Carrie spoke with me at length about epilepsy, singing, her book, and other books. Here's what she and I had to say.
TIPS ON HAVING A GAY (EX) BOYFRIEND is a title that will certainly turn heads, and the story itself will have readers turning pages.
You are making me blush. It's my worst fear that someone gets to page four and says, "Ack! Enough with this crud, already!" Then, of course, not only do they stop reading, they'll then throw the book in the toilet and try to flush it down, and then, of course, the toilet blocks up the plumbing system for their entire apartment building and I get sued for a lot of money I do not have.
Who came up with the title?
Andrew Karre, the editor at Flux, gets the credit for the title. I'd named it something horribly shocking. Flux was having a meeting about the title and cover art, and all these important publishing people were flipping through the book, searching for something to call it and then Andrew saw that one of the lists in the book is called, TIPS ON HAVING A GAY (EX) BOYFRIEND. Voila! A title was born.
You have a few things in common with Belle. Tell readers what inspired you to write this story, and what made you want to tell it through Belle's eyes.
I was the community representative for a local middle school civil rights team and I'd heard about this high school girl who was hate crimed (no, that's not a verb, but it should be) because her boyfriend came out. That's right. People were mean to her because of her ex-boyfriend's sexuality. How wrong is that? Oh, it's so ridiculously wrong that even now I seethe.
So, having had about 80 gay ex-boyfriends in my own past, I started trying to write Belle's story. There were a few stories with gay protagonists out there now, finally, but I wanted to see the situation from the dumped straight exes' point of view. That was Belle.
I also gave Belle seizures for a deliberate reason. I'd done my critical thesis at Vermont College's MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults program. The thesis focused on the use of epilepsy stereotypes in children's fiction. It was pretty depressing.
Hurrah for breaking the stereotype! Please tell us more about the disease, for those who are unfamiliar with epilepsy.
Epilepsy is the most common childhood neurological disease. It is the third most common neurological disorder amongst adults and affects over 2.5 million people in our country alone. Of those people, 30 percent are under 18 years old. Despite the fact that epilepsy is commonplace in our society, there is still a feeling of secrecy and shame associated with it. There are still negative stererotypes that exist. Those stereotypes are perpetuated in children's literature. In fact, most children's authors have the development of their epileptic characters stem from those characters breaking away from a negative stereotype about epilepsy.
I wanted to write a book where the main character had epilepsy but her story did not revolve around the epilepsy, just like how some people can have epilepsy but their lives don't revolve around that diagnosis. I wanted to write a book that steered clear of those stereotypes.
Do you share Belle's musical abilities and ambitions?
Well, I'd love to be a folk singer/songwriter, or someone exceptionally cool like Dar Williams or Lucy Kaplansky or Mark Erelli. However, I stink at guitar. I can play a couple chords. That's it.
I play piano pretty well, but not never in public. I swear. No amount of money, coercing, anything will make me play piano in front of people. It's very intimate for me somehow; playing piano in public would be like sharing my soul. I just can't do it.
Do you sing?
I sing, and I used to actually get paid to sing, which is insane. While in junior high school I started being in this song and dance company (really, I swear) with Sarah Silverman (of the Sarah Silverman Show) and Bridget Walsh, who was one of the first touring Annie's. Sarah's mom and my mom used to worry about us hanging out with the older high school people and getting corrupted, which is really funny if you know anything about Sarah's humor.
We sang songs from Fame! How horrifying is that?
It's not! I sang songs from Fame! Is anyone else in your family musically-inclined?
I come from a musical family. My aunt danced and taught dance for sixty years. Two of her kids are tremendous dancers. My grandfather was a jazz drummer for a living. He played with big bands and toured all around the country. His wife was a concert pianist. I have some cousins who are just astonishingly gifted. The genius musician gene passed me over, however. I just dabble.
Though the story is told in first person from Belle's perspective, there are many supporting characters in the story. Which of them was the easiest to write? The hardest?
Emily is the easiest to write because:
1. Em is a lot like me, and my friends.
2. Um, well, sometimes it is hard being brave enough to buy tampons. It's easy to relate to that.
3. Emily is goofy.
4. Emily says things like, "Oh, who's the pretty kitty? You are... Yes, you are the pretty kitty."
5. Emily also says things like, "Will you just shut up?
Belle's mom is the hardest to write because:
1. It's hard to write a mom from a daughter's point-of-view and not make her totally stupid.
2. Or totally evil.
3. Or totally goody-goody.
4. She screws up song lyrics. I never screw up song lyrics.
5. She's a mom.
What would you like readers to take away from this book?
A story. Really, that's the main thing. As writers, I think we have a responsibility to give readers something to hold on to, something to think about, something to have fun with. I'm not trying to be all self-important or anything, but there is this essential contract that we're entering into with the reader. We're promising them a story. We're hoping that it's a good one. Or at least that it's not throw-it-in-the-toilet quality.
Stop with the toilet thing! TIPS is layered and will reach a lot of different people.
This book is about a lot of things. It's about finding your own identity instead of being your boyfriend's identity. It's about discrimination. It's about people not being stereotypes. It's about politics, too. All that sounds really didactic in a negative interpretation of the word didactic. It's really the story of a girl trying to figure stuff out and falling in love, or at least havy-duty like.
Belle's story continues in LOVE (AND OTHER USES FOR DUCT TAPE). This book was formerly titled Preggers. I prefer the new title. What was it like writing a sequel?
Writing a sequel, especially a stand-alone sequel, is hard, hard, hard. This story is not so much Belle's story, either, although it's told from Belle's point-of-view. In both these books Belle deals with events that are not within her total control. In TIPS it's that her boyfriend is gay. In this one it's a couple other things.
Which are . . . ?
This inability to control everything is life. I mean, how many times do we have to deal with the fact that our best friend is dating a total punk, or that someone's just crashed into our mother's car? There are so many things in life that are just beyond our control, and that includes sometimes how others perceive us.
That inability to control everything is also sometimes really cool, I think. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, "Life is a series of surprises, and would not be worth taking or keeping if it were not."
That's what this second book is about.
It's also about love, duct tape, sex, identity, and guitar solos.
Did you intend to write a sequel?
Not when I wrote the first book, but I am so in love with Belle, and Em, and Tom that I couldn't stop it. I kept saying, "It's okay. I'm just writing it for me. It's okay if nobody wants a sequel. It's okay if nobody sees this, or buys it."
Now, some of the cool women at Flux are asking, "Is there going to be a third?"
Have I said how much I love the cool women of Flux?
What other works are on the horizon?
The next book that's getting published is the John Wayne Letters, which is also sometimes called TRUE GRIT and has not been through the title process at Flux.
TRUE GRIT is about this girl who writes letters to John Wayne, who is, of course, a dead movie star from decades ago. It's about a girl whose had tons of cruddy stuff happen to her, but still makes herself into a hero instead of a victim. She's not like this bang-em-up John Wayne superstar, superhuman hero, kicking vampire butt hero, or crushing slimy guys with her bare hands and Skinny Cow Fudge Bars hero. She becomes more of a mellow hero, a hero to herself and her family. She's a girl who stops being a victim.
Her mom's got this horrible alcoholic boyfriend. Her sister is being occasionally hit by her husband, and her dad is slowly coming out, while simultaneously becoming a cross-dresser. Plus, there's this boy she likes...
But wait! There's more! Right?
I've also had an offer for a nonfiction picture book, but that's all hush hush right now.
There are a few more things in the works, sitting on my sweet agent guy's desk, ready to venture out.
How did you come to be involved with Flux?
Oh. It was crazy and random and good. About a year ago, I read somewhere, maybe on Children's Bookshelf, that there was a new YA imprint at Llewellyn. I just wrote a YA novel. Sure, I'd barely revised it. Sure, nobody else had seen it. But I did the stupidest thing ever. I sent it in.
Andrew Karre, the editor at Flux, did the craziest thing ever. He took it. He took it even though I spelled my own last name wrong in the query letter. (I spelled Jones, Jonese. Ack!) He took it even though I had a stupid, stupid, stupid title. He took it even though I babbled on the phone with him, apologizing forever for my inability to spell my own last name.
Andrew is a fantastic and brave (!) editor. The people at Flux and at Llewellyn have been amazing to work with. They are so kind and quick and generous with their input. I have been terribly spoiled.
Read the whole sordid debacle of my query/acceptance here. I warn you, it's humiliating.
What makes Skinny Cow fudgsicles the best treats ever?
Can you say, "Yummy goodness?"
Can you say, "Zero Trans fats?"
Plus, there's no aspartame, and hardly any caffeine. Oh, the joy of Skinny Cow fudge bars.
What are your ten favorite books of all time?
Ack! Can you see me cringing? Can you see me throwing holy water at you? This is such a hard question. It's always changing.
Okay, then, what did you read as a kid?
When I was a kid I adored A Wrinkle in Time, mostly because I was mousy and had glasses like Meg. I adored Richard Bach's Illusions, mostly because I wanted to be a reluctant messiah. I was really, really into Interviews with a Vampire by Anne Rice. Is that the title? Oh, you'd think I'd remember the title.
I've adored anything and everything by Sherman Alexie, all poems by Phillip Booth. I was really into A History of Love for awhile. I went through big stages of loving Audre Lorde and Jimmy Santiago Baca. I was really into Rick Bass for awhile. I think if I had to pick ten favorite books of all time, they'd have to be poetry books, though.
(Carrie was then able to make this list.)
Sherman Alexie: One Stick Song
Sherman Alexie: First Indian on the Moon
Rick Bragg: Somebody Told Me
Rick Bass: The Lost Grizzlies
Charles Bukowski: Open All Night
Lucille Clifton: The Terrible Stories
Audre Lorde: Sister Outsider
George Orwell: Animal Farm
Anne Sexton: Mercy Street
Richard Smith: Animal Tracks and Signs of North America
Alice Walker: The Color Purple
Visit Carrie's official website, LiveJournal, and MySpace.
Read my reviews of Tips on Having a Gay (Ex) Boyfriend and Love (and Other Uses for Duct Tape).
Read my review of Girl, Hero.