Interview: Alison Cherry
Current Mood: curious
Current Song: Interesting by Maria Mena
What if you lived in a town where redheads reigned supreme? That's the premise of Alison Cherry's satirical new novel Red, set in the fictional town of Scarletville. Felicity St. John has hair to die for - rather to dye for. You see, her mom has been getting Felicity's strawberry blonde hair dyed since she was little, determined to make her daughter popular and powerful. Now Felicity's in high school, about to participate in the Miss Scarlet Pageant, much to her chagrin and her mother's delight. Then a series of anonymous notes appears in Felicity's locker: someone knows the truth about Felicity's hair and is threatening to reveal all unless she does what they say. How far will Felicity go to protect her roots? Will she do what her mother wants, or will she finally be able to just be herself?
Author Alison Cherry, a natural redhead, stopped by Bildungsroman today as part of her blog tour. Listen in as we discuss society, conformity, and individuality.
Hi Alison! Nice to meet you. Thank you for chatting with me today about all things red.
Hi! Thanks for having me! *distributes cupcakes*
What inspired RED? Did you set out to write a commentary on conformity and appearance, or did it have a simpler beginning?
I certainly wouldn’t call RED's beginnings inauspicious, but I would call them uninformed! I read an article (which turned out to be a hoax) about how redheads would probably be extinct a hundred years from now, and that sparked the idea for Scarletville, America's first National Redhead Sanctuary. From there, I blindly set out to write a funny story about gingers and blackmail and beauty pageants, and it didn't even occur to me that I was writing a satire or a social commentary until much later. It was all there right from the beginning, but I never thought to describe it that way until I heard my agent do it! This is why I think it’s so valuable to show other people your work - it's often impossible to see what you've actually done until someone else reflects it back at you.
You've worked as a photographer and a lighting designer for theatre - very visual media. What observations surprised you the most, about yourself or about others?
Photography, lighting design, and novel-writing seem like pretty disparate careers, but it's been surprising to me how similar they actually are. The technical skills involved are obviously pretty different - I've moved from mixing darkroom chemicals to making circuit charts to restructuring paragraphs - but essentially, all three jobs are about storytelling. When I take a photograph, I strive to capture that one moment that contains a whole world, that makes the viewer wonder what came before and what will happen next. When I light a show, I help my audience immerse themselves in a story by creating a series of atmospheres that guide their emotional arc. When I write a book, I’m just doing the same thing with words. It’s a storyteller's responsibility to show everyone else how she sees the world, so that's what I try to do, regardless of the medium.
What was the social structure like at your high school? Were you anything like your protagonist, Felicity St. John, at her age?
Unfortunately, redheads didn't have any power at my high school, so I didn't rise naturally to the top of the food chain the way Felicity did! But even if it meant gaining instant popularity, I would never have traded my high school experience for hers. My school in Evanston, Illinois was enormous and ridiculously diverse - there were about three thousand students, and only 45% of them were white. We had an openly gay, African-American Student Council president in 1998. This isn't to say that everyone got along, by any means - there were tons of cliques, and students self-segregated to a pretty disturbing degree. But there were so many different kinds of people that nearly everyone found somewhere to fit in. My quiet, studious friends and I were rarely teased or harassed, and we pretty much just did our own thing. I think Felicity would've thrived there, too! If she and I had been in the same class, we might've been friends - I was a dancer and a photographer at her age, too, so we would've had a lot to talk about.
What do you hope readers are thinking as they read the final pages of your book?
"Hey, I wonder if Alison Cherry’s next book is available for preorder?" (She smiles.) Seriously, though, I tried to leave my readers with a sense of hope. I want them to know that things can always get better, no matter how dire they seem.
What moved you to become a full-time writer?
Honestly, it was a matter of logistics. I had a full-time job at the Metropolitan Opera when I got my book deal, and when I got my first round of edits, I used up all my vacation days in one month in order to get them done. Since my deal was for two books, I also had another manuscript to write, and there just weren't enough hours in the day anymore. I loved the Met, but I do not miss getting up early and spending an hour in a packed subway car every morning.
Was RED your first completed manuscript, or have you others tucked away in a drawer?
Nope, RED is the second manuscript I finished. The first one will likely never see the light of day, though I do sometimes mine it for parts: two scenes ended up in my second contemporary YA, which comes out in the fall of 2014, and another small piece made it into a middle grade book that hasn’t sold yet.
What are you presently working on?
Right now I’m working on a new YA and a new MG, but I can’t really talk about either of them yet!
You are a natural redhead. Have you ever dyed your hair for any reason other than for fun, for a change?
I've actually never dyed my hair at all, even with the wash-out stuff. I really enjoy wearing wigs on Halloween, though... people I've known a long time sometimes stare straight into my face and don't recognize me when I hide my most distinguishing feature.
My favorite fictional redhead is Anne Shirley from Anne of Green Gables. Who is yours?
Anne is my favorite, too! She was my hero when I was a kid. I used to hide in my closet and read that book by flashlight so I wouldn’t be interrupted. I also have an enormous soft spot for Molly Weasley and for Eleanor Douglas from ELEANOR & PARK.
We conducted this interview in the summertime, and your book comes out in the fall. What's your favorite season?
I’m a fall girl through and through, and not just because of my pub date! Redheads have no tolerance for heat and humidity, so I love that moment when the air turns crisp and I have to start wearing sweaters again. Plus, I love scarves and boots and pumpkin-flavored things and watching the trees turn RED!
What are your ten favorite books of all time?
Oh god, I think my head exploded just reading that question. You’ll have to settle for ten OF my favorite books, because there’s no way I can narrow it down. Here goes, in no particular order:
- THE ARRIVAL, Shaun Tan
- THE ROBBER BRIDE, Margaret Atwood
- LOLITA, Vladimir Nabokov
- HARRY POTTER AND THE PRISONER OF AZKABAN, J. K. Rowling
- THE GIVER, Lois Lowry
- BEL CANTO, Ann Patchett
- FLOATING IN MY MOTHER’S PALM, Ursula Hegi
- GRACELING, Kristin Cashore
- FANGIRL, Rainbow Rowell
- WHEN YOU REACH ME, Rebecca Stead
Reader poll: What's your natural hair color? Leave a comment below with your response! Alison and I are dye-ing to know!
(Little Willow is a brunette.)