I get this question daily from friends, relatives, students, the carpet cleaning guys, my dentist, and all the shopkeepers in downtown SLO who see me on a regular basis when I’m supposed to be writing, but accidentally end up shopping. “What’s your book about?” is always a tough one to answer succinctly. Although I have the standard “elevator pitch” answer, lately I’ve been altering it, depending on who’s asking.
Like, when the deli counter guy asks, the answer is, “It’s a modern day Lord of the Flies set in a mountain summer camp for inner city kids, where a friendly game of Capture The Flag develops into a war over boundaries and reputation, and ultimately parallels the evolution of contemporary Los Angeles street gangs; specifically, the Bloods and the Crips.”
However, when my girlfriend’s 10-year-old son asks, the answer is more like, “It’s a story about a tough 14-year-old kid who’s recently lost his family in a fire, and he’s sent to a mountain summer camp, where he has some crazy adventures, becomes an accidental hero, and learns that life will go on.”
When a 14-year-old tough kid I’m tutoring asks, the answer is, “It’s about a kid, a lot like you, who gets into trouble with the law because he can’t control his rage over losing his family. He goes to a summer camp and, just as he starts to turn his life around, he becomes the leader of a gang and gets tangled up in a violent revenge war.”
When my guidance counselor friend asks, the answer is, “It’s a story about a troubled 14-year-old inner city kid who’s suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder after losing his family in a house fire. He’s sent to a mountain summer camp, where he creates a new family through the formation of a gang; the boys protect each other at all costs and ultimately face and overcome their demons together.”
What I’m realizing is that the story is different things to different people, depending on their ages and life experiences. On the surface, RING OF FIRE is about typical adolescent boy stuff like girls, pranks, sports, fights, and becoming a man. On another level it’s about finding family units in unexpected places, vision quests, superheroes, bears, teamwork, new experiences, fight or flight responses to stress, the violent nature of humans and animals, and overcoming depression.
But, deep down in my heart, it’s about prejudice. How prejudices of other races, classes and genders affects society and the individual. And how the universal human need for safety and belonging leads to the formation of tightly devoted gang units. The story hesitates to judge whether the creation of gangs is good or bad, but rather explores how and why they form. To me, gangs can be both good and bad. Just like people. So, that, my friends, is what RING OF FIRE is all about. Thanks for listening!