February 14th, 2017
A Review by Chris Fried
Jenn is a sixteen-year-old girl who’s had a rough life. Her father is in jail, her mother is an alcoholic and her only solace is her music, playing her guitar and singing with her brother Johnny throughout her life to date. But when he dies and her older brother enlists in the military, she’s stuck home with her mother. Determined to escape her life and her grief, she runs away, out to pursue her dreams with a small amount of cash and her guitar on her back. One tragedy after another, she slowly realizes her music is both her salvation and her strength. Will she be able to fashion a new life for herself or will the world grind her into the ground with its cruelty?
Jenn is the unlikely portrait of a girl who tries to survive in an imperfect world, facing its dangers and its cruelties one chapter at a time. Her daily obstacles to living on the streets, finding food and shelter are just the beginning. As she makes her way in the world, she processes her grief about her brother with each dark encounter and it is insightful and powerful. She’s so well thought out and colorful, imbued with personality, that if she was real, you would want to give her a hug given everything she faces.
As she tries to make it through each day, she also nurtures a long-standing dream to make it as a singer. Her willpower propels her forward as she tries to move from surviving to thriving in her life, I cheered her on hoping she would succeed and encouraged her to get up when she was knocked down. And when she was knocked down, it was difficult, as I felt sorrow and sadness at everything she experienced.
“Are you now far away, Or just close by, I wish that I could say, One last good bye”
-Song lyrics from “One Last Good Bye (For Johnny)”
The people she meets along the way are equally as colorful as well as caring. From fellow teens also finding shelter from tragedy to other musicians on the street to strangers looking for help out their fellow man, they also have journeys to travel. As their lives intertwined in and out of her life, they all have a crucial part to play on Jenn’s road in life to this point. I was particularly taken with Mark’s story and the emotional wounds he has endured along the way. How they helped each other was truly poignant and one of the many highlights in this novel.
Finally, the original songs Jenn writes are soulful and heartfelt, sprinkled throughout the book as song lyrics, punctuating her thoughts and her troubles. Can someone out there turn these song lyrics into actual sheet music to share with the world? They deserve to be brought to life in this way and be heard, with a rhythm and beauty all their own that carries you through the novel.
The story was so engrossing that I lost track of time as I read it, completely drawn into the story of this young girl who walked away from her tragic life and risked it all to pursue her dreams. It’s an unforgettable journey that immerses you in Jenn’s life and experiences it through her eyes, the visceral fears, the joy of ultimate happiness and everything in-between.
“Life can no longer push me down, I can stand and hold my own, Stretch out my hands, be still inside the storm, Fear is no longer an option, for I was born”
-Song lyrics from “I Am Me”
I’ve read some of the author’s novels and short stories before and the qualities that always draw me into his work remain the same: strong characters on difficult journeys, in both a literal and a figurative sense. Internally, his characters glow with an inner life, an undeniable authenticity, and dialogue that superbly illustrates all of this.
Jenn, like many other protagonists written by the author, has a damaged psyche and struggles with it through a complicated emotional process, muddling her way through like so many of us do, figuring it out along the way. This process of describing emotions and piecing together the coping skills to nourish and heal her soul makes for an impressive novel and is one of the author’s signature strengths. It’s also one of the best stories I’ve read by the author to date.
This novel pulls your heartstrings in all the right places, demonstrating how the power of dreams can sustain you through the worst life can offer. It carries you on a ride through danger and despair as well as hope, stirring your soul and singing right to your heart with its universal truths about life, love, and pain. You can’t help but be moved by the story of this strong-willed and plucky teenager, her passion for music and her expressive songs that follow you long after you’ve finished the novel, leaving a strong emotional resonance in its wake.
“Six Strings, everything is good, Five Strings, I only wish I could, Four Strings, barely holding on, Three, two, don’t know what to do, One String left, I’m out of luck, Don’t leave me now, I’ll get through somehow”
-Song lyrics from the song “Six String”
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Special Feature – an interview with Stefan Bolz:
1.) What was your inspiration for this book and especially for the character of Jenn?
Stefan Bolz: The inspiration came from two different sources: I saw a music video — can’t remember who the artist was— of a girl walking on a deserted road with her guitar. I think that was the spark. I also love, “Where The Heart Is.” It was a book first, then became a movie with Natalie Portman. A pregnant girl gets dumped by her boyfriend in front of a Walmart in the middle of nowhere.
I thought about what if you’d be so poor that you couldn’t even afford strings for your guitar, and your family is broken, and have this dream of becoming a singer but there’s just no way in hell you’ll ever get there. Where do you start your journey when you know deep down that there is no journey and the destination is a mirage?
Jenn’s character emerged out of the pain of that realization. An impossible dream was the motor that drove her to run away. I felt it very clearly when I first sat down to write chapter one. I felt her pain, her fervent wish to go where her dreams take her. When she slips out of the house at first light, I felt how she must have felt: absolute terror, excitement, wonder, and hope against hope that she wouldn’t end up on the streets or get herself into drugs or worse.
Like many others, I love rags to riches stories and cheer for the courageous girl or guy who pushes on against overwhelming odds. One of my favorite movies of all time is “The Secret of my Success” with Michael J. Fox. I think a very secret part of me thought that I might live vicariously through Jenn in the book when she becomes famous while I’m still in the midst of the struggle.
2.) There are a series of chance encounters and random acts of kindness from people who Jenn encounters along her journey. It highlights the unfairness of life as well as the good. In a story such as this one, how do you, as an author, find the balance in your storytelling between the two without diving into cynicism and darkness that could overpower this story?
Stefan Bolz: I’m not a cynical person. I think cynicism is a defense against the pain that underlies it. I go straight for the pain :-), in real life and my stories. To be honest, I don’t have a blueprint for the balance of the two in the story. I kind of let it unfold before me without trying to steer it too much in one direction or the other. I think this story, very much like many others, captures a moment of change in the main character’s life. During times of change, we usually go back and forth between darkness and light, between doubt and faith, strength and weakness. It’s a very normal thing to vacillate between the two states of being during those times and I know them very well myself. The outside world in my stories I see as a reflection of what’s going on inside. In that sense, there are angels and demons on the path and we learn from both.
3.) The picture you depict of the homeless shelters feels accurate and authentic. This also seems true for the music scene that Jenn encounters. What kind of research did you have to do for this story and especially for those aspects of it?
Stefan Bolz: I was never homeless myself but when I wrote the scenes, I guess I was able to let myself feel what it would have felt like to be without a home, to fight for the smallest item. For me, it’s always the emotional truth I’m going for. The rest follows. I did some research on shelters and asked a few of my friends who work in that field. For example, in my original draft, I had Jenn go to a hospital and stay there for two days (in Chicago) when she got very sick. A friend told me that if you’re under age and you go to a hospital, chances are, you won’t leave unless it’s with someone from social services. They contact your parents immediately (or try to). You’re basically entering the system once you step into a hospital. So I had to rewrite that part. There’s also tons of info online. I found one particular youth homeless shelter in San Francisco who had all the information online, including short video clips of some of the kids who stayed there. Most of the shelter youth in the book was inspired by the website info. The basic premise of those shelters is to get kids off the streets. I think they do great work and save many lives. It also occurred to me that you can end up there from one moment to the next without warning. Shania is a good example. One day she was on a boat traveling the world as the daughter of a rich family, and the next day she runs away and spends time at the shelter with kids from all walks of life.
I asked several friends about guitars and got some great material. One of them is Rhett Miller of The Old 97’s. He told me about boiling the strings when you can’t afford new ones. I watched several Youtube videos explaining record labels and took some info from there, and, last but not least, I listened to Jewel’s “Never Broken” audio book. I highly recommend it. She is brutally honest in her view of herself and her life, and her story has inspired me throughout the writing process. Jenn mentions her in the book. I hope she’ll read it one day :-).
4.) You definitely gravitate towards writing female, teenage protagonists in your novels. How did that happen and why does it capture your imagination so much?
Stefan Bolz: My bonus daughter Chloe tells me often that deep inside I’m a sad teenage girl. I crack up about that every time. I think I must have been one in a previous life. I really have no clue why I write about teenage girls becoming heroes but as long as I feel inspired by them, I’ll continue with it. Maybe because they are so much stronger than they believe. Not sure, really.
5.) It’s been said that an adult male writer can have a difficult time writing female characters, let alone teenage female characters. What kind of feedback have you gotten from others about the way you write from those points of view?
Stefan Bolz: I get very positive feedback from readers about the teenage girl point of view. Again, I have no idea other than there must be part of me that remembers when I was one :-).