Check This Out: Don’t Touch

After reading the title, maybe like me you have MC Hammer’s “U Can’t Touch This” going through your mind right now. Well, my guest today will change that tune. In the house is the marvelous Rachel M. Wilson, author of Don’t Touch, a young adult novel that debuted this month. Isn’t the cover beautiful? You can read the synopsis here.

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Rachel is represented by Sara Crowe. Don’t Touch was published by HarperTeen. After I finish talking with Rachel, I’ll talk to you about a giveaway. So strap yourselves in. Before we get started though, check out this book trailer:

Cool huh? Let’s talk to Rachel!

El Space: Four quick facts about yourself?
Rachel: I’m a Scorpio. I love Ethiopian food more than any other cuisine and eat it about once a week. In my last show, I played a harmonica solo. I almost always wear a turquoise ring that belonged to my grandmother. She was a geologist and liked uncut stones, so her husband had it set for her.

El Space: Cool! Please give us the scoop on Don’t Touch. How did this book come about?
Rachel: The book grew out of my own experience with OCD. Like Caddie, I started dealing with OCD symptoms around age ten, and I still struggle with anxiety. Caddie’s story isn’t my own, but that was the first inspiration. I wanted to explore how fears—rational and irrational—can separate us from other people and from pursuing what we love. And while I’ve never gotten the chance to perform in a full production of Shakespeare, I’m a big fan, and I’ve long loved Hamlet. Once I landed on that as the play within my book, my story path felt clearer.

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El Space: What was the most challenging aspect of slipping into Caddie’s skin?
Rachel: Probably figuring out her relationship with her parents. It was hard for me to be mean to Caddie when it came to her changing family, and it took me a long time to find the balance between love and disappointment in her relationship with her father.

El Space: What, if anything, would you like to see more of in young adult fiction? Why?
Rachel: Oh, wow! Great question! Apart from diversity, which I think most of us are really hungry for, I’d love to see more genre-mashing and more magical realism. Those are two things I respond to as a reader, and I think they stretch the mind in challenging ways. As readers of Don’t Touch will probably glean, I have a thing for superheroes, so I certainly wouldn’t mind a badass superhero trend.

El Space: Me too! You also act and teach. How does either profession influence your writing?
Rachel: You know, I’m an introvert, but I’m also a very social creature. Theater is the most collaborative art, and teaching can be highly collaborative too. It’s very important to me to have a place where I go and make things with other people, and it makes it easier for me to sit alone with my computer if I know I’m on my way to spend time with other people.

Aside from that more practical answer, teaching writing to younger kids always perks up my own excitement and energy for writing. It’s a great reminder of why I love it. And theater got me started writing. I would write from the points of view of characters I was playing, and I did a lot of collaborative writing projects in theater, and eventually, I started feeling ready to try my own stories.

El Space: You graduated from both of my alma maters: VCFA and Northwestern University. Yay! I attended NU 100 years before you, however. How did each of your programs leave its mark on you?
Rachel: I didn’t know that! Awesome! I was in the theater program at Northwestern—as an actor there, you join a class that stays intact for three straight years. My teacher was very spiritual, into meditation and Tai Chi as well as some physically and emotionally aggressive schools of acting. One day, I was prepping to bring in a scene from Euripedes’s Orestes, where Orestes and Electra are about to be executed, and our teacher warned us to wear running shoes to class! It wasn’t uncommon for people to get picked up and tossed around and totally break down on stage. Playing around with all of that within a safe community had a huge impact on me. I credit it with teaching me how to be an open, creative person. And as I said above, acting out other people’s stories gave me that drive to write my own.

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And VCFA! I can’t say enough positive things about that program. The residencies feel like writers’ summer slash boot camp, and it’s another magical place where the community feels drawn together in an inevitable way. And then working with advisors over months at a time, it’s a true mentorship. I’ve never had a relationship quite like that with another artist, and through that program, it happens four times in a row. It stretched my writing muscles in ways that I hadn’t been able to accomplish on my own and gave me the support to push through the hard stuff and finish a book.

El Space: I know you know a ton of authors, so this next question is usually a delicate one to answer. But I’ll ask it anyway: what books, authors, or actors inspire you? Why?
Rachel: How about I stick with authors I don’t know well? Nova Ren Suma, Jaclyn Moriarty, and Libba Bray always inspire me. In different ways, there’s something so present and tangible in their writing that slams me right into their worlds. Maggie Stiefvater’s The Scorpio Races blew me away with its perfection of world and character, and I need to read more of her work. In middle grade land, I feel the same way about Zilpha Keatley Snyder and E. L. Konigsburg. The Headless Cupid and Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley, and Me, Elizabeth are two of my longtime faves, as is Ellen Raskin’s The Westing Game. As all of the above are at least a little dark and creepy, that might give you a sense of how my tastes trend.

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El Space: Any advice for the writer who wants to incorporate the theater in his or her fiction?
Rachel: Choose your story within a story with care. Bringing another story into play changes the story you’re telling, even if the play within the story is an invented one. That story will probably be the weightiest metaphor or mirror in your work, so it’s important to understand it inside and out and to have a clear thesis for how it’s in conversation with your own and how the roles your characters take on challenge them and serve as foils for them. And you need to remain open to finding connections you may not have consciously realized were there—the art of the mash-up comes into play.

El Space: What are you working on now?
Rachel: I have several irons in the fire, but the one I’m most focused on right now deals with the aftermath of a shocking change and coming into power. I’m being cagey because you never know how things will develop. The next thing readers will see from me is a short story, “The Game of Boys and Monsters,” out from HarperTeen Impulse as a digital short. It’s suspenseful and creepy, very different from Don’t Touch, about two girls whose friendship changes when the enigmatic Marsh boys move to town.

Rachel, thanks for stopping by! I’m looking forward to that short story!

And thanks to all who stopped to read this interview. You can be entered into a drawing to receive a copy of Don’t Touch just by commenting below.

Don’t Touch is available here:

Amazon
Barnes and Noble
Indiebound
Powell’s

Looking for Rachel? Check out her website and Twitter. And check out Goodreads and the Don’t Touch Book Club Guide.

Winner to be announced on Tuesday, September 30.

Do You Believe in Magic?

I wasn’t going to post today, but the thoughts were fresh in my mind, thanks to a conversation with a friend, and couldn’t be ignored. I’m in a rather soapboxy mood, so feel free to tune in or tune out.

Remember in the movie version of The Wizard of Oz when Dorothy, the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion discovered the “wizard” hiding behind the curtain? This “wizard” tried to play it off by his warning to them to “pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.”

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Too late. He’d already been exposed as a complete sham—a humbug, according to the Scarecrow. He didn’t have a drop of magic within him, and couldn’t really give them what they desired—a brain for the Scarecrow, a heart for the Tin Man, courage for the Cowardly Lion, and a trip home for Dorothy—except through nonmagical means. But there was magic in Oz. The witches proved that. Later, even the humbug wizard gained magic. You have to read Baum’s Oz books to learn how. Yet the man-behind-the-curtain notion is still pervasive in our day and age.

We live in a cynical age. We’re used to reality TV and news reports that take us “behind the curtain” by debunking magic acts or exposing as frauds politicians and authors who claim they’re telling a “true” story while making up key facts. We’re tired of the lies, aren’t we? If there’s a man behind the curtain, we want to know!

Sometimes we take this mindset to the books we read. As adults we learn to “put away childish things” like believing there are fairies in our backyard or that dogs can talk in order to embrace reality. That’s why we categorize fairy tales and other such stories as stories of childhood, rather than for adults. If we happen to pick up a fantasy book, the use of magic is severely scrutinized, slapped with a deus ex machina label, or written off as “convenient” if it doesn’t seem “realistic” enough to suit our adult sensibilities.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of AzkabanYou know what? I for one have had quite enough of the search for the man behind the curtain. This doesn’t mean I plan to bury my head in the sand and totally ignore reality or reality-based fiction. It means I’m going to continue to unabashedly cherish those stories that take me to magical places or to ordinary places that seem magical, and then try my best to offer that kind of journey through my own writing. The stories I loved as a child I still love as an adult. Grimm’s Fairy Tales has a prominent place on my shelf, not hidden underneath the bookcase out of fear that someone will check my bookshelves and ask about what I’m reading. I’m a firm believer in story magic. I love miraculous escapes and magical derring-do. And many of you do too. I wasn’t the only adult reading Harry Potter’s adventures.

I love the fact that authors like J. K. Rowling, Neil Gaiman, C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, Holly Black, Juliet Marillier, Jaclyn Moriarty, Charles Yallowitz, Caroline Carlson, K. L. Schwengel and many others are unapologetic in the use of magic in their stories. If you haven’t already, you might check out Moriarty’s Colors of Madeleine series; Yallowitz’s Legends of Windemere series; Carlson’s The Very Nearly Honorable League of Pirates series; or K. L. Schwengel’s Darkness & Light series.

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Or consider stories like Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH by Robert C. O’Brien, Three Times Lucky by Sheila Turnage, The Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo, The September books by Catherynne Valente, The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis, The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett, and other books that remind you of the magic (and sometimes sadness) of childhood. Be willing to suspend your disbelief and leave your cynicism at the door as you take a journey through these pages.

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Do you believe in magic? I do. I still believe in the power of stories to transform us and transport us to unforgettable places. Do you?

Oz photo from takaiguchi.com. Book covers from Goodreads.

A Writer’s Process (11b)

GEDSC DIGITAL CAMERAHello! Please join me in welcoming to the blog once more the luminous and enlightening Laurie Morrison! I really, really, really wish I had a brownie like the ones Laurie wrote about in Rebound, her young adult novel. I could also go for a slice of pie! (Mmm. Pie.) Let’s move on, since I can’t get either one just now.

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If you’re reading this blog for the first time ever, welcome to you too. But I have to tell you that this is the second part of the interview with Laurie. The first part is here.

El Space: Yesterday we talked about your antagonist. How did you go about crafting a “nuanced, realistic antagonist”? “A nuanced, realistic heroine”?
round characterLaurie: Hmm, that’s a good question. Once I decided to make Lissy’s dad an antagonist, I thought about her insecurities and considered how I could turn him into someone who would especially push her buttons. That involved turning him from a not-very-successful lawyer into an entrepreneur who takes risks, thinks people should look out for their own interests, and has never valued Lissy’s interest in baking. I did a lot of free-writing about Lissy and her dad’s back story, to figure out precisely when and how he had made her feel not good enough, but then I also figured out what her dad has going for him and why Lissy’s stepmother, Kim, fell in love with him. When I turned him into an antagonist, that actually opened up possibilities for Kim to become a rounder and more important character.

As for creating a nuanced and realistic heroine, one thing that really helped me was to free-write scenes between Lissy and each of the other key characters, both from the past and from the summer when the book takes place. Some of these scenes made it into the story and many did not, but I got a fuller picture of Lissy as I saw how she interacted with others and came to understand the relationships that have shaped her.

El Space: You’re writing a series of blog posts on first-person narration. (If you want to read them, start here.) What excites you most about this perspective?
11925514Laurie: I love the intimacy of a first-person narrative and the experience of trying to capture a character’s experience through her own eyes and ears, skin, etc. and in her own distinctive voice. I’m also excited about what I think of as the reliability spectrum for first-person narration.

I find it fascinating to read books with narrators who turn out to be quite unreliable, such as Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein and Inexcusable by Chris Lynch. But then I’m also interested in narrators who aren’t unreliable on purpose, but who aren’t unequivocally reliable, either, because any person’s perspective is subjective and in some ways limited. No narrator can attend to everything that is going on all at once or truly know where others are coming from.

307652Some narrators are closer to the wholly reliable end of the spectrum than others, but it’s still important to think about when those largely reliable narrators might not be seeing a character or situation accurately and what their blind spots or defense mechanisms might be. I love to write and read about characters who are relatable and engaging but also clearly fallible. I think it’s a powerful experience to love and identify with a first-person narrator while also understanding her limitations and rooting for her to grow.

El Space: Cool! I wish I could quote directly from the podcast interview I heard with Ally Carter some months ago. But she mentioned having a niche in the marketplace. She’s known for a certain type of book. I happen to love her books. What do you see as your niche? Why?
Laurie: If I continue to write the kind of stories I’ve been writing—and if, you know, people actually want to read those stories—my niche would probably be writing books for the younger end of YA readers.

Most of my 6th, 7th, and 8th grade students read young adult novels instead of, or in addition to, middle grade books. The term middle grade is actually kind of confusing, because it doesn’t really correspond to middle school years. I gravitate toward writing stories that would be good for middle school students who are ready to read about teenage experiences, but might not be quite ready for all of the content in “older” YA books.

5819551That doesn’t mean that I censor myself when I’m writing or exclude certain things on purpose because I am trying to send a certain positive message. It just means that if I really think about my intended reader, I imagine myself at age 13 or 14 or one of the students I’ve gotten to know especially well, and my sense of that intended audience influences which stories I choose to tell.

El Space: What authors inspire you?
Laurie: Lots of authors inspire me, but here are a few. E. Lockhart and Jaclyn Moriarty inspire me because of their humor and their distinctive first-person narrators. Sarah Dessen inspires me because of the emotional depth of her novels and her multifaceted characters. Katherine Paterson inspires me because of the affection she clearly has for her characters and her readers.

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2839El Space: They’re all awesome. What writing advice, if any, have you received that electrified your writing?
Laurie: [VCFA’s own] Alan Cumyn taught me that it’s very compelling to watch a character who won’t let herself have something we know she really wants. Franny Billingsley taught me to identify a character’s vacuum—the longing or hole that the character is struggling to fill. Mary Quattlebaum taught me that if you give a character a driving passion, that passion can help shape your character’s voice and make it sound distinct. And Shelley Tanaka taught me that subplots need to enrich or mirror the central story, and too many subplots can make a story less powerful.

Thanks, Laurie, for being my guest! You’ve been awesome. But next time, please bring brownies.

Those of you who stopped by can find Laurie at her blog or on Twitter. If you have questions for Laurie, please comment below. You can also answer this question: Which antagonists have you read reacently which seemed “nuanced and realistic”?

Book covers by Goodreads. Pie photo from Wikipedia. Round character poster from mhaywood.blogspot.com.