For years, Eric Kahn Gale wanted to write about his own painful experience of being bullied as a child, but he could never envision a way to make the material engaging. One day, walking around Los Angeles listening to This American Life, he heard a two-minute episode on the cruelty of children. “This little kid was telling the interviewer about how his bully had a book that taught him how to be mean to people. It blew my mind!” It was clear to Gale that the adults on the show assumed the book was all in the child’s imagination, but when Gale began thinking about what such a book would be like, he says “lightning struck.”
“I ripped my headphones off and dove into the nearest Starbucks to write out the first paragraph on my iPhone, which I sent to a couple of friends.” The Bully Book would be a mystery revolving around an elusive bullying instructional manual–with the main character Eric on a quest to find and read the manual in order to figure out why he’s been singled out as the bully’s victim, or Grunt. “It was the perfect framing for the story I’d been trying to write for five years.”
Though the concept for The Bully Book came to him in that dizzying eureka moment, its execution took time. “I’ve never worked on something longer than this book. It was really hard to organize the narrative pieces, just mentally exhausting, and it felt like an endless process.”
The result is an absorbing glimpse into the darker side of childhood–a dual narrative interweaving bullying methodology with victim-Eric’s journal entries. Gale says that the book is highly autobiographical, so it was important that he give the bullied main character his own first name. “I called him Eric right from the start; it is so based in my life that it felt weird to call him anything else. I really wanted the autobiographical nature to shine through. The Bully book being handed down through generations may be a flight of fancy, but almost all the instances of bullying–these all happened to me.”
The route to publication took time too. First, it took Gale about a year to get an agent. “She sent the manuscript to eight publishers and in three months they’d all rejected it. Everyone liked the book and the idea but felt it was ‘too scary and dark’ for kids.” The lack of a test audience frightened them, Gale says. So when he decided to publish The Bully Book as an e-book on Amazon, he turned to one of his best friends, who runs a popular Internet theater company called StarKid, most famous for creating the parody A Very Potter Musical. His friend hosted the book’s trailer at StarKid’s site and helped Gale promote the book; sales of the book then increased on Amazon (although if this clip is any indication, Gale has a quirky, savvy promotional instinct of his own). “Then we went back to the publishers and their reaction was like night and day,” Gale says.
The timeliness of his book’s publication–coinciding with a national conversation on suicide and bullying–was unintentional, Gale says. “My primary goal was to write an entertaining novel that utilized this material in a cathartic way. I’d been carrying around the effects of this bullying for years.” Gale thinks that instead of solving this “from the top down it has to be in the hands of the kids.” Asked whether he worries about giving explicit bullying instructions to middle school children, Gale admits it’s risky.“But I think you have to go to the dark side and expose the reasons, the pleasure in the cruelty of bullying, in order to ask kids to consider its effect,” Gale says. “And to give the bullied victim a voice as well.”
Gale, who will visit schools on his upcoming book tour, offers kids proof that the hurt caused by bullying is real but the misery doesn’t last forever, that kids can outgrow their roles as both torturers and victims. In his own “happy ending” Gale says his family moved and he never saw the kids who’d bullied him again…until one night at a karaoke party at the University of Michigan, where several of his former grade school classmates recognized him and came up to compliment his singing. Turned out they all lived in the same dorm. Eventually, Gale asked them, “Do you remember? I enumerated specific things that they had done to me personally. And I could tell that none of them remembered ANY of it. In their minds it wasn’t recorded as emotionally important. But my memory of that time is so clear.”
And Eric’s own bully, his chief torturer? Will there be any final act of catharsis? “I will send him a copy of this book. He probably won’t remember either. But he’s such a main character and I want him to know. I wrote a book about him.”
Jessie C. Grearson is a freelance writer and writing teacher living in Falmouth, Maine. She has co-authored two books and several essays on intercultural subjects and reviews art, books, and audiobooks for a variety of publications. When she isn’t reading, writing, or teaching, she enjoys dreaming up new recipes, some of which she enters into cooking competitions, and all of which she tries out on her husband and two daughters. She is a graduate of The Iowa Writer’s Workshop.