Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Q&A with Annie Barrows

Annie Barrows, photo by Amy Perl Photography
Annie Barrows is the author of the new young adult novel Nothing. Her other books include the Ivy & Bean series for kids, and the novel The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society.  She lives in Northern California.

Q: You've written for adults and for kids, but now you're venturing into the young adult world. Why did you decide on a YA novel this time around?

A: Well, I have this child. I have this child who used to read and then stopped when she became a teenager. This drove me completely off my nut, of course, because I’M A WRITER.

In response to my extremely tactful inquiries on the subject—“What the heck is wrong with you?”—she informed me that she didn’t read because reading was depressing. Especially YA books, which were inevitably about dead moms, child abuse, racism, homophobia, war, nuclear apocalypse and ensuing chaos, suicide, mental illness, or cancer.

But wait, I said, what about young love? You can’t tell me young love is depressing. Sure it is, she said, because young love in books is always completely unrealistic. It’s exactly like reading about fantasy kingdoms and superpowers and aliens—all those things people write about because the real lives of teenagers are too lame to be the subject of a book.

This, for me, was like being challenged to a duel. I will write you a book about the real lives of teenagers, I said. Nobody will die, nobody will do their best friend’s boyfriend, and nobody will have superpowers.

Okay, she said. You write it and I’ll read it.

So I wrote Nothing.

Q: I've asked you before to compare writing for kids with writing for adults--does YA writing seem more like one or the other, or is it completely different for you?

A: I’d say it was in the middle. As in writing for children, I was writing for someone I am not. Also similar was the difficulty of constructing a story about characters who live under constraint.

I think teenagers have even less authority and agency than little kids—they get no leeway for youth, while at the same time being criticized for failing to behave like adults. Their lives really do stink, especially if you’re trying to eke a plot out of it, which is why so many YA books feature extreme situations or fantasy. The real lives of teens are a narrative wasteland.
YA was similar to writing for adults in the subject matter that was available to me, by which I mean sex. But there’s a lot more swearing in YA than I would ever put in an adult book. Adults are delicate.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Charlotte and Frankie, your main characters in Nothing?

A: There are a lot of teenagers in my kitchen. Charlotte and Frankie are composites of about 10 different kids, some I know personally and others I know by reputation.

Q: Who are some of your favorite YA authors?

A: I like YA novels, but most of them are like eating a bag of candy—fun until you get sick. I loved Me, Earl, and the Dying Girl by Jesse Andrews. I respected Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys. I think John Green is a wonderful writer.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Lots o’ stuff. Ivy and Bean: One Big Happy Family will be coming out next year, and my first picture book, John Marco, the following year (don’t worry; I’m not drawing the pictures). I’ve just turned in a manuscript for my next adult novel—I don’t know when it will be published, but it’s on the way.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: There are plenty of kids who love the whole misery-sweepstakes of YA fiction, and I say good cess to them. That’s great.  Nothing is for the kid who doesn’t. Nothing is for the kid who won’t read—or really, for the desperate parent of the kid who won’t read.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Annie Barrows.

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