My husband says what’s wrong with me is an author’s version of postpartum blues: I’ve just written the last book of my time traveling series, The Bean Books, on Evernight Teen, and I’m feeling adrift, almost let down. And it’s true—I’m in that weird place where I don’t have reviews yet on Bean Three, What Time Is It There? and that’s kind of crazy-making.
But it’s not just that. The current #Me,Too discussion has resonated deeply with me. I have a story. I’ll tell it in a bit—or as much of it as I can stand to. But first I want to talk about the plot of What Time Is It There? and why a bunch of it is set in my main character’s college radio station.
I was fascinated with radio at Bean Donohue’s age—even as a little kid. The odd geek girl who built a crystal radio in the 1960’s, I listened to the DJ’s spinning the records as much as I did the Beatles. I played with a shortwave radio receiver my father had built, loving the BBC announcers and the odd languages I couldn’t even identify.
When I got to college at a little upstate New York place much like the one I send Bean Donohue to in What Time Is It There?, I headed straight for the campus FM and got myself a show. There were almost no other women on the station: an older mostly newscaster, then a few girls who came up behind me. So an awful lot of my best friends when I was in undergrad school were men. That was weird at first, but I was grateful for them. I’d been pretty reclusive in high school—and the friendship of those young guys was refreshingly straightforward and unambiguous. Or so it seemed to me. Yeah, I got creeped on some. But mostly not. Mostly.
I knew when I got my main character Bean into college, it had to be in a book that was both a romance (don’t worry—there’s plenty of Zak in here…just not the way you’d think he’d show up) and the story of a great friendship. Bean’s best friend in college is a guy. Amp is a Mormon, like a long-lost dear friend of mine from college days—a music and God-obsessed hippie Mormon, one who's beginning to doubt his parents’ faith. His real name, which no one uses, is Briggs Higbee. Amp works on the campus station with Bean, and he may be my favorite character—ever. I really want you to read the book so you can meet him.
See, I’ve been thinking and thinking and here’s what I’ve come up with: men and women aren’t generally friends. It takes a special kind of guy to put aside the power dynamic and truly befriend (not just fall in love with, although the two things can be very happily related) a woman. If men and women knew how to be friends, I believe harassment and assault would be rare. Don’t get me wrong. There’s plenty of romantic love in my new book. But there’s also plenty of NON-romantic love, and I think that’s super important, too.
I can’t remember whether it was my own junior or senior year in that little upstate school I was telling you about when Jean Shepherd, a New York City radio story-teller and author I’d idolized since my childhood, came up to tell his tales. Jean Shepherd is the man who wrote the short story the film A Christmas Story is based on, and I adored him as a kid. He’d read a letter on the air that my high school BFF (another lovely and very nerdy girl) and I had written to his WOR radio show back when we were in junior high or maybe 9th grade.
So of course, I was very excited to meet Shep, as his fans called him—and very proud to be (as Bean is in the third book) program director of my campus FM. When he spoke at the school’s auditorium/performing venue, I made sure we did a remote broadcast of it, and stayed back in the studio to run the mixing board and interview my childhood hero when his talk was over.
My memories of that night are scattered. After the speech was over, I cut to DJing records. I remember looking up into the mirror over the board—and seeing Jean Shepherd come into the station with a big crowd of people. The control room was soundproofed, but a friend of mine told me what happened just before he opened the door to where I sat.
“Hey, Shep, what’s your hobby?” someone yelled.
“Chicks!” said Shepherd, and everyone laughed.
Then he was standing a little too close behind me. “Hey, baby, you’re peaking kind of…high,” he said—and that was true. In my nervousness, I wasn’t watching the levels of the music going out over the air. What followed was a really uncomfortable interview full of what we’d today call “that’s what she said” jokes. Or maybe we'd just call it harassment. I mainly remember being so embarrassed I could hardly breathe.
Afterwards, Shepherd insisted on going to the Student Union with me. He demanded that I log off from the show I was doing and go with him--that very minute. “Hey, baby, you run this place,” he said.
“I’ll take the show,” said a friend who’d come in with the crowd—guy named Art, the music director, probably meaning some flavor of well. So I was swept along with my old hero, arm candy, to a table full of laughing, hooting guys—not the good friends I’d thought they were.
I need to make one thing very clear: to Shepherd’s credit, he did not force himself on me in any physical way—although when the evening was over, it was obvious to me that things were turning into a your-room-or-mine situation. He mentioned his hotel. I ended up quietly calling campus security, who drove him back there. The last thing Jean Shepherd said to me, out the open back window of the white sedan that drove him away, was his room number.
Shepherd died when I was in my forties, and I heard about his death on my way to my English teaching job at the local high school. Despite everything, I had to pull the car off the road and cry for a few minutes.
For years, I told this story as a kind of joke. This year, it’s not funny anymore. Zak in The Bean Books says “Love is the heaviest energy of all,” and if there’s a theme that ties all three of my young adult books together, that is it. But there are all kinds of love. I’m hoping that Bean Three, What Time Is It There?, will add the friendship that I believe is still possible between men and women to the mix.