Kevin Waltman’s YA novel Next (Cinco Puntos Press, 2013) is the first in a four-book series that chronicles the high school years of talented basketball player Derrick (D-Bow) Bowen. As a freshman, Derrick struggles for playing time with a hard-nosed coach who favors an older point guard. Frustrated, Derrick hears the siren song of a wealthy private school that seeks to lure him away from his solid but underfunded inner-city school and the dictatorial coach. Derrick learns important lessons about friendship, class, keeping promises, and sticking with the harder road in an action-packed novel that conveys the excitement of a basketball game and season.
Kevin Waltman has stopped by the Pirate Treehouse to answer a few questions about the novel and writing sports stories for teens. Thanks, Kevin!
You give readers a genuine sense of place in your description of Indianapolis, both the inner city and the suburbs to the north. What is your connection to the city, and why is is such a special place for a novel that deals with both high school basketball and race?
I lived in Indiana for 18 years, and 6 of those were spent in Indianapolis, so I know the city, and while it’s changed in the time since I’ve been gone the basic dynamic of city to Northern suburb remains the same (or at least similar, as individual neighborhoods are always in flux). For a time I worked in downtown Indianapolis, lived on 26th Street, but would often have meetings or other reasons to travel to the far Northside, where my parents now live, so I’m familiar with a lot of the blocks depicted in the book. That said, it is fictionalized. I’ve used real streets and schools, except for the most central points–Derrick’s street and school are invented, Hamilton Academy is invented, and the all-ages club Derrick visits with Jasmine is invented. Finally, for me it made a lot of sense to set NEXT in Indianapolis. After living in Alabama for some time, when I’d open my computer to write, the default setting had shifted from the Midwest to Tuscaloosa, but when I wanted to write about basketball it seemed like it had to be in Indiana: it’s a basketball-crazy state, and in Indianapolis Derrick has the Pacers right in front of him all the time. Finally, there’s certainly a legacy of Indiana basketball tales, but they’re all along the lines of the movie Hoosiers–small-town kids, and almost exclusively white. While that isn’t too far afield from my high school experience, it’s just not the way most high school players in Indiana live today. The notable NBA players from Indiana–Greg Oden, Mike Conley, Jr., Zach Randolph, Eric Gordon, George Hill, Courtney Lee–they’re all city kids. So I wanted to take that Indiana basketball lore and update it.
Derrick’s father and uncle see Hamilton Academy as his route to a better future in terms of basketball, but there is little mention of the academic opportunities available in this suburban private school. While this might seem counterintuitive given the bad academic reputation that inner-city public schools have, you depict Derrick’s school, Marion East, as one where motivated students can excel. Why did you choose to deemphasize the academic differences between inner-city public and suburban private schools?
The first reason for not making Marion East a “dropout factory”–and those certainly exist in Indianapolis–is to avoid cliche. Now, the cliche of the hoops star rising out of a broken home and a broken school has plenty of rooting in reality, but to me it’s been done. And I wanted to avoid this easy dichotomy where all the white people in Indy are rich and all the African American people in Indy are flat broke, because it’s just not that simple. Finally, portraying Marion East in that light–not a great school but one where kids have a chance–makes Derrick’s decision more of, well, a decision. If he’s going to a school that’s just a disaster and has a chance to leap to a place like Hamilton Academy? At some point that’s a no-brainer that high school athletes make all the time. This way, at least he had a legitimate decision to make.
Race is an important theme of NEXT, and Derrick’s mother and father have different perspectives on what it means to be black in the United States today. Can you elaborate on their differences and talk about where you fit on that continuum?
As a white author, I wanted to be very careful about how I portrayed African Americans. If you grow up in a basketball world as I did, black America is not some distant, mysterious place, but it’s a whole different challenge to try to tackle the issue of race in a book of fiction. To those ends, my first goal was to make it complex. I didn’t want “blackness” to be a “Cosby Show” version, but I didn’t want it to be some stereotype sprung from an old gangsta rap album, either. The Bowens are not at the bottom of the socio-economic rung. Derrick’s parents are educated and have a basic economic foothold. But they’re not blind, either. They–and Derrick–see the discrepancies in the city that at least on the surface seem pretty starkly drawn along racial lines. So any resentment or animosity they might feel toward “whiteness” is justified. Derrick’s not perfect but he’s a good kid, and his parents are smart and hard-working, but they know those qualities don’t get them quite as far as it might in some other, whiter parts of the city. Yet to give in to that resentment is dangerous. Derrick’s father tells him if you start thinking of wealth and education and success as “their” domain, then you’re walling yourself from wealth and education and success. Now, Derrick does identify largely in terms of race. That’s not surprising for a kid his age and in his position. But it was also important for me to have him begrudgingly like his polar opposite in Vasco Lorbner, and for him to easily imagine a life in which they were teammates. I’m certainly not trying to teach a “lesson” about race here, but I wanted to depict it in a way where its ironies are present: In one instance, the race line seems to define Derrick’s whole world, but in the next it is reduced to near invisibility.
In addition to race, your novel addresses the very current topic of inequality in the United States. How does inequality affect Derrick’s life and that of his peers?
To some degree, it’s hard to completely disentangle class from race. To be precise: They are not one and the same, and there are plenty of white people who are facing the worst of abject poverty in America, But I think to most African Americans who are not at least upper middle class it’s hard to look at America and not believe that income inequality is due–at least in part–to our racial history. But again, that’s why it was important for me to give Derrick and his family at least some economic foothold. They can be aware of some economic and racial injustice, but they can also be aware that in the scheme of things they’re not desperate.
I’m a huge fan of books about sports, especially those like NEXT that explore broader personal and social issues within the context of the game. What do you want sports fans to take away from reading NEXT?
Well, first, I hope sports fans enjoy the sports in this. Derrick’s relationship to basketball is changing, as it does for kids like him. Now, it’s more than a game: it’s some gateway to his future. And I think he feels that weight at points in the book. But for him those hours on the court are almost always an escape, because basketball is a wonderfully fun thing. I hope readers feel that, too. And I certainly hope that basketball players and fans appreciate the realism of the game description.
Without giving too much away, what’s “next” for the series?
As to what’s coming: Well, Derrick’s set his basketball course by the end of NEXT, but as any sports fan or player knows, that course is never a straight line. Even if things work out for him athletically, it won’t do so in a smooth ascent to the top. Plus, those off-court tensions will only grow as the recruiting game kicks into high gear. But what’s just as fun is thinking ahead to what can happen to the cast of characters for this book–Derrick’s parents and brother, his Uncle Kid, Jasmine, Wes, and the coaches. For some of them the future will be a little more difficult than others, and any challenge they face will be one that Derrick has to wrestle with–at least in part–too.