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Innocence, Ignorance, and Experience: Quad City Arts “Super Author” Chris Crutcher Discusses His Controversial Young-Adult Literature - Page 2 PDF Print E-mail
News/Features - Literature
Written by Mike Schulz   
Wednesday, 08 April 2009 06:00
A Double Dose of Adolescence

Born in Dayton, Ohio, Crutcher was raised in Cascade, Idaho - "a really small town," he says, "and real conservative, with philosophies that were absolutely black-and-white."

Though active in athletics ("I went to a school where everybody played, or there wasn't enough for a team"), he admits that he wasn't what anyone would call a model student in high school. "I had an attention span of about 15 seconds," Crutcher says with a laugh. "School just didn't ... . It didn't work for me. It was partly that I was somewhat rebellious. I had maybe a double dose of adolescence going for me."

After graduating high school in 1968, however, Crutcher - a self-described "child of the '60s" - found his interest in learning piqued after entering Eastern Washington State College. "I got into sociology first," he says, "and my first discovery was that things weren't black-and-white, and that institutions were more interested in keeping themselves alive than they were in telling the truth. I got interested in having been fooled, and trying to find out if there was a truth, what it was."

Crutcher earned his BA in sociology and psychology, received a subsequent teaching credential, and taught primary and secondary education in Washington state and California throughout the 1970s. He went on to serve as the director of Oakland, California's Lakeside School - an alternative program for at-risk youth - and establish a private therapy practice in Spokane. Yet by the early 1980s, Crutcher was feeling the urge to write.

"At some level, I always knew that I could be good at it," he says. "That I could manipulate words well. I mean, one of the reasons I didn't have to do a whole lot of work in high school is I could bluff my way through. I think I had probably a natural writing skill and a natural communication skill; I didn't relate those to academics, but I could ... you know, I could cover my butt."

And given his years of working with troubled youths, Crutcher felt he had a unique vantage point from which to write about youths.

"I think what's scary about adolescence, sometimes, is so intense that there's a natural move toward forgetting it," says the author. "You know, it's real easy to say about the first time you were in love, 'That's not real love, that's puppy love.' But the reality is it feels exactly the same way it feels when you're older, you do as many stupid things both times, and it has the same effect. You can't pooh-pooh it.

"We tend to want to go back and say, 'Well, anything that happens when you're a teenager, it's not real. That's practice.' But your feelings are just as intense, you know? Everything's intact. And when you're a teenager, it's intact cubed."

Beginning with Running Loose, a first-person narrative by a distressed high-school football star, Crutcher's goal in writing was to deal realistically with teen issues, and to do so from a teen's perspective. Yet the author says that, from the start, finding his "inner teen" was never as difficult as some might imagine.

"Any writer knows that whether it's fiction or nonfiction, you have to find your writing voice," says Crutcher, "and once you do, you tell your story in that voice. So if I go back and find my teenage voice, or a voice much like it, then I'm saved.

"I have writer's block two or three times, maybe five times, with every book," he continues, "but what it usually is is writer's glut. There are so many things you want to write, and your mind is popping around so much, that you don't know what direction to go. It paralyzes you. And all of a sudden, it seems like you don't have anything to say."

Though his works have been categorized as young-adult literature, Crutcher says he never wrote with a genre in mind. In truth, he says, "I didn't know there was such a thing as young-adult literature. I wrote a story about a kid who was 18 years old, and that's just where it went. I just figured out the stories I wanted to tell, and let the marketing people decide what they were.

"If Catcher in the Rye were written today," he adds, "they'd have to at least focus it on that genre."

Yet while reviewers were impressed with Crutcher's literary talents - Publishers Weekly called Running Loose "a tightly plotted, compelling tale that's compassionate, funny, and sensitive" - the author quickly discovered that the book's explorations of teen dating, racism, sex, and death weren't being embraced by everyone.

"I look at things in a different way than a lot of people would like me to," he says with a laugh. "The black-and-white morals that come with almost any fundamental kind of belief get knocked around pretty good in my stories."