Amy Goldman Koss often writes about survival - not in the (wo)man-versus-nature sense, but more in the day-to-day: surviving a medical ordeal (Side Effects), surviving a school-related scandal (The Cheat, Poison Ivy), surviving the dissolution of friendships (The Girls). For years now, whenever middle school students or their parents ask me for a book about a clique, I immediately tell them about The Girls. Amy recently got in touch with me, and we talked about determination, dedication, and do-gooders.
Growing up, were you ever part of a clique?
I think we careen in and out of countless cliques between the cradle to grave, and the stings and squirms that go with social life and relationships are a life long phenomenon. Grown women can feel just as snubbed by other PTA moms as their daughters can by snotty classmates. Equally, adults look for ways around inviting dull neighbors or creepy co-workers to join them for drinks after work. No? Someone recently told me that their 88-year-old aunt approached a table of ladies in her new rest home and was told that all the seats at that table were taken. We adults pretend that all that stuff is behind us, but there you go -- we're never too old to pretend!
A sweet kid I knew (see dedication to Lena V) was suddenly heaved out of her circle of friends with out warning. I was so [mad] on her behalf that I was driven to type furiously away at what quickly became THE GIRLS. As I was writing, I remember thinking any girl in the world could write this book. The details would change, the setting, maybe the language, but we all know the story. Everyone has been suddenly/inexplicably dumped, or has done a bit of dumping themselves, or stood ring side, watching the dump process. Most of us have dabbled a bit in all three, whether or not we admit it.
Actually, I was surprised that my editor at Dial wanted to publish The Girls. I was afraid she'd think it was too familiar a story to be interesting.
Several of your books employ multiple narrators. How do you juggle the various points of view?
The Girls wrote itself in multiple narrators because that was the simplest way to tell all the sides of the story.
Do you make outlines, then assign different parts of the story to different characters?
I don't outline or plan much. I usually start at the beginning and barrel toward the end -- getting to know my characters as I go. I'm not sure how I decide who will tell what. A lot of the writing process is a mystery, even as I'm up to my eyebrows in it. Maybe that's why writer's block is so devastating... because there are no breadcrumbs to follow back to the path.
In Side Effects, Izzy battles lymphoma. How much research did you do before or while writing this book?
Before writing Side Effects, I basically lived it. Someone close to me (who shall remain nameless because she's still a minor) went through that medical nightmare almost exactly. After she was in the clear, I wrote the novel, making up different people and situations but keeping the medical process intact. Mostly I was motivated by spite: I wanted to get back at all the people who said and did really stupid, insensitive things to her. Plus I wanted a survivor's story that other kids going through serious illnesses could relate to. Oh, and I also wanted to write a true life horror story -- one that didn't have to stray from real life to be terrifying. And I wanted it to be funny. Ha-ha, cancer.
How can (and should) readers get involved at their local hospital?
There were annoying do-gooder types knocking around Children's Hospital who wanted to gawk at the sick kids and feel really terrific and community-service-y about themselves.
But then there were people who brought board games around to play with kids who were alone. And others who took dogs from bed to bed for the children to pet and cuddle and get licked by. My favorite was one huge guy who perched on a tiny chair doing simple art projects in the waiting rooms where so many terrified children did soooooo much horrific waiting.
Working in hospitals isn't for everyone, but anyone can donate movies or books or toys.
Is any part of How I Saved Hanukkah autobiographical?
Yes. My daughter was the only Jew in her kindergarten class so the teacher gave her blue and white paper to make her Christmas tree ornament. That was trippy on so many levels and I was totally unsure how I felt about the whole thing. Did I like her being singled out as different? Was I glad they acknowledged her heritage or not? I carried my confusion to my trusty old computer and typed it out until I felt better. Viola, How I Saved Hanukkah.
You've written three books for American Girls/Pleasant Company: Kailey, Stolen Words and Smoke Screen. Kailey was written specifically for a modern doll. How much leeway did you have with the story and the character?
They told me that the Kailey doll would have a boogie board and be your typical nine-year-old marine biologist California surfer girl. They also said she couldn't be neurotic and that her parents had to be nice and supportive. It was a challenge for me to write nice people.
Were Stolen Words and Smoke Screen written for Pleasant Company, or had you shopped these manuscripts around?
Smoke Screen (my most autobiographical novel) and Stolen Words were written for American Girl during the era when they attempted to launch a line of stand-alone fiction unattached to dolls or merchandise. A noble but, alas, brief and ultimately unsuccessful undertaking.
What are your ten favorite books of all time?
All time is too hard -- I can only do now.
Children's: The Little Prince, Antoine De Saint-Exupery. Cowboy Dreams, Dayal Kaur Khalsa. The Carp in the Bathtub, Barbara Cohen - the first real live children's book author I ever met.
I'm skipping YA because I have too many pals who write that genre.
Graphic novels: Maus, Art Speigleman. Persepolis 1, Marjane Satrapi.
Cartoon collection: Any Calvin & Hobbes, Bill Watterson.
Short story collection: Runaway, Alice Monroe
Visit the author at http://www.AmyGoldmanKoss.net