Welcome to my interview with author Cliff Burke and his heart-warming story AN OCCASIONALLY HAPPY FAMILY!
This title spoke to me from the moment I read it. I’m sure it can stir all sorts of family memories and thoughts; I know, it did in me. Let’s have an introduction to the book and then we’ll move on to the author’s thoughts on his adventure writing it. Don’t forget to scroll to the bottom to enter for your chance to win a copy of this #mglit book!
AN OCCASIONALLY HAPPY FAMILY
by Cliff Burke
Gordon Korman meets The Great Outdoors in this funny and moving debut about a boy who goes on a disastrous family vacation (sweltering heat! bear chases!) that ends with a terrible surprise: his dad’s new girlfriend.
There are zero reasons for Theo Ripley to look forward to his family vacation. Not only are he, sister Laura, and nature-obsessed Dad going to Big Bend, the least popular National Park, but once there, the family will be camping. And Theo is an indoor animal. It doesn’t help that this will be the first vacation they’re taking since Mom passed away.
Once there, the family contends with 110 degree days, wild bears, and an annoying amateur ornithologist and his awful teenage vlogger son. Then, Theo’s dad hits him with a whopper of a surprise: the whole trip is just a trick to introduce his secret new girlfriend.
Theo tries to squash down the pain in his chest. But when it becomes clear that this is an auditioning-to-be-his-stepmom girlfriend, Theo must find a way to face his grief and talk to his dad before his family is forever changed.
Hi Cliff! It’s wonderful to have you stop by. Tell us: when did you know you wanted to be a writer?
Like most writers, I’m first and foremost a reader and grew up believing that ‘real writers’ were a special, untouchable group of people. Even though I majored in English in college and did some creative writing then, it wasn’t until more recently that I thought I might have the ability to write a full-length book that could be published. Specifically, I was inspired by my students’ creative energy and how involved they got during our writing units. I began writing short stories to serve as mentor texts for assignments, mostly just trying to get laughs (while still teaching the fundamentals of building characters, dialogue punctuation, setting the scene, etc.), and went from writing short sketches for my classes to drafting a book that is soon for sale!
Fantastic! Love that your writing evolution included your students’ fervor for their writing assignments. Very inspiring!
Tell the readers a bit about your main character Theo.
Theo is a thirteen-year-old budding comic book artist whose first graphic novel, The Aliens who Eat People But Never Get Full, was a big hit with his three friends. He is a Pisces who mostly goes with the flow and often serves as the peace-keeper between his bickering older sister and Dad. Something hinted at but not explicitly detailed in the book is Theo’s desire for, but difficulty with, connecting to other people.
Theo’s first comic book title is so great! Oh, the visuals.
Why did you want to tell Theo’s story?
I wanted to tell Theo’s story because I think it is a fairly common one. Many middle grade main characters take action, or are brash, or have strong personalities that lead them to a big change. But just as common (and just as interesting) are kids who are more reserved, and whose unique characteristics only become apparent once you get to know them better. The difference between what Theo communicates directly to the reader and what he outwardly communicates to the people in his life make him different from chattier or more outward-facing main characters.
The quote by Tolstoy that opens the book ‘Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way’, screams volumes of what is to come on the pages of this story.
- What defines this family’s happiness and unhappiness?
Without giving away too much of the story, I’d say the family’s unhappiness comes from the truly difficult experiences the family has gone through in the years before the book starts, and their inability to communicate openly about their feelings. Their happiness comes from the core of genuine care they have for each other despite their challenges in expressing this directly.
- How do you think young readers will see their own families within this?
I am trying to reflect the reality of my own experiences growing up, and hope that even if readers don’t identify with the specific ways in which this family is imperfect, they can appreciate the importance of all imperfect families.
Grief, life changes, and acceptance are underlying themes throughout Theo’s story. What was one of your hardest scenes to write, which incorporated these? Which was your favorite?
The final scene, without giving it away, was one of the hardest to write because I wanted to strike the balance between writing a scene that was hopeful and satisfying to the reader, but still honest in showing that people (and families) do not change overnight.
My favorite scene that incorporates these themes also takes place towards the end of the book, when the family is sitting under the stars of the Terlingua desert and speaking to each other honestly for the first time.
Why will young readers relate to Theo?
In a general sense, readers can relate to Theo as someone who is shy in public but inwardly bursting with creativity, as a younger sibling, as someone torn between allegiances to his sister and his Dad, as someone who loves his friends but also wishes they were a little different sometimes, or as someone forced into a car on a family vacation to a place he has little interest in visiting.
More specifically, I also hope he is relatable as someone who has gone through a major event in his life (the death of his mother) without understanding how to really talk about his response to it. He outwardly projects that he is doing fine and has everything under control but would like to let his true feelings to someone who would listen without judgement.
As we’ve pointed out, the book does deal with serious life emotions and events, it does also have a very humorous side. Care to share an example?
Thank you for pointing this out! One of my favorite parts of writing is finding ways to incorporate humor into the story. A scene that was particularly fun to write was Theo and his family’s encounter with French nudists in a public hot springs who reject the Dad’s insistence that they follow the “bathing suits recommended” park policy.
What would you like young readers (and their parents) to leave Theo’s story with?
I hope readers will take whatever they would like from the book. There is a lot of info about Big Bend National Park and the history of Texas, observations on older sisters,
bumbling fathers, overzealous young influencers, amateur birders, and bear attacks. There is hopefully something in that list that will linger with readers, along with the above-mentioned message that expressing even the most difficult emotions can be very healing.
For our writing readers, share a piece of writing advice that you’ve found valuable throughout your writing journey.
I’ll offer this, from George Saunders’s recent A Swim in a Pond in the Rain – “doing what you please (i.e. what pleases you), with energy, will lead you to everything – to your particular obsessions, your particular challenges, and the forms in which they’ll convert into beauty…We can’t know what our writing problems will be until we write our way into them, and then we can only write our way out.”
I’m very guilty of trying to construct the perfect story in my head and flagging every possible problem rather than sitting down and starting to put words together. I’ve also talked to many people who have the best idea for a story but still need to write it. So my advice is just to start writing and see what happens.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Cliff Burke grew up in the suburbs of Cleveland, Ohio. He worked as a house painter, a parking lot attendant, and a sign-twirling dancing banana before graduating from the College of William and Mary. He currently teaches English in Austin, Texas.
Can’t thank you enough for joining us and for sharing your new book with us, Cliff! Best wishes from the entire Mixed-Up family.
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