Monday, February 04, 2008

Interview with Robin Brande

Today's interview is with Robin Brande, author of Evolution, Me & Other Freaks of Nature. The book was nominated for a Cybils in the YA Category which is how I came across it when I did. (The whole month of December was booked exclusively with Cybils reading.) You can visit her at her official site. Also be sure to sign up for her monthly chocolate drawing.

What inspired you to write Evolution, Me & Other Freaks of Nature? (Or how did this novel come to be…)

I grew up in a church like Mena’s, and I, too, was kicked out right before high school—although it was for a really bizarre and stupid reason, not at all as noble as Mena’s. My background has made me pay extra attention to stories about churches trying to influence government and public policy in this country. And the more I’ve read about all these fights over teaching evolution, the more I wondered how a girl like me would have dealt with that fight in her own school. I wanted to explore how—or whether--a person of faith could reconcile her religious beliefs with her belief in science.

How long did it take to write it and see it through to the finished product? Were there any surprises along the way on your journey to publication? What do you know now that you wish you had known then? (if anything)

I spent about two months researching the novel—first reading science texts like Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species (trust me, not light reading), then taking the easier route by going back to high school for a month and sitting in on freshman biology. MUCH more fun. Then once I had a good idea who my characters were and what might happen to them, I sat down and wrote the first draft in about five weeks.

My journey to publication has been pretty typical. I did not sell my first novel. Nor my second, third, fourth, or fifth. But I kept writing and kept sending my work out to agents and editors. I got an agent with my fourth novel, but when she wasn’t able to sell that right away I wrote the next one and the next one. Finally with Evolution everything changed. My agent sent it out on a Friday, and by the following week we had several competing offers. Hurray! And here we are.

Do you have a favorite scene? (I must admit that Mena and Casey’s first kiss is mine….)

Oh, my gosh, I love that, too. I also love all the scenes involving Casey’s sister Kayla, because she just cracks me up. She’s so much smarter and funnier than I’ll ever be, and I loved spending time with her.

Do you have a character that you love to hate?

That would have to be Teresa. I knew girls like her, and I’ve heard from other people that they have, too—the outwardly righteous girl who’s really a lot meaner and sleazier than people want to admit. Grrrr. But she was fun to write because I really wanted to see her get taken down a notch or two. I wanted the good guys (and girls) to prevail.

Why do you think kids/teens can be so mean to one another, so cruel, so intolerant?

I think a lot of it is based on fear. All of us are so anxious to fit in, we feel threatened by anyone outside the norm. If someone acts differently, dresses strangely, says things we’re not comfortable hearing, it’s a lot easier to gang up and push that person outside than to try to embrace him or her. Plus there’s that whole group mentality that says once a “popular” person doesn’t like someone, it’s a lot safer to go along with that than to stick up for the outcast.

Which is why one or two people can really turn things around just by saying, “That’s not acceptable. Don’t treat him that way. Don’t say things like that about her.” Just as someone’s cruelty can influence others, so can someone else’s kindness. But I think a lot of us are afraid that if we stick up for someone, the bullies will then turn on us—and face it, that happens sometimes. It’s easier to keep our heads down and not draw attention to ourselves.

But change has to start somewhere. Someone has to be the first to say, “No, let’s not do this.” Someone has to be the first to reach out a hand to the person who’s being picked on or shunned. It takes courage, but it also shows incredible leadership qualities. It’s easy to be the person other kids fear. It’s more rewarding to be the person they admire.

Mena’s life is in many ways restrictive. Her parents govern so much of what she sees, what she watches, what she does, where she goes, etc. Obviously, that’s every parent’s right or prerogative to raise their children as they see fit…and it’s really no one else’s business as long as there is no abuse…but what do you see as the risks to such a strict upbringing? Do you think there is any benefit to sheltering kids? (And of course there are parents that go to the other extreme—that neglect their children and don’t provide any rules or structured discipline)

I think it’s an illusion to believe we can keep kids in a bubble and shelter them from all the influences of the world. Information is too accessible these days—we can’t possibly shield our kids forever and keep them from knowing what goes on “out there.”

And I don’t think that’s the solution we want anyway. The only way we change things for the better is by first understanding exactly how things are. We can live in a fantasy world—protected from the Internet and movies and music videos and all the other “bad” influences—or we can live in the real world and see what work needs to be done.

I also think that the more we make something off-limits, the more alluring it becomes. I’ve known a lot of young people who have chosen not to have sex too young or unprotected sex ever, not to experiment with drugs, not to participate in other “risky” behaviors simply because they have respect for themselves and prefer to make smart choices for their lives. I’ve also known home-schooled kids and kids from strict religious households who sneak around and do everything their parents swear their little angels don’t even know anything about.

Drilling a child in “Christian values” isn’t nearly as effective as showing a child how to value him or herself and how to value others. A teenager who makes choices based on her own feelings of self-respect and self-love will often do better than one who’s being good only because she’s afraid of being caught and punished. At some point every teenager will grow to adulthood and have to make choices on their own. They’ll be better equipped if they were able to practice listening to their instincts and following their conscience while still safely at home.

Does Mena have a theme song by any chance? What would her playlist sound like? Would she be into Christian rock? Or would her parents think rock music is of the devil?

Mena really likes soft rock—the romantic kind. She likes Christian rock, too, but what she mostly wants is songs about love—human to human love.

One of the messages in Evolution, Me & Other Freaks, in my opinion, is that honesty and open communication are healthier for relationships than secrets and lies. . .especially when it comes to building trust. What do you hope readers gain from reading Evolution, Me & Other Freaks of Nature?

Honesty is important for any relationship—whether it’s a friendship, a romance, a relationship between parent and child--but sometimes telling the truth is excruciatingly hard. Sometimes the last thing you want to do is admit where you’ve gone wrong and try to start over—it seems easier to just keep going as you are, no matter how guilty you feel about it.

But the truth is, it takes a lot of energy to sustain a false life. It’s ultimately a lot more restful to have a policy of telling it like it is. People might not always like what you have to say, but at least the relationship—and your conscience—are a lot cleaner.

And I think a lot of us come to the conclusion that it’s not worth it to do things we’re going to feel like we have to lie about later. After a while lying gets boring.

What was your first impression of the cover art for Evolution, Me, & Other Freaks of Nature?

The cover you see is the second one created for the book. The first cover was wildly different—so wild it turned off some of the booksellers it was shown to. I really like the current cover, but I’ve heard from some teenage boys that they took it off while reading the book so they wouldn’t get flack from their buddies. Face it, the cover is pretty girly.

What do you love about writing? What do you find the easiest? What do you find the hardest?

What I love is getting to spend all day long playing make-believe—it’s exactly the kind of job I wished I could have when I was a kid. I love that reading is part of my job, so if I want to spend all afternoon curled up with a book I can, and no one will complain. I love that I get to pretend to be all the characters in my books, and get to act out scenes between them, and can spend hours picturing what they wear and what they say and when, if ever, they’ll kiss. Who wouldn’t want a job like this?

The hardest part is when the writing isn’t going as smoothly as I like some days, and I just know I’m not saying what I mean to say. I have a vision of how I want a book to feel as it goes along, and if I’m off somehow I get very frustrated. Those are the days I just want to watch movies or read someone else’s—better, perfect—book. The trick is to let myself take a break when I need one, but still come back to the story the next day. If I let too much time go by without working on the story I tend to lose my nerve. I have to get back in there and fight my way out.

Can you tell us anything about your current work in progress? Do you have any upcoming releases?

I’m working on another YA right now. It’s about reincarnation—a subject I LOVED to read about when I was in high school. Now this is my chance to write the kind of story I would have loved to read when I was 15.

Who has been your biggest supporter or mentor along the way for you on your road to publication?

I’ve had two great supporters (besides my husband and family): one is my best friend since high school. I always send her my books as I’m writing them—a few chapters at a time--and many times her enthusiasm for a project has been the main thing that has kept me going with it. Plus she taught high school for many years, so she always has lots of inside information for me.

The other is my writer pal Barry Lyga, author of The Astonishing Adventures of Fanboy and Goth Girl and Boy Toy. Barry and I met at a writers’ conference several years ago, and since then we’ve been each other’s editors, critique partners, and cheerleaders. We’ve come up through the ranks together, and it’s so much fun to share in each other’s success. Finally!

Have you always wanted to be a writer? Has this always been a dream of yours? Growing up, whose work did you admire most? Was there a particular author that made you say, “I want to grow up and do that!”?

I’ve wanted to be a writer since fifth grade, but I just never thought it was possible. So even though I majored in English in college, I did the sensible thing afterward and went to law school. It wasn’t until 9/11 that I finally convinced myself that it was time to do what I really wanted to with my life.

The writer I most admired when I was young was Judy Blume. I saw her at a book signing when I was in sixth grade, and I couldn’t believe she was right in front of me, this regular real-life person. I love doing school talks now because I keep thinking there might be a kid like me out there who really needs to know that this job is possible.

Have you always loved to read? Did you have a reading hero growing up? Someone who encouraged you to read, to lose yourself in a good book? What were some of your favorites growing up? And what are some of your favorites now?

I loved reading—especially anything about animals (my mother wouldn’t let me have pets). I loved fantasy and mysteries—Encyclopedia Brown, Hardy Boys, and Nancy Drew in particular—and all the Beverly Cleary books. I loved walking to the library on Saturdays and coming home with an armful of books. I preferred books to real life—and sometimes that’s still true.

My favorite author is Charles Dickens—masterful beyond compare. Great Expectations is phenomenal. I love all the Harry Potters--I think J.K. Rowling is the Dickens of our time. Other favorites: Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series, anything by Meg Cabot, Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, Princess Academy by Shannon Hale.

What are your favorite books of 2007?

So hard to choose! But I’ll try to narrow it down:

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling (absolute perfection)

Austenland by Shannon Hale (perfect book for someone like me who is obsessed not only with Pride and Prejudice, but also with Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy. Sigh)

Spanking Shakespeare by Jake Wizner (so funny I wish I had written every page)

Boy Toy by Barry Lyga (a book I didn’t think I’d be able to stand because of its subject, and it turned out being one of the deepest and most emotionally-satisfying stories I’ve read in a long time)

Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert (so honest, so funny, so inspiring—and not just because of the pizza and gelato binges she goes on. This book changed me in many ways)

Miss Spitfire by Sarah Miller (the story of the first several tumultuous weeks of Annie Sullivan trying to teach Helen Keller to be anything but a feral animal. I didn’t think I cared about this story or needed to hear any more about it, but seeing it through Annie Sullivan’s eyes was a fascinating, amazing, uplifting experience. This book was a wonderful surprise)

Faeries of Dreamdark: Blackbringer by Laini Taylor (wonderful fantasy world, beautiful writing, exciting and scary, with a great and unusual heroine. Can’t wait for the next in the series)

What do you love about being a blogger?

I love the friendships, the conversations, the feeling that I have found my people, even if I never meet many of them in person. This year I did have the pleasure of meeting some of them, though, at the 1st Annual Kidlitosphere Conference in Chicago (a conference I put together so we could all finally be in the same room for 24 hours—and it worked! We had a blast!). Next year’s conference will be in Portland, Oregon. I hope you’ll join us, Becky!

If you had twenty-four hours, a time machine, and a limitless supply of money, what would you want to do?

Okay, now that’s a great question. (Your other ones were, too, by the way.) I would skip around the planet and the centuries and have long leisurely dinners with each of my favorite authors, one at a time. The list would include Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, J.R.R. Tolkien, T.H White, Philip Pullman, J.K. Rowling, and I’d throw in Leonardo da Vinci and Plato, too. Why not? And I assume the time machine makes me forget what I just ate? Because I’d want to have the best meal of my life with each of them, starting with scones and jam with Jane Austen.

Thank you, Becky! What fun!


Sarah Miller said...

I heart Robin! :)

Also, keep your eye out for RINGSIDE 1925, by Jen Bryant. It's due out this June and I think it'd make a terrific companion read for Robin's book.

Emma said...

Thanks for the great interview, Becky and Robin! I loved Evolution, me and other freaks of nature but read it after the first round of interviews when it came out, so it's nice to read one with the knowledge of the book!