October – Where Did You Go?

Whew! I’m feel as if I have been nonstop for the past six weeks!

As many of you know, Calm Undone came out October 1st! To help promote it, I did several readings and events. Two that were both fun and a huge success were part of the Do Not Submit series. Hosted every Thursday at Mrs. Murphy and Son’s Irish Bistro, it’s a great place to come hear stories for free and enjoy a pint or two! On October 21st I got to read an excerpt from Calm Undone, and you can watch a video of that reading on my YouTube channel here. It was a great night – I sold some signed copies, and my friend Kim got up and told an impromptu story too!

Then I got swamped – but in a good way. This year I was honored to be the Chair of the 2021 International Brain Bee World Championship, which is the world’s premiere neuroscience competition for teenagers! From November 5th-6th, 43 teenagers (ages 13-19) from 31 countries and 6 continents completed a comprehensive exam (composed of a written section, a neuroanatomy section, a neurohistology section, and a patient diagnosis section) to become a finalist in our Live Judging Session. Then on Sunday November 7th, 24 finalists appeared before a judging panel of four accomplished neuroscientists and went 24 rounds of head-to-head questions-and-answers to see who would become the World Champion! We had to cancel the 2020 IBB World Championship due to COVID19, so this year we crowned two! Rahel Patel of the USA took home the 2020 prize and Viktoriia Vydzhak of Ukraine took the 2021 prize. The IBB World Championship is not only about competition, but also preparing the future of neuroscience and building connections across cultures and the world. This year’s event also included a career panel, two thought provoking keynotes given by eminent neuroscientists, a team competition, and an interactive neuroscience research demonstration — proving that neuroscience is as diverse as it is exciting! You can re-watch (or watch for the first time) all the action on our 2021 IBB World Championship YouTube page!

But the craziness did not stop after the IBB – two days later I was at a practice session for Story Lab, where I am a featured speaker!  On Wednesday November 17th I will be one of six up-and-coming cast members entertaining Chicago with stories of wit, adventure, and personal discovery! Story Lab has been a staple of Chicago for over ten years, and after being on an 18-month hiatus due to COVID19, I’m honored to be part of next week’s event! Story Lab is free to all and starts at 7:00 PM at the Ravenswood United Church of Christ.


You Can Dance if You Want To

For many years, my grandmother rented us a house each summer in Stone Harbor, NJ. It was huge, taking up two lots on the corner of 91st Street and 2nd Ave and had a wraparound porch. That porch was the center of summer life. It is where all the grandkids (13 of us in total) had lunch each day after we spent the morning on the beach, body surfing and playing games. In the evening, it was where everyone gathered – adults and kids alike – watching the traffic on the busy avenue and staying cool as the hazy day melted into the breezy, refreshing evening. On rainy days, or just lazy ones, it was where my cousins and I would gather to hang out, playing card games and telling stories.

And I distinctly remember listening to the local radio station whenever we were on the porch. That first year we went, it was 1983 and I was going into seventh grade that fall. MTV was huge, and its flashy and sometimes poorly made videos catapulted an otherwise obscure song into popularity. That year one such song was The Safety Dance. I remember playing a card game with one of my cousins when it’s bouncy synthesized opening started coming out of the speakers of the giant, double-cassette boom-box he brought. Everyone started chanting the letters as we bopped our heads: Ess-ess-ess-ess. Aye-aye-aye-aye. Eff-eff-eff-eff. Eee-eee-eee-eee. Tee-tee-tee-tee. Wie-wie-wie-wie. Then we clapped our hands and yelled “SAFETY! DANCE!”

Over the years, not much changed. We sat on the porch throughout the day, and as we got older, we switched from playing simple card games to Scrabble. After I turned 21, my cousins and I drank beer through the sizzling hot afternoons and well into the night. The local station still played The Safety Dance, long after it had rotated off MTV (long after MTV stopped playing videos, actually). It was well into the 90s, after I graduated from college and had my first job, that I realized the radio station was sort of stuck in time, constantly playing the summer hits from back in the day. Simpler days, when all my cousins and I insisted on sleeping in the same room, throwing our mattresses across the large bedroom on the third floor.

In Calm Undone, the radio station that Tyler, Liam, and the other characters listen to in their cars is that exact same station my cousins and I listened to as teenagers. In my head, it is the local ‘oldies station,’ playing the songs their parents listened to as high schoolers. During one scene, Tyler and Liam are arguing as they wait for the drawbridge to close on their way to Wildwood. As a song comes on, there is a beat in the dialog, and a moment for Tyler to struggle with what is happening between him and Liam, and what is changing in his life.

The song that plays – it’s Safety Dance. I don’t say it in the book, because it doesn’t drive the overall story line or fit with the tension of that scene. And that moment is based upon a very real one in my life: One evening my cousins and I were heading to Wildwood, and we got stopped by the draw bridge. As we waited, The Safety Dance came on. Someone turned up the volume. We all rolled down our windows. Then we chanted and sang and danced as best we could. Although Tyler and Liam are arguing in the book, in my real life, this is just one of the many joy-filled, often silly hours I spent with my cousins at the beach. It’s a strong memory, one of many that form the backbone of the relationships that I (hopefully) created in Calm Undone.

We eventually stopped listening to the radio – with the advent of writable CDs and MP3 players, we started creating our own summer playlists to blast from the porch. I’ve pulled together (as best I can remember) a playlist of Stone Harbor 80s Summer Hits. Songs that I can distinctly recall listening to with my cousins. Of course, it has The Safety Dance on it. But some others. Take a listen. And remember: You can dance if you want to.

Six Weeks and Counting!

Not wholly on purpose, I took a bit of a blogging break for the height of summer. To be honest (and the aghast of my friends) summer is my least favorite season; the heat, humidity, and long hours of intense sun make me want to hibernate in the AC, drink cocktails, and try to move as little as possible. It is also when I’m at my least creative, so I’ve been struggling with something to blog about.

But this week marks six weeks until Calm Undone‘s release, and there are many things to share.

First, for those that have been asking, Calm Undone is available in paperback! Release date for both the ebook and paperback is October 1st, 2021. You can always pre-order an ebook or paperback through Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Apple, Rakuten Kobo, or your local bookstore. And to add to the excitement, my shipment of books arrived over the weekend!

Second, BQB Books (my awesome publisher) has created a Street Page on Facebook for their great collection of award-winning books by my fellow authors. You can keep up on all the news about my books and other authors by joining.  Also, there is a kick-ass image of a t-shirt with the Calm Undone cover (and I’m trying to get my hands on some of those).

Finally, Calm Undone has been nominated for an International Literacy Association young adult award! Decisions come out in spring of 2022, but still (as they say at the Oscars) it is an honor to be nominated – especially as a debut book!

In hindsight, maybe summer isn’t so bad.

To All the Books I Loved Before

As I am debating and discussing final edits to Calm Undone with my (always helpful) editors, I find myself revisiting favorite characters and books. I truly believe that if you want to become a good writer, you will first have to become a good reader. When I struggle with things like pacing, character development, or how to get the right balance of telling a story without getting lost in minutiae, I pick up books I have strewn about my house that I think did all of that well. As I take a little break this evening from revising (and revising and revising again), I want to share my thoughts on two books (and the authors) that I remembering thinking, Yes, I want to create something like this.

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (Jesse Andrews, 2012). What I love about this book is the narrative voice. Andrews’ protagonist is Greg Gaines, a snarky, witty and self-conscious teenager who just wants to hide in mediocrity. Except when he doesn’t: he wants the attention of the popular girl; he wants the cool nonchalance of his best friend; he wants to move on from high school, but is so scared of being less than mediocre he won’t apply to any colleges. And above all, he wants neat, happy endings to the worse life dishes out, knowing full well it doesn’t happen. Which makes him your typical teenager. Andrews balances self-introspection and stream-of-consciousness story telling with enough dialog and straightforward exposition to keep the story moving forward. It is a space I struggle to occupy comfortably with my characters and plot.

The Outsiders (S.E. Hinton, 1967). I envy Hinton, I truly do. I’m still in awe of how she captures the internal voice of a teenage boy. I doubt I could ever write a female character as strongly as she wrote Pony Boy. What brings me back to this book over and over again, however, is the sense of yearning she creates in Pony Boy (Let’s face it – she does it with Johnny, and Soda Pop, and Cherry, and . . . well, she does it). Pony Boy constantly observes that he plays the role society gave him: Being a greaser. But all he wants is to know that if he wanted, he could be something else. It’s not that he thinks being a greaser is bad, it’s that if he wanted to NOT be a one, he could. Without being fake. Without betraying his brothers. Without someone telling him he can’t. Because he can – if someone just gave him the chance. That yearning to have a choice is a theme I want evident in Calm Undone, but it is hard to achieve. Well, not for Hinton, from what I can tell.

A Good Cover

At the behest of my editors, I’m cranking on revisions for Calm Undone, spending hours at my new local haunt, buried under noise-canceling headphones. Since the 12-months of lock down have me missing live music, I stream Alt-Nation’s Virtual Advancement Placement. Listening has been extra fun because I love a good cover, and both Dayglow (@dayglowband) and Gus Dapperton (@GusDapperton) give children of the eighties like me lots of ear candy.

In a different life, I would be lead in a band called “Cover Me,” and we would essentially play covers (in fact, our first and probably only album would be the semi-eponymously entitled ‘Cover Me — I’m Going In’). This is because I don’t have a creative bone in my body, musically speaking. But there is an art to covering someone else’s song well. You can’t just play it like the original, hoping it sounds the same. You have to make it your own, build upon it. A good cover brings something new: A different mood; A funky change in tempo or key. I imagine it isn’t easy to do, so I’m no expert in telling anyone how to do it. But I can tell you when I think someone nails a cover. So I’ve put together a YouTube playlist of some kick-ass covers. Here’s the list, and a brief explanation of why I included each:

  1. Ben Howard’s cover of Call Me Maybe: The original is a cute story of a crush and the awkwardness of trying to get the object of your affection’s attention. But Howard and crew succeed in flipping this silly teenage song into what feels like an obsessive’s confession.
  2. Jose Gonzales’ cover of Heartbeats: Gonzales’ gentle acoustic guitar version brings out the longing, love-struck nature of The Knife’s EMD hit.
  3. Glass Animals’ cover of Crazy: Glass Animals keeps Gnarls Barkley’s pop-sensibility while giving it geek-cool props.
  4. Wolf Alice’s cover of Boys: Charli XCX’s sugar-pop song was a feminist criticism of women’s depiction in music videos, but Wolf Alice’s mash-up with the Cure’s Boys Don’t Cry is kind of genius.
  5. Five Second’s of Summer’s cover of Roots: Alice Merton’s original was a staple on my Sonos alt-rock playlist for most of 2018. That same year, the boy-band Five Seconds of Summer grew up and gave us a harmonically taught, stripped down version worth checking out.
  6. Our Last Night’s cover of Wrecking Ball: I had no interest (none) in the Miley Cyrus original, but I decided to take a chance on this cover. There are tons of other covers to sample, but Our Last Night’s cover was the one that made clear to me the song is not a power-anthem, but a heart-felt, emotional admission of defeat.
  7. Sinead O’Connor’s cover of Nothing Compares 2 U: Despite how I was obsessed with Sinead while in college, I didn’t know her iconic ballad was a Prince original until after reading her 1991 Rolling Stone’s interview. Once you know that fact, his imprint can’t be ignored, despite the stripped down, soul baring, symphonic treatment Sinead delivers.
  8. Silversun Pickups’ cover of Cry Littler Sister: Stick with me as I setup the background here, but trust me I will get there. Growing up in MTv-deprived rural Ohio, my only exposure to music videos was through a local-access show where you would call-in to request videos. Occasionally, callers won prizes, and mine was a vinyl edition of The Lost Boys soundtrack. Despite the strong collection of what were alt-acts of the time (including an Echo and the Bunnymen’s cover of the Doors’ People are Strange), Cry Little Sister was the only song that resonated with me. Even then I thought it merely ‘meh.’ Then Silversun Pickups (whom I think can do no wrong) raised it from the dead and I’m seriously hooked.
  9. Billie Eilish’s cover of Bad: Eilish gives MJ’s pop-classic her trade-mark sotto voce treatment that makes it a classic (albeit this time an alt one) all over again.

It is a short list, and heavily biased. That’s okay, because it is mine. So what it is yours? What would be your short-list of must-hear covers?

Coming in October . . .

So, I wrote a book. It took some time – about 10+ years. I mean, to be honest, in that time I finished graduate school; moved across the country; got a faculty position at Northwestern; spent seven years working as an Associate Executive Director… not to mention lots of other things. But I always had this (and literally hundreds of other) stories in the back of my head.

So in the midst of a year-long lockdown and nearing 50, I finally submitted my manuscript to a little publishing house a friend of mine had used. And here we are!

You can learn all about it at my new author website: garthafowler.com

You can also purchase pre-sale copies on Amazon, Apple Books, Barnes & Nobles (for nook), Rakuten, and Indie Bound.