When 17-year-old Brent accidentally kills a girl, her mother assigns him a penance: build four whirligigs featuring her daughter and set them up near the corners of the United States, to spread the joy that she would have spread. He accepts, unaware of his effect on the lives of those who'll later see them.
A novel of connections, forgiveness, and the power of art, WHIRLIGIG has been used in school-wide reads across the country, spinning off projects on topics stretching from juvenile justice and drinking to carpentry and wind power.
"Complex and beautifully told." --New York Times
GOING BEYOND THE BOOK
"Our entire eighth grade reads WHIRLIGIG.
The eighth grade theme is 'Empathy to Action.'
The book pairs perfectly with educating students
to use their understanding of others and our environment
to make meaningful differences in our world."
--Chase Mitsuda, teacher at Punahou School, Honolulu
Punahou students installed a wind turbine on campus, visited a wind farm, and made videos--digital whirligigs--on topics that drew them. Sending their messages out into the world, they exchanged videos with students at a South Korean high school who'd also read the book. Here's one from each school.
A MUSICAL WHIRLIGIG
The world is a whirligig and we're its moving parts, connected across space and time. Check out this video about a musical equivalent--Eric Whitacre's virtual choir.
QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS
Where did the idea for WHIRLIGIG come from?
From many different places. The idea of atoning for a crime came to me from the myth of Hercules, which I read in college. The queen of the gods hated him, drove him mad, and led him to kill his own wife and children. When he woke from the madness, he was horrified at what he'd done. He asked an oracle what he could do to wipe out this stain. She told him to present himself to a king and offer his services as a slave. The king gave him twelve chores, now known as the labors of Hercules, beginning with killing the hundred-headed Hydra. When he was done he'd atoned for his crime and went on with his life.
Many years later I was walking on a hiking trail and happened to overhear a woman talking to a friend about a relative who'd been killed by a drunk driver. The victim's family ended up meeting with the driver. I wrote this in my idea notebook. Years later the two ideas joined in WHIRLIGIG.
Do you make whirligigs?
I got a well-deserved C in wood shop in 7th grade. But I've been a maker of found sculptures all my life, from driftwood creations on the beaches of Santa Monica to building with restaurant cutlery with my kids. For many years we lived around the corner from a yard filled with whirligigs that came clattering to life with every breeze. That yard put whirligigs into the book. During the writing I attempted to make the first whirligig that Brent makes. They're hard. I ended up throwing it away. But I still use the stages of found sculpture when I write--collecting, designing, altering, building, revising. I made a thousand found sculptures before I wrote my first book. It's a big piece of how I learned to write.
Why did you arrange the book out of order?
I liked the idea of flash-forwards rather than flash-backs, but I found myself with a problem. If I'd put all of Brent's opening scenes into the first chapter--the party, the accident, the meeting with Lea's mother--it would have been far longer than all the others, unbalancing the book. So I broke it into two chapters. This solved one problem but gave me another: readers who get to the first flash-forward in Maine have no idea why they're there or who these new characters are.
Writing is full of such dilemmas. I decided that the length issue outweighed the confusion issue. Though the opening chapters have thrown many readers off, they come with some advantages. They give the book a strong dose of unpredictability, something that's crucial in books. They also demand that readers put up with uncertainty for a time and persevere. Those who do are rewarded with the gradual realization of what's going on--a satisfying experience, I hope, and one that's absent in books that ask little of readers.
Did you take a trip like Brent's?
Yes and no. I did make a big cross-country trip when I was not much older than Brent, but for very different reasons. I was 19, ready for a break from school after two years of college, and ready to see the world beyond California, where I'd spent my whole life. I saved my money, bought a good bicycle, and rode from Los Angeles to Vancouver. Then I took the train across Canada and rode another 1,000 miles around Canada and New England. Unlike Brent, I ended up staying--in New Hampshire in my case, living in the 250-year-old house in the photo, at the end of a dirt road. That trip took place 25 years before WHIRLIGIG but I drew on many of its details: the excitement of seeing new parts of the country, the loneliness and need to speak to strangers, the pleasures of self-sufficiency.
Are you planning to write a sequel?
One of the best things about writing is the variety. Unlike most jobs, you don't do the same thing every day, week, or year. Which is why in many decades of writing I've only written a sequel once. I like fresh ground under my feet. And sequels are rarely as good as the original.
Are other parts of your life in the book?
Minor elements are woven throughout, from playing violin to birdwatching. One side of my family is Jewish. In France, two men tried to steal my suitcase by the same method they used on Brent in the bus station. Otherwise, the characters and scenes are all fictional. I do very little cutting and pasting from my own life. My high school experience was nothing like Brent's. My family never moved. I was popular in school. A writer is a person who can imagine what it's like to be someone very different--something possible because we've all known the same emotions.
I found Weeksboro, Maine but it's not on the coast. What's going on?
The atlas I used at the time didn't have a Weeksboro, ME in it, so I felt safe in using the name for a fictional town. Years later I was shocked when someone informed me that there is such a town, far inland. I'd have certainly picked a different name if I'd known.
Are there really contradances like the one Brent goes to at the end of the book?
Definitely. Almost all big cities in the U.S. have them, as well as plenty of smaller places. The music is always live. No need to show up with a partner. There's usually basic instruction beforehand. Couples are in lines, each couple gradually dancing with all the others in the line. It's aerobic and fun, with a break in the middle for food and visiting and a waltz at the end. All ages. Check out contradancelinks.com to find one near you.