Spring/Summer 2021 Issue – Identity

An Interview with Cal Armistead

The following is a transcript of an interview by Creative Director Aidan Jones with Cal Armistead, a local author who resides in Concord. One of her most well known books is Being Henry David, a novel many Acton-Boxborough students read in eighth grade. The book depicts the journey of Hank, a teenager with amnesia, who flees to Concord, MA to search for clues about his identity. Some of the following questions and answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.

[Aidan]: Our issue is mostly about identity, so I have a couple of different questions, but a couple of them are about identity and your writing. What were your inspirations when you first started writing and when writing Being Henry David? And what did you think of when you were working on it?

[Cal]: On the book itself, as I was writing it I think the initial inspiration for it was living in the Concord area. My kids both went to Concord-Carlisle High School, so I spent a lot of time in Concord. I also have an uncle who lives right downtown, and so I was at his house a lot. Just walking around Concord, there’s so much history and so many writers there that I was inspired by. And then there was a kid—William—back when I first was thinking of the idea of Being Henry David. He was in the news, and he was 17 years old. He had gotten into a car accident in the wee hours of the morning, and he hit a police cruiser that was pulled over to the side of the road. The trooper was a woman, and he ended up causing her to become wheelchair ridden. There was a picture of William in the paper. He was in court, and his face was just crumpled. You could tell that he was a good kid who had a really awful experience and made some really bad choices. And I looked at his face, and it just really struck me. I thought “how does somebody go on from something like that?” 

[Cal]: And then that woman did end up dying eventually. And William did jail time for it because at first he was charged for the accident, and then he was charged for her death when she died. And so just to imagine someone so young, how do you cope? What I started playing with in my mind is that there are many different ways to deal with trauma, and one of the ways is for the brain to just shut down. And so that’s what happens with Hank [the main character of Being Henry David]. The trauma of the accident with his sister in the car, where she actually loses a leg, is so horrendous that he can’t even conceive of it. His brain, to protect him, shuts down. Thus, I created this idea of the beast, which is really anxiety. It’s panic. It’s a panic attack, basically saying “you’re not going to go any further because it will hurt you a lot to remember what really happened.” I also find the whole idea of identity just so fascinating. There’s several books that I’ve written where identity ends up being a theme.

[Aidan]: It’s so interesting to hear that because I can read what’s written, but there’s so much behind it that I just had no idea. That’s so interesting. My next question is how have any of your own experiences or your own identity influenced, like the relationship between any characters that you have or any other parts of the story?

[Cal]: When I was just fresh out of college, my parents broke up, and I didn’t really have a home base anymore. So my uncle in Concord offered me to live with him for that summer so that I could get my bearings. I lived in his house in downtown Concord. And it really took me a while to recognize the way that I had worked my own experience into the book, because I didn’t really know who I was, when I first came to Concord. I spent a lot of time walking around Walden Pond just thinking, and it was also before the days of the internet, so I spent a lot of time in the Concord library. I knew I wanted to go into the media somehow, so I was looking at radio stations and TV stations, newspapers, and anything else that I could find. And then I cold called a lot of these stations because I was really hungry to get my life started. 

It was also in Concord that I looked up an old college friend, who I’d never dated in college, but who I had been good friends with. He and I reconnected, and we’ve now been married for over 30 years. Concord was where my adult identity really was launched, and it kind of worked its way into my book. In Being Henry David, little by little Hank discovered his own identity in the same place that I slowly discovered mine. Further, regarding relationships between the characters, I’m a musical person. I sang in a band for six and a half years, and I love music. I love musicians, and I always have crushes on guitar players. But, I can’t play guitar. I’ve tried and I’m just really bad at it. The only thing I can do is sing, and I can also do a cowbell and tambourine. I always admire and have a crush on people who can play guitar. So I think that that affected my experience with making Hank a musician and making him have this relationship with Hailey because they both are so musical.

[Aidan]: My next question is kind of connected to the last one: which character would you consider yourself most like or least like? You said there’s that connection with Hank and Hailey being musical, so would you say that it’s either those two that you’re most connected to? Or is it someone else perhaps?

[Cal]: One of the things that people think—often I don’t mind at all— is they think Cal Armistead is a guy. And part of that is purposeful. I don’t want my identity to impact anyone’s experience with the book, because the experience with the reader and the book is so personal to the reader and the book that I just want to step out of the way. And so my nickname has always been Cal. My real name is Carolyn, but I got called Caloryn when I was a kid, and it got shortened to Cal along the way. Sometimes it gets lengthened to Cali, my husband calls me Calli. I was supposed to have my author photo in the back of the book, but I asked them to not put it in there. I don’t want them to know that I’m a woman because young men don’t always like to read books written by women. Some young men—more so than girls, girls don’t really care—would rather read a book that’s written by a guy. I thought I have this great, androgynous name, so I’m just going to put my name in there, and if anybody wants to look up my website and see what I look like, they hopefully won’t be disappointed that I’m not a guy. 

[Cal]: I think the character I most associate with is Hank, because I was inside his head. I have two daughters, and I’m a girl, so people question why I’m writing from a male point of view. However, I feel like when it comes right down to it, people are people. The experiences of Hank would be pretty similar to what anybody would experience with amnesia, just trying to cope with the world and find clues. When writing the book, the thing that was fun was identifying with Hank  and asking what I would do in a certain situation. To wonder about it and to ask “what would that feel like?” And I don’t think it would be any different if it was from Hailey’s point of view or somebody else. He was me, and I was him inside his body and having these experiences as the experiences were unfolding. I wrote it in the present tense and in first person, which is often the case with young adult fiction, because it’s so immediate and it’s as if it’s happening right now. I felt the same way, as if I was experiencing everything he was experiencing as we went along. So, yeah, I think that it’s your question, now.

[Aidan]: Next I have a question that’s just sort of for fun. If you can meet any author or creator, who’s alive or is not anymore, is there any particular one you would choose to talk to? 

[Cal]: Oh, that is a good question. That’s something no one has asked me before. I think I would like to meet Thoreau. I became good friends with the guy who plays Thoreau at Walden Pond. The character of Thomas in the book who’s a Thoreau [impersonator], he’s based on a real guy named Richard Smith, who I know and interviewed for the book. I got to know him because I wanted to talk to him about his job. And so I learned a lot about Thoreau, and he was a prickly guy. I think he would have been cool to know and I’d love to take a walk in the woods with him because I think he would be really knowledgeable…. So I think he would be a cool guy to know, but I think he also would be a little bit intimidating and daunting because he was pretty cranky. He really liked the woods better than he liked people. And Louisa, I’d love to meet Louisa May Alcott, because I’ve been doing some research about her and I think she would be really interesting to talk to.

[Aidan]: Yeah, Concord is such a special place. It has so many, so much history, so many influential people. 

[Cal]: Yeah, it’s really been cool. Well, I didn’t grow up around here. I grew up – my younger years were in Connecticut and then my teenage years were all on Long Island in New York, but I was born in Boston, so I feel like I’m back home… and I don’t ever want to leave here. And here’s an interesting thing: when I went to speak to some kids at Concord-Carlisle high school about my book, they really weren’t that interested and I was so disappointed because it takes place at their school and my kids went there and I thought, “oh, they’re gonna love this. I can’t wait to talk to you about it.” I think because they’ve had enough. Just had enough of Thoreau. “All the streets are Thoreau. Everything’s Walden. Everything’s Alcott, Emerson do we have to-” So they didn’t really want to talk to me. I was so sad, I had to go… to the Concord bookshop and say, “why don’t you guys carry my book, I thought you really want to carry my book.” And I had to kind of talk them into it, which was really odd. But I think they’re just over it. They’re just like, “you know, we have the biggies. And who are you everybody’s writing books that feature Thoreau and Alcott and Emerson. So you’re nothing special. Get out.” So that was very humbling. I was humbled. But I was disappointed, so I’m so happy that Acton is doesn’t have that attitude, and I’ve had such a good relationship with the Acton schools.

[Aidan]: In your opinion, would you say it is smarter or better to write about what you like and what you connect with, or something that you think a wider range of audience would connect to and appreciate?

[Cal]: Wow, that is a really interesting question and it is something that a writer struggles with because it’s a passion. Writing is a passion. Art is a passion. And you want to write what you want to write, but then the other question is do you want to sell it? And do you want to make a living at it? There are many, many writers who write for money, and that is fine, I mean, it’s a fine occupation. I wrote for newspapers and magazines for years and years, and I worked in radio for years and years. And I really enjoyed writing articles for newspapers and doing journalism and things like that. But then I wanted to branch out into fiction. And I did go back to grad school, and I went and I got a Master of Fine Arts and Creative Writing through the University of Southern Maine, and that’s one of the best things I’ve ever done in my life. It really kick-started my desire to write more fiction, which I really needed help with. I have started many one or two page books/stories/whatever, that never went anywhere, but I have also completed three books after Being Henry David that are in different stages of being considered by publishers and being edited by myself and I always fall in love with what I’m writing. I would not write it if it didn’t bring me joy. I would not spend the time on it. 

And I have to add that I’m extremely lucky in that I am married to a man who makes living for the house because I don’t make enough money. I wouldn’t be doing this right now, I would probably be still in radio or I would be working for a newspaper, I would be doing something else. But my love is to write fiction right now. And I have the luxury to be able to do that. And I have the luxury to write what I want, and not just be thinking, how am I going to make some money? What can I make? What can I write that’s going to make more money? But it is a tough way to make a living, you know, especially for novelists. There’s a lot of different kinds of writing that are more lucrative and more of a sure thing. To write a novel is not a not a sure thing, even to have one book published; it’s not guaranteed that I’m going to get another. 

[Aidan]: Did you come across any challenges or internal conflicts when you were exploring or expressing your identity? I suppose it goes with writing as well, but in general how did you deal with that?

[Cal]: Oh, man, I was so lost and confused as a teenager. Bless you, if it’s at all rough for you, honey, it gets better. That’s what I had somebody ask me: what I would tell myself as a teenager, and it would just be, “Oh, sweetie, it gets better.” It’s hard to be a teenager. It’s so hard. And I was lucky, I had some good friends, but I was certainly, you know, kind of nerdy, and I was not among the popular kids because I was just always so self conscious. I was a preacher’s daughter and I felt just dopey all the time. That’s part of growing up. 

And really, the only thing that I felt sure of that has lasted my whole life is that I wanted to be a writer. Ever since I was a little kid, it’s what I wanted to do. I was always writing and illustrating my own stories. That’s an identity that I’ve carried through all the time. Forever. I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life, but I wanted it to be in writing. I didn’t know if I wanted to write for newspapers, [if] I wanted to write for magazines. And I’ve done that. And I did want to write for radio. I ended up being on the radio and doing voice, you know, being a DJ and doing news and now I still do voiceover work, to this day, and I have a studio in my basement. So as far as identity, I feel like I’ve had several different identities as I’ve gone along. I’ve been a newspaper copywriter writing commercials, I’ve been a radio copywriter writing the commercials, I’ve been a journalist, I’ve been a magazine journalist, I’ve been an on air DJ, I’ve been an on air news person. And now I’m a novelist. And so writing has led to all of these things for me. I guess the core of identity has always been “writer,” and then everything else has kind of been wavy all around it.

[Aidan]: Yeah. It’s so interesting, because it’s just from that one passion so many parts of your life have come from.

[Cal]: Yeah, it’s true. I feel very fortunate because I have a lot of friends that never really knew what they wanted to do, and for me to just always carry that around, I feel very fortunate and very grateful to have had that from such a young age.

[Aidan]: I know you said that ever since you were little [when] you wanted to be a writer. Was there any specific moment that you remember where you’re like, “Oh, this is it. This is what I want to do?”

[Cal]: Yeah. First of all, it’s just what I did. When anyone asked me as a little kid, “what do you want to be when you grow up?” I would tell them, I want to be a famous writer and artist. And I would sit at the kitchen table, maybe this is something you do and you did as a kid, and I would color and fill pages and pages of drawings and watercolor paintings and everything and just go on and on. And then I would take some paper and I fold it in half, and I’d write a story and I draw the pictures to go with it. 

But the moment that I thought, “huh, maybe something will come of this” is when I was nine years old and in the fourth grade, and I wrote a little book called “The Poor Macaroni Named Joni,” and my art teacher and my fourth grade teacher said, “this is really good!” I look at it now and I go, “why did they think it was good? These pictures are stupid.” The story is very silly about these macaroni people who were in the box at the grocery store, and they get bought, and how scared they are to get cooked and eaten. And then the man coughs and they run away into a field and become grain again and become noodles that the shopkeeper protects because he’s their friend. I mean, it’s silly. Somebody told me recently that it was kind of about reincarnation, and I thought, “Okay, I guess maybe it was.” It was a macaroni that comes back as a noodle. 

I don’t know, but I guess my art teacher and my fourth grade teacher thought, “hey, this actually sort of has a plot.” So they encouraged me to send it to a publisher when I was nine. And I did. I sent it to the pictures and my mother typed out all the prose to go along with the pictures. And we mailed it to a publisher. And I got my first rejection letter at age nine, but it did not discourage me. I think that being taken seriously at a young age… teachers are the best. I mean having two teachers who encouraged me to be creative and thought that I had something to say and something worth pursuing was huge. Everybody needs a person or people who say “yeah, kid, you got it. You’ve definitely got something special. Go with it.”

[Aidan]: So, do you think it’s important to completely understand your identity or to have completely found yourself before you start writing and entering that field? Or do you think that it’s okay to not be all the way there to start off?

[Cal]: Oh God, honey, nobody’s all the way there. Ever. If you wait until you [know] for sure who you are and what you are, you wouldn’t write a word and nobody would write a word ever, and there would be no writing in this world. No, I think people find out who they are through writing. I always kept journals. And sometimes it’d be like, I don’t know how I feel about this until I can put it into words in a journal or on paper. So no, I think writing is something that is good at any time. And if you’ve ever read Catcher in the Rye, that character, Holden Caulfield, had no idea who he was or what he wanted, and it makes for compelling reading, you know, because everybody feels like that. 

I think we all carry around with us this thought that everybody else has got it figured out, but I am flailing over here. “I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know what to make of this life.” The idea of being in a human body and walking around and having stuff happen to me and having all these things go on in my head. Everybody feels that way. It’s just, they just don’t talk about it. They just pretend like they do have it together. But sometimes the people who act like they’re the ones that have it most together are the ones that don’t have a clue and it’s just all a front. So, writing is for everybody all the time, whether it’s for publication, whether it’s for self realization, and just understanding. It’s almost like a journal, you’re kind of writing to yourself from yourself and it all works together. I think writing is one of the best things and so I hope you will continue to write whether you’re writing a story or writing in a journal or anytime you’re working with words. You’re working with such a gift that other life forms don’t have. We have language and we have writing and that is such a gift.