Chris Crutcher Biography
Readers often disagree about Chris Crutcher's work. Although his youth-oriented novels have received numerous plaudits from the literary community, several of his titles have also been removed from libraries and banned from schools’ curricula. For some critics, Crutcher offers an unflinchingly honest portrayal of the many complexities and struggles of being a young person. Others find his content questionable and his blunt discussions of abuse, addiction, and sexuality to be troubling for young audiences. Despite the controversy, Crutcher has established a reputation for being an insightful writer about the pains, heartaches, and successes faced by young adults in America today.
Facts and Trivia
- Along with literature, Crutcher studied psychology and sociology. Many critics have credited these studies with influencing his unique perspective as a writer.
- Another part of Crutcher’s insight into the minds of young people can be attributed to his teaching at an alternative school for nearly ten years.
- In addition to writing books and short stories, Crutcher has also worked as a columnist.
- Crutcher is a life-long sports enthusiast, and many of his passions, particularly swimming, figure prominently in his novels.
- One of Crutcher’s short stories was adapted into the 1995 feature film Angus, which starred James Van Der Beek, George C. Scott, and Kathy Bates.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2846
Chris Crutcher is one of the most honored young adult novelists, having won the prestigious Margaret A. Edwards Award for Lifetime Achievement from the Young Adult Services Library Association, an award from ALAN (Assembly on Adolescent Literature) for significant contributions to young adult literature, and the Intellectual Freedom Award from the National Council of Teachers of English. Pretty amazing for a self-professed academic underachiever who often tells the story of how he read only one book (To Kill a Mockingbird) cover-to-cover during four years of high school.
Crutcher was born July 17,1946, in Dayton, Ohio, the middle child of parents he claims were just passing through the city. He told Dave Jenkinson in an interview in Emergency Librarian that they all arrived "before I got dry" in Cascade, Idaho, a small lumber and logging town of less than 1,000 people. His father, John, had been a B-17 pilot in World War II. Crutcher described his father to Betty Carter in an interview for School Library Journal as "deliberate and extremely patient, though he could be a little hard to please." Like the father in the story "Goin' Fishin'" from Athletic Shorts, he told Carter that his father "always thought I was a little too frivolous and I always thought he was a little too serious." He grew up in a dysfunctional household where he often took the role of the caretaker, telling Carter that "my mother was a pretty significant alcoholic through my junior high, high school, and college years."
His family were readers, although Crutcher preferred to play sports or watch television. Getting good grades was also not high on his list of priorities, which made him directly the opposite of his older brother, who was valedictorian of his class. Crutcher told Jenkinson that "I got a good picture of what that was like and decided I didn't want anything to do with it." When assigned to do book reports, Crutcher, rather than reading the book, would either borrow an old report of his brother's, although, as he told Jenkinson, he would need to "misspell a few words, take it down a notch" before he turned it in. Failing at that, he would also complete book report assignments by inventing authors and stories, getting the names of characters from the Boise, Idaho, telephone book.
His other writing as a teenager normally came in the form of "punishment" writing, although one of these essays caught the eye of a teacher who invited him to write a column for the school newspaper, called "Chris' Crumbs." In an interview with Thomas Kozikowski for Authors & Artists for Young Adults, Crutcher said the column "was a kind of smartass thing—I would take shots at people—and I really liked it."
Crutcher found high school a good place to be a stand-up comic, although his other passion, which surfaces in all his books, was sports. During an interview with Publishers Weekly, Crutcher told Heather Vogel Frederick that, in a small town like Cascade, "it didn't matter if you were a good athlete or not. You tried out for the football team with a stethoscope—if you could breathe you could play." Although Crutcher loved sports, he admitted to Kozikowski that he was not a star and that "my characters are always much better athletes than I was. I really didn't become proficient in basketball until after the twelfth grade—I was a bench sitter of gross proportion."
In college Crutcher excelled as an athlete in swimming, reaching the small college nationals at Eastern Washington State College. Very much a product of his times, Crutcher told Kozikowski that he was "rebellious as hell—I mean rebellious with ideas—and I really enjoyed it." After graduating in 1968 with a bachelor of arts, a major in psychology and minor in sociology, Crutcher and a friend took a cross-country trip which landed them eventually in Dallas, Texas, where he worked in construction. He returned to Washington, earning a teaching credential. After another short stint as a manual laborer, Crutcher began his teaching career at Kennewick Dropout School in Kennewick, Washington. When funding for the school ended, Crutcher was moved to the regular high school as a social studies teacher.
After three and a half years, Crutcher left Washington to work in the inner city of Oakland, California, at an alternative school. Crutcher told Jenkinson that the school was "the toughest place I've ever been . . . a place for kids who absolutely couldn't make it in the Oakland Public Schools." He started as a teacher, but, after taking his various concerns about the school to the top administrator of the school, he was named the director of the school. Despite success at the school, Crutcher told Kozikowski that living in an urban environment was difficult after having grown up in a rural small town. He noted: "I really don't like crowds and I think that growing up in the mountains really got to me." Crutcher left the school in 1981, returning to the Northwest. Crutcher told Jenkinson that, despite vowing not to get involved in another emotionally demanding profession, he immediately had one: "I wasn't in Spokane for six months before I took a job as the coordinator of the Spokane Child Protection Team, a group of people who work on the toughest child abuse cases."
While student teaching in 1970, Crutcher stayed with Terry Davis, a former classmate from Eastern Washington State College. They became reacquainted when both were living in the Bay Area, Crutcher working in the school at Oakland and Davis pursuing a fellowship at Stanford University, in the process of becoming a writer. They would run together and talk about writing. A year later, Davis visited Crutcher and challenged him to work on a story for publication. During the time between leaving the job in Oakland and moving to Spokane, Crutcher started work on his first novel, Running Loose. After finishing it, he sent a copy to Davis. Davis loved it and sent it on to his agent, who accepted it within a week and shortly thereafter sold the book. Crutcher told Jenkinson that the book was not written specifically as a young adult novel: "I didn't know there was such a thing." The editor at Greenwillow, Susan Hirshman convinced Crutcher to clean up the language, and the book was soon published and received rave reviews.
That Running Loose was not written as a young adult novel is hard to believe since it is such a perfect book for young adults. It tells the story of Louie Banks, a high school senior who plays on his school's championship football team. He quits the team, however, over a moral issue and finds little support beyond his girlfriend. He is devastated by her death in a car accident, but, through the help of a caring coach, he channels his emotions into running and starts his journey to win back his life from grief. The phrase "running loose" echoes Pony Boy's cry of "stay gold" from The Outsiders some twenty years earlier. Running Loose is rich in detail about the small town of Trout, Idaho, modeled after Crutcher's own Cascade. The book introduces readers to the Crutcher world: small towns in the Northwest, introspective male athletes who are in the process of becoming heroes in every sense of the word, the contrast between caring adult characters and those who border on pure evil, and big themes about trust, truth, and morality. Running Loose, like every other Crutcher book, was named a "Best Book" by the Young Adult Library Services Association.
Crutcher followed Running Loose with Stotan!. Based on his experiences as a swimmer in college, "stotan" (meaning someone who is a cross between a Stoic and a Spartan and able to face a task with steely-eyed determination) is a story about four high school swimmers. Less plot-driven than Running Loose, Stotan! contains characters whose damaged lives are the real story. The book's deeply scarred characters are an outgrowth of Crutcher's work as a child and family therapist, first for the Community Mental Health clinic in Spokane and then in private practice. Crutcher explained to Carter the connection between his work as a therapist who hears stories and a novelist who writes them: "what I do as a therapist is listen to somebody's story and look for that thread, the pieces that run through his or her life that have meaning; [I try to] find the truth and the lies and bring them to the surface. As a writer, when I'm telling a story, I do it in reverse. Rather than taking it in, I'm writing it down, but I'm looking for the same truths and the same lies."
Similarly, Crutcher finds connections between his own life as an athlete and the sport passions of his protagonists. Crutcher told Kozikowski that "one of the things I like about sports is that rules are clear. I use sports in young adult fiction to talk about the rules of life." Crutcher elaborated on the role of sports in his books in an author statement for the online version of Literature for Today's Young Adult, noting that "athletics provides a rich background for fiction because all the elements of good storytelling exist in a given contest." Sports would play a lesser role in Crutcher's next book, The Crazy Horse Electric Game, in which the focus is on what happens to a great young athlete after he suffers an injury which affects his ability not only to compete in sports but also to communicate. This novel, set primarily in an alternative school, draws heavily from Crutcher's work at the Lakeside School. The book's major theme is dealing with expectations.
Crutcher's career as a therapist dealing with child abuse cases supported the writing of his next novel, Chinese Handcuffs. Here, sports drama is the backdrop for the traumas faced by the main characters: Dillon, who witnesses his brother's suicide, and, Jennifer, who is the victim of sexual abuse. The book's complex plot, serious themes, and relentless exposure of the characters pain made it Crutcher's most controversial novel. Booklist magazine, which has a policy of only reviewing books it recommends for purchase by libraries, took the unprecedented step of publishing a negative review of Chinese Handcuffs, which demonstrates the book's power and the respect Crutcher commands in the field of young adult literature.
Crutcher followed the intensity of Chinese Handcuffs with Athletic Shorts, a collection of stories. Only one story, "A Brief Life in the Life of Angus Bethune," had been previously published, while the others were new, although each focused on a character from a Crutcher book. Another departure followed when Crutcher published The Deep End, an adult mystery novel featuring a child therapist who looks into the case of a missing child. Child abuse is once again the subject; this book won rave reviews and, according to Heather Vogel Frederick, was a presidential pick, one of the four books President Clinton purchased one year while Christmas shopping.
Swimming is the sport of choice for Eric, a.k.a. Moby, the main character in Crutcher's next novel, Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes. After this award-winning story about child abuse, Crutcher wrote Ironman, an adult novel in which the male protagonist, Bo Brewster, who cannot communicate with his father, writes letters about his triathlon to television personality Larry King.
Around the time Ironman was published, Crutcher left the mental health profession to become a full-time writer. Ironically, after turning out a book a year, Crutcher took over five years to complete his next novel, Whale Talk. During this time Crutcher worked on a screenplay for Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes, several short stories for young adult collections, and a yet-to-be published novel he told Frederick would be his "most autobiographical" book. He also completed a novel about a school shooting, but, as he told Jennifer Brown at Publishers Weekly, that after Columbine "there was no way in the world my story could come out and not look like exploitation." Some of the characters and a few scenes, however, would be used in Whale Talk.
Whale Talk is about a multi-racial character, T. J., who runs afoul of the school's athletic department when he forms a swimming team and is drawn by his community work with abused children into a deadly conflict with an abusive father. Whale Talk is very much a Chris Crutcher novel in terms of style, tone, and theme. While the book entertains, it also teaches. The teaching comes, as in all Crutcher novels, not from an adult authority figure but from the characters as they search for the truth in their own lives. He told the audience when he accepted the Margaret Edwards Lifetime achievement award: "For me to know my characters, I needed to get out of their way and let them tell their own truths; respect and present them for who they were. In the end my job was to celebrate it all, the ghastly with the glorious, because one could not exist without the other."
Getting out of the way, Crutcher notes, includes being true to the language the kids use, the hurt they feel in their lives, and sometimes by showing the harshness of the world, which he considers, however, to be a fair place. Crutcher told Teri Lesesne in an interview for Emergency Librarian: "life is exactly fair; people are not fair and relationships are not predictable either. Life is fair, though." Protecting kids from reading about these subjects, Crutcher believes, serves no purpose. In the introduction to Athletic Shorts, Crutcher states that there are plenty of people who think kids should not be exposed in print to what they are exposed to in their lives. But he believes differently.
Although sports constitute an important part of his fiction, Crutcher's main concern is to create stories that allow readers to make connections in their own lives. Connection making, Crutcher told Horn Book's Christine McDonnell, is his real purpose: "I want to tell stories that seem real so that people will recognize something in their own lives and see the connections. We are all connected." From conflict comes connection, as characters from Louie Banks in Running Loose to T. J. in Whale Talk are tested. In his books about identity, Crutcher looks for heroes. He told Lesesne that "having a character stand up for himself is one of the common themes in my writing. There is no act of heroism that does not include standing up for oneself."
From those acts of heroism come, what Terry Davis called in an essay in English Journal, Crutcher's "healing vision." Davis, Crutcher's friend and mentor, talks about the role of a therapist and that of a storyteller, Crutcher's preferred term for himself as a writer. After quoting Crutcher's comments about the horrors he has seen in therapy and the limits of what can be done to repair damaged lives, Davis ties the two strands together and, in doing so, gets to the very essence of Chris Crutcher as therapist, storyteller, and child advocate: "what does a storyteller do to correct the damage the therapist says he can't fix? He tries to get people to see in new ways. He presents a new vision of the world. A healing vision."
The healing vision in Crutcher's books has won over both young adult readers and professionals in the field of young adult literature. As mentioned, Crutcher has received awards from the three largest professional associations for the body of his work, while individual titles have all been awarded honors. Every Crutcher title has been named a Young Adult Library Services Association "Best Book" while five titles—Athletic Shorts, Chinese Handcuffs, Ironman, Running Loose, and Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes—were named "the Best of the Best" during a preconference at the Ameri- can Library Association's Annual Conference in 2000. Librarians selected the one hundred titles they consider to be the best books for young adults from the last half of the twentieth century; no other author had five books named.
Crutcher is single, lives in Spokane, Washington, and, according to all his book jackets, plays "old man basketball as well as running in marathons, weight training, and running his dogs." His process for writing is rigorous. Crutcher told Lesesne that normally it takes him a year to write a book, but that the novel is "in good shape after about seven months into the process." Crutcher says, "I revise as a I write, sort of chapter by chapter. I read what I have written out loud and make some changes." In addition to reading his own work in the writing process, Crutcher reads a limited amount of young adult literature, particularly the work of his friends, Terry Davis and Will Weaver. He is impressed with relatively new authors, including Christopher Paul Curtis and Rob Thomas, and admires the works of established adult novelists Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., Pat Conroy, and Tim O'Brien. He told Carter that he tries to balance his life between writing, working with families, and traveling to speak at schools and conferences.