Books and Authors: Talking with Elana K. Arnold.
Source: Booklist Online
This acclaimed author discusses the examination of grief and difficult family dynamics in her two latest novels for middle-grade readers.
Southern California and the Pacific Northwest may not seem far apart to some, but they might as well be separate countries for two of Elana K. Arnold’s protagonists: Iris Abernathy (The Question of Miracles, 2015) and Odette Zyskowski (Far from Fair, 2016). Each girl is forced to leave her school and friends, and each, readers learn, is dealing with some kind of grief.
Iris, an only child, moves when her mother takes a new job in Oregon. Her dad maintains the house and makes plans to plant a garden and raise chickens. Boris, a seemingly odd boy at school, befriends Iris and explains that he is, medically speaking, a miracle child. He thinks the house where the Abernathys live resembles a haunted mansion, and convinces Iris that the sound she hears from her closet may indeed be the voice of her friend Sarah, who died just before the Abernathys moved. He even encourages her to visit a psychic to help her make a connection with Sarah. Why couldn’t there have been a miracle for Sarah? Iris’ parents sense that she is still struggling with Sarah’s death, and they send her to a therapist. The journey is tough, but the sprouting of new plants and the hatching of the eggs her father has nurtured represents new life and serves as a symbol of hope for Iris.
Odette’s situation is more complicated. Her parents have hidden their troubled marriage, but it becomes obvious when the family sets out for Orcas Island, off the coast of Washington, in a used RV. They sold most of their belongings when they vacated their home, and now Odette, her autistic brother, and their parents live in cramped quarters with only one cell phone between them. Odette makes several observations upon arrival on the island. Grandma Sissy’s bakery is dark, and the apartment above it where her grandmother lives is aglow with light. She knew that her grandmother had been sick, but she didn’t realize until now that Grandma Sissy wasn’t going to get better. Then Odette learns that Washington is a right-to-die state and Grandma Sissy has elected to determine her time to die. When that day comes, the family holds Grandma Sissy’s memorial service in her bakery. It’s not without hope: Odette’s family is able to take over the bakery and begin a new chapter in their lives.
Quiet and almost old-fashioned in tone, Far from Fair and The Question of Miracles each tackle tough issues for a younger audience; Arnold offers hope as she asks readers to ponder some of life’s biggest struggles. In the following conversation, she discusses not only these two titles but also the depictions of death, grief, and recovery in her novels and how such depictions change when writing for a younger audience.
SCALES: The Question of Miracles and Far from Fair have characters that move to the Pacific Northwest. Why are you so drawn to this setting?
ARNOLD: In 2009, my husband and I—for complicated reasons—sold our beautiful Southern California ’50s ranch-style home and moved our two small children, our dog, Sherman, and our illegal ferret, Vegas, into an old RV, beginning a journey up the coast of California and toward an uncertain future.
Before getting in the Coach, as we called it, life hadn’t been perfect. There was the enormous mortgage we really couldn’t afford, which I wrestled with each month, trying to do magic math to make our money stretch in ways it really couldn’t; there was my husband’s regular disappearance into the garage to smoke cigars and ruminate on the stresses of his work; there was the tension in our marriage, fed by all of the above. So when he came home from work one day, wild-eyed and nervous, and said, “I got laid off today,” we chose to try something different. We sold it all—at an enormous loss—and drove away.
On the road north, I started writing again for the first time in many years. I had a blog—People Do Things—about our travels, our hopes, my fears. I had time to write without the house and the chores, without laundry to wash or dishes to do.
When we pulled into Corvallis, Oregon, not too many months later, it felt like a town that could be our home. We parked the RV in the driveway of a rented house on Roseberry Lane. The kids found friends. I found a job teaching at Oregon State University. My husband stayed home for the first time in our kids’ lives and found he was pretty good at being a stay-at-home dad.
It sounds like the end of a book, but I’ve learned from writing and from life that a structurally satisfying ending usually isn’t where things stay put.
We didn’t stay in Corvallis, Oregon, for very long—just under a year—but the Pacific Northwest has stayed with me. The time we spent there, though some of it quite hard, was important. The rainstorms, the constant wetness, and the many shades of green followed me home to Southern California. I visit them in my writing.
SCALES: Iris Abernathy, the main character in The Question of Miracles, and Odette Zyskowski, the main character in Far from Fair, are dealing with grief. You have also written young-adult books that deal with grief. Tell us about your journey to explore this theme for middle and young-adult readers.
ARNOLD: When we were living in Corvallis, Oregon, our favorite place to eat was American Dream Pizza. One day, all tucked in and cozy in a booth, a beautiful pizza in front of us, feeling happy and celebratory and fine, I got a call from my sister back home in California. She called to tell me that my best friend from high school had killed herself that afternoon. My first response was, “But she’ll be okay, right?” It was too much to believe that the girl I loved so much, who was so full of life and smarts and ambition, was all the way dead. I wanted for her to at least be a little bit alive.
Less than a year after her death, I began writing my first novel, Sacred (2012), a book about a girl dealing with a sudden, unexpected death. And I have written about death many times since then. Death is something that bothers me, a lot. I’m afraid of dying, but even more than that, I love living so very much that the knowledge that life must end—my own life, the lives of those I love, and my children’s lives, most of all—is almost impossible to bear. So I return again and again to the questions of death and how one lives a meaningful life in spite of death and grief.
SCALES: In Far from Fair, you deal with the right to die with incredible grace. At what point in writing the novel did you know you wanted to tackle this important issue?
ARNOLD: When I began writing Far from Fair, I imagined it as a road trip story about a family jammed together in a broken-down, old RV. The family was going to travel across the country, visiting the parents’ parents and stepparents. It was going to be light and funny and without death. But like a road trip, novel writing sometimes takes turns one can’t anticipate. About 60 pages into the first draft, I realized that when my characters got to Grandma Sissy’s house, they were going to find a terminally ill woman, and they were all going to have to deal with questions about mortality and the right to die.
But now, looking back, it seems so obvious that this would be where the book would head; in the midst of writing the book, I was driving with my dad to his weekly appointments at the City of Hope, a cancer hospital, and talking with him about the end of his life and how he hoped to face it.
My dad lived until after I finished writing Far from Fair, and he read an early draft. He was proud of the book, and he was proud of me.
SCALES: Odette is confused by her parents’ relationship in Far from Fair, and her autistic brother adds to the strained interaction between all members of the family. Take us through the creation of this complicated family.
ARNOLD: There are elements of this family that mirror my own family, and parts of it are entirely fictional. What always surprises me is when my own self seeps into my work in ways I didn’t intend. I don’t see these places clearly until I’ve taken a step back, usually during the revision process. This is true of Odette’s parents’ marriage. During the first draft, there was no concrete mention of their troubles, but when I dug back in, I saw the strain and tension between them and recognized it as a reflection of the difficulties my husband and I had encountered during our overextended years. As I revised in conjunction with my wonderful editor at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt—and there were many drafts—the marriage problems became clearer to me, more on-the-page in a way that strengthens the book. All the family dynamics became more complicated, and Odette’s central complaint—that things just aren’t fair—became louder, too.
SCALES: Iris has a stay-at-home dad in The Question of Miracles. Did you set out to write a book that addresses the changing gender roles in our society, or did it happen naturally?
ARNOLD: I didn’t set out to write a book that addressed anything in particular. I had a character—Iris—who I knew was deeply sad and lonely, and I knew she and her family had moved to a new town. The family unfolded for me very much as they unfold for the reader. Of course, with some distance, I see the many ways Iris’ family mirrors my own, but when I was writing, I didn’t see the similarities.
SCALES: Do you believe in miracles?
ARNOLD: Yes. No. I don’t know.
SCALES: Light and darkness are presented in different forms in your novels. Why is it so important for young readers to see both lightness and darkness in novels?
ARNOLD: Maybe not during my earliest years, but definitely as long as my memory reaches, I have been careful to soak up the things that bring me joy—the sweet citrus scent of an orange just peeled; the warm weight of a lapful of sleeping cat; the anticipation of coffee nearly made. I notice and enjoy these things because one day I will die. The awareness of death—that human recognition of mortality—does it enable us to engage more fully in the time and experiences we do have than if we were ignorant of our inevitable end? I think so. Light and dark—life and death—are with us every day, whether we speak of them or not. I think it’s comforting and empowering for readers of all ages to confront the various ways lightness and darkness exist in our everyday lives.
SCALES: How is writing middle-grade fiction different from writing for young adults?
ARNOLD: I like to say that I write books for kids and books about teens. When I am working on a YA project, I do my very best to ignore my hope that one day the book will find an audience. I write the book that pleases and challenges me, and I follow the story wherever it goes. When I write for younger people—middle-graders and children—I do consider my audience. Of the two, I find writing books for kids to be much more pleasurable than writing about teens, but I am grateful that I am able to follow the stories that come to me, and that no one has tried to brand me as one kind of writer.
SCALES: Which of your characters is most like you?
ARNOLD: There’s a famous belief that first novels are thinly veiled autobiographies. My first book, Sacred, set on Catalina Island, off the coast of California, tells the story of Scarlett Wenderoth, a lonely, bookish teen whose brother dies, and who meets a mysterious newcomer to the island who may be a kabbalah mystic (spoiler alert: he is). I have never lived on an island, and I have never lost a sibling, and I have never (yet) fallen in love with a kabbalah mystic. So I felt smugly certain that I had avoided the novel-as-autobiography trap, until I reread my book after some time had passed, after it was published. Suddenly, I saw myself as a teen—the way I felt about my body, the way I felt about boys and friends and parents and horses—and it was brutally clear that I had laid myself bare on the page, even though the plot was fictional. That said, I know I am in all of my characters—the teens, the kids, and the grown-ups, too. In fact, Claude, a psychic that Iris visits in The Question of Miracles, tells a story of her first, heartbreaking friendship that I lived word-for-word.
SCALES: Tell us about some of the books you remember most from your childhood.
ARNOLD: I loved Bridge to Terabithia, From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, and Harriet the Spy. I didn’t think about it at the time, but now I see that all three of these books feature girls who love to read and whose reading inspires them to take real-life chances, whether that means building an imaginary world, running away from home to live in a museum, or spying on the neighbors. When I was a little older, Anne of Green Gables absolutely captured me. I wanted to BE Anne. The Halloween of my seventh-grade year, I tried to dye my hair red with a bottle of food coloring and ended up with weird pink stripes that lasted until New Year’s.
SCALES: Have any of these titles inspired your writings?
ARNOLD: Absolutely, all of them have influenced my writing. I liked the everydayness of these books, how magic happens in the ordinary. I liked the connections between realistic characters; I liked the imperfect but not ridiculous parents; I liked how the smallest shifts in dialogue, plot, and mood could create seismic transformations in how the characters saw themselves and those around them. Both The Question of Miracles and Far from Fair work in this tradition of “quiet,” realistic books.
SCALES: What questions do you get from your readers? Have any of their letters inspired ideas for other novels?
ARNOLD: The most common questions I get are about the endings of Splendor (2013, Sacred’s sequel) and Burning (2013). These stories, though romantic, are not romances, and as such, don’t make any happily-ever-after promises. I get letters from readers asking me to tell them more, asking me to say that yes, eventually, the characters do decide on a lifetime with each other. I get asked for sequels to these books, but for me the endings feel perfect just as they are. So far, I haven’t gotten any inspiration for new novels, but I am open to the possibility!
SCALES: What are you writing now?
ARNOLD: I just finished the final edits of A Boy Called BAT and am working on its sequel! This is the official description: “In the spirit of Clementine and Ramona, the books follow Bixby Alexander Tam—nicknamed BAT—a third-grader on the autism spectrum, and his funny, authentic experiences at home and at school.” I love BAT, as I love Iris and Odette, and I am deeply grateful for each reader, child and adult, who loves these characters, too.