Karen Rivers on Fiction and the Measurement of “Real”

In her middle grade and YA fiction, my colleague and neighbor Karen Rivers is really good at navigating that difficult terrain between the real and the imagined, in such as way as to leave readers guessing until the very end which way their belief should be tilting. And she’s done it again with her middle grade novel, Naked Mole Rat Saves the World. Here Karen talks to me about this book–the characters’ minds, especially young kit (yes, that’s in lowercase), anxiety and depression, and the emotions we pour into writing fiction:

[Uma] I kept guessing, and turning the pages to find out, whether what I was reading about was fantastic or not, or whether that distinction mattered. I’m left with this huge respect for the human mind, especially the minds of kids.Can you talk about what led to the elements of this story and what leads you in general to this kind of interior world of your characters?

[Karen] I love the question about perception vs. reality: Does it matter if a thing is “real” or not if you’ve perceived it to be real? When I was a kid, I was obsessed with UFO abduction stories and to this day, I wonder if it truly matters if what happened to these people really occurred. In their minds, it did, and that experience is what shaped who they are. Our experiences are no more than our perception of our experiences, so the measurement of “real” is always muddy. Writing this as it is, with kit’s experience being presented as a reality made me think of those UFO abduction stories.   Disproving or proving scientifically or factually what really happened is so much less interesting, from a fiction writer’s perspective, than the emotional impact of the real or perceived event. Whether it’s impossible or possible for kit to truly become a naked mole rat was never the most interesting point for me.     

[Uma] “Hurt people hurt people.” Clem’s mother is quoted as saying that, and your book takes readers to those inner anxieties we all experience. As your characters cope with their own anxieties, they act and react, and those actions in turn have consequences. How did you tread such tender, emotionally fraught ground while still giving the story its nimble, light quality?

[Karen] First of all, thank you for saying that it came across as nimble and light! I think as a society, we have a strong inclination to follow buzzwords toward a foregone conclusion: “Depression” and “anxiety” are heavy words that carry the weight of assumptions and long-held stigmas about mental illness. These things are just facets of us, not all of who we are. In The Possibility of Whales, Nat’s dad is often saying, “Everyone isn’t all one thing!” and I truly believe that.  We are all complex beings.  I have anxiety and lots of people close to me have anxiety, depression, or both.  But we all also have a sense of humor and have experiences and full lives that aren’t ONLY defined by the times that we are struggling. So to make a long answer short, I hope that it’s because I see kids (and all people, really) as complex and lovable and worthy, people who are so much more than one thing.   

[Uma] Every book teaches the writer something. What did this one teach you? 

[Karen] When I started writing, I didn’t realize how much kit’s mum’s anxiety spilled over onto kit, and for me, this was a huge revelation. I knew my kids were affected by my issues with anxiety, but I think I’d let myself believe that they didn’t notice or that, because it was all they ever knew, it didn’t affect them. When I wrote this, I realized just how much kit absorbed her mum’s anxiety and how much work she did to take care of her. It was intensely emotional for me; it forced me to confront something I hoped wasn’t true. I truly think it made me parent differently than I had been doing, which is life-changing. In a strange way, I’m grateful to kit for that.  

[Uma] And I am grateful for Karen’s talent and her offbeat, extraordinary depictions of the worlds of childhood and youth.

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