Robin Brande's debut YA novel, Evolution, Me and Other Freaks of Nature (Knopf) shines a white-hot spotlight on the debate between evolution and creationism and how a thoughtful high school freshman comes to grips with her feelings about religion, science and doing the right thing. Check out the dedicated site featuring the book here.
What inspired you to tackle such a controversial topic?
I have my own sordid Baptist girl background. And what goes on with the religious right in this country has always been on my mind. There has been more support for religion in the schools and we’ve seen more discussion of religion in politics.
I am also an avid Bible reader and I like to weave that into my stories. While reading the parable of the talents, it occurred to me, “That would be an explanation for evolution.”
You mentioned your Baptist background. Can you tell us a little bit more?
I was raised in a fundamentalist Baptist home until I was 13. Then I was kicked out of my church.
Very much like Mena, the protagonist in your book. That sounds fairly dramatic. What happened?
It was completely ridiculous. The summer before I started high school, a few of my youth group friends and I ditched church one night to practice hypnotizing each other. Things didn’t quite go the way we planned, and I ended up being accused of possessing one of the girls with the devil. Because, you know, that sort of thing happens all the time when you’re 13.
Mena has a particularly tough time facing her former friends/members of her church when she begins her first year of high school, and things get worse when there’s a classroom stand-off over the teaching of evolution. Did you have any similar fall-out?
No, not at school—not like in the book. My church boycotted Disney when they recognized gay rights. My church was very big into crusades like that, but it didn’t come up in schools as it does now.
And my parents stayed with the same church after I was kicked out, but they did not freeze me out like Mena’s parents did.
Do you mind telling us if you practice a religion today?
I still teach Sunday school, for the Methodists, who I find to be very reasonable people. But I’m not saying that I am a Methodist.
It sounds like there’s a little bit of you in Mena. Are there any other characters in the book that were inspired by people you know?
Mena is more like me [than any of the other characters], shy and nervous.
Dr. Kenneth Miller, a professor at Brown University, and an expert witness in the Kitzmiller v. Dover School District case in Pennsylvania, was my inspiration for the science teacher, Ms. Shepherd. I’m fascinated by the analysis and explanations he presents in his book Finding Darwin’s God: A Scientist’s Search for Common Ground Between God and Evolution. When I interviewed him for my book we had long discussions about the very different ways that people in various established religions interpret the Bible, and about how the Bible is not a scientific text, even though some people might believe that.
Casey, and the whole plot line with the puppies, came to me the summer when I was researching the book. Our beloved lab had died and we went to see a breeder who had 13 black puppies. There was a teenage boy at the breeder’s house named Casey who was great with the puppies. If I were a teenage girl, I’d be in love with him. I’ve told him that he inspired the character in the book, and he wants me to be sure and tell all the girls that when I come to his school for an event.
And Kayla is a cross between the woman who used to run Wonkette and a girl I know who is in college now and who has been an intern for a congressman.
The audiobook recording of Evolution includes a bonus interview between you and Dr. Miller. What was that like?
It was great. Ken Miller is brilliant, and he makes me look so good! I had interviewed him many times, so we both felt pretty comfortable having that discussion.
In your book, it’s pretty easy for readers to dislike Mena’s classmates who still belong to her church because they are just downright mean human beings.
No, they’re not very nice. And it makes for an even tougher start to high school, where Mena, like any freshman, is just trying to fit in.
I did a pre-pub tour in March and I visited a high school in Texas where I talked about my book with kids who were atheist, Muslim, Baptist and Catholic. Several of them mentioned how much they liked the balance between religion and science in the novel, but one of them said she felt I was hard on the evangelical church. I told her that wasn't my purpose at all. I'm not against any church—I still teach Sunday school myself—but I am very much against the behavior of anyone who tries to hide behind the Bible or religion as an excuse for treating someone horribly. I feel it’s the job of Christians to be loving and forgiving, not condemning.
Can you talk a little bit about your journey to getting published? Was it a long road?
It was made longer by my own lack of commitment. I had wanted to be a writer since I was a little girl, but I chickened out after college when I had to support myself and went to law school instead. While everyone else was studying for finals every semester, I spent all my time writing, directing, and producing the law school comedy show. So you’d think I would have realized from that where my heart really lay, but I still went off to practice law. (One good thing came from my law career: I ended up meeting my husband, when he was an opponent.)
Once I finally decided to make writing my one and only career, it took me about two years and several manuscripts to write the one that got the attention of my agent, Laura Rennert, and then another year and another intermediate manuscript before I wrote Evolution.
What are you writing now?
I’ve been working on a couple of things. One is a YA novel about incarnation, which invokes some religion, but really has a more spiritual than religious take. And another YA novel that’s a romantic comedy.
I’ll be doing a TV satellite tour for Evolution in September. I’ve never done one before, but Meg Cabot says I’ll be interacting with a smiley face [similar to when actors do green screen work] while I have an earphone in. I’m also speaking at a few fall conferences.
What do you enjoy doing when you're not writing? Judging from entries on your Web site, I’m guessing that blogging and camping are on the list?
I spend probably WAY too much time blogging and reading other people’s blogs, but I consider that part of my writing life. Plus I enjoy the interaction with other people out there in the kidlitosphere. It’s such a nice community, and it’s why I came up with this impulsive idea to host the 1st Annual Kidlitosphere Conference in Chicago this October. At first it was a ‘pretend’ idea, like a fantasy potluck, but the more we talked, I thought it would be nice for all of us to hang out in person for a day or two. Other than that, my passion is being outdoors with my husband and dog. In fact, I'm in Colorado right now, getting ready to go on a long backpacking trip along the Continental Divide. Nothing like thin air to clear your head.
Is there anything you’d like to add, on the eve of your book coming out?
I’m curious how religious leaders will react. My answer to them is that I don’t feel the need to convince anyone; I enjoy having the discussion. I particularly like talking to young readers because they are willing to be more open and discuss [evolution vs. creationism] as a philosophical issue than more entrenched adults are.