While I was doing an interview with Chris Irvin, I started to think about something: I write about kids. A lot. Not cute little kids but older kids—ten, eleven, twelve-years-old, and teenagers. My new collection, CANNIBALS: STORIES FROM THE EDGE OF THE PINE BARRENS, is chock full of kids and teenagers. After mulling over it, then obsessing over it (because we writers tend to obsesses about everything we’ve ever written) I started second-guessing myself. Did I write too many kid stories? Is that going to turn people off? Because aren’t children an easy go-to for quick sympathy? Everyone feels bad for a child in trouble. Hell, put a dog in the story and the tears are already forming. In fact, I’ve written so many stories centered around children, I had to leave a few out my collection. Even in my “older people” stories there is usually a paragraph or two or three about the main character’s childhood. Or a side character who is a child or teenager.
So why do I do it? Write all these kids? First, the obvious answer is: I like kids. (Not in a creepy way, of course, but in a normal way—let’s just clarify that now.) I teach seventh grade and you have to like kids to teach seventh grade because at seventh grade they aren’t cute anymore. They’ve become opinionated and snippy and interesting and dry-humored and goofy… it’s actually a cool grade to teach if you can handle the eye rolling and the tapping on the desks, clicking of the pens…the relentless tapping and clicking and tapping...I also live with a teenager who does that relentless tapping, clicking…
I’m going off on a tangent. Let’s go back to my original question—why do I write kids? Is it because I’m with them all day and with my teenage son all night?
So why? What’s the draw for me?
I think it’s this: Teaching middle school and living with a fourteen-year-old boy, it’s true—I’m bombarded with kids. It’s like I’m in the noise All Day, All Night. On the sidelines of a constant whirlwind of that great big change: childhood to adolescence. The age where you leave your favorite TV shows, your army men, your dolls, your kid friends—all that used to interest you. I remember when I turned thirteen, I stopped watching the Brady Bunch (and I adored the Brady Bunch!), stopped collecting stamps and pennies, stopped playing Barbies and school… and there was grief. Yes, I’d gotten bored with toys and hobbies before, but this seemed more acute, more heartbreaking. Sure it was exciting to move on to my teens, but I was sad to find that so many things that once kept my interest were now horrendously boring, and that my childhood was really over. It was the first turning point in life, when not only the physical parts change, but the brain begins to mature. It’s also the moment, I think, when you begin to get a grasp on how the world works. When you finally start to get it. That life isn’t fair, for real. And, if you were lucky to not have met them before, it’s probably the first time when you realize some adults are awful people. Really awful.
As a crime writer, that’s the part, if I’m being honest, that really interests me.
And I’ll tell you my story, the story of when I realized that some adults are more than awful, that they’re downright dangerous.
I was a late bloomer in life and I suppose I had a false sense of security: my world was pretty safe. I was independent, a bit of a loner, roaming the neighborhood on my bike day and night without incident. I had a lot of friends for a loner and I used to stop and hang out, but then I was off, riding alone. I would ride my bike on Route 70 (one of those crazy highways) up to the pizza parlor for a slice, and nothing happened. The pizza dudes were cool. Never once did some weirdo approach and try to lure me away.
When I was sixteen, my mom received an inheritance. We weren’t a poor family but money was tight, there were no big vacations or an in-ground pool or Disney trips (things my sister and I would ask for) and when she got this inheritance, my mom wanted a blow out: a cruise to Bermuda. Sounded great to me. We sailed out of New York (or maybe it was Jersey) and we were out at sea for a day and a half. These were the days when cruises weren’t for kids, but geared for older people, retirees. My sister and I were the only teenagers on the ship, no other kids at all. When my parents were around, all was good. But when we wandered on our own, the stares from the male ship workers grew longer and more uncomfortable. We were teenage girls, after all. It was early spring and the North Atlantic doesn’t warm up until July, so it was too chilly to wear a bathing suit, swim in the pool. I don’t think either of us would’ve done it anyway—both of us sensed something wasn’t right. Still, I thought I was safe. I was with my mom and dad, and it was a friggin’ cruise ship. What could go wrong? (I know, besides an iceberg, yada ya.)
|Jen as a kid|
One night during the return journey from Bermuda, I was strolling along the decks wearing my Walkman. I was walking with my mom and my sister, and they were arguing, as was their custom, and I veered off on my own because they were annoying the shit out me (as was my custom—to be annoyed at everything.) As I was walking along the deserted decks, the moon and stars bright, I heard a whistle. I turned off my Walkman and heard it again. In the moonlight, I saw an older man sitting on a narrow flight of stairs. Actually, in the dim light, he seemed elderly. I pulled off my headphones and asked if he was in trouble. He waved me over and, even though I had that tug in my gut, Don’t Go, but because I tended to be an obedient yet naïve kid, I went over to him. The light wasn’t good and I noticed that he was older but not elderly. He didn’t speak but immediately grabbed me instead, clenching my wrist with a fierce grip and pulling me up the stairs. Nobody was around, my mom and sister long gone. The night was cold and all the passengers were inside. I pulled back, cried out, but no luck. He dragged me up a few more steps, to some secret higher deck area where I got a good glimpse of the dark Atlantic, glistening under the moon’s light, and in my peripheral vision, I saw the dark corners of this secluded area. I tried to get away but he pulled me close, tight, and began to kiss my cheek, then my lips, whiskey wafting off his breath. I recoiled, attempted to wrench away from his grip, but the clasp was iron. I knew what he wanted but I was also frightened that if I fought too hard, I might be thrown overboard. It might seem a silly thought but I didn’t quite have my bearings in the dark up on that higher deck so I had no idea how close or not I was to the edge. He gripped my wrist tighter, yanked me close again, to his chest, and with his free hand, pointed at the stars. He attempted kiss me again but I snapped my head back, cried out “No!” My heart was pounding, my bones rattling, the terrifying Atlantic in my eyes, and the fact they I knew what he really wanted—it was all making me sick. “Please let me go,” I begged again and suddenly, without reason, the man who had a hold of me just shrugged, completely annoyed with this ridiculous unwilling girl, and let me go. I raced down the stairs, across the deck, more stairs, not one person around, running down another deck, more stairs, until I finally found my mom and sister, bundled up in deck blankets fast asleep on the deck lounge chairs.
Figures, I remember saying to myself.
I told no one.
Why? I was scared. Confused. Embarrassed. What was the point of telling anyone? I survived, I wasn’t hurt. I didn’t want to spoil my mom’s vacation. Would she believe me? Probably. Then would she put up a stink? Would it become a big deal? Would I have to identify him? I could barely see him. And I had done a stupid thing. I had gone over to him when he told me to do so. I was ashamed about that. I was an idiot. Years later, I did tell my mom and she was shocked that I hadn’t told her. “Why?” she asked.
“I felt like an idiot. I didn’t want to ruin the vacation.”
“Oh, Jen. You should’ve said something.”
“Then you would’ve gone all crazy on the captain.”
My mom was the type who did shit about bad things. So I suppose I didn’t say anything because I was embarrassed and my mom flipping out on the crew of the ship would’ve made me feel more embarrassed. That’s the thing about kids and teenagers. In bad situations they want help—Hell, I was begging the gods to send me an adult who would beat the shit out of this man who had me in his grip—but afterwards, kids and teenagers just want the bad memory to go away. Because usually there’s a part of them that thinks it’s their fault. For me, the shame of my decision to go over to him in the first place kept that story locked up inside for at least fifteen years.
If you read the title story of my collection, “Cannibals,” first published in BEAT TO A PULP, you’ll see I follow the same trajectory as my story from the ship. The setting is different and the details have been changed, but you’ll see recognize the fear, the sizing up of the surroundings, the immediate weighing of the choices that will either leave you alive or dead—it all comes from that incident on the ship. I think I write about kids because I’m trying to come to grips with why I walked over to that man. Or maybe that’s over-analyzing. Maybe I want to write stories where kids survive. Even if something terrible happens, I want them to survive. I remember my grandmother telling me the story of when she was sixteen, when she just got out of the orphanage and went to stay with her father, and one of his buddies got “fresh” with her. She took a frying pan and whacked him with it. “I fixed that,” she said. (This is the influence for my flash piece, "Hatpin.") He survived but she moved out of her dad’s apartment and into her aunt’s place, a much safer environment. She told me that story before she passed away and again, maybe I felt a connection with our similar experiences. Both of us were kids, she just out of a Catholic girls orphanage, sixteen too, me just out for a walk on my trip on ship… when the wolves showed up. (By the way, I’ve never taken a cruise again.)
I have no answer how to protect your kids from situations like this. You can’t keep them locked up in the house. They have to learn to live in the world, to deal, even with the terrible stuff. They’re going to make mistakes. Even if you are the best parent in the world. My parents were very good parents. They weren’t drinkers or drug users or crazy religious nuts or lazy or cruel. They were involved, they coached our soccer teams, they never abandoned us or left us hungry. If my sister or I stayed over at a friend’s house, you’d be sure to know my mother went inside first, had a conversation with the friend’s parent, made sure, in her lovely Debbie Reynolds/Doris Day way, that she was trusting them with her kid and if anything happened to me or my sister, there’d be Hell to pay. Monstrous horrendous Hell. Just projecting this protective presence can usually deter predators from victimizing your child. But it’s not foolproof. My mom and dad did everything right and still, I fell into a bad situation. I was sixteen, and even though the ship captain knew who my mother was and that she had two teenage girls who were in his charge, I still encountered a bad situation. I have no answer for this, like I said, only that it happens. And I’m interested in writing about it.
If you are too, interested in writing kids in your crime fiction, I don’t think you have to do what I did—rewrite your bad childhood moments. That’s not for everyone, I get that. But what I’m trying to drive home here is that writers shouldn’t be afraid to add kids into their crime fiction, as long as you make them authentic. Don’t do the smart, clever, wise-beyond-their years kid. Keep them average, the everyday kid. Don’t make them cool or mature, just make them normal. (There seems to be way too many sassy, very intelligent kids with extremely large and fluent vocabularies in YA these days.) You also need to resist the urge to rescue them, don’t play up any sympathy. Let the narrative get dark but not psychotic and shocking. (Shock is not writing. Shock is not having confidence in your writing.) Let your kids or teenagers get themselves out of bad circumstances, or even like my situation, let the universe help them out. And don’t be afraid to ask a real kid for advice, even if you are doing an adult crime story or novel. Just be age appropriate. I once wrote a story called “Robbery” published in PLOTS WITH GUNS (didn’t make the collection because of my many kid stories) which is a about an eleven-year-old boy who rides his bike up to a convenience store to get his mom some Advil and ginger ale. While he’s in the back of the store, getting the soda, a nutcase bursts in and holds the clerk up by gunpoint. My kid ducks down in the aisle, pulls out his phone, and then realizes he can’t call the cops because he can’t speak—the guy with the gun will hear him. The kid also figures he can’t text 911, or he isn’t sure, so he sends a group text to his friends and his mom, thinking someone will call the cops. Originally, I wrote the “text” like this:
Call police now! Hold up at Pine Store! Has gun!
But something seemed off about my “text message.” So I turned to an expert, a real kid I knew, a younger teenager actually. Without reading him my story (because, again, that’s not appropriate—please keep this in mind because you can scar a young mind with a frightening story, and it will get you in trouble) I gave him a brief, benign summary, and then showed him the text in my story. The kid said to me, “We don’t text that way. With capitals and stuff.”
“You mean punctuation?”
“Yeah. None of that.”
So I rewrote it:
Call police now hold up at pine store has gun
“Now you got it,” my expert said.
I suppose the answer to why I write so many kids is that I do like them. But more than that, I’m looking to see them survive, albeit learning a crummy life lesson and maybe their life will never be the same, but surviving all the same. And I want them to survive. With common sense, instinct and grit.
Sure, maybe writing about kids is an easy go-to for sympathy, but I think if you do it right, if your instinct isn’t exploitive, that you’re honestly trying to tell a good, compelling story, then you’ll be all good.
Jen Conley’s short stories have appeared in THUGLIT, NEEDLE: A MAGAZINE OF NOIR, CRIME FACTORY, BEAT TO A PULP, PROTECTORS, PULP MODERN, TROUBLE IN THE HEARTLAND: CRIME FICTION INSPIRED BY THE SONGS OF BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN and many others. She has contributed to the Los Angeles Review of Books and is one of editors of Shotgun Honey. Her short story collection, CANNIBALS: STORIES FROM THE EDGE OF THE PINE BARRENS, published by Down and Out Books, is available now.