September 19, 2010
Here at The Nervous Breakdown, you’ve been tracking the journey of writing and selling your book. Why did you want to tell that story?
I wanted to give others a sense of company through what can be a terribly frustrating process. I’ve heard so many stories of writers with drawers full of rejection letters, who feel like Sisyphus forever pushing that boulder up the hill.
It helps, I think, when people shine some light on whatever path they took so others don’t have to feel like they’re walking blind. And I wanted to provide some sense of hope—that what looks like a long journey of failure and rejection and doors slamming in your face can lead you to that publisher who says yes.
Why did you work so hard to get this book published? What made you keep going after so much rejection?
It’s hard to explain, but I don’t think I’m the only writer who’s felt this way. Simply put, the story and the characters haunted me. I’d wake up in the middle of the night with more and more pieces of their story and the urgent sense that I was meant to tell it. I felt this most especially from the eight-year-old girl who became the narrator of Up from the Blue.
Tell me about this 8-year-old narrator.
Tillie is a biter. She’s impulsive, stubborn, and without friends. And the person she loves the most—her mother, who often spends her days crying face-down on the carpet—has vanished.
So it’s a mystery?
One level of the novel is about uncovering the mystery of what happened to Tillie’s mother. But another level is a more universal story—capturing that moment in life when your world is turned upside-down. I wanted to really explore the process of grief. I wanted to pit trauma against love, family loyalties against difficult truths to discover which was stronger.
Was it hard to keep Tillie’s voice locked into this age when you wanted to let your literary wings soar?
I had no trouble at all tuning into her voice. But I studied To Kill a Mockingbird for weeks to see how to walk that line between seeing the world through a child’s eyes and not feeling confined by language. There’s a very subtle trick in Harper Lee’s book, and it took me several reads of the opening to catch it—how she marries an older Scout to the younger Scout just enough to give her that leeway.
Why isn’t the book classified as YA?
I don’t think it’s a book that’s in any way harmful or over the head of young adults. But I think it’s in the spirit of other books with young narrators—Mockingbird, The Lovely Bones, They Came Like Swallows—that offer a child’s view of dark, grownup problems.
Which character in the book reminds you of your darkest self?
There’s a little bit of me in every character, and all of them struggle with questions and issues that gnaw at me: the fear that the people you love may not love you the way you hope, the battle between following your bliss and responding to the needs of others, the habit of disengaging from people rather than exposing your weakness, the failures we make against those we love and how we live with those failures.
Was it hard, emotionally, to write this book?
It was utterly freeing. That’s different than being easy, of course, but writing this book taught me how to grieve and forgive on a level I’d never allowed myself to go before.
Did you cry while writing it?
Yeah, in lots of places, and I’m not a crier. I’m terribly stoic and am always looking for a book or a movie that will break through that emotional wall. And I wanted my own book to do that, so I kept pushing my characters into more and more uncomfortable corners until I cracked.
I cried as I wrote the entire last chapter. I think of it as the Mad Girl’s Love Song, which was one of my working titles—one of probably fifty of them.
Tell me about the title you finally settled on.
Every title I came up with was rejected. Sometimes not even rejected but given that awkward silence writers get accustomed to throughout their careers. Finally, I asked my friend, Keith Cronin, for help. Keith’s a fabulous writer (and drummer!)—someone who is revered by so many in the writing community for his insight and his generosity.
He’d come up with the title for Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants, a terrific book and a title I’d always liked for being so different that it stuck in your head. And when he proposed UP FROM THE BLUE, I adored its quirkiness and sense of hope. I’d love to say more about why I think the title is so perfect, but I’d have to give away the ending.
Tell me about the setting of the book.
Most of the book is set in the 70s with its banana seat bikes, early feminism, and school desegregation.
And missile technology. Where did the interest in weapons come from?
I grew up around inventors (the inventors of the internet, artificial speech, robots, missiles, unmanned vehicles, the mouse), and I couldn’t help but slip some of that in. It’s just a small thread in the book, but I’m completely fascinated by the often decades-long process of these discoveries, the give and take between military and civilian use, and what ultimately becomes of that initial idea.
In Up from the Blue, Tillie’s father is one of the military scientists trying to create a more accurate missile. What some readers may notice is that this is the beginning of what will eventually be known as GPS.
Which makes me have to ask how much of the book is full of details from your own personal history?
I’m like most writers I know—a mental pack-rat. I hoard everything from memories to philosophical questions to things I overhear on the subway. I notice the look and feel and smell of everything around me. All of that goes into the writer’s grab-bag.
You reach in and grab a detail: I once caught my hair in a door; I never had a lunch box but always loved the sound of the thermos banging around inside of it; and throughout my childhood, I was afraid of our basement.
But here is the fun of fiction. You take these details and create something brand new. What would happen if this character in my book gets her hair caught in the door right when she’s in a hurry to find a nurse? What if, instead of a thermos banging around inside a lunch box, it’s a jar of olives? What if someone goes down those basement stairs and makes a startling discovery?
What’s been the reaction of friends and family to your writing?
For a long time I didn’t tell friends or family that I wrote at all. It seemed like such a goofy way to spend my time—trying to get a story down, fiddling with every sentence to get it just right, and having unfinished stories all over the place. But eventually, I’d been at it long enough that my writing would come up in conversations. That’s when you discover there are things that are perfectly normal to writers and perfectly weird to everyone else.
You go to a neighborhood barbecue and someone asks what you like to write about, and your fascination with the dark side of the human heart creates kind of an uncomfortable silence. You visit family and they ask what you’ve published and you mention some magazines they’ve never heard of and try to explain why you’re never paid a cent. Or they ask what you’re working on, and year after year, you tell them about the same project.
Most of the people I know have never read any of my writing other than the annual Christmas letter, so my novel (if they choose to buy it) will be the first.
Do you feel exposed now that your novel is going to be out there for everyone to see?
A little. I mean, even though the story is fiction, it’s a pretty accurate picture of my heart, my obsessions, and the side of me I tend to keep private.
But once a book is published, it’s no longer yours. It belongs to whoever is reading it, and its meaning or importance can shift, depending on that reader’s temperament, life experience, and what they happen to need at that moment. I’m ready to let my book have its life outside of me.
How does it feel to have accomplished this?
There are still worries—Will it sell? Will people like it?—but something has settled deep inside of me. One yes can soothe a hundred no’s. And I no longer feel haunted.