Huck Finn meets This Tender Land in this beautiful riverfront coming-of-age adventure. Andrew J. Graff’s Raft of Stars (Ecco) was written with vivid descriptions of nature, imperfect and realistic characters and deep thought. From the stars in the sky to the black bears and the white water of the river, every choice the author made has meaning and significance which allows readers to enjoy the story on many levels.
Bread and Fish are two young boys who take control of their situation and plan to survive in the woods as they escape danger back home. On the cusp of manhood, they waver between needy and self-sufficient, facing hunger and danger. With the energy and resourcefulness of true wilderness survivors they build a raft, and with boyhood charm and thoughtful, serious discussion they debate possible names for it. At the same time, the adults in their lives including Fish’s mom, his grandpa, the Sheriff and a gas station attendant, with their own personal limitations, team up to frantically search for the missing boys. In the woods, all characters have moments of reckoning and we learn about their life struggles and their dreams for the future.
Raft of Stars is beautiful in every way. Andrew J. Graff puts a spotlight on male emotions; the beautiful balance between sensitivity and ruggedness we see in the boys is a lesson for all. Connections are made as each of the characters shows vulnerability. With the power and the beauty of the river and woods Graff shares, stemming from his own life experiences, all readers are in for a real treat. My book group loved this book and we all were thrilled to have the opportunity to discuss it with the author!
Q & A With Andrew J. Graff
Q: I adored this tender-hearted, action-packed story of friendship, loyalty and hope. What inspired you to write it?
A: Thank you so much for reading Raft of Stars, and for the invitation to share a bit about the book. It means the world to me as a debut novelist. I began writing Raft of Stars in the winter of 2014 – 15, during a time when I felt at home for the first time in a long time. My wife and I were living on the Peshtigo River in the Wisconsin Northwoods, where I had my first teaching job after grad school. I’d been gone for over a decade — first with the USAF and then college — and it felt good to be home.
I was lighting a fire in the wood stove downstairs, using old college notes, when I came across a photocopy of an old essay by Flannery O’Connor called “The Nature and Aim of Fiction.” In it, she writes about using three sensory strokes to bring a scene to life. After the fire was going, I sat on the couch and wrote the first page or two of what would become Raft of Stars: Boys pushing bikes down a gravel road (sound), a blackbird clinging to a cattail stalk (sight), and ditch clover (smell). Eventually, I knew I wanted to get those boys out onto the river. I wanted to spend more time with the woods and waterways I loved.
Q: The story takes place in a small town in the midwest and largely in the woods and on the river. I felt my adrenaline pumping during the stormy weather and rough waters, and the calm beauty of the natural surroundings on the final day. Have you spent time in a similar setting and can you tell us a bit about that?
A: Yes! In college I started guiding rafts during my summers off, and have continued to do so to this day. I love whitewater and the art of navigating it, so I really enjoyed writing the whitewater scenes with characters both in and out of boats. I’ve taken bad swims along the river bottom like Cal. I’ve had boats disappear from beneath me like Tiffany. About two years ago, I was on a trip in West Virginia, guiding a group of Boy Scouts down the New River, when the clouds became menacing and leaves and whole branches began blowing off the mountaintops through the canyon. It was all we could do to paddle downstream, and then to shore. I watched the lead raft attempt to drop into the next rapid and get blown back upstream, the wind overcoming the river’s current.
Q: Each of the characters, regardless of their age, seems to have a real reckoning when they are out in the woods. This life evaluation and the making of decisions will change the course of their lives. What can you tell us about that?
A: I think the book is a coming-of-age story for all of the characters. They all need to shed something, to reevaluate, in order to show up for each other and the boys. Tiffany wrestles with her fear of community in order to find it. Cal wrestles with his own authority in order to better protect the boys. The wilderness helps them shed. I think nature has a special ability to expose our vulnerabilities very quickly. Being in a big forest, or on a powerful river, forces us to drop what’s not working rather quickly in order to find what does. I think that’s what all stories are about. We’re forced into disorder or discomfort and must shed and change to regain a new order, the way a snake sheds skin to grow. There seems to be a universal pattern of shedding and transcendence in both life and the stories we tell about it.
Q: You touch upon child abuse, the loss of parents, financial hardships, unhappy and unfulfilling life situations and people trying to make it on their own. You also focus on relationships and, although the ones you write about are not perfect, they are important to the characters. What do you want the reader to take away from Raft of Stars when it comes to life situations and relationships?
A: I hope what all of the characters find is a better version of themselves. They are all asking similar questions in some form: “Am I going to make it? Am I good? Am I strong? Am I alone?” I like to think Raft of Stars attempts to answer that. The wilderness itself, the very thing that shakes the characters, also provides, as do the relationships formed. The characters are more than just “poor damn things,” as the character Teddy says about much of life. I’d love for readers to take away a sense of that encouragement for themselves. I believe at the deepest level every one of us is a noble being, despite all our baggage and wounds that so often prevent us from living out of that place. But the nobility and strength and goodness is there. It’s the truth about us and others. And we can choose to practice that.
Q: The friendship between Fish and Bread is just perfect. They are so young but they are smart and resourceful, have each other’s backs and they use their imagination to keep their harrowing situation adventurous and fun. Did you have a friendship like this when you were a kid?
A: I did! There were three of us. We actually called ourselves the “Fishing Buddy Three.” We were country kids who jumped bikes behind barns and lit off firecrackers in silos and spent hours at the river. It was fun to write from the perspective of a young boy. I think children are better than adults at feeling, and at reconciling, too. As Bread and Fish made their way downstream, it seemed natural for them to dream and play and argue and rally, often more able to persevere and heal than even the adults in the story.
Q: How did you come up with the names Fish and Bread and what do they signify?
A: For me there are two primary echoes. First, the nicknames remind me of the story of Christ feeding the multitudes with bread and fish. While the novel is not a fantasy, it is a yarn: a bit larger than life, and the miraculous does play a part. Second, I wanted the book to be very simple and elemental in nature. I wanted it to be about rivers and woods and black bears and coyotes and stars and cattails. I wanted readers to shake pine needles from their hair when they finished. Similarly, bread and fish feel like the most simple and elemental sort of meal.
Q: I love the scene with the bears and how the mama bear protects her cub. When Fish “saw” the bruin when he was alone, I felt that the bear was the spirit of his father coming to protect him. Is that what you intended and have you seen bears in the woods?
A: Thanks so much! The bears in the story — on the ground and in the constellations — became objects I hope correlate to many things. They might at times correlate to the mother’s pursuit of her son. They also correlate to Fish’s father, and the spirit of Fish’s father. They also correlate to the wilderness itself, the cosmos answering back, or divine protection and provision. I like that the bear’s symbolic meaning remains elastic and broadly applicable, correlating to the mind and life and desire of each character with a point of view.
Q: The boys have a spirited discussion about what to name their raft. Why did you choose to title the book Raft of Stars and what is the significance?
A: For the longest time, the title of the manuscript was simply “Bread and Fish.” I trusted the nudge and help of wise editors to ask more of the title. Stars are important in the book. Every character looks up to the night sky at some point for direction or solace. The raft, too — that the boys build — is the focal point of their flight and of the adults who pursue them. The phrase “Raft of Stars” is also one Fish’s mom uses to comfort him amidst uncertainty, a means of letting go, which for me is a key theme in the book. After trying on a handful of titles, I’m happy this one stuck.
Q: Why did you decide not to tell us straight out what happens to all the characters once they returned home? (You alluded to it and I have that future worked out in my head but I really wanted you to tell me!)
A: A wise writing teacher I know often talks of the importance of restraint, at the level of the line and the level of the story. I originally wrote an epilogue that followed the whole cast of characters about a year into the future. I had it all worked out, who landed where, and with whom, and what the characters’ lives now looked like. In the end, allowing the reader to have fun with those possibilities seemed like a wise call. That epilogue was important for me to write in order to know how to write the closing scenes, but I think it was equally important for me to erase from the final draft.
Q: It seems like your wonderful, imperfect characters have more adventures in them. Would you consider writing a sequel?
A: I would, and I have a few ideas of how these characters might reconvene. For now, though, I am at work on another novel set in the same world as Raft of Stars but with a different plot and characters. It became clear to me when I finished writing Raft that I wasn’t done writing about the Northwoods, about the forests and rivers and people. So, I’m headed back there in a new story, which is a novel about a young married couple trying to salvage a failing whitewater rafting company as well as their young family with an all-or-nothing move north. I look forward to sharing it with readers when the time comes! Raft of Stars took me five years to write (mostly during my summers off from teaching). This next book, I plan and hope, will not take as long.
Q: This book came across to me as very visual and it would make an incredible movie. If Raft of Stars was on the big screen, who would you want to act in it?
A: I would be so thrilled. While writing Raft of Stars, I was trying to tell the kind of story I like to read. I think it’s the kind of film I like too. Should the book ever be fortunate enough to be optioned for film, I would gladly leave casting to the professionals, although I think Jeff Bridges would make a really cool Teddy Branson.
Q: What have you read lately that you recommend?
A: Three books I’ve read this year and loved are Little Faith by Nick Butler, The Lager Queen of Minnesota by J. Ryan Stradal, and (a brand new release) Girls in the Stilt House by Kelly Mustian. I think if readers enjoy Raft of Stars in terms of its emotional register and plot, they might enjoy these books as well.
Q: Where can we follow you to see what you have going on next?
A: Many thanks to you and to readers! Please stay in touch over at @andrewjgraff_ on Instagram, or on the web at http://www.andrewjgraff.com.
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