Remember that impulse from high school years to just stretch the night out as long as possible? Being out long past the time when any good things might happen, indulging the drive to keep going, into the night, into the morning. That feeling has a distinctly teenage warmth about it, and that warmth flared while I was reading Bryan Bliss’ new novel, Meet Me Here.
Meet Me Here unfolds over the course of one long high school graduation night. It starts at a party, and travels through mud fields, abandon hotels and hospital emergency rooms. For Thomas and Mallory, the friends at the center of this story, stretching the night means more than just living through the bad choices of graduation parties–though they make those too. This night also represents the final moments of youth, before each must face choices that will define the rest of their lives.
Bryan Bliss wants to tell stories that “accurately reflect what it means to be a teenager.” His way of getting there is by fitting dramatic family stories snugly into larger, Very Important Issues that many families can recognize.
His first novel, No Parking at the End Times honed in on fringe evangelical Christianity. In No Parking,parents join a doomsday cult, sell everything and move their family across the country. They believe the world is going to end. As such, there’s no plan for school, work, family. Bliss finds a way to dive deep into religious quackery, while maintaining a realistic family portrait through the eyes of twin high school siblings pulled from their lives for a scam.
With Meet Me Here, Bliss moves his family story from religion to the military. Thomas is graduating and shipping to basic training in the morning. His father was Army, and raised his boys to be Army, too. But Thomas’ older brother, Jake, has returned from his own tours in recent conflicts; he has come back a hero, but also, “off.”
Watching Jake live with PTSD, his deteriorating mental state and unwillingness to participate in even the most basic parts of day-to-day life, has led Thomas to reject his Army enlisting. After graduation night, Thomas plans to leave for basic. But rather than report, he pans to simply leave his family and his Army commitments behind.
What he does not plan for, however, is running into his estranged childhood best friend, Mallory, who has just punched out her boyfriend and asks Thomas for a ride home. Mallory has her own life-altering decision to face in the morning. And, scared of the choices they’ve made and unsure how to face their families and their futures, the two instead spend the night driving in Thomas’ truck through their rural North Carolina country.
In Meet Me Here, Bliss manages to combine the fading glow of youth with the impending weight of adulthood. In Thomas and Mallory, comrades-in-arms for one (platonic! thanks, Bryan) night, Bliss creates characters wracked with doubts about courage, independence, responsibility and fear.
Their night will lead to drunken parties, family conflicts and the potential for great violence. But it will also force Thomas and Mallory to make difficult choices, and ask themselves if they are doing the right thing. Or if there is even a right thing to do.
To get at some of those issues, I wrote to Bliss to ask where his military story came from, and, without spoiling, to find out if he thinks Thomas makes the right choice.
Where did Thomas’ and Mallory’s story originate?
I knew I wanted to write a story about friendship—that’s probably where it started. I’ve always loved books like Bridge to Terabithia, where two people have an immediate and dynamic connection. So when I first started writing Thomas and Mallory, I said: Okay, what would Jess and Leslie look like in 2016? After high school had ended? From there, I was able to really dive deep into who Thomas and Mallory were individually and to one another. At the end of the day, I don’t think friendship is portrayed genuinely in fiction—especially young adult fiction. And I wanted to write a story about two people who have a significant connection in that way.
Thomas’ family, and his story, is steeped in upholding military tradition while facing the difficult results of that tradition. What drew you to a military story?
Honestly, I always felt like I missed something by not serving in the military. This is odd for a few reasons, most notably my rather fervent anti-violence stance. That said, there’s something about the brotherhood of it that’s appealing. You see it in police officers, firefighters. There’s something powerful about being able to stand with people in the face of personal danger. To believe in something bigger than yourself. Of course, there’s a lot to that mindset that I find troubling. That, to some extent, is the tension of the book. How do you square feelings of duty and obligation with fear? How can we redefine what it means to be courageous? I don’t think courage is limited to picking up a gun and serving in the military. I think there’s a powerful courage in being able to say “This isn’t what I’m supposed to do with my life.”
This is the second novel you’ve written about teenagers trying to cope with the expectations, often damaging expectations, of their parents. What do you like about telling those stories?
Again, it’s weird—my parents are pretty normal. I didn’t grow up with any trauma, any deep issues. Well, beyond the typical middle school trauma and issues everybody seems to face. Still, I want to tell stories that accurately reflect what it means to be a teenager. Parents, even though it can be a trope, are a natural place to look for tension. Especially now, parents have an invested interest in what their children are doing—what they are becoming. In No Parking at the End Times, it was faith. In Meet Me Here, it’s a sense of duty and obligation (and with this book, it’s not only to the parents, but to the entire town). I think it’s hard for any of us to see past our ideologies, and that will always be an interesting point of tension between teenagers and adults for me. No Parking began with the question: what happens when you lose faith in your parents? I think that same question applies toMeet Me Here—maybe even more so.
You lived in North Carolina, where Meet Me Here is set. What was it like writing about your home?
I like to call Hickory, North Carolina my quasi-hometown. While I lived in the Chicago area for most of my young life, I actually grew up in that small southern town. Part of it was being the “new kid” my senior year of high school. But a lot of it had to do with finally understanding who I was as a person and being comfortable with it. There’s not a big reveal coming from that sentence, it was just the realization that I didn’t have to define myself in terms of what I did, whether that was sports or being popular. I kind of figured out who I was and started moving forward from there.
I think it’s one of the reasons I like writing young adult literature, because I enjoy tapping into that epiphany. And to do so, I usually find myself writing about North Carolina, a place I still love… even when its politicians are acting ridiculous.
I have to admit, reading Meet Me Here gave me a bit of “good old boy” vibe: getting trucks stuck in the mud, shooting shotguns in a parking lot. Was that intentional?
Yes, totally. I was never a “southern boy” – in any way. I didn’t own a truck. Never shot a gun. I once – almost – chewed tobacco. But that’s as close as I’ve ever gotten to being a good ole boy. That said, I know a lot of people who are – as Flannery O’Connor might call them – Good Country People. It’s easy, especially in fiction, to take pot-shots at the stereotypical southern redneck. That wasn’t my intent. But there are a lot of interesting characters in the south, many of whom are people I’ve known personally. People who truly love being southern, love NASCAR and sweet tea and going to church and arguing about whether eastern or western is the best barbeque. Like I said before, living there left a mark on my life and it’s something I want to both honor and portray in my novels.
Is there one experience in the book that you can share that comes directly from your own time in NC?
To protect the guilty, I’ll skip at least one true story… Probably most interesting is the graduation party scene in the book. That takes place in a real neighborhood – Deerfield – that used to host the sort of parties found in John Hughes movies. Naked people. Monstrous messes. It was my first experience with that sort of party and I always wanted to write about it. However, what truly captured my interest in Deerfield parties happened a few years after I graduated from high school. I was driving by during graduation weekend and noticed a crude paper D was taped on top of the D in Deerfield. Yes, it was now “Beerfield.” I will never find that unfunny.
No Parking At the End Times is about a family’s religious observance with an extreme religious group/cult. Meet Me Here is about a young man choosing to show up for boot camp after having enlisted in the Army. Both topics are particularly poignant at this moment. What do you like about setting small stories in the Big Issues?
It probably sounds arrogant, but I want to write books about Big Issues. There’s something to be said about fiction taking on these issues (the same goes with any art, really) because it allows readers to empathize with the characters. The trick is not making the Big Issue the only part of the plot. There has to be a story that helps nuance the issue, that helps show that nothing is actually black and white. For religion and war/nationalism, that’s tough. But I think it’s the sort of work that fiction is uniquely capable of doing. Kids (and adults, for that matter) can use novels to dip a toe into bigger questions of justice, marginality, and abuse. They can begin to have those conversations. And for some kids, it’s a way to see themselves represented in literature. As a kid who didn’t grow up wealthy, I can’t minimize the effect of seeing a show like Roseanne. It was like: “Shit, I don’t get the Cosby’s. But I get this.” That’s important and it’s something I hope I can keep doing with every book I write.
Did you always know what choice Thomas would make in the end?
Without spoiling the ending, I always knew which direction he’d go. Interestingly enough, as I was revising the book with my editor, I suddenly wanted him to make a different decision. I actually plotted out a new ending that had Thomas acquiesce to the views of his father, his community. But at the end of that day, that didn’t seem like the right thing to do for the story.
Do you think he made the right one?
This is a trick question. I firmly believe that a story ends the way it ends, which is slightly controversial in certain parts of the internet. Just because you want a character to make a decision…doesn’t mean she or he should do that. In fact, that’s probably a recipe for some boring ass books. As I climb off my soap box, I’ll actually get to the spirit of your question. I think, ultimately, Thomas made the right decision in that specific moment. Another part of my fiction, I think, is the idea that we are never bound by our decisions. There’s nothing you can’t come back from—whether that’s homelessness, crazy religion, parental expectations, or even being on death row (which is the topic of my next book.) The word is redemption. And it remains a powerful theme in everything I write.