Forgetting books on airplanes should be a genre of poetry community service. I was in Terminal A of the Baltimore airport when I realized my copy of Dan Boehl’s Kings of the F**king Sea was still on the plane in Terminal B. No, I was only halfway through! So I hurried back to rescue it from the pocket with the barf-bag and instruction manual on how to save yourself with a seat cushion once you land in the ocean. Before the plane pushed, the gate agent let me search for the book, disturbing a few passengers, finally spotting the Kings cover atop a recent issue of SkyMall. I asked the passenger who had taken my place if he could hand it to me. He grabbed Kings, processed the cover, and said frankly, “Oh. Yes. Here. I wouldn’t be reading that.”
Nice. Boehl’s newly released Naomi and the Horse-Flavored T-Shirt is another eye-catchingly-odd title and cover. It’s a middle-grade novel about a teenage girl, Naomi, living in the town of Endless Ranches, TX. Before Naomi was born, her father and all the town’s horses disappeared with the arrival of the Paste Company. The town has been different ever since. For her fourteenth birthday, Naomi receives a gift that encourages her to find out what happened to the horses, her dad, and Endless Ranches.
Upon cover glance, it looks like reading “Double Rainbow,” Lisa Frank, and Dark Side of the Moon at once. After reading though, I was surprisingly left pondering our “war on terror,” the economic meltdown, Occupy Wall Street, and the euro crisis. Or Google-searching to see if “Pre-Chicken Nugget Paste” really exists, because Naomi provides descriptions of all things pasty, “for breakpaste, plunch, and dinner,” with an awareness of current corporate and economic issues I didn’t expect from something marketed specifically for youth.
“Nothing pulls my strings,” said Naomi.
“That’s what everybody would like to think. But really, we are all just part of the market, and we do what the market demands…One day you’ll work for us.”
“I will not,” said Naomi. “You ruined this town.”
“We didn’t ruin the town,” the CEO said. “We just brought something popular…”
As an adult, listening to that conversation through the perspective of a teen felt more relatable, even tragic. It added a kind of clarity of perspective I think Boehl is interested in achieving. Naomi searches for answers that are either unavailable to her or hidden. Have you watched news lately? I feel that. But including these issues is an interesting, even challenging, choice for a young adult novel, and one I enjoy questioning. I would be really interested in hearing what younger readers thought of Naomi. Perhaps if I accidentally plant some copies for kids trapped on planes…
Until then, Dan and I live in the same town, so it’s easy enough to ask him. We sat in a crowded coffee shop recently to chat about the book, its political themes, audience, publishing, and et cetera.
DB: Well, Naomi is set two hundred and thirty-something years in the future after all the gasoline has run out. It’s set in Texas, in a town called Endless Ranches. Naomi lives in this town and she knows that it used to be full of ranches and horses, an agrarian society, and that sometime between Naomi’s conception and birth, her father disappeared because he was trying to figure out what the Paste Company was doing in town. The paste factory showed up and ruined the town’s economy, the horses disappeared which messed up food supply, everyone has to work for the paste factory, they eat paste at every meal, and the townspeople are told not to ask questions about things. On her fourteenth birthday, Naomi’s mom gives her the gift of her father’s t-shirt and tells Naomi that her father was what they once called a horse-speaker. He trained horses. He disappeared, along with the horses, because he was trying to find them. So the gift of this t-shirt sets Naomi off on an adventure to finally figure out what happened to her dad and the horses.
KS: Was Naomi always going to be for the middle-grade reader?
DB: It was written in that fashion, but even until I ended the book, I never thought about audience in a concrete manner; so a lot of my editing was fashioning it to be a book that would be interesting to that reader level. I hope that it appeals to a wider reader base, but I wanted it to become a Charlie and the Chocolate Factory-type-story, with a weird factory adventure and political stuff that overlaps. I really just wanted it to be weird though, and appeal to a younger audience.
KS: I think it’s pretty weird; it’s the pastiest book I’ve ever read.
DB: There’s a lot of paste. I actually cut out a lot of the paste, and the political elements were toned down because when I was finishing the first draft it was the end of the Bush administration…
KS: Yeah, I was curious about that and when you started, because of how the Paste Company affects the town of Endless Ranches.
DB: Yeah, I started around June ’05, so the storytelling weathered the Bush administration. I remember feeling this big push to get it finished as Obama was being elected, because I thought this book’s time was the Bush Era, Bush II. And it’s funny, with the economy and everything that’s happened after, I think now more than ever is this book’s moment. It’s interesting for me too, to compare Kings to Naomi. I think Kings really explores what it is to go away to war and what it takes to go to war, whereas Naomi is more about homeland and dealing with the aftermath of a political system that allows power to be taken away from individuals.
KS: But that’s a lot, how do you see all that content interacting with the younger audience Naomi was geared toward?
DB: Well, for the last two years I’ve been reading a lot of young-adult fiction and a lot of it is dystopian, post-America, and does have a lot of political elements. But recently in the New York Times Sunday Edition, a writer was writing about how there aren’t any contemporary books about the present economy for young readers and went through this list of books that made me realize Naomi truly is about economic factors that shape contemporary America. I think the book’s relevant to young readers by introducing those ideas without forcing anything on them. Like I said, the book got less pasty. It was all word play and paste everywhere, and I toned that down, along with the overt political element or preachy-ness. I don’t want Naomi to preach to a young reader; I want the book to introduce ideas.
KS: And why the choice of fiction, it’s your first published fiction isn’t it?
DB: Yeah, this is the only fiction I’ve published to date. I’ve written fiction before Naomi and after, but for me, this was a safe book I could write as a person who wanted to write fiction but didn’t know where to begin or what style to use. It was a way for me to begin to teach myself.
KS: You also published this yourself, another first.
DB: A lot of that goes back to not wanting to spend time finding an agent and then a publisher because I believe the time for this book is now. I didn’t want to use another three years of my life trying to use the traditional channels when the technology for publishing now is available. It also helps to get the project out of my hair, so that I’m free to work on other projects.
KS: What else do you have coming up?
DB: Well, Kings came out this year. I’ve written two books of poetry since then and am working on another novel now. Birds, LLC has a pretty full schedule as well with Emily Pettit’s Goat in the Snow, coming out in a few months, and Dan Mager’s Partyknife. I think both those books will do really well; I’m looking forward to both of them.
Katie Smither is an artist and writer living in Austin. She works at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas and does a lot of things on the side, or strike that and reverse it.