I bought, read and loved Luke Reynolds’ debut book, THE LOONEY EXPERIMENT. Robert Looney reminded me of my high school government teacher, Arnold Brix – brilliant but weird. Or is that “weirdly brilliant”? Whatever! It’s a personality type guaranteed to capture the minds and hearts of adolescents. Naturally, I had some questions for the author. (Writers always do.)
You dedicate your book to Robert Looney (for faith), to John Robinson (for hope) and to your wife Jennifer Reynolds, for love. I understand that Mr. Looney and Mr. Robinson were your teachers. Could you give some more details about Mr. Looney— i.e. when he was your teacher? Did he, too, use offbeat teaching methods? How did he influence you?
These two teachers—Mr. Looney and Mr. Robinson—are two of the most remarkable people I was fortunate to know and learn from. I had Mr. Robert Looney when I was a fifth grade student at John F. Kennedy Elementary School in Windsor, Connecticut. The real Mr. Looney had wild hair and endless energy, and the thing I remember most about him was when he stood on a chair during our first class session, held up the dreaded spelling textbook in his hand, and then proceeded to toss it into the trash. My friends and I were enthralled. That year, Mr. Looney led us through his self-titled FLAIR writing program, in which we crafted all kinds of stories, poems, and essays.
During college, when I was learning to be a teacher myself, Mr. John Robinson was my mentor teacher. John spoke about literature and writing with so much energy and love that I thought he would burst. His passion translated to his students and I found the two great passions of my own life: teaching and writing. I still correspond with both my inspiring teachers. The Looney Experiment exists because of their model, their passion, and their core beliefs.
I admire your use of similes! A few examples: Atticus’s teacher’s face “stretches out like she’s about to blow painful bubbles.” When she’s angry at Atticus, who’s afraid to speak in class, for not presenting his report, she looks at him “with eyes like the points of nails.” Shy, self-conscious Atticus pretends “My voice is like thunder.” His discomfort amuses the class bully: “a smirk grows like bacteria across Danny’s face, threatening to take over all the skin that remains.” Do you feel similes are particularly useful in writing for this age group? Why?
Similes feel really natural when I write. It’s the way my brain works. I love similes because I feel like they give layers of character and meaning to my book. I can only hope readers of The Looney Experiment feel similarly!
I rewrote a lot of the metaphors to try and keep them fresh and authentic. I owe MASSIVE gobs of gratitude to my amazing agent, Ammi-Joan Paquette. The Looney Experiment went through many drafts and Joan offered incredible counsel and ideas for revision. She gave me expert advice on how to keep the metaphors fresh and vivid. I also thought the character of Atticus Hobart—with his wildly active imagination—would be a huge fan of writing with metaphor as a lens through which he viewed the world!
When Atticus’s imagination takes over, he has inner dialogs with various people and objects (i.e., Robert Frost, his gray baseball tights, a sports commentator, Audrey Higgins) are funny and insightful. Did you start out using this technique?
The book did start with this technique in the first draft—and through all 11 versions, it kept the dialogue of intangible objects or long-dead (or non-existent but created) people would have conversations with Atticus. This was certainly the most FUN part of writing this novel. I kind of just let Atticus do his thing.
LOVE your description of Mr. Looney, who subs when his teacher goes on maternity leave: “. . . his sagging, crinkled skin looks like it’s going to fall right off his face and go sliding down his body until it hits the floor in a big puddle of soggy, soppy, old-person flesh.” Did you imagine this physical description right away? Or did you tinker with it throughout your writing process?
This was one of the original lines of the first draft. I realized that Mr. Looney had to be old—it had to seem to 8th graders that he should be in a nursing home rather than a classroom. When I read this part aloud to people, they half-laughed and half-gagged, and I thought: that’s just about the reaction I am hoping for.
Mr. Looney doesn’t fit into Atticus’s description of the four types of teachers. (I taught middle school for a year and they rang true for me.) Please summarize those four types for those who haven’t yet read your book. Which type best describes you?
Sure! The four types that Atticus describes are: 1) the Non-nonsense teacher (tough and could pummel your heart with a pinky). 2) The “Everything is Magical Teacher” who begins with a glow of positivity but rapidly descends into chaotic attempts to take back control because everyone is going ABSOLUTELY CRAZY! 3) The nice teacher who also is stern and whose class is pretty interesting. 4) The “I don’t give a darn about you” teacher. I hope I am in the category of the third teacher with a mix of Mr. Looney’s zaniness thrown in, but my students could answer that question much better than I can!
Atticus is also dealing with his critical and distant father moving out. As he mulls over what he, his mom, and his brother might have done to cause his dad to leave, he wonders: “I can’t figure out what’s worse: having a crappy dad who doesn’t really like you much or not having a dad at all.” This is just pitch perfect! Have you had your own students talk with you when their parents separated or divorced?
This is a huge issue for many of my students, and many do want to write and talk about it. For whatever reason, middle school seems like a time when parents choose to separate, so these students are grappling with intense and confusing emotions. I am in a public school system, so I can’t give these students a big hug and tell them that everything is going to be okay. We don’t always know how, but it will. And I remind them that it’s always good to talk things through with people they trust, to journal about it, to ask for help. The truly courageous always ask for help.
Mr Looney tells the class the one thing he’s learned in 47 years of teaching is: “We are most afraid of ourselves.” How did you as a writer come up with this?
I think this came right up out of my own heart. When I look at the situations I’ve been in throughout my life. I think I am most afraid of myself. Deep down, it’s not all the outward stuff and obstacles—it’s the inner stuff. I love what William Faulkner said about this in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech: “The young man or woman writing today has forgotten about the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat.”
Mr. Looney defines courage this way: “Courage is the ability to keep going no matter how hard life feels. How did you come up with such a simple, eloquent definition?
I used to admire protagonists who performed amazing acts of heroism. I thought they had the market cornered when it came to courage. But when I became a teacher, my views began to change (and that notion was positively crushed when I became a dad). I saw the students had courage when they faced really tough obstacles at home, but kept trying. And when, for a few years, I was a stay-at-home father in England, I saw that there was certainly no glory in that enterprise. There was no fanfare for a diaper well-changed or a tantrum skirted. I thought of those who fight unsung battles everyday (far tougher than mine), and began to see courage as the choice to keep moving forward when everything within and around you just wants to stop.
Mr. Looney’s only formal assignment is that the class read Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Atticus loves the book and is thrilled to learn his mother named him after Atticus Finch. What part did Harper Lee’s book play in the development of your debut novel?
Harper Lee’s Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird epitomized quiet courage. He makes the right choice and he keeps moving forward even though everyone thinks he’s doing something crazy—looney—and pointless. I loved that idea—the notion that courage can be doing anything that others say doesn’t make sense, but you know deep down it does. For Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird, the stakes are pretty high. So I wanted to change the stakes and show how the same kind of courage is evidenced when, like my character Atticus Hobart, we keep moving forward—with whatever hope we can muster—in our own small worlds and in our own lives.