Earlier this week I was trolling through social media and came across a review for a book called The Packing House. I wish I could remember where I saw that review because I’d love to share it with you, but suffice it to say the the review was so compelling that I immediately added this novel to my “To Be Read” List.
Fast forward to a few days ago when I received in my e-mail a Q&A that I’d sent out to a new author at the request of the author’s publicist or publishing house or some such place. I honestly don’t remember where the request came from, but — as a new author myself — I seldom say no when another author asks for help. I know firsthand how important (and HARD) it can be to get the exposure, so I’ve rarely said no.
This morning I opened that Q&A to begin my post, and I got that weird tickle at the back of my brain that said I’d heard of this author’s book. I couldn’t let go of that feeling, but I didn’t have time to explore it. Instead I sat down to go through the Q&A to do the formatting and make any necessary editing changes. After a few moments, a huge lightbulb went off. OH MY GOSH! I know this book! I just read a review of it and it looked fantastic!
I read through the author’s Q&A and my eyes teared up as I remembered why I’d added this book to my TBR list: It’s a Young Adult novel about a young runaway from a questionable home life who seems to have seen more than any young man should ever see. It involves issues of bullying and child sexual abuse, and it’s basically the kind of story that I’m drawn to as I think spotlighting these stories for teens addresses some of the real issues that many of them are going through. It allows some readers to identify with the main character, and it allows other readers to broaden their world view and see things from a different perspective; so it’s the kind of story I love.
With this new information in mind, I can’t wait for you to read my interview with author G. Donald Cribbs on his already well-received young adult novel, The Packing House. But first, take a minute to read the synopsis.
The Packing House
By G. Donald Cribbs
PUBLISHER: Booktrope Editions
RELEASE DATE: January 18, 2016
GENRE: Young Adult Contemporary
When sixteen-year-old Joel Scrivener has a raging nightmare in study hall and someone records it on their phone, he awakens to a living nightmare where everyone knows the secret he’s avoided for ten years.
Reeling from a series of bullying incidents posted on YouTube and an ill-timed mid-year move, Joel takes to the woods, leaving the bullies and his broken home behind. However, life as a runaway isn’t easy. Joel finds it difficult to navigate break-ins, wrestle hallucinations, and elude capture. He races to figure out who his dream-world attacker could be, piecing clues together with flashes of remembered images that play endlessly inside his head. Besides these images, the one constant thought occupying Joel’s mind is Amber Walker, the girl he’s been in love with for years.
Amber sees little beyond the broken boy Joel has become, despite the letters they’ve written back and forth to each other. But Joel is stronger and more resilient than he looks, and it’s time he convinces Amber of this fact, before he runs out of chances with her for good.
Q&A WITH THE AUTHOR
WHAT DRIVES YOU TO WRITE?
Writing first began as a coping tool for me. I was silenced by the trauma I experienced in childhood. Through reading first and writing second, very slowly I coaxed words out of me and onto the page. This is what saved me. Besides God, and the people who crossed my path and helped me heal a little in my recovery.
Child sexual abuse is what happened to me, but writing helped and continues to help me make sense of it, on this side of it, in the throes of the aftermath as it rakes across my mind and gouges me in wounded places. It was so freeing for me to discover, in an almost secret way, that I could find a pathway around the silence, and most importantly, a way to use my voice to take back what had been stolen from me without my permission.
In high school, this writing developed into poetry, which was a kind of super-charged way to use words to tell a story or a truth, as if each word were a chapter of a book. I loved discovering the associations one word has with other words, and the way these words would interplay when placed into a line of poetry.
DO YOU EVER HAVE WRITER’S BLOCK AND, IF SO, HOW DO YOU HANDLE IT?
Yes, I have had writer’s block. I vividly remember a time when my wife and I had grieved the loss of her mother. It was especially hard because she was visiting with us at the time and I had to perform CPR, although she had already passed away before we found her.
After that, I couldn’t press through the grief. I had lost my concept of hope and the sense that life was still worth living. Everything seemed meaningless and hollow. It was a very low point for me. So my writing was all but dried up during that time, naturally. I did the only thing I knew to do. I returned to poetry, gave myself parameters of structure and form, and after writing out the unspoken feelings I had been holding onto, I was able to write another using a sonnet format. It was one of the 12 poems included in The Packing House. I haven’t had writer’s block since.
DO YOU HAVE A WRITING SCHEDULE?
My book started with Twitter, believe it or not. One aspect of writing is how isolating and lonely it can and must be. The first and most important task for the writer is to get words down on the page. Any words. They can be amazing words, and they can also be terrible words. But words are the vehicle that drive the novel and the story forward. Without them, even awful words that will be cut during the editing process, the author has nothing to work with. I found hashtags on Twitter which helped me to write and find likeminded writers who kept me accountable for finding words each day. My goal was 1,000 words a day. It took me three months to complete the first draft. Then I set it aside for a week or two, before going back through and beginning the editing process.
I wrote somewhere between 15 and 20 cover to cover revisions in five years. I also did countless internal, partial edits. One of the methods I used to revise the many editorial, proof, and layout edits for The Packing House included carving out time around my graduate school classes, my full time job, and spending any time with family each day. I ended up getting up a bit earlier and going to bed a bit later each day. My book manager calls carving out this kind of time #SmallChanges. Getting up 15 minutes earlier each day gave me an incredible amount of editing time. You’d be surprised what small changes can achieve for a writer.
PLOTTER OR PANTSTER
A bit of both, actually. I always write my first draft as a pantser. Successive drafts are outlined to ensure all the main beats are hit in the right order with the proper space between. Then I work on character.
Finding a character’s voice is something like driving the character somewhere they want to go. You start the vehicle, they ride shotgun, and as you drive down the road, you listen, ask questions, and invite them to spill the beans (any secret they are willing to share). It’s not a real road, which is good, because you need to be typing as fast as they are talking. Once you’ve taken a few road trips, you’ll find their voice. Usually, it’s when they divulge a particularly juicy secret that ends up being a major plot twist. That’s when you know you’ve got their voice.
I do hear voice while writing, before writing, when I’m drifting off to sleep, and occasionally in dreams. A good litmus test for me to know I’ve “found a character’s voice for sure” is when I hear myself say, “He wouldn’t say that,” or “she doesn’t sound like that.” Then I know I have discernment over the words that character uses, and the way they frame what they say.
TELL US A LITTLE ABOUT YOUR BOOK AND HOW YOU CAME UP WITH THE IDEA.
The Packing House is a YA contemporary novel set in modern day from a male POV. It could also be considered a Transgressive novel due to the heavy and dark content covered. The book is divided in three parts, each one a different school the main character, Joel, attends as he’s moving repeatedly and trying not to fail his sophomore year of high school. His home life isn’t the greatest, and he’s plagued by recurring nightmares he’d rather forget but cannot. A nightmare at school, since he’s not sleeping at home, where he lashes out and cries out from the nightmare in front of everyone, is recorded on someone’s phone and uploaded to YouTube. When everyone sees it, he becomes bullied by it, further pushing him toward a decision to stay or run away.
I came up with the idea based on a short story I wrote in high school with the same title. Many of the poems featured between several chapters in The Packing House were also written during high school. Originally, I had tried to write the story from the mother’s POV, but it was all wrong, and eventually I shelved it. Several years ago, I revisited the idea, but this time I realized I could approach the story through Joel’s vantage point, and the rest of it came flooding out of me as if it had been building up inside of me for years.
CAN YOU TELL US A LITTLE ABOUT THE PROCESS FOR HAVING THIS BOOK PUBLISHED?
Writing The Packing House took me five years. There are several reasons for this. It was my first book and much of the writing process was new to me and had to be learned. Many times I had to stop in the writing process and learn a new aspect of writing before continuing. Oh, how I learned! For those who are serious about writing, and serious about writing with the intent to publish, there are supports out there. You just have to be driven enough to find them.
Another reason this book took longer to write has to do with the content. You might consider The Packing House an “issue book,” and I’d be okay with that. The book addresses bullying, PTSD, disassociation, and child sexual abuse (CSA). Some of this is personal to me, because I lived through it. In some ways, Joel’s story is my own. I fictionalized aspects of The Packing House which provided me with enough distance to “go there” and write about difficult and particularly painful, lived experiences, but I did it because I needed a book like this growing up, and they just didn’t exist. Now, thankfully, more and more books on this topic do exist, but still, there are fewer books for boys than girls on these topics. So, why did I write one, too? Well, so far, no one else has told a story like Joel’s story, so I decided it was time. I figured if I needed it, probably others with similar experiences might also need to read Joel’s story, too.
DO YOU HAVE A FAVORITE PASSAGE YOU COULD SHARE WITH US?
End of Chapter 29:
It takes me a few minutes to get lost in my brown bag and thoughts before it hits me that I haven’t seen Amber. Maybe she’s at a different lunch. No sooner am I struck by the thought than I look to the right, and she walks out of the lunch line and heads to a table near the other end of the cafeteria. I haven’t seen a picture of her in a while, but I’m certain it’s her. Time slows. I may hear actual music. A waltz. She’s stunning, and I’ve forgotten to breathe. She walks with a friend, and they laugh together, but all I see is her smile and those eyes…
I take a huge bite of my sandwich. I must have shoved a third of it in with one large chomp. As I look up, I see her frozen at her table, poised to sit, her hands still on the tray she’s just put down. She stares right at me.
“Joel? Is that you?” she asks in such a loud voice the majority of the cafeteria goes stone silent. She leaves her tray and waltzes over. All eyes are on me, the new kid.
I don’t remember standing up.
When she pulls me into an embrace, it’s like she isn’t thinking about it. My hand slides to the small of her back and, bam, we’re back in that moment we discovered together in closet darkness, the place where we knew…
“What are you doing here?” she asks and then pushes me away. “I thought you ran away from home.” Everyone listens for my answer. Fortunately, they can’t hear what I’m thinking. I’m stuck on the answer to her first question.
Dying of embarrassment.
LIST THREE WORDS THAT DESCRIBE YOU AS A WRITER
Words. Poetry. Character.
LIST THREE WORDS THAT DESCRIBE YOU AS A READER
Voracious. Devoted. Fanboy.
IF YOU COULD BE ANYONE ELSE FOR ONE DAY, WHO WOULD YOU BE AND WHY?
I would be my twin who died before birth somewhere in the third trimester. I’d like to see if life is different from his perspective rather than from my own. But, we’re twins, so I’d probably be similar, right?
BONUS QUESTION: GIVE ME ONE QUESTION THAT YOU ALWAYS WISH YOU’D BE ASKED IN AN INTERVIEW, THEN ANSWER IT.
QUESTION: What’s with all the unusual forms in The Packing House? You’ve included letters, vivid accounts of Joel’s nightmares, poems between some of the chapters, and repeated phrases connected to the person behind Joel’s nightmare.
I most enjoyed how the many layers of the story in The Packing House fit together. There are three sections representing the three schools Joel moves between, each with their own mascot. Broad Run is “Home of the Panthers,” Sanderville is “Home of the Ravens,” and Ticonderoga is “Home of the Oceanside Sharks.” Each mascot represents a particular challenge Joel faces at that school. I leave that to the reader to decide.
Next come the chapters. Each one has a title that hints at the content or theme. Again, it’s open to interpretation. Another layer involves the fact that characters don’t always have actual names, but labels or archetypes. Joel usually has a reason for giving each one of these characters that kind of name.
Now, I’ll let you in on a little secret: the next layer aspect helps the reader differentiate between the three schools. I gave the teachers at Broad Run (Part 1) names of presidents. The teachers at Sanderville (Part 2) have random names, and I think that fits. For Ticonderoga/Oceanside (Part 3), I gave the teachers names of pencil companies. Not only did this help me keep all three locations clear, I hope it helps reduce possible confusion for the reader.
Other layers include the inter-chapter or between-chapter poems, which tell their own aspect of Joel’s story. Initially, they are included in the letters Joel sends to Amber, but eventually they become part of a portfolio Joel has to complete and turn in to pass English for the year. As these poems progress through the novel, the content becomes more and more personal and revealing about Joel’s struggles building right up to and beyond the climax. If I did it right, hopefully this helps the reader develop a connection with Joel.
I’ve included letters throughout the text, and many examples of the nightmares Joel has experienced and continually relives as well. Most of the letters are between Amber and Joel, and become a running dialogue. The letters deepen their relationship at critical points. As you will see, the letters which were written but never given, and those which are lost, come into play during the story. The nightmares provide the subtext Joel endures when he’s awake or asleep, or not sleeping at all in the aftermath of the suppressed trauma from his past. There is a reason this has begun to surface, but it is another thing Joel has to figure out along the way. Once the reader reaches the climax of the story, how they interpret what is actually happening in the dreams may change. The clues are built in, and there are other sensory clues as well, which are left for the reader to discover. How these elements and layers fit together was the part of the writing experience I enjoyed most.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Donald Cribbs has written and published poetry and short stories since high school. Donald is a graduate of Messiah College in English and Education, and currently holds a PA Teacher’s Certificate in English and Education. In addition, Donald is currently a graduate student halfway through his master’s program in Clinical Mental Health Counseling. Somehow, the author has maintained a 4.0, despite working full time and writing during all other interstitial times. He and his wife and four boys reside in central Pennsylvania where the author is hard at work on his next book, the sequel to his debut novel, The Packing House (2016), by Booktrope, tentatively titled, Unpacking the Past. Having lived and traveled abroad in England, France, Belgium, Germany, China and Thailand (you can guess where he lived and where he visited), the author loves languages and how they connect us all. Coffee and Nutella are a close second.
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