Interview: Debbie Reed Fischer
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As an educator (named Teacher of the Year her first year!), a modeling agent, a writer, and a mother, it's safe to say that Debbie Reed Fischer has had a direct effect on others. Her debut novel for teens, Braless in Wonderland, followed a young woman into the topsy-turvy world of modeling. Her second YA novel, Swimming with the Sharks (due out in September), considers the reasons why teen girls might become emotional bullies - and why students aware of the taunting might opt to fit in than speak up. I spoke to Debbie at length about the pursuit of fame, the pursuit of popularity, and the pursuit of publishing.
Allee and I share a love of Alice in Wonderland. Which came first, your character's personality or her name?
First, let me say hi and thanks for having me. It’s an honor to be here.
My books are character-driven, so her personality definitely came first. Her name is a shout-out to both Lewis Carroll’s Alice as well as my close friend Allee, who is a booker at a modeling agency in Miami.
Allee is a self-declared feminist who pursues modeling to earn money for her future, for college, with little to no interest in fame and flashy objects. It's known from the start of the book that she makes a name for herself, but without giving away the ending of the book, do you feel that future success would spoil her? What might she do for a living ten years from now?
I think Allee is by nature a sensible, disciplined and cautious person (nothing like me - eek), so I really don’t think making a name for herself in the modeling industry, or any industry for that matter, would spoil her. Plus, since she’s been accepted into an excellent college, the road to achieving her long-term goals will always be open. The question is, should every young adult with a great educational opportunity race down the academic road right away . . . or take some time for personal growth and new experiences beforehand?
As far as where she’ll be in ten years, who knows where any of us will be in ten years? Quick story: I took a year off before college and went to Israel to travel and work on a kibbutz (a cooperative farm). There were a few university courses I took as well, but really, it was about adventure and figuring out who I was. There was another teen there, picking melons with me on the kibbutz, and years later, he became CNN’s top white house correspondent, David Shuster. I would never have guessed where he would end up when he was picking melons with me and a bunch of other college-bound kids taking a year off (by the way, David was extremely quiet back then, almost mute, and now he’s an Emmy-award-winning broadcaster; it is beyond ironic).The point is, new experiences don’t present limitations; they present opportunities. Allee comes to see modeling as a way to explore a new side of herself, rather than just a means to make money for Yale.
The story shows both the positive and negative sides of the modeling industry and was inspired by your time as a model booker. What drew you to that profession? Would you recommend it to others?
I wasn’t drawn to that profession at all. I fell into it, really. In college, I majored in screenwriting, so I always thought I’d write for film and TV. Instead, I wound up on the business end of the film industry as an agent, booking actors and models in everything from major motion pictures to German clothing catalogues. I guess I’d recommend it if you like a high-stress, creative environment with little time for a personal life. It’s great when you’re in your twenties. Very exciting, full of drama. I burnt out by the time I was thirty, though. By that point, I really wanted to write about the modeling world rather than be a part of it.
Though your book is fictional, are any of Allee's experiences adaptations of real-life occurrences?
I know it’s hard to believe when you hear these stories about small-town girls who have no idea that they’re beautiful, then suddenly get discovered and voila, they become stunning divas in front of the camera, but it happens all the time. I witnessed many young women walk into the agency lacking confidence, slouching their shoulders and speaking in these barely audible voices. Then, over the course of weeks or a few months, this transformation would happen. It always intrigued me and I knew I wanted to write about it some day. Some of my personal experiences inspired BRALESS as well. Once, when I was still interning and not a full-fledged booker yet, the agency sent me out on a casting for a drink commercial. To my surprise, I booked the job. What I didn’t know was that I would have to dance the Lambada. (Some of you reading this may not remember the Lambada, but it was THE dance at the time and was considered so racy, it was known as The Forbidden Dance. By today’s standards, it’s about as racy as the Hokey Pokey.) After exactly thirty seconds of seeing me “dance” (or what I thought was dancing), the director managed to stop laughing long enough to hire an extra as my replacement. In the end, they only used my hands in the commercial. I’m probably the reason The Lambada was forbidden. Anyway, that incident inspired a scene in the book.
By the way, thank you for allowing Allee to be healthy and having her lead a fairly clean lifestyle. It was nice to see.
It’s funny, that wasn’t a conscious choice. In both of my books so far, my characters are the straight-and-narrow type, but have friends or acquaintances that aren’t. I think it’s realistic to have a character who doesn’t drink, have sex or do big-time drugs, but is surrounded by people who do. That was the truth for me in high school.
Have you seen the Vogue Alice fashion shoot? If so, did it inspire the similar shoot in your book?
I knew all about it before it came out, but forced myself not to look at it until I’d already written that scene. I wanted my imagination to guide me rather than have the scene influenced by imagery I’d seen. Actually, AIW has inspired several fashion shoots, and there was one years ago in South Florida with one of our models. When I was finished with BRALESS I looked up the Annie Leibowitz Vogue shoot and I was floored. I love her work. And I CAN’T WAIT for Tim Burton’s film adaptation of AIW coming out next year.
Please let it be a good film! Please let it be faithful to the book!
Who are your favorite characters from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland? Any favorite scenes?
Oh, man, too many to count. I love the lines more than anything. “We’re all mad here.” “Alice, say what you mean and mean what you say.” Brilliant! I think the baby-pig-throwing scene is so disturbing, yet it’s my favorite. The Cheshire Cat is my favorite character. I love the charming rogue aspect. If he wasn’t a cat he’d be a snake. The caterpillar cracks me up too.
Your second novel, Swimming with the Sharks, deals with bullying. Why did you chose to tell the story from the POV of Peyton, one of the girls who goes along with the hazing, rather than the ringleader or the victim?
Mob behavior has always fascinated me. People do things when they’re part of a group that they would never think of doing as an individual. In 2003 there was a news story about this powder puff football incident in a wealthy suburb of Chicago, where privileged girls ganged up on each other and physically assaulted each other while 200 high school spectators watched. Five girls wound up in the hospital. One was strangled with a pig’s intestine, among other atrocities. I thought to myself, ‘Why are these young women so angry? They are privileged, educated, have everything.” Watching the videos, I thought, “Which one is the ring leader? But more importantly, why did the others go along with it? Their anger must be coming from somewhere.” (My inspiration for stories always comes from a question to which I don’t know the answer. For BRALESS, the question was whether a feminist could embrace being a model or was it, by definition, too exploitative)
So I told the story from the point of view of one of the hazers, but not the ringleader or victim, because I think Peyton’s position is more common and relatable to teens than that of the victim or ringleader. I wanted to show how difficult it is to stand up to a Queen Bee. It’s easy to have an anti-bullying program where there’s a slogan like “Just Say No to Bullies” or whatever, but kids follow a popular leader out of survival. To stand up to them often means to put yourself in danger. But it can still be done, even by someone full of insecurities, without the backing of the popular crowd, like Peyton. It takes courage, though, and there can be dangerous consequences.
What is the draw of cliques? The drawbacks?
I think in some cases, cliques can provide comfort and safety where family doesn’t. In a lot of schools, it’s about survival, protection, the pecking order, etc. Clique that offer unconditional love and support can be great for forming close friendships, and they’re an obvious way to connect with people who share your hobbies and interests. But I do see a lot of drawbacks. They can become toxic. They can become and odd-girl/ odd-boy-out situation. People change within a group and then the clique doesn’t work anymore. It becomes more about belonging, rather than finding out who you are as an individual. I was never a clique person myself. Ever.
Allee and Peyton are very different girls. What advice do you think Allee would have for Peyton, and vice-versa?
I love this question!
Allee would tell Peyton to do the right thing and blow the whistle, rather than worrying so much about belonging to the ‘in’ crowd. She would also tell Peyton to take a good long look at herself. Then she’d help Peyton with her homework and clean up Peyton’s messy room.
Peyton would tell Allee to lighten up. She’d take Allee out dancing and teach her some moves. Then she’d lecture Allee on paying full price for some of those expensive designer clothes.
Name your top ten favorite books.
Only ten? I can’t do it. I have about a hundred favorite books and authors, and the list changes all the time. But OK, off the top of my head, today they are, in no particular order:
Alice in Wonderland
The Adrian Mole Diaries
Alive and Well in Prague, New York
Prom Kings and Drama Queens
The Temptress Four
Fancy White Trash
Uh-oh. That was more than ten. I told you I couldn’t do it. :)
Visit Debbie's website.
I reviewed Braless in Wonderland and Swimming with the Sharks for SparkLife, the SparkNotes book blog.
Check out my related booklist: But I Don't Want to Be Famous!
Also, someone remind me to make a cheerleading-themed booklist.