Interview: Crissa-Jean Chappell
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In Crissa-Jean Chappell's debut young adult novel, Total Constant Order, a high school girl named Fin quietly attempts to deal with her growing need for rituals after her parents split up. Not only is she an only child, but Fin is also fairly friendless - that is, until an older boy named Thayer strikes up a conversation with her. Fin's story continues as she is diagnosed Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), takes (and then stops taking) medication that makes her feel out-of-sorts, and uses art as a means to express the things she can't bring herself to say. (Read the full-length review.)
Crissa spoke to me at length regarding the world of her book, the world of OCD, the world of manatees, and the world of writing.
What prompted you to write the book?
I had written a collection of interconnected short stories in college. After hearing a lot of "thanks but no thanks," I came to realize it was time to tackle a novel. I knew that I wasn't about to write domestic dramas about husbands, wives, and lovers. That world never interested me. When I stumbled across the YA genre, I had an "A-ha!" moment. This is exactly where I fit in. I am forever teen.
I wrote the manuscript in nine months (like a baby!) But I searched for an agent throughout the entire year of 2004. At one point, I felt that I was close to landing a literary agent and many months later, they turned me down. I grew tired of the game: mailing query letters, holding my breath, waiting for a response, only to receive rejections. So I started firing e-queries over the internet and the day before my birthday that December, I got "the call" from my agent, Kate Lee, at ICM. I'm so thankful that we've met. Kate really "gets" me. Unlike the other agents who told me to trim down my descriptions of suburban Miami, Kate encouraged me to show the true personality of the city. We polished it together and by spring, she had sold it at auction to HarperCollins.
How did TOTAL CONSTANT ORDER get its name?
One of my students, a tattoo artist who suffers from seizures, came up with the words. He described his need for "total constant order" and I asked him if I could snag the phrase for my title.
Did you feel it necessary to do additional research about obsessive-compulsive disorder or Paxil while writing the book? How much experience do you have with either?
Many of Fin's observations are based on my diaries. Like Fin, I've always had a thing for lucky numbers. Writing about her struggles with OCD was difficult because it made me hyperaware of my own rituals and obsessions. Now that I'm a college professor, I've learned that my experiences are not uncommon.
The locations, such as the power plant near the canal and the abandoned house, are real places in my neighborhood.
A psychiatrist suggested that I try Paxil. But when she said that I might need to stay on antidepressants forever, I quit. Who was she to make that judgment for me?
I wrote this book for my students. I was also fortunate to enlist the aid of a child psychologist, Dr. Aaron Gleason, a friend from high school. I remember him as the boy who always listened to everybody's problems.
Your main characters, Fin and Thayer, deal with their frustrations in different ways. What forms of artistic release help you relieve stress?
In 8th grade, I received my one and only lunch detention (otherwise known as an L.D.) for doodling on my desk during history class. I tried to tell the teacher that I "listen better" when I draw, but she didn't buy it. I still love to sketch and I'm always drawing on napkins or scraps of paper. I think writing is like "sketching with words."
Manatees are to Crissa as sea otters are to Little Willow. What about manatees fascinates you? About Miami?
Showing the "real Miami" (the manatees and mangroves, Kendall's suburban sprawl, and the industrial bleakness of downtown) was very important to me. Too often, the city is misrepresented in movies and television shows . . . many of which aren't even shot on location.
What are your ten favorite books of all time?
As a kid, I loved the Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis, along with epic adventures like Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. I read the Prydain Chronicles by Lloyd Alexander, Howl's Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones, the Green Sky Trilogy by Zilpha Keatley Snyder, and the Earthsea Cycle by Ursula K. Le Guin. I also worshiped the graphic novels of Wendy and Richard Pini. (I'm surprised that I didn't grow up to be a genre writer, not counting the two quasi-fantasy novels that I typed in high-school . . . which shall remain in a drawer.)
In college, I fell in love with the dripping prose of Gothic novels: Jane Eyre, Dracula, the Fall of the House of Usher. In my film classes, we made connections between Joseph Campbell's Hero With A Thousand Faces and the modern mythology of the Matrix and Star Wars. I realized that every story is essentially the same. The books that I had loved as a child (which I was often encouraged to put away in favor of more "serious" reading) were just as important. Maybe more important. I still feel the same.
Total Constant Order by Crissa-Jean Chappell comes out in late October.