Call It What You Want opens with an intense scene of Rob Lachlan sitting at the breakfast table with his father, who is non-communicative and in a wheelchair. It’s one of the shortest first chapters of any book I’ve ever written, but it’s also one of the most powerful openings I’ve ever put on paper, because Rob is so very unhappy about his situation—and none of it is his fault. I’m often asked how I write such emotionally weighted scenes about my characters, and I like to joke that I take a happy idea (“Robin Hood, but in high school! Yay!”) and then I tie it to a brick and throw it off a cliff. (“Oh, but he’s sad because he’s stuck taking care of his dad, who not only ripped off everyone in town, but then tried to kill himself and failed.”)
But the truth of the matter is that I think the most powerful stories come from a place of deep conflict: conflict between characters, and conflict within each character. Rob is deeply conflicted because he loves his father, but he is so angry at him, too, and because he can no longer talk to his dad, he has nowhere to put all this emotion. When I was writing the scenes about Rob and his father, I would always push my limits as far as I possibly could, until I was personally uncomfortable with what was going on—and then I’d push things a little bit further. It’s not until I’m truly uncomfortable that I know a scene is going to have the impact I want.
It required a lot of tense writing moments to get Rob’s half of the story the way I wanted it, but I love the way it came together, both during his lowest moments and in those times when the kid finally catches a break.