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.

A Sprig of Rosemary and a Paradox to Match

Courtesy of Books Around the Table (“A potluck of ideas from five children’s book authors and illustrators”) Margaret Chodos-Irvine writes about perseverance and self-doubt and the power of connections. All those things that are natural and inevitable in this strange business we’re in. And paradox, right? If you want to understand the landscape of your intention for a story, you don’t look at it directly. Instead, you examine the sprig of rosemary. Not once, but over time. And you trust that you will become the writer you need to be to tell that story.

official headshotIt reminded me of a guest post Sarah Aronson wrote for this blog in its last incarnation a couple of years ago: here it is again, still worth considering. Sarah Aronson’s novel, BELIEVE (Carolrhoda Lab), the story of a sole survivor of a suicide bombing, deals with the power of faith, the lure of fame, and the strains of friendship. 

During the High Holidays, Jews revisit one of the most complicated and disturbing stories of the Torah, The Binding of Isaac. In this story, God commands Abraham to sacrifice his son, Isaac. Abraham does not refuse God. Instead, he brings his son to the mountain and prepares him for sacrifice. Luckily, an angel stops the madness and offers a lamb instead. It is a crushing story, and I am always troubled by it. I’m disappointed in Abraham for not standing up to God. I’m disappointed in God for inviting Abraham into this ultimate game of chicken. And I always spend time thinking about Isaac and how he lived the rest of his life. I think about how this penultimate incident changed him and affected every chapter of his life thereafter.

believeMy rabbi seemed to be reading my mind, because what she said next really made sense for the holiday as well as the writing process and plot development—things I’m always thinking about. She said, “Before we can look forward, we must look back. We must examine where we have been. Only then can we see where we are going.”

Look back. To look forward. Is that really all it takes?

First, a confession: If you know me, you know I’m a back story junkie. When I’m starting a new book, the character’s past is always the first thing that interests me. Sometimes, I find the backstory from a memory in my own life. Sometimes, it comes from an image or scene from the news—from the stories in our world that I can’t let go of. No matter what, the past gets me thinking. It speaks to character motivation. It reveals what Franny Billingsley calls “the default emotion,” or what a character will do when they are stressed out. When I know how my characters have behaved in the past, I can better anticipate their reactions to actions and situations in the plot.

This is what I do:

I start by asking the question, “Who are you?” I answer this question as many times as I can without making myself crazy (usually around fifty times). I start at the cliché level: sister, friend, and student. Then I go deeper. I think about who they are in terms of emotions: are they paranoid? Or superstitious? Are they angry? Or forgiving? And I don’t stop there. I try to think concretely. I try to find answers that the character would not want his friends to know. Is my character a chocolate lover, late sleeper, or obsessed with fashion? Is he loyal? Or does he blab at the first opportunity? Is he unhappy? Does she feel alone? All these traits help me anticipate and make the most of future conflict and themes. They reveal my characters’ controlling beliefs. Most important, they provide plot clues. By understanding how these traits have served my characters in the past shows me what they love and hate and where they draw a line in the sand—when enough is enough. It gives me clues about how they react to events in the plot.

believeconnectThen I examine connectivity. I look at allies and enemies: who sticks up for each other and then I determine sources of conflict. I look first at their pasts. And then at the events of the story. Here is one connectivity chart from a draft of BELIEVE, a novel whose inciting incident happens ten years before page one. In this chart, you can see that there are a lot of tripods. Each one is fortified by conflicting emotions. Seeing them on the chart showed me how to raise the stakes in the plot; it made it easy to see where the conflict was brewing. Once I understand how every character is connected—not just to the main character, but to the other characters on the chart—I can better predict who needs to be in the big scenes. I can anticipate who needs to be on the page to move the plot forward.

It may seem simple, but it works for me. By looking back, through character and connectivity, I can envision the future. I can understand where the hot spots will form and the plot will turn. Only when I know what happened in the past can I begin to think about what will inevitably come next as well as what will surprise.

Looking back has another benefit, one that is more personal. By taking the time to look back at our own writing pasts, we feel more accomplished and are better able to set goals for the future. When we give ourselves recognition for work accomplished, we are motivated to work harder in the future. Every time I start a new class, I insist that my writers.com students celebrate each milestone. We have a special topic called “Chocolate and Flowers,” where we cheer each other on when we figure out something new, send out a manuscript, or even get a rejection. (That’s an important step!) This is what my rabbi was hoping we would all do. She was not just saying, “Look back at this story.” She was urging us, “Look back. Celebrate where you’ve been. Resolve to do better.” It’s not just good advice for this time of year. It is important to take a moment to thank ourselves, our husband or wife or partner, our children, and our friends for supporting us as we discover made-up worlds and people. When we look back, we can also see how far we’ve come. By thinking about the past year, we can look forward to the next one and set new goals for our writing lives.

Thank you again, Sarah for being the dedicated teacher and writer that you are, and for showing so many other people the way along this complicated road.