My title is deliberately exaggerated, and then it isn’t. Don’t all of us who are compelled to put words on the page really want to either make sense or our worlds, escape from them, or make them a bit better?
The concept of “flow” named by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi is the mental state of operation in which a person is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment. I find flow when I believe I am helping make the world a little bit better. I can’t think of a better word to describe the process of creating the chapter book series that was designed to answer the question of so many African American boys, “Where are the books that look like me?”
In part one of this post, I described how one of my best friends and I reconnected years after college and conceived of a chapter book series that would resonate with developing Black readers. Lenora and I are unfortunately rare in our friendship. She is black. I am white. I can’t say exactly why this is not a problem, or rather, I can’t say why it’s not more common. She isn’t a surface-level friend. Lenora is a kindred spirit. We are connected by something that goes deeper than race, but that also understands and respects that race is a fragile thing, and we hold it like an egg between us.
We met up at a writer’s retreat in the fall of 2017 that I was hosting at my nonprofit center. Lenora flew into Memphis from her adopted home in Illinois and made the trip down the edge of the Delta to spend the weekend writing. This was our process.
I know story structure from studying writing. There is a pattern to almost all good stories. This is not the most romantic thing you could hear about creating a book - believe me, I was shocked at the discovery as well! The reality is, you can design a good story around the formula: problem, inciting incident, obstacle 1, obstacle 2, obstacle 3, climax, resolution. Prior to the retreat, my kids, who have watched more Cartoon Network than I care to admit, helped me plot out the bare bones of Book One in what we called then, The Superfly Series. Unfortunately for us, Superfly the movie about a gangster was rebooted the following summer and we had to change our hero’s name - these things happen.
We were riding to the beach and I’d call out, “What kind of villain does Superfly need to fight first?”
We settled on an a lunch lady who was mad at the students for hating on her school lunch.
Me: What does she do?
Kids: Makes some kind of monster out of leftovers to attack them
Me: What’s does Superfly do first?
Kids: He tries to get help - goes to a teacher or something.
Me: It doesn’t work, what’s the second obstacle?
And on we went, plotting out the bare bones of the story.
All the plotting was like a simple skeleton. When Lenora got to the retreat, she brought those bones to life. Superfly had no personality until she showed up. He simply did things. “Who is this kid,” I asked Lenora. “What motivates him?”
“He’s a science kid. He’s kind of nerdy, but not too nerdy. He’s trying to be cool, too. I think his hero is Neil deGrasse Tyson. And his name…is Merlin.”
That’s right, my name is Merlin. Merlin Montgomery. My parents, who say they were the coolest couple on the block somehow decided to name their firstborn son Merlin.
Tell me about it. And you thought you had problems? I’m probably the only kid named Merlin in my town. No, make that my state. No, the entire country. Let’s face it, probably the whole world. Nobody’s named their kid Merlin since before the first black president, or maybe even longer.
And once we figured out who Merlin was and what motivated him, the fun really began because we knew one thing as moms of four boys combined: boys like gross humor! I’ve never laughed so hard in my life I as did coming up with ways Merlin would describe what was happening.
Like the time Global messed with one of those cheap dollar store shaving kits that contain sulfur hydroxide and made a stink bomb that actually worked. He copied the exact chemical reaction that causes eggs to rot and lobbed it into the boys’ bathroom right after A’lo. The smell of ten-day old moose vomit filled the hallways. Kids in line started retching, and some kids got so sick they had to go home early. It was so bad everybody called A’lo “The Lock Mess Monster” for the rest of the year, behind his back of course. Nobody but me knew Global was the one behind the whole prank.
Later, we had to check with Lenora’s sons to see if the jokes were still funny. We are, after all, in our mid-forties. They changed a few things! We also went from Superfly to Big Monty as a nickname for our hero, gave him a sharp little sister, and decided we needed an author that was cooler than two moms. This team of people who contributed to the development of the series needed a name. Matt is one of Lenora’s sons. Max is mine. We came up with the Pen Name Matt Maxx and began editing Big Monty and the Lunatic Lunch Lady.