Saturday, May 7, 2011

Gangoblogging: Chris Barton

You long to experience the world on your own terms. You are smart and brave, but you're a cheat. You have a chance to trade who you are for something better -- for a new life. New thrills. New fear. Do you do it?

If yes, you might be the subject of Chris Barton's new YA nonfiction, Can I See Your I.D.?: True Stories of False Identities.

It's a fascinating read, even if your story isn't in it.
Barton follows ten imposters from history, many of them teens, and he digs into their past and what got them to that point of taking on a false identity, and he doesn't disappoint -- he also tells how they were ultimately found out.
Read this book. You'll be hooked from the first story, where 16-year-old Keron Thomas steals a subway train.
Publishers Weekly agrees:
*Starred Review* [I]mpeccably crafted ... The use of second-person narration is very effective, allowing readers to assume the identities of each individual. Barton's prose captures the daring, ingenuity, and quick thinking required of each imposter.

(Below: sketches from my Gang of Erin retreat sketchbook)
Chris reads from his work in progress in April, 2011.
You're in for a treat: this new book is AWESOME.
And that's about all I can say about it, for now.

I first came to know author Chris Barton many years ago, before either of us had sold any books. 

Hanging out at Texas Library Association conference
Like everyone else, I was charmed by his online persona. 
Random discussion at the retreat
When he signed with his agent, Erin Murphy of Erin Murphy Literary Agency (EMLA), our fate was sealed: we're agency-mates.
rubber-face profile
Intrigue and suspense built. . . I had to meet this guy in person.
Chris tests my patience with a Draw-Off

My chance came three years ago at an EMLA retreat near Boston. I watched him like a hawk -- and I took notes.
Late at night, all inhibitions gone,
Chris dances at the party in the EMLA room

I met him again last month in Austin, at the Texas Library Association conference and EMLA's fifth annual retreat. Again, I took notes:
Chris and Clint Young, EMLA clients
 And then, upon finding out that Can I See Your I.D.? was now out, I begged him to grant a quick interview on my blog:

Me: What were some of the surprises that popped up when you were researching this book?

Chris: One of the biggest surprises was how much in common my individual subjects had with each other, even though they were carrying out their masquerades under vastly different circumstances, for vastly different reasons, even on different continents and in different centuries. I figured I might find a few recurring themes, but the ingredients that go into successfully maintaining a false identity (at least for a while) are unexpectedly universal. Take Ellen Craft and Keron Thomas, for instance. Their stories take place nearly 150 years apart, and she was trying to escape from slavery while he just wanted to prove that he could drive a subway train. But each of them took advantage of the fact that we generally see in other people what's on the surface, and what we expect to see. We don't look at an apparently white Southern gentleman and see a female slave, and we don't look at a guy in a motorman's uniform shirt and see a 16-year-old kid.

There were surprises in my research into the individual stories, too. I discovered that Ferdinand Waldo Demara Jr.'s sister had not died as a teenager, as had been previously reported (and which I wrote about in The Horn Book) -- that had a big effect on my understanding of what motivated him to become a serial impostor. And Forrest Carter, author of the supposed memoir The Education of Little Tree, was exposed as a fraud in The New York Times in 1991 -- but it turns out, the same newspaper had already identified him as racist speechwriter Asa Earl Carter in the mid-1970s, but nobody paid much attention at the time because he didn't yet have a bestseller, and by the 1990s the Times itself seemed to have forgotten.

Me: I'm in the middle of final revisions for my fourth Ellie McDoodle book, at the moment. For me, the process of writing each book has been different each time. Can you share some of your process?

Chris: Oh, Ruth -- I'm so glad it's not just me! The process changes each time for me, too. For my biographies, I used to assemble a timeline of the person's life and then use that to identify the beginning and end of that person's story -- my version of it, anyway. Now, though, I'm more likely to let a theme about that person's life emerge from my reading about them, and then start constructing the timeline.

For my fiction, I used to do a lot more freewriting, starting a story without knowing where it would end, or even whether it was an actual story. Now, though, I more often find myself seeing the whole story before I start to write. I don't know whether that's an improvement, but it's definitely different -- and probably not permanent. I expect my process will keep right on changing, and I'm perfectly fine with that. Discovering different approaches is part of the fun of writing. 

Me: What do you wish someone had told you about this author business, before you had to discover it for yourself?

Chris: I wish someone had told me how many distractions there were from the act of actually writing and how one of the most important jobs an author has is vigilantly safeguarding the time needed to produce the words that will be consumed by readers of my books. If I'd had all these distractions -- especially the ones involving publicity and self-promotion and community-nurturing -- when I started, I'd never have written enough or gotten good enough to get published in the first place!

Me, again: Boy, can I relate.

Check out Chris's new book, CAN I SEE YOUR I.D.? at your local independent bookstore. 
Or at our EMLA agency-mate's store, The Flying Pig.
It's also on Amazon.
Here's his Amazon author page.
And here's his website.

Get to know more about Chris and his fabulous new book at his other blog tour stops:
On Jean Reidy's blog 
And, coming in June 2011, on Jenny Ziegler's blog.