Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Author Interview: Lyn Miller-Lachmann

by Cordelia Jensen

Hi, Lyn! So happy to have you here with us today. I just LOVED reading your new book, Rogue. I could not put it down. Before we get started, here is a quick plot synopsis:

Kiara has a difficult time making -- and keeping -- friends. She has Asperger's syndrome, so relating to other people doesn't come naturally. Most of the time, she relies on Mr. Internet -- her go-to when the world doesn't make sense, which is often -- and her imagination, where she daydreams that she's Rogue, one of the mutant superheroes of the X-Men. In the comics, Rogue hurts anyone she touches, but eventually learns to control her special power. Kiara hasn't discovered her own special power yet, but when Chad moves in across the street, she hopes that, for once, she'll be able to make friendship stick. She's even willing to keep Chad's horrible secret, if that's what it takes. But being a true friend is complicated, and it might be just the thing that leads her to her special power.

Kiara is such a memorable, likeable and empathetic character even though she makes plenty of mistakes during the course of the book. Did her character come to you before the plot?

Kiara’s character came to me long before the plot did. Of all the characters I’ve ever written, she is by far the most autobiographical, but until I was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, now considered a high-functioning form of autism, I avoided writing characters of this kind. I didn’t want to remember the difficulties I experienced when I was younger, and to a great extent I had internalized the hostility and rejection I experienced from my peers. My diagnosis answered a lot of questions I’d had about why I never seemed to fit in and why I regularly became the target of bullies. After I got over the concern that someone like me, who had trouble understanding social situations and nonverbal cues, had no business writing fiction, I decided that I had to tell my side of the story.

Once I chose to write from the perspective of a young teenager on the autism spectrum who is trying to figure out the world and to find her place within it, I took incidents that happened to me at that age and turned them into a story. Rogue begins with such an incident. In seventh grade, I decided that if I wanted to be popular, I should sit at the table where the popular girls sat—that was all I needed to do. But the moment I set my tray down, one of the popular girls pushed my tray to the floor. Unlike Kiara, I didn’t then smash the tray into the girl’s face; I just stood in the middle of the cafeteria and cried while everyone else laughed at me. Kiara’s action was a kind of wish fulfillment for me, but the consequence is that she gets suspended from school for the rest of the year and is thus further isolated from her peers and farther away from her goal of having a friend.

The other major plot element that is based on my experience is Kiara’s initial naïve participation in, and ultimately her silence with respect to, Chad’s family business. When I first got my driver’s license, I unwittingly became a go-between between some popular kids at my school and a local drug dealer. I thought the popular kids had finally accepted me and I would be part of their crowd, but to my dismay found out they were only using me. I stopped driving them around, and they stopped being nice to me, but I still didn’t tell anyone about the drugs. I didn’t want to be a snitch and risk getting beaten up or worse. And my moral choice—do I do things that I know are wrong just so I can have friends?—became Kiara’s moral choice in the novel.

Kiara loves to research using Mr. Internet. How much research did you have to do for the book? For example, did you know anything about BMX biking or the X-Men before you started writing?

I knew about the X-Men, which came into being in the 1960s. I identified with them as mutants who didn’t fit into society but nonetheless had special powers that could save society. I was particularly interested in Professor Charles Xavier—Professor X—who uses a wheelchair and who is able to contribute with his mind, his leadership ability, and his dedication to the young misunderstood mutants (of whom I believed I was one). In the early days, there were few female X-Men, and I couldn’t really relate to them, so I moved on to other obsessions. I did know about the new characters that had been added to the X-Men, including Rogue, so when I started writing the novel, I turned to the Internet to learn more about this character who couldn’t touch or be touched, and about her close but often rocky relationship with Gambit, who comes from the same region that she does.

My inspiration to include BMX biking came from having watched a DVD, Wipeout, which I received as a review copy from the National Film Board of Canada several years ago. It’s a documentary about teens who film spectacular ski, bike, and skateboard wipeouts and the injuries that often result. While I used the Internet to research the stunts—I didn’t watch any wipeout videos because I didn’t want to encourage those young people to risk their lives for two and a half minutes of fame—I mainly based my knowledge of the culture presented in the Canadian documentary and on information from various seventh grade students over the years who built bike jumps and skateboard ramps and performed stunts. The suburb where I used to live also had a mountain bike trail that I rode regularly, and the trail surrounded some BMX jumps. Occasionally I’d see kids there and talk to them.

Without giving the ending away, did you know the book would end this way from the beginning or is that something you figured out later after drafting other endings?

I had a general idea of how the book would end—at least for Kiara—but the actual ending underwent numerous changes, mostly in the process of revision for my editor at Penguin, Nancy Paulsen. When she asked me to revise my original YA manuscript for an older middle grade readership, I had to simplify the ending and remove a plot thread that I liked but that may well have gone over the heads of middle grade readers.

Was the book always written in first person? Did you play around with third?

In the past, I have switched one novel from first person to third (my adult novel, Dirt Cheap) and another from third person to alternating point of view first person (my YA novel, Gringolandia). This time, however, I knew right away I wanted to tell the story in first person. The voice is very close to my own voice as a person on the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum, and I wanted the voice to be as honest and unfiltered as possible.

Chad has a huge role in the book. Did you do any free writing to get to know his character better? You did a remarkable job of making him empathetic even though he can, at times, be so mean to Kiara.

I didn’t do any free writing for Chad, though about ten years ago I wrote a short story from the point of view of Antonio, the mountain bike-riding friend of Kiara’s older brother who becomes her protector. Chad is based in part on a neighbor boy I sometimes hung out with, and sometimes fought with, when I was around Kiara’s age, and in part on a boy I tutored in an after-school program, whose younger brother was a friend of my son’s. Both of those boys were widely seen as “bad” boys, but I saw things that were good in both of them.

Can you tell us a little about your current writing projects?

I wrote most of Rogue in my first year as a MFA student in the Writing for Children & Young Adults program at Vermont College of Fine Arts, and in my second year I wrote about two-thirds of a YA novel for older readers, titled ANTS GO MARCHING, which became my creative thesis. ANTS GO MARCHING is about an academically gifted boy who is the only person from his hardscrabble mobile home park in the elite accelerated honors program at his suburban school. When a trio of well-to-do bullies attacks him following a verbal provocation, he sustains a severe concussion that leads to him flunking out of the program. The novel portrays his struggle to find a new place for himself, and to avoid the one he seems fated to occupy because of the circumstances of his birth. It’s a big book, one that my agent calls “brilliant but so dark.” Still, I think we need to face the darkness if we’re serious about ending it and bringing hope to young people in difficult situations.

I finished the manuscript of ANTS GO MARCHING when I was in Portugal last fall. After a false start with a middle grade manuscript that suffered from a passive protagonist, I’m now writing another middle grade novel inspired by two remarkable young people I met in Lisbon and a 65-year-old grandfather who was arrested for throwing rocks at police during an anti-austerity demonstration. I started the project, titled KRILL, as a short story for my Portuguese class this past semester, but my professor strongly suggested I continue writing it in English. I’ve sent a photo the first page of the story, along with her corrections, to give you an idea why.

And now for our "3 for 3" book questions:

1. What were your 3 favorite books from childhood/teen years?

Charlotte’s Web, by E. B White
The Outsiders, by S. E. Hinton
The Chocolate War, by Robert Cormier

2. What are 3 books you've read recently that surprised you?

The Stamp Collector, by Jennifer Lanthier
The Vine Basket, by Josanne La Valley
Each Kindness, by Jacqueline Woodson
All of these surprised me because they’re books for younger readers (younger than YA) that don’t have happy endings.

3. What are 3 books that influence/d your writing?

A Step from Heaven, by An Na
Scars, by Cheryl Rainfield
Marcelo in the Real World, by Francisco X. Stork
These were the three novels that inspired me to reexamine the struggles I had growing up and to create my own novel from them.

Thank you so much for sharing your process with us. And for writing such a brave and honest book.

Lyn Miller-Lachmann is the former editor-in-chief of MultiCultural Review and the author of the young adult novel Gringolandia (Curbstone Press/ Northwestern University Press, 2009), a 2010 ALA Best Book for Young Adults and an Américas Award Honor Book. Her new novel, Rogue (Penguin /Nancy Paulsen Books, May 2013), a Junior Library Guild selection, portrays an eighth grader with undiagnosed Asperger’s syndrome and an X-Men obsession whose desire to befriend another outcast after being excluded from school leads her to some dangerous choices. For more information, visit Lyn’s website, www.lynmillerlachmann.com.

Thanks for reading!!! If you're local to the area, please let the bookstore know if you would like to place a special order for ROGUE. You can email orders to orders [at] bigbluemarblebooks [dot] com, call (215) 844-1870, or come see us in the Mt. Airy neighborhood of Philadelphia at 551 Carpenter Lane. 

Look for Jen's upcoming interview of Amy Ignatow, coming June 25th! 


LinWash said...

Love this interview and the 3 for 3!!! A great feature. ROGUE is so real, and Kiara is such an endearing character. I love the fact that Kiara makes mistakes, but we still root for her throughout.

Lyn Miller-Lachmann said...

Thank you for picking ROGUE, Cordelia, and for such great interview questions! If anyone has further questions, I'll check in to answer them. I hope I can get to Philadelphia in the fall and see you all in person. I came to your store when my earlier novel, GRINGOLANDIA, came out and had a wonderful time. I still wear the t-shirt!

Jen said...

Lyn, thank you for doing the interview and for the excellent responses! We'd love to have you visit the bookstore again. I really enjoyed meeting you when you came to the store in 2010 (and reading Gringolandia afterward), and I'm looking forward to reading Rogue!

Lyn Miller-Lachmann said...

I'm glad you enjoyed GRINGOLANDIA, Jen! I've been hearing good things about ROGUE from folks who appreciated GRINGOLANDIA, even though they deal with very different subject matter and one's a historical novel while the other is contemporary and for younger readers.

Robin said...

I've also been influenced by A Step From Heaven, possibly for different reasons. An Na's writing is so economical. She makes every word count. I tended to avoid slim books until I read hers, because while her books may be slim, they pack the same amount of story as a novel three times the size.

Lyn, I can't wait to read Rogue! I too grew up with the X-Men, though it was the 90s cartoon that I watched.

Lyn Miller-Lachmann said...

Thank you for commenting, Robin! I hope you enjoy ROGUE. A lot of the more interesting characters came after my time. If Rogue had been around when I was younger, I would have been as obsessed as Kiara is--and probably with Gambit too.

Sandra Nickel said...

I was so caught up in the story of Rogue, and this interview deepened it even further for me. Thank you, Lyn. Thank you, Cordelia.

Lyn Miller-Lachmann said...

Thank you for commenting, Sandra! Please let me know if you have any more questions.