Interview: Alex Flinn
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Alex Flinn is known for her gritty teen novels which openly address topics such as domestic abuse and peer pressure. Her newest story is driven by a young man just as layered as her previous protagonists, but with a twist: he literally is a beast. Just what drew her to this fairy tale?
BEASTLY is set in modern day NYC. What inspired you to contemporarize Beauty and the Beast?
I have young kids, so Beauty and the Beast was pretty much a constant thing in my life, all the different versions. I always liked the story, but things about it started bothering me, such as: Where is the Beast's family? The fact that he was a prince, but not a ruling prince (as in a country like Monaco) implied that there was a king somewhere, his father. Had his parents abandoned him? Was it because he was a beast? It all seemed very poignant to my little bleeding heart. And what of Beauty? In just about every version of the tale, we hear that Beauty is her father's most beloved daughter. Yet, in most versions, Beauty's father is faced with the choice of being killed by the Beast or giving over his daughter, and he allows his daughter to go in his stead. This seems like, at least, extremely bad parenting. Yes, it is usually Beauty's choice, but what parent would even give his daughter the choice? So it seemed to me that Beauty and the Beast was the story of two kids with mean parents, who found each other. That was how I wanted to frame it. Once I'd made that decision, modernizing it was a non-issue. There are already several versions set in fairy tale times, which reach the type of reader who wants to read fairy tale historical fiction. I write contemporary fiction, and that is what my readers want to read. The main issue of the story -- vanity -- is more relevant in this day of Botox and Lindsay Lohan than it ever was.
He finds solace in a chat room with other recognizable characters and mythical beings. Would you ever (re)tell one of their stories?
I have no plans to, but I never say never. I said never about a sequel to Breathing Underwater.
Speaking of which, your novel DIVA puts the spotlight on Caitlin, who readers first met in BREATHING UNDERWATER. I am certain readers begged for a sequel, but when did you know it was the right time to write this book?
I got hundreds, maybe thousands of letters and e-mails about a sequel. I generally said no for a few reasons. First, many readers actually didn't want a whole sequel, but rather, a scene in the end where Nick and Caitlin reunited (which wasn't going to happen) and second, I felt that nothing interesting was going to happen to Nick.
A few people, not all girls, asked me to write a book about Caitlin. This seemed more possible, but I didn't want to write the same story from Caitlin's viewpoint. (For that, I recommend that kids read Dreamland by Sarah Dessen, which even has a main character was coincidentally named Caitlin.) I considered doing a book about Caitlin going to performing arts school after they broke up, but I didn't know what it would be about, really.
Then, one day, I was doing a school visit at a school where several girls [told me they] had broken up with their boyfriends after reading Breathing Underwater -- a common phenomenon, and one I very much enjoy. Over lunch, I asked why they thought dating violence was so common at their school. One girl said, "This is a small school, and if you broke up with your boyfriend, there'd be no one else to date." That did strike me, the idea that it is better to have a man who beats you than no man, and I decided I wanted to write about that idea, how some women feel they need a man, no matter what. So that's what Diva is largely about -- Caitlin finding something else to replace a boyfriend in her life, for now, and also about her relationship with her mother and her mother's relationships with men.
In DIVA, Caitlin attends a performing arts high school in hopes of being a professional opera singer. Do you have any hidden talents?
Yes, I used to sing in high school and college, like Caitlin. I was an opera singer, a coloratura. Pretty much everything about her singing is based upon my own experiences. I hope maybe some girls who read Diva might decide to give opera a chance, if they get the opportunity to attend one. I think opera gets a bum rap with kids. It's really very exciting and not unlike Manga or Desperate Housewives -- by which I mean that there is lots of fighting and cheating on people's spouses.
How long were you a lawyer, and how did that inspire your writing?
I was a lawyer for about ten years. The law teaches one to see things from all different angles. Since I've written many of my books from a less-than-sympathetic viewpoint, I think that being able to see things from all sides is a useful talent. Also, writing for judges is a lot like writing for teenagers: Judges have a limited time to read pleadings, so it's important to be concise and put one's best points up front. Judges are often forced to read, so a writer wins points by being entertaining. I never took any writing classes before I became a writer, but I learned to write in law school.
Which of your books took the longest amount of time to write?
Each of my books took roughly one and a half years to write. Some may have taken a shorter time to write the draft and a longer time to revise, while others were the opposite. Breathing Underwater may have taken a bit longer because I was trying to figure out how to write a book, but once I got it together (and decided on my viewpoint character), it took about the same eighteen months.
I've thought a lot about why it is that some writers can seem to write several books per year, while others take 3 or 4 years between books. Most authors I know who take several years to write a book have day jobs, so that explains that. I have to assume that the ones who can write a book in a few months are just harder working than I am.
What do you like most about doing booktalks at schools? At conferences?
I enjoy meeting kids and the opportunity to say something they might remember. I like having the opportunity to complete the connection which hopefully began with my book, or to inspire them to read a book, if they haven't. Sometimes, as with Diva, they give me ideas too.
I also enjoy meeting adults who have an impact on kids. There are a lot of kids out there who simply don't read, and I think it is very important to try and find books that will reach those kids and make them want to read. I see conferences, particularly of school librarians and teachers, as an opportunity to talk to educators who might never have considered the idea of kids reading anything but the classics. I really love the classics myself, and I think there are some books to which college-bound kids should be exposed. But there are some kids who are not going to read the classics and thus, are going to get the impression that reading is not for them. Personally, I started out reading Mary Higgins Clark, Agatha Christie and -- yes -- Danielle Steele, and graduated to the classics later. For a lot of kids, it is not a choice between reading the classics or reading contemporary books, but a choice between reading contemporary books and not reading at all.
I get lots of mail from kids who have never finished a book before their teacher assigned mine. I'm sure other young adult authors do too. So I see conferences as an opportunity for educators to hear about my books and those of my peers and maybe find something that these kids will read, to start reading.
Do you still do volunteer work for battered women?
No. I don't have time now that my kids are in school (I do a lot of volunteering there), so I think it's great that I can reach kids on the domestic violence subject through my books and school visits.
What are your ten most favorite books?
The Accidental Tourist by Anne Tyler
The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier
The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo*
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
The Lords of Discipline by Pat Conroy
The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
Rats Saw God by Rob Thomas Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson
Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes by Chris Crutcher
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackery
Beastly will hit shelves in August. Diva will be available in paperback come October.