It’s National Anti-bullying month, so I have a treat for you. E.E. Charlton Trujillo, author of FAT ANGIE is stopping in Richmond this coming week as she continues her cross country book tour. Here we talk about her writing and film-making – and how, in the darkest times, a book can be a kid’s lifeline.
How did you find the seed of the story for FAT ANGIE?
Imagine. Winter. Four foot snow stacks. Below zero temp and the smell of recycled heat in a mom and pop diner in Madison, Wisconsin. I polished off a scrambled egg something kinda breakfast. Rolled the wheel to my iPod Classic right and landed on Lenny Kravitz’s “Are You Gonna Go My Way.”
Something in the shredding of that guitar riff sent me into the what would become FAT ANGIE. I snapped up a pen from a waitress named Grace, grabbed a napkin and connected thought to world.
Now, this is what you gotta understand. That song never appears in the book but the energy of note to lyric to note ignited the hostile confrontation, humiliation and revelations of the book. I could see the beginning and the end and it was such a fantastic high. If I ever bump into Lenny on the street/event, I’m gonna say, “You inspired a book that changes lives. Thanks for ripping that sound beast-pretty.”
You are also a filmmaker, and I could see its influence on this novel. By that I mean references to “beats,” cutaways, vintage TV and film series. To what extent was that intentional? How would you say that your two art forms intersect in this novel…and just generally as a writer?
I’ve been a filmmaker since I was four years-old. I’d snap off images on a Kodak 110 camera, get them developed and then flip them between my fingers to imagine motion. But I was also a writer at that age. No scrap of paper was safe. Toilet paper beware!
While it wasn’t intentional, the mesh of pop culture and cinema somehow continued to flow in FAT ANGIE. From the inception of the story, I knew how under the microscope Angie felt by the media because of her missing sister. The fact that an event so tragic had been sensationalized almost as if to garner higher ratings felt sickening and yet true to life. Also, everything about Angie is dated which adds to the sort of out of sync character that she is.
Writing novels and making films feed one another. The novels make me a more concise screenwriter and director. Also, being cinematically inclined allows me to move 360 degrees in the space of my novels. I look for essential details that are the truth of that world. So I guess the answer is a little chicken and egg. For me, the two art forms exist simultaneously in a creative chaotic harmony. #LOL. I think you might have wanted a simpler answer.
FAT ANGIE is so layered. One of the pervasive themes, of course, is about the role of rage and grief in both being the victim and the victimizer. What are your thoughts of why young people savage each other – and on why they fall prey?
Let’s lay it out plain: kids can be ruthless. We can speculate if it’s what they see at home, in movies, video games or just how they sprouted into the world. As someone who came from a hard upbringing, played video games and watched all kinds of movies not Disney approved, I still chose not to be a bully. But that was me.
After meeting with some of the “toughest” kids in America on the FAT ANGIE book tour, I’ve seen from the trenches how cruel young people can be to each other. The need to humiliate, taunt/tease those they perceive as weak/spaz/dork/nerd/right/wrong/too poor/too rich … whatever. There is no definition of what doesn’t fit anymore. I remember it being like Anthony Michael Hall’s character in The Breakfast Club.
Now it’s open season on what the Mean Girls or the Jerk Heads think doesn’t fit their definition of belonging.
Life is hard. We know that. When you’re a kid, it feels like the hard parts will never end. Never can be a few weeks, months or as in the case of the recent suicide by Rebecca Ann Sedwick in Florida, a year plus. What gets amplified in these bullied/savaged kids heads has a level of intensity and immediacy that the off switch seems so much more appealing.
But it isn’t. And that’s what I say to kids. They matter. And while I can’t fix their lives, together we can make it better right then in that moment. And that’s life. Moment to moment.
I love the tag line in your trailer “Live Large.” So I will ask you about going large on the bullying in the novel. The mean girls, the mother, Wang’s comments – all are exceptionally ugly, particularly in reaction to Angie’s weight and to her romantic relationship with KC. What were considerations in choosing to go really large on the bullying vs. focusing on more subtle “knifings” that go on among young people?
This is an excellent question. Simple answer. I didn’t want to pull punches.
Not so simple answer. Sometimes people are cruel. Sometimes we have to confront cruelness without sugar coating.
My first two books were more subtle and that fit the trajectory of those worlds. FAT ANGIE is a “Live Large” existence and the elements of that world have to add up or the truth of the story doesn’t hold. And that’s what it all comes down to. The character’s truth. What exists in their world.
I knew this was an everything and the kitchen plus sink story. Generally, I am overwhelmed by such stories, and find they are poorly written. But here I am saying FAT ANGIE is the exception. I knew it was a risk but this is the complicated, beautiful-ugly world of FAT ANGIE. I don’t get to simplify it to make myself or anyone else comfortable if it’s what kids need to hear.
One of my favorite things about Angie is the letter she is writing to her sister who is presumed dead in Iraq. What are your thoughts on using writing to help us with grief or worry?
A month from earning my MFA in film and jetting off to Los Angles for my Hollywood dream job, my best friend Amanda Cunningham died in head on collision at the age of 23. A teenager failed to yield at a stop sign. When I talk about Amanda, I say, “Imagine cradling the sun for a moment. That’s what it was like to know Amanda.”
And when she died, a part of me got lost. I ditched said dream job. Became homeless and watched the guys I crashed with snort cocaine and play Grand Theft Auto for twelve hours straight.
During this time, author Pat Schmatz read the first few pages of a story called Prizefighter. She said it wasn’t the best of the samples I sent her, and a fire ignited in me. Just as I was getting ready to work on it, my brother invited me to stay with him. There I could begin to delve into my grief. Most importantly, I could write for ten or twelve hour days. I finished the novel in two months. Less than a year later, it broke a five-year no- win streak to win the Delacorte Dell Yearling Award through Random House.
Writing what is now PRIZEFIGHTER EN MI CASA saved my life.
The book brought me hope. Because in the darkest moment of my entire life, I embraced writing instead of a host of destructive distractions. Writing is freedom. Writing can save!
So, you’ve been on book tour around the country. Can you tell us a little bit about why you took this summer-and-then-some trip to reach kids all over this country? What’s been the biggest surprise on your tour? The biggest challenge?
The kids that don’t come to book signings are the one’s that really need to have access to my book and to creative mentors. After a connection with a troubled, small-town Texas teen in May, I wondered what would happen if I could empower other kids. Enable them to begin to see their potential. FAT ANGIE has released a few months earlier, and was the perfect conduit for activism.
I gave up my loft, put all my stuff in storage and set out in a rented Ford Focus to literally drive across America to empower young people on the fringe.
Important Fact #829.32
I have a phobia of: cars, traffic, severe weather, heights and flying.
Welcome to the FAT ANGIE book tour and the making of the feature documentary At-Risk Summer. Where “just let it go” quickly became our motto.
As I travel America, I continue to meet with at-risk youth (defined broadly) and workshop with them at no cost to the programs. Yes, zero cost to any at-risk program I meet with. I’m not independently wealthy. I don’t have a corporate sponsor. People have shown me such kindness.
The writing these young people have shared is raw, real and brilliant with voice. Their truth echoes hopes and dreams, pain and loss. They are definitely not the throw away kids many communities see them as. They have infinite potential so long as it is matched with inspiration.
Biggest surprise has been how many people have extended a spare bedroom, a plate of food and shared their stories with me. Not to mention the authors across America (this includes you, Meg) who have allowed me to interview them for the documentary. Nothing feels out of reach.
Biggest challenge is money. It’s really that simple. Getting from points A to B comes with a price tag. Even the cheapest rental car (holler! $9 dollars a day Los Angeles Enterprise), still need gas. I’m nervous about getting though October and the first week of November, but I’m gonna hope for good things!
Where to next? And what are your next projects?
I have stops in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin and Texas. I’m currently writing three other novels, a screenplay and in post-production on a television pilot. The book tour has inspired me to establish a national organization called Never Counted Out that will connect professional artist with at-risk programs in their own community. The premise is to get artists to donate a minimum of one hour a year to an at-risk program. Fingers crossed I can make all of these things come into fruition!
East coast/midAtlantic fans: You can meet EE. Charlton Trujillo in person at Teen ’13 in Richmond, Virginia, on October 17, where she will be a special guest during her book tour. Details here.
Follow the Fat Angie Tour on Facebook.