Chris Tebbetts: Me, Myself, and Him
It's July! When you're hot and don't feel like doing anything, grab a book instead! There are a lot of really great new ones out!
Me, Myself, and Him
by Chris Tebbetts
When Chris Schweitzer takes a hit of whippets and passes out face first on the cement, his nose isn't the only thing that changes forever. Instead of staying home with his friends for the last summer after high school, he's shipped off to live with his famous physicist but royal jerk of a father to prove he can "play by the rules" before Dad will pay for college.
Or . . . not.
In an alternate time line, Chris's parents remain blissfully ignorant about the accident, and life at home goes back to normal--until it doesn't. A new spark between his two best (straight) friends quickly turns Chris into a (gay) third wheel, and even worse, the truth about the whippets incident starts to unravel. As his summer explodes into a million messy pieces, Chris wonders how else things might have gone. Is it possible to be jealous of another version of yourself in an alternate reality that doesn't even exist?
July 9th, 2019
Introduce yourself and your debut novel!
Hi there! I’m Chris Tebbetts, and I’m here to introduce you to ME, MYSELF, AND HIM, my contemporary realistic YA novel with a twist. The book follows my gay, 18-year-old protagonist, Chris Schweitzer, through two parallel outcomes from the same incident.
In the prologue, Chris passes out huffing whippets behind the ice cream store where he works, and lands in the ER with a broken nose. From there, the story splits into two separate narratives. In one, Chris is busted for what happens and gets shipped off to spend the summer with his famous but difficult father, to prove he can “play by the rules” before Dad will agree to pay for college. In the other thread, Chris lies about what happened and spends the summer trying to manage that lie.
What’s the most surprising part about your debut journey so far?
This is actually a tricky question for me. I’m calling this book my YA solo debut, because the vast bulk of my writing career has been as a co-author, working on middle grade fiction with James Patterson (MIDDLE SCHOOL, THE WORST YEARS OF MY LIFE, etc.) and Jeff Probst from TV’s Survivor (STRANDED), as well as one other YA novel, M OR F?, which I co-wrote with Lisa Papademetriou. So even though I’ve been in the business for quite a while, this is the first novel I’ve ever written on spec, sold to a publisher in the traditional manner, and put out there on my own.
The surprise for me has come in this post-writing, pre-publication phase, where for the first time, I’m on my own to promote the book in question. Those high profile co-authors always came with the luxury of having someone else do the lion’s share of that piece, but not this time, and the learning curve has been steep. There’s a kind of cruel joke in the publishing industry, where all these introverted author types (like me) spend the bulk of their time happily working in isolation, but are then asked to turn face-out to the world and shout “LOOK AT ME!” It’s required a whole new skill set for me, one that I’m developing as I go along.
Give a shout-out to a fellow debut!
I am very excited to read Chris Baron’s ALL OF ME, a novel in verse, which is nothing I’d ever try to write on my own. I’ve been hearing great things about it and have also been impressed with the way Chris exudes kindness toward other people in the industry. He and I have never met in person, but I’m always glad to see people like that come onto the scene.
And as a side note, for me, this is one of the real perks of working in kidlit. I’ve had friends who aren’t in the industry comment many times about how nice it is to see all these kidlit writers on social media, cheering each other on, promoting one another’s work, etc. And I completely agree!
Who is your favorite character?
I’m going to have to say my protagonist, Chris Schweitzer. I gave him my own first name as a reflection of the memoir/fiction mix in this book, a bit like the name was one more thing he was borrowing from my reality to tell his otherwise fictional story. So while Chris isn’t me, it’s also true that I’ve never written anything so personal, or as directly drawn from life.
How long did it take you to write this book?
Technically? Fifteen years. My prologue is basically autobiographical, and I first wrote about it as an essay for a creative nonfiction class, somewhere around 2003. Slowly, a story idea took root from there, but I was also earning a living as a co-author, so this book spent long stretches of time in a figurative drawer, and I pecked away at it when I could. Eventually, my agent suggested we might try to sell it on a partial, as a way of getting me to finish writing the story—and that worked.
What's a cool thing about your book that isn't in the blurb?
Half of this book takes place in a fictional version of my little hometown, Yellow Springs, Ohio, which I call Green River in the book. I have such a deep love for the place I grew up—and for me, that love really imbued the writing process. There are several scenes of my characters, hanging out on hot summer nights, with the looming promise of college just around the corner, and I don’t think I’ve ever felt anything I was writing quite as much as those scenes. In some ways, this story is a valentine to the people I grew up with—a messy, complicated, but ultimately affectionate valentine.
What inspired you to write this book?
As I mentioned before, the prologue for this story shows Chris breaking his nose after huffing whippets from whipped cream cans behind the ice cream store where he works. And let’s just say that I didn’t have to look very far for the inspiration to write that opening scene. Everything else flowed from there.
I also have to mention the movie Sliding Doors, which was the first time I ever saw someone use parallel realities to tell one story in that way. I’ve always been fascinated with the unexplored what if? questions in life. What’s down that path I didn’t take? What if my family had stayed in California instead of moving to Ohio when I was two years old? And on and on… It’s an endless thought experiment, and this story touches on the tip of the iceberg of that fascination for me.
Describe your main character in 3 words.
Hmmm… I’m going to say angry, analytical, and funny. I like the tension between those qualities, and hope it comes through on the page.
What was the hardest scene to write?
I’d have to say it was the one (tame) sex scene I put into this story. Sex is such a loaded subject, in ways that it should be, but also in ways that it shouldn’t. I wanted this scene to be responsible to my young readers without being dishonest, and that was, for me, a hard balance to find.
What advice would you give to a new writer?
Learn to live with feeling lost. That’s a big part of the challenge of writing for me—allowing myself to have no idea what I’m doing, but still keep going anyway. It happens all the time. In a way, it defines the writing process (you have to get lost before you can find your way), but it can also be super uncomfortable—repulsively so. I think that kind of discomfort is one of the biggest reasons people abandon projects. Instead, I try to remember (if not love) the fact that this lost, “no really this time I’m not going to be able to figure it out” feeling is part of the process. It’s the way through. Keep going.
Describe your writing space.
I like writing in silent isolation—no co-workers, no music, no distractions. And for that, I’m well set up. I live on a dead end dirt road in the woods, and my office (aka spare bedroom) looks out toward the horse paddock next door. One of my favorite things about my location happens in the summer, when the horses gather in the only shady spot of their field, which happens to be the corner nearest my house. They hang out, I write, it’s great.
How do you develop your plot and characters?
First of all (cliché alert, but it’s true…) I like to let every story teach me how to write it. I work hard at not having preconceived notions about what the story is going to be—actually, that’s not true. I always have a lot of ideas, but I work hard at not holding too tightly to those preconceived notions, so the whole thing can develop as I’m writing it.
For my characters, especially, I am moving more and more toward what I first heard Tim Wynne-Jones refer to as “discovering the characters on the page.” I like to learn as I go, in terms of who these people are and how they respond to their given circumstances. There’s a cumulative quality to that, so the deeper I get into the story, the more I know the characters, and the more I can work from instinct, which is the real sweet spot for me.
How do you select character names?
Sometimes just by gut, at least on a first pass. Then I like to make sure that the names I’m using aren’t too similar—for instance, if too many names have the same number of syllables, or all end in “y,” or whatever else.
I also use baby-naming sites quite a bit, especially to look up the most popular names for the approximate year my character would have been born. Then I can take it in either direction, making sure my character has an expected name for that period, or an unexpected one.
What is your favorite word, and why?
For whatever reason, the first word I thought of when I read this question was Bubblicious, which may not even count as a word. But I like words that are fun to say. Right now I’m reading Kathy Berla’s RICOCHET, and I’ve stopped to say this one character’s name out loud, over and over again: Tyotya, Tyotya, Tyotya. It’s geekily enjoyable.
What other authors are you friends with, and how do they help you become a better writer?
One of my best writing buddies is Elise Broach, whose work I love. For one thing, Elise doesn’t limit herself—she writes everything from board books to YA (although I am especially partial to her middle grade—SHAKESPEARE’S SECRET and MASTERPIECE, among others). I’m always inspired by chameleons, as I call them—people who take on lots of different kinds of projects.
If you could buy only one book this year, which book would it be?
Well, I will say that my favorite read this year so far has been Padma Venkatraman’s THE BRIDGE HOME. My very favorite books are the ones that deliver beautiful language and page-turning story at the same time, and Padma does that as well as anyone I’ve read.
What are two of your favorite covers of all time?
I’m repeating myself here, but I’m going to say THE BRIDGE HOME. I also really like the cover of Andrew Smith’s RABBIT AND ROBOT.
But you asked about all time, not just this year….In which case, I’d have to say the original cover for JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH, with the wispy ink drawing of James in his front yard, looking up at the peach. That cover was so evocative, and made such a promise of everything to come, in the best possible way.
Share a playlist!
I don’t know if this counts as a playlist, but here are some artists that are new to me—which isn’t to say new—and a sample track for each from my current rotation…. (FYI, some of these tracks have lyrics that are NSFW.)
Fuse ODG (Sweetie Adjoa)
Angie Stone (Do What U Gotta Do)
JP Cooper (Passport Home)
Lianne La Havas (Say A Little Prayer - Live)
Toby Lightman (Real Love)
H.E.R. (Hard Place)
Brandi Carlile (Party of One)
Ben Harper (There Will Be A Light)
Dojo Cuts (Sometimes It Hurts)
Joanna Teters (Back to Brooklyn)
Chris, thank you so much for interviewing! I can't wait to read this book when it's out on 7/9/19!