In second grade, the title characters in Robin Benway’s Emmy & Oliver planned to be best friends forever. Then Oliver was kidnapped. Ten years later, he is returned to his mother – and Emmy, who still lives in the house next door. PW spoke with Benway about the inspiration for her fifth novel.
Where did the idea for the story come from?
Well, definitely the spark was not that I’ve been kidnapped! There was an idea percolating for a long time. Of the books I’ve written, this one has been the slowest burn. It took four years from concept to pub date but it was constantly in my brain, and I think it started with my friends having kids of their own. I don’t have kids but a lot of my friends now have two- and three- and four-year-olds and I have been watching that incredible bond develop between them. At the same time, because I write for teenagers, I’m also always thinking about what happens when that bond is severed, when those kids grow up and start moving away from their parents. From that I started thinking about what would happen if the bond is instantly severed, like, in Oliver’s case, because a parent takes a child and goes into hiding.
Kidnapping is this huge fear hanging over parents’ heads but isn’t it almost always – like 99 percent of the time – an estranged parent or someone the victim knows?
It is and it happens so frequently! Hundreds and thousands of kids are kidnapped every year. And once I started thinking about that as a scenario, I couldn’t get out of my head how difficult this would be to overcome for the child or the parent left behind. I had also read an article in the Guardian, which was focused more on international abductions, that looked at cases where the child was found but, for some reason, either because he had been brainwashed, or because he was happy where he was, he didn’t want to come home. How would you deal with that?
There’s a moment in the story where I also felt your point was that there are different ways of kidnapping someone, because Emmy’s parents react to Oliver’s kidnapping by pretty much locking her away for 10 years.
Definitely, my intention was for you to think that. But at least Emmy’s parents come to realize that they have made a terrible error. By forcing Emmy into doing so many things without telling them they completely missed out on so much of her life. They’ve never even seen her surf.
Do you surf?
Ha! I do not, but my mom and I took lessons and she's way better than me! Here’s me during my first lesson. Please note that I’m not actually surfing. The first surfing scene between Emmy and Oliver was actually inspired by hanging out with my mom and my friend Steve Bramucci while the two of them went surfing in Laguna Beach. The beach was half-empty, the dogs were running around and barking at them in the water, and the sun was setting. It was just a gorgeous evening and I thought, ‘This has to be in the book.’ I also talked to our surf instructor, Jenna, about what it’s like to be a girl who surfs, and I spoke with Meg Roh, too. She’s an Orange County teenager who surfed for more than 1,000 days in a row. They were so helpful!
Speaking of moms, is it okay that I hated the mother?
Emmy’s mother. Oliver’s mother I felt sorry for. But Emmy’s mother I just wanted to shake by the shoulders.
I have seen comments about Emmy’s mom online, complaints that she is so rigid and she is so strict, but Emmy doesn’t help herself. She never fights back because she’s so afraid of losing this life she’s secretly carved out for herself. So then, when it’s time for college, the hammer falls on Mom. It’s such a huge loss for her because not only does Emmy want to take off but Mom now realizes she missed out on watching Emmy grow up, and become a great surfer, and she’s not going to get those years back. It’s really heartbreaking.
This is your fifth novel [beginning with Audrey, Wait! in 2008] – are all of them written in the first person?
They are, and not to get all weird on you, but I think that’s because that’s how the characters talk to me. That’s just how the story happens. Writing in first [person] allows me to have a much deeper look at what the character is feeling. I actually did try to write Emmy & Oliver in alternating voices, back and forth between the two main characters, but I realized that Oliver has no idea what’s happened because he’s been gone and not been told the truth about why he and his father left, so he’s a very unreliable narrator. He wouldn’t be able to carry a chapter. Someday I’d like to try writing in a close third just to see if I could do it but I do love being able to get inside my characters’ heads in first, especially because, when you’re a teenager what you say is so much different than what you’re thinking. “How was your day, honey?” “Fine.” Ha. It probably wasn’t fine at all.
Actually I have friends who have a two-year-old and they told me they asked him how his day was at daycare and he said, “Good,” and they were like, “That’s all we get? Good? You can’t start this at age two!”
How did you decide to write YA?
Well, I had a great job but it wasn’t right for me. So I decided to apply to MFA programs and I wrote a story from the perspective of a 10-year-old girl as part of the application process. I didn’t get into any of the programs but I had already quit my job and I realized I wasn’t going to ever have a better chance to try to do what I wanted to do, which was write. And writing that story [with the 10-year-old character] made me realize I like writing in a younger voice. I mean I had been writing about adults, and marriage, and divorce, which I had never experienced, and it wasn’t working. So I took a course at UCLA Extension in writing YA that was taught by Rachel Cohn and she introduced me to incredible books, like The Realm of Possibility by David Levithan, and I thought, “If this is what YA is I want it now.”
Do you get a lot out of connecting with your readers?
Oh my gosh, I love it. My first book came out in 2008 and I have readers I met when that book came out that I have watched grow up. One who was in high school then and is now living in Paris. We’re friends on Instagram. Another who works at a publisher. It’s so much fun. They bring me things and they are so excited about reading. I’ve been at adult fiction signings and there’s no comparison. I’m like, ‘Where are all the kids who came dressed as your characters from your book?’ The fans are so great. The fan mail is great, although it can be overwhelming. It’s just a great, great audience.
Working on anything new?
I am but it’s slow going. I wrote three books in three years and I think I needed a break.
That’s like the most obnoxious question, too. Your latest novel isn’t even out yet and I want to know about the next book.
No, it’s good. I’ve been at conferences where kids have an ARC of a book that is still six months out and heard them say, “I can’t wait for her next book,” and you wish you could say it’s coming right up. But, of course, it would be much, much worse if no one cared whether I had another book coming out.
Emmy & Oliver by Robin Benway. HarperTeen, $17.99 June 978-0-0623-3059-8