Author bestows ‘Kindness’ on his fans

By REBECCA SCHWAB

OBSERVER Staff Writer

“Kindness for Weakness” is not Shawn Goodman’s first literary rodeo. Goodman, a Dunkirk High School graduate, won the 2009 Delacorte Press Prize for his 2009 young adult novel, “Something Like Hope.” The stories of both novels take place within the physically and morally dangerous world of the juvenile justice system. To make this setting come alive, Goodman did his homework – and searched his memory. He’s been a school psychologist for years, and has worked in several New York State juvenile facilities. In addition to his work within the system, he has used his knowledge to become an advocate for juvenile justice reform, and has written and lectured on issues related to special education, foster care and literacy. This topic is one that Goodman is obviously passionate about, and that dedication is translated through his novels into something his readers can understand.

“I started (collecting material) by researching cases of serious injuries and deaths in juvenile justice facilities,” Goodman says. “There were obvious patterns, but what struck me most was the absolute stupidity of it all. The needlessness of it. The narratives always came down to power and control, as in a kid refusing to follow directions, and then staff physically restraining the kid, sometimes repeatedly, and with tragic results.”

Although “Kindness for Weakness,” which opens in Dunkirk, has a similar setting to “Something like Hope,” this latest novel has a much different narrative than the first, and the protagonists couldn’t be more different.

“Both stories deal with a broken juvenile justice system, and both main characters have to struggle through corruption and violence. But the similarities end there. Shavonne (from the 2009 novel) trusts no one, and is all fists and curses. And James (“Kindness for Weakness”) is too trusting, to the point of being guileless,” Goodman explains.

Goodman evokes this gritty and turbulent setting in such vivid detail that readers of “Kindness for Weakness” will experience the trials of its protagonist, 15 year-old James, right along with him. They will feel his heartbreak over his father’s abandonment of his family and see his mother’s dead-eyed hopelessness. They will nurse the cuts and bruises left by the fists of his mother’s abusive boyfriend and watch as James’s older brother, Louis, is drawn into a world of drugs and violence where love is no longer valid currency.

And readers will not be able to resist the pull of James. They will be drawn in by his vulnerability, his innate kindness, and his struggle to become a man when all he knows of men is the ways in which they can disappoint those who depend on them. When he is tormented by guards and bullies, when he asks himself which path to choose when they all seem wrong, readers will bite their knuckles and shake their fists, too. They will read passages like this one, spoken by James, and they will wonder how a system so broken can ever “help” any of its wards:

“Sometimes I think that the world won’t allow people like me, like it’s going to stamp out and crush everyone who is weak and mild. Because even though I’m getting physically tougher, I’m not a fighter, and I don’t know what I’ll do when things come to a head with Antwon. Is it wrong to find your way without fighting or taking from other people? It must be.”

Goodman didn’t plan to be a writer; he didn’t think it was a viable career. He’d never met a writer, and he didn’t know about workshops, critique groups, or MFA programs. Instead, he attended SUNY Fredonia for psychology. But he wrote in his spare time, and his talent for storytelling was something that stayed with him through the years. Now, he can see the similarities between his two careers.

“A therapist works with other people’s stories; a writer his own. Both jobs require that you carefully observe others, and think about what motivates them,” Goodman says. “Nobody cares much about the guy who walks out on his family, but explain exactly why he does it – describe him leaving in his car at night, touching the corner of an old photo to the red eye of his cigarette lighter while hot tears roll down his cheeks – that’s a little more interesting.”

Some of Goodman’s characters have absorbed traits from the youths he’s met over the years; others are completely fictional – or at least, as fictional as characters can be when their author has spent years as one of the “good guys” in a system with so many problems. For Goodman, seeing horrors perpetrated by and upon children is part of the job, but there are those particularly troubling cases that he can’t quite shake.

“There was one case in particular that I’d heard about when I started working for the State. A 14-year-old boy was restrained over and over again until he suffered brain damage and paralysis,” Goodman recalls. “I was actually prepped not to talk about it, and that prompted me to dig around and read through all the court reports. It was horrific () and the whole thing seemed to fade too quickly from public consciousness. But I couldn’t get it out of my head, and I think that ultimately led to the emergence of James’s voice.”

And the “fiction” label allows Goodman the freedom to explore these unsettling stories in a way that he wouldn’t otherwise be able to do.

As Goodman explains it, “A non disclosure settlement might keep some people quiet, but it has no power over fictional characters, right?”

Goodman still works full time as a school psychologist. Because of that, and the responsibilities that come with being a father to two children, Goodman has to fit writing in when he can. He writes late at night, when the house is quiet, and he does his editing “on the run,” taking a handful of pages with him to work on throughout the day.

“When I finish editing the entire manuscript, I toss it in a big cardboard box; when the box is full, the book is done,” Goodman says.

Fans of “Something Like Hope” and “Kindness for Weakness” may want to know if there’s anything currently in that cardboard box, and what Goodman’s next novel will be about. Well, the box isn’t completely full yet, but it’s gaining pages all the time.

“Right now I’m working on something I’d categorize as Young Adult science fiction,” Goodman reveals. “When I finish that, I want to write an adult psychological thriller. I love the idea that you can write whatever you want, pursue any ideas that interest you. It’s so much different than other jobs where it’s all laid out for you.”

Goodman takes a philosophical approach to the reader-writer relationship, and feels that narratives are largely up for reader interpretation.

“I hope people will lose themselves in (“Kindness for Weakness”) and then feel something about the characters. Beyond that, I’ll leave it up to the reader. That might sound like an easy way out, but it’s one of the things I love so much about the writer-reader relationship,” Goodman says. “It’s my job to tell the story as honestly as I can; the reader’s job is to respond in any way that he or she wants to.”

Goodman’s novels are available from Amazon, at Barnes and Noble, and from IndieBound. For links to these sellers and more information on Goodman and his work, go to his website, www.shawngoodmanbooks.com.

Send comments on this column to rschwab@observertoday.com