Matthew Dicks knows what bullying is. When he was in high school, he was bullied sometimes, and when he wasn't being bullied, he himself was the bully. And for the past 17 years, he has taught fifth grade at Wolcott Elementary School in West Hartford, where he witnessed bullying first-hand.
Still, when formulating the plot for his latest novel, Dicks didn't rely on his own experiences but on something that happened to his wife, Elysha, when she was a schoolgirl in West Hartford.
"She had a sleepover with one of her friends and her friend was sleeping on the floor and she was sleeping in her bed and the friend on the floor said 'Emily Kaplan's bathroom is bigger than your whole bedroom'," Dicks said. "It was sort of like a mean slight that had stuck with her."
Dicks wondered, what if an adult sought out her childhood bully to confront her about her long-ago unkindness? That's the story of "The Perfect Comeback of Caroline Jacobs" (St. Martin's Press, 224 pp, $24.99). The seriocomic novel hits stores this week. Dicks will make the rounds of bookstores and libraries throughout September.
"Comeback" tells the tale of Caroline, who is a wimp because of some traumatic incidents in her childhood, including a humiliating public rejection by her former best friend. During a PTA meeting, when a rich, entitled parent passive-aggressively insults many of the other parents including Caroline, Caroline snaps. She lashes out at the hateful mom and then takes off on a road trip with her daughter to find that best friend-turned-bully and finally tell her what should have been said all those years ago.
In the book, the name of that childhood friend-turned-bully is Emily Kaplan. That wasn't the name of the girl who sniped at his wife years ago, Dicks said, it was the name of the girl she compared her to. But Dicks liked the name and stuck with it.
That's not the only bit of the real world that sneaked into the book. Caroline's hometown is Blackstone, Mass., Dicks' hometown, and a car accident in the book is inspired by an accident that happened during Dicks' childhood in Blackstone. Also, another adult at that fateful PTA meeting is named Eric Feeney, who is a colleague of Dicks' at Wolcott school. "I like to plop real people into books sometimes," said Dicks, who lives in Newington. "It adds a grittiness in my mind. They enjoy it."
Dicks, who once won West Hartford teacher of the year, has two children with Elysha, Clara, 6, and Charlie, 3. Dicks is a busy guy. He also works as a storyteller, a freelance writer, a wedding minister and a party DJ. He has published three books before this one, "Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend," "Something Missing" and "Unexpectedly, Milo."
"Comeback" is the first of Dicks' books with a female protagonist. Tellingly, his wife and his female agent chose the subject for him.
"I am blessed with a lot of good ideas. When it comes time for me to write a book, I take the list whether I like the ideas or not ... and then I email it to my agent and to my wife," Dicks, 44, said. "They chose that one. They wanted me to diversify and not write about male protagonists for the rest of my life."
Speaking in the voice of a woman doesn't faze him. "For 17 years I've worked in an elementary school. I've been primarily in the company of women. There are very few men in an elementary school," he said. "I felt, as much of an expert as a man can be on the way women speak, that would be me."
Dicks said he doesn't plot out his books meticulously, like some writers do, but rather he just plows ahead and lets the plot develop as the writing unfolds. "I don't know what the next sentence is going to be until I write the next sentence," he said. So he really didn't know, when he started writing the book, what would happen. Sometimes his own plot developments surprised him, such as Caroline bringing her daughter Polly along on her road trip, and the complexity of Emily Kaplan's character.
"When I started the book, I thought the end was going to be the confrontation with the bully. Then I ran into the bully halfway through the book and I thought oh, no, I don't have a book, I have a novella," he said. "Then I realized there is more to this story. I didn't realize there was more to this story until I met the bully."
Dicks' insightful treatment of the characters of both Caroline and Emily reflects his own background, which sometimes placed him in the position of the bullied, and sometimes as the bully. "There was hazing when I was in high school. The seniors hazed the freshmen in a sort of ritualistic way. You put up with it for two months and then it ends," he said. "I didn't put up with it as a freshman and I went on the offensive. I handed out fliers in front of my school that said 'seniors are wimps.' 'seniors are losers.' ... The more I raised the stakes the more they beat me and tortured me and did terrible things to me.
"I actually got suspended from school for inciting a riot upon myself," he added. "There was a freshmen-senior 'get acquainted' dance coming up near Halloween. The vice principal decided that he couldn't guarantee my safety at the dance because of everything I had done. So he suspended me."
Many may finish Dicks' book wondering what ever happened in the end to Caroline, Polly, Emily and that nasty mom from the PTA meeting. Dicks likes ending books that way.
"I think the best stories are the ones that end 10 pages too early. I feel like the story still lives inside you, stuck in your heart. You are imagining a future for these characters," he said. "If I tie everything up, it lets you forget the book. It lets you think 'I read a story and in the end everything is fine, now I can move on with my life.' I try to end stories frustratingly a little early so it gets stuck inside you."
MATTHEW DICKS will do readings from his book, as well as sell and sign copies, at Barnes & Noble, 60 Isham Road, in Blue Back Square in West Hartford, on Thursday, Sept. 17, at 7 p.m.; at Ferguson Library, 1 Public Library Plaza in Stamford, on Monday, Oct. 5, at 7 p.m.; at R.J. Julia Booksellers, 768 Boston Post Road in Madison, on Thursday, Oct. 8, at 7 p.m.; at Bank Square Books, 53 West Main St. in Mystic, on Wednesday, Oct. 14, at 6 p.m.; and at Simsbury Public Library, 725 Hopmeadow St., on Thursday, Oct. 15, at 7 p.m.; at Wilton Library, 137 Old Ridgefield Road, on Wednesday, Nov. 4, at 7 p.m.