Frederica Academy students saw a literary character come to life Wednesday when the author of their summer reading assignment came to their school.
Vince Vawter, award-winning author of “Paperboy,” met with Frederica students to share with them his inspiration for the novel and his advice for overcoming the struggles faced by the novel’s protagonist, who represents Vawter as a young boy.
“Paperboy” tells the story of an 11-year-old boy living in Memphis in 1959 who struggles with a stutter that prevents him, at times, from even saying his own name. When he takes over a paper route one summer, he’s forced to communicate with the customers, a colorful group of Memphis neighbors who stir up trouble in his life. But with his typewriter, the boy finds his voice and overcomes these challenges.
Vawter, a native of Memphis, is retired from a 40-year career in newspapers. He worked most recently as the president and publisher of the Evansville Courier & Press in Indiana.
At an assembly for the middle school students at Frederica, an independent school on St. Simons Island, Vawter read a few pages of his book to allow the students to hear the story through his voice — with the stutter he’s had his entire life.
“You can tell I still stutter,” Vawter told the students. “But I like to say I’ve found my voice, and so I don’t pay any attention to it anymore. I can’t even tell you when or how much I stutter. It’s just who I am.”
Vawter drew almost entirely from personal experience when writing “Paperboy.” Most of the novel’s events, including an afternoon when he passed out trying to tell a stranger his name and a dinner at which he spewed spaghetti when someone made an embarrassing comment, come straight from Vawter’s life.
“I started out writing this as a memoir, and then I decided I needed to show the reader a voice,” he said. “It’s a novel now, but it’s very, very real. Some of the things are exactly as they happened.”
Vawter, like the character in his book, kept a thumbtack in his pocket when he was a young student so he could jab his hand into it anytime a teacher called on him in class.
“I would jam that thumbtack into my palm, thinking that the pain of the thumbtack would take away the pain of the stutter,” he said. “And of course it never does, but if you’re 11 years old … and you don’t know what’s going on, you will do about anything to survive.”
Vawter travels the country talking to students about his book and answering their questions.
“They have the greatest questions,” he said. “And in fact, they’re so great, I always learn more about my own book. They teach me, really.”
Coming from the newspaper business, Vawter said prior to his talks, he had seen schools only through a lens of board of education meetings and school budgets. But meeting students in person has changed his perspective entirely.
“I’m so excited to see the coming generation,” he said. “I see a lot of bright eyes and a lot of smart kids.”
Kate Waleridge, a seventh grader at Frederica, said she met her first author Wednesday.
“I love books, so it was a really cool experience for me to get to meet an author and for me to get to see an author speak, especially when he’s overcome so many struggles,” she said.
Vawter’s working now to publish a sequel to “Paperboy,” — a book that he at first had no intention of writing, he said.
“I thought I had told my story exactly the way I wanted to,” he said.
But during a lunch with students in Florida, one young student changed his mind.
She wanted to know what happened to a character in the novel, Mr. Spiro, the only character who isn’t based on a person in Vawter’s life.
“I told her, ‘I can tell you what happened to all the other characters, but I really can’t tell you what happened to Mr. Spiro,’” he said.
But Vawter said he saw tears in her eyes when he told her this.
A sequel has since been written and is now with editors, and Vawter said he hopes it will be published in the next few years.
“I’ve dealt with some tough people,” he said. “But I cannot handle a young lady in middle school who wants me to write another story.”