The teens at the heart of Peter Brown Hoffmeister's first YA novel, This Is the Part Where You Laugh, have more trials than would seem fair. Travis lives in a trailer park with his grandparents, his grandmother has cancer, and he's always on the lookout for his homeless, heroin-addicted mother. His best friend, Malik (aka Creature), can't help but get himself in trouble. And the new girl, Natalie, is clearly uncomfortable in her own home. But for all that life throws at them, their hearts stay gold—something that always is clear, despite a little shoplifting and trash-talk on the basketball court. There's plenty of humor through all the pain, especially Creature's hilarious "dirty love letters" to Russian princesses.
Hoffmeister is the author of six books and a high-school English teacher in Oregon. Here he shares a look behind his sharp new novel.
This Is The Part Where You Laugh started as a short story. I was writing about two teenage friends. Each day, the one who owned a car would come pick up his other friend before school. The driver was obsessed with Russian princesses and was writing a series of dirty love letters to these long-dead royals. Meanwhile, his friend's mother was dying of cancer, and that wasn't being talked about at all. The second boy was dealing quietly with his own personal tragedy while the driver talked on and on about dead Russian girls that he was in love with. The story was really about power, how we make choices in our lives but still some things happen that are beyond our control.
When I moved the story to Ayres Lake—a real location in Eugene, Oregon—the story opened up. Expanded. My wife's Auntie Ruth died on the trailer-park side of that lake opposite the wealthy landowners with their sprawling lawns and half-million-dollar homes. I wanted to write a romance between a boy from the trailer park and a girl from the wealthy side, but I didn't want to write something cliché or make caricatures of teens. I wanted to show that we all have problems. We're all dealing with our own issues. We all have an idealized future out there in front of us, and we're hoping to make that future happen somehow.
In the novel, Travis' grandmother—whom he lives with—is dying of cancer. His mother is homeless, and Travis used to sleep in weekly motels with her, in dumpsters or down by the river. I was a homeless teen for a short while, and I've slept behind dumpsters, on sidewalk grates, under bridges, in hedges, etc. I know how that feels, how vulnerable a person is when he sleeps outside in a city. I've been kicked awake by heroin addicts and I've been kicked awake by police officers. Also, Travis got in trouble at school in the past and was arrested. I was expelled from three high schools and arrested as a teen, so there are some similarities between my real life struggles and the narrator's.
But the novel expanded far beyond me. Travis releases crocodiles on the lake to make his grandmother's final days more interesting. His friend—nicknamed Creature—is writing The Pervert's Guide To Russian Princesses. All of that challenged my imagination. And Natalie is a sarcastic and sometimes foul-mouthed soccer-player girl. Her voice was really fun to write, but I had to go outside of myself. I had to listen to my high-school daughter and her friends to understand how that voice would sound. I was also a high-school English teacher while I revised this novel, so I listened for the ways that my characters would talk, listened for specific, realistic phrases and cadences in the speech of my many different students. I had to put these fictional characters together, and I wanted the book to be as real as possible. I was writing romance and tragedy mixed with dark, dark humor, so what I was actually writing was real life. Hopefully readers will enjoy the experience.