Today, I’m fortunate to have an interview with Laura Ruby, author of Lily’s Ghosts, The Wall and the Wing, and The Chaos King for middle grade readers, Good Girls for young adults, and I’m Not Julia Roberts for the grown-up market. In addition to writing books, Laura keeps an occasional blog at her website, and has written additional short fiction for adults, published in various literary periodicals. Laura has a terrific bio on her website as well, which is as good a place as any to get to know a bit about her.
My interview focused on Laura’s middle grade fiction, with a slight detour into the world of book challenges in the case of her first book, Lily’s Ghosts.
1. Your first children's book, LILY'S GHOSTS, is set in an old house in Cape May, New Jersey. It begins with Lily and her mother moving to Cape May (the most recent of a number of moves), and with a twinge of a possible love interest, and then moves into a ghost story as we meet various ghosts in the house, and then it becomes quite a mystery -- with a rather serious, potentially fatal, twist at the end.
Was the book always intended to have the overarching real-life mystery involving Lily's Uncle Wes and the quest for treasure?
I knew it would have a mystery at its heart, and I knew that Lily's antagonists would include humans as well as well as ghosts, but I had no idea when I began that treasure might be involved, the kind of treasure involved, or what role Uncle Wes would have. I had to write numerous versions and many, many, many outlines before I had the whole story.
In a really weird turn of events, Lily's Ghosts was challenged in some parts of Florida, apparently for being a ghost story. My understanding is also that some folks were particularly concerned because one of the ghosts was a suicide. In an interview with Cynthia Leitich-Smith, you indicated that you had sent correspondence and copies of The Wall and the Wing to the concerned school districts. Did you get any response? Would you care to comment here on the entire challenge issue?
The story: Lily's Ghosts appeared on the 2006-2007 Sunshine State Award Lists -- one for elementary school and one for middle school. These lists are book recommendations chosen by Florida librarians and used in schools throughout the state. One day, I was contacted by a friend who'd heard some rumblings about challenges to my book. This totally floored me, as it had been out for more than three years with no such issues whatsoever. After that, supportive parents got in touch to tell me that, apparently, school officials in a few counties decided my book and two others weren't "appropriate" for the elementary school kids after receiving some complaints.
For a while, there was much scrambling: the Sunshine State List was removed from certain websites, alternate books were offered in place of mine and the others, etc. I was worried that Lily would be removed from school libraries or taken off the Sunshine State List. (It wasn't). But here's the thing: I still have no idea why Lily's Ghosts was challenged in those counties, because the authorities involved refused to give any specific reasons. Even the official inter-school memo didn't specify a reason beyond the general "inappropriate for kids" thing, nor did it give a reason for the challenges to the two other books: Attack of the Mutant Underwear [by Tom Birdseye] and My Brother's Hero [by Adrian Fogelin]. They have issues with underwear? With heroes? I mean, who complained about these books exactly? What was the nature of their complaints? And how many complaints were there?
But the lack of specific information didn't stop a reporter at a Florida paper from furnishing his own guesses as to the reasons why our books were challenged. One of his theories about Lily's banning was this thing with suicide. When I read that, I was really annoyed. Firstly, because the official interviewed for the article wouldn't specify any passage or part of Lily that she considered questionable (uh, okay). Secondly, because my book has five major ghosts and a bunch of others parading through it, all them decades if not centuries dead from various causes. To my mind, Lily's Ghosts is no more a book about suicide than Harry Potter is a book about murder. Thirdly, because I didn't think reporters were supposed to invent things.
I conferred with other two authors and they were just as puzzled as I was over this whole situation. Lily's Ghosts was an Edgar Award nominee, a Parent's Choice Silver Honor Award winner, one of the Chicago Public Library's Best of the Best, etc. and now it's "inappropriate for kids"? I was angry until I realized I was in excellent company. So many amazing books have been challenged: To Kill a Mockingbird, Bridge to Terabithia, and The Giver to name just a few.
So, I wrote a letter to the editor of the Tampa Tribune to give my opinion on the issue and to question the reporter's theories. (My letter never appeared. Interesting). Next, I wrote to school officials and sent signed copies of my next book, The Wall and the Wing (which has no ghosts, but does have a "talking" hand). I never received any response there, either.
While I feel for school officials and teachers who have to find books to please large populations of children (and their parents!), I'm concerned about the way this situation was handled -- shrouded in mystery. The books on the Sunshine State lists were not required reading, simply recommendations, so what's the issue here?
No single book is going to be right for every single person — this is a given. If you find a title that doesn't work for you or for your child, ask for another book. This is exactly what my sister-in-law, a Jehovah's Witness, does for her children. She has never had a problem, nor has she ever felt the need to have a book banned from a classroom, book list or library. In other words, she feels she has the right to decide what's appropriate for her own family, not everyone else's.
The whole experience did lead me to do my one and only podcast on the issue focusing in on Teen Read Week: http://brainlint.podbus.com/TeenReadWeek2.mp3
2. THE WALL AND THE WING was one of my favorite books in 2006. I should tell you that I'm usually skeptical about "big claims" for books -- like that W&W is "an authentic American fantasy" -- but in this case, it was all true.
a) The Wall and the Wing is set in an alternate New York City, one in which most people can fly, at least a little bit. The main character, "Gurl," has been confined in a horrible orphanage; she is a non-flyer, or "leadfoot", who has the secret power to make herself invisible. The plot is based on a question from "would you rather" -- would you rather have the power to fly or the power to be invisible? Of the two, which would you pick?
I've asked so many people this question and most say they'd rather fly -- apparently everyone in the universe has had these amazing flying dreams. I never had those dreams. I'm much more interested in discovering secrets (and not being discovered discovering them). But I think that the "would you rather have the power to fly or the power to be invisible" is an introvert/extrovert question. I've been asking it for years, and it's usually the extroverts in the group who want to fly and the introverts who want to be invisible. Gurl's invisibility is a metaphor for the shy, different kid who is shunned or forgotten.
b) In this alternate reality, cats are scarce. Gurl finds a cat that she names Noodle, who has the ability to calm Gurl with her purring. When Noodle purrs, Gurl hears a riddle in her mind "If a tree falls in the forest . . . " Your blog indicates that you have a penchant for cats yourself.
1) Are either of your cats riddles? If so, what riddle are they?
Noodle is actually based on my cat Izzy, who is unbelievably smart and talkative for a cat. She's also mesmerizing in the way I describe Noodle in the book; when I pet her and she starts to purr, I relax. Thing is, I'm the only one who can pet her; she won't go to anyone else in my family. For the longest time, they wouldn't believe me when I told them that she would sit on my lap while I worked, etc. Izzy's riddle is Noodle's: If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around, does it make a sound?
2) Why are cats so rare in the alternate NYC?
I figured that people who could fly would want pets who could fly as well -- that means far more birds than cats. And since cats are the natural enemies of birds, city-dwellers simply wouldn't own them and they wouldn't want them around. So, naturally, cats would be very rare indeed.
c) Were the giant red-eyed rat men in The Wall and the Wing merely an exaggeration of the sewer rats in the current version of the city, or were they the result of the scarcity of cats in the alternate one?
The giant rat men were actually based on a gang called The Sewer Rats of Satan that I read about while doing my research on the history of New York City. I decided to make them real rats rather than people calling themselves rats. Because what's a good fantasy without a giant rat man who loves kittens?
d) The villain in the book -- Sweetcheeks Grabowski -- runs a gang not unlike that depicted in the movie The Gangs of New York. Is his character based on any actual crime figure?
Sweetcheeks is an amalgam of crime figures I read about in books like Gangs of New York, Gotham, and others, made more modern -- and funnier, I think -- with his unique history as a diaper model. On the other hand, Billy Goat Barbie, Mrs. Terwiliger's mom, is based on an actual female gangster who actually used to head-butt her victims before snatching their valuables.
e) Monkeys play an important part in the book. In particular, hypnotic mechanical toy monkeys who take people's secrets and memories. Where did that idea come from?
I was writing and these words suddenly came into my head: "MONKEY CHOW!" I have NO idea why. And I realized that I desperately wanted a reason to have someone say "MONKEY CHOW!" in my novel. Thus, the monkeys were born.
f) The key relationship in The Wall and the Wing is the developing friendship between Gurl and Bug, a boy at the orphanage who doesn't remember anything about his past either. Their relationship is built out of necessity, first in rebellion against Mrs. Terwilliger, the evil headmistress of the school who is blackmailing Gurl into a life a crime, and then against a host of other players, including Sweetcheeks Grabowski, but the relationship itself develops very realistically.
In the story, Gurl's true identity is really her destination -- a place she's trying to get to -- whereas Bug's true identity is really his point of departure -- where he's trying to escape from. Was that a conscious decision on your part, or did it just evolve that way? What lessons about the nature of identity does it hold for readers?
The story just evolved that way. That said, a friend of mine just told me yesterday that she believes all my books -- the mystery, the fantasies, and the realistic novels -- have one thing in common: they're all about the breaking and reconfiguring of families. And she's right. Though I may not set out to write about this subject, it keeps cropping up for me, probably because I come from a family that changed drastically through divorce and abandonment. Whether I like it or not, I've been shaped by those events but I hope I'm not doomed by them. We can become the people we want to be because of our beginnings, or we can develop in spite of them. Mostly, it's a bit of both.
g) The true key to the alternate universe is the Professor, an absent-minded inventor with grass instead of hair who wears women's housecoats and has pocketsful of kittens. How did you conceive of him? And how is his longevity explained?
I wanted a sort of sage character in my story, but I wanted my sage to be a bit different than, say, Albus Dumbledore or Gandalf of Lord of the Rings. I wanted a quirky, cranky old guy more of a scientist than a magician (though a bit of both), and more fallible than those types of characters in other fantasies. In other words, he makes mistakes. He doesn't like people. He's not interested in being in anyone's mentor, or even being nice. But as soon as I started to write him, the really quirky stuff started to appear -- the kittens in his pockets, the grass for hair, and his amazing Answer Hand.
As for his longevity, I think it's pure stubbornness.
h) One of my favorite characters in The Wall and the Wing is Jules, a "personal assistant" -- essentially a guardian angel. Where can I get one, please?
I'm the first in line!
3. THE CHAOS KING is the sequel to The Wall and the Wing. Some, but not all, of the characters (or character types) return from The Wall and the Wing. Gurl, now Georgie, is with her parents and Noodle the cat, Bug is a huge sports star who lives alone, and the Professor is in trouble, having been swept out to sea.
a) New characters include Agnes, the cook for the Richest Family in the World (including Georgie), who is actually another personal assistant. I suspect that many children will like the idea of an adult supervisor who doesn't seem to judge them the way that a parent would, but who will act to protect them if need be. How did you come up with Agnes (and with Jules)?
Believe it or not, by watching tons of What Not to Wear. I love that show. I love that people come on the show harried, depressed, lacking in confidence, hating their bodies etc., and the hosts aren't there to analyze how or why they got that way, to get them in touch with their feelings or whatever. They’re not there to diagnose them or judge anything beyond the bad mommy jeans the guests have swaddled themselves in. All the hosts want to do is teach them how to dress and send them on their way. When I thought that Gurl was a bit too alone and maybe needed a guardian angel, I tried to imagine what an American version of a guardian angel might look like. Voila, Jules.
b) Another new character is Dietrich, who is a doorman at Georgie's building, but turns out to be far more powerful than initially suspected. He's no personal assistant -- he's in charge of a particularly powerful organization: The New York City Public Library. "Facts" about the library, including the use of actors in suits to replicate the stone lions outside, are sprinkled throughout the book, and the building itself figures quite prominently in the story. a) Why did you decide to make the library -- and in particular, the director of the library -- so powerful, not just over books, but over ideas?
I'm a writer and when I'm not writing, I'm reading. Books are everything (or nearly everything). Made sense to me that the library would be the most happening place in the city, and the guy in control of it would basically control the flow of ideas.
c) Did you do on-site research into the NYC Public Library and, if so, are there actually secret passageways and tunnels? Books that can kill you?
I did spend some time at the NY Public Library, but I'm not aware of any secret passageways (though I would be disappointed to hear that there aren't any). As for books that can kill you, well, ideas are powerful things, no?
d) This book does not have any rat men or gangsters in it, but it does feature a Punk (one of the types of characters found in The Wall and the Wing). Rather than calling himself "Sid," which is what all male punks are named, this one is "Mandelbrot," based on a mathematician specializing in chaos theory. How much do you actually understand chaos theory,
and how hard was it to apply to a middle grade children's book?
Not that hard, actually, considering how little I understand it. Basically, I was interested in mess and messiness. I'm a messy person. My husband is a neat and tidy person. My messiness drives him crazy, so he often "helps" to clean it up by building me shelves or filing cabinets or Excel spreadsheets. (He's a lot nicer than Mr. Fuss, the guy in charge of city clean up in Chaos King). I thought it would be cool if there was actually a person in charge of city clean up-- not physical clean-up per se, but the clean-up of problems that occur when the city's magic gets out of control. (I've tried to convince my husband that the piles of papers in my office is really due to my magic getting out of control but he's not buying it).
e) In addition to the Punk, the book includes vampires and crows. I liked your contribution to the mythology of vampires, including a penchant for counting.
Can you tell me a bit more about what crows are?
I did some research into vampire mythology, and found that in Eastern European lore, it was said that poppy seeds laid by grave sites would ward off vampires, who would be so distracted counting the seeds they would forget to disturb the dead. I loved that. I also love poppy-seed bagels, and the two ideas came together so very nicely.
As for the crows, well, I ended The Wall and the Wing with a crow, so when I started to do the sequel I realized that the crows would have to be special, more than they seem. So I researched crow behavior to get inspired. They're very smart, exceedingly curious birds who are also very social and hang out in large groups. And don't you think crows always look as if they were watching you? (Okay, maybe I'm just paranoid.) Anyway, I took the phrase "Old Crow", a derogatory term for an old woman and tried to turn it into into something fabulous. Mrs. Verona was born, along with her book group of "old crows".
f) In this book, Georgie and Bug start out separately but come together to work out what's going on in the world around them, which seems to include a number of fossils inexplicably come to life. I really enjoyed seeing their relationship moving forward, even in their "new" post-orphanage lives. Was it a challenge to write about the awkwardness of being a tween/early teen finding new ground in a relationship?
It wasn't a challenge to write about it, it was a challenge to figure out that this is what the story needed. I'd never written a sequel before; it took me a while to understand that I not only needed a whole new plot, but a new emotional driver for the story.
g) Hewitt Elder is a bit of a conundrum in this book -- she's the one girl at school who is nice to Georgie, but she's also a complete loner, who achieved fame as a poet when quite young, only to turn her back on it. Hewitt particularly enjoys her time volunteering at the New York City Public Library, especially when she can be alone after hours. I know you've written fiction for adults (including I'm Not Julia Roberts) and young adults (Good Girls) -- do you also write poetry?
I wrote a ton of very bad, dark poetry in high school, so I had a good time writing Hewitt's poems.
h) And, in a Hewitt-related question, were you ever a librarian or library assistant?
Yep. My very first job was as a library page at the Wayne Public Library in New Jersey.
4. Do you have a favorite library (and why)?
I like my own library cause almost all my favorite books are here. Plus, my cats sleep in the shelves. No library is complete without cats.
5. What's next?
For me? Well, I've got a few more contemporary YA novels coming out, but after that I'd like to do an adult book and maybe some more fantasy. (But if you ask me in an hour, I might have a different answer).
Cheese or chocolate? Cheese.
Coffee or tea? COFFEE!!!
Cats or dogs? Cats.
Favorite color? Red.
Favorite snack food? Pirate's Booty.
Favorite ice cream? Vanilla.
Water or soda? Soda (unfortunately).
What's in your CD player/on iTunes right now? A Girl in Trouble is a Temporary Thing (Romeo Void).
What's the last movie you memorized lines from? I memorized lines from Pride & Prejudice (1995). Not on purpose, but only because I watched it 43243853409225945043945 times.
Want more Laura? Additional interviews with Laura will be available later this week – on Wednesday, you can find Liz’s interview with her over at A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy, and on Thursday, you can read Gayle & Trisha’s interview with her on their joint blog, The YA YA Yas.
Further information about the SBBT:
Don’t forget to check out yesterday’s exclusive interview with Gene Yang over at Finding Wonderland.
Other interviews available today:
Tom & Dorothy Hoobler by Colleen Mondor at Chasing Ray
Mitali Perkins by Kelly Herold at Big A, little a
Sara Zarr by Jackie at interactivereader
Justina Chen Headley by Vivian at Hip Writer Mama
Justine Larbelestier by Liz at A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy
Dana Reinhardt by Kimberly at lectitans
Brent Hartinger by Eisha & Jules at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast
Jordan Sonnenblick by Little Willow at Bildungsroman
Ysabeau Wilce by Tanita at Finding Wonderland