Doug Wilhelm '74 discovers his voice while raising the shadesWriters speak in many voices. Sometimes, as Douglas Wilhelm '74 has discovered, it can take considerable time to find the one that brings the most personal satisfaction.
A freelance writer and former Vermont correspondent for the Boston Globe, Wilhelm, who now lives in Rutland Town, began writing for young people in 1992, when he was asked to create a paperback for Bantam, Doubleday, Dell's popular "Choose Your Own Adventure" series. Between 1992 and 1996, he wrote eight "Adventure" books about a wide range of subjects, from King Arthur and British mythology to the Battle of Gettysburg, to an eco-mystery set in the present-day Amazon. "I found I really liked writing for young adults, maybe partly because I was such a passionate reader when I was growing up," he says.
In 1996, Wilhelm began writing Raising the Shades (see review in this issue), his first work of fiction in which the ideas and characters are entirely his own.
For most of his career, Wilhelm has worked as a journalist, a profession that he found uncomfortable. "Journalism is always about the ideas of someone else, what someone else chooses to find important in a given day," he says. "I understood this early on but lacked the confidence in my ability to be a creative writer."
As a Kenyon student and for a short time after graduation, Wilhelm had a business, the Square Deal Painting Company, in the suburban New Jersey town of Milburn, where he grew up. After saving enough money, he traveled for six months to London, England, and from there overland to India and Nepal. Upon his return, he went to work as a newspaper reporter for the weekly Bernardsville News in Bernardsville, New Jersey. In 1978, he moved on to become the founding editor of the weekly Randolph Reporter, which was honored with three state and three national writing awards in its first two years of publication.
Still searching for his inner voice, Wilhelm packed up his Olivetti portable typewriter and a notebook and struck out on a journey from the Arabian coast of the Persian Gulf into Pakistan and thence to Indian Kashmir and Nepal. Living and working for a year and a half in Kathmandu as an English teacher, magazine writer, and editor of Nepalese government and U. N. publications, Wilhelm chronicaled his experience in a book called The Heart of the Bazaar--A Journey into Islamic Asia. "The book did not sell," says Wilhelm. "It came close once or twice but I think it was rejected about seventy-five times."
With Raising the Shades, Wilhelm believes he has found his métier as a writer of young-adult fiction. The book, written in the voice of Casey, a thirteen-year old boy who lives with his alcoholic father, is not autobiographical but does draw on Wilhelm's experiences growing up in a family beset with alcohol problems. "My parents were both alcoholics, and my brother, sister, and I all struggled with chemical dependency in our lives though we never spoke about it," Wilhelm says. "It was after my sister organized a family intervention on our mother that I realized it might make a good novel." The challenge for Wilhelm was to write a suspenseful story about a touchy subject without falling into the trap of writing a "message book."
According to statistics compiled by the National Association for Children of Alcoholics, seventy-six million Americans or about 43 percent of the U.S. adult population, report having been exposed to alcoholism in the family. "The effect of parental substance abuse on kids is not a welcome subject," Wilhelm observes. "And, if kids smell a lesson coming, they walk away. But, it matters to me and I have tried to portray it in a realistic way."
The divorced parent of a fourteen-year-old son, Bradley, Wilhelm treasures their relationship and strives to provide him with the emotional security that he did not have himself as a youngster. When he is not writing fiction for young readers, he writes and edits publications for such organizations as Ben and Jerry's, that quintessential Vermont business, Dartmouth College, Fletcher Allen Health Care, and the Vermont Land Trust.
Wilhelm recently completed a second young adult novel, which will be published by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux in 2003. He describes the book as "more fun, with more characters. It's a much better story."
Now that Wilhelm has found his voice, this part of his life is a better story, too.
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