Friday, June 7, 2024

Q&A with Barbara Gregorich



Barbara Gregorich is the author of the new novel Exit Velocity. Her many other books include the young adult novel The F Words


Q: What inspired you to write Exit Velocity, and how did you create your character Rowan?


A: I was inspired to write Exit Velocity by two aspects of my background. First, I am from the working class: my father was a steelworker. Second, I am a long-time socialist who was very active in the social justice movements of the ‘60s.


I often say jokingly that in my writing life I’ve moved from baseball to mystery to social justice —all of which matter.


In short, I have moved to writing social-justice themed novels such as The F Words and Exit Velocity because the lack of social justice in our society impacts our lives profoundly: our health, our welfare, our environment, our possibilities.


Also, as we know, fiction has often inspired people to correct wrongs and to fight for a better world. I want to contribute to that tradition.


I’ve created my fictional characters in different ways. For my very first novel, She’s on First, I created Linda Sunshine by imagining myself in her position. That’s because I always wanted to be a baseball player, and in the novel Linda is a baseball player.


Cole Renner, the 15-year-old high schooler in my YA novel, The F Words, was created as a composite of the hundreds of teens I observed while on political marches and demonstrations, such as ones for immigrant rights.


One of the things I did while beginning to chisel in Cole’s particular features was that I made his parents politically conscious fighters for working-class rights. This meant that Cole would have a different background from a lot of his classmates because, really, few people even use the term working class.


Today Shawn Fain and the UAW are starting to change that: Fain frequently and joyfully talks about the working class.


When it came to creating Rowan Pickett, the protagonist in Exit Velocity, I observed young working-class women wherever I saw them in Chicago. I particularly observed their manner of dressing and their hair styles. Knowing what Rowan looked like physically and what she wore helped me a lot: the outside was a reflection of the inside.


As with Cole Renner, I gave Rowan socialist parents and friends. I did this, as with Cole, in order to help explain what she fights for and why. Because Rowan is an adult, she has already made choices about what she wants and needs in life.


But the main thing I did in creating Rowan was that I looked at the dark side of existence . . . something I’m not naturally inclined to do. I did this so that in addition to being a fighter for social justice, Rowan is also a victim of both the gross inequalities under capitalism and the violence that permeates our society.


At the beginning of the novel she is looking for a job, which she is in desperate need of; she’s trying to overcome her grief at the murder of her sister and abandonment by her mother; and she’s trying to reconnect with her friends. These are not places I normally go in my writing, but I felt Rowan and the story needed these things.


Q: Did you do any research to write the book, and if so, did you learn anything that especially surprised you?


A: I did less research on this book than I’ve done on others, such as She’s on First or even my second mystery novel, Sound Proof, both of which required a lot of research.  I think that’s because the story came to me in one fell swoop, so to speak. I knew where it would begin and what would happen and where it would end.


Nevertheless, a novelist does have to research all kinds of things. The thing I needed to research the most — the lives of parrots on Deeply’s planet — were of course not researchable.


So, confining myself to Earth, I did a small bit of research on handguns, and a bit on medical injuries such as those sustained by Rowan and Keisha. I drove down to the Bridgeport neighborhood several times to take close looks at the houses and streets, and also to study the boathouse.


What I researched the most was working conditions inside a shipping company such as UPS and FedEx. I was surprised at how many YouTube videos exist on this subject! Watching them, I was able to see what workers wore, where they stood in relationship to the conveyer belts, how they spoke, what their attitudes were, and so on.


This research helped me to envision Rowan’s work environment and how she functioned in it. I hope all my future novels include video research!


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


A: I’ve often said that I don’t choose my titles, that they arrive at the front door the same time the plot and characters do. That is true of most of my other books, and it’s true of Exit Velocity also. The title arrived in my consciousness as soon as I knew I wanted to write this book.


I realize that this might not be a satisfying answer, so I’ll try to explain why the title arrived immediately.


First, I knew I would be setting the novel in Bridgeport, home of the Chicago White Sox. Because I’m a baseball fan, I’m familiar with the concept of exit velocity: the speed at which the batted ball comes off the bat and leaves the field of play and maybe the stadium. A fastball that is especially hard hit can have an exit velocity of 120 mph, indicating that the batter has really turned the ball around.


The conditions forced upon the working class by the ruling class must be turned around if we are to save ourselves and the world from destruction.


In the scene in which Rowan is speaking to a crowd in the Pilsen neighborhood, she seeks to give them hope by saying that the turnaround of all that we suffer (poverty, lack of proper health care, inadequate school systems, racism, wars, genocide, the destruction of the rainforest, the polluting of the ocean and the environment) could be turned around at lightning speed, much the way a batter turns around a fastball.


That is what the title signifies to me — that there is hope for ending all these evils, definitively and permanently. I want to give readers hope.

Q: The writer Sara Paretsky said of the novel, “If you love Octavia Butler, you'll enjoy Exit Velocity.” What do you think of that comparison?


A: I’m highly honored by having my book compared to those of Octavia Butler. There are large differences between her writing and mine, but there is one great similarity, and I intuit that similarity is the reason Sara Paretsky made the comparison.


Butler created fully developed and complex worlds set on other planets in other times with other living creatures far more advanced in thought, action, and capabilities than are humans. I’m thinking of Dawn, for example.


All my fiction is set in the real world, the here and now. The fact that an alien parrot visits my world is an aberration more than a convention. In this regard, Butler and I are very different.


A reader could always expect another brilliant science fiction work from Butler. From me, a reader never knows what to expect: baseball? mystery? working-class conflict? I have to say, that’s partly because when I decide what to write next, I never consider genre.


But Butler was concerned with humanity’s path of self-destruction, with racial and sexual discrimination. She was, in short, concerned with social justice — without which the path toward self-destruction will escalate.


In this regard, the comparison to Butler is an apt one: all of my books are concerned with social justice.


This was true of my very first novel, She’s on First, which centers on society’s refusal to accept women’s equality and women’s rights. It continued through my mystery novels, Dirty Proof and Sound Proof: what is a mystery novel at heart but a determination to assert (or re-assert) social justice?


In Exit Velocity the issues of racism, sexual discrimination, and working-class oppression are all leading to the path of self-destruction — so much so that Deeply, the parrot, is sent from another planet on a mission to Earth, to help turn around this trajectory.


It is, I think, this fictional depiction of social injustice, coupled with the science-fiction element, that led Sara to make the comparison.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: Usually I work on two books at a time, sometimes three — but not in the sense that I go from one book to another on a daily or weekly basis. Most often I get a book through a certain stage and then, while it’s fermenting, I move to another book.


That said, I will soon start reworking a middle-grade book about a contest between a mule and a horse. I’ve been calling it “my mule book” for three years, but recently I’ve given it a title: Some Will Make It Through: The Ballad of the Horse and Mule. Until now I’ve never written in the ballad form. I found this particularly challenging.


In addition, I soon hope to rewrite Snow-Blind, a novel I wrote in the 1980s, back when the Arctic was frozen and the Soviet Union and KGB existed. Before I could get the book published, the Soviet Union collapsed and the Arctic began to melt.


But I’m thinking about moving the book backwards in time, into the 1960s. I’ve never changed the setting of a book before, so this, too, will be challenging.


As if those two undertakings aren’t enough, I’m thinking of writing my first trilogy. Needless to say, that will probably be the most challenging project of them all.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Just that I appreciate your interviewing me about Exit Velocity and my writing. I am tempted to say that I deeply appreciate your interviewing me, but since creating Deeply I find myself hesitant to use his name in any lower-case setting.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Barbara Gregorich.

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