Interview: Susan Taylor Brown
Current Mood: okay
Current Song: Degrassi theme song
Susan Taylor Brown's brand-new novel, Hugging the Rock, is out now. I highly recommend it to middle school and high school students. It handles delicate subjects carefully. Brown tells a story which is realistic, dramatic and poetic.
On the first page of Hugging the Rock, Rachel's mom leaves home. Parental neglect is a heavy subject, to say the least. How mindful were you of what you wrote?
I knew before I ever put the words down on paper that the mom in this book was not going to be the most sympathetic of characters. I knew that some readers would have a tough time with that. But I also knew that in order to be true to the story I couldn't tell it any other way. The thing is, not everyone is cut out to be a parent. Some people think they are and find out later that maybe they shouldn't have had kids. Other people know from the start that parenthood is not something they want to be a part of, regardless of the situation. It isn't always pretty but then life isn't always pretty. We read a lot about dads leaving, leaving a mom and a kid (or kids) behind. And the dad is almost always the bad guy. But the truth is, sometimes moms leave. And other times moms wish they could leave. And those that are left behind have to figure out how to pick up the pieces and go on living.
So was I worried? Yes. Did it change what I wrote? No. What happened with this story is that I started off playing it safe. I wrote a lot in the beginning about Rachel and her dad and left the mom out on the edges. Each revision pulled the mom in a little closer and allowed me to peel the skin off the story even more. Down to the tough stuff. I couldn't dive right in to the harsh reality of a mom leaving her kid. In an early version of the book the first day when the mom left actually took about 50 pages because I just couldn't bring myself to let her get in the car and drive away. It took many revisions to feel brave enough and safe enough to write it as it is now.
There were a few editors who wondered at how a mom could do what Rachel's mom did but my editor, the one who "got" the story from the very start, urged me to go even deeper into the pain and let that pain seep out into the story.
It was the right thing to do. Pretending stuff doesn't happen doesn't make it go away.
What inspired Hugging the Rock?
Hugging the Rock is a novel about mothers who leave, about mental illness, and about the complex relationship between fathers and daughters, but more than that, it is about making peace with things you cannot change. I never knew my father but I have spent most of my life wondering about him, wondering what kind of person he was, and what kind of person I might have been had he stuck around. Even though you learn how to pick up and go on, when there is a hole like that in your life it colors everything you think and do for the rest of your life. You can't help it.
Throughout my own childhood I made up stories about the kind of father I wished I had had. When I watched TV shows with strong father figures I always rewrote the story in my head and made myself part of the family. When girlfriends were imagining themselves as married to the latest heartthrob, I was imagining myself in a family with a loving father that wanted to be with me. I knew I would write about that need for a positive father/daughter relationship at some time but I wasn't sure when. After I was divorced I watched what my children went through trying to figure out just what happened and I knew that would factor into the story too. But I couldn't write this story in the years immediately after my own divorce. The pain was too immense, the emotions too raw. Eventually my emotions came to the surface, at a time when I felt safe and loved in life, and I knew that it was time to write the story. In the process of the writing there were still some deep and painful moments but because I had waited, I was strong enough to go to the dark places and still come out alive. Enough time had passed that I could accept the blame for what was mine and let go of the blame for anything else. I could see the details through the tears.
Why did you chose to write it in verse?
I never set out to write a novel in verse. When I began the book there really weren't that many verse novels out there yet for children. But I was working on this book during a really hectic time in my life and I had to write whenever I could snag 10 or 15 minutes. When you are just starting a novel and are trying to find the characters and the voice, 15 minutes just isn't enough time. A friend heard how frustrated I was getting with not having the time to write and suggested I try to play with poems and see if it might help me unlock the characters or at least feel like I was making some kind of progress with the book. What began as a writing warm-up sort of exercise became the key that unlocked the character's voice for me. Once I wrote The Stranger, I knew the entire book would be in verse.
What age level do you think will best respond to this book?
That's an interesting question because while the book is written for middle graders, tweeners I suppose, and features an eleven year old girl, I am getting overwhelming positive responses from adults who read it as well. So I guess the correct answer is that the book can respond to people of all ages.
Your book cover was designed by Michael Morganstern, the same gentleman who designed the cover of Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson, among other things. Were you presented with multiple options for the cover? Did you have any final say in the design or was that strictly up to the publisher?
I was allowed input on the cover. My editor went searching for the perfect artist and she was pretty sold on Michael Morganstern from the start. She kept telling me she felt he was "the one" but I have to admit that when I first saw his online portfolio I was a little nervous. A lot of his stuff was very dark and edgy and while I LOVED the cover of SPEAK I was worried if he would be able to bring it down a notch for middle grade.
I didn't see any really early sketches but I saw the one before the final and was able to give my input then. It was very similar to the final cover but I felt the girl looked too old. Luckily I was not in the minority and the result (after some discussion of bangs or no bangs) is the stunning cover we have now. I couldn't be more pleased with the final art.
Did Not! Did So! and The Best Dog in the Whole World feature siblings Nathan and Nora. Did your kids know that they somewhat inspired these tales? Do they (or did they) like having the stories read to them?
Nathan and Nora were very much inspired by watching my children when they were young, especially Did Not! Did So! My grown daughter gets a kick out of reading those books now and remembering her childhood. She always likes when something she used to do ends up in one of my books or articles.
"The best thing to spend on your children is your time." So said Louise Hart -- and so say plenty of fridge magnets and bumper stickers! Your picture book Oliver's Must-Do List also drives this point home. How do you suggest parents and kids make time for the family?
I think one of the most important things for parents (or older siblings) to remember it that time is free. You don't need the latest toy craze or expensive video games to spend quality time with your family. The other thing is that while hours and hours of family time is nice, if you're out of the habit, don't wait until you have a large block of time. Small pockets of time spent together is just as valuable. Chores can also be made into a game, especially with younger children. And my favorite, reading together, is always a great way for family members to spend time together. For more tips, you can check out this article on my website.
Not only did you give Oliver your affection for peanut butter and sweet pickle sandwiches, but a blog as well - and the chance to travel around the world! How can readers get Oliver to visit their classroom or library?
Oliver LOVES to travel. All anyone has to do is drop me an email with where and when they would like to have Oliver come visit. He has his backpack of goodies all packed and can't wait to go off on his next adventure. Readers can go here for more information. He's a great motivator for writing workshops.
What other books do you have coming up?
I'm working on a couple of books right now. One is a young adult novel, part coming of age, part mystery, set in the world of aviation and stunt pilots. The other is another middle grade verse novel, Mad Tastes Like Broccoli, which is loosely based on some experiences I had teaching writing to a group of at-risk students.
What are your ten favorite books of all time?
Argh! This is one of the toughest questions you can ask any reader. Mine change. They can't help but change because the kind of reader I am changes over the years. At this point in time though, here are my top ten kid's books.
Because of Winn Dixie by Kate DiCamillo
Stop Pretending by Sonya Sonnes
Love That Dog by Sharon Creech
So B. It by Sarah Weeks
Wing Nut by MJ Auch
Whale Talk by Chris Crutcher
Each Little Bird That Sings by Deborah Wiles
Shiloh by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor
The Last Chance Texaco by Brent Hartinger
The Great Gilly Hopkins by Katherine Paterson
West Coast readers, mark your calendars!
Hugging the Rock book launch party
Wednesday, Sept 27th
301 Castro Street
Mountain View, CA