Multiple award-winner Avi is a prolific and talented author who is unafraid of trying new formats. With more than 70 books, his canon of work includes almost every genre—contemporary fiction, historical fiction, fantasy, mysteries, YA and short stories. In The Most Important Thing, Avi returns to short stories, providing brief but keenly observant glimpses into the lives of seven boys and the fathers or grandfathers in their lives. He examines this powerful dynamic, this influential bond—which sometimes succeeds and soars, sometimes disappoints and wounds.
On the book jacket, you are quoted as saying, “Writing a short story is like trying to light your way through a dark cave with a tiny birthday candle. The flame may be small, but in the darkness, if the writer has done their job, how bright the light.” Just how hard is it to “shine that light,” to write short-form fiction, compared to the novels and historical fiction for which you’re prominently known?
Writing short stories is a singular challenge for me. I have to decide that is what I’m going to do and prepare myself by reading and rereading great short stories, reminding myself how short stories work. I need to think as a short story writer.
You’re both a father and a son; how do you answer the question posed in your title? What is the most important thing a father can do for his son?
Over the years I have been parentally responsible for six kids. What I have learned is that the most important thing you can do is love your children. But equally important—and often much harder—is (particularly when they are teenagers) to convince them that you do love them. There are aspects of parenting that can be automatic. But for the most part, it is hard, conscious work. I also think, in our culture, fathers struggle with this more than mothers.
"If boys saw their fathers read, it would make a huge difference. In families where parents read to their children (which has a big impact), more often than not it is the mother that reads. Why not fathers?"
What have you learned as both father and son that helped you form these stories? Is one more personal to you than the others?
The relationship between father and son is complex, changeable and always challenging. It is also deeply rewarding. While fathers and sons obviously share many, many things, they are different people. There is a need to respect these differences, even as there is a need to celebrate the similarities.
My father was a poor father, often psychologically abusive. That said, I learned from him what not to do and be. The story "Beat Up" is based on something that really happened between us.
Most of the stories in this collection aren’t set in a specific geographic place, making them a bit more universal. Was this intentional when you first began to assemble this collection?
I did want to locate them in different places, which allows for different worlds to explore.
The boys in this collection face danger, death, broken families, new relationships and acceptance—or lack thereof. Those are some tough yet very realistic topics. What do you hope readers will take away from this collection?
The goal of all my writing is to entertain and bring emotions to my readers, whether it be excitement, laughter or maybe even fear. Hopefully that will happen here. But just as I don’t think fathers are always willing to grasp the complexity of their son, sons are often not fully understanding of their fathers. Maybe these stories will help with that.
While this book can be enjoyed by any young reader, it will speak to boys—who can be reluctant readers. It’s a constant struggle for parents, librarians and educators to get books into the hands of boys and to keep them interested enough to keep reading. Based on all your experiences as an award-winning writer and father, do you have any advice for getting boys more interested in reading?
In our culture, reading in many ways has been feminized. That’s to say boys generally see more girls and women read than men. If boys saw their fathers read, it would make a huge difference. In families where parents read to their children (which has a big impact), more often than not it is the mother that reads. Why not fathers? And if families can share a book all together that’s the best. Talking about books, characters, plots etc., makes books more of a living experience.
Let boys pick the books they wish to read.
Listening to books (audiobooks) can make an impact.
You’ve been frequently honored for your work, and you’ve been doing it for so many years. What does the process of writing continue to bring to your life? How has it changed, if at all?
I never cease to enjoy the writing of a good story, one that will grab and entertain a reader. That said, writing is hard and, if anything, gets harder, because I want everything I write to be better than the last thing I wrote. Doesn’t always happen, but I try. All day. Most days.
Your next book, The Button War (2018), is a return to one of your fortes, historical fiction. Can you tell us a bit about it?
There is no book until it’s written, and not merely in my head. I can’t wait to write it so I know what it will be about. Till then . . .