This has been a fruitful summer for Wolcott Elementary School teacher and author Matthew Dicks. His second child and first son, Charlie, was born in late May, and his third novel will be in stores Aug. 21.
“Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend” (St. Martins Press) is the story of an 8-year-old boy, Max Delaney, who has a form of autism, possibly Asperger’s syndrome, but a diagnosis is never identified. “Budo” is Max’s imaginary friend, who helps him when Max is confronted by the school bully. When Max’s life is endangered, Budo has to enlist the help of his fellow imaginary friends and save his best friend.
As a youngster, Dicks had an imaginary friend (“Johnson Johnson”), and he took the name Budo from a friend whose twin sons have an imaginary friend with that name. Other imaginary characters in the book share the same names of the twins’ other imaginary friends.
Dicks purposely didn’t nail down an exact diagnosis for Max. He believes that was a good decision.
"Not identifying his condition was really helpful,” Dicks said in an interview with Patch. “Parents of children with autism, with Asperger’s or just problem children email me and say, ‘this sounds like my kid,’” and tell him Max’s bravery resonates, especially with this line in the book: “You have
to be the bravest kid in the world to go out every day being yourself when no one likes who you are.”
Dicks did some research and learned that children with autism tend to have their imaginary friends for a longer time than typical children. Because Dicks wanted Budo to stay alive (“most imaginary friends don’t live very long,” Dicks explained), it made sense to write Max the way he did.
West Hartford residents will take pleasure in reading about the teacher in the book, Mrs. Gosk. She is the real-life Donna Gosk, Dicks’ longtime colleague at Wolcott School, who Dicks said is “famous” there.
“I wanted Max to have the best teacher,” said Dicks, and he honored Gosk by putting her in the novel. In addition, he included her children, Stephanie, Chelsea and Michael, in this book. The audiobook version of the novel includes an interview with Gosk and Dicks.
Reviewers have praised the novel as heartwarming, easy to read and full of likable characters. Publisher’s Weekly said: “A chipper narrative and lively climax make Dicks’ newest a fun read and an engaging exploration of the vibrant world of a child’s imagination.”
On his popular blog, “Grin and Bare It,” Dicks said his third novel is the book he had the “best time writing. Creating the world of imaginary friends was incredibly fun.”
“Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend” also “reflects many of the existential issues that I deal with on a daily basis,” he said, noting how he thinks about mortality incessantly. Also, this book proved he could be “successful trying new things,” as his other two books are grounded in realism and are not written in the first-person.
The novel has already received positive press in the UK, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, where it was published in March. So far, it has been published in 14 languages. Dicks published the novel under the pseudonym Matthew Green after the UK editor suggested his last name could be offensive to British readers. (Green is the maiden name of his wife Elysha.)
Martin and Milo
In 2009, Dicks published his first novel, “Something Missing.” The main character, Martin, is an obsessive-compulsive who works at Starbucks and has a secret career. He likes to go into people’s homes (in the Greater Hartford area) and steal things, but his “clients” don’t notice the items are missing. Martin “remains the most real to me,” said Dicks, who often thinks about him like an old friend.
A year later, Dicks published his second novel, “Unexpectedly, Milo,” about a man who must hide his differences from the world and searches for someone willing to accept him. Dicks said he is not Milo, but the book “explores themes most closely connected to me. I have always been interested in the idea that we encourage children at an early age to avoid peer pressure, be themselves, blaze new trials and not worry about what others may think of them, but when these children continue to follow this advice as adults, they are often punished by society for being different.”
Here’s a sneak peek at book four, which is almost completed: It’s called "The Perfect Comeback of Caroline Jones,” and it’s about a woman who was bullied, which changes the course of her life. As an older woman, she returns home to confront what happened to her.
The prolific writer has plans for a memoir, a rock opera and children’s books. The West Hartford Teacher of the Year in 2005, the fifth grade teacher (and finalist for Connecticut’s Teacher of the Year) also writes poetry, essays and opinion pieces, and is a two-time Moth Story Slam champion.
Added to this is Dicks’ entertainment company Jampacked Dance Floor DJs, which he’s owned and operated for 16 years. Along with his occasional jobs as a minister (ordained online) and life coach, one is prompted to ask: When does he sleep?
It turns out, he doesn’t sleep much.
Maybe it’s because he’s had two brushes with death. There was a near-fatal bee sting at age 10 and a head-on car accident at age 17. Then, at age 23, he was robbed at gunpoint while working as a manager at McDonald’s in Brockton, MA. Lucky to be alive when the robbers pulled the trigger three times against his head (there were no bullets), the event left him traumatized and with a concussion after he was pistol-whipped.
The trauma pushed him to fulfill a lifelong desire to become a teacher. He also started to write. After then-fiancee Elysha encouraged him to undergo therapy, he wrote “Something’s Missing,” with the Martin character working through many of the issues Dicks had while growing up.
Dicks left the small town of Blackstone, MA, at an early age, working various jobs and living on elbow macaroni. He worked his way through college — first at Manchester Community College, then Trinity College and simultaneously at Saint Joseph College, where he earned a teaching degree.
Today, he lives with Elysha, daughter Clara, age 3, and newborn Charlie in Newington with a Lhasa Apso named Kaleigh and an enormous “slightly insane house cat” named Owen. He’s an avid Patriots fan, loves to play golf, basketball and poker, and is very much involved with live storytelling.
Writing could be too solitary for a guy who joked he “overshares” on Facebook, Twitter and on his blog. But the warm and funny author said he avoids solitude by sharing each chapter he writes with talented friends, who give him immediate feedback and “fuel my fire to write more,” he laughed.
All three books have been optioned — “Something Missing” for TV and the other two for film — but Dicks isn’t holding his breath anything will come of it, despite the fact that one film already has a producer, one film has a script written and his latest book has an actor (whose name he can’t reveal) who has signed on.
Dicks, 41, has made enough money from his books to help buy a house and enable his wife to take time off from her job as a teacher to raise their children. But he plans to continue teaching at Wolcott and is getting certified to teach high school in the event he needs a change. Writing a book a year doesn’t get in the way of teaching, he explained. Plus, he loves what he does.
“I’m not tired of it,” he said. “I’ve always wanted to be a teacher. I always say I write for a living and teach for pleasure.”
Matthew Dicks will speak about his new novel, “Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend,” at a book signing at Barnes & Noble in Blue Back Square on Tuesday, Aug. 21, at 6 p.m. To hear an audio clip of the novel, click here.