Thursday, November 2, 2023

Q&A with Michelle Mohrweis




Michelle Mohrweis is the author of the new middle grade novel The Problem with Gravity. Their other books include The Trouble with Robots. Also a STEM educator, they live in Colorado.


Q: What inspired you to write The Problem with Gravity, and how did you create your characters Maggie and Tatum?


A: The Problem with Gravity is a companion story to my first book, The Trouble with Robots, and while the two stories feature different characters and plots, they do take place at the same school. That’s actually what led to my ideas for Gravity!


In Robots, the main characters have a teacher who is also often overwhelmed and busy. As I wrote my debut novel, I kept thinking about that teacher and realized there was a story I wanted to tell there. Still, the teacher wasn’t the right voice to tell it through.


Enter her daughter, Maggie Weir, an autistic seventh grader who loves space and dreams of visiting NASA and who uses her daydreams to escape the arguments her parents spiral into time and time again.


Maggie’s character just kind of came to me. I knew who she was from early on, knew what she was dealing with and what she was going through.


Maybe it’s because I gave her a lot of myself. She’s autistic and ADHD. She has many of the same stims as me, and my absolute love of all things space. She likes 3D design, gets excited about books, and is this amazing, passionate kid who doesn’t always recognize her own strengths. She’s a character I wish had existed when I was a kid.


Then we have Tatum, our other main character. Tatum was a little harder to figure out. I knew I wanted to write a baton twirler, and I loved the idea of Tatum being in that in-between space: A popular sports kid, but also something of a nerd. Still, it took a bit longer to figure out just what made her click. What was she going through? What makes her who she is?


Then, as I was stumbling through some scrapped attempts at the first chapters, it hit me.


Maggie is struggling to reconcile the arguments of her parents with her expectations of what family should be. Tatum, meanwhile, is also grappling with expectations. However, her expectations are those placed on her by her perfectionist parents, and when they constantly compare her to her literal genius brother, those are expectations she can’t meet without giving up parts of herself she cares about. 


Once I knew that, the story just flowed out of me.


Q: You’ve described the book as a “companion novel” to The Trouble with Robots. Can you say more about the relationship between the two books?


A: The books are closely tied in many ways, even as they stand out as their own stories. Both books take place at Barton Jr. High during the same semester, with Gravity being set shortly after Robots


Maggie Weir, one of the main characters, is literally the daughter of Mrs. Weir, the robotics teacher from Robots. And while the crew from Robots doesn’t have a major role within this story, I did have a lot of fun including cameos of them.


Two of the robotics team kids are in Tatum’s friend group, Maggie spots the team working on their stuff at times when she goes by her mom’s classroom from time to time, and throughout the story we get little glimpses of them in the background.


That said, Maggie and Tatum’s story is just that: their story. You can easily read Gravity without knowing anything about Robots, because it’s an entirely new story about these two new characters.


Still,  if you are a fan of my first book and my nerdy robotics crew, then you’ll be happy to get a small peak at how things are going for them in the background, even as you fall in love with Maggie and Tatum too!


Q: The Kirkus Review of the book says, in part, “Likable protagonists, great friends, and genuinely awful parenting make for a delightful read.” What do you think of that description?


A: I really love it! One thing I strived for with Gravity was to show neurodivergent kids with that amazing sort of friendship where you don’t have to think about masking your traits or hiding who you are. I wanted to show characters that accepted each other, the way we all long for acceptance. So when I saw that the friendships stood out to that reviewer, it made me so happy!


And the rest is true too. Maggie and Tatum are going through a lot. Maggie has parents who love her, but who have fallen apart from each other, and it’s tough for her to grapple with that.


Tatum, meanwhile, is grappling with parents who probably love her, but don’t necessarily accept who she is and often end up letting her down. They neglect her in a way, reserving their love for only times when she fits within the box they made for her, and always holding her to an impossible standard with their pride and love at times being conditional.


In Gravity I also wanted to show some loving parents, like Maggie’s mom, but I also wanted to include situations that weren’t so perfect, situations that can be confusing and hard to navigate when you are young.


Books are a powerful way for kids to sort through things they themselves are dealing with, so I hope that maybe Tatum’s journey as she struggles for acceptance from her parents will help any other readers in that position see that they aren’t alone.


Q: How does your background as a STEM educator coexist with your writing?


A: Honestly, it shines in every aspect of my writing! I love STEM. I adore robotics and engineering. As an autistic adult, space is one of my main special interests! So when writing my books, I poured my love of STEM into them as much as I could. 


In Gravity, Tatum and Maggie aren’t just trying to figure out all these first crush feelings they have towards each other…they also are paired together for an engineering contest!


Through this I was able to weave in the use of CAD software, depictions of 3D printing, the design process, and other topics I used to cover when actively teaching. While my main goal was to write an entertaining story, I also hope that maybe it will get some readers interested in those topics.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: So many things, but nothing official yet. I have a few different stories I’ve been drafting and having fun with, from a silly middle grade fantasy adventure to an emotional young adult scifi idea. That said, none of them are sold or at a stage I’m ready to talk about them yet, so… stay tuned and hopefully I’ll finish them and have good news down the road! 


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: If you are excited to read about neurodivergent kids getting to be themselves and finding people who accept them, as well as dive into adorable queer first crushes, you are going to love The Problem with Gravity!


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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