Finding hope and solace in books
Travis Roberts is a quiet, angry 13-year-old who can’t read. He uses his fists more than his mouth and is always looking to punch someone, including his grandpa. Velveeta Wojciehowski is a sparkplug with a collection of brightly colored scarves, and one day, she plunks down next to Travis at lunch and decides to be his friend, offering him no choice in the matter.
Travis and Velveeta could not be more different, though they have one thing in common: They both have hardened secrets buried beneath their outer shells. Things begin to change when McQueen, their English teacher, assigns books to the two teens and makes it clear that he sees some potential in them.
Pat Schmatz’s Bluefish, for which she won the 2010 PEN/Phyllis Naylor Working Writer Fellowship, is unsentimental and tough, and she tells the story with heart and immense respect for her characters. We picked Schmatz’s brain in a Q&A to find out more about the Bluefish misfits and where they came from.
You have said that Bluefish began with tight-lipped loner Travis. How did Velveeta enter the story? What makes her sit down next to Travis, her complete opposite?
Velveeta showed up in maybe the third revision. One day she wasn’t there, in my head or on the page, and the next day she was. As for why she sat down with Travis, it’s like she said—because he gave Bradley his shoe back. Travis interacted with Bradley in a way that nobody ever had. Velveeta is always looking for anything that steps outside the boundary of “that’s just the way it is”—and there was Travis. Way outside of that boundary.
Both Velveeta and Travis carry a lot of baggage, even at age 13. Velveeta’s secrets are revealed through letters to her deceased neighbor, Calvin, while Travis’ sections are written in third person. Why is Velveeta given the intimacy of letters while Travis is kept at a greater distance?
I could not possibly write Velveeta in third person—she is so loud and insistent and bossy in my head, she wouldn’t allow it. Travis, on the other hand, had to be coaxed to speak. I tried a draft in first person from Travis and it was frankly boring. Besides, Travis is not one to write, and so it felt false to have him writing a story, especially his own story. He wouldn’t do it.
Travis has trouble getting along with his grandfather, and Velveeta’s mother is too lost in her own sadness to act as a real parent. However, both teens find guidance through their relationships with other adults—Travis with his teacher McQueen, Velveeta with Calvin. Did you have an adult in your life who played a similar role when you were a kid?
I didn’t have an adult like that. I did, however, have books. I read some books over and over, extracting information about how people moved in the world, how they were kind, how they helped one another. So I guess I could say that Mrs. Whatsit, along with a few others, played that role for me.
McQueen gives both Velveeta and Travis books to read: The Book Thief and Haunt Fox, respectively. The plotlines of the two books both reflect and influence the lives of both characters. Which came first, the idea to use the two books, or Travis’ and Velveeta’s stories?
Travis’ and Velveeta’s stories came first, although I knew from the start that a book would influence Travis. Originally it was Chip the Dam Builder, also by Kjelgaard. Then, as the story shifted, Haunt Fox was a better fit.
Which book was most important to you when you were Travis and Velveeta's age?
The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton. I first read it in sixth grade and immediately read it again. I carried it with me for months, and read it over and over throughout middle school and high school. I still read it periodically, and I’ve memorized so many passages that they run through my head all the time.
Velveeta comes up with some fun nicknames for Travis, including Travicus and Travikins. What would she nickname you? Where did the name Velveeta come from?
Velveeta would have a blast with my name. Schmatzski, Schmatzerelli, Schmatzoid, etc. As for Velveeta’s name, she arrived on the page totally intact with that name. Later, I came up with her given name of Vida after my great-aunt Vida, who had a tough life and would have benefitted tremendously from a Calvin to watch out for her.
Your previous YA novel, Mousetraps, dealt with issues of coming out, being a gay teen, bullying and much more. What type of readers do you hope will get their hands on Bluefish, and what do you hope they’ll take from it?
I read a very early draft of Bluefish to my friend Kim, who had trouble learning to read back in the 1960s, and she couldn’t believe that I (purely by accident—I hadn’t thought about her when I started it) was writing some piece of her story. From that day forward she pushed and pushed for me to revise and work and get Bluefish published, and she heard almost every draft along the way. The book is dedicated to her, because once I saw the effect it had on her, I wanted to do my best with it.
Beyond that, I can’t say who I want to read it or what I want them to take from it . . . I think that is between the reader and the book. I can say this though: Every time I hear from a kid who read it more than once, I feel like the luckiest person in the world. There is nothing I want more than that—to write a book that anyone, and especially anyone under 16, wants to reread.
What are you working on next?
I’m working on a novel called Lizard Radio. I have a complete first draft, and am beginning to revise. And beyond that, Velveeta has been yammering in my head that she has her own story to tell and would like to be next, please.