Crissa-Jean Chappell, an author who grew up in South Florida and who currently divides her time between Palmetto Bay and New York, may have been destined to be a writer. She says the signs were there even in childhood.
“When I was little, I used to steal my dad’s pens from his pocket,” Chappell said. “I drew my own stories on notebook paper and stapled the pages to make a ‘book.’ I remember Dad reading Frog and Toad to me, along with countless books from the Air Force Base library in Homestead.”
Her first novel, Total Constant Order, published by HarperTeen in 2007, earned a bronze medal from the Florida Book Awards, received a VOYA “Perfect Ten,” and was named a New York Public Library “Book for the Teen Age.” Her second novel, Narc, was published in August as a trade paperback original from Flux Books.
Both are young adult novels — “YA” for short — a genre that Chappell says especially appeals to her, initially as a reader and now as an author.
“In the past few years, many readers have embraced the genre,” Chappell said. “I really love my publisher’s catch phrase, ‘Young adult is a point of view, not a reading level.’ The characters are facing huge obstacles, often a turning point in their lives. The stakes are high. Usually, the writing is tight and concise. Nothing is wasted. This is what makes YA books so appealing…to both adults and teens.”
Narc tells the story of a student, Aaron Foster, who must choose to either go to jail for possession of an illegal substance with intent to sell or become an undercover informant to track down the shot-calling drug dealer at his high school. The conflicts that arise as he must play out that role, deceiving new friends and a potential love interest, form the dramatic plot and character interactions.
Chappell holds an interdisciplinary PhD in literature, film theory, and philosophy from the University of Miami, as well as an MFA in screenwriting. She has had reviews, short stories and poems in many magazines, and for more than eight years, she wrote a weekly film column for the Miami Sun-Post.
She believes that growing up here helped shape her fiction.
“If you live in South Florida, you know its secrets,” Chappell said. “You know that the sky before a hurricane is cartoon blue. You’ve watched armies of crabs march across Old Cutler Road after a thunderstorm. Maybe you jumped off Snowdens Bridge as a kid — or swam with baby manatees in the canal. Your neighbor probably has an airboat rusting in the backyard. And if you roll down your car windows at night, you get a whiff of jasmine in the breeze. This is the Miami I hold inside my heart.”
Chappell taps into more than just her surroundings as she skillfully crafts the books’ engaging stories and their teenage characters.
“In my debut novel, Total Constant Order, the main character, Fin, struggles with OCD,” Chappell said. “There’s a lot of me in Fin — her obsession with numbers and counting. Aaron, the protagonist in Narc, calls himself ‘the human wallpaper,’ which is exactly how I felt in high school.
“My next book, Flip The Switch, is told from a dual point of view. It was fun to write in an alternating girl/boy voice. Most of all, I try to show the place where I grew up. It’s not the Deco buildings and neondrenched beaches you find in TV shows.”
With more time these days spent on book tours, she said that she must try to balance the public contact side of her work with the quiet isolation of creative writing.
“I absolutely love to visit schools and teach creative writing to teens,” Chappell said. “I’m always blown away by the strength and honesty in the stories that they share. I believe that people don’t give kids a chance. They just push them away. And that’s a shame because teenagers are the most interesting souls on the planet.
“Most of the time, I’m alone in ‘the writing cave.’ That’s why touring is such a gift, although it can be exhausting. I like to be in my room, surrounded by the junk on my bookcase — the conch shells and gator teeth, the little plastic duck from a botanica on Eighth Street and, of course, a purring cat asleep on my toes.”
Narc is published at $9.95 for ages 12 and up; ISBN 978-0-7387-3247-3.