Wolcott Elementary School teacher Matthew Dicks will have a launch and signing party on Sept. 17 for his fourth novel, ‘The Perfect Comeback of Caroline Jacobs.’
By Ronni Newton
In between teaching fifth graders at West Hartford’s Wolcott Elementary School, storytelling, screenplay writing, comic book creating, parenting, and more, Matthew Dicks has found time to complete his fourth novel – “The Perfect Comeback of Caroline Jacobs” (St. Martin’s Press) – which was released last week.
“My students all knew what the book was about by looking at the cover,” Dicks recalled about the day when he tested out his title and the novel’s cover design on his fifth graders. The students, correctly, determined that the book was about an adult who had been bullied and finally came up with a plan to deliver the perfect comeback.
“The Perfect Comeback of Caroline Jacobs” is about a non-confrontational woman who had been bullied as a child and is finally spurred to do something about it, but the engaging and humorous novel is also about the impact of childhod experiences, parent-child relationships, and longtime secrets. And there’s also a blind man named Spartacus, a bird funeral, and plenty of great one-liners thrown in for good measure.
“I got the idea for this story when I was lying in bed one night with my wife. She’s had a beautiful life. Nothing terrible happens to her,” Dicks said of his wife Elysha, who grew up in West Hartford. He finally got her to come up with one thing that had bothered her – and it had happened many years ago at a sleepover with a friend. “The girl said that ‘Emily Kaplan’s bathroom is bigger than your whole bedroom.'”
“Wouldn’t it be great to go back? To let her have it?” Dicks said he asked his wife. Even though that thought did not incite his wife to take revenge, it did motivate Dicks. “I said I should write a book, and I added it to my list,” he said. That was about six years ago.
Dicks said he keeps a running list of all of his book ideas, and sends it to his agent and his wife, who determine together which idea should be the topic for his next book. The two decided that it was time for the bullying story, and Dicks took it from there. It was a topic he already knew a lot about.
Although his wife may not have had much personal experience with bullying, it’s a hot topic today and one which hits close to home for Dicks. “I was bullied in high school,” he said. “I never really heard the word ‘bullying,’ but hazing was allowed,” he said.
Growing up in Blackstone, MA (the setting for the book and the actual town where Dicks was raised), a ritualized sort of hazing of freshmen by seniors was permitted in high school, he said. “They would make us wear signs that said things like ‘freshmen are losers, seniors rule.'” The hazing would last throughout the first two months of the school year and then would culminate at a dance where freshmen were completely humiliated.
“I just decided not to do it. Maybe I wanted to make a name for myself – the contrarian – so I stood in front of my school and passed out fliers that said ‘seniors are wimps’ and ‘Dan likes to hit kids half his size.'” The protests made Dicks an even greater target for the senior bullies who tormented him for the entire year whereas his friends who put up with it earned the seniors’ respect. Dicks said he actually got suspended before the dance, but it was because the principal said they couldn’t guarantee his safety.
Dicks said he agonized over how to handle the hazing when he was a senior. He didn’t have to decide what to do, however. “Hazing was made illegal my senior year,” Dicks said.
As for the characters in Dicks’s stories, some are based on real people and others just “download into my head,” Dicks said. “Caroline [Jacobs] isn’t someone I know, but I see the people who don’t like confrontation, who suffer in silence,” he said. Dicks said those who know him see a bit of him in many of his protagonists, but not nearly as much with Caroline.
The secondary characters are based on real people, with plenty of tweaking and twisting, he said. Emily Kaplan, the person his wife’s friend said had a large bathroom, became the name of the bully in the book, just because he liked the name.
And the stories, they just flow, he said. “I don’t know what will happen next. I kind of read them as I go,” Dicks said.
In the “The Perfect Comeback of Caroline Jacobs,” Caroline met her bully halfway through. “I thought, ‘Oh no, it’s a novella,'” Dicks said. But then he kept going and watched what happened.
“I’m always terrified when writing because I don’t know the ending, but I do know I’ll be satisfied,” said Dicks. That was the case with this book, which Dicks said doesn’t come to a neat and clean ending.
“I bring it to a head where you can see the possibility,” he said. He wrote an epilogue, but said it exists today only on his own computer. “I like to end my stories 10 pages before the reader wants them to.”
In his approach to his career, Dicks also keeps the possibilities open. He’s working on his next book and a sixth will follow, which he said he’s contractually committed to. He gave a few clues about the next novel, which is about a boy given the opportunity to see his mother in a more objective light, realizing that she’s doing the best she can. “It’s about being fair to our parents. At least I think that’s what it’s about,” he said. The book is also about first love, of the unattainable girl.
Dicks also has a memoir coming out, a picture book that’s being edited, a comic book in progress, he’s writing the screenplay for one of his books, and he’s teaching fifth grade at Wolcott. Storytelling is a favored activity, Dicks said, because there’s immediate reaction from the audience rather than a months-long or more wait until a book comes out.
How does Dicks find time to do everything? “I have a great wife, that helps,” he said.
He also gets up at 4:30 a.m. every day, spends only five minutes having lunch (“instant oatmeal takes two minutes to make and three minutes to eat”), and maximizes every moment.
On Thursday, Sept. 17, Dicks will be found at Barnes & Noble in Blue Back Square where he will be telling stories about the book and signing copies. He will be joined by two of his fifth graders from last year, Julia Hosek and Ismael Castillo, who will be “reading hilarious pieces,” Dicks said. The launch party begins at 7 p.m.
For more information about Dicks and his work visit his website.
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