Lisa Jenn Bigelow: “Put your characters through the wringer!”

Today at Crunchings & Munchings we’re proud to welcome Lisa Jenn Bigelow, author of Starting From Here. It’s a new contemporary fiction title that we co-reviewed/discussed on Wednesday (click through to find out what it’s all about).  She joins us today to talk about how coming out is still hard to do, diversity in YA fiction, the dreaded “dead dog book”, and where to eat in Pittsburgh.  Yay!

Starting From Here Lisa Jenn Bigelow

C&M: I really liked that this was a story about the way kids’ lives can be really hard when they don’t have money. Can you talk a little bit about why it was important to you to portray characters that had material concerns as well as social concerns?

LJB: I grew up in a working class neighborhood. Both my parents had higher education, but they were in the minority. And while we always had enough money, we were careful, and I grew up hyperaware of how much things cost. When I got to middle and high school, several affluent neighborhoods joined the mix, and social tiers became obviously tied to economics. The popular kids, the preps, the student council, many of the athletes—they were from the rich (by my hometown’s standards, anyway) neighborhoods. You couldn’t not notice that.

I think well-off kids are the norm in YA books, and when money’s an issue, often it comes out as abject poverty. I wanted to represent the kids around the corner from me, the kids on the line between being “haves” and “have-nots.” That’s an underrepresented segment of the American population. Especially in today’s economic climate, I think those kids are the majority.

lisa jenn bigelow and carly

Photo by David Sutton

C&M: There have been more and more queer characters in YA books being published in the last few years. Have you noticed any trends (or types, or stereotypes) that have begun to emerge within these books? Did you find yourself trying to embrace/resist/complicate any of these with your own characters?

LJB: On the whole, I think we’re moving away from stereotypes and toward greater diversity. We’re seeing more queer girls and trans characters. We’re seeing more characters of color and different cultures. We’re seeing more stories that move beyond the “coming out” sub-genre. We’re seeing more genre fiction—fantasy and science fiction and even historical fiction—starring queer characters.

One of my favorite trends is the growing recognition of the fluidity of sexuality and gender. Characters aren’t so quick to label themselves. They’re more comfortable following their hearts without taking a hard line on whether a particular attraction makes them gay or bi or what-have-you. That’s something I really liked about Very LeFreak, by Rachel Cohn, which stars a girl who might best be described as pansexual—if she were one to care about labels.

very lefreak rachel cohen

In Starting from Here, Colby identifies strongly as gay, but the two girls she’s involved with don’t want—or aren’t ready—to label themselves that way. I want teens to know that it’s totally okay not to. I think it’s more important to simply feel what you feel at any given moment and to accept those feelings without judging yourself or worrying about “what it makes you.”

C&M: What do you think of the cover? I’m super into it – no generic photograph of a person staring off into the middle distance — and it reminds me of the iconic David Levithan covers. I especially like how the truck is pink and the heart is yellow. Did you have any input on it?  Were you hoping for a certain vibe from the cover?

LJB: The cover’s awesome—no thanks to me. My nightmare was actually that the cover would be a stock photo of an empty country road with one of those yellow diamond-shaped road signs with the title printed on it. So I was thrilled with what the designer came up with. I think it’s very appealing and distinctive from the slew of stock-photo-girl covers out there. I do love that it evokes David Levithan’s Boy Meets Boy, and also the hardcover edition of Lauren Myracle’s Peace, Love, and Baby Ducks—two great books by two of my favorite authors.

peace love and baby ducks lauren myracle  boy meets boy david levithan

C&M: Starting From Here is set in rural-y Michigan. What’s your connection with the area and why did you decide to set it there?

LJB: I grew up in the Kalamazoo area—technically in Portage, which is a smallish city just south of Kalamazoo proper. It has one huge, commercial road running through the center of town, but drive a mile or two to either side, and you basically end up in the country. Cornfields, trailer parks, lakes and nature preserves. My own neighborhood was right near the commercial center, but over the course of eighteen years, I got a feel for just about the whole town. It’s all remained very vivid to me, plus I get a refresher course every time I visit my parents.

The culture of the area is just as important. When Starting from Here was on submission, there were actually editors who expressed confusion as to why Colby had qualms about coming out to her father. I think that’s cosmopolitan New York talking. Anyone who follows the news should know that in most of America (including New York), coming out can still be a dangerous thing. Coming out can mean being harassed, ostracized, disowned, assaulted, or even killed. Kalamazoo County may have gone Blue in the 2012 presidential election, but Southwest Michigan is, overall, a pretty conservative area. Things have changed for the better there since I was a teen, but I wanted to reflect the reality that things are still far from perfect.

kalamazoo michigan

Kalamazoo by Dave Sizer on flickr (creative commons)

C&M: Mo the dog is a huge part of the story, and in some ways the heart of the story (please forgive me for that cheesy phrasing). Rebecca and I, as devoted cat owners and animal lovers, were both very touched by Mo’s inclusion. So we wanted to thank you for showing the responsibility and love that pet ownership entails! Although, thankfully, this is not a dead dog story, those types of stories are notoriously divisive. Where do you come down on the Old Yeller issue? Do you have a dog?

LJB: Funny you should bring up Old Yeller. The very first chapter of the very first draft of Starting from Here had Colby talking about how she’d read that book over and over again, until she didn’t have any tears left. That’s how I feel about “dead dog books” at this point in my life. I read Where the Red Fern Grows, as well as various other tearjerkers, so many times when I was a kid, but I got to a point where I was tired of crying. Maybe because real life seemed hard enough.

this dog will lighten the mood. by RollanB on Flickr

Now whenever I pick up a dog book, I flip to the last page—something I normally don’t do—to see if the dog makes it to the end alive. If it doesn’t, forget it. I’ve had to say goodbye to three dogs in my life, and it’s terrible. I still tear up when I think about my dog Carly, who died a year and a half ago–she’s the German shepherd mix in my official author photo. She was more neurotic than the average dog, but I loved her to pieces.

I adopted another dog last fall—another shepherd mix, incidentally. Her name is Saffy, and while she’s middle-aged, she’s very energetic and loves fetch and going in Lake Michigan. She’s also a total cuddle. Now I’m searching for a second rescue to make us more of a pack.

Anyway, that was actually the initial inspiration for Starting from Here: I wanted to write an “anti-dead dog book.” A book that kicks off with an awfully close call but doesn’t end in tears. A book that shows how a dog can save someone’s life simply through love, no fatal acts of heroism required.

C&M: Colby’s trust issues get worse and worse and she eventually reaches a breaking point. I thought it was a really truthful portrayal of a character with a lot of love to give and a fear of being hurt. It’s a fine line when you have one of your characters do hurtful things to the people around them and to themselves, but Colby is never unlikeable. Did you ever feel bad about putting her through that process?

LJB: Will I sound callous if I say “not really”? That’s how the novel-writing game is played: put your characters through the wringer! I guess the hardest thing was making Colby convincingly self-absorbed. She feels like the world is out to get her, when it was obvious to me (as it will be to readers) that isn’t true. If I knew her in real life, I’d want to give her a good shake. But we’ve all been there, and I hope readers can make that connection.

The most emotional scenes for me to write were, unsurprisingly, when Colby hits bottom. But they were also some of the most satisfying. I figured that if I could make myself cry—me, the puppetmaster, the one person who should be immune to emotional manipulation—then those scenes would touch readers, too.

C&M: Does your work as a youth librarian influence your writing, and if so, how so?
LJB: As a youth librarian, I’m immersed daily in books for young people. I read reviews of them, purchase them, read them, review them, discuss them, suggest them. All these activities have given me a strong awareness of what’s being published (which is far beyond what you are likely to see on the shelves of a big box store), what kids like to read, and what reviewers and award committees are looking at. On the one hand, it makes me read–and therefore write–more critically; on the other, I’ve become more generous in my definition of what makes a “good book,” because as a librarian you have to accept that it’s different for everyone. Above all, being a librarian gives me perspective. There are so many very good books out there that don’t get starred reviews, don’t win awards, don’t make the bestseller list, and go out of print within just a few years. A lot of that is luck; it’s just how the business is. So you just have to hope your book will find its readers and touch their lives before it fades away. And libraries, which treasure books as long as they have the shelf space, play an instrumental role in that.

BONUS QUESTION:

Tessa: Tell me about your favorite place(s) to go in Pittsburgh!

LJB: You’re making me nostalgic. I went to Carnegie Mellon University, which doesn’t have a particularly nice campus but is a great home base for what Pittsburgh has to offer. For ice cream, I have to go with Dave & Andy’s. For pizza, the Church Brew Works. My friends and I loved Sree’s Foods for Indian. Sree himself ran a food cart next to campus and was a kind and generous man. He died last year, unfortunately.

one of the buildings at CMU, taken by Flickr user jiuguangw

I could go on all day about food—have I mentioned Bloomfield Bridge Tavern makes tasty pierogi?—but onward. The Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh is a beautiful old building, and I checked out many a YA book from it while I was in college. Bonus, the art museum is right next door. I also love Pittsburgh’s wooded parks, especially Schenley and Frick. The best part of Frick Park is Hot Dog Dam, a swimming hole for dogs. So cute!

Tessa: Those are indeed all wonderful Pittsburgh places.  Thank you for visiting, Lisa, and giving us thoughtful answers and a great book to read and recommend.

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13 Comments

  1. Wow. Great interview. I’m a writer of ‘queer YA’ (that’s the term I like to use) and I’m always looking for new books to read that feature queer characters–especially girls because there aren’t enough! I will def check this book out. Also, a dying pet (especially dog) is the one thing I will not read about so to know right off the bat that it’s not one of these stories kicks ass–I even put an author friend’s book down because he did bad things to a cat.

  2. My husband knows that any time we’re watching a suspenseful movie/TV show and a pet appears, I’ll say out loud, “Please don’t kill the dog!” Yes, I worry about fictional animals more than I do about the fictional human characters.

  3. This was such a great interview, the questions and answers were so interesting and now I want to read Starting from Here as well as the other books mentioned.

    I am so happy to know that this is an anti-dead dog book, I get so upset when animals are only in a story so they can get killed off or suffer in a horrible way.

  4. Amy H

     /  November 30, 2012

    Great interview. Sounds like Lisa Is a very cool writer and I look forward to her next big piece.

  5. Liana

     /  November 30, 2012

    I think CMU has a lovely campus! Great interview.

  6. James

     /  November 30, 2012

    Excellent piece. I enjoyed reading this interview.

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