Author Interview: Jack Merridew
Open Letters interviews 20-year-old self-published author (and YouTube star) Jack Merridew:
Open Letters: First off, welcome! Most of our readers won’t have heard of you, but there’s certainly a lot to hear: You self-published your first book of fiction, Fireworks Over Suburbia, in 2012, followed it up a year later with a second book, Teenage Idol, in 2013, and along the way managed to garner nearly 32,000 subscribers on YouTube in just a year. Those are some impressive stats for somebody as remarkably young as you are (our more crusty readers will visually peg your age at somewhere around 12, but that number might not be scientifically accurate). So let’s start with a question about the most unusual part of it: your newborn fiction-writing career. What are you trying to accomplish in your fiction?
Jack Merridew: The first boy that I fell in love with was named Holden Caulfield. When I first heard of him in high school, I didn’t know who I wanted to be or where I wanted to go. Honestly, I don’t know much more now than I did then, but I do know that I’ll always love Holden and his dreams. How can you not love him? He’s been catching kids for years. He’s been a safety net, and I want to be one for somebody too, because this world isn’t always kind to people like me. That’s not overdramatic. It’s the truth. That’s what I decided to do two years ago when I graduated high school and started to write. People may dislike the way I tell a story or say that I’m naive, but so is Holden. He’s a kid. I am too. At the end of the day, I’m not writing for scholars, but instead, that fragile kid who I used to be. Two years ago, I adopted a fake name, put some videos on Youtube, and now Jack Merridew is just as real as anybody else. He has a place in this world, even if I don’t yet. It’s not so much about the writing as it is about creating him because I want some boy out there to fall in love with Jack the way that I fell in love with Holden. There are 13-year-olds who watch my videos and read my stories. They’re nervous. They’re afraid, but they can make it. They just need a safety net before they jump. That’s what I want to be. I don’t want to be an architect or a lawyer. I want to be a catcher in the rye.
OLM: And tell us a little about the route you chose. How did you decide on the self-publishing world? Were you ever tempted to submit your manuscripts the more traditional agent/editor/publisher route? Amazon has a horrible reputation as a voracious mega-company – what have they been like to partner with, in producing your books?
JM: Self-publishing is hard. I’m not going to lie. When you self-publish, you do it all yourself. You edit it. You format it. You promote it. Suddenly, you’re no longer a writer, but a businessman. That’s where Youtube came in. If I didn’t have a stage on which to perform, how would I ever have succeed or even made it this far? I wouldn’t have. I’d have no audience and every performer needs an audience. People look down on me for making Youtube videos. I know they do. They say it’s elementary. They say it’s unprofessional. I disagree. You know what I say? I say that it’s being a good businessman. Amazon does nothing to promote. Partnering with them isn’t really a “partnership”. They gave me a way of selling. That’s it. Youtube gave me what I needed, and that’s a little bit of star power. It’s nothing big. It’s not a lot, but it’s a start, and that’s what I needed. I knew agents and publishers would never even give me the time of day. Short stories just don’t get published anymore. When was the last time you heard of a major publishing house dumping money into a collection of short stories by a first time author who’s 19 years old? It just doesn’t happen. My stories are violent, unconventional and sometimes just plain weird. Nobody would back me. I’m just a kid with a lot of angst. I’m an underdog. I need to back myself.
OLM: It certainly doesn’t sound like Amazon is very encouraging! So where did your original encouragements come from? Supportive parents? Involved high school teachers? Do you have friends who are also writers, or who at least eagerly read your stuff?
JM: Encouragement has always been very important to me, not necessarily in regard to my writing, but me as a person. When people are supportive of my goals, beliefs and growth, that’s all that I can really ask for. When I first started writing, I used to print out pages for my friends to read in school. They’d read them in study halls and detention and that’s where it all really began. My parents have always been a backbone too. I remember shooting the Fireworks Over Suburbia cover in my garage. I dumped a bunch of garbage and silly string all over the floor and blew up some balloons. They saw what I was doing, but they didn’t question me, and I like that. It’s acceptance that I need. I don’t need somebody to tell me that they support me every step of the way, I just need somebody who isn’t doubting me constantly. Last year, my Dad actually shot the cover of Teenage Idol. He’s starting up his own photography business, and he was eager to shoot new things, so we decided to go down to the local diner and set up a camera and tripod. He knew what I wanted. He knew I wanted the image to look innocent. He knew I wanted the red, white and blue neon lights. He got it perfect, and it was really cool to create something with him. It was shot down the road from my house in rural Pennsylvania. That’s where I took my first boyfriend. That place has a history. I saw it every Friday night on my way to the movies. Now, that diner’s all the way in Italy and the UK on a book cover. My readers and viewers are getting a piece of home. I love it. I want them to feel a raw experience and relationship with me because they deserve something honest. They cheer me up when I’m feeling vulnerable. They talk to me and listen to me. It’s like I’m the popular kid who I always wanted to be in high school. I live for that kind of thing.
OLM: You mention that when you self-publish, you have to be your own marketing agent – so what were your thoughts along those lines when it came to your novels? I know every author wants to be read by everybody, but who do you see at your ‘core’ demographic? Who are Jack Merridew’s readers?
JM: My core demographic is exactly who I reach out to right now- the boys who are just like me. I want them to see me in full. They’re looking for somebody like them, just the way I always used to look for somebody like me. That’s why we surf through Youtube videos. I used to look up to the boys who I watched online, and I want to give back in a way. It also adds a bit more of my heart into what I’m doing. I don’t want somebody to download Teenage Idol without ever hearing my name, read it, and then set it down and never wonder who I am. Even if they really like what they read, they’re only getting part of me and I want to avoid that. I don’t want you to fall in love with the story. I want you to fall in love with Jack. He was created for that reason and he wants you to fall in love with him really badly. Every Friday, he posts videos on Youtube. Some people think he’s rude and he curses too much. Some people comment saying he shouldn’t make half-naked videos in his underwear, but at the end of the day, he just wants you to pay attention to him, even for an ounce of a second because he believes that, deep down, maybe there’s something worthwhile in those videos. Maybe they could do a little bit of good somehow.
OLM: What kinds of satisfaction has writing brought you? Obviously you must be proud of finishing (and marketing!) two novels – are more on the way? Do you have any advice for young people reading this who might look at the huge popularity of the whole Young Adult genre and wonder if there’s any room in it for their own work?
JM: I think writing lets me express what happens in my mind when I’m alone. On Youtube, you see me at my best. You see me when I’m happy and there’s nothing that’s dishonest about that, but people are more dimensional than that. I want to make you laugh. I want to make you cry. I want to make you feel something because that’s what it’s all about. The writing is my way of offering you what goes on in my head when I’m alone, because a video camera can’t capture that. What I’m writing right now is pretty rough and not quite where it needs to be yet, but I hope that it speaks for me in some way. It’s about Youtube. It’s about the internet generation. It’s about the gay community and it’s about being young. In regard to the Young Adult genre, there’s always room for anybody who wants to express themselves. Write what’s on your mind. Find an interesting way to get that story out there. Build yourself a stage and audience and let the whole world know what you need to say.
Be sure to check out Jack Merridew’s YouTube channel for a behind-the-scenes look at the photoshoot that provided the interview’s artwork – and while you’re there, remember to subscribe!