Friday, November 21, 2008

WBBT Interview with Emily Wing Smith

At the Kitlitosphere Conference my evil twin (she is too more evil.) and I were mingling away from the main throng when none but Sara Zarr pushes someone aside saying that she wanted to give me a book. I then tried to take the book from her with mild interest saying, "Oh is this your new one?" but Sara Zarr would not let go of this book, despite my tugging. She proceeded to clutch this book close to her chest and say wonderful, passionate things about it with genuine fervor in her eyes. I wasn't sure she would actually let me have the book, and then I worried a little for her sanity that she had gotten so worked up and had chosen ME ( I mean, ME? wha...?) to share it with. Nonetheless, eventually she relaxed her grip and gave me the book.

What was that book, you say? What made the illustrious Sara Zarr so fervent? THE WAY HE LIVED by Emily Wing Smith. I should have simply left the hotel lobby then and gone up to read the book in our room, but I did not. I did manage to crack the cover on the train ride back to Seattle, where I was instantly engrossed, but I was with the evil twin and knew I'd be unable to give it the attention Sara Zarr clearly implied that it needed, so I returned home where reality and reading commitments returned, leaving THE WAY HE LIVED to gather dust until just last week.

Upon finally reading the book, I found myself compelled to turn page after page, reading it with a speed and eagerness that Sara Zarr was undoubtedly familiar with.

A synopsis most basic:
Joel meant many things to many people, and now that he's dead six teens are coping with the hole he's left in their lives.

Emily Wing Smith shows enormous restraint with this title. She doesn't shy away from portraying religion and the implications of religion in an insular community, but does it with such deft skill that conclusions are left up to the reader, and there are no right answers. The novel is broken up into six parts with six distinct narrators. Each character's complete story is told individually, short story style, and based upon the Monday's Child nursery rhyme, with each character claiming a birth day, Joel being Sunday, the missing day. It's very well written and I was eager for every page. It isn't entirely mournful by any means, but it is moving and empowering. Smith also raises some very interesting commentary about how easy it is not to know a person no matter how much information you think you have - if you can't get in their head, you really don't know that much.

Moral of the story: If National Book Award Finalist Sara Zarr ever tracks you down in a large hotel among large groups of people, in order to give you (you specifically, how freakin' cool is that?) a book, but actually has a hard time letting the book out of her hands because she feels that strongly about it, read it. Push the large stack of books on your shelf (and night stand... and floor... and kitchen table...) out of the way, and read it right then. She seems to have rather good taste. And then when you feel compelled to interview the author you won't have email Sara Zarr and rudely demand that she get you that interview post haste.

On to the interview:

Jackie: Each of the six narrators have clear, distinct voices that are in a small part aided by the different points of view you choose to write their portions in. Were there challenges to working with that many P.O.Vs, let alone that many narrators?

Emily Wing Smith: Definitely! People often ask me why I chose to write the book with multiple narrators and points of view. I didn’t really choose to write it that way—this story came to me as a collage of voices, each voice telling me how he or she was dealing with Joel’s death. So having six different narrators wasn’t as much of a challenge as each one needing to be told in a specific style.

This was most obvious with my character, Miles. I heard his voice in my head as if he were talking to himself, clearly saying “You don’t know shit.” All I could think was: “I can’t start out a story like that! There must be some way I can filter and still be true to his voice.” I worked on turning that line into a first-person account of a guy whose world was falling apart around him, but something about it was just off. Finally, I wrote the story from second-person, just the way his thoughts were coming to me, completely unfiltered. It worked! I eventually changed it back to first-person, but this time it was as simple as replacing every “you” with “I.”

While the novel is a portrait of Joel, it is a very open-ended depiction that focuses on how a person can be different things to different people. We can't ever hear from Joel himself, so we are left to piece him together from the people who knew him best, but even their knowledge of him is imperfect. It is an astounding feat to show that even six people can't know everything about one person. The reader is left with the perfect balance of suspicion and conjecture about a beloved character, but no solid answer - what motivated you to tell the story like this?

As a teenager, I moved to a community where a boy my age had recently died on a camping trip. Occasionally, I would meet people who had known and loved him, and I was amazed by their diversity—Bad Boys, Good Girls, and everyone in-between. It’s interesting to get to know someone only through what others say about him—especially when you know you won’t get the chance to meet him yourself.

With Joel, I am trying to re-create that experience. Joel’s not around to tell us his story, so we’re left to come up with our own conclusions. Some people are upset that the book has no solid answers, but that’s the point: you can hear a million different stories about someone from a million different people and still have questions.

Religion plays a significant role in THE WAY HE LIVED. Your treatment of it was subtle, yet deft. Religion was THE foundation for the community and many of your narrator's lives, but each of them had a very different relationship with it. You dealt with (let's be honest) a slightly controversial religion in a completely objective and realistic way - it was good for some, had cracks for others, and wasn't a big deal to most. I'm curious to your relationship with religion and how you chose to include it in this way.

As I mentioned, I moved as a teenager. My new town was overwhelmingly populated by members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I was—and still am--also LDS, and used to both the religion and the culture that surrounds it. But this place (which is very similar to the fictional Haven/West Haven) took the Mormon culture to a whole new level! So the culture in this specific town plays an important role in the book.

However, I’ve always been curious about what happens when over ninety-percent of a population has the same “belief.” I mean, obviously not all of those people can have the exact same beliefs, right? So I wanted The Way He Lived to explore how death affects characters with different degrees of the same belief.

One of the big, unresolved questions in THE WAY HE LIVED was if Joel was gay or not. I also think it was very interesting that Joel's sisters, when searching for comfort after his death both find themselves in situations that surround them with gay culture - without either ever making any conscious acknowledgement of Joel's sexuality.

The other big unresolved question is whether or Joel killed himself, a prospect that becomes more probable when considering his insular community, its stance surrounding his sexuality (if the reader decides he's gay) and events revealed in the final section. I don't want to stray too far into the realm of conjecture, but I'm curious as to how much a product of his environment Joel may have been, and basically, why you chose to deal with homosexuality in this fashion.

Speaking of big, unresolved questions--you’ve done an excellent job with this one here, Jackie! (Jac sez: She only says this because she saw my tweet about how I was struggling with making this a fair, um, unbiased question. Darn you internets!) This is a pretty broad question which I could discuss at length, but I’ll try to be as concise as possible.

Two things jumped out at me as the idea for THE WAY HE LIVED percolated in my brain. One was the idea of how the boy in my community had died—by giving up his water on a hiking trip. At face value, that is the ultimate in unselfish acts, and from what I know about this real-life boy, I fully believe that this caused his death. But I also couldn’t help thinking that there was no way I’d do the same thing in that situation. I mean, I like to think I’m pretty unselfish. But I’m also practical. Lots of people on a hiking trip + all of them requiring water to stay alive – enough water for everyone = someone isn’t going to make it. What if you did the math and decided the person who wasn’t going to make it would be you?

The other thing that jumped out at me was the last line of the nursery rhyme that connects these stories: “The child born on the Sabbath day is fair and wise and good and gay.” These days, you can’t use a line like that without considering the double-meaning of the word “gay.” That’s when the story took off.

I wanted to address the subject of Joel’s sexuality the exact same way it would be addressed in his community: “He’s a member of the [LDS] Church, and therefore isn’t gay.” LDS doctrine considers homosexuality a sin, and Church members, even those with same-gender attractions, cannot practice this lifestyle and remain in good standing with the Church. To me, it’s always been heartbreaking that some faithful Church members struggle with this “forbidden” attraction for years, without anyone acknowledging that it’s a struggle (for example, thinking it’s a choice to “become” gay and you can just as easily “choose” to be straight). What if you decided you couldn’t spend your whole life trying to be someone that you weren’t?

You mentioned the process of writing the Miles character. Were you particularly attached to one or another of the narrators (or characters, it doesn't have to be one of the six. The mysterious Adam perhaps?)

Not really, although I do hold a particular fondness for “the mysterious Adam.” While in the process of writing this book, I told my critique group, “Each one of these narrators is completely different, yet they each sound exactly like me. How is that possible?” I think the reason I’m not most attached to any certain character is because a part of me is in each one of them.

Oftentimes you read books that simply rotate narrators, interweaving the stories, rather than letting each narrator have their own section. THE WAY HE LIVED is very much short story-like because of its presentation - did you purposely fall into that format, was it automatic? Are you a fan of short stories (and if so can you share some of your favorites?)?

The first YA manuscript I wrote (unpublished, and likely to stay that way, at least for awhile) had dual narrators who alternated chapters. Since I had experience with “rotating” narrators, I already knew that wasn’t right for THE WAY HE LIVED. I think the short story format of novel writing is difficult—in my experience, more difficult than one with rotating narrators. Still, I felt the stories of the individual narrators would be too diluted if I separated their stories, and it just wouldn’t be right.

My main inspiration for using this style was M.E Kerr’s YA novel I Stay Near You: One Story in Three. The novel is written in three distinct sections. Part one is narrated first-person and revolves around a girl coming of age in the 1940s. Part two is the third-person account of the son of this same “girl” twenty years down the road. Part three is in the form of a letter sent in the 1980s. This book is amazing in the ways it ties a single story together through three generations of family, using a variety of narrative structures. I don’t mean to imply that my book is anywhere near as well-crafted as hers—but it did give me a starting point.

I have to be honest, I was a little afraid during Tabbatha's portion that the plot would turn toward watching her in beauty competitions. How did you know when you were done with each character? Many of them left me wanting (not needing, as they were all complete storylines) more.

Um, yeah. Having never competed in a pageant of any sort, and knowing nothing about that world in general, I knew Tabs would never enter that arena. Besides, I knew from the beginning that actually competing wasn’t part of her journey—it was realizing that she could have. But I digress…

Deciding where to end the stories was certainly a challenge. I wanted each portion to have a complete storyline, but sometimes that made me want to tack on endings to each of them. I’m not particularly skilled with writing endings anyway, so writing six of them was a dead-end. Now I feel like each of the stories, particularly those of Claire and Norah, end at a place that is really only a beginning. But it’s a beginning where I felt comfortable leaving them.

You use the Monday's Child nursery rhyme to connect the narrators, and each line directly relates to each character. Why that poem? When and how did it come into play?

The nursery rhyme came into play early in the writing process. I had all these voices, and as they came to me, I would write down snatches of what they said (interestingly, very few of these “snatches” remain in the book). I would draw lines from one voice to another as their connections became clearer to me. As I figured out more about each character’s role in Joel’s life, and his role in theirs, I would draw more lines. It was a crazy mess, but for some reason it reminded me of a nursery rhyme about the characteristics of children born on different days of the week. I had six characters, each exemplifying one of the traits mentioned in the rhyme. I re-read the nursery rhyme to remember the exact phrasing of the line for the child born on the Sabbath day, and everything clicked. In fact, the book’s original title was SUNDAY’S CHILD.

Can you tell us a little about what you are working on now, and how it is a different writing experience from THE WAY HE LIVED?

My wonderful agent, Michael Bourret, has just sold my second young adult novel, BACK WHEN YOU WERE EASIER TO LOVE, to the wonderful Julie Strauss-Gabel at Dutton. In some ways, I feel like this is my first book. THE WAY HE LIVED was told more or less through short stories, so it didn’t have the same beginning, middle, end trajectory that most novels require. It’s been quite a learning experience!

Ok, last question: You said in your interview with the 5 randoms that you prefer reading YA over other books (Yay! Me too!). Who/what are some of your favorite authors/books for teens?

I am extremely fortunate to live near some amazing YA authors like Sara Zarr, Ann Cannon, and Ann Dee Ellis. I also grew up reading and loving the work of veteran YA writer M.E Kerr. I think John Green is crazy-talented; ditto for author duo Laura and Tom McNeal.

Thank You EMILY for playing along with me - especially at such short notice!

The rest of today's WBBT schedule:
Mayra Lazara Dole at Chasing Ray
Francis O'Roark Dowell at Fuse #8
J. Patrick Lewis at Writing and Ruminating
Wendy Mass at HipWriterMama
Lisa Ann Sandell at Bildungsroman
Caroline Hickey and Sara Lewis Holmes at MotherReader
A.S. King at Bookshelves of Doom


Colleen said...

You know this is really interesting because I read the book a different way - thinking more and more about each character left behind then the one who was lost. (Although I did think that he killed himself or at least chose to let himself die.)

I was really torn up about the survivors though and the little ways in which this death and the questions left by it affected their survivability....which I guess is just to say that I thought less of Joel then I did of anyone else.

Now I need to go back and look over my review and see if I explained myself any better in that then I am right here. Ugh!

Loved the book though and I think Emily Wing Smith is really going to be writing some fabulous books.

tanita✿davis said...

Oh, wow.
I have heard some good things about this novel, but a.) hearing your Sara Zarr story is quite convincing a reason now to pick it up b.) hearing from the author is a doubly good reason to pick it up, c.) hearing that the author is LDS and went out on that limb to write about that community from this angle -- whoa, nellie.

Must. Read.

Little Willow said...

Good people promoting good books and good authors = good times. :) Glad that you read and enjoyed The Way He Lived. Kudos to Emily on her debut (great use of multiple narrators), and to Sara for recommending it so passionately.

Jackie Parker said...

Oh come ON Colleen, NOTHING on you being the evil twin? No reaction? Humor me, eh?

MotherReader said...

Okay, I read the introduction and stopped before I read the interview. Why? (you may ask) Because I have a copy of the book and I put it aside because I had too much going on and I stopped mid-post read to pull it off the shelf by the computer and put it front and center so that I will read it immediately.

So I'll back to your interview later, but I enjoyed your intro.

Colleen said...

Sweetie I always knew I was the evil twin, why fight it?

(Oddly enough I mentioned you in my interview today as well...are we on the absolute identical wavelength or what?)

Beth Kephart said...

I love generous authors, and I've always had a good feeling about Sara Zarr. That feeling has now been fully confirmed. Thank you for that. The book itself sounds wonderful, searching.

Vivian Mahoney said...

I'm catching up on reading these WBBT interviews, and with an intro like this, I have to get this book! Thanks for a great interview.

ann cannon said...

Fantastic interview. Thanks!

Rowena said...

Oh wow, this is my first time being on your blog but I read this entire interview (which almost NEVER happens to me) and I thought this interview was fantastic and I'm going to buy this book on Amazon right now.

Thanks for the heads up on this, what a great find!