Friday, November 17, 2023

Q&A with Sue Boggio and Mare Pearl


Sue Boggio and Mare Pearl are the authors of the new novel Hungry Shoes. Their other books include the novel Long Night Moon. They are lifelong friends and they both live in New Mexico.


Q: What inspired you to write Hungry Shoes, and how did you create your characters Maddie and Grace?


A: Both of us worked at the University of New Mexico’s Children and Adolescent Inpatient Psychiatric Hospital before funding changes altered the program by drastically reducing the length of stay and other cuts like eliminating adjunct therapies such as art and music therapy.


Rather than write a grim story depicting the current limitations of pediatric psychiatric care in this country, we felt a responsibility to show how milieu therapy—the concept that the inpatient environment, including highly trained multi-disciplinary staff—should be designed to afford a 24/7 opportunity for therapeutic intervention and show how transformative it can be in the healing journeys of children and young people.


We had our milieu, our major setting for our story, one we knew well from our own experience.


When it came time to populate it, that’s when we used our imaginations to create entirely fictional characters inspired by the hundreds of kids we worked with over the years. We decided to tell the story through the eyes of two adolescent girls rather than the adult staff.


As we always do in our collaboration, we each created our own point-of-view protagonists. We knew they would be roommates, and we knew we wanted them to be high functioning, sympathetic characters who have dramatic back stories and who are able to engage in treatment.


Mare created Maddie as her protagonist due to her work with kids who had been sexually abused and to show some of the specific ramifications of sexual abuse.


Sue created Grace because she wanted to show that trauma can sometimes result in gaps in memory, or dissociation. During a traumatic experience, dissociation—distancing oneself emotionally and mentally—can help a person survive what might otherwise be too painful to bear.


While Maddie wishes she could forget what happened to her, Grace is driven to remember her trauma because the price of forgetting is that she is unable to remember anything about her mother who died when she was 5.


At the beginning of Hungry Shoes, Maddie and Grace (both 17) meet at the psychiatric facility after each has harmed herself during a crisis. As the story unfolds over their three-month stays, we interspersed scenes from each of their pasts to reveal what each endured and connect it to their “present day” healing journeys.


Though we take Maddie and Grace to some dark places, we don’t leave them there. With a talented child psychiatrist, supportive staff in their unit called Brazos Cottage, and the dark comedic relief of their five male peers, Maddie and Grace demonstrate courage and resilience as they work together to heal their pasts and claim their futures.   


Q: The author Sarah Bird said of the book, “This gritty, sublimely well-written novel holds a mirror up to our unfair world and gives us back reasons to believe that answers do exist, that justice is possible, and that, with the help of gifted professionals, broken lives can be mended.” What do you think of that description?


A: Thrilled on multiple levels.


First, we’re thrilled that an author we have loved for decades, whose books have taught us so much about how to write compelling stories with indelible characters would praise our work.


Second, she “got it.” She got the entire reason we wrote it, to let readers know that with the help of gifted professionals, broken lives can be mended. Therein lies the hope we intentionally infused into Maddie’s and Grace’s journeys.


We are equally honored by our endorsements from authors Susan Henderson (Up From the Blue, Flicker of Old Dreams, are favorites of ours) and T. Greenwood (Such a Pretty Girl and 13 other thought-provoking gorgeously written novels by this prolific and beloved author.)


Through their work, all three of these women have inspired and guided our evolution as writers and we are immensely grateful for their generosity. Pick up any of their books and you will be enthralled.  


Q: Can you say more about how you collaborated on the book? What was your writing process like?


A: We began writing together at age 10 in the heady time of Beatlemania. We were fascinated by the Lennon/McCartney creative partnership—studying their lyrics, music, art, and writings.

We would start our stories by asking, “What if?” and our imaginations would take it from there in that spontaneous burst of creative energy so accessible in childhood. “Let’s pretend”—only written down.


In high school, we co-wrote some stories for our creative writing class and our teacher, Mary Swenson, enthusiastically encouraged our collaboration. We named our psychiatrist in Hungry Shoes after Mary in tribute to her memory.


Our process is the same in each of our books. We begin with our master theme: though it is the human condition to be wounded in relationships, it is through the alchemy of positive human connection that we heal and evolve as human beings.


We talk and plan exhaustively before we begin the actual writing, filling notebooks with character arcs, storylines, supporting cast, laying a foundation. We know the ending before we begin.


Once we have it pretty well imagined—but not strictly outlined—we begin our first draft. Mare writes her POV characters—Maddie in this case—and Sue writes hers (Grace in this case), scene by scene.


We meet weekly to read our scenes out loud to each other (so important!) give each other feedback and assign our scenes for the coming week based on what the reader should experience next.


This allows for discovery—an aspect of fiction writing we cherish, the freedom to continue asking “what if?” It’s through the writing of the first draft that we discover the story we want to tell. Subsequent drafts weave our scenes together, cutting where we can, filling holes where we need to.


Then (and only then) do we begin line editing, corrections—the polishing of the rough stone to make it shine. Then trusted first readers dive in and give us notes. Once we feel it’s ready—it goes to our agent for her guidance.


With two writers, even as in sync as we are after all these years, continuity can be challenging. So, in our weekly meetings, we use our specific descriptions of characters, maps/descriptions of settings, weather, etc., all help us coordinate the myriad details that must mesh to form a cohesive story.


A point of pride is that when NAL/Penguin acquired our first novel, Sunlight and Shadow, our editor Laura Cifelli in an interview in Publishers Weekly said on her first read of our manuscript she had torn off the cover page as was her habit, and after reading it was shocked to find two author names on the title page, saying the writing was “seamless.”


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


A: First and foremost we write to entertain—so we intended Hungry Shoes be an enjoyable read despite a few necessarily heavy scenes. We were careful to balance the weight with some light-hearted and darkly humorous moments.


We also want to move readers emotionally, invite them into an inspiring world with characters they can love and root for as they join them in this journey to renewed hope and wellness.


And then, we want readers to realize that although the characters and their stories are invented—the setting of the book was a real place that we directly experienced and participated in for years.


The power of milieu therapy can (and did) give children and adolescents the very real opportunity to heal and transform their lives and futures, if society, legislators, and insurance companies would prioritize the required funding.


If we had a magic wand, we’d see the kind of facilities we show in our book sprout up all over the country to serve our children, teens, and their families struggling with mental health challenges without any worries of how to pay for it.


Like a St. Jude’s or Shriners Hospital except providing life-saving mental and emotional health care.


Lastly, we hope readers agree with author Susan Henderson’s reaction to Hungry Shoes, “…the real feat pulled off by authors Boggio and Pearl is the impact on the reader, drawing us out of our cynicism, daring us to believe in humans again.”


With all the darkness in the world, don’t we all need a dose of that?


Q: What are you working on now?


A: When people hear about our lifelong friendship, growing up together, and forming a writing partnership, they often say we should write that story.


Since we’re not memoirists, we took the essence of our story and completely fictionalized it and wrote And Your Bird Can Sing.


Spanning 30 years, beginning with the 1964 Beatles’ Ed Sullivan appearance, the story follows a girl (Sadie) and a boy (Maxwell) who are next door neighbors, their arc as best friends, then blossoming into powerful first loves when family entanglements and tragedy tear them apart.


Set to Beatle music, we wanted to show the generational shared experience of the British Invasion, that revolutionary time period in music, art, cultural upheaval, assassinations, the Vietnam War, etc.


Over the years of Sadie and Max’s estrangement, each still loves and misses the other as they separately try to navigate adulthood. Then, after they turn 40, fate gives them a second chance to come together. Is love all they need? It was a blast to write and is with our agent now. Fingers crossed it finds a home.


And because Sue gets twitchy if she isn’t writing, she’s been working on a novel without Mare called On the Night You Were Born about a fictional right-wing neo-Nazi cult in northern New Mexico and its impact on two families, one Jewish, one not.


Watching Mare grow up Jewish in Iowa, being treated as “other” at times, fueled Sue’s motivation to write about antisemitism, combined with the timely (and timeless) phenomenon of cult ideology and behavior.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: For more information about us and our books, our website is


We love to hear from readers—contact us via the website and we will respond.


Hungry Shoes is aimed at mature teen readers and adults, with book club/classroom discussion questions included in the back of the book. We’re available for those discussions either locally or via Zoom. Our next appearance is at Books on the Bosque in Albuquerque on Dec. 10.


Most of all, know how incredibly grateful we are for the gift of each other, our spouses and families, and for our lives in beautiful New Mexico, on this precious precarious planet Earth.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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