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.

Karen Rivers on A Possibility of Whales

IMG_2134Karen Rivers writes:

When I began writing A Possibility of Whales, I had an idea that I wanted to write an Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret for a new generation of kids, taking into consideration both all that is different about being twelve-going-on-thirteen in 2017 and all that is, in fact, still the same.

Nat loves her mother. Well, okay, she loves some tenuous idea of her mother. The truth is that her mother left Nat and Nat’s famous superstar dad, soon after Nat was born.

Yes. It’s complicated.

A Possibility of Whales (see my ARC, festooned with sticky notes) is a complicated book, its beautifully drawn young protagonist a collector of words in multiple languages, with deep interior longings and a generous, surging heart. I asked Karen to tell me more about how this book grew in her mind and on the page.

[Uma] Nat’s facility with words, her lively imagery, the synesthetic quality to her perception—these are delightfully eccentric traits and they make her entirely memorable. How did Nat grow into her particular kind of quirkiness?

[Karen] Nat’s childhood is unusual.   Her dad is famous and also very particular about what he believes – not owning “things” is a big part of that, he follows an experiences-not-stuff philosophy.  Nat is naturally synesthetic – something I also have but didn’t know had a label until very recently – but I also think her upbringing lends itself to a heightened interest in the intangible.   Her “collection” of words, for example.

KarenRiversheadshot

Photo courtesy of the author

[Uma] I was struck by how much you normalize the trans character, Harry. You pull the reader along so that after a while the issue of gender becomes secondary to the growth of the friendship. Talk about how where and how Harry’s character emerged and grew.

[Karen] I know a young man who is trans and I’ve been observing from a distance how his journey has unfolded.  One thing that I noticed in particular was that amongst his group of friends — from the time they were really young — he was just who he was, a boy like them, without question.  There were some decisions on the part of his school at the time that I still question profoundly, which must have been terrible for him, which were traumatizing even from an arms’ length.   But afterwards, the kids just moved on.   They didn’t give the fire (started by misguided adults) any air.  It gives me hope for a future where people are simply able to be who they are, period.

[Uma] I was fascinated by the sheer wackiness of Nat’s phone calls to The Bird, and how they turn into something tender and important in ways we can’t understand until the end. No plot spoilers here, but tell me how you made the entirely improbably scenario of an impulse/prank call feel so plausible?
[Karen] I think the call in the book works because The Bird can tell that Nat is nervous and that she isn’t setting her up as a punch line for a laugh. As an adult who happens to not be in a hurry, The Bird behaves in a compassionate way – she pauses, she listens, she waits to discover what the call is really about.  (What would it be like, I wonder, if everyone were to be like that all the time?  We’re always in such a hurry, always angling away from situations that feel as though they might demand something of us. I think the fact of listening–the impulse to NOT hang up, to not avoid someone else’s needs–that’s when we are the most human, when instead of rushing away from something uncomfortable or awkward, we pause and give it space.) The Bird listens, listening is a form of love, and love is all that Nat needs, that all of us fundamentally need, don’t you think?

[Uma] Listening is a form of love. There’s a thought for the impatient among us–that would, I must confess, sometimes be me–whose first instinct is to make the connections, complete the thought, move on with the conversation. Thank you for this book, which tells me instead to stop, to breathe, to listen. 

 

Love, Ish by Karen Rivers

loveishAt the center of Love, Ish is a girl with a light and lively voice and an irrepressible spirit. Congratulations, Karen Rivers, on a richly layered middle grade novel.

Ish’s voice is beautifully crafted, knowledgeable, and more, when the downturn couldn’t be worse, it’s funny. It makes us care. Mars is a metaphor for Ish’s journey, and maybe even for life itself.

A fuller review for CLCD will appear on the Barnes & Noble web site in a couple of weeks.

 

Readers Live Longer? Really?

Not that this is necessarily a blessing, but a New York Times report suggests that reading books is tied to a longer life. As little as half an hour a day of book reading seems to give us what they succinctly refer to as a “survival advantage.” Only by an average of two years, which is not that much, but still. I always knew reading was good for me.

Highlights from the article on which the report is based:

  • Book reading provides a survival advantage among the elderly.
  • Books are more advantageous for survival than newspapers/magazines.
  • The survival advantage of reading books works through a cognitive mediator.
  • Books are protective regardless of gender, wealth, education, or health.

forgettingtimeIs writing good for me or not, longevity-wise, I wonder. If writing were to parallel reading or add to its good effects that would be grand. If not, well then, maybe, at the least, it does me no harm. Or maybe it’s bad for me, in which case I could be back where I started and it all cancels out.

In any case, I had better finish the book I’m reading now, The Forgetting Time by Sharon Guskin, which has me by the throat at the moment and will not let go. (Thank you, Karen Rivers, for this thoughtful gift.)

As a writer who writes for young people, I used to scramble to try and keep up with each year’s new offerings. Now I read children’s and YA books regularly. But I also make it a point to keep reading grownup books often, for my own pleasure. It’s reassuring to be told now that I can live longer by indulging myself this way.

Interview With Karen Rivers

Karen Rivers is a friend and colleague, a neighbor, and a fellow writer who teaches. She is the author of The Girl in the Well is Me, which Kirkus, in a starred review, called “a brilliantly revealed, sometimes even funny, exploration of courage, the will to live, and the importance of being true to oneself.”

Here she is talking to me about her new YA novel from FSG, Before We Go Extinct. In praise of the book, the National Reading Campaign says:

Before We Go Extinct has no easy answers. Rivers’ characters are complex – sometimes cruel, and other times child-like in their innocence – and she does not condescend with a tidy conclusion that ties up all the plot threads.

Here’s Karen talking about the main character’s journey and the process of writing the novel.

Fiction = Imagined

In the push to pay attention to children’s nonfiction–which may be one of the few good spinoffs of the Common Core–are we losing the ability to read fiction with imagination? I’m starting to get asked, much more than I did in years past, if my characters are “real.”

I’m almost embarrassed to admit that I make them all up, every last one. Fiction is not meant to be taken for history or geography.

girlinthewellI’m reading the ARC of a middle grade novel by my friend and neighbor Karen Rivers in which a girl falls into a well. Not a spoiler, I promise. That is only the beginning. Point is, did the writer ever fall into one? Does it matter? She is not her character. The story is an artistic representation. More on that later from Karen.

Fiction is meant to leave us with questions rather than provide us with tidy answers. I worry that we’re losing the arts of subtlety and subtext, that we want everything to be on the surface. We want only comfort for our children, when perhaps we ought to be passing along to them what little we have learned about living with the waves of discomfort and pain, joy and grief and passion, that have shaped our lives.