Interview with J.C. Lillis, Author of We Won’t Feel a Thing!

by REBECCA, April 16, 2014

We Won't Feel a Thing J.C. Lillis

Friends, enemies, and those totally indifferent to me, hello! It is my total pleasure to welcome the delightful J.C. Lillis back to Crunchings & Munchings for an interview on the heels of her sophomore release, We Won’t Feel a Thingwhich I reviewed on Monday.

GIVEAWAY: J.C. is offering one lucky reader a free e-copy of We Won’t Feel a Thing. The form is at the end of the interview. Thanks for joining us, J.C.!

REBECCA: The idea of two best friends/beloveds deciding to use a self-help program to rid themselves of their love is so awesome! How did you come up with the idea?

J.C.: Thanks! Yeah, it was inspired by an offhand comment a friend of mine made to another friend who was having a difficult time. He told her that her life would be so much easier if she just learned to engineer her emotions. And he was a scientist, so of course we started joking about it: “oh, watch him actually start his own Emotional Engineering program.” The David Kerning character and his WAVES program started to evolve from there, and then David bumped into Rachel and Riley, and the story started to cook.

REBECCA: One of my favorite things about the book is that Rachel is a grammar and syntax nerd. Being one myself, I was delighted every time Rachel mentally deleted an apostrophe or corrected a malapropism. Are you a grammar enthusiast? Do you have a grammatical, syntactical, or linguistic pet peeve?

J.C.: I am, but I’m definitely not as obsessive about it as Rachel is. If I passed by a specials chalkboard advertising “chocolate croissant’s,” I’d probably be able to keep walking.

Oh geez, I have so many pet peeves. I share Rachel’s hatred of “impact” used as a verb; say something like “the economy impacted sales” and all I can think about are problematic wisdom teeth. All business lingo rubs me the wrong way. Just these smug, snappy idioms people whip out like a secret handshake, to feel important—herding cats and making it rain and drilling down to the granular level. And this is a pretty common peeve, but I am forever raging about “it’s” in place of “its.” It’s become such an epidemic that even autocorrect sticks the apostrophe in, like SLOW YOUR ROLL, AUTOCORRECT. Let’s consider context, shall we?

How To Repair a Mechanical Heart J.C. LillisREBECCA: Your first novel, How To Repair a Mechanical Heart, which I adored, found you creating a fandom. In We Won’t Feel a Thing, you create two different self-help programs. Can you talk a little bit about what appeals to you about creating these worlds-within-worlds?

J.C.: I love this question. I’m sitting here like “yeah . . . why DO I do that?” I think it’s because I’ve always struggled to feel like I belonged, and I’ve had very intense obsessions with things that sometimes aren’t appreciated by many others (in my fandoms, I’m forever the queen of unpopular ships). So the idea of a little society or system devoted to an obscure pursuit or interest has always been compelling to me. I’m also the kind of person who needs to feel in control of things, whether it’s my workload or my emotions or my body, so I’m drawn to characters who invent systems and strategies to impose order on the untamable.

 REBECCA: The love story in How To Repair a Mechanical Heart was between two boys. When I first saw the blurb for We Won’t Feel a Thing, I was a tad nervous because heterosexual love stories so often wind up reinforcing gender stereotypes. Not only did We Won’t Feel a Thing not do that, but Riley and Rachel’s genders also felt very fluid. I don’t mean to say that just because they weren’t stereotypical they were somehow unfixed; more that I was interested in the ways that it felt kind of like they could have been any combination of gender-identified people. What are your thoughts on this issue in general? Was gender something you were actively thinking about here?

don't gender me!

don’t gender me!

J.C.: You’re the second person who’s made that comment, and I love that you felt that way. Some of that was natural and kind of arose from the type of person I am. I’ve never felt especially feminine or masculine in the traditional sense. I remember I had this rag doll as a kid; it had no hair or clothing, it was just the outline of a person with friendly facial features stitched on. I loved this doll, and I remember feeling annoyed and unsettled when people would ask “Is that a boy or a girl?” I hated that I had to pick, because neither option really felt like the truth. To this day I’m always attracted to people who combine traits we’re conditioned to think of as “male” and “female,” and I think I live comfortably in that gray area, too.

So yeah, it was partly automatic, but I was also very conscious of the approach to gender in WWFaT. I think l’ll probably hear some of “oh, Riley’s the ‘girl’ in the relationship,” which—like you indicated in your review—is sort of reductive and stereotypical. I wasn’t really aiming for a straight-up gender-role reversal; I was more interested in depicting two young people whose personalities both color outside traditional gender lines. I mean, Rachel and Riley have been isolated in their private “kingdom” for a good bit of their lives, so I feel like they don’t even see those lines at all. That felt freeing to me as a writer. I think back to the very first fictional relationships that captivated me—like, Frog and Toad or Bert and Ernie. I don’t remember giving gender a thought; it was their specific personalities and their interactions that jumped out at me and made them special. I wanted to recapture that with the Rachel/Riley relationship. I’m glad it worked for you!

REBECCA: We Won’t Feel a Thing is your second novel, but if I remember correctly from your first interview with us, you had the idea for it a long time ago. What was it like to revisit an older idea? Was your writing experience different, having had a first novel under your belt?

J.C.: Yeah, these characters have been with me since like late 2003. (I’d written three other novels before that, all of which will mercifully never see the light of day.) I finished the first draft and then set it aside for a while—I was pregnant at the time and very anxious about motherhood, so I needed a break. I wrote about half of another book when my daughter was a baby, and then I got the idea for HTRaMH and decided to run with it.

That first version of WWFaT was wildly different. And at first, when I decided to go back and revise it, I was naively optimistic. I just thought oh, I’ve already put one book out there, so this’ll be easy. I’ll tighten the beginning, cut stuff here and there, tidy it up and get it out in six months. But then when I changed the beginning, everything started to change. I ended up keeping maybe 5% of the original text. In some ways it was even harder than starting from scratch, because it was this constant process of letting go of stuff I liked from version #1 that just didn’t fit or make sense anymore. Talk about killing your darlings. It was a darling bloodbath.

 REBECCA: You have a job and kids, right? How do you balance all that with writing? And what are the things that make you excited enough about a story that you want to make time for it?

J.C.: Oh man, it’s hard. It never stops being hard. I was just talking about that with a friend this weekend. A lot of times you feel like you’re doing everything, and none of it particularly well. Honestly, it’s just a “one day at a time” struggle . . . some days you manage to pull out a great idea at work and laugh with the kiddo at bedtime and write five good pages before you conk out, and other times the whole day’s just a wash. I think the key is learning to forgive yourself and be okay with the fact that your book might take longer than you hoped. Writer moms: It’s okay if you don’t write every day, or if you can’t write as fast as other people. You’ve got a lot going on. Years from now, you won’t look back and say “wow, I wish I’d gotten Book X out six months earlier.” You’ll only regret making yourself sick trying to work full time, be a mom, and still produce a book a year. Everyone works at a different pace, and that’s fine. Know what you can handle, and go easy on yourselves.

As far as staying passionate about a story—if you start with an idea and a character that make you vibrate with excitement, that’ll help carry you through the tough times in the Cave of Eternal Revision. If I get bored, sometimes I take whatever actors I’m crushing on at the moment and mentally cast them in my book, and that keeps it fresh and fun (and helps me hear the dialogue better, as a bonus).

REBECCA: Ha! I love that idea! Relatedly, I know a lot of our readers are also writers. You had great things to say about your experience with indie publishing in our last interview. Do you still feel as good about it? What advice do you have for someone writing books who may not want to go the traditional publishing path?

J.C.: I love being indie; I definitely think it was the right option for me and my weird little books. 🙂 You know, it has its pluses and minuses like everything else. Sometimes I feel a little frustrated by how difficult it is to spread the word about your stuff and attract new readers, especially when you have a shoestring marketing budget and another full-time job you’re committed to. I know there’s so much more I could be doing, and I always end up mad at myself: I should be tweeting/blogging more! I should’ve sent ARCs to more bloggers! If I just organized my time better, I’d have time for X and Y and Z . . .

But the reality is, none of us are superheroes. (At least I don’t think so. If you are, don’t tell; I might step on your cape.) I do what I can manage, and overall the whole indie adventure has been a tremendous experience. There’s nothing better than getting a tweet from a stranger who found and loved your book. I’ve managed to build up a nice readership little by little, and I love that I can still write back to every person who’s kind enough to reach out to me.

As far as advice: I’d say just put in the time to inform yourself about your publishing options, and if you decide to go indie, come on over to Twitter and join the writing community there. We’re a lot of fun, we’re generous with advice and support, and we’ve got your back. There’ll be tons of ups and downs as you figure out which choices are best for you and your book (because seriously, it’s different for everyone), but they’ll be much easier if you’re on the same roller coaster with your writer buddies.

REBECCA: Are you working on anything new (crosses fingers)?

AmadeusJ.C.: Oh yeah, I’m always working on something! Actually, I’m taking a short break right now—WWFaT took a lot out of me and I kind of just need a month to stare at a wall (and catch up on reading. And fangirl over Game of Thrones). But yes, I’ve got my next idea all cued up. It’s about female friendship, but it could possibly turn into romance, depending on where the characters lead me. It’s about the rivalry and deepening relationship between two ambitious pop-star hopefuls; I’ve been calling it Amadeus with young female singer-songwriters, though that’s probably too glib. The cool part is that Brandon and Abel from HTRaMH are going to be side characters. It’s set ten years after their Summer of Love, so you’ll see what’s happened with them in the interim and where their relationship stands now. I can’t wait to get started!

REBECCA: Aaaahhh! Amadeus is one of my favorite movies and I love anything to do with music! Um, oh my god, a Brandon and Abel sighting? I could not be more delighted! Thanks so much for joining us, J.C.!

J.C.: Thank you so much for having me on your blog! It’s always a pleasure to chat with you.

WIN AN E-COPY OF WE WON’T FEEL A THING!

All you need to do is fill out the handy form below and then (for fun!) leave us a comment telling us which better describes you (and why, if you are so inclined). Are you: 1. A fierce grammar nerd, or 2. A sensitive (and possibly anxious) artiste? Or, since binaries are bullshit, 3. An evil genius who will someday engineer an insidious self-help program? The giveaway will stay open for two weeks; I’ll announce the winner here on April 30th!

UPDATE: I have chosen the winner of an e-copy of We Won’t Feel A Thing by a highly scientific process (writing your names on pieces of paper, dumping them in my cat’s favorite cardboard box, and then letting her choose one with her paw) and the winner is MIGUEL!

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Rose Christo Talks about Native American and Queer Lit, Folk Metal, and Cheese!

It’s my pleasure today to welcome Rose Christo, author of my favorite new series, Gives Light, to Crunchings & Munchings!

Rose Christo Gives Light

 

 

reviewed the first book in the series on Monday, and am really excited to get the answers to some burning questions about Gives Light, music, and cheese. Welcome, Rose!

 

 

 

REBECCA:  Skylar’s muteness seems central to his relationships with people (who knows sign language, who can understand his facial expressions, and who treats him like he’s a child, etc.). He’s our narrator, so we know what he’s thinking, but were there challenges in writing Skylar’s character? Particularly in his interactions with others?

ROSE CHRISTO:  I think the narrator being mute came naturally.  When I was a kid I had problems with selective mutism, so I know what it feels like to want desperately to communicate with the people around you but to be unable to. Since the narrator couldn’t talk, it gave other characters the opportunity to project onto him. There’s also the fact that you have to choose to believe him when he tells you what he feels instead of relying on his dialogue. He’s had time to reflect on events, and he filters things out.

REBECCA:  Skylar and Rafael’s relationship is so magical—complicated and effortless at the same time. A topic that comes up on Crunchings & Munchings all the time is how notoriously difficult first loves can be. Do you see Gives Light (the book and/or the series) as a love story?

ROSE CHRISTO:  I love love. I love family. Family trumps romance every time but I think when you really love someone they become your family anyway. I guess it’s a love story, but at the same time it’s really about two boys who lost core parts of their families in the same tragedy but find them again in each other.

REBECCA:  History looms large in Gives Light, both Shoshone history and characters’ personal histories. The rich, vivid detail with which you render daily life and joy on the reservation feels so present, though. Can you talk a little bit about that relationship between history and presence in the book?

ROSE CHRISTO:  Oh, thank you. I think it’s easy to forget that America isn’t even 300 years old yet; her “history” was just a few generations ago. It was my grandpa’s grandpa who escaped the Bear River Massacre. My grandpa, Kookum’s second husband, he was born in the Saline Valley, which California snatched illegally in the 1950s and only returned to the Panamint Shoshone in increments long after he’d passed away. He died without getting to see his home again. The kids in the story are Plains Shoshone, but the issues are the same, and ongoing. History isn’t just the past. Everything that happens today is a chain reaction put in motion by the generations before us; everything we do today creates the world the next generation has to live in. Does that make any sense?

REBECCA:  It absolutely makes sense. The present we live in is always also someone else’s future and someone else’s past, and they’re inextricable.

Although YA lit is bringing us more diversity all the time, Native characters and settings still aren’t common bookstore fare. What are your thoughts about the state of Native representation in YA lit? What do you think is important that we see in the future? Do you have any favorites that you might recommend to interested readers?

ROSE CHRISTO:  One thing I think is really bad about Native characters in YA, or in any medium, is that they’re almost always used in this poverty porn kind of way. There’s this belief that we’re particularly abject and destitute but like any community we have Zitkala Sa American Indian Stories Legendsour goods and our bads. 11% of us are unemployed; but that means 89% of us aren’t. 22% of us live in poverty, and that’s by no means a happy number; but if you think for a moment, that means almost 80% of us are doing pretty well. Where’s that 80% in our media representation? Why do we constantly see the worst case scenario? We’re good and we’re bad, we’re rich and we’re poor, we’re smart and we’re stupid. Our community’s one of the fastest growing communities in America right now. I’d definitely like to see more visibility, as well as more parity.

Zitkala Sa (Lakota) is my favorite NDN author.  Not only was she the first Native American novelist but she also penned the first American opera back in 1910 (The Sun Dance).  Check her out, I think you’ll fall in love.

REBECCA:  Similarly, what about queer YA lit? Skylar and Rafael move from friendship to romance without facing too much hostility on the reservation, and Gives Light is important, I think, in talking about the ways in which culture/ethnicity and queerness inform one another. What are your thoughts about the state of queer representation in YA lit? What do you think is important that we see in the future? Do you have any favorites that you might recommend to interested readers?

ROSE CHRISTO:  This one time I went to a bookstore in my college town and immediately I noticed two things. First was that the queer lit was shoved all the way in the back of the store, in the dusty section no one looked at twice. Second was that almost every book I picked up in that section had some really sad plotline: kid gets bullied, kid gets disowned, kid gets AIDS, kid internalizes homophobia . . .  These are very real Carmilla J. Sheridan Le Fanuissues. But I want LGBT folks to be able to read books about themselves where they aren’t reviled, but cherished, adored. Show me a queer couple whose biggest problem is that they can’t stand one another’s furniture. Show me a queer couple whose computer has been hacked! Not because they’re queer, but because one of them’s a politician! Or a secret agent! In an ideal society you shouldn’t be treated differently just because of who you’re in love with. Maybe you like monster trucks and you also like a guy named Steve. I don’t see how they intersect at all, unless Steve happens to be a whiner baby who won’t let you go to the rallies on Sundays. Literature follows changing attitudes. I guess I think that if we’re going to make the kind of society we want to live in, literature is a good place to start.

The first LGBT-themed book I ever read was Carmilla.  God, it’s just the darkest, most beautiful story written on paper.  I can’t believe J. Sheridan Le Fanu got away with it in his time.

REBECCA:  Rafael’s particular and strong tastes delighted me. Do you share his love of drawing, tattoos, or power metal? (I have a sneaking suspicion that you do, because your Goodreads bio says “I used to have all my favorite metal bands listed here until I realized nobody cared about them. Then, I cried.” Well, I care about them (and am a fan myself) and would love to know!

EluveitieROSE CHRISTO:  Rafael’s the son I wish I had. I don’t like art, tattoos creep me out, fairy tales are stupid, but metal? Folk metal! Why’d you get me started on metal? Eluveitie and Moonsorrow are the best but there’s also Ensiferum, Korpiklaani, Finntroll, Suidakra . . .  Aztra are those five kids who show up at political protests with molotovs, Haggard is if every classical genius in history ditched the harpsichords to play death metal, Panopticon are a great folk/black metal band from Kentucky. “Bodies Under the Falls” gives me chills every damn time, you can practically feel the wailing of the empty ghosts echoing in your veins. Speaking of black metal, CoF wasn’t always so corny, Dusk & Her Embrace is an auditory masterpiece, pure, lyrical evil.  At Sixes and Sevens, another masterpiece, Atlantis in your headphones.

Lacuna Coil Unleashed MemoriesYou know Lacuna Coil? [R: Yes, love them!I wrote to Andrea as a kid, when I was going through a messed up time and needed some guidance from an adult. He wrote back to me. Not just once, but several times. And he was in Italy, and he was on tour. I will never forget what he did for me.  I will never not love metal. I don’t know what a Goodreads bio is but I guess they got that right.

REBECCA:  I’m so glad I asked (and so charmed to know that about Andrea from Lacuna Coil)! So, can you tell us a little bit about what your experience with self-publishing has been? How did you choose to go that route, etc.

ROSE CHRISTO:  Writing is fun, but I never treated it seriously until my best friend asked if I could write him some stories where gay characters get to be heroes. This relates back to [the above discussion of queer lit], I think—he was at this dark place and he just wanted to see himself portrayed as normal for once, instead of this perpetual pariah. I started writing for him and at some point, I can’t remember when, he told me to publish the titles for kicks. Everything I write is with him in mind. If he likes it, it’s a keeper. If he doesn’t, it never sees the light of day.

REBECCA:  I have a theory that everyone has at least one hidden talent, no matter how random or seemingly useless. Will you tell us yours?

nebulaROSE CHRISTO:  Ha! I’m really good at physics. I was going to be a physicist until I thought, “That’s not going to help my community.” If you show me a picture of a nebula I can probably identify it. I have favorite nebulae and that’s really nerdy. Uh, I got second place in the National Latin Exam a few years back, so if you ever find a time machine please call me. I make good tea? But I hate tea. Yuck.

REBECCA:  What is your favorite food or drink to make while writing?

ROSE CHRISTO:  My dad’s family are mostly Plains Cree from Box Elder but my mom’s side were all Irish Travelers, so this leads to really weird combo dishes, like pumpkin spice frybread with hot cabbage sodmay. The last time I cooked sodmay while I was writing the tomatoes came out pitch black. I still need to replace the smoke detector. Two of them, actually. Damn.

REBECCA:  Mmmm, pumpkin spice frybread sounds amazing! Finally: cheese is very important to Tessa and me, so we’ve got to know: what is you favorite cheese?

ROSE CHRISTO:  Commod cheese. There was this tribal building on the Fort Hall rez that handed out giant blocks of commod cheese to the families that fell on hard times. Even if I were fabulously wealthy I think I’d be buying that stuff in bulk. Melt it and put it on frybread and you’ve got yourself a five star meal. I wish I could give you some right now.

REBECCA:  Oh my god, I wish you could too. Rose, thanks so much for being willing to chat about Gives Light! I loved the series so much and I’m so excited to get to spread the word.

ROSE CHRISTO:  Thank you very much for reading my stories. That’s amazing to me, and it’s really humbling.

Check out Rose Christo’s entire Gives Light series. I promise you will be wowed!

Rose Christo Gives Light Rose Christo Looks Over gives Light Rose Christo St Clair Gives Light  Why The Star Stands Still Rose Christo Gives Light

Interview With J.C. Lillis, Author of How to Repair a Mechanical Heart

by REBECCA, June 5, 2013

How To Repair A Mechanical Heart by J.C. Lillis

Friends, today I am so thrilled to bring you an interview with the wonderful and amazing J.C. Lillis, author of How to Repair a Mechanical Heart, which I reviewed on Monday. Many thanks to J.C. for being here! She has generously offered the chance for one lucky Crunchings & Munchings reader to win an e-copy of How to Repair a Mechanical Heart—the form is at the end of the interview. Welcome, J.C.!

REBECCA: How to Repair a Mechanical Heart is your debut novel (and damn, what a debut!). How did you find your way to this story and these characters? 

J.C.: Aw, thanks so much! I’d been trying to write a book about fandom for years and years, but I never really hit on the right concept or the right characters. The basic idea for HTRAMH was inspired by a fandom I was lurking in a few years back—I won’t name names ‘cause it would just be mortifying for all involved. 🙂 There was this big debate surrounding some real-person shipping; basically, some fans were writing slash and then tweeting it to the boys involved, and there was this growing sense of horror about the fourth wall crumbling and real lives being affected. And as a writer, I just started thinking about it from the boys’ perspective: how would it feel to read fanfic about yourself, if you were a young guy still trying to figure yourself out? What if you really did have feelings for this guy you were being shipped with, but were terrified to show it?

At first I thought I’d write about two teen TV stars with a huge fandom writing slash about them, but I felt like it would be funnier and more manageable to make the boys small-potatoes vloggers who attract an unlikely little cult following. I also thought it might be interesting if the guys themselves were anti-slash at first. Spoiler alert for people who haven’t read it yet, but that scene where they first stumble across the fan community and die of embarrassment when they see all the fic about them? That was the first scene I imagined, and then the characters and their situation just kind of filled themselves in from there.

REBECCA: HTRAMH is the most delightful expression of fandom, and it seems way too spot on to be written by anyone but a fan! Can you talk a little bit about your own relationship to fandom and geek culture? 

J.C.: One of my favorite topics! I’ve been fandom-hopping since I was a teenager. It’s been a huge, huge part of my life, for a bunch of reasons. I’ve used it as a form of escape and distraction, I’ve used it to try on different identities, I’ve used it to jumpstart my own story ideas and recharge my passion for writing. It’s funny, I always sort of figured I’d phase out the fangirling once I was officially a grownup, but I still do it! I’ve mellowed out a lot—fandom isn’t as angst-ridden for me anymore; now I just have fun with it.

Cersei LannisterI had to stretch a little writing Brandon and Abel, because they love the heroes of Castaway Planet and I usually obsess over the villains. Nothing makes me swoon like a good complicated baddie. Like, I’m a huge Game of Thrones fan and I adore Cersei Lannister. It’s a problem. At my day job I sit in this awesome Bermuda Triangle of geekdom where we all watch GoT and have sigils on our office doors, and my poor Stark and Targaryen friends have to listen to my weekly Why Cersei Doesn’t Suck apologetics.

REBECCA: HTRAMH has a lot to say about fan fiction and slash fiction, and also about real person fiction. How did these fan fictions inspire you? Do you know if there are any fan fictions about Brandon and Abel?

J.C.: Well, there’s bad fic in every fandom, and I did use some of that as inspiration for the terrible Cadsim slash Brandon and Abel are so up in arms about. But as a general rule, I love fanfic. Love it. I don’t understand writers who get all proprietary about their characters and put out these public statements denouncing fanfic. I mean, fanfic is the ultimate compliment—it means you created a world so compelling that people want to be a part of it themselves. They want to play with it, revise it, extend it—not just passively consume it. To me that’s just straight-up awesome.

Since the book came out, I’ve gotten some Brandon/Abel fanart, which pretty much made MY ENTIRE LIFE. And one reader is working on an alternate-universe Brandon/Abel steampunk fic.  She tweeted me about it and I had the stupidest, dorkiest grin on my face the whole rest of the day. So yeah—if anyone gets an idea for Brandon/Abel fic, they’re yours. Have at it!

REBECCA: In the novel, Brandon and Abel are huge fans of Castaway Planet—how fun was it for you to make up an entire show and its fandom?!

J.C.: SO MUCH FUN. Like, I want to make fanart for the TV-show-within-the-book. I don’t even want to know how geeky that makes me. My daughter’s going to dig up this interview in ten years and just facepalm.

I’ll tell you something funny that totally wasn’t funny at the time. The show was originally called Planet Fear, and then at the eleventh hour—like literally two days before the book’s release—I found out there was this sporting-goods chain called Planet Fear and my friend’s lawyer husband advised me to change it to be on the safe side. Which meant I also had to change the name of the fan convention and the ball, which were originally FearCon and the FearBall. I’d used those names for so long that the thought of changing them made my eyelid twitch. I sat in my room with a thesaurus, my Descriptionary, and my laptop for about five hours and rattled my brain until I came up with an alternate name I could live with. (I was delirious . . . I think at one point my husband actually heard me say “What about Planet Bob?”) And then after I picked names and did a search and replace for everything, I had to proofread the manuscript again, for like the five hundredth time, and I wanted to KILL THE BOOK with fire.

But yeah, other than that? A blast, making up all the actors and characters and fans. I still think about the people behind the forum names. I think I could write a whole book about lone detective. (Or hey_mamacita, because girl has issues.)

REBECCA: HTRAMH is freaking hilarious and also heartbreaking (my favorite combination!). How in the hell did you strike such an amazing balance? Do you think humor plays an important role in fandom? Do you think fandom plays an important part in learning about ourselves?

J.C.: First of all, thanks, ‘cause that’s a gigantic compliment. Yeah, the older I get, the easier it is to see the humor in fandom. When you’re wrapped up in it, it’s easy to take it too seriously—I’ve been guilty of that a few times. But if we can’t laugh at ourselves and the absurdity of ship wars and tinhatting and all that, then it stops being fun. Plus that’s just me; I don’t think I could write a story without humor, because that’s what pulls me along while I’m writing and keeps me interested in the characters. Nothing’s more boring to me than a book with zero sense of humor.

As for the second part of your question—yep, I do think fandom can play a huge part in helping people figure themselves out. Like, back when I was young and confused and destroying myself over some stupid non-relationship, getting into X-Files fandom snapped me out of self-pity and made me think of myself as this ass-kicking lone wolf. . .which was a silly self-dramatization, but it was just what I needed at the time. And I think you see stuff like that play out in HTRAMH, too, with the boys using Castaway Planet fandom as an escape and then as a way to expand their definitions of themselves (like when they go to the ball dressed as each other’s favorite characters). Fandom definitely plays a huge part in helping them sort out themselves and their relationship.

REBECCA: You have written such an amazing young adult novel; are you a YA reader? What are some of your favorite YA reads?

Weetzie Bat by Francesca Lia BlockJ.C.: Ooh, yeah, I love reading YA. The ones I still reach for over and over again are the ones I grew up with: Francesca Lia Block’s Weetzie Bat books, anything by M.E. Kerr, Ellen Wittlinger’s books like Hard Love and Razzle. I love reading books by other indie YA authors, too—I just reviewed One by Leigh Ann Kopans, which is a great read for anyone who loves superheroes.

When I’m deep into edits, I tend not to read as much YA. I’ll go for something totally different—I’ll pick up some nonfiction or some Iris Murdoch, or I’ll spend the night with my favorite Edward Gorey anthology.

REBECCA: Are you working on anything new right now? Might the world be so lucky?

J.C.: I am! I’m so excited about it. It’s another YA novel, and it’s something I originally wrote years before I started HTRAMH. It’s about a teenage boy and girl who are in forbidden-love with each other and miserable about it, so they sign up for this experimental self-help program to rid themselves of their unwanted feelings. It’s really different from HTRAMH, but at heart it’s another quirky comedy-romance, so hopefully people who enjoyed Brandon and Abel’s story will like this one, too.

I feel kinda bad because my original plan was to tidy it up and put it out by late spring/early summer, but the more I got into the manuscript, the more I wanted to change. I’m a way different writer now than I was in 2005. So it’s going to take a little longer than I hoped, but that’s the beauty of indie publishing. You set your own schedule, and if life intervenes or you want to put the book aside and walk away for a few days to clear your head and/or tear out your hair, you can totally do that.

REBECCA: Can you tell us a little bit about what your experience with self-publishing has been like? How did you choose to go that route, etc.

J.C.: Basically, I just really, really hate querying. I’m kidding. But not really.

Here’s what kept happening: I’d write a book, edit the hell out of it, send it out to a very small handful of agents, and then I’d get all wrapped up in a shiny new story and when I’d come lumbering home from my day job, THAT’S what I’d want to work on. The querying would get shoved on the back burner, and then I’d just quietly stop doing it.

I got a couple “almosts” from agents I queried, and I know some people would probably consider me a quitter for not persevering with that, but seriously: I LOVE being indie. I decided to go for it after my husband passed me this article on the new world of indie publishing and was like, hey, you should consider this. It’s been the perfect fit for my temperament and working style, and I haven’t regretted it for a second.

The best part is that the whole indie writing community is pretty damn amazing. Supportive, helpful, welcoming, hilarious. I love being a part of it, and I love that I get to decide everything—from what my cover will look like to what my next blog post will be about. I still have a lot to learn, but I’ve got a bunch of great “teachers” now in my fellow indies, and it’s a total pleasure to cheer them on and learn from their successes.

REBECCA: I have a theory that everyone has at least one hidden talent, no matter how random or seemingly useless. Will you tell us yours? 

J.C.: I can name all fifty states in alphabetical order in under twenty seconds. Also, I have never once ripped off a piece of packing tape without getting it stuck to itself. (Truly useless. Sorry.)

REBECCA: What is your favorite food or drink to make while writing? Snickerdoodles, like Abel, perhaps? (Bonus question: do you have a favorite snickerdoodle recipe? Ilove snickerdoodles.)

SnickerdoodlesJ.C.: Ha! I WISH I had time to bake snickerdoodles, but I’ve got a six-year-old and a day job, so I don’t have much free time. I try to funnel most of my spare minutes into writing. (And by “writing,” I mean “procrastinating on Twitter” and “dreaming up new blog entries about vintage pantyhose ads.” That counts, right?)

I do have a weakness for peanut butter and banana sandwiches. Not those crazy deep-fried fat bombs Elvis used to make—just peanut butter on wheat bread with sliced banana and a little cinnamon sugar on top. My go-to comfort food, especially at 11:30 at night when the words aren’t coming and I start getting unwelcome visits from the I SUCK fairy.

(Betty Crocker has a great snickerdoodle recipe if you’re so inclined.)

REBECCA: And, finally: cheese is very important to Tessa and me, so we’ve got to know: what is you favorite cheese? Tell us all about it!

J.C.: God, there isn’t a cheese I wouldn’t eat. My daughter HATES all cheese, which makes me suspect she’s a changeling. I think smoked gouda takes top honors. I don’t know, though. Ask me next week and my loyalties may have shifted to Camembert.

REBECCA: And there you have it, folks: smoked gouda, and please write some Brandon/Abel fan fiction! Thanks so much, J.C.!

J.C.: Thank you so much for having me on the blog!

WIN AN E-COPY OF HOW TO REPAIR A MECHANICAL HEART!

All you need to do is fill out the handy form below and leave us a comment on the blog telling us what you are the biggest fan of! TV show, band, book, movie; it doesn’t matter, just fill us in on what you geek out about! The giveaway will stay open for two weeks; I’ll announce the winner here on June 19th. UPDATE: Congrats to We Heart YA, the winners of a copy of How to Repair a Mechanical Heart!

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.

Carol Rifka Brunt Discusses Character-Building, Cheese, and the Mysteries of Love: An Interview

Today at Crunchings & Munchings I am joined by the lovely Carol Rifka Brunt, whose debut novel, Tell the Wolves I’m Home, knocked my socks off and then stole my heart! See my gushing review HERE. Born in Queens and raised in Pleasantville, New York, Carol now lives in Devon, England. She has been kind enough to answer my burning questions about Tell the Wolves I’m Home (and a few other things to boot). Carol, welcome!

Carol Rifka Brunt

First up, some questions about Tell the Wolves I’m Home.

Rebecca: Tell the Wolves I’m Home isn’t necessarily a young adult novel but it could be read as one. Were there books that were particularly important or influential to you as a teenager?

A Wrinkle in Time Madeleine L'EngleCarol Rifka Brunt: I was such a big reader as a teenager. I frequented not just the library in my own town, but also the ones in neighboring towns. I loved The Neverending Story by Michael Ende, A Wrinkle in Time  and A Wind in the Door by Madeleine L’Engle. I remember not liking the third one as much because Meg and Calvin were too old by then. I was also (and still am!) a Judy Blume fan. Oh and Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh. It’s amazing to see the explosion of YA books now. We’re really living in such a rich time for children’s and young adult fiction. I envy kids and teens having so much choice.

R: One of the central struggles of Wolves seems to be June’s attempt to figure out which specific pieces of someone’s habits, tastes, and desires, make up the essence of who they are. I really identified with this approach to thinking about taste, and it seems quite apt in a kid like June whose tastes are so personal. Could you talk a little bit about why taste is so important to identity and relationships in Wolves?

CRB: I think, in a way, June is looking for the true person underneath tastes and habits. She starts out thinking she knows her Uncle Finn really well, that his habits and tastes are who he is, but gradually she realizes that those are external things. That we pick up out tastes from other people we know and (sometimes) love. Maybe there is no ‘true’ person to any of us, maybe our tastes and desires are who we are. I’m not sure June ever figures out the answer to this, but I think she does eventually see the beauty in the way our habits can live on, be carried along, in other people once we’re gone.

R: Since June’s and Toby’s relationship rotates around the missing center for both of them—Finn—it seems like it would be so easy to make Finn be a perfect, magical character whom they each idolize. Instead, you make him flawed and complicated. Toby and June, similarly, are deeply complicated characters who aren’t always elegant or likeable. Can you tell us a bit about how you built these rich characters?

CRB: I actually think Finn does come off as pretty magical and charismatic. In a way, he has to be very likeable to make the story work. Also, we’re seeing him through June’s eyes. He was always wonderful to June, so, naturally, she would see him as pretty close to perfect. As a reader, I think we can see more than June sees. His flaws are gradually revealed.

I don’t know that I consciously built any of the characters. June’s voice was there from the start and she revealed herself to me as I wrote. I hate to be flaky or mysterious about the process, but I really don’t know how the characters arrived on the page. I never do character profiles or anything like that. Sometimes I write a few pages in first person from other characters—I did this for Greta and Toby—to hear how they’d speak and to get their voice into my head, but beyond that it feels very intuitive. It’s only in the second and third drafts that I really start to think hard about each character’s motivations. Once I know that, I’m able to go back and make sure everything they say and do makes sense in that context.

R: You’ve mentioned the importance of the setting of 1980s New York to Wolves in other interviews. Why was this setting so important to the story? Did you consider any others over the course of the writing process?

Tell the Wolves I'm Home Carol Rifka BruntCRB: Once I understood that Finn had AIDs, the 80s seemed the natural setting for the novel. When I think of all the dystopian fiction around at the moment, I’m always reminded how AIDS in the 80s had some of that feel. An unknown virus. Thousands dying. No cure. New York and San Francisco were the epicentres of the disease. Since I knew New York, I chose to set it there. Reluctantly.

I say reluctantly because I didn’t want to write anything remotely autobiographical, but I have to admit, once I settled into it, using a familiar setting made life a lot easier. I could really see so many of the places. Strangely, none of the book places really correspond to my real places. The woods of the book aren’t any specific woods I know, the school from the book looks different in my mind from my own school, I didn’t imagine their home town as my own, their house isn’t like mine. The locations are all composites.

I also wanted to play with the barrier between suburb and city. They’re so close, but when you’re from the suburbs, the city doesn’t feel like your place at all. You’re always a visitor, never a native.

R: Man, oh, man, first loves are notoriously intense and painful! June’s complex feelings for Finn are made all the more so because he is her uncle. Do you see Wolves as a first love story? What kinds of response have you gotten to the book’s treatment of June’s feelings for Finn?

CRB: Yes, I do see it as a first love story for June. Going back to question 2, I think I was interested in the idea of love that isn’t based around the external. I was thinking about the idea of love that comes from seeing the real person buried deep inside social contexts in which we live our lives. I wondered how we’re wired to be ‘in love’ with only certain people. A straight woman might adore everything about another woman, but still, something in her makeup would never allow her to feel romantic love for that woman. This feels like such a mystery to me, the way attraction is so beyond our control. Obviously, there’s genetic basis for it all, but in real life it still feels profoundly perplexing to me. I guess some people would call June’s feelings for Finn a crush, but to her it feels like real (and very embarrassing) love. I’m not sure even at my age I fully understand the difference between those two things.

I haven’t had anyone approach me to complain about June’s feelings or to say they found it an offensive thing to write about. I’m sure there are people who would feel that way and maybe if the book starts to get a broader audience, I’ll get some of that. I think a writer’s job is to tell an honest story.  I’m sure June isn’t the only person in the world who has ever fallen in love with somebody completely inappropriate. I see this as such an innocent, honest and tender book. I think perhaps I should be the one to be offended if people want to twist it into something ugly.

Tell the Wolves I'm Home Carol Rifka BruntR: On the first page of the novel, June says, “I’m fifteen now, but I was still fourteen that afternoon” (3). Could you talk a little about your decision to tell this story in the near past, as opposed to in the present tense or when June is an adult looking back?

CRB: I was actually asked by my editor to consider doing just that—have a prologue and epilogue with the adult June looking back. Although it instinctually felt all wrong to me, I gave it a try. I think it’s so important for writers to be open to suggestions, not to get too precious about their work. An editor has a bird’s eye view of your work, something you’ll never have, so it’s always worth exploring any suggestions. The thing is, I think the story is very pure the way it’s told. It’s innocent. June is guileless and open. She can’t hide her feelings. I think that’s where the beauty comes from. If you start to step back from that you lose her voice and you start to get a whole different perspective on the events. I wanted to create something that had an element of rawness and immediacy with Wolves and I think that’s only possible by telling the story from a perspective close to the end of the events.

And now, a few questions and speculations about you, June, and cheese!

R: June’s obsessions (and I don’t mean that word negatively at all) with certain places, music, etc. were really important to her character. You’ve mentioned in interviews that June is not an autobiographical character, but I think most of us have similarly June-like obsessions. Did you have any obsessions as a teenager? How about now?

Choose Your Own Adventure Edward PackardCRB: The story isn’t autobiographical at all, but I have to admit that June’s obsessions are pretty autobiographical. I gave her a lot of my geeky teenage obsessions. I used to love Choose Your Own Adventure books, medieval fairs, The Cloisters, Mozart’s Requiem and the idea of being able to travel back in time. Like June, I always felt a bit out of step with the rest of the kids my age. I shared her fairly foolish notion that if I were in another time, somehow I would fit in better.

I think a lot of writers feel a bit like watchers, people on the fringe of things. I still feel that, but I think it’s no longer a painful thing the way it can be for a teenager. It’s just part of who I am. If I’m writing, that’s usually my obsession.

R: So, if June is fourteen in 1987, then she’d be in college in the early and mid-90s. Given her taste for all things medieval and requiem-esque, what do you imagine June would think of the grunge scene?

SoundgardenCRB: Well, since I gave June my geeky teenage things, I guess she could also share my musical tastes in college! I liked the Pixies, Soundgarden, Nirvana, Camper Van Beethoven, Mudhoney, Belly and the Breeders. I also listened to a ton of Tom Waits and Velvet Underground in those days. I think she would have liked the grunge idea. Less artifice and more substance than a lot of 80s music.

R: I have a theory that everyone has at least one hidden talent, no matter how random or seemingly useless. Will you tell us yours?

CRB: If I had one, maybe I wouldn’t be a writer. Whatever it is would certainly be easier. I do love baking and I used to make quilts. I wouldn’t say there was a lot of talent involved in my case. Oh, I do have a bit of a latent travel agent lurking inside me. I’m very good at planning excellent trips on a budget.

R: What is your favorite food or drink to make while writing?

CRB: I’ve mostly managed to abandon this unhealthy snack, but while I was writing the novel I was very fond of mini-poppadums with a little bowl of mango chutney to dip them in and a nice glass of diet Coke with lemon.

R: And, finally: cheese is very important to Tessa and me, so we’ve got to know: what is your favorite cheese?

CRB: Just one! Oh no. I definitely share your passion for cheese. I’d have to go for brie. I live in the southwest of England and there’s a brie they make fairly locally, in St. Endellion, Cornwall, that I adore. I like it melted on some good toast with slivered almonds broiled over the top. Mmmmmm.

So, there you have it, folks: one more cheese stop to add to my world-wide tour (Tessa, I’m looking at you!). Scads of thanks to Carol Rifka Brunt for chatting with us today, and I hope you all scamper right out and read Tell the Wolves I’m Home, my (totally informal because no one asks me these things) nomination for book of the year.

Siobhan Vivian, literary DJ and maker of PB&J

Siobhan Vivian is one of my favorite writers of realistic fiction, and I read her before I knew her so I can say that objectively.  Pittsburgh is lucky to have her and she graciously agreed to submit to being our first author interview on this occasion of her new book, The List, being released.

photo by Matt Salacuse

One of the themes running through Siobhan’s work are the undercurrents of friendship, especially between girls.  In A Little Friendly Advice she takes a deft look at the point at which a close-knit group of friends starts to fray at the seams. Same Difference takes place in the transition between a girl’s old self and finding new friend crushes, then goes beyond the crush stage, as Rebecca explored in her review on Wednesday.  Not That Kind of Girl wove the myriad interpretations of feminism into a senior/freshman battleground without falling prey to easy stereotyping.  And now The List takes a look at how anonymous judgment changes the lives and social world of Mt. Washington High, when the annual list of prettiest and ugliest girls in each grade is posted before Homecoming.
Siobhan’s characters do a lot of thinking, but I love that they also tend to be people of action. They shape events as much as events shape them. So for this interview I had Siobhan take some action of her own. And by action I mean pictures.

1. What is the thing hung on your walls that you most like to look at when you write and why? could you provide a photo?

I love this print from Sapling Press. It makes me feel better about my lazy days.

2. Your new book, The List, has 8 main characters. If you were to make a playlist for them, what would their representative songs be?

umm, this is the best question EVAR!!!!

Abby (prettiest freshman) – Living the Life of Dreams by Julie Dorian

Danielle (ugliest freshman) – Sugar by The Concretes

Lauren (prettiest sophomore) –Part of Your World from The Little Mermaid Soundtrack

Candace (ugliest sophomore) – Such a Joke by The Vivian Girls

Bridget (prettiest junior) – Miss World by Hole

Sarah (ugliest junior) – Cool Schmool by Bratmobile

Margo (prettiest senior) – Little Bit by Lykke Li

Jennifer (ugliest senior) – The Fairest of the Seasons by Nico

3. Take a picture of a book that you wanted to read while writing The List but couldn’t because you were too busy working on your book.

Nice cover by Seth!

4. Did you have any literary inspirations for writing this new book?

Absolutely. I think I must have reread The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier and Daughters of Eve by Lois Duncan no less than twenty times each.

5. What’s your favorite food to eat or make while writing?

PB&J with an iced Americano. Easy to eat, plus sugar and caffeine!

6. Do you like making lists in general (not necessarily lists of people who you think are pretty or ugly)?  What’s the last fun list you made?

I love making To Do Lists. I make them crazy detailed too, so I have more things to cross out. Like, Make a To Do List shouldn’t be on my to do list, but it is and I cross it off proudly when I’ve listed everything I need to get done.

Thanks, Siobhan!

Are you intrigued by Siobhan’s playlist for the characters in The List?  Just itching to get your eyes on its words?  Leave a comment on this post describing one of your own high school experiences bumping up against feeling pretty or ugly and you can have a chance to win one of 2 copies of the book!  (We have an ARC and a hardcover to give away).  Winners will be picked next Monday.

I’ll start you off.  When I was in high school I loved to wear giant JNCO pants.  They made me feel invincible, like I was a cartoon character.  But now I feel like they are the worst idea ever.  Here’s photographic evidence:

eat some young adult literature with us!

Who are we and why are we here to nerd out about young adult literature?  We shall now interview each other to answer these and other questions.

Rebecca: Tessa, on a scale of 1 to 18 how much does it piss you off when people call you Tess?

Tessa makes a dopey face at a holiday party, wearing old glasses and old bangs.

Tessa: I’m taking this to mean 1 is Super Happy and 18 is Shaking with Rage.  When people call me Tess it is mildly annoying, and I’d put it at a 9.  After all, it’s only one extra syllable. And there’s something about the way people say “Tess” that makes them sound fake-friendly, like they’re trying to ingratiate themselves with me in order to sell me something.

On the other hand, my dad calls me “Tess” and my mom got her inspiration for my  name from Tess of the D’Urbervilles, so I really have no basis to be pissed off.

TB: Rebecca, you are very firmly a Rebecca to me. Is that how you see yourself? Would you ever be a Becca?

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RP-G: I am very firmly a Rebecca to myself, too. A dear friend started calling me Becca in 6th or 7th grade, because I gave her a nickname. She was the only one who ever did it. Then, when we started high school together, a few people overheard her call me that and picked it up. But it was brief, and it always felt like a nickname, never a real name. I don’t like Becca, also, because when I was little I read this book called Get Lost, Becka, and we had a book-on-tape of it so I listened to it over and over, and all I can hear is the older sister in the book saying, nastily, “get lost, Becka” in this really snooty voice. Lots of people call me RP-G, though.

RP-G: Tessa, why did you want to write about young adult novels, specifically?
 

TB: In a happy turn of luck, I work as a young adult librarian here in Pittsburgh.  My official title is Teen Librarian (which is problematic in that it implies that I am a teen, not that I work for the library making it more fun for teens to come there).  This means that I read a lot of YA and YA reviews, and I like to talk about it.  Specifically, I like to talk about it with you, Rebecca, because I find your opinions edifying.

And I’ve found that many of my friends aren’t aware of the depth and breadth of YA, and they don’t know what YA means.  So now I’m going to have a tool with which to spam them with the knowledge.

TB: Rebecca, I would ask the same of you.  What turned you onto YA?  Why do you want to write about it?
RP-G: I love YA books because:

1. For one, I am an unabashed escapist in my reading, so I particularly love YA fantasy and sci fi. There is just such a day-before-winter-break feeling about a really good YA adventure!

2. So many YA books are about the protagonist discovering something important about herself—a desire, a hidden truth, an unacknowledged weakness or strength. Many critics tend to lump these things into “The Coming Of Age” monolith. Rather, I think, discovering or acknowledging important things about ourselves is actually something we should all strive for at all times. So, I love YA fiction because it shows characters who are brave enough (and not so stolidly set in their ways) that they can make big changes, take risks, become different, better. There’s something about reading those stories that gives me a real charge, and makes me want to do the same.

3. Finally, some of the most innovative work with genre is being done in YA fiction. As a committed genre reader, I have found the YA fiction of the last five or ten years more exciting than books marketed to an adult audience.And I want to write about YA books, specifically, because I think YA fiction is unique in the way it’s appreciated. There are so many readers (of all ages) who read YA fiction purely for enjoyment and escapism, and talk about it for fun and with such delight, and I want to be a part of it. I don’t mean that we, its fans, are uncritical or unthinking; just that the approach to YA fic feels to me more generous than the approach to many genres of “adult” fiction or literary fiction.

RP-G: Do you have a favorite YA novel? Or, a YA novel that was particularly influential to you as a kid? Or an adult?

TB: For real, I hate picking favorites. It’s like Sophie’s Choice if Sophie was also the Old Lady Who Lived in Shoe and Had So Many Favorite Books She Didn’t Know What to Do.  This is a pretty obvious answer, but the most influential thing in my life when I was a kid was being able to go to the library and look at whatever I wanted.  It sometimes resulted in me reading stuff that was way over my head, but it gave me an immense sense of freedom and access to curiosity, so I could chill out with Paula Danziger or read about leeches, or go hog wild on the Mary Higgins Clark–which I did, so as a result I’m catching up on all the classic YA I missed then in my career today.

was pretty devoted to the Chronicles of Narnia, though. If I was forced to give you a favorite, that would be a strong contender. I would sit in my room and stare at the old wallpaper, hoping that it was secretly a print of Narnian plants and would someday magically transport me there.

TB: Rebecca, what was the dorkiest thing that you ever did in conjunction with your favorite childhood books?
 
RP-G: Well, I just asked my sister what she thought the answer to this question was and, of course, she immediately rattled off a number of things that she said were really dorky. But . . . um . . . I didn’t think any of them were that dorky. She said, “well, yeah, that’s why you’re a dork.”
 
So:
1. I dressed up as Harriet the Spy for Halloween. When I was a junior in college. You remember.

2. For an entire month, I cooked food that was mentioned in books (many of which were YA) and then, as you know, I wrote blog posts about them.

3. I’m writing a blog about them. Right. Now.See, those aren’t dorky, right? Right? Um, right . . . ?

RP-G: Tessa, what do you think is the biggest misconception that the general public has about YA books?

TB: Just yesterday I read a review of Why We Broke Up by Daniel Handler & Maira Kalman, and the reviewer had the gall to say that “the book is so good at capturing what it feels like to be a jilted 16-year-old girl that it seems almost wasted on its young-adult audience.”  That’s the biggest bee in my bonnet: the idea that teenagers don’t deserve or somehow can’t understand well-written books.  If anything, teens need MORE well-written books that can accurately mirror their vulnerable and raw emotions.

I also hate the very concept that there’s one single rubric with which to measure what is well-written.  Adults read for escapism as much as young adults, and each are willing to overlook a weaker part of a book because they’re enjoying a stronger part (e.g. a book with terrible descriptions & dialogue but a great plot).

So, as a remedy to my complaint, I think more adults as well as more young adults should read more YA books, because it’s seriously the best thing out there.  It’s so easy to read across genres in YA, and the themes are so universal that it’s immediately immersive and appealing to the reader, giving so many more access points and chances to find something new to read and be excited about.

TB: So, what do you, Rebecca, think is the biggest misconception out there about YA lit?

RP-G: Like you, I think that it is a huge misconception that teenagers are uncomplicated or unself-reflective and that therefore YA fiction is simple, or when it’s complicated it’s lost on teenagers.I think this also feeds into the misconception about non-teen readers of YA fiction that we are dissatisfied with our adult lives and wish that we could have a do-over and be teenagers again. That we’re only interested in swoony first kisses in the band room or getting a letter that admits us to Hogwarts. Well, okay, I mean, if the letter came tomorrow . . .The point: for me, YA is a loose genre, not an age group, and certainly not a psychological yardstick for maturity. It contains multitudes, so generalizations about it are not terribly useful.

RP-G: Tessa, you are a librarian; is there a book that you’ve recommended to young adults more than any other?

TB: Not really–if someone comes to me with a reader’s advisory question it’s usually geared to what kind of stuff they’re already reading so I follow their lead on it.  That being said, if I can I will always recommend M.T. Anderson’s books, and I’ve been pushing Divergent by Veronica Roth as something to tide people over with when they’re waiting for The Hunger Games.

And I’ve been reading a lot of graphic novels, so those always come to the front of my mind.But mostly people want to walk away with a book in their hand so I stick to what’s on our shelves, which is not always what comes to the front of my mind.

TB: Rebecca, how does reading YA complement being a PhD?  Do you ever find yourself deconstructing Anne of Green Gables, for example?

RP-G: Actually, grad school is what got me back on the YA train after years of it being off my radar. As you know, before grad school I read fiction constantly. Then, when I started grad school, where I was reading difficult texts for like twelve hours a day, it was hard for me to take a book to bed and read to unwind. I had the horrible, horrible fear that going to grad school for literature was ruining books for me, and if that was the case then I would obviously have to drop out, because it totally wasn’t worth it. So, I started re-reading my favorite authors from when I was a kid—S.E. Hinton, Susan Cooper, Aidan Chambers—and found that YA fiction was exactly what I needed. It was so completely different than what I was reading for school, and it had attached to it only warm and delicious feelings.

As for deconstructing Anne of Green Gables, while I like nothing more than a knock-down, drag-out dispute about a book, or a full-on kvell session, I usually don’t have the impulse to think about YA fiction the way I might if I had my PhD scrappy cap on. I was recently teaching Susan Sontag’s 1964 essay, “Against Interpretation,” and found my feelings on YA fiction very much in sympathy with its luminous final line: “in place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art.”

TB: Rebecca, does your adorable cat ever impede your reading?
 
RP-G: Yes! Sometimes she rubs her head so hard against the corner of a book that she pushes it out of my hand. More often, though, she will be sitting on my lap while I’m reading and I’ll really have to pee, or I’ll finish the book, but I won’t want to get up because she’s sprawled so adorably, so I’ll just sit there with her pressing right on my bladder and, most likely, start the reading the book from the beginning again until she decides she’s done with me and leaves.

Rebecca’s cat, Dorian Gray

Tessa feels compelled to add this photo of her cat, Turkey, to demonstrate that he, too, is adorable.

RP-G: What is your favorite color? Follow-up question: if you see a book with a beautiful cover in this color do you need to buy it?

TB: My favorite color is moss green.  It used to be blue when I was growing up but that was only because my sister had claimed green and I felt it was inappropriate to have the same favorite color (much like ordering dinner with the family and feeling that no one can repeat). Once my sister matriculated into college, however, I realized that I really did prefer green to all other colors.I limit my book buying to books I’ve already read and know that I want to re-read. Working in a library has freed me from many feelings of need as far as book purchasing, because I know I can probably get it at work and pre-screen.  And then I won’t have thousands of books to stuff into my apartment or move around.I am more attracted to books with a nice pop of green, though.It may be more accurate to say I judge books with gradient features more harshly than books with clean design.

TB: What’s the best thing to eat whilst reading?

RP-G: Cinnamon toast.

TB: Oooh, that’s a good one. How do you feel about books that make you cry?  Manipulated? Or moved?

RP-G: I actually love books that make me cry. Mostly because I don’t cry much in my normal life and so it gets saved up, so crying at books is like a tear-drain. That makes me sound really in need of help. But, yeah, even when I know I’ve been manipulated to cry I still like the crying itself. Blatant manipulation might make me lose respect for the book in the morning, though.

 TB: I totally agree. What a relief!
 
RP-G: It is a relief. Now we can be friends and write about books together!
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