Since the 2001 publication of her first novel, What Every Girl (Except Me) Knows – which was selected as a PW Flying Start – Nora Raleigh Baskin has become a prolific presence in both YA and middle-grade fiction. This year sees publication of her ninth and tenth novels: this month’s Surfacing (Candlewick), a YA novel, and the middle-grade Runt (Simon & Schuster, July). Baskin spoke with Bookshelf from her home in Connecticut, the morning after the area’s latest snowfall – 10 inches this time, she noted – as she awaited the town snowplow to dig out her street. The conversation ranged from the differences between writing YA and middle-grade fiction to the current national concern with bullying, which is the subject Runt and a topic about which Baskin has strong, and very personally fueled, ideas.
You have two books, Surfacing and Runt, coming out within the next five months. How did this come about? Were you working on both at the same time?
It just turned out that way. I wrote Surfacing first, a long time ago – in fact, I wrote it several times and it wasn’t quite working out. I had to completely start over twice, which has never happened to me before. I wrote two complete rewrites, not just revisions, but completely starting over each time. In between I wrote Runt.
Surfacing was my first attempt at third person, and it started with an idea I had for a novel of magical realism: I wanted to write about a girl to whom everybody feels compelled to tell the truth. I wanted to experiment with magical realism, to grow as a writer, and I feel really lucky to have an editor, Deborah Wayschak, at Candlewick [who also writes as Deborah Noyes], who lets me experiment. But I got ahead of myself, and forgot the most basic rule of writing: the character has to want something. I teach that all the time, and this was my ninth book, but I forgot that rule, and so I failed twice at writing the book. Then Deb gave me permission to go back to telling my own story again. I had been trying not to do that, to branch out as a writer.
What is your own story that you keep telling?
The story of the guilt of losing someone you think you could have saved, even though you were actually too young to do so. My mother committed suicide when I was three-and-a-half, and of course I was too young to save her. For much of my early life I felt guilty, thinking that my brother and I might have been able to do more to save her – we ran downstairs to the doorman, but could we have tried harder to get him to do something? But of course we couldn’t have saved her. That was the subject of my first book, and guilt and loss are the subjects of almost all of my books, in some way. In Surfacing, I gave that misplaced guilt to Maggie. I told my truth in a whole different scenario. Maggie is so involved in her own guilt – could she have saved her sister from drowning? – that she misconstrues her power in her brain and begins to believe she has the power to make people tell her truths they don’t really want to reveal. I made it deliberately ambiguous; she believes she has a magical power, yet we all know that there are lots of people like that, people to whom other people are always telling things. I’m that kind of person – I get in a cab and the driver suddenly starts telling me things. And I know lots of other people that happens to.
Surfacing includes elements that you have not used in your other books. For example, you give the dead sister, Leah, a voice. Why did you decide to include Leah’s voice, and what were you looking to achieve by having Leah tell some of the backstory?
These were all parts of my initial attempts at magical realism. The truth is that it is Maggie imagining she hears Leah’s voice, but again, I made it deliberately ambiguous.
The relationship between the young sisters rings very true – the deep love going hand in hand with profound annoyance. How did you create their bond?
If my sister reads this book, she’ll recognize many scenes that are drawn directly from our life. The love I have with my sister is in those scenes, even though she was the younger one. I take pieces of my life and twist them into stories for my books, and in Surfacing I had to have the younger sister be the one to witness the death, so that she truly couldn’t do anything to save her sister and would have to carry that misconstrued guilt.
As an author who writes both middle-grade and YA fiction, how do you choose which direction to go when you’re starting a book? And do you write differently depending on which audience you are writing for?
Absolutely! Anything that has sex, drugs, or bad words in it has to be YA. So if I want to write about themes that cannot be told without using any one of those three things, I have to write YA. And if I want to write romantic relationships, it’s going to be YA. Maggie’s destructive relationships with boys meant that book had to be YA. Middle-grade books can have a crush, but if there’s anything beyond a crush, it has to be YA.
On the flip side, if I want to write about parents, it has to be middle-grade. Generally speaking, teenagers are not really interested in their parents; it’s not at the top of their mind. Teens are angry at their parents, but they are not really thinking about them.
As to the writing, there is a difference in language, too. I can write more experimentally for YA. Although Runt is very experimental, and it’s a middle-grade book. Runt is written as small vignettes with an over-arching narrative story that unfolds, and every section is different – different point-of-view, different tense. I even use future tense, and first person plural, which you almost never see in a book. I loved playing with all those different POVs and tenses, and they worked well into the theme of bullying.
Bullying is being talked and written about extensively right now; what made you decide to explore the topic?
I have very strong feelings about the subject, very mixed. It’s not a cut-and-dried topic, the way it is often presented. I wanted to write a book that threw the question on its head: What is bullying, really? Some teachers bully, some coaches bully – and I know that in my own life I have been bullied and have been a bully. I did a lot of soul searching. I looked to the animal kingdom, where bullying is a natural thing. In a way, you have to let it be. I researched the phrase, “you can’t legislate morality,” and found out that Barry Goldwater said that about the civil rights movement. Well, you can legislate morality, but you can’t legislate virtue. You can punish, but you can’t rule what is in someone’s heart. Only you can change what’s in your heart. Change has to come from inside.
You teach a program for members of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators called Turning Fact into Fiction, in which you discuss how you have used autobiographical elements in your fiction. We’ve talked about some of those that appear in Surfacing. Are there any elements from your own life that inspired Runt?
Oh yes – I had two teenage boys! There are scenes from my life and my children’s lives in the book. My older son was even suspended for harassment once. When it happened, we were a wreck and weren’t sure what to do. The school had a no-tolerance rule and, like many schools, didn’t even try to solve the problem. They just suspended him. The thing is – boys fight. They’re taught to fight and to fight back. The question is always “do I fight back?” because sometimes who is the bully is a question of who tells first. And why don’t kids tell on other kids? It’s not a black-and-white issue, it’s not something we can cure with suspensions and detentions.
Every book is basically a bully book – good guy/bad guy. I wanted to explore the issue in a different way. I hope this book will open a conversation about bullying; it can’t just be law and punishment.
About your sons – on your Web site you note that both of them are now writers, too. What do they write?
My older son, Sam, works for a music studio and is a rap artist. My younger son, Ben, goes to the University of Virginia and is a sports columnist for the UVA paper. In fact, Ben wrote one chapter of Runt – he even had a separate contract with the publisher.
Why did he write one of the chapters?
In one of the scenes, a boy is urinated on in a boys’ bathroom. I’ve never been in a boys’ bathroom, I’ve never used a urinal, and I didn’t know if it would be possible for one boy to urinate on another’s foot. Ben told me it was and so he wrote that chapter for the book.
And then Sam’s girlfriend helped me with another one of the chapters. I wanted to write one entirely in text messages and I just couldn’t do it. So I wrote all the dialogue and gave it to her, and she translated it into “text speak.”
Now that both boys are basically out of the house, do you write fulltime? Has your writing routine changed?
Not really. I’m always working, even if it’s just thinking about writing. I’ve always been doing some form of writing – and I still like to write near the kitchen! I’m usually cooking something. And I also teach; I teach writing in after-school programs, I teach online for Gotham [a NYC-based writing program for adults] and I’ve been teaching Hebrew school for 20 years.
I think laptops have made writing very freeing, especially for women. I used to write while waiting for my kids at drivers’ ed, or while cooking…
Can you describe your writing process?
I always start with a feeling, a sensibility – guilt, loss, injustice – and then I’m a “plunger”: I plunge right in and write the first draft. My first drafts are awful because I don’t reread. I just write to the end of the story, and I try to hold the whole story in my head at one time. I really admire writers who create long books; I just can’t do it. I can only write as much as my brain can hold. I get it all out. And I find I always return to my own story.
When did you figure out what your own story was?
In fifth grade. I wanted to be heard so desperately as a child. I was always acting out because I wanted answers to my question. When I discovered I could write, it saved my life.
What are you working on now?
I just finished a new YA novel and this time I was able to write the magical realism I chose not to fully pursue in Surfacing. I really wanted to go for it this time, and I wrote a time-travel love story that takes place in the New York City subway. It’s a romance between a 16-year-old boy living in 2013 and a 14-year-old girl from 1972 and it’s a doomed romance because they can only meet on the subway car. I based the story on Romeo and Juliet, and made the characters the same ages as those lovers. The girl is the wiser one, like Juliet; she understands it can’t work out. There is a graffiti artist – remember the graffiti on the New York City subway in the 1970s? – who serves somewhat as the nurse character. I did a lot of research on graffiti to write the book. It’s a tragic love story, and right now it’s titled Subway Love.
Now that that book is finished, and due out in 2014, I’m starting a new middle-grade novel.
And what is that one about?
I’ve only written about one paragraph! Check back with me later.
Surfacing by Nora Raleigh Baskin. Candlewick, $17.99 Mar. ISBN 978-0-7636-4908-1
For PW’s review, click here.