In 1995 I was living beyond my means on the upper east side of Manhattan. At the time, I was pursuing a career in acting. I’d studied it in high school, majored in it in college and figured I was good enough to try to make a go of it. Then one day I saw an ad in one of the industry papers calling for seat fillers for a TV program on the USA network called USA Cafe Live. It was a low key sort of talk show set in a “coffee shop” and guests such as former mayor Ed Koch would come and hang out at the counter and chat with the host about the Knicks or whatever. There were also tables on set and the tables had seats and the seats needed filling and that is where I came in.

Me and my many years of acting experience.

I’d portrayed Cleante in Moliere’s Tartuffe, Fabian in 12th Night, Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and my performance as Orin Scrivello, DDS in Little Shop is still talked about today. I could sing well. I had good comedic timing. I figured Ruggedly Handsome Cafe Patron, while not MacBeth, was at least something I could put on a resume. Plus the coffee was free.


We were instructed to go and sit at the tables and “have pretend conversations” with each other while the host and the guest wagged their chins for twenty-two minutes. Being a trained actor I immediately came up with a backstory for my character (his name was Loomis and he’d taken a bus from Wheeling, WV to Manhattan in search of his biological mother who he had just learned was alive after growing up believing she’d died in a freak blimp accident). I closed my eyes, breathing deeply, getting into the correct headspace to fully inhabit my character.  Then the director called for action and I opened my eyes to find myself alone at the table.

I looked around the set.  All of the other tables were fully occupied.  Some with three and four people.  And yet there I was at a table alone with a perfectly good, empty chair across from me, right down in front where the cameras (and anyone watching at home) could see me.

“Don’t panic,” I told myself.  “Stay in character.  What would Loomis do?”

Loomis was an amiable sort.  Loomis would introduce himself to the nearest person to try and make a human connection in these unfamiliar surroundings.  Also, the director had said we should be carrying on “pretend conversations” and I couldn’t do that while sitting all alone.  I’d look like a total nutter, for God’s sake.  And yet, and YET, when I tried to engage those closest to me I found myself shunned.  Completely.

I sipped at my coffee and tried to appear above it all the way most people in coffee shops did.  I wished I had a newspaper or a book or some sort of coffee shop appropriate prop I could focus on other than the fact that the lights were hot and I was convinced that ALL OF AMERICA could see me sweating.

Now if you’ll humor me for a moment, the Myotonic goat is a domestic breed whose muscles freeze for roughly ten seconds when they feel panic.  This often results in a stiffening of the limbs followed by an inevitable collapse.  They are also know as fainting goats.

I am not a goat and I did not faint.  Although it might have been better if I had.  What I did was somehow worse, given the circumstances.

Under the bright Klieg lights, on live television with a studio audience and in front of God and the great nation of basic cable viewers I, dear reader, fell asleep.

They must have been serving decaf.

My Dear Maggie Rose

There’s a place in the woods where the trees o’er arch
And the birch branches glisten like bones in the dark
Where I walked with my darling, my dear Maggie Rose
Her hair black as night like a murder of crows

Where the leaves floated lazily down from the trees
And she begged for her life upon bended knees
Where she screamed and she sobbed and she tore at my clothes
And I stole the breath from my dear Maggie Rose

Where I lowered my head to her breast and I wept
And cursed all the promises she’d never kept
Where I kissed her red mouth and held her white hand
And cut from her finger her gold wedding band

Where I dug a grave but didnae dig it deep
And my dear Maggie Rose does forevermore sleep
Beneath fallen leaves where the trees o’er arch
And birch branches glisten like bones in the dark

It was winter break of my sophomore year and my mother decided I needed a job. I ended up “interviewing” at Montilio’s Bakery and I use the word in its loosest possible sense. I wasn’t asked if I had any prior experience working in a bakery. I had not. I wasn’t asked if I knew how to operate a cash register. I did not. I also was not asked if I could make a cappuccino, decorate a cake, or identify the filling in a cannoli and I couldn’t do any of those things. Had he just taken a few moments to clear that up maybe he wouldn’t have gotten so mad when I told the customer that indeed yes, there probably should be foam on the cappuccino; I’m sorry that the fondant flowers on you grandmother’s birthday cake look like little pink turds; and that the cannoli were filled with frosting. What he did say was,

“You’re working New Year’s.”

That was his first mistake.

His second was not having enough milk on hand to accommodate the huge number of hot chocolate orders that he had to know were coming. Boston’s First Night celebration is a family affair after all and this was before there was a Starbucks on every corner. Never have I been yelled at so much by people I didn’t know for something I had nothing to do with. Needless to say I was relieved when he gave me a twenty dollar bill and told me to go to the Store 24 and buy all the milk I could.

In retrospect it was probably not a good idea to allow his employees to drink for free after things died down as way of showing his appreciation and it was definitely not a good idea on my part to feel appreciated. Really, really appreciated. I was so appreciative that I forgot to punch out and missed the last T home. But perhaps the thing I appreciated most was that when I showed up for work on that January 1st, only a handful of hours after having left and feeling like there was a Frenchman living in my head, was being fired.

Happy New Year!

The Ill-Fated Felines of Miss Mary Murphy or A Bit of Something One Might Find in Gorey’s Bin

Young Mary Murphy of Windwillow Glen
Had quite a few cats
And their number was ten.

Til the day when Lord Byron, whilst playing with twine
Somehow fashioned a noose
And then there were nine.

The little one, Marmalade, next met her fate
Clawed apart by a fisher cat
Then there were eight.

Cinnamon, too, was soon ushered to heaven
Squashed flat by an omnibus
Then there were seven.

A terrible end came to Baron von Lick
Lost his head to a madman.
And then there were six.

Poor, pretty Polly ‘neath a drawer full of knives
In the end was too slow
And then there were five.

Elvis, however, whilst scratching the floor
Chanced upon a live wire
And then there were four.

And, Ichabod, hunting amidst the tall trees,
Ran afoul of a timber wolf
And then there were three.

Angelique proved to be too tough to chew
Cooked up by mistake
And then there were two.

A strange fate befell Noodles, asleep in the sun
Inexplicably melted.
And then there was one.

So Mary, grief-addled, took down her gun
Loaded two bullets
And then there were none.

Things That Happened at The Blue Bunny

You never know what to expect at a book signing.  For example, when I was promoting my picture book back in 2001 I was approached by a guy who shook my hand and said something about how he thought my “having a heart for the kids” was admirable.  He engaged me for ten minutes or so and then left without buying a copy of the book.


There was another time when a woman read through a copy right in front of me then chastised me for a good five minutes, saying the book wasn’t culturally diverse enough.  She bought two copies.

At the dirt fair in Topsfield a woman actually said, “my kid already has too many books.”

In Ann’s Enchanted Forest in Scottsville VA at 11:00am Ann was drunk.

But the coolest thing so far happened at The Blue Bunny when a woman approached the table and told me I had some updog on my shirt.

My Biggest Fan

I got an email Sunday morning.  I didn’t recognize the sender’s name but the subject line read, your books.  I opened it up, half expecting it to be a solicitation from a book marketing firm or a publicist offering to take money that I don’t have but it wasn’t.  Here’s how it began,

“Hi my name is Ellie.  I am 12 years old.  I really liked your book The Saturday Boy.”

What can  I say?  She had my attention.

Ellie went on to ask if I had any other books available and if I did, could I send her the titles? She also said that she finished The Saturday Boy in four days and has recommended it to all of her friends.  The email was signed,

“sincerely your biggest fan,  Ellie”

What I am about to say may sound arrogant but it’s not meant to.  It’s merely for perspective’s sake.  The Saturday Boy has been critically acclaimed.  It has received very positive reviews from Kirkus, PW, Horn Book, among others.  It is a Junior Library Guild and Scholastic Book Club selection. There are people blogging about it in Norway.

And yet somehow Ellie’s email has had the biggest impact on me.

You know how artists are always saying if they can get through to just one person then it’s all been worth it?  I used to think that was the biggest load of bullsquirt.  I was like, “man, could they be more full of themselves?”

Well I want to apologize for thinking that.  I get it now.

Ellie is my one person.

And she’s worth it.


Following a recent reading I was asked if I had any advice for aspiring writers.  The thing that came to mind was a quote from Dinosaur Jr. that reads as follows, “I’ve got no advice about anything.  Just f*ck it up yourself.”   Of course, as there were children present, I couldn’t say it, good advice as  it was.  And still is.  Instead I hemmed and hawed a bit before mumbling something about the importance of writing every day (the reading hadn’t gone very well and I was rattled).  “Write something every day,” I remember saying. “A journal entry.  A blog post.  A haiku with too many syllables.  Something.  Anything.  Even if it’s bad.  EsPECIALLY if it’s bad.”  Except I wasn’t nearly as articulate as all that.  Sadly.  But as far as advice for aspiring writers goes it’s not bad advice at all even if it does seem wicked self-explanatory.  It’s important to write for the writings’ sake.  Even if it’s just the word “milk” written over and over again.

Since that day I’ve been thinking about (read:obsessing over) my answer and how incomplete it was.  If I had to answer the question again I would add that to be a writer, you have to be a reader.  Reading is what made me want to write.  Also, and this is going to sound very counter-intuitive, don’t get too caught up in thinking about your audience.  I can only speak for myself but if I start out thinking, “okay, we’re going to do a mid-grade novel so the target age is 9 to 12 then . . . .” then I’ve already imposed limits on myself.  I’ve already put myself in a box.  Just concentrate on telling a good story the way you want to tell it.  And finally (at least until I think of something else) never let anyone tell you you can’t.

I’ve done a few readings over the past two weeks in support of The Saturday Boy’s release and one question  that tends to come up during the Q&A is, how did the book come about?  Well I’ll tell you.  The Saturday Boy began as a writing assignment.  I forget what the assignment was, specifcally, but I remember that the image of a little boy standing alone in the rain just popped into my head and I started writing.  When I was finished, I had what I thought was a solid little, self-contained story.  My teacher disagreed.  My teacher told me that it felt more like the first chapter of something and turned out she was right.  The first chapter of The Saturday Boy is pretty much the entire solid little, self-contained story i turned in to my teacher all those years ago.  Except in the original, Derek was thinking about karate guys instead of superheroes.

Anyway.  I took what she’d said to heart and started to write a longer piece with no idea of where I was going or how I would get there.  It was during this time that a lot of the lasting details first came up–his dad being away at war, for one, and his love of comic books.  It wasn’t until years later when I was participating in a writing workshop offered by Grub Street here in Boston when it all came together..

Stories never come to me all at once.  More often than not, a sentence will worm its way into my head that I just can’t shake.  For example, “So, in a way, the horrible thing that happened to Bobby McEldowney is that nothing happened at all.” has been in my head for years.  I think it’d be a great last line of a story. I just need to put words in front of it.  A lot of them.

new word proposals

enormulous- adj .like enormous, only larger

exhaustipated- adj. like exhausted, only more so.

normilarily- adv .an amalgam of normal and ordinary; sounds like something I’d say after a few wet ones, which may have been the case for my friend Jason Bermudez when he thought of it.