From the ‘Mystical Trough’ of Minnesota

by Conrad on March 15, 2011

From Conrad: Once in a while, I get an e-mail that lifts my spirits into the troposphere. I received this from Elissa Hoole, a teacher, poet, and fellow YA novelist who lives in northern Minnesota. I have this in common with Elissa’s students — we all struggle to spell my name. Thanks, Elissa, I greatly appreciate your kind words.

Mr. Wesselhoeft,

As a writer, especially perhaps a writer coming off a long and rather painful editing jag, I have an increasingly difficult time getting “swept away” by a book — that semi-magical sense of connecting with a book emotionally and intellectually and…I dunno, bodily. Like getting slugged in the guts and enjoying it or something. So yesterday I was only sixty-some pages into ADIOS, NIRVANA, and I was reading at my desk (I am a teacher in the daytime life and a writer in the “mystical trough”), propping myself up with caffeine since I had stayed up way too late reading the night before, and I was like okay, that’s it. I’m changing my lesson plan.

My 8th graders had been flailing about at the mere suggestion of poetry, and it just so happened we were reading some Whitman — “I Hear America Singing”, among others — and so I said everyone stop! and I read to them from your book. I read the part about Jonathan at the hospice and his Whitman “patter”, and I read them the jagged glass butterflies scene, and then pretty soon we had some Bukowski up on the board and I read it and we argued and maybe a few kids kind of pretended they weren’t into it, but they were. And then pretty soon we were listening to Eddie Vedder read Kerouac’s “Hymn” on the tribute CD and then we read some Ferlinghetti and then it was time to go, but by this time they were all lining up to get a look at how to spell your name and what exactly the title of your book was and signing up to read my copy as soon as I was through.

And now I’m home, and I’ve completely ignored my family in order to finish, and…I was swept away, that’s all. So thanks!

:) Elissa

Elissa Janine Hoole is a YA (Young Adult) writer, a teacher, a mama, a wallflower, a word-eater, a poet, a terrible cook. She’s represented by Sarah Davies of Greenhouse Literary Agency, and her debut for teens, KISS THE MORNING STAR, will be published by Marshall Cavendish in Spring 2012.

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‘Adios, Nirvana’ recognized as teen resource on grieving and healing

by Eric Shalit, Blog Developer on February 10, 2011

The Capital Area District Library (CADL) of mid-Michigan included “Adios, Nirvana” in its list of recommended reading for young adults dealing with grieving and healing. Grieving and healing are key themes in the novel, and we’re pleased that “Adios, Nirvana” is having a positive impact on readers.


What a teacher of ‘at-risk’ teens says about ‘Adios, Nirvana’

by Eric Shalit, Blog Developer on February 10, 2011

“Adios, Nirvana” was recently reviewed on DeRaps Reads, a blog for ‘young adult lit reviews & more’. We’re pleased that “Adios, Nirvana” is having a positive impact on readers. Here’s an excerpt from the review:

“Many of you know that I am a teacher, but what I don’t usually talk about is the fact that I work (pretty exclusively) with teens who are considered to be “at-risk.” In our local jargon, this means that my students will probably not graduate if they have no intervention. I am telling you this because this story, this character, Jonathan, reminded me of so many young men that I’ve met over the eight years that I’ve been doing this.

Jonathan typifies the most difficult type of at-risk teen to work with, in my opinion. He is super smart, creative, sensitive, and in serious pain. He is gifted, so school work does not really pose a challenge to him. His mother is a single mother, and is very lax and in a great amount of anguish over her son’s death. More than this, Jonathan pretty much sees the world for what it is — a series of hoops to jump through, a means to an end.

I was impressed with the way that the school dealt with Jonathan. Rather than coming up with a generic, impersonal academic plan, they allotted time for Jonathan to find his strengths and his bearings as a teen who has lost his twin brother, his best friend.

This book is raw and beautiful and mentions all sorts of music and writers that I love. Poetry and lyrics and intelligence are a focal point. Jonathan feels like a real person, one that you’ll want to encourage, unsure if he’ll actually make it.

I loved this book for its writing, its realism, and its honesty. Very good indeed.”


The most productive part of the writing day — Conrad and Django at Alki Beach.

Nobody understands the power of peripheral vision better than Django.

Django (pronounced JANGO) is a standard poodle named after the Belgian jazz guitar legend Django Reinhardt. Each morning while I write, he inches into my periphery so that I become aware of him by slow degrees, the way one becomes aware of, say, a change in temperature. Then — bang! — I am aware. He has wrenched me from my cozy fictional playground into the harsher, prosaic “real” world.

The instant our eyes meet, Django raises a paw and transmits this message telepathically: “It’s snack time.”

In Django’s mind, the most powerful word in English is not “No!” It’s “cheese!” He will do anything short of a felony for a bite of Tillamook Medium Cheddar.

How does Django’s behavior lend itself to writing? First, he keeps me company. He’s not as well-mannered as Ernest Hemingway’s springer spaniel, “Black Dog,” who would curl at the author’s feet and not twitch a muscle until Ernest had set down his pencil for the day. Black Dog revered the craft of writing and his master. Django does not.

On the other hand, Django understands that we must get on with life — must get out there and sniff the wind, chase the ball, and wag the tail.

At day’s end, we go for a walk, along the bluff and down to the water. Django splashes in the creek. Tugs on the leash. Barks at other dogs. On a lucky day, we spot an eagle or sea lion. In short, we do the most important thing a writer can do — get distracted by life — it’s little, tasty snacks. These “snacks” may be the most productive parts of my writing day. My best ideas often reveal themselves while Django and I are out walking.

By day’s end, Django has more than earned that slice of Tillamook Medium Cheddar. He’s earned a bacon chew strip as well.

His message to me, and all writers:

“Keep it real — and don’t forget to snack.”


‘Adios, Nirvana’ makes list of 2011 best fiction for young adults

by Eric Shalit, Blog Developer on January 13, 2011

YALSA, the Young Adult Library Services Association, just came out with its 2011 Best Fiction for Young Adults list. I’m thrilled to have “Adios, Nirvana” on the list. Here’s the selection criteria:

“The books, recommended for ages 12-18, meet the criteria of both good quality literature and appealing reading for teens. The list comprises a wide range of genres and styles, including contemporary realistic fiction, fantasy, horror, science fiction and novels in verse.”

For more than 50 years, YALSA has been the world leader in selecting books, videos and audiobooks for teens. YALSA is a division of the American Library Association (ALA), which is the oldest and largest library organization in the world.


‘Adios Nirvana’ makes
The Librarian Chick’s Top 10 List

by Eric Shalit, Blog Developer on January 13, 2011

“Notes from The Librarian Chick” is the blog of a librarian at the Winter Park Public Library in Winter Park, Florida. She put “Adios, Nirvana” on her list in the #1 position. Here’s what The Librarian Chick says:

I can’t keep up. There are SO MANY teen books on my “To Be Read” list that it’s impossible to read all the latest. I did really enjoy some of the 2010 books that I managed to read. I’d like to share my Top Ten with you and would love to hear what books you enjoyed reading this past year.

1. Adios, Nirvana by Conrad Wesselhoeft is one of those books that most people will never hear of. It will never get the kind of publicity that Twilight, Lighting Thief and the Hunger Games get. But I fell in love with the Wesselhoeft’s beautiful, lyrical language, and I was devastated along with Jonathan over the loss of his brother.


The author under the West Seattle Bridge, December, 2010. Photo by Eric Shalit.

Welcome reader! I plan to use this blog as a place for articles, journal jottings, photos, videos, FAQs — and even reports on Django the Wonderdog, my chief sidekick in the literary trade. Like the book, the blog seems to have a life of its own. I hope you’ll drop by often and post comments. Here are my answers to the most frequently asked questions about “Adios, Nirvana” and the way I go about writing. —Conrad

How would you describe your writing process?

Kurt Vonnegut divided all writers into two groups, “bashers” and “swoopers.” I’m a basher, a painfully slow writer who tries to perfect each paragraph before moving to the next. (Swoopers are fast, yet a bit sloppy.) As soon as my kids leave for school, I set up my laptop in the kitchen, pour some coffee, and get to work. I bash and bash. Only when I’ve bashed all the bumps down to practically dust do I move to the next chapter. I wish I bashed less and swooped more. The best I can hope for is “swashing.”

What inspired you to write Adios, Nirvana?

I stumbled on this quote: “In darkness, it slowly came to me that what happens to a man isn’t nearly as important as how he meets it.” The author of the quote was Victor Riesel, a labor journalist who was blinded when a mobster flung sulphuric acid in his face. I jotted Riesel’s words in my journal, then added, spur of the moment: “Story about a young man who becomes a stenographer/writer of a blind man’s life, and in doing so exorcises his own demons.” So right there was the seed–an old man experiencing darkness through blindness, a young man experiencing it through grief. I wondered what light might shine if those two darknesses merged. If I hadn’t seen the quote and jotted it down, I probably wouldn’t have written the book.

How much truth is there in your work?

Ernest Hemingway said that every good writer must develop a foolproof bullshit detector. Mine is not yet foolproof — I’m still tinkering with it — but I agree: all good fiction is as true as life itself, possibly truer. Adios, Nirvana is true to the best of my ability. I don’t succeed on every page, but I like to think I’m getting better.

Which writers have most influenced you?

Hemingway, because he opened the door for awkward voices; Kerouac, because he said “Hurry up!” Charles Bukowski, because he said “Warts and all, warts and all!”

Who inspires your writing?

My kids and their friends. I love to hear them speak—because their collective voice mixes confidence, frailty, arrogance, timidity, enthusiasm, laziness, idealism, courage, cadence, spontaneity, and so much more. Basically, all kids are centrally engaged in the evolution of language—their minds make dazzling linguistic leaps that older minds can’t. As a result, new words get born every second. I’d be doing dishes or driving them somewhere and these kids would be handing me golden nuggets, so to speak.

How has your life illuminated your writing?

All things of the heart — love, regret, joy, disappointment, and so much more —help you to write your story. You can’t write without living; observing alone doesn’t work. If you can take a personal disappointment or tragedy, for example, and weave it into your every day, it can heighten and sharpen everything around you, so that you see and appreciate more intensely. The line of a tree becomes more graceful, or the glint in a child’s eye more startling. Understanding that things are hitched together is a vital part of being a writer. It’s a never-ending, bewildering, extraordinary journey. I’m still just getting started.

What do you hope your readers will take away from Adios, Nirvana?

Jonathan, the main character, wants to give up—because something terrible has happened to him. But the people closest to him won’t let him. I’m reminded of what Winston Churchill said to the students at Harrow School in the darkest hour of World War II—what Churchill called the “finest hour.” It’s the message echoed by old Agnes the Oracle, and it’s what I hope readers will take away: “Never give up. Never give up. Never, never, never, never — in nothing, great or small, large or petty — never give up.”

Jonathan seems memorable for his painful odyssey through profound grief.
Was it difficult to create a character like this?

Not only has Jonathan lost his twin brother, he’s lost his best friend and mentor. Once I understood that grief burned at his core, I began to hear his voice clearly. You’d think that voice would sound mournful, but in fact it’s feisty, arrogant, rebellious, at times even joyous. The point is, the voice of grief has many inflections. Jonathan literally stands on the edge several times—of bridges and scaffoldings — but he wants to live; he wants to get better. He just doesn’t know how. That’s where his “Thicks” and David come in. They basically provide the safety net. Jonathan was easy to hear in my head but not easy to create. Everything about writing is difficult for me. It doesn’t seem to get easier — well, maybe a little.

How long did it take to write Adios, Nirvana?

The first draft took just over a year.

What led you to write for young readers in particular?
What about Young Adult fiction appeals to you?

Years ago, I spent a day with Scott O’Dell, the acclaimed young-adult novelist of “Island of the Blue Dolphins,” and “Sing Down the Moon.” Click here to read related article. “I’ve forsaken (writing for) adults,” he told me, “because they’re not going to change, though they may try awfully hard. But children can and do change.” I’m still clinging to hope for adults, but I do agree with Scott that books can profoundly affect children’s lives for the better.

What have you loved reading? What are some works that you’ve admired that have inspired your spare, vivid writing style?

Up until my early teens, I chose books based on subjects, my favorites being the Civil War, the American West, and carrier combat in the Pacific. When I was sixteen, I read “The Snows of Kilimanjaro and Other Stories” and a bell dinged. I sensed that Hemingway knew a lot about life that I didn’t, so I better pay attention. From then on, I became interested in the idea of writing as a form of creative expression. How something was said became as important as what was said.

Who are your favorite writers?

Hemingway, Steinbeck, W. Somerset Maugham, Willa Cather, Jack Kerouac, Louis L’Amour, Charles Bukowski, Larry McMurtry, Richard Hugo, and probably lots more. My favorite YA writers are Scott O’Dell, Jean Craighead George, Marguerite Henry, Holly Cupala, and probably lots more.

What book is on your bedside table?

I keep Kit Carson’s autobiography on my bedside table. It’s the world’s driest memoir and most perfect sleep aid.

What advice would you offer to writers just starting out?

Abide by the three P’s and one B: Practice, patience, and perseverance. (The greatest of these is perseverance: Never give up!) The “B” is believe in yourself, because at first editors and agents won’t believe in you. They will probably say “No” many times before they say “Yes.”

What are your favorite books on the craft?

“Hemingway on Writing,” by Larry W. Phillips; “Zen and the Writing Life,” by Peter Matthiessen; and “Story,” by Robert McKee. My favorite memoirs by writers are: “Education of a Wandering Man,” by Louis L’Amour; and “On Writing,” by Stephen King.

Do you play music? Guitar? If so, what kind of music do you play and listen to?

My dad bought me my first guitar—a Harmony acoustic—when I was about seventeen. I’ve always messed around, but I don’t read music. I keep various guitars planted on stands around the house—guitars should not be imprisoned in cases. Noodling on guitar is a good way to anchor and think. Playing with friends is pure joy. Jonathan (the protagonist) is a much better guitar player than I am. And Telly, his brother, was sublime. I listen to rock, folk, ballad, and blues. I love the NPR show “American Roots.”

Is there a back story here for why you chose to feature Eddie Vedder in your story? Do you know him?

Eddie Vedder is a fellow West Seattle resident (“Mr. Wes C. Addle”), and though we have a friend in common, I’ve never met him. I do know, however, that he’s a big believer in the power of music to inspire children, plus a quiet giver to many worthy causes. In the book, he’s portrayed as a musical mentor to Jonathan and Telly. One of my favorite scenes is when the boys visit him, and he and Telly jam on guitar while Jonathan sits “guitarless” on “the timid couch.” I’d always planned to change his name to something fictional, but left it in, as a kind of tribute.

Your flap copy mentions you worked as a tugboat hand in Singapore.
How did this come about?

I was nineteen and starved for adventure. I dropped out of college and got a job as an ordinary seaman aboard the Quenett, based in Singapore. We towed barges to Borneo, Sumatra, and Thailand, through fair and foul seas. It was the hardest physical labor of my life. Three books inspired me to take this step: “Tramping on Life,” by Harry Kemp; “Of Human Bondage,” by W. Somerset Maugham; and (dare I say it?) “My Wicked, Wicked Ways,” by Errol Flynn. All three books were about young men struggling with the idea of living a conventional life, and hungry to get out into the world. My crewmates were from New Zealand, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Indonesia. Plus two scrawny cats and a huge orange cat that had been hurled off a passing ship, for good reason: he was the incarnation of the devil. It was a great adventure, but eventually I had to decide whether to stay at sea or come home and finish college. I opted for college and was a better student when I returned. I’d grown up a lot.

Under the bridge at Schmitz Park, West Seattle, a location I had in mind when I wrote the opening chapter. (From left: Jen Wesselhoeft, Mariah Webb, Kit Wesselhoeft, and Toby Martin.)


Sprechen Sie Deutsch?
German edition in 2011.

by Eric Shalit, Blog Developer on December 17, 2010

A Bavarian reading group celebrates the upcoming release of the German language edition of 'Adios, Nirvana'. We're excited!

Houghton Mifflin recently licensed the rights for “Adios, Nirvana” to the German publisher Carlsen. Both the German edition and the U.S. paperback edition will appear in Fall 2011.


Scott O'Dell (1898-1989).

Scott O’Dell was my friend and mentor. That’s a tall statement considering that I met him only once. But that day changed my life.

I was a young staffer at The New York Times, harboring a secret ambition: to write novels. But how? Writing a novel seemed far out of my depth. However, writing a feature story about a novelist might be a stroke in the right direction. So I set up an interview, hopped a train at Grand Central, and headed north to Westchester County, New York.

Who was Scott O’Dell? Probably the most acclaimed young-adult author of his generation. He had written nearly two dozen books, including the classic Island of the Blue Dolphins, and garnered a barrel of prizes: the Newbery Medal (for Dolphins); three Newbery Honor Awards; and the Hans Christian Andersen Award for a body of work.

Scott greeted me at the station. Now 85, he looked time-chiseled and fit, with a shock of white hair, barrel chest, and deep tan. We climbed into his big car, and he peeled for his home on Long Pond. He seemed to enjoy speed.

The interview was supposed to last about two hours, but it filled the morning and lapped into the afternoon. We broke for a late lunch.
“Enough about me,” he said, over seafood chowder. “What about you? What do you want to do with your life?”

I stammered out the true contents of my gut: “I want to write novels.”
“Well, then, write them.”
“But I don’t have time. I don’t know how.”

He planted a hand on the table and leaned close. His blue eyes sparked. “Now listen—listen!”

I did listen. Here’s what Scott O’Dell taught me:

Writing is about starting. Start simply, even if it amounts to no more than 15 minutes a day. Open an empty notebook and on page one write: “I want to write a book about…” Then write: “I want the main character to be…” It’s okay to write in fragments. It’s okay to use weak verbs. Just write. Spill all of your ideas into that notebook. On about day five, or seventeen, or fifty-five, something will happen. A light will turn on. You will see the way.

Writing is about finishing. He liked to quote Anthony Trollope, the English novelist: “The most important thing a writer should have is a piece of sticking plaster with which to fasten his pants to a chair.”

Writing is about reading. Soak up all the great books you can. He loved Willa Cather’s spare, lyrical prose style, singling out her novel Death Comes for the Archbishop.

Writing is humble. Let your forebears guide you. He followed Hemingway’s advice: Stop your day’s work at a point where you know what is going to happen next. That way, you’ll never get stuck.

Writing for young readers has a special reward. Scott told me that before he discovered young audiences, he had only a tentative commitment to the craft of writing. Now it was strong. “The only reason I write,” he said, “is to say something. I’ve forsaken adults because they’re not going to change, though they may try awfully hard. But children can and do change.”

Before driving me back to the train station, Scott took me out on his deck and pointed to a grove of trees across Long Pond. During the Revolutionary War, a teenage girl had sought refuge from the Redcoats in a cave hidden by the grove. For years, she had drawn on her wits and fortitude to survive. After learning this bit of local history, Scott had crafted one of his best novels, Sarah Bishop.

His message was simple. Good stories are everywhere. You don’t have to look far. Open your eyes.

We corresponded for a few years, and he kindly critiqued my awkward early efforts at YA fiction. Years later, I read that he had been working on his last novel, My Name is Not Angelica, in his hospital bed, just days before his death at age 91.

Scott taught me many things about writing, but one stands out. Writing is about perseverance. Never give up.


Can a book have a soundtrack?

by Eric Shalit, Blog Developer on December 15, 2010

If a book can have a soundtrack, this is it. Jonathan would surely have crammed these tunes onto his playlist. Click the link at the bottom to see the complete list of 25 songs. Did I leave anything out? Post a comment and maybe we’ll add it.

The 1971 Concert for Bangladesh version of “Here Comes the Sun” is less orchestral than the Beatles’ original but acoustically fantastic. Like George Harrison, Telly clamps a capo on the seventh fret to get that “sweet harp sound.”

Eddie and Telly play the Bob Dylan classic “Masters of War”, which Jonathan calls “a chug-a-chug-a rant against military madness.” Here’s the Pearl Jam version.

Pink Floyd’s classic “Wish You Were Here” blends timeless themes with great guitars.

Jonathan would have loved Patti Smith’s darkly poetic version of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit”.

Eddie Vedder and Telly play “Society,” while Jonathan sits on “the timid couch,” guitarless. Jonathan is particularly impressed with the one bent note in Eddie’s lead, which he calls “the cry of all humans for love.” Here’s Eddie’s original, featured on the soundtrack of the movie “Into the Wild”.

Click here to view the entire playlist.