WHAT'S IN MY NAME?
The following piece was commissioned by The Skirmisher, an annual publication read by and dedicated to folks who have my last name.
I know, I didn't believe it either. Scrimger - or Scrimgeour or Scrymgeour (ooh!) as it is also spelled - is not a mellifluous or famous name. I think we rose briefly from the bog to get a coat of arms (that's it there) in medieval Scotland and then settled back in. Scrimgers have never ruled a country, participated in an important discovery, or created a controversy. Hell, I don't know if any of us has ever made a headline. Still, there are a number of us scattered around the world and The Skirmisher (our original name, but we were too lazy to keep saying all those syllables) knows it.
Six or eight months ago they got in touch and asked me to talk about my life as a Scrimger and artist. I didn't get to it right away because, well, it sounded boring, but I dashed something off last week, and then thought I might as well put it in my blog as well. So here it is. Read on at your peril. It's pretty dull.
The first time I thought about my surname – really thought about it – came on my first day in kindergarten, when the teacher took attendance and paused before attempting it. Richard, she said confidently, and then, after several seconds, Schirmer. Or Shirmger. Or something like that. I laughed heartily at her mistake and the class joined in. I was told to stand in the corner until I had learned better manners.
Since that moment six (do I mean that? Let me count… sheesh! Yup, six) decades ago, my last name has been mispronounced, misspelled, and mumbled over time and time and time again. Just last week a Gatwick Airport loudspeaker asked two parties to report to the gate. They stumbled – and apologized - over what sounded like a Pacific Island name. And confidently called me Scumger.
I have never been dismayed or angered at people not knowing exactly who I am. I’m happy to be unknown. In a world where our smallest actions are noted and recorded, we Scrimgers can move under the radar. New York offers what EB White calls ‘the gift of loneliness.’ Loneliness meaning invisibility. I’ll take that gift.
Which might seem odd, given my profession. I’m a writer, and writers do better when people know who they are. I get that. But I’m not good at self-promotion. I don’t like it. I don’t write to be famous. I write because I like sharing, connecting through story with my readers.
So let’s talk about that for a second. I’ve written novels, memoir, and scripts for adults, but most of my success (such as it is) comes through my children’s novels. I’ve written a couple dozen of those, and they all share at least one common thread. The hero does not fit in. The hero is me (everyone’s fictional hero is themselves) with that true-to-life character trait. I don’t fit in. I remain the kid the kindergarten teacher cannot name.
Novels are a mix of truth and lies. My heroes are me with a difference. Me if I was a scaredy cat. Me if I was a germaphobe. Me if I was a racist. Me if I was gay. Me if I was developmentally delayed or on the behaviour spectrum (not actually that far from the truth). I can use my inner scrimgerness to address problems faced by every kid, and have some fun doing it. A lot of my web traffic is from children who identify with the isolation or otherness of my heroes. I try to get back to them all, but I don’t check my website as often as I should.
My latest book, out this month (got advance copies in the mail TODAY), is called At The Speed of Gus. It features a teen who thinks and talks like me, quickly and all over the place and in a bunch of directions at once. Kicked out of school by a principal who doesn’t ‘get’ him, Gus heads off to visit his college-aged sister who does. An occasional side-effect of Gus’ new meds is hallucination. Enough said. The elevator pitch would go something like: Imagine Catcher In The Rye narrated by a young Robin Williams.
Like I say, I am bad at self-promotion. But I don’t mind it here because y’all are family.
Cheers and smiles from Toronto.