By Greg Baldino
“You know,” said debut novelist Chris Terry, “Kirkus listed ‘Zero Fade’ as historical fiction. It made me feel old because I’m actually two years older than Kevin.” Set in the early nineties, “Zero Fade” follows Kevin and his uncle Paul over several days of life-changing adolescent drama covering everything from haircuts to homophobia, girls to bullies, and the ever-present question of “What more can go wrong?” Adam Mansbach, the author of “Go the F**k to Sleep,” said after reading it: “We need writers like Chris L. Terry,” and Audrey Niffenegger called it “a wonderful book,” which is possibly as diverse as early praise can get.
What were some of the advantages and challenges you found in telling a story set twenty years ago?
Since Kevin’s coming up with some of the same pop culture as me, it was easy to set it then because I could talk about the things that I liked in 1994, instead of having to research what teenagers in 2013 are into. Also, technology has changed the game for young people. If I set the book in ninety-four, I wouldn’t have to consider cell phones and the internet.
It’s funny. I read a book set twenty or more years ago now and there’s always a scene where I catch myself thinking, “Yo, why don’t they just look it up online, or text somebody?” Trying to figure out what music sounds like, or standing around waiting for your late-ass friends is becoming a lost experience. That’s probably a good thing, but I think those types of relationships—the older friend who copies your albums that no one else has, your buddy who always has a tape in the VCR in case something cool comes on—should be commemorated.
In “Zero Fade,” you have two different narratives with two different protagonists. How different was it writing for Kevin and Paul?
I tried to show their commonalities and their differences at the same time. They both have personas that hide something very vulnerable. As for differences, I took the Paul sections as a chance to take a breather from Kevin’s myopia. Kevin’s story is his misconceptions about the world around him. Paul’s is him reconciling what he understands about himself with his mature worldview. In the Paul scenes, it was nice to be able to share more with the reader without having to constantly ask myself, “Would a thirteen-year-old pick up on that?”
Much of Kevin’s arc in the book is driven by the things he worries about; his hair, girls, trying to be funny. What were the things you were most concerned about when you were his age?
A lot of the same stuff, plus skateboarding. I remember my teenage years as being ruled by this crippling self-consciousness, this sense of constantly being watched and judged by peers and adults. I think that’s a common feeling for young people, and I wanted to recreate it in “Zero Fade,” to make the story relatable for anyone who has suffered through seventh grade.
So how was seventh grade for you? Most people I know remember middle school as like “Lord of the Flies” but without all the fun and sense of unity and self-worth.
It was great. I was really popular. Psyche. I was in seventh grade in 1991-1992. My family was living in an upscale Boston suburb that was similar to Chicago’s North Shore. Things were going really bad for us. My parents were having a lot of financial problems and that added to my alienation. It seemed like everyone had splintered into cliques over the summer after sixth grade, and I was the odd kid out. I was searching for an identity socially, while also becoming more aware of my racial identity. I’m half black, half Irish and, aside from New Edition, there are like four black people in Boston. It was confusing. It was also the year that Nirvana blew up, and alternative culture reached the suburbs. That was the stuff that got me through, that showed me that it could be cool to be different from the kids with lacrosse sticks and boat shoes. Also, pop culture was becoming less segregated, and it made sense to me. I could be a black kid who liked A Tribe Called Quest and doing the running man at school dances, but who also loved Fugazi and skateboarding. We lived in the Boston area until I was fifteen, when we moved to my father’s hometown of Richmond, where “Zero Fade” is set.
Have you had any response from young readers yet? They’re tough, you know; they don’t give a Fig Newton about the PEN/Faulkner Awards, but if they like a book they pretty much swear fealty to you.
I’ve read for some high school students, and a friend gave “Zero Fade” to her sons. The response has been positive. It’s interesting to hear what details stick with young readers. They deserve more credit. It isn’t always the boners and violence that they remember. We took a lot of the obscenities out of the book. It was difficult because a big part of the plot is Kevin outgrowing his own homophobia. In earlier drafts, he called everyone “faggot,” everything “gay.” I took most of that out and changed the other cussing. You could guess that when Kevin yells, “Eat me!” he really means “Fuck you!” We just didn’t want to give any teachers or librarians reasons not to carry the book. It is YA. We want young readers.
A lot of the important art that comes into Kevin’s life is recordings from other people, like rap tapes and VHS copies of “The Simpsons.” What were some of the meaningful cultural works people have shared with you?
My father shared a lot of culture with me. He has a ton of records, and would play what became some of my favorite music—Prince, Michael Jackson, Jimi Hendrix—around the house like, “Dance over there! You’re gonna make the record skip!” I got a crash course on punk rock from Brendan Trache the summer after tenth grade, going to his parents’ place every day and sitting in the basement, hearing Void and The Misfits for the first time. My wife Sharon A. Mooney has put me on to a lot of comedy and movies. I’m surrounded by geeks who bond with people by sharing their favorite cultural artifacts. That’s a big thing when you’re Kevin’s age, and identifying yourself through the tastes that you’re forming.
By Chris L. Terry
Curbside Splendor, 294 pages, $12