Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Q&A with Jennifer Longo

Jennifer Longo is the author of the new young adult novel What I Carry, which focuses on a teenage girl in the foster care system. She also has written the YA novels Up to This Pointe and Six Feet Over It. She lives on an island near Seattle, Washington.

Q: You note that your daughter, who had spent time in the foster care system before you met her, encouraged you to write this book. Can you say more about that, and about how you created your character Muiriel?

A: My daughter is a big reader, and like every reader, she sometimes likes stories she can recognize herself in. My husband and I were her fourth and last foster placement, and she was only a little over a year old when we brought her home.

She has no memories of her first placements, and her experience with the foster families she’s grown up with (our cousins and family friends) were different than how foster families are portrayed in many of the fiction books she read that involved foster care.

She understands, like anyone involved in the foster care system, that every child’s experience in foster care is unique.

What she was looking for was not a false, idealized narrative of how great and happy foster care is, but by the same token, not every birth family or foster placement is dark and violent.

She said she just wanted a story involving a kid living in foster care that was maybe “a little less…molest-y? Less yell-y and with like, not as much arson?”

Obviously, those events and themes are (sadly) are true, and thankfully there are many excellent middle grade and YA books involving foster care that explore those brutal realities.

The thing is, there is room in the canon for as many explorations of the facets of human experience as there are readers, and What I Carry is just one more.

My daughter likes internal conflict, and quiet, contemporary stories involving daily life and descriptions of food and weather. (Same) She likes a hopeful ending.

The character of Muir grew from me trying to make a story my daughter could see herself and her birth and adoptive and foster family members in.

So, I listened to her, and to stories told to me by current and former foster youth. I translated the very real emotions they described into fictional events, an imagined life, and that life became Muir’s.

Muir’s experience in foster care is not meant to be a factual representation of how all foster care works – this is just one story, about a white girl, who has lived in foster care since birth, and those things inform specificity - but it is a story imbued with the truths of a lot of really brave kids form varied circumstances in foster care who deserve to be listened to.

Sometimes Muir gets a little soapbox-y – that’s because kids in foster care are rarely listened to.

Adults drive the myopic narrative of the state of foster care in America, so in this book, I wanted the kids I was honored to listen to have their say through Muir – and no adult is allowed to interrupt.

If readers are looking for non-fiction books about life in foster care, one truly invaluable voice I hope people pay attention to is the author Kenisha E. Anthony.

She lived in foster care for 13 years, and is now an advocate for change, dependence case worker, and holds a master’s degree in Public Administration and a BS in Social work. Her memoir Labeled: Ward of the State published Dec. 17.

Q: The novel takes place on an island near Seattle. How important is setting to you in your writing?

A: My favorite question! Every book and play I’ve written always, always, begins with a place – never characters, or a central conflict – those are built in as I write, around the setting.

I get obsessed with different places I live in or visit or read about and I get all Who lives here, and Why would they, and What the hell happens to them? 

My first novel (Six Feet Over It) began with exploring the details of a life lived in a cemetery. Then (Up to This Pointe) I could not stop thinking about and researching modern day human life in Antarctica.

What I Carry is set on an island in the Pacific Northwest that has been the setting for many books – and what fascinates me most about it, is its very complex existence and representation, for many different people, as Home; who is allowed to claim it as theirs, who gets to decide who stays or is forced away, and amidst the conflict, who is taking care of the island, or is it being abused and neglected?

The life of this island expressed the themes of home and family and belonging and caring for vulnerable lives that my daughter was wanting to read about, and so the story took shape here, in the waters of the Puget Sound. 

Q: How was the book's title chosen, and what does it signify for you?

A: My editors chose the title, and I think it perfectly signifies the literal notion of how Muir’s life is made by expertly carrying physical necessities from house to house.

It indicates how Muir is influenced by learning what John Muir carried with him as he lived outside in nature, how carrying the lightest load, learning to survive on minimal food and shelter, and without the burden of companions or heavy objects on one’s back, keeps a person free.

Then, the title also refers to the lessons of survival Muir carries with her to each placement year after year, it is about the sadness and fear longing and regret she carries, and how those things keep her detached from vulnerable relationships, which Muir thinks keep her free – when truly, carrying those things so tightly may keep her trapped in isolation and loneliness. 

Q: What do you hope readers take away from the story? 

A: Oh man. There’s kind of a lot I hope readers take away! Maybe I’ll bullet point it and try to be brief: 

* Families come in an endless variety and can be a wonderful source of comfort and safety and love, and every child deserves to have a family. 

* Kids living in foster care are human beings, exactly the same way kids growing up in birth families are human beings. I am shocked by how many people do not understand this. Kids living in foster care did NOTHING to be put there. Kids are in care because of the actions of an adult or several adults in the kid’s life. End of story.

* The purpose of adoption is NOT to “find a child” for an adult to have. The purpose of adoption is to find suitable parents for kids who need them. Children are not prizes or commodities to fulfil an adult’s wishes. 

* Children living in good foster care homes or who have been adopted are not “lucky.” Every person born is entitled to at least one decent parent. Kids being cared for by decent adults do not owe the world never-ending gratitude for the fulfilment of this most basic of human needs. Human beings, children, are not burdens. And adults who care for them are not “saints.”  

* Most of us, when we are scared and especially when we are young, are braver and stronger than some adults give us credit for, and more than we give ourselves credit for. Learned helplessness is a thing - people will try to convince you not to try, that you aren’t enough of a person, that you aren’t smart or strong enough or worthy of a fulfilling and independent life. That is a lie. You are, and you can. 

* Learning to ask for help is brave, it demonstrates strength, not weakness. 

Q: What are you working on now? 

A: I am having the best time revising a contemporary Lit. Fiction drama about a family having a super ridiculous Thanksgiving.

I want it to be a book that Oprah tells everyone to take with them if they have to spend Thanksgiving with their in-laws and they need a funny, smart, dramatic novel to distract them. That is my dream. Oprah! Call me! 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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