By Brandon HENSLEY
e took his seat in the coffeehouse of the Flintridge Bookstore and the words, with a laid-back cadence, came out his mouth so naturally, like he’s been part of the west coast, peace-sign waving vibe all of his life.
“So you read the book?” he said leaning back, his long blonde hair almost that of a surfer’s, resting down on his neck. He followed with the approving phrase.
And then for the next hour or so, Henry Turner discussed his life, his work, and, of most importance at the moment, his debut novel about which he’ll be speaking at Flintridge Bookstore, 1010 Foothill Blvd. in La Cañada this Sunday at 4 p.m. Other authors set to appear for the Young Adult fiction panel are Michelle Levy, Catherine Linka and Michael Mullin.
Set in Baltimore, “Ask the Dark” is a young adult suspense thriller about Billy Zeets, a troubled 14-year-old who takes it upon himself to investigate a series of murders involving young boys. Turner is a native of Baltimore – Roland Park, more specifically – which is why it takes a moment to digest his “far out” line.
Turner’s career has taken him from being an award-winning filmmaker – he’s one of the creators of the Slamdance Film Festival – to journalism, and to working with novelists such as John Reachy on perfecting the art of novel storytelling.
Turner moved to L.A. in 1995, and now resides in La Crescenta with his wife Alma and their 10-year old son. But “Ask the Dark,” which was released in April, goes back to Turner’s roots, 3,000 miles away, if at least a little bit.
“I have strong emotions for it,” Turner said of his hometown. “I have a deep understanding of it as a place. When I write about realistic characters I often set them in Baltimore.”
The book sets a bleak picture. Billy and his family are not well off. His mother is dead, his handyman father can’t work because of injuries and his sister isn’t making life easy for anyone. Billy takes the reins as the narrator, and admits he’s a kid who is rightfully thought of as up to no good. But there’s a good spirit in Billy, who only wants his father to keep their house that is in danger of being foreclosed.
That’s when Billy finds one of the bodies that have been missing, and he’s thrust into extraordinary circumstances.
Turner came up with the idea while living in Athens, Greece. The story would be about a boy with a certain reputation. Then he thought, what would it take to turn that reputation around?
“I had under-privileged kids in mind,” Turner said. “I had voiceless boys in mind. I was very conscious of boys who had never been given a break. [Billy] eventually has to give himself a leg up, because no one else is going to.”
Young Adult fiction usually centers on female protagonists. “Ask the Dark” is novel that could be part of a sea change, as it will speak to young boys who like to read, or those who didn’t know they did, because Young Adult fiction isn’t usually written for them.
“My book is for any kid, boy or girl, who in their teen years ever felt pushed aside, overlooked. I don’t care what class they’re from,” Turner said.
It’s also on the scary side. At least, according to Maureen Palacios, owner of Once Upon a Time bookstore on Honolulu Avenue. Turner was part of a speaker series for the book this summer at Once Upon a Time. Palacios is a big fan of Turner’s, but said she couldn’t finish the book at night.
“I was so scared. I said, ‘Oh no, I have to stop this now, and I have to wait until tomorrow morning when the sun is out and the birds are singing,’” she said.
Palacios, a big fan of the book, is marketing it to adults (she said 70% of YA are bought by adults), and thinks they can appeal to females as well.
“There are girls who like to be scared, too,” she said.
There’s violence in the story, but not in the usual way for YA. Turner believes violence in YA is often used as a metaphor for initiation and assertion.
“I wanted to steer away from that,” he said. “It’s a pure physical conflict which [Billy] is forced to endure. He endures because he put himself in that place to help other people.”
Maybe “Ask the Dark” can endure as a book which turns boys on to reading. It was on the Best Indie List Pick this spring by the Young Adult Librarian Services Association, and Turner has several speaking engagements lined up across the country. He was at The Greater Houston Teen Book Convention earlier this year when a boy approached and asked him if he read the book, what was he going to get out of it?
Turner and the boy ended up talking for 15 minutes. He said his experience at the convention made him realize he, along with many other authors, could be in a position of greater importance to younger readers than they first realized. Which is pretty far out, if you think about it.
“That’s who Billy’s ultimately for,” he said. “He’s for kids who have these spaces in their lives where they’re not connected. Their value is not being seen, by whomever. And finding that their value is internal.”