Middle School Misfits Inhabit New Wilder ’88 Novel

Robert Wilder ’88

Book by Robert Wilder ’88.

Robert Wilder ’88 draws on his 25 years of teaching experience to paint a complex, funny, poignant picture of life in middle school in Nickel (Leaf Storm Press, 2016). The novel tells the story of two middle school misfits who bond over a mutual love for 1980s pop culture: Coy, whose mother is in rehab and whose stepfather is trying, but not always succeeding, to hold things together in her absence; and Monroe, his just-as-quirky female best friend whose braces have given her a rash that becomes a life-threatening illness. Booklist, in a starred review, says, “Wilder powers his classic coming-of-age narrative with a ferocious storytelling voice . . . A humorous, poignant, and formidable debut.”

The idea of Nickel stemmed from Wilder’s love of the quiet, quirky kids he’s taught over the years, as well as his teenage son, London. “I love teenagers, and I ask them questions daily,” says Wilder. “I take notes on their obsessions, dreams, fashion choices and language, and I learn something new from them every day without fail. I have to be subtler with my own children. They think it’s weird when I ask them a question that has to do with a character I’m working on. They want me to make them enchiladas and give them money.”

Wilder used the elements of storytelling he learned from studying fiction for his first two books—collections of comedic essays based on his own personal experiences as a teacher and a father. In writing Nickel, Wilder found some similarities but also one notable difference. “With nonfiction, you already have the world created for you. If something happened in my kitchen, I can refer to it anytime I need to,” he says. “When writing fiction, you need to create an entire world from the ground up.”

Robert Wilder ’88

Robert Wilder ’88

For Wilder, the process of writing Nickel began with the voice of the book’s main character, Coy. “I started with Coy’s voice and let it lead me,” he says. “Many of the kids I was thinking about when I developed that voice spoke in code and sound effects, so my early drafts were an attempt to try and emulate that shorthand manner of speech. When I sent the manuscript to my friend Christopher, he said, ‘This is great but totally unreadable.’ So I had to try to keep the core elements of Coy’s voice but allow the casual reader access to him and his world.”

Wilder drew on his own high school memories and experiences, as well as his experience as a teacher, to flesh out the book’s relatable, realistic characters and setting. “For the character of Coy, I tried to recall what it was like when I was his age and how hard it was being a relatively sensitive teenager who suffers loss, especially in a large school. When I created the school that Coy and Monroe attend, I drew on all the telling details I’ve gathered in my 25 years of teaching. Schools are such a rich environment and culture; it was a lot of fun trying to capture what it’s like being in that world day after day. I also allowed myself to see the challenges and absurdities of school life the way Coy and Monroe would.”

Wilder, an English major and soccer player during his years at Wesleyan, recently finished another novel, which he hopes to publish soon. He is also working on a television pilot loosely based on his two essay collections, Daddy Needs a Drink: An Irreverent Look at Parenting from a Dad Who Truly Loves His Kids—Even When They’re Driving Him Nuts, which the Los Angeles Times called “consistently hilarious,” and Tales from the Teachers’ Lounge: What I Learned in School the Second Time Around—One Man’s Irreverent Look at Being a Teacher Today, which Publishers Weekly called “honest and funny.”

“There is no doubt that I have far more empathy for the teenage species after writing Nickel,” says Wilder. “How couldn’t I? Writing is an act of empathy, after all.”