Today we’re pleased to talk with Tony Abbott, the author of more than 95 books for middle-grade readers, including the Golden Kite Award winner, Firegirl. Tony’s newest book, The Summer of Owen Todd (Ferrar Straus Giroux, 2017), is the subject of our discussion. (Giveaway Alert! Read all the way through for details.)
The Summer of Owen Todd could be the story of just about any 11-year-old. Summer has arrived, school is over, and for Owen, the days stretch long with the possibility of beach trips, go-kart races, and baseball games with his best friend, Sean. Sean’s own summer plans, however, are derailed by his mother’s new job and the presence of a babysitter, a young man Sean’s mom believes she can trust to keep Sean, who has diabetes, safe and help monitor his blood sugar levels. When Sean becomes the victim of sexual abuse at the hands of his new babysitter, Owen is the only person Sean can talk to. Told entirely from Owen’s point of view, The Summer of Owen Todd addresses a difficult topic as it explores issues of trust, friendship, and bravery.
MH: It wasn’t too long ago that a topic such as childhood sexual assault would have been taboo in middle-grade fiction. When did you know you wanted to write this story?
TA: The “when” of this story is critical to me. To step back a few years, my wife knew a work colleague, and one day she told my wife a truly horrible story about her son. He was very young, molested, filmed, later told a friend about it, then swore that friend to keep it a secret, which he did. The boy eventually committed suicide. Some years later, his mother approached my wife, knowing I was a writer, saying she was ready to get her son’s story out and wondered if there was a book that could help other children and families. My wife told me about this, and one or two writer friends who had written tough stories for young adults were discussed, but almost from the beginning I had begun to feel some of the tensions and visualize some scenes that would need to be dramatized in any telling. There was something uniquely powerful in those moments. They drew me in.
I have not been molested, though there was a moment in high school, a meeting with an older man, that immediately came to mind, and I remembered how I felt when that happened. I also felt that the ultimate truth of what happened—the suicide—was something that occurred when the boy was approaching adulthood and that any story for younger readers would likely have to end before that. It might have been at this time that the element of telling the story from the friend’s point of view became the way into the tragedy. So, the molested boy’s friend tells the story, and it would chart the days and weeks of the ongoing abuse from the friend’s point of view. If, as I later discovered, from 1 in 7 to 1 in 20 boys is sexually abused, that left the majority of boys as bystanders, friends of the abused. It seemed a way to broaden the story, make it approach real life, to write from the likely reader’s point of view.
These tensions drew me into the story both deeply and quickly and there was no question of talking to other writers; I would try to create a draft to see how it might work. The narrator’s name, Owen Todd, came to me from that place where names come. It wasn’t assembled. It came, he came, with a voice and a personality, as these things often do. I loved him, his vulnerability, his likes and dislikes. I don’t think this is news to any writer. A character is born, not crafted, and that’s the way of it with Owen.
MH: The awful reality of what is happening to Sean is clearly, and yet delicately, stated. How much discussion happened in the editorial process about what words would be used and what words might be avoided?
TA: To begin to answer this, I have to say that the original draft had the characters aged around 8 or 9. The summer was between 3rd and 4th grade. What I knew, but perhaps not completely consciously when I submitted the draft, was that the language I was using, both in conversations between Owen and Sean and in describing the events of the abuse, was pushing the story out of that lower-age area of middle grade stories. To tell the story properly it had to be harsh and raw in parts. To have really worked it for younger readers, some of the language would have to be less precise and more vague. “Bad touching,” instead of the wordage Sean actually uses in the book. I felt that the gauzier language would have made the book poorer as a piece of art and as a representation of reality. So my editor kindly brought me back up to meet my own language, so to speak. The characters are now eleven and in the summer between elementary and middle school. This made the story match the kind of humor and emotion, description and relationship interaction the characters already displayed. The Summer of Owen Todd may be one of the first middle-grade stories to talk this way about the sexual abuse of a boy, but what is still needed is a book for younger boys who are very much the prey of molesters. Another way of saying this is that I failed to find the way to tell the story I had in mind to a readership lower than ten years old.
MH: I wouldn’t say you failed as much as you adjusted the story you had in mind to fit a slightly older audience. Tell us about the sale of the manuscript. What did your agent say about the manuscript’s marketability?
The first draft was some 18,000 words long. Eighty pages. The events in the published book were mostly all there, but in compressed form, one abuse following the other until the end. My agent at the time, Erica Silverman loved the story as I submitted it. She thought, I suppose, that it was too short as is, but it was like a, what did Dickens call such things, a sledgehammer, and that it would find an editor with an encouraging response. We assembled a list of six or eight editors from different companies and imprints, and Erica sent copies to some of them, keeping a reserve of a few for a second round of submissions. There were a couple of odd passes from good editors, a useful letter or two, but it took a few submissions and weeks to find Joy Peskin at Farrar Straus, an editor who saw the inside of the story, saw what it could be, and knew from the brief draft that I could pull and push and enlarge the story into what it has now become. Joy’s wanting me to go back and draw some of the background characters and situations into the light—Owen’s sister, Ginny; his grandmother; the buying of the go-karts, the baseball game, the outdoor theater—proved to me that the story was both bigger and more real when I made it fuller. We knew from the beginning, Joy, Erica, and myself, that it was a specialized sort of book. Not one that you could market to all comers.
MH: How much outlining/preplotting did you do while writing this book?
TA: I tend to outline very specifically when I write a mystery or a thriller, and I have done quite a few of those. For novels—and yes, I guess I make a distinction between my books this way—there isn’t anywhere near as strict a machine for getting from the first page to the last. There is a very strong thread, I would call it, that I know the story will follow, or that I suspect it will. But there is enough play throughout so that events and motives can transform themselves, and that thread becomes more like a tapestry of several motives, weaving together what is a more complex whole. Some of what results during the writing of the story are, of course, elements I hadn’t the least conceived when I set about to write it. Those surprises are organic and, as such, exciting and life-bearing. All this is to say that I knew where the story would go, how it would end, but not all the features of the landscape.
MH: You capture summer on Cape Cod from the perspective of the locals, which is different from many seaside stories told from the point of view of vacationers. Why did you choose to set the book there?
Place has always been a character in the stories I love to read. Give me descriptions of rooms, weather, streets, the panorama of life. When I start to read a book and I find I don’t feel the place, I don’t go on. I’ve visited the Cape for decades, just about every summer, often off-season. I am deeply in love with it, want to live and die there, if at all possible. If the characters and their voices and feelings come first, the setting comes quickly after. Where are they speaking and feeling? In this case, everything I knew about living on the Cape would find a home with these boys. I love go-karting, I love the Gut in Wellfleet, Provincetown, Chatham, Brewster, all of those things became living backgrounds for the psychological progress of Owen and of Sean. The idea of being locals; now that’s interesting. I suppose after going there for so long, I don’t feel like a tourist anymore. My wife and I and our daughters have so many “regular” places, it’s like being home.
MH: In the bookstore scene, there’s a nod to Brian Lies’s Bats at the Ballgame when Owen’s little sister Ginny picks out a “picture book about vampire bats playing baseball.” Is Owen’s choice— “I find a novel about a boy who disappears”— also a nod to one of our own middle-grade contemporaries?
TA: Ha! This is funny. Because Brian lives on the South Shore below Boston, he’s quite familiar with the Cape; I thought of his books immediately when the bookstore scene came around. The novel, the one that Owen would buy for himself, is a veiled reference to one of my own, which isn’t out yet, and turns out to be not a quite truthful description of it, after all (but I still claim it!). I thought I would save Owen’s choice for something of mine, didn’t want it to be an old one, so it sort of just hangs out there as a question: what book is he talking about?
MH: Talk to us about using the truth as a springboard into fiction, as you’ve done so beautifully in this book.
TA: The idea of fact becoming fiction is always fascinating to me. Although the impetus for The Summer of Owen Todd came from a real event, the novel that emerged is almost completely imagined, and this sort of thing happens in an interesting way. The voice of Owen came first, I feel comfortable in saying. Sean’s voice, second. The center of the story would be Owen and his reaction to what happens to Sean, but also his reactions to summer, which is a big deal in a resort area. So, first the voices, then the setting, then the emotional thread I mentioned earlier begins to establish itself. You know instinctively, I believe, when the novel you are writing cleaves too closely to what really happened, because it lacks a certain kind of fictive truth. Fictive truth, I’m compelled to say, is not less true than what really happens, but creates itself out of the emotional reality of the story you are crafting. If an imagined conversation or event aligns with that truth, then it is as true as life.
MH: Tony, thank you. Thank you for the brave way in which you tackled a project that many would have deemed too difficult. Thank you for generously sharing your process with us. And, thank you, for providing The Mixed-Up Files of Middle-Grade Authors with TWO signed copies of The Summer of Owen Todd for our giveaway. Your kindness is so very appreciated.
To enter, see below. *Contest open to U.S. residents only.*