BookBrowse's Tamara Smith Interviews Conrad Wesselhoeft, Author of Dirt Bikes, Drones and Other Ways to Fly
Conrad Wesselhoeft worked as a tugboat hand in Singapore and Peace Corps Volunteer in Polynesia before embarking on a career in journalism. He has served on the editorial staffs of five newspapers, including The New York Times. He is the author of the young adult novels Adios, Nirvana (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010) and Dirt Bikes, Drones, and Other Ways to Fly (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014). His ancestors were doctors to Emily Dickinson, Louisa May Alcott, and Harriet Beecher Stowe. His three children are in various stages of university study or career exploration. He lives in West Seattle with a poodle named Django (the "D" is silent). Peanut butter cookies are his weakness.
Tam: Thank you for agreeing to be interviewed, Conrad. I'll just jump right in. What path led you to writing novels for young adults?
Conrad: Years ago, I met the acclaimed young-adult author Scott O'Dell (Island of the Blue Dolphins, Sing Down the Moon, and many more). I shared my literary dreams with him, and he urged me to start writing a novel immediately, not to concoct excuses or bog down in planning. That day is one of the most important of my life. It set me on the path to writing YA fiction.
Tam: Wow! How incredible that you can pinpoint an exact day like that. So why did you decide to write for young adults?
Conrad: I thought it would be easier than writing for grownups. (Man, was I wrong.) Also, I had three teenagers in my life. My son, in particular, liked to bring home a pack of buddies whose collective voice mixed confidence, frailty, arrogance, timidity, enthusiasm, laziness, idealism, courage, cadence, and spontaneity.
Conrad: Yes, I'd be doing dishes or driving them somewhere and these boys would be handing me golden nuggets, so to speak. They became role models for "The Thicks" in my first book, Adios, Nirvana.
Tam: What is your writing process like? Are you a plotter? A plunger? Does a story take you a long time from idea to final draft? Or do you fly through the process?
Conrad: Kurt Vonnegut divided all writers into two groups, "bashers" and "swoopers." I'm a basher, a slow writer who tries to perfect each paragraph before moving to the next. (Swoopers are fast, yet a bit sloppy.) Every morning, I pour some coffee and get to work. I bash and bash. When I've bashed the bumps down to practically dust I move to the next chapter. I wish I bashed less and swooped more. The best I can hope for is "swashing."
Tam: What have you learned about yourself through the process of writing—swashing!—both Adios, Nirvana and Dirt Bikes, Drones and Other Ways To Fly?
Conrad: I've learned that metaphor can be good medicine. Sometimes, it's difficult for me to deal directly with emotional pain. In writing fiction, I'm able to project my shadow onto the wall of a different cave and, in doing so, work through my issues. As the story unfolds, the characters and I journey toward greater self-understanding. It's a roundabout process, but it works.
Tam: The long, deep, undertaking of writing a novel teaches a writer not only about himself, but about the greater world, don't you think? Has writing these novels allowed you to see the world in a different way?
Conrad: Yes, it's helped me to see how closely connected we all are. Respect for our diversity is essential, but so is respect for our commonality. We have so much in common—all of us. No one is spared from pain and heartbreak or fully grasps the "why" of life. All of us are seekers. And because of that, my heart goes out.
Tam: "All of us are seekers." Yes! I can feel that in your work Conrad. I love Arlo for his seeker-ness. I love him for a bunch of reasons. One of them is the way he connects with the animals in his life. His dog, El Guapo, and the pregnant mares. What made you choose to give him those relationships?
Conrad: El Guapo is based on my dog, Django. He's a lusty standard poodle, and today is his twelfth birthday. (Eighty-four in dog years!) He's snoozing beside me as I write this. We'll go for a walk in a few minutes. Thanks to Django, I can't ever be lonely. He won't permit it. Nor will he permit me to be overly serious. "Goofy" is a major gear for both of us. The mares, on the other hand, keep a maternal eye on Arlo. I wanted readers to glimpse another side of him—and to see that he isn't just "riding away" from his problems. Around El Guapo and the mares, he's capable of kindness, caring, and love. I wanted readers to know that.
Tam: That comes across very clearly. Arlo is also grieving—albeit in his own way—the death of his mother. (As are his sister and father) And in your first book, Adios, Nirvana, Jonathan is too. In both, your exploration of grief is so unique to these boys, which then makes it so unique—and so real—for the reader. Part of that uniqueness, in my opinion, is your honesty with the many faces of grief. It isn't all sadness. It isn't all stillness. What is your process for expressing grief—and all of your characters' emotions? How much of the way you express it is—if it is okay to ask—your own experience versus the way you believe teens, in particular experience it?
Conrad: It's my own experience poured through a fictional filter. I've come to learn that the voice of grief has many inflections, and not all are sad or mournful. Some are angry, rebellious, even joyful. Healing from grief is a lifelong process. My children lost their mother—suddenly and violently—when they were young teenagers. Today, eight years later, that fact still reverberates through our lives. One thing we've done over the years is to talk about her often and with loving memory. There's a scene in Dirt Bikes where Arlo, his dad, and sister are eating at a café, and they remember the mother, who has died. Arlo says, "The way we talk, it's like she's still alive back home waiting for us. Dad uses the present tense: 'You know how Mom cooks onions...'" That's the way it's been with us. Today, my children are happy people fully engaged in their lives. But a fraction of every atom of them is reserved for sorrow.
Tam: Oh, Conrad! I want to pause right now. To have silence for a moment. I can't quite convey it on the page, but it is here.
And then—one of your incredible talents, in my opinion, is your ability to turn a physical action—such as jumping a dirt bike or playing a video game—into something bursting with sensory detail, emotional resonance, and psychological wisdom. These actions allow the reader to get deeply inside your characters, to experience all of the ways he exists in the world. How do you think about these physical actions as you are writing? (Do you think about them?) How do you craft these scenes?
Conrad: I've never done any of the extreme stuff Arlo does. Long ago in the Peace Corps, I owned a motorcycle and took a few risks, but nothing like Arlo. Youtube is a great research tool. I watched lots of videos to capture the dirtbike, drone, and skydiving details. But mostly, I used my imagination to put myself there. I tried to imagine what it might feel like to drive a motorcycle at extreme speeds, leap out of a plane, or swoop toward the Hindu Kush mountains at the controls of a drone. I would never do any of that in real life. I'm far too cautious. But writing fiction lets you go all kinds of places and do all kinds of things you wouldn't normally do. I went there in my mind and let my senses take over.
Tam: There is so much to ponder in Dirt Bikes, Drones and Other Ways to Fly. And there is so much to love. One thing, among many, is the idea that we are all connected. And not just all of us mere people. We are all connected to the earth, the wind, the whole universe. Two quotes that left me breathless:
Here it feels like everything is hitched together in the universe (p. 97) and The wind rushes up. "Where ya been?" it seems to say. Like it's been waiting all this time. The brother they never told me about. (p. 319)
What is your belief around this idea of connection? You said earlier that you have a respect for our commonality. Do you believe what Arlo believes?
Conrad: Yes, I believe that life connects us in more ways than we know, and that we're passing through on a much larger journey. Arlo is more aware of this connection than most. Through his extreme dirt biking and drone piloting, he's able to enter the Drone Zone, where something inside him aligns with something in the universe. He's aware that he's part of the mesas, mountains, and stars that engulf him. He's way ahead of me on this journey, but I'm strongly sympathetic to his viewpoint.
Tam: And to take a step back, how do you weave these kinds of beliefs or larger ideas/themes into your stories? Do you plan on including them? Do they slip in because they are just a part of you?
Conrad: The ideas—or themes—become apparent as I get deeper into the writing. I think some writers choose their themes, and some themes choose their writers. I'm in the latter group. Long ago in college, I cringed at the mention of theme. I never really understood it. Now I understand that it means soul. Everything else—plot, setting, characters—is skin and bone. But theme is the story's soul. It reflects the author's view of life. I never consciously construct themes, they slip in, as you say. But when I'm done and look back, they seem inevitable. "Ah ha!" I say. "So that's what this story is about."
Tam: And finally, can you speak a little about landscape? Your New Mexico setting is vivid and gorgeous, but more than that, it feels like a character itself. You offer your readers a chance to have their own relationship with it—to understand its history and to feel its effect on your characters. What do you think about landscape? Do you consciously treat it as a character? How do you develop it?
Conrad: In my mid-twenties, I lived in northeast New Mexico and fell in love with that country. I also fell in love with the woman who was to become my wife. She grew up on a ranch notched in the high mesas. I, on the other hand, grew up in Seattle, where my main knowledge of the West was limited to "Rawhide" and "Bonanza," complete with commercial breaks. I wanted Arlo to fit organically into that high-mesa country. I wanted him to tell the reader what it looks and feels like. Yes, the landscape is like a character. It may seem at times like an enemy, because it poses incredible dangers to an adrenaline junkie like Arlo. But even more, it's a friend. It could even possess the spirit of the mother that he's lost.
Tam: Conrad, thank you again for taking the time and energy to talk with me. I appreciate your candor, and I am thrilled that people are able to get to know a little bit more about you and your creative process here.
Photo of author with his dog, Django, by Bronwyn Edwards
Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.
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