A funny thing happens when a retired journalist brings his 20-plus years of word craft to fiction writing — namely, the birth of a 12-year-old boy named Max, whose angles are shaped by David Foster Wallace, Norman Mailer and the author himself, Arthur Salm.
Max is the protagonist in "Anyway: A Story About Me With 138 Footnotes, 27 Exaggerations and 1 Plate of Spaghetti," Salm's new tween novel. He's a self-described good kid — mostly. "Except for that time I decided I didn't want to be a good kid anymore."
Max is at a childhood crossroads, when identity becomes less a thing handed you by your parents and more a product of your own making. The summer before eighth grade, he lands at a weeklong family camp, where he decides to become Mad Max, "a wild, reckless guy who hangs with kids who never would have looked at the old Max."
It's a ruse, and a heady one at that. We all, at various points, try on different characters. Salm tells a story about when he was the book review editor at the San Diego Union-Tribune and interviewed Norman Mailer.
"Intimidating, right?" Salm says. "I've interviewed a lot of authors by this time, but still — it's Norman Mailer. 'The White Negro.' He stabbed his wife."
Salm opened with an old favorite: "What's on your nightstand?"
"He says," Salm recalls, "'I'm not reading anything too challenging right now. If you try to read something good while you're writing, it's like … it's like you've taken apart your car engine and your car engine is all over your garage floor and you hear a noise and somebody drives by in a Maserati.'
"I'm thinking, 'Oh man, that's killer!'" Salm says. He files his story, Maserati anecdote proudly displayed, and dives into some other Mailer coverage.
"Then I see, in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 'I'm not reading anything too challenging right now. It's like … it's like you've taken apart your car engine…' He told the exact same story! With the pause! Like, 'how can I put this?'"
Umbrage quickly gave way to understanding. "If he comes up with a good answer and he can get into the whole acting it out, why shouldn't he? Why shouldn't he have some fun with it?" Salm says.
Mad Max would agree.
Q: Did you set out to write a children's novel?
A: I wanted to write an antic, dark comedy that was ultimately really depressing because that's my view of life and that's the kind of stuff I like to read. I didn't have a story in mind, but that was the tone I wanted. But I'd never written fiction, so I figured I'll warm up with a short story for my daughter.
So I thought of a silly thing that happened to me in college with a plate of spaghetti and I thought, 'What if this happened to a 12-year-old boy?' Because my daughter was 12. But I wanted to tell it in the voice of a boy, so I plugged in the name of a boy she was going to school with, Max. And as I was telling the story I kept thinking of funny little asides.
Q: And those became the footnotes?
A: One of my very favorite authors is David Foster Wallace, and his footnotes are just unbelievable. When he wrote "Consider the Lobster," I put 30 footnotes in my review, just as an homage, and I discovered I never in my life had more fun writing anything than I did writing those footnotes. So I put Max's asides in footnotes. I thought Zoe (Salm's daughter) would appreciate that.
So I was at it for about five or six hours and I hadn't gotten anywhere near the end of a short story ... and I realized, "I'm writing a children's novel." I couldn't believe it.
Q: How much of Max is inspired by you as a kid?
A: Max is kind of like I was as a kid, but I wasn't as funny or as interesting. Max is an interesting kid. He's sort of an idealized version of me.
Q. Did the book satisfy your need to write something dark? It has some angst.
A: I think it did. The book is more humorous than not. I really want kids to enjoy reading the book. There are some darker parts to the book that I hope go down easily. Kids aren't afraid of dark stuff. It's a real story — no vampires, no zombies, no wizards. I couldn't write a fantasy novel or a science fiction novel or a historical novel because I'm so grounded in the immediate. I know kids love fantasy, but I think they want to read about the real world too.
Q: Is realism a way to escape all the fantasy?
A: The book is about what it feels like to be that age. Aside from it being realistic, that was one of the things I really wanted to get across, how it feels to be in this very narrow, very brief time of life when you're so aware of not being a little kid.
Max isn't stupid — he knows teenage-hood is coming, but the social and chemical assault hasn't hit him yet. He's in this really brief netherworld of no longer being a little kid but not yet plunged into the maelstrom of being a teenager. It's a really special time. For me, the book is about that as much as it is anything.
By Arthur Salm
Simon & Schuster, 192 pages, $15.99