like why he chooses not to record director's commentary for any of his films ("...we've got to protect the film... Director's commentaries just open the door to changing people's take on the number one thing - the film")
"Most of filmmaking is common sense. If you just stay on your toes and think about how to do a thing, it's right there"
There are no great personal revelations in "Catching the Big Fish". But through chapters titled "Light on Film", "Sleep", "Suffocating Rubber Clown Suit" and "Having a Set-up", you get the feeling David is trying to tell us some of what we want to know about him, but providing the answers couched in epigrams or short tales. In other words, this is a poets work of essay and autobiography and criticism and meditation; a unique creation unlike any other.
I highly recommend "Catching the Big Fish". It's a beautiful square-shaped Navy blue book with the photo of a splash of water across the page. Designed by Claire Vaccaro, it's as beautiful on the outside as it is on the inside. Fascinating if you don't know much about David Lynch; essential if you do. "Catching the Big Fish" is an inspiring, important book even for an aging cynic like me.
I can't wait to read it again.
PS There's an audio book version read by Lynch himself that sounds great. I'd like to download it to my new Creative Zen V Plus player. Just think I can have Lynch talking inside my head while I walk around looking for inspiration.