In CHESS RUMBLE, G. Neri combines free verse with black and white illustrations by artist Jesse Joshua Watson, to tell the story of Marcus, a boy whose life seems to be spiraling into violence until he meets a chess master, CM, who opens a new world to him through chess. Following are some questions I posed to G. Neri both about his compelling new book and about his life as an artist.
Marcus’s voice in this story is very strong. You manage to convey all the confusion and anguish of a boy verging on adolescence who finds himself in a body growing beyond expectations, who endures losses he has no control over, and who lives in a neighborhood that is unforgiving of weakness. What made you decide to use both first person and free verse narration to tell his story?
There is actually a funny story behind this. First of all, I don’t consider myself to be a great writer, not in the sense of being able to write a sentence so amazingly beautiful that you quote it for days and print it out to hang over your computer. There are a great many writers whose prose will send shivers up your spine, but I am not one of them. I consider myself a storyteller with a very stripped down sense of narration. First person works great for me because it allows me to find the voice and speak naturally as the character would. This is also a plus because my grammar is not that good. But that don’t matter if you’re talking street.
The free verse part happened by accident. I had been writing about this chess mentor character. Separately, I wrote a story about an angry young man who was one fight away from being kicked out of school. Suddenly, it occurred to me that these characters needed each other. So I literally opened up a new Word doc with two columns in it. I dropped one story into column one and the other into column two. They magically seemed to be running in a parallel course, so I started copying and pasting column two into column one, a paragraph at a time. It all fell into place like it was destined to be. I ended up with one narrow column and realized then that free verse allowed me to make powerful line break choices, giving the story a kind of street/poetry slam style. A free-verse poet was born.
I can see the two stories in CHESS RUMBLE: Marcus’s, front and center, and CM’s which is a story of redemption, of someone who is trying to pay back for some of his past misdeeds. How did the characters and stories come to you?
Well, there are many true life figures out there to draw from. Eugene Brown was a big influence; he has had an amazing life, turning from an ex-con to a chess mentor and helping many, many young people struggling to survive the mean streets of DC.
I see Marcuses all the time. Quiet, struggling to keep it all inside. Then one day, they blow. Getting them to channel their rage into something positive is one of the greatest things a chess mentor can achieve.
You make these characters come alive. It's one of the things I love about this book, how Marcus’s voice is so true to his setting. Yet some people may view the language as grammatically incorrect. How do you answer this concern of the adults who may be the ones purchasing your book?
This book is aimed firstly at reluctant readers and urban boys who may have never read a book in their life. It may surprise some how many kids I have met who have never read a book of fiction by the time they graduate from high school. I look at my books as gateway books. Get them reading first, then worry about reading the classics. Give them a voice they can relate to, then maybe they can begin to relate to other voices. That being said, I was surprised how universal the book was to readers. Even upper middle class white girls totally got it.
There is no question that the illustrations in CHESS RUMBLE play an important role in telling this powerful story, but there are no dialogue/thought balloons, nor comics-type panels. Would you describe the book as a graphic novel, or a related genre, and why?
Well, the definition of a graphic novels has expanded greatly in the last year alone. Just look at THE INVENTION OF HUGO CABRET. I prefer the term illustrated novel, to which I’d say yes, this is an illustrated novel. More accurately though, I’ve been calling it an illustrated free-verse novella, since really, there is nothing to compare it to, out there.
What was your interaction with Jesse Joshua Watson, the artist? Was it similar to a picture book where the artistic director/editor makes all editorial decisions, or was it more like a graphic novel where the writer has a more collaborative role with the artist?
Since I am an illustrator myself, I have a close relationship working with my editor and the artist, as I did on YUMMY, my true graphic novel (coming next Spring). Jennifer, my editor, told me about Jesse, and I knew of him. He had one black and white sample of an urban teen that I loved. I approved and said if he did it like that image, the book’ll be a winner. Luckily, he did just that and took it to the next level.
Jesse asked me to record myself reading the text, which I thought was cool. That helped him ground the voice and then he wandered into Harlem taking pictures and finding models for the characters. He found the father character then saw a picture of his family. There was a big kid in the background and Jesse asked, who is that? Turned out he was the man’s son and the Marcus character personified.
Later, I was lucky enough to meet Jesse in person at the SCBWI conference in LA, and now we are brothers in arms, compatriots of the mind and fellow troublemakers with a cause. He is one cool cat.
Do you play chess? Did any of your chess knowledge influence how you wrote the book?
Boy, I wish I was a better chess player. I know as soon as I start doing school visits they will line up to challenge me, thinking I’m some kind of chess master. Truth is, I think like the CM character, but I play more like Marcus. That gave me an understanding into both characters, as well as an excuse to lose to a nine year old challenger.
Can you tell us a little about the urban chess scene you give us a glimpse of in CHESS RUMBLE?
There is a huge chess in the school and after school movement, particularly on the East Coast. Check out my site and you’ll see links to many of these programs. They have had great success getting unfocused teens to start thinking strategically about their life and school work. Chess really can change the way young people approach problems by getting them to see the bigger picture—how to figure out their opening move, middle game and end game of life. Think 3 steps ahead, anticipate your opponent and act instead of react to obstacles in their path—these are all good chess metaphors with real life application.
You have an extensive creative background. You are a storyteller, a filmmaker, an artist, and a digital media producer. You’ve made a film with Jazz legend Chick Correa. You’ve produced hundreds of films with teens, created a documentary about Samoan gangs in Compton, been a pioneer of the internet, and even been a founding member of a teen anti-smoking Truth campaign. What made you decide to write for children? And how has your creative background influenced your writing?
Well, it’s all storytelling to me, just different mediums. I worked in film, interactive media, paint and photography, animation and now books. I am a very visual person—now I just paint with words. Like everything else, I stumbled into it by accident. I had created an animated film called A PICASSO ON THE BEACH which I later thought would make a great picture book of sorts. That opened the door to the idea of doing picture books but it wasn’t until nine years later that I actually started doing them on a whim. The flood gates opened for awhile, I sold a few projects, but things kept getting postponed and delayed due to manufacturing issues. I got sick of waiting and accidentally stumbled into teen fiction with YUMMY, which started as a film project and ended up a graphic novel. I discovered how cool it was writing for teens and that in fact, I could write a novel. . . a concept I never would have thought possible, save for those in my critique groups doing just that.
I no longer try to anticipate what I’ll do next. I just remain open to everything and ready when the opportunity comes my way.
Your middle grade and young adult fiction deals with many edgy issues. But your children’s fiction has a lighter side as well. Can you tell us about it?
It’s about balance. If I did all dark edgy things all the time, I might end up a serial killer or even worse, a serious writer. . . The pure, innocent illustrator side of me keeps me in check and allows me to play from time to time, though, right now it is out of whack as I’ve been focused on the teen stuff lately. It’s also why I came up with two personas: G. Neri does the dark edgy stuff, Greg N. the light and playful. In grade school, I would sign my art work Greg N. By high school, you become a last name (Mr. Neri, just what do you think you’re doing?!)
What other things can we see coming from G. Neri in the near future?
Like I said, my graphic novel YUMMY is coming out next Spring, followed by my first YA novel SURF MULES in summer of 2009. I also just finished another novel, which my agent is reading now and will hopefully think is a worthy follow-up to SURF MULES. My plan is to keep ‘em coming while the muse is here. If I can line up enough books for the next 6 years, then I can have writer’s block followed by a lost weekend, recovery and rehab, discover god, wake up and realize that things were pretty good the way they were, and still be in the game.
I hope you're in the game for a very long time! Thanks for answering all these questions. I feel honored having you with us in our class!
For more information about G. Neri and his work, visit his Class of 2k7 page at www.classof2k7.com , his website at www.gneri.com , or follow his blog at http://gneri.livejournal.com/ . CHESS RUMBLE will be out November 8.