2011 National Book Award Finalist,
Young People's Literature

Gary D. Schmidt

Gary Schmidt by Myrna Anderson

Okay for Now

Clarion Books, an imprint of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Interview by Eisa Nefertari Ulen

Eisa Nefertari Ulen: In your YA novel, Okay for Now, an ordinary boy named Doug helps an entire community heal. Though Doug is dispossessed of a stable home life, he manages to heal his own family, too. Significantly, Doug is an artist. In your book, art is not just a thing to be admired on a wall. Art, in your book, does something. It works. Its value is not only in its beauty but in what its beauty does. Do you think the role of the artist in community is to heal? Is healing the function of art?

Gary D. Schmidt: Healing is a function of art—though certainly not its only function. St. Augustine—and I know this is sounding a little heavy here—Augustine argued that art’s purpose is to serve. Healing is one way that it serves. But art is also something to be admired on a wall—we affirm this whenever we go to see a museum display. And art entertains by engagement and delight. And art gives us an encounter with beauty. And art speaks about and for a culture and the culture’s deepest concerns and questions. And art affirms meaning and the ability of one human soul to communicate with another human soul in powerful ways. All of these functions, it seems to me, are at play when we encounter any work of art—a painting, a novel, a dance, an overture, a textile sculpture, a poem, a song, an oral story. That art can do all of this does give us hope, and hope is the beginning of healing.

ENU: Theatre is also important in your book, as Doug and Lil are cast in a hit Broadway play that their neighbor writes. On page 300, Doug says, “When Mr. McElroy found out about the Broadway play, he wanted to take a whole period talking about the role of actors in world history but the only actor any of us could think of was John Wilkes Booth. ‘I guess actors aren’t so important after all,’ said Mr. McElroy. ‘You can’t imagine an actor ever becoming president of the United States, for example,’ which was true. We couldn’t.” Have we lost something dear now that an actor has become president, a pro wrestler has become a governor, and reality TV stars have replaced people like the neighborhood police officer, the local librarian, and Yankee player Joe Pepitone (whom Doug thanks for “everything” on page 322) as the new role models? If so, what have we lost?

GDS: This is really the question of the hour now that we are a single year away from an election. We now assume as a culture that our most important national leaders cannot be elected if they are not telegenic. What an appalling place to be. Do we really want to say that only the attractive and golden-tongued should serve as our leaders? And I guess the answer to this is, Yes, we do. And I guess I would ask, How well has this served us in the last fifty years?

But that’s an easy answer to a complex question. And I’m not ready yet to say that the celebrity is a role model. Fashion-wise, maybe so. But in terms of life decisions, I’m not ready to give in to despair. I teach at a college where 55% of our graduates go into non-profit vocations. I honor them for that, and also take great hope from it. When our culture keeps saying, Become famous. Become beautiful. Earn lots of bucks. People will respect you if you earn lots of bucks. Want this, want that, want this, want that. In that kind of a culture, to have students opt for non-profit careers is a sign of deep light that will not be easily extinguished.

Maybe someday everyone will want to be an American idol. That would be a sad day. To want to be an idol is hardly a healthy thing. To want to live the good life—to find real and true and lasting love, to have enough, to be able to serve and give to others, to grow in learning and understanding, to stand with a friend, a lover, a daughter, and son and to enjoy a painting, a concert, a mountain-top view, books, to live a life that is more than merely commercial but is, in deep ways, spiritual—I think, in the end, we all know what the good life is. Models of such a life will always be honored—albeit quietly, as is right.

ENU: The 1960s are associated with activism. Most Americans think of mid-20th century protesters as people who sacrificed to repair the damage of racism, classism, sexism, and war. Yet on pages 209 – 210, the anti-Vietnam war protestors are violent, cruel, and very very wrong. Do you think America was improved by the Protest Era; or, is it your assertion that something went awry in the 1960s, the period in which your book is set?

GDS: At their best, the protests of the 1960s were expressions of deep distrust of an authority established without any kind of real commitment to the larger population. That is, when most of those who are forced to fight, do not want to fight, and when most of the country disagrees with the fight, then why should a few folks in power who are eager to save their own faces make the decisions? It is a powerful question, and one that has been asked since William Bradford and crew aboard the Mayflower declared that they would make the decisions that governed the group, not some faraway power that asserted authority over them. To put this question another way, What happens when a representative democracy is hijacked and no longer becomes truly representative?

That was the question that the protest movement asked in the 1960s—and that we are asking right now in America.

ENU: It’s hard to imagine a kid like Doug delivering groceries today. Most likely, a parent would drive him from house to house in the family SUV. But Doug’s job, made enormously challenging by lousy weather and his own crushing poverty, enables authentic human relationships to form. One of the most important reasons he enters customers’ lives, and they enter his, is the intensity of his struggle to make the deliveries. Doug’s hard work and dedication enable him to become a stronger, better person—and his customers become better people, too. Do you think more kids today would be better off if they had to struggle to complete a task under difficult conditions—without a cell phone to call Mommy or Daddy to help?

GDS: It seems to me that all kids want, in the end, competence; they want to be good at something. For some kids this will mean athletics; for others, fishing; for others, art; for others, academics; for others, technical skills. Whatever the skill, all kids want competence. And they want affirmation for that competence.

Certainly part of that desire for competence is a desire for independence and resourcefulness. You bet kids want this—especially kids coming into middle school, when they are beginning to turn their faces toward the adult world, where they will have to make decisions and take responsibilities. While it is true that our culture wants to keep kids in perpetual adolescence, it is equally true that a kid, unless encouraged to stay there, wants to grow up. Peter Pan, in the end, is wrong: to live in the eternal present is to have nothing but the present. If having a job, or chores, or tasks at school help that process, then they will ultimately be embraced. Doug does this instinctively, as, I think, most kids do.

ENU: The theme of flight is beautiful and consistent in Okay for Now, from the Audubon birds, to Mr. Ballard’s flight jacket, the Apollo moon landing, and “the beauty of strong wings.” Even horseshoes fly in this book. Were you the kind of kid who was obsessed with airplanes and rocket ships? Why is flight so important to you?

GDS: Every so often there is a question for which I have no answer, and this is one. I was not obsessed with airplanes or rockets, though I was interested enough in them, I guess. But it wasn’t the case that they fascinated me, or that I thought about them a great deal. I think the references to flight are, in fact, a motif that developed in the book, and probably actually begins with the opening speech by Mr. Ferris about castles in the air—a speech drawn from the end of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden. But not all motifs are autobiographical, and this one isn’t.

 

Eisa Nefertari Ulen is the author of Crystelle Mourning, a novel described by The Washington Post as “a call for healing in the African American community from generations of hurt and neglect.” She is the recipient of a Frederick Douglass Creative Arts Center Fellowship for Young African American Fiction Writers and a Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center Fellowship. Her essays, exploring topics ranging from Hip Hop to Muslim life in America post-9/11 to contemporary Black literature to the gap between the Civil Rights generation and Generation X, have been widely anthologized. Nominated by Essence magazine for a National Association of Black Journalists Award, she has contributed to numerous other publications, including The Washington Post, Ms., Health, Heart & Soul, Vibe, The Source, The Crisis, Black Issues Book Review, Quarterly Black Review of Books, TheRoot.com,TheDefendersOnline.com, TheGrio.com, and CreativeNonfiction.org. Ulen graduated from Sarah Lawrence College and earned a master’s degree from Columbia University. A founding member of Ringshout: A Place for Black Literature, she lives with her husband and son in Brooklyn. You can reach Eisa online and read her blog at: www.EisaUlen.com.