Monday, October 31, 2011

Author Interview: Rebecca Coleman

Earlier today Alice reviewed the controversial new novel by Rebecca Coleman The Kingdom of Childhood.  We are pleased Ms. Coleman took the time to answer a few questions for us.  Enjoy!

Girls Just Reading (GJR):  This novel blew me away. What made you decide to write about such a taboo subject?

Rebecca Coleman (RC):  I think I was a little naive going into it-- I knew it was a taboo subject, but I also knew it was a common part of the news cycle and so I thought people would be interested in reading a fictional take on it. It seemed like kind of an oversight that nobody else had written a novel about it, except for "Notes on a Scandal," which is really more about the narrator being a lonely friend to the teacher in question. Once reviews and comments began rolling in, the shock at the very topic of it-- let alone the writing-- caught me a bit off-guard. I thought, "you do realize I didn't invent this crime myself, right?"

GJR:  Was there any particular news story that inspired The Kingdom of Childhood?

RC:  It was a story that I caught on the news, but I don't remember which one in particular. We tend to remember the ones with colorful elements-- teachers with bikini photos, or Mary Kay Letourneau, of course, where the boy in question is openly defending the relationship and the teacher is pregnant in jail. But most of those cases are a lot more run-of-the-mill, with a very bare framework and seemingly ordinary people, and that's what caught my attention initially. You know that for an adult woman to do this, she has to be absolutely obsessed, bent on risking everything to both pursue this and to cover it up. And so it made me wonder, what's the real story behind all that? Why did that risk seem reasonable to her?

GJR:  I didn’t want to like Judy, but I couldn’t help it. She was flawed, human. How challenging was it to write her character?

RC:  The book as a whole was very challenging, but Judy as a character wasn't as hard to write as you might think. Narcissists are fairly easy to write, because they're always motivated by what serves them best, and so a character like Judy will always act based on what's best for Judy. It's harder to write someone like Zach, who will be struggling between his own interests and his family's and his higher principles, and who might act based on any one of those things. But I had compassion for both of them. Inside Judy there is a little girl who desperately wants structure and guidance and a sense of security, and navigating the world without those things is a perilous task.

GJR:  What was the most difficult aspect in writing this novel? What was the hardest scene to write?

RC:  The most difficult aspect-- and for me this is true of any book-- was letting go of elements of the novel that had personal significance to me but weren't the best thing for the story. The hardest scene-- that's hard to say without offering spoilers, but probably the final Germany-flashback scene in the book. I wrote it several different ways and really agonized over whether to include it the way it's written. It felt like the right thing for the story, but there was a part of my mind saying, "You're kidding, right? You're really determined not to sell this novel, aren't you?"

GJR:  What made you decide to tell the story in a multi narrative as opposed to just Judy’s voice?

RC:  It was really important to me that in a story like this one, the victim's voice be given equal weight, if not more. When I was researching for the book I found that the boys in these cases, because they're minors, never have any sort of public voice. We see the teacher's mugshots, we hear the very basic facts of the cases, but the boys are invisible, and I think we tend to make assumptions about them. And yet I found a couple of posts in a debate forum on this issue from anonymous men who said they had been in such a situation as teenagers, and they felt it had really damaged them-- wasted years of their lives, given them long-standing trust issues. Maybe they don't all feel that way, but some certainly do. So I felt Zach's side of the story would be just as interesting as Judy's, as he's put in this position of hiding a crime, lying to people he loves, and resisting a relationship with someone his own age, who he cares about, because he's emotionally trapped in this destructive relationship with a teacher. The stereotype that "the kid got lucky" doesn't pan out in reality.

GJR:  Are you currently working on another novel? If so, what is the premise?

RC:  Yes-- it's called "Merciless Savages," and it's about a family that is torn apart when their son and brother comes home from Afghanistan with post-traumatic stress disorder. It should be out next September, and I'm very excited about it. It's a meaningful subject to me.

GJR:  Who are your favorite authors?

RC:  Margaret Atwood is a longtime favorite, and I had the incredible good fortune of meeting her at a party this past spring-- talk about starstruck. But I also love Barbara Kingsolver and Eleanor Brown and Ann Hite. And the less-scary Stephen King, too.

GJR:  What are you currently reading?

RC:  I just finished a new book called "Everything Happens Today" by Jesse Browner-- it's like an updated, reinvented version of "The Catcher in the Rye." I absolutely loved it. Its a smart, funny, compassionate read.

GJR:  When you write, do you have total quiet or background noise?

RC:  I need it to be quiet, which is a tall order in a house with four kids and no office. I end up doing a lot of middle-of-the-night writing.

GJR:  Can you describe your writing process?

RC:  I get an idea, then sit down and write the first 30,000 words like a woman possessed. Not at all once, of course, but still quite obsessively. Then I realize it's getting complicated, and I slow down. At around 60,000 words I decide to shelve it, start working on another project, then get nostalgic for the old one and write the last third of it. Then come revisions. The final stage of revisions feels a lot like the final stage of selling a house-- the part after the buyer's walk-through, where they say they'll only go to settlement tomorrow if you paint that wall and fix the window screens. You're just fuming and can't wait to get it over with. I know I make it sound very romantic.

GJR:  Something different: What’s an average day for you? What’s a great/ideal day?

RC:  I'm a mom to four kids, so every weekday starts with taking them at to school before settling in to write and intercept emails, tweets, and Facebook comments, and somehow fit my day job in there as well (I work that one from home, too). I try to set pretty strict goals for myself or else all the fragmenting elements-- social media, mainly-- will take over. On an ideal day, my kids are all kind to each other, the writing flows, I get to have lunch with a friend, and there's lots of hot water when I turn on the shower. When all those things come together I feel like the happiest person in the world.
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