His first suggestion was, "Tell us more about the father." So I did. His presence pervades all three books to varying degrees, growing more profound as the series progresses.
Of course the family in the trilogy draws from my own family. My father was a preacher; I have two sisters. Regardless, it is still a work of fiction. I built the characters to suit myself, not to document my family life. They sometimes have characteristics in common with my family and sometimes not.
For example, consider this paragraph from Welcome to Fred:
That was part of the mystery of Dad: the gritty underside of life didn't seem to bother him. Not that he didn't realize it was there. Whatever he was, he wasn't naive. It just seemed to have no effect on him. The gum on the shoe, the pencil lead that breaks in the middle of a difficult problem, the elevator that stops at every floor when you're late for an appointment on the 37th, all the things that I was doomed to notice and chafe against, Dad seemed to take as part of the equation.This was not true of my own father. Little things bugged him even more than they bug me. He was very particular about things being done properly. There are other characteristics of Matthew Cloud as described in the book that are not in alignment with my father. As I said, I built the character to suit my purposes in the story.
However, I can't deny that, despite the alterations, the spirit of Matthew Cloud that rises from the page and has moved so many readers is the spirit of Richard Whittington. I think Gary caught a whiff of it in the original manuscript and it made him want more.
In the early 90s, when I first wrote what later became Welcome to Fred, I viewed it as the story of a kid finding his way through a sticky patch of adolescence rendered more difficult by the multiple complications of culture shock and PKness. Then one night I realized I was wrong.
It was 3am. The first draft of Escape from Fred lay beside me on the floor of the hospital room, the pen resting on top after completion of the first edit. By the light coming through the bathroom door I watched the ragged breathing of my father as he slept, every breath taking unconscionable effort. I was concerned about how long the pain medication would last. I was wondering if he was getting any rest. He was working so hard to breathe, even while he appeared to be asleep, that I feared he would be even more fatigued when he awoke.
And I was thinking about what people had said to me over the past few hours about my dad and my book. I was thinking about the last thirty pages I had edited. I was learning something.
It wasn't a story about a kid. It never was. It was a story about a father. Whatever else it might be, it was a tribute to the man who lay dying in the bed in front of me.
Gary knew this from the start. He didn't say, "Tell us more about the kid." He said, "Tell us more about the father."
So I did.