This month’s edition of AJET’s Connect Magazine features a double (DOUBLE) page spread interviewing current Karatsu City JET Andre Swartley about his award-winning book – Leon Martin and the Fantasy Girl. If you haven’t read this month’s edition, the interview and short review is below. If you want you buy a copy of the book click here.
Review and Interview: Leon Martin and the Fantasy Girl
Leon Martin and the Fantasy Girl delves into cultural exchange on a level that most people never get a chance to experience. When a group of American high school students arrive at a small German town for a summer work-study program, they find themselves caring for a potentially illegal alien in a life-threatening situation.
Leon and Autumn, a pair of teens staying with the same host family, are at the forefront of the action. Instead of spending their summer doing the work they traveled to Germany to do, they find themselves looking after a girl named Shin. Her presence is the glue that holds this story together, as well as what makes it so unbelievable. Shin’s story is vague at first and takes its time in clearing itself up.
The build-up to the second half requires readers to have some faith that that these characters will eventually find themselves in slightly more realistic situations, which they do. Spending a summer abroad in Germany is adventurous, but saving a fellow foreigner who should have been taken into custody from the beginning is a bit of a stretch.
The main characters bring more than carry-ons to their host parents’ houses in terms of emotional baggage. Most of these problems rank above average on a scale of teenage angst, and the issues that they face during their summer are resolved in rapid succession without any obvious connection to the broader storyline. Leon Martin and the Fantasy Girl eventually comes together as a comprehensive story, but readers have to be willing to accept some recurring flaws early on.
Although this book is about high school students on a summer vacation, the theme of living in a foreign country for work experience strikes a chord with people who have taught overseas on programs like JET. With the characters’ ages aside, they are much like the new ALTs that fill the schools of Japan every summer—befriending one another, testing linguistic waters, and adapting to cultural differences. Yet, Leon Martin and the Fantasy Girl isn’t strictly about adapting to a new home. It’s about a couple of teenagers saving a Korean woman’s life. If that’s a plot that piques your interest, consider picking this title up.
We got the chance to talk to Andre Swartley, current Saga JET and author of Leon and the Fantasy Girl, about his own experiences abroad and how the novel came to be.
What prompted you to write a book about teenagers studying abroad?
It probably also stems from the old advice given by every writing teacher ever: write what you know. I’ve lived in four countries now and visited over a dozen, and some of my most formative experiences happened overseas. Plus, a teenager away from home for the first time—and living overseas to boot—is a great setup for an emotional conflict, which this story mostly is. Living abroad as a young person immediately makes you vulnerable and unsure about everything.
Leon has a crippling disability. Why did you decide to give this to him?
There was an urban legend back in the late 80s and early 90s that some kid had given himself arthritis by playing Atari several hours a day for a couple years—I actually reference the urban legend in the book. Whether it was true or not, the idea stuck with me.
The book takes place in St. Goar, Germany. Out of all the places in the world, why did you choose this town?
St. Goar is a real place in Germany, but the town described in the book doesn’t really exist. It’s a combination of a few different villages I have visited along the Rhine River. I chose that region because when I visited there it was so beautiful, so postcard- perfect that it seemed almost fake. Like a huge theme park or something. And I wanted a setting like that for this book because so much of the story is about confusing fantasy and reality.
Did you base any characters in this book on people you know?
The most direct correlation between a character in the book and a real person is Leon’s host father, Klaus. He is a version of my own host father when I lived in Germany, but simplified and distilled into a pleasant cartoon gnome. The only other person I “know” from the book is Autumn, who is basically my muse. I can’t tell you where she came from, but she’s been living in my head for as long as I can remember, telling me stories whenever I’m willing to listen. But she doesn’t wait on me either. She keeps her own schedule up there and doesn’t care much if I write down what she tells me or not. I’m a little bit scared of her, actually. This book is the first time she has written herself into a story.
Congratulations on winning the Dante Rosetti Award for Best Young Adult Fiction! Although this book is geared towards a younger audience, is there a particular group of people that you think would enjoy your book the most?
Thanks! Every writer probably says this, but I like to think the characters’ struggles are universal enough that just about anybody over the age of 13 could pick of the book and find something in it to connect with. The Dante Rossetti Awards actually labeled my book as “Urban Lit,” because it fits pretty snugly into a niche of Urban Lit called Lad Lit, popularized by writers like Nick Hornby, Mike Gayle, and Danny Wallace.
How did you write this? Do you type everything on a computer, or do you prefer to write by hand?
I want to be able to write by hand. It’s very romantic. I have a small collection of fountain pens and a beautiful leather-bound journal that looks like a prop from the Lord of the Rings that I’ve tried to write in. But it just doesn’t work. That leather journal is full of old chapters and story drafts, most of which I didn’t even bother to type up because they were such garbage. Typing feels like a natural extension of thinking, while writing by hand feels like doing two things at once, and neither particularly well.
How long did it take for you to finish this story?
There are a lot of ways to measure that. This story actually started out as a piece of short fiction I wrote while I was student teaching in 2002. The story wouldn’t leave me alone, so I started a draft of a full book version in the summer of 2009 and published it in the summer of 2012. According to MS Word, I’ve logged nearly 5000 minutes (80+ hours) into the file containing the book.
What other authors would you say your style is most similar to?
I’ll pick three authors who have what I feel are outstanding characteristics that I try to emulate, but I would never be so arrogant as to say my work is similar to theirs. Here goes: Kurt Vonnegut for brevity and weirdness; Stephen King for image clarity and ease of voice; and J.K. Rowling for character, organization, and sheer imagination. It is no coincidence that two of those three write commercial, mainstream fiction. I don’t need to sell a lot of books, but I would much rather write an enjoyable page-turner than an “important” story that might appear someday in an anthology.
Sterling Diesel is an ALT based in Nagasaki prefecture who spends her frequent road trips and cafe binges taking in a wide spectrum of literature. In between lectures and chapters of works by Alan Watts and William Gibson, she’s usually planning her next excursion, or studying whatever new obsession she’s found through Wikipedia.