Childhood buds Truman Capote and Harper Lee bonded over their shared loves of big words and Sherlock Holmes stories in G. Neri’s beloved middle grade novel Tru and Nelle. They return for three Christmases in Tru and Nelle: A Christmas Story, as the two friends come of age amid troubled times in Monroeville, Alabama. These Christmases aren’t always cheery, as Tru and Nelle face family struggles, racism, the injustice of the judicial system and much more. But hope—and good friendship—finds a way.
Tru and Nelle have started to grow up here. What kinds of individual changes did you want to explore, and what kinds of changes to their relationship?
I wanted to show the arc of a friendship. The first book focused of their childhood year, but the second is really about their coming of age as adolescents. The big thing I was trying to write about was that when you move away, everything changes in a friendship while you’re gone. Especially in your teen years. If you are away for two years, that’s like a fifth of your lifetime. You are undergoing big changes, which makes reunions so difficult to navigate. By the time you may find your rhythm, you’re torn apart again and have to start all over the next time.
Why did you continue their story through three Christmases?
I was thinking about the play, Same Time, Next Year, and what a wonderful narrative device that was to show the arc of a friendship. To tell a story over three separate reunions of sorts was always there. I was also struck by the beauty of Truman’s Christmas short stories, too, and wanted to pay homage to them as well. Whereas the first book was a tribute to To Kill a Mockingbird, this one focuses more on Tru’s world and the deep love of family in the face of the lack of understanding form the outside world.
The story opens with scenes about the good old days disappearing—there’s a sense of things lost, of favorite memories slipping away before childhood has even ended—but it seems to make way for new questions for Tru and Nelle. Tough goodbyes and forts burning down sever them from parts of their childhoods, but it opens them up to adolescence. This is a messy, gradual process; why signal this transformation with such sudden and sharp events?
Look, the teen years are a tough and glorious times of upheaval and discovery. The transition can be devastating for some but always life affirming if you can make it through intact. I was trying to find physical manifestations of this inner struggle, both the pain and joy of it. I wanted to show that, while things may be tough, they will get better and you’ll be the stronger for it later on.
Among many things that unite them, Tru and Nelle are outsiders. How do you think these “differences” from the rest of their small town impacted the writers they would become?
It’s the glue that bonds them together, through thick and thin. They may be opposites from each other, but they are each other’s yin and yang, and stand together against the outside world. Their outsider status also allowed them to be great observers of small-town life since they were not popular. They turned their pains and joys into writing and produced amazing literature because of it.
I especially enjoyed the character Sook, as I grew up reading and loving Capote’s A Christmas Memory. What is your favorite event from Tru’s and Nelle’s real lives that inspired something they wrote later on?
Mostly that they acted like detectives from an early age, solving small-town crimes together. It always amused me that they were still at it as adults, and that experience informed In Cold Blood, which they collaborated on in the research phase.
The scene of the murder trial is somber but incredibly well handled for the age group. What is the best way to approach topics of racism, mental illness, the failure of the judicial system, etc. with young readers?
I always like what E.B. White said: “Anyone who writes down to children is simply wasting his time. You have to write up, not down. Children are demanding. They are the most attentive, curious, eager, observant, sensitive, quick and generally congenial readers on earth. They accept, almost without question, anything you present them with, as long as it is presented honestly, fearlessly and clearly.” I believe in being honest in a human way about these issues. Kids don’t want a lecture or a moral at the end of a story. Start a dialogue with open questions that allow the reader to form their own answers. Let them discover and draw their own conclusions. That’s what life is all about.
Will we see Tru and Nelle again? What are you working on next?
I wrote a short story about them in old age which will complete this trilogy of sorts. But now I can put them to rest (unless less someone wants to make a Netflix series about them). I have two books coming out in 2018: When Paulie Met Artie, a picture book about the childhood friendship between Simon & Garfunkel (coming in March), and a graphic novel about my cousin, the racehorse thief turned advocate, called Grand Theft Horse (late fall). I’ve also just returned from two months in Antarctica and will be beginning a new book about that adventure, starting in the New Year.