From the Heartland: Kevin Waltman

My recent interview with Crystal Allen got me wondering who are the Indiana authors who write about teens of color? This is an important question when you consider how many YA books are set in NYC. Teens in Indiana , or any state, benefit from stories set where they live because setting can provide one more way for young readers to relate to their reading. Stories that mention the Pacers, Fort Wayne or Turkey Run State Park not only resonates with readers, but they also let readers  know that where they live matters and indeed they must, too.

Local authors are also important for teachers and librarians. Little can emphasize the importance of reading and writing more that a visit from these experts! Don’t we all get giddy around these rock stars of words and imagination?

You’ve met Crystal and I have several others for you to meet over the next couple of weeks. While some have lived in Indiana their entire life, others passed through for a few years. “Once a Hoosier, always a Hoosier!”

These are the authors those students I used to teach in Indianapolis would just love to meet!

Kevin Waltman lived in Indiana for his childhood, high school and college years. Indiana is where Kevin developed his love of basketball, partially because, well this is Indiana! But more important, his dad was legendary college coach Royce Waltman. Kevin currently lives in Alabama. Most recently, he’s been writing the D-Bow High School Hoops Series (Cinco Puntos Press). The first book in the series, Next came out in 2013 and Slump releases in October.

Where did you grow up?

            I was born in Bedford, Pennsylvania, where I lived until I was 11. After that, I lived in Bloomington, Indiana, for five years, then in Greencastle, Indiana, where I went to high school and college (DePauw University). After college I lived briefly in Washington, D.C., before moving to Indianapolis for five years before moving down to Alabama, where I’ve lived since 2001.

Do you have any pets?

          Our dog Henry. Technically, he’s my wife Jesssica’s dog, as she adopted him before we started dating—but we’ve been together for 9 years now, so Henry feels very much like my dog, too.

What were some of the first books you found as a child that turned you into a reader?

            As a little child, I read and read, but the series of books that stand out in my memory are the Black Stallion books. I just couldn’t get enough of those. Like a lot of boys, I hit a bit of dead period in my reading in my teens, but The Catcher in the Rye got me jump-started again.

Which famous person would you most like to write a review for your book?

           Roy Hibbert or Mike Conley, Jr. They’re both NBA players with Indiana connections, and they seem genuinely interested in helping young people—my potential readers.

What book(s) are you currently in the middle of reading?

            I just started The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon, but I’m only a couple pages in, so it hasn’t taken over my imagination yet. Before that, I read On Such a Full Sea by Chang-Rae Lee, which is honestly one of the best books I’ve read in some time, at least since The Wind-up Bird Chronicle. And I’m also reading a tale from The Complete Sherlock Holmes in between every other book I read.

Is there much difference between life in Indiana and life in Alabama?

            Alabama’s hotter. Okay, that’s a bit of a joke, but in some ways that underscores other differences. The more rural nature of Alabamians, their relationships to the land, their penchant for comfort food—all of it seems influenced at least in part by the Southern weather. There are, certainly, other differences. Alabama, like other Southern states is more conservative, more religious, and poorer than Midwestern counterparts. However, though those traits are broadly true, the differences on those fronts don’t seem particularly pronounced when compared to Indiana.

                  Then, of course, there’s sports. I sometimes get rather quizzical looks when I tell Alabamians that I’m writing novels that focus in part on basketball, where in Indiana that is rather central to most people’s activities. Down here, it’s football first. And second. And always.

I have noticed that you teach writing at the university level. I would think teaching writing would be so difficult because there are just some things about writing that one cannot teach. What is it about teaching this skill that you enjoy?

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Click to hear a podcast interview with Kevin.

            It depends on what type of writing you’re talking about. I teach a lot of English Composition, which is really about preparing first-year students to write academic essays: how to research information and cite it; how to analyze and develop arguments; how to explore a topic as even-handedly as possible. That seems quite teachable if a student is actually earnest in wanting to learn. Creative writing is trickier, and I think that’s probably what you’re referring to here. In some ways, teaching that is largely telling students to break all the rules that they’ve been taught in English Composition. Rather than one or two accepted styles, there are endless styles. Rather than painstakingly developing “argument,” they can let go of “having a point” altogether. They can fabricate things. They can make up words. They can re-invent themselves over and over again. English Composition is like teaching students how to make a good lasagna, with a few possible variations they might try once they master the recipe. Teaching creative writing is like taking students to a kitchen and pointing out all the possible ingredients, then saying, “Have at it.”

                  In both cases, though, there are times when, as an instructor, you can actually see moments of recognition in students. You’ve maybe told them something a dozen times, but for whatever reason that final explanation clicks for them, and you immediately see a breakthrough in their writing—which also means a breakthrough in how they conceive of themselves as scholars and writers. That’s rather rewarding.

What attracted you to writing about basketball?

            My dad was a basketball coach (in order: Bedford High School head coach; assistant coach at Indiana University; then head coach at DePauw University, the University of Indianapolis, and Indiana State University). Basketball was a part of me from the get-go. Though I played poorly and quit my high school team, I always loved to play—and I was an avid pick-up player until a few years ago when I hurt my knee. But more than playing, I watched endless hours of basketball. When I was a kid, I’d get dropped off after school at the Bedford gym where my dad was running practice. As a teenager, I watched every game on ESPN every single night. I went to hundreds of my dad’s games. I went to Pacers games, to random college games, to tournament games in Indianapolis and Milwaukee and Nashville. To Final Fours in Atlanta and Denver. Alabama games. Summer league games. I once tried to estimate how much time I’ve spent watching basketball—it came out roughly to a full year of my life.

                  So, to answer your question: writing about basketball feels almost as natural as breathing.

How did you decide you wanted to write for teens?

            This is a little trickier. I don’t know if it was ever a conscious decision, as much as it was a happy accident. Sometime in 2000, I met the now-somewhat-famous-y.a.-author David Levithan, and he was busy scouting authors for a new y.a. imprint at Scholastic, where he is an editor. I sent him some material. He liked it. And that’s how my first y.a. novel, Nowhere Fast, began. I followed that up with Learning the Game for Scholastic in 2005, and then after a hiatus where I was working on other projects, I returned to y.a. for Next. It’s good to be back.

Is it difficult to maintain Kevin’s character over 3 books? In what ways does he develop?

            Well, I’m in the middle of writing the third book now. And this is the first time that I’ve ever written a series. So the tricky part has been balancing “maintaining” characters while changing them enough so that there’s real development from book to book. At the same time, I can’t totally reinvent Derrick or any other character when I start a new manuscript—they need to have some consistency. In fact, Derrick—because his basketball goals keep him so focused—has been in some ways the slowest to change. He changes all right, but his end goal stays the same, and as I work on the third book I find that other characters—Wes, Jasmine, Uncle Kid—are undergoing more radical changes around Derrick.

It sounds like there are many generational messages in the D-Bow series. What influenced you to put those relationships into your stories?

            I think there are two forces. The first is that, with sports, it’s hard to separate the player from his parentage (in whatever form that may come). One of the most touching moments in sports over the last few years was Kevin Durant’s MVP speech, particularly his words for his mother. Any player, if he’s honest with himself, owes something. For Derrick, his parents keep him grounded and disciplined, and they keep him from taking an easier—and more questionable—path. Meanwhile, Uncle Kid has been vital to his development as a player. And even if it’s not about growth as a player and a person, the way people experience sports when they’re young is often a way to share an experience with a parent: watching or going to a game together.

                  The other forces are personal. I’ve recently become a parent, and as any parent will tell you that changes everything. There is not a single idea or object in my world that hasn’t been somehow altered and made more brilliant by our daughter’s presence. Her exhilaration at her world becomes mine. So while I’m not consciously putting anything in my books about her, I’m a fool to think that anything I do is left unaffected by her. And, finally, I recently lost my father. Again, that’s not something I’ve consciously worked into the books—in fact, I revised Slump so Derrick’s father’s health problems were less similar to my own father’s. But, again, my own relationship to sports is inextricably tied to my own relationship to my father. So my dad—and my history with him—hovers like a shadow beside every sentence I write in this series.

What does diversity mean to you?

            To me, it means a goal that Americans still need to meet. I don’t mean to deny the progress America has made, not just since the pre-Civil Rights era, but since I was a kid. Most students I encounter now almost reflexively champion the benefits of diversity, though there are still exceptions. That’s great, but I think sometimes it’s lip service. That’s true of individuals who praise diversity publicly because they’re “supposed to,” but who don’t embrace any policies that might actually bring such diversity about. And it’s true of America in general, too. I live just outside of Tuscaloosa, Alabama, which was recently featured in The Atlantic in a story about how our public schools are being re-segregated. It makes sense to focus on Tuscaloosa, since it’s in the self-proclaimed “Heart of Dixie,” but the sad truth—and I don’t offer this in any way to acquit Tuscaloosa of the charges that article leveled—is that such re-segregation is happening all over the country. And that kind of segregation creates a persisting “underclass” that Americans—or at least too few of the officials we elect to office—don’t seem to care that much about, no matter how much we extol the virtues of diversity.

                  So, yes, we’ve come a long way, but I think there’s a self-satisfaction because we see “diversity” all over our televisions, or at college graduation ceremonies, or even in some board rooms. Those images, important as they are, blind us from the segregation that exists between the haves and the disproportionately minority have-nots. There’s work to be done.

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3 thoughts on “From the Heartland: Kevin Waltman

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