Editor’s Corner: Erin Clarke Talks to Author Michael Harmon
With five novels under his belt, Michael Harmon has become well known for his fast-paced and unflinching stories for teens. His books have received starred reviews, state award recognition, and American Library Association accolades. Harmon’s new novel, Under the Bridge, delivers the goods and then some. It’s the story of, two skateboarding brothers, Tate and Indy, who hang out with their crew Under the Bridge, landing tricks on the Monster, “the biggest, deepest, craziest skate bowl in Spokane, and the state of Washington for that matter.” When Indy drops out of school and runs away from home, Tate will do whatever it takes to save his younger brother from the seedier elements of Spokane.
Editor Erin Clarke talks to Michael Harmon about skateboarding tricks, the enduring bond between brothers, and writing books that resonate with contemporary teens.
EC: Admittedly, I know very little about skateboarding and yet I was riveted by the skateboarding scenes in your new novel, Under the Bridge. How do you make skateboarding so accessible and exciting to people who don’t know anything about it?
MH: Honestly, I think anything can be made interesting if the people, stories, and emotions involved are captivating and sincere. It’s not what we do that makes life interesting; it’s how we do it. That’s how I try to write my stories.
EC: To an outsider, skateboarding seems like an individual pursuit, and yet brothers Tate and Indy are part of a tight-knit crew who spend hours skateboarding together. What is it about the sport that creates these deep bonds among teens?
MH: Skateboarding is unlike most other sports. Organized team sports generally focus on a collective goal to create camaraderie, bonding, and motivation. To find success, each person needs the other.
Skating is unique in that it is entirely individual, but yet oftentimes the bond is much deeper than that of a baseball or football team. The reason for this comes from its beginning, and its environment. Skating originated as a counterculture activity, and it is still seen by mainstream society as unacceptable in its truest form, that of street skating. To security guards, teachers, business owners, police, and most other adults, skaters are a nuisance in the least and a threat at the most.
It’s a double-edged sword, really, because the relationship between traditional culture and counterculture fosters a brotherhood of rebellion and angst in teens that can be harmful, but it also creates a loyalty that is difficult to break. Skaters stick together for all the best reasons, and I have huge respect for them.
EC: Why does Tate feel such a sense of urgency about his little brother Indy’s situation?
MH: Tate knows his brother, and he also knows how the street works. Indy dives into everything, and he goes full on, and Tate is mature enough to realize the dangers of the kind of life they live. Tate is also smart enough to put the pieces together. School sucks. Family life sucks. Money is short. Self-confidence is at a low. In comes a new guy. A bad new guy who can offer Indy what he needs, which is money, acceptance, power, and independence. Tate can see the recipe for disaster that could take his brother away forever.
EC: One of the things that most struck me when I first read the manuscript for Under the Bridge was how accurately you write dialogue. You nail the dynamics between brothers, best friends, teenagers and their parents, and a newly dating couple. Does dialogue come easily to you, or is it something you work at?
MH: If I work at dialogue, I know I’m making a massive mistake. Writing dialogue is like shooting a machine gun to me. If it jams, something is wrong. I work a hundred times more on narrative than on dialogue. There’s no better feeling than rapid-fire talk in my head, and my only goal is to be able to type fast enough to get it out.
EC: Many of your books feature teen characters who aren’t on the straight and narrow path. Why?
MH: Many, or all? (Author laughs boisterously.) I write from my heart, and I’ve never walked a straight and narrow path. I don’t know what it’s like to follow rules I think are stupid, I don’t like to be controlled, and if one theme runs through my stories, it’s that my protagonists need to learn how to balance being part of a collective society while at the same time standing up for what is right. Even if they make mistakes. That has been my entire life, and coming to know how to compromise, understand different opinions, and even have tolerance for hypocrisy and stupidity while holding firm to my beliefs is a lifelong process.
The other reason is that while a lot of people follow that straight and narrow path, deep inside they wish to discard it. Therein lies the hypocrisy and fear-based motivation of what’s wrong with the collective outlook on life.
EC: How do you stay in touch with teen culture?
MH: I never grew up. I just became more articulate (hopefully) at screaming what I was trying to scream as a teen, because nothing has changed. My views and principles are the same, and Lord knows the world hasn’t changed that much. That’s the kicker. Teens have different trigger points, yes, and different maturity levels, but our culture thinks they’re different animals. They aren’t. They feel the same things adults do, they don’t convolute things like adults do, and thank God they’re not yet constrained by the pressures of being “adults” in portraying those vital feelings.
It’s hard to know what should be paid more attention to . . . an adult who holds back true emotion for the sake of who they are and “should” be, or a teenager who lashes out because he or she feels the same exact emotion and doesn’t give a rip or know how to portray it “correctly.”
Usually, as we become adults, we assume our roles. Father, mother, coworker, etc. Within those stereotypes, we’re poured into the mold of what we should be, and pressured to put on airs that keep us within those roles. I don’t believe in that. I never have, and if I have a goal, it’s to possibly offer teens my stories and my experiences for them to use in a positive manner.
EC: What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve been given? What advice would you give to aspiring writers?
MH: A wise man once told me, “Don’t listen to any of us. We’re all idiots.” I think advice is overrated, because in my opinion, lending judgment, which is basically what advice is, is based on ego. I was blessed with a fantastic mentor, but he never gave advice. He offered what he knew; he didn’t advise. I try to do the same.
With respect toward that, I will say that everything I’ve learned to do, I’ve learned by doing it. I learned how to write books by writing books, not talking about how to write books. Personally, the most time wasted in my life is the time spent talking about doing instead of doing.
EC: What are you working on now?
MH: I usually write two novels at a time, and am doing so now. They are very different, almost opposite each other, actually, and I’m stoked about both. Due to national security issues, I can’t divulge details other than to say that one is based around a teenage boy, the other a teen girl.
EC: Given all of the skateboarding tricks in Under the Bridge—ollies, 720 Stalefish, Switch Indy Airs, airwalks, and 900s—I want to know if you could pull a 360 frontside?
MH: I love questions like this, because they let me know that what I’m doing with my stories resonates with the truth, and I’m honored by it. Many readers think that I’ve lived what I write, and based on my novels, they ask me what it was like to have a gay dad or a drug-addicted mother, what it was like to run away to find my father, be a boxer involved with organized crime, or go to an elitist private school. I don’t skate, and never really did it seriously. BMX bikes led to motorcycles for me.
I wrote Under the Bridge for my son, Dylan, and his skater buddies, who basically lived in our home for four years. The plot has nothing to do with them, of course, but I used the courage, struggle, awesome rebellion, loyalty, friendship, and love I saw between them to create this story. That’s why this novel, out of all the rest, means so much to me. Every trick I needed to portray in the book was offered by them.
So no, the only trick I could pull on a board would be to break a bone.