Readers learn on the very first page of Paperboy, Vince Vawter’s touching middle grade novel, that the young narrator has a problem with words, at least with spoken words. “The funny way I talk is not so much like fat pigs in cartoons as I just get stuck on a sound and try to push the word out,” writes the paperboy, who prefers typing on his father’s trusty typewriter to talking.
During one all-important summer, the paperboy will make some important discoveries about himself, about his struggles with stuttering, about human nature and the world in which he lives.
We asked Vawter, who recently retired after a 40-year career as a newspaper writer and editor, to tell us more about this moving and largely autobiographical story.
Just like the paperboy, you’ve struggled with stuttering. What’s the biggest misconception people have about stuttering? How would you set them straight?
Stuttering is caused by the improper movement of muscles in several fine-motor-skill groups. Nothing more, nothing less. It is NOT due to mental capacity or personality traits such as shyness or nervousness. If you talk to a person who stutters, don’t finish sentences or say “just slow down and take your time.”
“If you talk to a person who stutters, don’t finish sentences or say 'just slow down and take your time.' ”
Your novel tells the story of a boy filling in on a friend’s paper route during the summer of 1959 in segregated Memphis. What do you think this setting adds to the story?
While the paperboy is confused about his inability to speak properly, he is just as confused about why the person to whom he is closest, the family housekeeper, is treated differently just because of her color.
The paperboy learns techniques from a speech therapist for helping his words come out easier. How has speech therapy changed since 1959? Are the same techniques used today?
Huge strides have been made in speech therapy since the 1950s. Techniques have been refined to the point where they hardly resemble what was taught 50 years ago. A young person who stutters has much better odds now for overcoming his or her speech difficulties.
What’s the best advice you have for a child struggling with a stutter?
Know that you are going through the toughest time right now. You have work ahead of you, but it gets easier. You will find your voice and you will do well by it.
Though your book has many memorable characters, we especially love the housekeeper, Mam, who gives the paperboy so much love and support. Can you tell us about the inspiration for this character and what you were trying to capture in her?
While all the characters in the book (except for Mr. Spiro) are based on persons from my childhood, Mam is probably the closest to reality. The real “Mam” lived with us for six years and I loved her dearly. It’s hard for me to describe her now as a “housekeeper.” I think of her more as a “soul-keeper.” While Mr. Spiro was erudite and “book smart,” I tried to show that the unschooled Mam was just as wise in her own way.
Author Vince Vawter in 1957, already learning to appreciate the usefulness of a typewriter for telling stories.
Mr. Spiro becomes an influential mentor for the paperboy. How does he forge this connection? What does he do right in his dealings with the boy that most adults can’t seem to manage?
I mentioned earlier that Mr. Spiro was the only character in the novel not based on an actual person from my childhood. During the writing I began to wonder exactly who Mr. Spiro was, and then it occurred to me that Mr. Spiro is the present day Vince Vawter. Mr. Spiro connected with the boy because he saw through the superficiality of the boy’s stutter and helped him find self-worth.
What universal lessons can young readers take away from the paperboy’s very specific struggle with stuttering?
Never measure your worth by what others can or can’t do. Always be true to yourself. You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometime you just might find you get what you need. (Thank you, Mick Jagger.)
For children growing up today, a “paperboy” probably seems as remote as a knight from King Arthur’s realm. Did you have a paper route as a child? How would you describe the job—and its best and worst aspects—to today’s kids?
Just as the paperboy in the book, I substituted on a route for a month during my youth. I am disappointed that the paperboy with a bag hanging from the shoulders is going away. A newspaper route teaches responsibility, above all. If anyone doubts the importance of a newspaper carrier, all one has to do is take a call from an angry subscriber whose newspaper is late or missing.
In the author’s note, you describe Paperboy as “more memoir than fiction.” Why did you decide to tell your story in a novel for children, rather than an autobiography?
The first incarnation of Paperboy was adult fiction about twice the length it is now. The second attempt was as a memoir. My agent convinced me that the proper venue was a novel for young people, and I thank her every day for setting me on that course. Mr. Spiro, a character in the novel, also weighs in on the subject when he tells the paperboy that “more truth can be found in fiction than nonfiction.”
How did your work as a newspaper writer and editor influence your writing style in this book? What changes did you make to adapt your writing for children?
A journalist “tells” and a novelist “shows.” That was my first big hurdle. After I settled on the paperboy’s voice, I found it liberating to write for a younger audience because I didn’t feel obligated to try to impress the reader with literary weightlifting. I could just concentrate on the story. While Paperboy is suitable for the middle grades, I like to make the case that it can be read on another level by adults. How many children’s books include Voltaire, Greek mythology, a unique discussion of the soul and the concept of existentialism? Not to mention Howdy Doody.
Do you have plans to write any more children’s books, perhaps even a sequel to Paperboy? We would love to hear more from Mr. Spiro when he returns from his travels.
My agent says readers will let me know if I should write a sequel. I did leave Mr. Spiro dangling a bit, just in case.
RELATED CONTENT: Read a review of Paperboy.