Student Chronicles High School Misery in 'Truancy'
LIANE HANSEN, host:
Isamu Fukui was just another high school student who didn't do well and didn't fit in until he wrote and sold a dark novel about violent student rebellion. Rick Kleffel from member station KUSP spoke with Fukui about how he confronted his own problems by writing the book called "Truancy."
RICK KLEFFEL: It's not an unusual story to hear from a teenager.
Mr. ISAMU FUKUI (Author, "Truancy"): In seventh and eighth grade I was having a very, very unhappy time at school.
KLEFFEL: He was harassed by his fellow students and unhappy with the way he was treated by his teachers. But Isamu Fukui's solution to his problems was unusual.
Mr. FUKUI: What made things different when I was writing "Truancy" was I began to see writing not as a means of escape but as a means of empowerment.
Ms. SUSAN CHANG (Young Adult Fiction Editor, Tour Books): The writing started out at a certain level and from that level through the 500 pages that it originally was, it got progressively better and better.
KLEFFEL: Susan Chang is the young adult fiction editor for Tour Books who worked with the 15-year-old author.
Ms. CHANG: This is the first time I've ever seen anything like that, because with most writers they might get better from book-to-book but not within the course of one single novel.
KLEFFEL: When he was 12 years old, Isamu Fukui discovered "The Book of the Shadow," a collection of notes J.R.R. Tolkien made about writing "The Lord of the Rings."
Mr. FUKUI: When I saw it, just simply blew me away. And just seeing that creative process really, really impressed me and I said I wanted to be able to do this.
KLEFFEL: Fukui wrote 200 pages of his own fantasy novel but was unhappy with the result and threw it away. Then he transferred to Stuyvesant High School in New York.
Mr. FUKUI: I found out I was getting along better with the students there but what I found was I was still not comfortable with the system and I realized it wasn't just a matter of which school I was attending. I had a fundamental problem with the educational system in general.
KLEFFEL: At Stuyvesant, Fukui decided to confront these problems by writing a novel. During the school year, he made notes in the margins of his homework, documenting his worst experiences. That summer when a family took his trip to Maine, he borrowed his brother's laptop and wrote a chapter a day for 30 days, finishing "Truancy" in a month.
Fukui had no immediate plans to get his work published. He didn't even want his parents to read it, because for him the writing was personal.
Mr. FUKUI: However, one night I saw the light on in my father's bedroom. And so I walked in, found him hiding something under his pillow and I said, hey, what's that? You're not reading my book, are you? And he's like, no. And then I said, well then turn it over. And indeed he was reading my book. And that was - I wasn't pleased with that.
KLEFFEL: Isamu Fukui's father thought the novel was worthy of publication and through a friend passed on the manuscript to literary agent Matt Bialer.
Mr. MATT BIALER (Literary Agent): I said, sure, I'll take a look at it. So I read it pretty much in a day, and I loved it. And I just saw a real searing vision here. I was amazed that he was 15 years old when he wrote it.
KLEFFEL: The book was quickly sold into European markets with a bidding war in Italy. In America, it did not sell as quickly until the manuscript found its way to Susan Chang at Tour Books. As she worked with Fukui, she discovered an unexpected level of artistry.
Ms. CHANG: He didn't take very one of my suggestions but he came back to me with reasons why he was not agreeing with a particular point. And to me that is a mark of a true author.
KLEFFEL: In this reading from the novel, "The Hero," an overworked student named Tack runs from school-sanctioned bullies who chase him into an uninhabited district in the unnamed city.
Unidentified Man: Tack ran as fast as his legs could propel him, his heart pounding in his chest. It had happened at last. Just as he had begun to forget about them, the bully Joe and his friends from Freshmen Friday had spotted Tack on his way to District 19 after school and decided to finish what they started.
Tack knew that he could beat them to the barrier but this time the three bullies were willing to follow, having seen Tack go over the fence and live to come back again. They wasted no time in scrambling over after Tack.
KLEFFEL: Fukui is currently writing a prequel to "Truancy." He's in a hurry to finish while he's still in school, able to critique the educational system from within.
Mr. FUKUI: Only when I'm really there every single day do I really, really have a problem with it, and that's something that I wanted to capture and that's why I was also urgent in writing "Truancy" while I was still at school because I feel that once I graduate or once I'm out of college away from education I might not hate it anymore.
KLEFFEL: However Fukui feels about school in the future, for the time being his discontent is proving to be an inspiration.
For NPR News, I'm Rick Kleffel.
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