Max Shenk grew up in Carlisle, attended Carlisle High School and the Harrisburg Arts Magnet School, did his undergrad at Temple University and later lived in Gettysburg. So it seems safe to say that he’s familiar with southcentral Pennsylvania.
His series of seven novels, “Meeting Dennis Wilson,” which follows a teen girl determined to meet the Beach Boys’ drummer, is set in a fictional town “that most people in central PA will feel like they know,” Shenk said.
We caught up with Shenk to hear more about his books and how the idea came about.
Name: Max Harrick Shenk
Lives in: Vermont
Hobbies: Writing, music, writing, reading, writing
Tell us about the books: “Meeting Dennis Wilson” is a serialized coming-of-age novel about a 15-year-old girl in the fictitious Adams County town of Quaker Valley (“Like Gettysburg, except nothing happened here”) who has a crush on the Beach Boys’ drummer and decides that she’s going to meet him, in spite of resistance (“You better not send him that letter!”) from her boyfriend, Scott. There’s also the subplot of Margo’s friends Brian and Christy wanting to “take steps” toward going all the way, and Christy’s sister Kathy, who’s been stricken with senioritis, and not one, but two other characters who have a crush on Margo, one of whom might be her best shot at meeting her heartthrob. Five books of the seven book series are available now; book six comes out on Oct. 1; book seven, in November.
Where did the idea for the story come from?: From all different places. I’ve always been a Beach Boys fan; I remember my big sister really liking (though not being obsessed with) Dennis Wilson; and I already had written a lot of material featuring these characters.
The story idea itself came from Dennis Wilson’s message to fans on the back of the old Beach Boys album “Summer Days,” where he wrote that he loves touring because he gets to “meet all the girls.” Margo seemed like the perfect character to pursue Dennis, so there I had it. The other subplots (about Christy and Brian and Kathy and Marty and Tara and the other characters) fell into place and wrote themselves as I worked through the main story about Margo.
How did you choose the Adams County area as the setting for the novel?: Originally, the setting was Gettysburg. I grew up in Carlisle, and lived in Gettysburg for a while, and earlier drafts of the book were set in Gettysburg. But I found myself feeling constrained by the setting (trying to realistically depict details of certain Gettysburg things that I wasn’t quite sure of), and I finally decided to just invent a fictitious town: Quaker Valley, which would be near Arendtsville on the map.
It was liberating because once I freed myself from the worry of getting called out for misrepresenting a real place, I could think about the STORY. I didn’t have to think about how things “really” looked in Quaker Valley; I could just make details and people up. Quaker Valley is described by one of the characters as “like Gettysburg, except nothing happened here,” but really, it’s more like Carlisle was in the ’70s, right down to the mall with both a Woolworth and a Woolco in it (which never made sense to me growing up).
But I can make it any way I like, because it’s a fictitious town. I’m sure people from both towns will swear that Quaker Valley is “really” their town. And they’d be correct.
The series will be seven novels, the sixth of which arrives in October. Is it a single, continued story, or are the novels just loosely connected?: It’s one story, continued in an arc from book one to book seven. If it was a TV series, the seven books would constitute a “season,” I suppose. I just liked the idea of publishing it serially. I suppose people could pick up a book in the middle of the series and get what’s going on… but it’s all about the nuance, people! Start with book one!
The Beach Boys were tremendously popular in the ’60s. Were you aiming for readers in a specific age group when you were writing? Not really. Write about what you know, they say, and I know first-hand what it was like to grow up in the ’70s in central PA. And while I love the Beach Boys, this is not really a book “about” the Beach Boys; it just so happens that the main character has a crush on their drummer. I’m calling it a YA book because it’s about kids that age. I think people in their 40s to 50s will get the music and pop culture references, but it’s really a “coming of age,” story and I hope that younger readers will connect with it more deeply, even though some of the inside jokes might go over their heads. But that’s why Al Gore invented Google.
But musical and cultural and place references are really just window-dressing, after all. If people connect to the story at all, they’ll connect not because they like the occasional ’70s music or “Star Trek” reference I’ve tossed in, but because the story is about being 15 to 16 years old and falling in love and having friends, and all of the things that happen (or that people DO) to put distance between themselves and the people they care most for. That is true for most people at any age, in any decade.
Have you written before? Were there challenges for this series in writing or publishing?: As a matter of fact… I’ve been writing as long as I can remember and did all of the requisite writing activities and classes and workshops growing up… worked at a couple newspapers (the Times in Gettysburg, the Intelligencer in Doylestown) and was also playing gigs as a singer-songwriter for a while, but I always wanted to write fiction. I came up with this group of characters about 12 years ago and started writing through drafts and story ideas; I did my MFA in creative writing at Goddard College and my thesis was a book-length manuscript featuring these same characters; I distilled that manuscript into a short story collection (“What’s With Her?” published by New Plains Press), and then came up with this story idea.
There are always challenges, but I’m thinking of them more as learning experiences. You don’t just publish a book and leave it alone in the world, and promotion and marketing are a different set of skills than the ones I use when I’m creating the work. I like doing it this way because, first, I’m not just involved in every aspect of the book’s production, I’m responsible for it; and second, I’m learning what it takes to get a book noticed and read. It’s fun.
How did you choose CreateSpace as your publishing platform?: Some friends of mine from Goddard and I were actually going to start a peer-reviewed press, and when that got rolling, I was going to submit this to the review group for publication. But that idea seemed to stall, and someone mentioned Createspace, and I thought it’d be a great way to get my work out there NOW, reach some readers, and see if it could possibly lead to something else.
I first heard about it by total serendipity; I was at a community Thanksgiving dinner in Calais, Vt., and sat at a table with a man who’d published a book on CreateSpace. That sort of thing seems to happen a lot with my writing: what I need seems to come to me when I need it.
Where can readers purchase a copy?: Books 1 through 5 of “Meeting Dennis Wilson” are available as e-books and paperbacks through amazon.com; book 6 is due Oct. 1 and book 7 will be available in November.