Thursday, January 24, 2019

Plot Follows Character

It’s not my idea. Anne Lamott, in her fabulous book on writing, Bird by Bird, taught me that the first rule of writing fiction is developing your characters.

Once you know who they are and what they want, the rest follows.

I was recently visiting a high school creative writing class in Freeport, Maine, pushing the “Plot Follows Character!” message (I should really emblazon that on a tee shirt … ) and that very night opened Fredrik Backman’s Beartown and WUMP! There it was. And so well done.

Beartown is the story of a down-and-out, rural town where hockey is practically a religion. The local hockey club wields a disproportionate influence on every aspect of life, hockey players are demigods, and because there isn’t much else happening economically the community’s fortunes are linked to one particular team’s success and the potential for attracting a hockey training camp to Beartown.

Fully the first third of the book introduces us to a large assortment of characters, from current teen players to their parents to local business owners to coaches, former players … Backman slowly fills in the various canvases of their personalities, their histories, their desires and fears, step by step, as if each were a paint-by-number. At times it felt like I was peeking into Backman’s writer’s notebook. You know, the place where we work things out? All the words we need to write as we get to know our characters? Of course, it wasn’t as rough as my notebook, which should never be read by anyone except me …

By the time the big game approaches, we can well imagine how each of these characters will react, win or lose, and what the stakes are for each. But of course, that’s not enough. We need higher highs and lower lows. So Backman throws a Molotov cocktail into the mix, and we watch what happens. 

Well, PLOT happens. But it’s a plot that will unfold based on all the careful, intentional character details the author has given us. We know how each character will react and what he/she will do based on who they are, and what they want.

Folks have been urging me to read this book for ages because I wrote Wrecked, which dramatizes the aftermath and various character reactions to an accusation of campus sexual assault. Beartown’s Molotov cocktail is a rape: the daughter of the hockey club’s manager is raped by the club’s star player. Her accusation is made public the eve of the Big Game.

“Explosive” doesn’t go far enough to describe how the town’s citizens react. What’s so, so good, however, is that while we can’t PREDICT what each will do … when they do it, it makes sense. Because they’ve been so well-depicted from the beginning of the book. Our hearts break for them and we turn pages FAST, because we know these characters and we’re invested, we’re bought in, we care. Deeply.

That’s good writing.

As a novelist I’m mindful to read like a writer. Not necessarily with a pencil in hand, but with an eye toward craft, and how another novelist is pulling it off. I’d say Beartown is an outstanding example of Plot Follows Character.

I’m between my own novels right now, having just put copyedits on my latest to bed. I’m waiting for page proofs, which are always fun to read (it looks like a book!) but also SLOW to read because you check for mistakes and typos. I tend to review page proofs with a ruler under each line, and even read the sentences backwards … just to make sure nothing’s out of place. Excruciating, but necessary.

Meanwhile, I’ve been reading Michelle Obama’s Becoming, and just finished Lauren Groff’s collection of short stories, Florida. 

What’s in your stack?

Sunday, September 16, 2018

How to Tell a Story

I’m playing “revision tag” with my editor right now, which means it’s her turn to read/react to the latest draft of my current manuscript. While she’s “It,” I take a complete break from the work-in-progress and INHALE other books. And wow, I read some good ones this week!

They are very different but what I love about each is the narrative device employed by the author. As writers we have to choose WHO tells the story ... but in each of these books, there are multiple WHOs telling a version of the story. The result is a three-dimensional kaleidoscope of narration: we see events from the north-south-east-west-inside-and-out. If you’re trying to figure out how to tell your story, take a look at these for some inspiration/innovation!

Homegoing by YaaGyasi is a debut (!) which begins in the late 1700s on Africa’s “Gold Coast” (Ghana) and tracks the divergent fates of two half sisters who never meet and whose stories play out on two different continents through multiple generations. Effia is married off to a British naval officer who deals in the slave trade; Esi is captured, sold into slavery and shipped as “cargo” to America. Eight generations later, we see how history, culture and ultimately, choice, bring these broken strands from the same mother back to the same place.

Each chapter reads like a short story, told from the POV of a next-gen narrator. A family tree in the beginning of Homegoing is an essential reference … there are a lot of characters … but the result is both expansive and personal. Gyasi brings individuals and their wrenching stories to life amidst the backdrop of sweeping events. She writes “small” in order to breathe life into the “big.” This is not a historical novel, but rather a family epic played out through history.

Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys on the other hand, is a historical novel. Based on the tragedy of the Wilhelm Gustloff, a ship filled with refugees, sunk by a Soviet sub in the Baltic Sea in 1945, the story is brought to life via FOUR narrators: an East Prussian teenager, a Lithuanian nurse, a Latvian girl and a young German sailor.

I’ve attempted two alternating narrators before, but never four! Sepetys pulls it off brilliantly, due, I think, to keeping each chapter very short. She never bogs down and instead captures a particular incident and unique, personal reaction from a character in every chapter.

I remember years ago visiting the Famine Museum in Strokestown, Ireland, and our guide pointing out how their goal was to move beyond the conventional history-telling of the “big house,” the rich and powerful, and tell the stories of the ordinary people: the stories from the potato ridges one can still see in the fields. When Sepetys was researching Salt to the Sea, she visited a museum where they displayed notes-in-bottles which had been hastily written and tossed into the freezing ocean by passengers from the Wilhem Gustloff. Her goal with this novel was to bring their stories and voices to life, and she achieves this, resurrecting the individual stories which become lost in the great sweep of big, historical events.

 Sadie by CourtneySummers, which is fresh on the shelves this month, is wonderfully innovative. The narrative alternates between Sadie’s dark, emotionally wrenching first-person account and a somewhat ironic podcast script “narrated” by a DJ who has been charged with uncovering her story. I’m guessing this is inspired by NPR’s brilliant podcast, “Serial,” which slowly unravels one true story over a series of episodes.

Basically: Sadie is missing. Her younger sister has been brutally murdered, her killer never found, and months later Sadie has disappeared as well. Like the reader, the DJ becomes increasingly drawn into the “What really happened?” and tries desperately to catch up with the missing Sadie before she becomes yet Another Dead Girl.

The tension Summers creates by juxtaposing Sadie’s real-time narrative with the fits-and-false-starts investigation by the DJ is terrific. I found myself turning pages quickly and gasping in dismay at points: she totally hooked me. This device also breathes life into secondary characters, as the DJ interviews the various people who know or encountered Sadie along her journey. It’s a truly inventive way to tell a story.

Okay, I’ve probably got another week before I have to dive back into MY latest story, so next in the queue: Samantha Mabry! I’ve got A Fierce and Subtle Poison and All the Wind in the World on my night table right now. Also fresh out this month: Nova Ren Suma's A Room Away From the Wolves. And in October, Kelly Jensen's (Don't) Call Me Crazy. 

So many books, so little time ...

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

All My Children

If our books are our babies, then I’m definitely feeling like the mother in a house full of adolescents this week: pulled in multiple directions, plenty of drama to contend with, and struggling to stay on task.

The youngest child, WRECKED, got some nice news yesterday: it’s going to be the Common Read this fall at South Dakota State University. Go Jackrabbits!

My publisher, Algonquin Young Readers (who never ceases promoting the books on their list, THANK YOU!!) shared that with me, which is terrific to hear, especially since April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month. Later this month I’ll be presenting at Maine’s Reading Roundup conference with author Megan Frazer Blakemore, Mt. Desert Island High School librarian Davonne Pappas, and Speak About It Executive Director Shane Diamond. We’ll talk about using young adult lit to facilitate conversations about consent, healthy relationships and sexual assault.

For some reason (or perhaps it’s no mystery; our president is keeping refugee and immigrant issues front-and-center) it’s been a busy spring for OUT OF NOWHERE.
I can barely keep up with the school visit requests, and have been travelling the state sharing the “background” story which inspired the characters of Tom, Saeed, Myla, Coach … Sales have seen a sharp uptick (yay!) as both middle and high schools have turned to the book to spark discussions with students about racism, immigration, economic inequality … and soccer. Don’t forget soccer.

Speaking of which: I recently ran into a few of the “real life” people who helped me create OUT OF NOWHERE. Shobow Saban is now married and working in Lewiston with Maine Immigrant and Refugee Services (he has a beautiful daughter!) and Coach Mike McGraw (coming off a SECOND championship this past fall) is already looking ahead to the 2018 season.
Shobow Saban and his daughter, Saaliha

Lucky me! Photographed with Mike McGraw

It’s been interesting to see this story evolve beyond the confines of my novel. When I visit schools, I show the kids where OUT OF NOWHERE leaves off, and where the “actual” story has progressed … and where Christian Schneider has picked it up.  An actor/writer living in Los Angeles, he’s adapted the book for the screen, but with some significant changes. Most importantly: he’s compressed the timeline, so that his story ends with the team winning their state championship, a much, MUCH more satisfying conclusion. He’s also eliminated/conflated a few characters (Uncle Paul = gone) enhanced other characters (way more Samira) and added whole scenes I never envisioned.

I love what he’s done with it. Wouldn’t it be cool if it became a movie?

Meanwhile, my oldest “child,” Brett McCarthy: Work in Progress, continues to receive nice reviews from students and teachers, but my FAVORITE child (yes: I have a favorite) Jersey Tomatoes are the Best is, according to booksellers, hard to obtain. Say what?? How can this be?

I’m hoping this particular bookseller was wrong, because I love that book. I tend to write about sports, and this was my tennis book. Inspired by my tour of the Everett Tennis Academy in Boca Raton, not to mention my 45+ years of smacking tennis balls around. Love that book. Loved writing it. #FavoriteBookChild

Meanwhile: I’ve got one in the oven. On deadline to Algonquin (June 1st) and I’m slightly panicked because first drafts are so much harder for me than revisions. I actually love revising. First drafts for me are like squeezing toothpaste from a spent tube: one slow word at a time. Revision, on the other hand, is like a spa day.

However, the good news about the current work-in-progress is that it’s filled with plenty of wonderful Spanish food, all inspired by my mother. And without giving away more than that, I’ll leave you with this: Mom’s roast pork, rice and beans.  
Nobody does it better than mom.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

The Death of Little Pinkie

We were only three hours into Lent when The Daughter killed Little Pinkie.

The opening scene: 3:00 A.M., Ash Wednesday. The Husband and I are in deep sleep. Sorry to mix the seasonal metaphors, but “visions of sugarplums” were definitely dancing in our heads.

Then, the phone rings.

The phone ringing in the dead of night is never heartwarming. At the least: it’s annoying and ruins your night’s sleep. At the worst: someone is dead. Or in distress. Deep distress. Because no one (!) would call you at that hour unless there was a big problem.

As the parent of adult children who live in cities far away from us, the Dead of Night Phone Call is particularly dreadful. Several times now it’s been The Son, who lives in Los Angeles, where for very good reason the car insurance rates for young men in their twenties are the highest in the nation. (I cannot tell you how anxious it makes me to think of him driving on the L.A. freeways. I try not to think about it, which helps. Denial is not just a river in Egypt.) Thankfully, those calls from The Son, while they all involved car trouble/accidents did not involve death or injury.

They involved money. Inconvenience.


Last night, however, The Daughter called. It was the wee hours of Wednesday, she had work the next day, and she was home in her apartment. The first thing I thought was, “Fire?”

But no: it was a clumsy accident. She’d gotten up from bed and knocked over a glass of water on her nightstand. It spilled everywhere … including onto her laptop. Her brand new Mac, which she’d purchased in pink. Affectionately dubbed Little Pinkie.

Initially, Little Pinkie appeared unharmed, and fired right up when she opened it. But after drying off everything else (I won’t detail how far the deluge extended) she noticed the screen had gone black. And eventually Little Pinkie failed to charge.

Query: why a call to mom and dad in Maine at this point? But after googling on her iPhone What to do when you spill water on your laptop? and not coming up with much besides burying it in a Tupperware filled with dry rice she resorted to us. And after crashing over each other to find the phone in the dark, and taking a few calming breaths once we realized no one had died, we also suggested rice. Which was not helpful. Apparently no one in that apartment really cooks (she and her roommates excel at takeout) and there was no arroz to be found, something I find fairly incredible but that’s another story …

We talked through strategies for resuscitating Little Pinkie, finally settling on going back to sleep (!) and hoping a visit to the Genius Bar at the Boylston Street Apple store the next day would help. But when we hung up I could tell The Daughter still felt terrible. Purchasing this computer required no small chunk of change from her just-out-of-college budget, and she panicked, wondering how she would complete her grad school applications and meet various other professional requirements without it.

Several hours later: dawn. I stumble from bed, make coffee. Heavenly coffee. I pull out my schedule for the day, which includes 1. Working on my latest novel; 2. Collecting and delivering the evening meal for the local homeless shelter; 3. Walking the dog; 4. Hearing back from The Daughter re. Little Pinkie; 5. Buying some of my husband’s favorite candy from Wilbur’s Chocolates and sharing a fun Valentine’s Day dinner with him; 6. Getting ashes.

Because today is Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent. The kickoff to the season of repentance and getting one’s spiritual house in order, the six-week lead up to Easter, which is the culmination of All Things Christian. At some point today I’ll go to church where a priest or other minion will smear greasy black ashes on my forehead and intone, “Remember man/woman that you are dust and unto dust you shall return.”

I’ve always found Ash Wednesday to be grim. Yes: we know we’re all going to die and rot some day. What of it? Should we walk around with our heads down waiting for the meteor to strike, or a truck to ram us on the highway? I’ve always found the practice of ashes to contain a veiled threat: Behave. Judgment is around the corner.

For some reason, as I was pouring coffee this morning and contemplating the day ahead, a different thought occurred. It was somewhat Mary Oliver-inspired, more What do you plan to do with your one wild and precious life? and less hellfire-and-brimstone.

To contemplate my life in ashes is to put everything in perspective. It’s not a death sentence: it’s a gift. Because every moment I’ve got on this side of the game is an opportunity. To write another book. To eat chocolate with my husband. To speak with my daughter on the phone, albeit at 3:00 A.M. To have a car that works and the wherewithal to bring hot food to people who need it.

Ash Wednesday is not a threat of impending doom. It’s a reminder that life is precious. And while we can’t control much of what happens to us, we can control how we respond to it, and choose how we want to live. With fear, dread and panic … or joy and optimism?

Onward! My agent, Edite Kroll, likes to conclude our conversations and emails with the invocation, “Onward!” I love that. It promises good work and progress ahead. With that in mind, I called The Daughter. She was already at work; she’d gotten an early start so she can clock off early and get to the Apple store.

“You know, a computer can be replaced,” I told her. “You’ve saved your important documents. You aren’t hurt. You have a job and a good place to live. This is an inconvenience. A blip.”

“I know,” she agreed. “I love you. Sorry I woke you guys up.”

Before we ended our call I inquired after the computer. It still refuses to respond to the “on” button.

It appears, at this point, that The Pink is no more. We’ll see what the geniuses say. We'll figure it out. Meanwhile: onward!

Friday, February 2, 2018

In the Stack, On the Page, On the Road

The other day I posted this picture on Facebook:
What's in your stack?

 It’s my current reading/just finished/next in the queue stack, and it elicited an exciting round of comments and book suggestions. (Yes: I’m one of those dorks who find a reading suggestion “exciting.”)

I have a strong love/hate relationship with Facebook and social media in general but if I can use it to promote books and authors and learn about great reads then, I’m in. So, at my sister’s suggestion, I’m going to post a monthly What’s In The Stack update to see what you all are reading and share what I’ve enjoyed. You’ll find it here on the blog, and also on my Facebook and Instagram pages.

My latest love is the young adult novel “Disappeared,” by Francisco Stork. It’s set in Juarez, Mexico, and is the story of two young people (a brother, Emiliano, and sister, Sara) trying to navigate the deadly violence of that city. It’s about choices, values, survival, friendship, and love. Yes, all the biggies. But in Francisco’s capable hands, all is possible.

 Okay, so now please imagine I’m standing on top of a high building yelling: “READ THIS BOOK! GIVE IT TO YOUR TEENAGERS!!”

Fiction begins with character. Great fiction is routed in the empathy an author has for a character, and conveys, dramatically, on the page. In all his novels (and if you haven’t read them, I encourage you to visit the website link provided above and at the very least read “Marcelo in the Real World” because it’s all of the wonderful) Francisco inhabits the beating hearts of his characters, and as a result Emiliano and Sara’s wrenching choices come alive for us.

I won’t spoil this book by saying too much except to add: we cannot engage in our nation’s current debate about immigration/the Wall/deportations without fully understanding all the complexities which would prompt families to risk their lives crossing a desert in order to come to the U.S. “Disappeared” gives us a snapshot of very real people negotiating a very dangerous world, and it’s a timely, important book that could spark great conversations among teens.

Okay, meanwhile, it’s been cold and snowy here in Maine which I love because 1. It’s much more fun to snap on the cross country skis and head out to the trails with the dog instead of trudging along salt-and-silt-strewn roads for her daily walk, and 2. I’m on deadline for a new novel and these days are THE BEST for staying indoors and writing. Think: woodstove. Coffee. The silence of snow.
View from my office window 2/2/18

 And speaking of writing: Algonquin Young Readers has contracted with me for a new novel! I’m guessing it’ll be out in 2019 … ? I’m thrilled/so happy/incredibly blessed to 1. Have a wonderful agent, Edite Kroll, who connected me with Algonquin and 2. be working once again with the Algonquin crew, esp. editor Kristina Lypen. That’s all I’ll say for now because this WIP doesn’t even have a final title yet …
When I'm not traveling for book talks, this is my schedule from now until June 1st.

 FINALLY, speaking of snow: next week I’ll probably be grousing about it, because I’m hitting the road and heading to magical Mt. Desert Island for a book talk in Bar Harbor and school visit at MDI High, all thanks to the fabulous Island Readers and Writers. If you’re in the area, please stop by!

Monday, September 11, 2017

Betsy DeVos Surprises No One

"Welcome Banners" greeted arriving frosh at UMaine Orono
this fall. Think more education is needed?
It appears that just as the members of the Class of 2021 unload their mini fridges, desk lamps and extra long bed sheets into freshmen dorms, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos will unleash the latest salvo in the ongoing imbroglio about sexual assault on campus.

            Specifically, DeVos plans to revoke Obama-era guidelines and raise the burden of proof in university administrative hearings on sexual misconduct from the “preponderance of the evidence” standard to the more rigorous “more likely than not.” This should surprise no one: DeVos is a major donor to a national group lobbying for such change. And while it remains to be seen whether this swing of the pendulum will better protect the due process rights of the accused (there’s no question it will make it harder for victims to prove injury and easier for rapists to elude punishment) here’s what it absolutely won’t do: prevent sexual assault.

            That would require … well, education. Conversation. Awkward conversation. Frank, difficult, pull-no-punches conversation. Something a tad more sophisticated than this-is-where-babies-come-from and slightly less clinical than this-is-how-you-use-a-condom.  Where we talk less about biology and more about healthy relationships. Respect, for oneself and others. Honesty. Communication. Love. In other words: all the antidotes to violence.

            These are conversations educators and parents have failed to provide and young adults are hungry to have. For all the hand-wringing about the epidemic of sexual assaults sweeping campuses, we have done precious little to get out in front of the issue. According to a recent report from Making Caring Common, from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, 70 percent of the 18-25 year olds surveyed wish they’d received more information from their parents about the emotional aspects of a romantic relationship; 65 percent wish they could have discussed it in school.

            “My students can talk about love forever,” said one high school teacher from the Harvard study who includes a section on romantic love in his English class. “They’re much more present, thoughtful and available to themselves when they talk about love.”

            As a young adult author, I’m well aware that love and sex and relationships are where my readers live. And as a visiting author in schools, I’ve been impressed not only by students’ energy for engaging in honest conversation about sex and consent but also their insights. I’ve listened to a 14-year old girl explain how the so-called “rape culture” oppresses boys by making them feel like losers if they’re virgins. I’ve had an entire row of boys in football jerseys assert that consent is not possible if your partner has been drinking. I’ve watched boys and girls successfully navigate a fraught discussion of “Who’s responsible?” if both parties are drunk.

            Yet regardless of their desire and capacity for these important conversations, we adults fail to find the space for them. Sex ed in our country is woefully inadequate: fewer than half the states require it, and among those only 20 require that it be “medically, factually or technically accurate.” Without a national curriculum for sex ed, that portion of health class focuses on disaster prevention: in other words, avoiding pregnancy and STDs. And to top it off, those assigned to deliver these facts-of-life in an ethical vacuum are woefully unprepared.

            “Untrained, unsupported or unqualified teachers are seeking to guide young people in one of the most consequential, subtle, wonderful, treacherous areas of their lives,” the Harvard researchers assert. Yet from our department of “education,” we see no initiatives to remedy this.

            Sadly, it’s no better at home. I have been astonished by my peers’ squeamishness when it comes to discussing the realities of the sexual culture our young people navigate. When Peggy Orenstein’s excellent, unflinching book, Girls and Sex, came out last year, I told everyone I knew to read it … with their daughters. My suggestion was mostly met with reluctant excuses.

            “Ooh, I know I should but … do I really want to know?” more than a few parents replied.

            Yes, you do. We remain ignorant at our daughters’ … and sons’ … peril. Among the more chilling revelations in Orenstein’s book: the prevalence and accessibility of pornography. An estimated 40 percent of children ages ten to seventeen have been exposed to internet porn (many accidently) and by the time they reach college an estimated 90 percent of men and a third of women have viewed porn online.

            What’s more, Orenstein reports, porn is where many young people go to learn about sex. Not the basic biology of reproduction or facts about birth control: they turn to porn for the how-to, for that head scratching moment when someone refers to something they’ve never heard of.

            So, yes: our young people are turning to a 97-billion dollar industry that overwhelmingly depicts violent, degrading sex acts against women for information about sexual relationships. Combine that knowledge (and resultant expectations) with a booze-fueled hookup culture and you can see where the statistic that one in five women are sexually assaulted on campus is coming from.

            What do we do? The previous administration believed withholding federal funds from colleges and universities that are falling down on the job of punishing rapists is one solution. The Trump administration appears poised to rescind that policy as well as increase the standard of proof for victims. But both approaches are after-the-fact and do nothing to prevent rape.

            Colleges, meanwhile, have beefed up sexual assault prevention programming. It’s a standard part of freshmen orientation these days, along with campus events about consent and bystander intervention, and various walks. Slut Walks and Mile-in-her-Shoes Walks and Race to Zero Walks. These high-visibility shows of support for victims probably have some benefit.

            But if we’re going to change the culture of sexuality and consent on campus it’s not enough to walk some walk: we have to talk the talk. It’s not enough to punish the guilty and support the injured: we need to address the conditions which are contributing to sexual violence.

            We need to have those awkward, honest conversations with young people sooner rather than later. Because long before they arrive on campus they are sexually aware, if not sexually active, beings. And they are hungry to talk about these things.

            Let’s help them find that space.

            Note: This blog is an expanded, revised version of an opinion piece which ran in the September 10, 2017 Sunday Press Herald “Maine Voices” section. Click here to access.

            Further note: On my website, click on Wrecked Resources for a list of national and Maine-based groups who are working hard to further this “awkward conversation” and help educate young people.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

One Honest Guy

So, here’s my Jim Comey story. I think it’s important because it gives a little window into the type of young man he was. I have no reason to believe he’s changed.

First, a little background: forty years ago, before I became one of those liberal “elites” who attended a northeastern college, worked as a purveyor of “fake news” (what some might call a journalist) and became a card-carrying Democrat who voted for Mike Dukakis, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, I was a good Catholic girl growing up in Allendale, New Jersey.

A Republican bastion, the Allendale of my youth was small-town, patriotic, completely white and overwhelmingly Christian. Only 25 miles from New York, you couldn’t get a bagel in Allendale back in the 60s. At Christmas, we would pile into the station wagon (the type with faux-wood side panels) at night to check out the lights on everyone’s houses, counting on one hand the “unlit” homes. Eggs and milk were delivered to your door; the Holiday Observers (local dads in straw hats) came knocking for contributions to offset the costs of the annual parades and fireworks displays, and every night when I said my prayers I would end with, “And Dear God, please don’t let it rain on the Fourth of July.”

That’s because the Fourth of July was the best day of the entire year in Allendale. But I digress ….

We were groovy, Vatican II Catholics. We did home masses with friends where, for the Eucharist, a young priest would rip a loaf of Italian bread into pieces, heap it on a plate, and pass it around while someone’s mom played the guitar and sang a Cat Steven’s song. The Church I was raised in was less about rules and more about community. It had everything to do with post-mass Sunday brunches with hordes of other kids and families and very little to do with the Baltimore Catechism. And when I was a teen, it had to do with retreats.

These were weekend-long sleepovers where scores of Catholic youth from various parishes came together to have fun and talk about Jesus. It was definitely the kinder, gentler version of Catholicism: lots of discussion about compassion and charity; not so much about sin and damnation. You barely slept, you ate TONS of high-carb foods, drank GALLONS of sugary beverages (we called it Bug Juice), sang, hugged, and made dozens of new best friends overnight. All sorts of friends. I French-kissed a boy for the first time at a Catholic retreat (a cute Italian fellow from Hasbrouck Heights) if that gives you some sense of what these things were like.

By junior year in high school I was old enough to attend SEARCH, which was a Catholic retreat for older students. I piled into a car with five others from my high school, Northern Highlands Regional. One was a senior named Jim Comey.

I knew Jim the way you know a popular boy a year ahead of you: from an admiring distance. He was a class officer, a standout basketball player, and an academic star. He had a ton of friends … all fun, talented and cool … and a reputation for being funny. I don’t remember the conversation on the drive to retreat, and once there I lost track of Jim. These things were huge, and they encouraged students to separate from their hometown groups.

I didn’t see him again until the closing mass, which is where this story (finally) has a point.

A closing SEARCH mass is a bit of a show. Parents and family are invited, filling metal seats in the back of an auditorium. A priest conducts mass in the front, while at his feet, on the floor, sit all of the freshly-minted SEARCHers. We generally have our arms around each other. Everyone is exhausted and sugar-hyped. Most of the girls are crying because they are about to separate from the best friends they have ever made in their entire lives (in only 36 hours!) Into this highly emotional, hormonal mix add: one microphone. This is where the priest invites everyone to “share,” what the weekend has meant. After you speak, he drapes a largish wooden cross, strung with leather, around your neck.

Well. You can imagine. Those who weren’t teary before are positively sobbing at the mike. I remember standing there myself, intending to be stoic and utterly dissolving into a weeping mess. I might have said something to the effect of, “I love you all! I love Jesus!” before glancing at the back of the room to my parents’ shocked expressions. (Years later they confessed to me that it felt like their daughter had just been initiated into a cult.) When I resumed my position on the floor, I realize I was within earshot and eyeshot of Jim and his friend from our high school, Joe (who also happened to be the President of the Senior Class.)

You know that face Director Comey makes when he’s testifying? He’s speaking emphatically, and almost looks a little (okay, a lot) angry? That was the face Jim was making as he spoke into Joe’s ear. Joe was urging him to go up to the mike … and Jim was having none of it.

Absolutely. None. Of. It.

“Give me a break!” I heard him hiss. “You don’t love these people! You scarcely know them. In a week, you won’t be speaking to any of them. They are appealing to your emotions, not your mind. It’s ridiculous!”

At the time I remember being shocked and thinking Jim Comey was the biggest grouch I had ever met. I couldn’t believe that in the midst of this massive lovefest he was intellectualizing. As it turns out, in that entire auditorium filled with young people, and in the company of one of his closest friends who encouraged him otherwise, Jim was the only person to refuse the microphone.

Which, when you think about it, is pretty amazing.

SEARCH was no cult; it was actually pretty harmless. And Jim was right: it only took a few days for the fervor to wear off and all of us to forget each other’s names and slide right back into our old lives and comfortable worlds.

But here’s what that experience revealed to me about the young Jim Comey: he was impervious to peer pressure. Even when it came from institutions he believed in (his church) and people he trusted (his friend, Joe.) It’s easy to say no to our enemies and to reject ideas we disagree with: much harder when the thing that doesn’t ring true is familiar and safe.

Here’s the other thing it revealed: he trusts his inner moral compass. He relies on intellect to weigh right and wrong; he strives to be dispassionate when confronted by the mob. And while you might not like him for it, or even agree with his conclusions: his decisions come from an honest place. Jim Comey embodies integrity.

Today, millions of people are going to stop what they are doing to hear what Jim Comey has to say about his interactions with Donald Trump. His comments may … or may not … be significant. My guess is they will be far less dramatic and far more carefully parsed and legalistic than anticipated.

But they will be honest.

I’m not the only one in Allendale who feels this way about Jim. Here’s a piece USA Today did with others who know him: