An Indies Introduce Q&A With Chris Negron

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Dan Unmasked by Chris NegronChris Negron is the author of Dan Unmasked (HarperCollins), a Summer/Fall 2020 Indies Introduce middle grade selection.

“Dan is a middle school boy, a baseball captain, a super comic book creator, and the best friend of fellow baseball star and comic fanatic Nate. When Nate gets lost in a coma, what some call a mysterious Nexus, Dan and his daring crew try to find their own way to rescue him,” said Drew Durham of Books Inc. in Palo Alto, California, who served on the bookseller panel who selected Negron’s debut. “This stellar, heartwarming, reassuring, layered, childhood-affirming, and brave story will awaken even the most reluctant hero in all readers.”

Negron grew up near Buffalo, New York, where he spent his childhood collecting comic books, loving sports, and playing Dungeons and Dragons. He studied computer science at Yale University, where he also wrote about sports for the Yale Daily News. He has had a number of short stories published by literary journals and online magazines, and he is now a member of the Atlanta Writers Club.

Here, Durham asks Negron about his debut work.

Drew Durham: I noticed your author biography shares similarities to the story of Dan Unmasked. What really inspired your debut? What surprised you most about your writing process?

Chris Negron (photo by Bobbi Jo Brooks Photography)
Chris Negron (photo by Bobbi Jo Brooks Photography)

Chris Negron: Dan Unmasked is sort of inspired by a single year: 1984. That year I was 13, the same age both Dan and Nate are in my story. When I look back on 1984, it seems like so many of my favorite things come from then, whether music or movies or — maybe especially so — comics. That year was also when the San Diego Padres — always and forever my favorite baseball team — made their first World Series appearance.

With all those favorites coming from that one year, it struck me that to be 13 was, at least for me, to be at an age where you’re open to all sorts of good stuff, new stuff that seems to have been made just for you and becomes your immediate and lifelong favorite. On the flip side, though, I think that age can also be a time for a particularly strong vulnerability to the bad stuff, too.

I had a friend who was injured at a baseball practice, and I remember having a desperate urge to fix it, even though I wasn’t involved in the incident. Still, I remembered that emotion really well. And, of course, when I started working on Dan Unmasked, one of the things you do as a writer is ask yourself a ton of those “What if?” questions that lead to transforming something personal into something that perhaps takes on a more story-sized shape.

What if my friend’s injury had been more severe? What if I had thought the accident that caused it was somehow my fault? How much more desperate would I have been to find a way to fix what I thought I had broken?

So that’s the story I gave to Dan Summers, and I think probably what surprised me the most about the writing process as a whole was, despite keeping fairly close to the essential core of the story the entire time, how much it changed during its journey. It’s funny, because my wife made a comment about the book a few nights ago, along the lines of “remember when this [redacted terrible plot idea] was in the story?” And my reaction at first was, “Oh, you have the wrong book.” But she was right, that terrible idea was in this book at one time. I can hardly imagine it now; the book now seems so distant from that previous incarnation of it.

DD: Can you explain the dynamic relationship between Dan and Nate? What was the inspiration for their friendship? What message do you have for friendships in today’s context?

CN: I was very lucky to have a number of great friendships throughout my time in middle school. It’s actually been really wonderful to have some of them who I hadn’t heard from in years emerge to congratulate me or ask how they can attend the launch party.

Different aspects of Dan Unmasked come from a bunch of those different relationships, and each of my old friends will likely recognize a little something in the story. My closest neighbors and I built a bike trail in the woods of our neighborhood much like Dan and Nate do behind Dan’s house. Another group of friends were my baseball and basketball teammates, and teams end up being really important in this book. Still another group were my nerdy Dungeons & Dragons friends. We played in the basement of two of my friends not too different from the place Dan and his friends gather to read their monthly comic. Yet another group of us were baseball geeks, meeting in the library first thing in the morning to pore over box scores (no internet back then!) and after school to pick teams and play a baseball card game we still reminisce about in occasional texts. I’m sure those particular friends will enjoy the baseball scenes in Dan Unmasked the most.

So I can’t say that I was thinking of any particular one of these old friends when I created the friendship between Dan and Nate, but I would say that if Dan is representative of me in some small way, then Nate’s character is probably an amalgam of all those fantastic friends I had at that age.

And while I’m not sure I set out to convey a particular message about friendship with this project, I guess I hope if the book shows kids anything on the topic, maybe it’s that you should have your eyes and heart wide open to the other kids around you at all times. Not just ones who are like you, but maybe especially those who are different from you in lots of ways. You can always find common ground in shared interests like baseball and comics and a ton of other things.

Because I think a big part of Dan’s story is the fact that even as he’s using all his powers to rescue his oldest and best friend, he makes several really important new friends in the process, too. Those new friends are kids he might not have noticed before Nate’s accident, and they’re instrumental in helping him face the challenges and struggles he encounters during the journey of the book.

DD: Dan Unmasked feels so real and vividly relatable, even when Nate is in his coma. Why did you choose to put Nate into mortal limbo?

CN: I think I knew from the beginning that Dan’s story was about certain major themes. Blaming yourself or being too hard on yourself when a bad thing happens was one. Teamwork and relying on your team was definitely another. Also, of course, the healing power of friendship.

And I think I knew for those themes to come through in the precise way, I was thinking about them when I was first working on the book, I needed the proper canvas to render them onto, sort of like deciding ahead of time which surface to work on to create a painting.

For Dan Unmasked, that blank canvas starts with the really strong friendship between Dan and Nate, which I hope I’m able to show well in the early part of the book. But in order for the core of the book to come through in full color, I knew that eventually and unfortunately, something really bad had to happen to disrupt the place of comfort that friendship represented for Dan. Ultimately, for that I had my memory of my friend’s accident and the emotions it created in me — emotions that I’m sure I kept mostly to myself at the time, by the way. And then those “What if?” questions involved in the writing process led me to uncover a way to make it more severe, personal, and long-lasting. I suppose that’s how the idea for Nate’s coma was birthed.

DD: Comics and baseball make up the majority of the plot points of the book. Why did you choose these two childhood favorite pastimes?

CN: I was going through quite a bit in my writing career when I first started working on Dan Unmasked. A professional relationship that was important to me was coming to an end, and I was feeling like my support team was shrinking as a result. I guess it’s no surprise I ended up writing a book about teams.

There’s a saying in writing: “Write what you know.” But I didn’t want to do merely that. After several manuscripts previous to Dan Unmasked, I was at a point in my career where I felt as though was hitting a make or break moment, and “write what you know” didn’t seem good enough.

I decided to “Write what I love” instead.

Two of those things I love, going all the way back to that infamous 1984 year, have always been baseball and comics. So pretty quickly I developed a plot and idea that would allow me to write a story that included both of those “loves.” Not only that, but I have some particular points in the book where the characters tell us WHY they love baseball and comics, which I felt was really important and was also a lot of fun for me to explore in myself.

What is it I love so much about these things? What was it when I was a kid? How has it changed over time? I just think those introspections are some really important moments in this book. I didn’t set out for it to become a message in Dan Unmasked, per se. It just made its way to the page. Looking back on it now, though, I would say I hope those intentional explorations of WHY you love things you do might encourage kids (or maybe even…adults?) to have a kind of permission to shout out about the things they love, whether they be baseball or comics or anything else. Because, in the end, it’s super okay to let loose about how much you admire your best friend, for example, and to not be afraid to tell him or her why. I think a core idea in Dan Unmasked is that there’s nothing wrong with a little vulnerability.

DD: What role do superheroes play in your book? What do you want your readers to learn from your book in today’s world? What would Dan say to today’s readers?

CN: Someone who hasn’t read Dan Unmasked will probably think this question refers to the obvious — the comic book embedded in the novel, with actual “superheroes” like Captain Nexus, the Blue Witch, the Red Flame, Spark and Nexus Boy. It’s quite a team — costumes and capes and a headquarters building and all of it. And, of course, those characters do play a big role in the story.

But the comic book characters in their costumes and capes aren’t the real heroes of Dan’s story at all. The real heroes are his friends, and the adults around him, too — all of whom exhibit unexpected powers to help him out at just the right moment. His parents, the doctors at the hospital, a comic book creator, his baseball coach, and his teammates — new and old — all work together to help Dan see the world in a new way and cope with what he’s going through. They make sure he’s not alone.

Dan learns a lot in his journey, and I guess I hope readers see the same sorts of lessons he did. Specific to the superheroes aspect, I would say the key one is: If you’re struggling with something, maybe you don’t have to hold it in. Perhaps the adults around you have more powers to help than you realize. So don’t be afraid to let others in on what’s going on inside you.

And finally, I think, if he could break the fourth wall and turn to his readers, the Dan at the end of the book — a different, slightly more grown-up Dan than the one from the beginning — might say a few of these things:

“Heroes are everywhere, you just have to know where to look for them.”

“You might think from reading comics that it’s having powers that makes you a hero, but it’s actually the other way around. Being a hero is the thing that gives you the powers. Your everyday actions and deeds are what being a hero is all about, and that’s why they don’t all wear capes.”

“Friendship is a superpower.”

(And after that last one, Dan might turn to the camera, Ferris Bueller-style, and ask, “I mean, didn’t you read the cover?”)

Dan Unmasked by Chris Negron (HarperCollins, 9780062943057, Hardcover Middle Grade, $16.99) On Sale Date: 7/28/2020.

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