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Interview: Mary E. Pearson

February 23rd, 2008 (06:51 pm)
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Once upon a time, Mary E. Pearson was Red Riding Hood. Now, she's a full-time writer. I've enjoyed all of her YA novels to date, and her forthcoming novel, The Adoration of Jenna Fox, is brilliant. From butterflies to identity, it touches on a little bit of everything - so we had this interview do the same.

What were you like as a teenager?

I was quiet and introspective. I read and wrote poetry. I didn't really belong to any one specific group. I went to a large high school in the suburbs of Los Angeles. I had friends in all the various subcultures a high school has - the cheerleaders, the druggies, jocks, the lowriders, the surfers, the drama crowd. You name it. I did surf, and had boyfriends who were surfers so I probably hung out with that group more than the others, but I never felt like I had an "identity" with one group. I had a few close friends, but they were much like me, quiet and introspective and very comfortable with being alone. I spent a lot of time in my bedroom reading and listening to music. James Taylor, Three Dog Night, and Carol King were favorites.

With all of the medical and scientific elements in the story, did you feel the need to do research into anything before putting pen to paper?

Oh, yes! I did research for months before I ever wrote the first word. Research is fascinating and I had much I needed to do. In fact, research can be a never ending road you travel down because there is always one more interesting book or article to read, but you eventually have to stop and write. I read a lot about the various aspects of the brain–brain development, brain damage, language acquisition, and breakthroughs regarding brain research. And along the same lines, I did a lot of research on computer technology. I was amazed by all the developments on the horizon, computer chips that use chemical messengers to communicate in the same way human neurons do, neural prosthetics that replace parts of the brain, and microchips the size of dust particles. The thing that was so interesting for me is that as I wrote the book, new developments constantly popped up. Sometimes it felt like I would think it and the next thing I knew it was a reality. Prosthetic limbs for instance were making remarkable strides. During the time I was writing, new advancements were constantly making the news in this field, and the future I was writing about seemed to become the present. Technology is advancing as fast as our imaginations can conjure up new possibilities.

The book cover draws upon something integral to the book. Did you have any input in the cover art or the conception thereof?

I did. Early on, my editor and I began bouncing around ideas. We both wanted a human element on the cover that didn't give away too much. We threw out a lot of ideas but we kept coming back to hands because there are several scenes where Jenna's hands are pivotal to the story. I also think hands are one of the most fascinating parts of the human anatomy. Maybe that comes from my art background - they are the hardest part of the body to draw – but they can also be the most expressive. The butterfly overlay was a delightful surprise that the designer showed us. We loved it, and with a few tweaks we were completely wowed. I was so excited by the cover I didn't even notice that the wings were tattered. A writer friend, Laura Wiess, who maintains milkweed breeding grounds so that monarch butterflies can lay their eggs, is the one who told me that this was a monarch butterfly and the ones with the torn and tattered wings are survivors who have either journeyed a long way or had unfortunate encounters with predators or cars. She also informed me that this was a female monarch. I was amazed how all this information fit the story perfectly. I love it when serendipity steps in and makes all the pieces come together in surprising ways.

Jenna's name is important to her, as mine is to me. When creating your characters, which tends to come first, their likenesses or their names?

Every book is different. With A Room on Lorelei Street, the name came first, and as I got to know Zoe her likeness materialized. With The Adoration of Jenna Fox, it was the opposite. I had the image of a blond haired, blue eyed girl who was quite pretty in my mind but it took me a while to figure out her name. I tried several, but they just didn't seem right until I stumbled on Jenna. A friend pointed out that since this was a futuristic story, the common name of Jenna provided a good touchstone for the present. The other names in the book went through the same process. Until I know a character's name it is nearly impossible for me to write about them.

Your books bear your middle initial, E., helping to distinguish you from Mary Pearson the jazz singer. Do you have any hidden talents?

Ha! I wish. I certainly can't sing. Unfortunately, the other Mary Pearson got all those genes. Just ask my family. But I guess I do have a few other micro-mini talents: I'm a pretty good cook, a great listener, and I can roll my tongue. In sixth grade, I guessed how many jelly beans were in a jar, and that was the crowning achievement of my math skills.

Some would compare the feud in Scribbler of Dreams to that the Capulets and Monagues in Romeo and Juliet, but your story's tragedy is different from the start. I liken it to the Hatfield-McCoys feud instead.

Funny you should say that because I always likened it more to the Hatfield-McCoy feud too, but, right from the start, it was described as a modern day Romeo and Juliet. Of course, it was also called a romance, which surprised me. I never thought of it that way either. I think the author is sometimes the last to see the one-liners that describe their stories because they are so entrenched in every detail and nuance. Likewise, I was surprised the first time I heard The Adoration of Jenna Fox described as sci-fi. I guess because of the futuristic aspects it can be described that way, but as an author, I was concentrating on the human relationships and dilemmas.

I remember your reaction when I told you of my adoration for The Adoration and I used the word term "sci-fi." I kept it out of my review, though, to avoid spoiling anything!

Now for more adoration: I have recommended A Room on Lorelei Street a countless number of times, and the postergirlz recommended it in the January 2008 issue of readergirlz. What inspired that story?


It is hard to retrace the exact path of inspiration for a story because in the beginning everything is murky and you are trying to find your way, and then along that murky path, many mini inspirations jump on board - but with A Room on Lorelei Street, I do remember that initially I heard the first few lines of the story in my head. It was a girl speaking. At the same time, I had a visual flash through my mind of this very tired girl looking at a very tired house. The voice and image were strong and nagged at me, so I decided I would listen and find out what else she had to say. I made a conscious effort not to plan out this story. It was a new way for me to work. I simply wanted to listen and see where she took me.

As the story progressed, I loved exploring the strong family ties that complicated all of Zoe's decisions. Family relationships always fascinate me. No matter how bad or dysfunctional a relationship is, it is nearly impossible to completely sever yourself from family. That love hate relationship was the tightrope Zoe had to walk.

I cracked up when I read your Little Red Riding Hood story at your website. Would you like to tell it again here?

Sure! I loved story and character from the time I was quite small. My mother relayed to me that I could be the most exasperating little kid, waking up each day as a new character. Every morning she would have to ask me "who" I was for that day, because unless properly addressed I refused to answer anyone.

One day when I was about four years old, my parents were out shopping at Sears. They each thought the other had me by the hand when in fact I was exploring my own aisle (translation: I was lost!) Two salesladies found me and sat me on the counter, asking me my name so they could page my parents. I can still remember their consternation when I would only answer "Little Red Riding Hood." They couldn't shake my real name out of me no how, no way. I knew the value of persistence even then. My parents say they nearly fell over when, over the loud speaker, they heard, "Would the parents of Little Red Riding Hood please come claim their child?" They knew exactly who was lost.

These days I mostly wake up as myself and I keep the characters on the page.

What are your ten favorite books of all time?

This is such a hard question! I love and will always love The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck. I've reread this book many times and it still takes my breath away. Other favorites include, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith, The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton, Thursday's Child by Sonya Hartnett, Inexcusable by Chris Lynch, Repossessed by A.M. Jenkins, Saving Francesca by Melina Marchetta, When Jeff Comes Home by Catherine Atkins, Storky by D.L. Garfinkle, A Fast and Brutal Wing by Kathleen Jeffrie Johnson, Sammy and Juliana in Hollywood by Benjamin Saenz, Nothing to Lose by Alex Flinn.

Uh-oh. I've gone over ten and I'm still not finished. That's the problem. It's impossible for me to choose my favorites of all time. I love different books for different reasons. Sometimes it is a character that doesn't leave me, sometimes it's the way an author deliciously surprises me, sometimes it's the way a story made me laugh or cry or think in a way no other book has. Sometimes it's the simple beauty of the language that dazzles me. A small fresh phrase can nestle right into my heart and make me see my own world from a new perspective. It's a miracle, really, that books can do all these things.

Congratulations to everyone involved in the forthcoming movie adaptation of The Adoration of Jenna Fox, especially Mary!

Visit Mary E. Pearson's website and LiveJournal.

Check out my interview with Mary E. Pearson from 2011!

He Said, She Said: The Adoration of Jenna Fox and The Fox Inheritance by Mary E. Pearson