By George Ebey
Jen Conley brings us fresh thrills with a young adult twist in her latest tale, SEVEN WAYS TO GET RID OF HARRY.
Danny Zelko, 13 going on 14, needs to get rid of his mom’s boyfriend, Harry. The guy’s a creep. Drinks too much, locks Danny out of the house, gets in Danny’s face, and calls him Danielle.
Of course everyone blames Danny. It’s his fault he gets into fights at school. It’s his fault he can’t control his anger. It’s his fault Harry is such a jerk.
Danny isn’t such a bad kid—he has his own lawn business, makes his own dinner, even takes out the garbage and closes up the house without being asked. All he wants is for his mom to be like she used to be—a real mother who acted like one.
Because Harry makes her stupid. When she gets around him, she forgets about her kids. Disappears with him, doesn’t stick up for her own son. And the prospect of spending another day with this man makes Danny feel helpless and broken.
So when Danny’s sister, Lisa, reveals that Harry and their mom are getting married, Danny, never one to cower, decides to do something about it. That’s right: one way or another, he will get rid of Harry.
The Big Thrill reached out to Conley, who shared insight into her new novel, what inspired the setting, and a little more about her main character, Danny Zelko.
Tell us about Danny Zelko. What has his journey been like up until now?
Danny is 13, finishing up 8th grade, and he’s had a tough time. His parents divorced and eight months prior to the opening of the novel, his father died of pancreatic cancer. Back in Danny’s time, there wasn’t much outreach to help kids grieve, so he’s sort of on his own with it. He keeps a box of photos of his father underneath his bed and when he needs his dad, he conjures up his father and pretend-talks to him. It’s not a ghost, just his imagination. Danny’s mother has a new boyfriend, a jerk of a guy, Harry, who believes boys need a tough hand. Yet Harry, not only a drinker, is more of a harasser than a tough guy. He’s twisted and cruel. The problem is that Danny doesn’t take any crap from anyone and he goes back at Harry, making the relationship even more contentious.
In turn, this makes Danny angry, so he’s a bit of a handful in school. He gets into fights, he’s mouthy, punky. Yet he does have friends and enemies and frenemies. He loves Pink Floyd—that’s his band—and Queen and Van Halen and Atari and horror movies and Janine Finn, the tough girl who gives him crap right back. He’s got an almost best friend, Tyrell Colton, who lives in a different neighborhood because even though it’s the North, neighborhoods were segregated by the banking system. Tyrell is quiet and a big sci-fi nerd, but his father is dead too like Danny’s, so Danny, being the opportunist that he is, has befriended Tyrell. Sort of like you would go to a therapist. But he’s ended up liking Tyrell so now they hang out together, despite Tyrell’s mom being a little suspicious of the situation.
Tell us about the book’s setting and why you chose it for your story?
New Jersey, 1983, working class. I placed the setting in the township I grew up in, Manchester Twp, but I played with the geography a bit so I didn’t specify that it is Manchester. This would be the north end of the Pine Barrens, more the edge of it, so it’s not heavily populated like north Jersey is. I chose 1983 because when I was originally writing the novel, I was struggling to get into a 13-year-old voice, to get in the mood and capture the details, so I threw my hands up and went for my world in 1983 when I was 13. I honestly don’t know how YA writers do it now—the technology alone that the kids are into is a rabbit hole I know I’m not equipped to capture.
In the end, I think making this choice helped me move forward. I wasn’t saddled with heavy research into the world of kids today or befuddled with whether to use Snapchat or Tik Tok and so on. I think Danny Zelko, had he been 13 in 2019, would totally be into social media because he’s such a social kid. And that would’ve put me in a quandary as a writer.
What was the biggest challenge this book presented? What about the biggest opportunity?
About halfway through, after sailing easily along, I suddenly thought, “This is never going to work.” But my main character, Danny Zelko, kept darting through my head, so I sat myself down and pushed myself to keep going. Once I got over that hump it was surprisingly easy to get to the end. In fact, looking back, this book was probably the easiest thing I’ve ever written. It was nice.
The biggest opportunity for me was that I was able to explore grief. When I was 13, I lost my grandfather to cancer and it had a profound effect on me. Later on, in 2008, my mother died suddenly. Both of these deaths devastated me, and this book was a good catharsis for dealing with my own grief, even if those deaths happened years ago.
What elements do you feel are essential for a good suspense story?
Your character needs to be in a desperate situation that he or she must get out of. Sometimes the character doesn’t know right away that the situation isn’t good, but the reader should. And then go from there—turn up pressure, give the situation a time limit, make the reader worry about the main character: will they make the right choice, will they survive, will they lose hope?
For my book, hope is a big theme but it’s sort of hanging out in the background. You don’t know how important hope is until you see Danny start to lose it. I think that’s where the anxiety for the reader really turns up the suspense. “Don’t give up! Keep going!”
What do you hope readers will take away from this story?
I’d like readers to find that a bad situation won’t last forever. That you can outsmart it, or at the very least, survive it, and possibly come out on the good end.
Jen Conley has published many short stories in various crime fiction anthologies, magazines and ezines. Her short story collection, Cannibals: Stories from the Edge of the Pine Barrens, was nominated for an Anthony Award in 2017. She lives in Brick, NJ.