Two and a half years ago, I received a few sample chapters of an unsolicited manuscript that made me laugh out loud from the very first page, so I immediately wrote to the author and asked her to send me the whole thing. It was called The Encyclopedia of Me, and it was the brilliant story of twelve-year-old Tink Aaron-Martin. When Tink gets grounded, she decides to use the time to write an encyclopedia of her life, encompassing her family, with two loving parents and two older brothers, Lex and Seb (the latter of whom is autistic); her hairless cat, Hortense; her fickle best friend, Freddie Blue Anderson; and, as the summer unfolds, a new interest in skateboarding and an equal interest in the blue-haired skateboarding boy next door, Kai (whom the much more assertive Freddie Blue just might like as well). The manuscript at that time alternated portions of the encyclopedia with straight-narrative sections. I loved the format, but what I loved even more was the voice, which was capable of hilarious observations like this one:
Seb frequently smells as bad as Lex, but different. This is mostly because he staunchly refuses to shower more than three times in a week. If you are ever not sure which twin you are dealing with, breathe deeply. If your senses are kickboxed into an eye-watering stupor by the stinging stench of cheap cologne, it’s Lex. If they curl up and die due to the overwhelmingly hideous moldy pong of sweat, combined with the antiseptic, lemony zing of hand sanitizer, it’s Seb. Easy, see?
But Tink's voice was also capable of great sensitivity and thoughtfulness, in contemplating Freddie Blue's behavior or her favorite tree. All the characters felt as rich and flawed and warm and complicated as many real people I know. Tink is biracial, but it's simply a fact of who she is, not the source of any angst (beyond an inability to get her hair to behave). And Karen fully dramatized some great set-piece scenes, like the one where Freddie Blue, Tink, and Kai try to spend the night in a department store. A terrific voice, wonderful characters, the ability to execute some great scenes, genuine emotion, and that aforementioned laugh-out-loud humor all made me fall in love with the book, and I signed it up as soon as I could.
Over the next year and a half, Karen and I worked together to absorb the narrative sections into the encyclopedia entries and turn the entire book into an encyclopedia, with the plot unfolding alphabetically from A-Z. This involved (nobody who knows me will be shocked to hear) a lot of outlines at first, as Karen cataloged all her plot events and encyclopedia entries and mapped them onto each other; and then a lot of cutting and adding, tweaking and refining right up through the proofreading stages, as we juggled entries, photos, and footnotes in within our allotted 256 pages. But the book remained both intensely emotional and very funny -- a perfect tween-girl smart read, and equally great for fans of YA writers like E. Lockhart or Jaclyn Moriarty. Recently I asked Karen some questions about herself and the book.
First things first: What would your own encyclopedia entry look like?
Rivers, Karen (June 12, 1970 - forever). (Karen prefers not to die.) Author of many wonderful novels for children, teenagers, and adults. Born in British Columbia, Canada, she went to college for ages and ages and studied a little bit of almost anything, having contemplated at various different times careers in theatre, journalism, law, and medicine. Then she worked at the phone company and some equally scary places before becoming a writer full-time. She has always loved giant sets of encyclopedias because they contain all knowledge! (As well as for their beautiful gold-edged pages, of course.) She has two splendid children who never fight or spill things, and a dog who -- if properly inspired by a squirrel -- can actually climb trees. (Only one of those statements is not 100% true.) She can usually be found walking slowly up or down the mountain behind her house, thinking things or taking photographs, or -- on a good day -- both.
Which came first with The Encyclopedia of Me, the story or the format? How did the other one follow?
I think the story came first, or rather, the character. At the time that I started to write this book, I think my kids were just babies. My older son, my stepson, is autistic. And at the time, his autism was really consuming our lives. Most of our waking hours were spent dealing with certain situations, supporting him, or talking about his autism and how we were going to deal in the longer term. One of the things we talked about was what it would be like for siblings to have an older brother for whom different rules applied. That was basically the germ of the idea of the story, simply that it would be the sibling's story and the autism would merely be on the periphery and normalized because that would be all the sibling would ever have known. It was so much in my consciousness, in a way I think it was my way of trying-on-for-size what that might be like.
When I began to write, Tink originally was going to read the entire set of encyclopedias, inspired by A.J. Jacobs's The Know-It-All. As I wrote, it seemed implausible that she would get past the first As (I started reading them again myself and was struggling by the third entry), so she started to make up her own. It evolved from there. I know people roll their eyes when author's say "It wrote itself!" But in this case, the format decided itself and it was something of an accident. Originally, it was straight narrative with the entries scattered throughout, but then we decided to take a stab at making the whole book fit the format. In addition to working well with the story (I think!), it was also fun and challenging to write. Sometimes it even felt impossible.
This is going to sound as crazy as the "It wrote itself!" comment, but I will say that it's much more satisfying to write a book that's really really hard to write, from a technical standpoint. It makes me understand, on a completely different level, why people climb Everest for fun. Having successfully done it once, I have all kinds of ideas for other novels structured like specifically formatted books, such as cook books and etiquette books and ... the possibilities are limitless!
What attracts you to encyclopedias?
The idea that a book holds all the answers. Of course, now I'm grown up, I understand that knowledge changes and evolves, and looking at old encyclopedias, you realize they are full of things that we subsequently now know more/differently/better. But as a child, they were flat-out the answer to everything. I think Wikipedia is similarly attractive now, but it isn't quite the same. You don't randomly flip through Wikipedia while lying on the hall carpet on an endlessly long summer day, discovering things about Sri Lanka or the endocrine system that you never knew. The magic of random discovery has pretty much been lost with the loss of print encyclopedias, which makes me sad. I'm ashamed to admit that I don't currently HAVE a set of encyclopedias, but I wish that I did. I'm slightly hoarder-like and collector-inclined, I think I would like to have sets from various different decades, just to play compare-and-contrast with them (I have dictionaries and etiquette books and medical books across decades, which are lots of fun). But I live in the world's smallest house! So that might not work.
What sort of challenges did you face in working the story into an alphabetical, encyclopedic form?
There was a very real risk that the plot was going to be compromised by trying to force it into a mold. Making the story flow was incredibly tricky (as you know!). The last thing we wanted was for anyone to read the book and be conscious of the manipulation of the plot to fit the alphabet, so we made a real effort to simply tell the story as a straight narrative that incidentally was displayed in alphabetical order.
Describe your favorite writing space and time.
I love to write during the day because it's a novelty. For the last seven years, most of my writing has been done at night on a laptop in bed (for warmth), after the kids are asleep. I've seen more of 3 a.m. than I'd like to have seen! Now my kids are in school full time and I can sit (!) at the dining room table and write while actually properly awake. It remains to be seen if this improves the quality of my work.
What novels were the biggest influence on you when you were a young reader? And what encyclopedia did you grow up using?
I read so voraciously as a child and a young adult that isolating books now to say they were more or less influential than any others feels like I'd be contriving an answer to fit what I feel an author should say, as opposed to the truth. The truth was I read everything, absolutely everything that I had access to, in massive volumes. We did not watch TV (or at least the TV we had had a blown picture tube, so we could only watch about 30 minutes a day before the tube gave up, and it involved using pliers and getting electrical shocks to turn it on). We read. I read between seven and ten books per week for most of my childhood/teen years.
When I say we read everything, I really mean it. My mum was briefly in a Danielle Steele phase, and I read those as eagerly as I read Little Women or A Wrinkle in Time or Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret. Or Flowers in the Attic, for that matter. My dad read mostly books about war and tall ships, so I have this absurdly detailed understanding of tall ships based on reading the Horatio Hornblower series repeatedly. There was never really a distinction made between "adult" books and "kid" books in my family; nor was there any fuss made about genre fiction vs. literary fiction. They belonged to Book Of The Month club, which I don't think exists anymore, but involved getting condensed versions of popular books in a bound volume every month. We loved those. It's impossible not to be influenced by everything you read; whether it's good or bad, there is something you can take away from it. I suppose it's only a matter of time before I write a tear-jerking romance that is set on a brigantine.
As an adult looking back, I'd say if I wanted to be inspired by anyone's career, I'd pick Judy Blume. She really perfected the whole "You are going to be OK" genre of realist YA. Madeleine L'Engle I think redefined the parameters of middle-grade fiction, blurring lines of fantasy and reality, and I love her for that. I love everyone who tried something new or different and just really went for it, both back then and now.
You’ve written a number of novels about this preteen/early teen stage of life, and especially the family/friends/young romance conflicts that I think are the bread-and-butter of older middle-grade. What attracts you to writing about this time period? Was it a significant time in your own life?
I learned a while ago (after I was already writing YA) that a person's frontal lobe doesn't fully develop until they are in their early twenties. I'm paraphrasing (and possibly mis-remembering), so don't quote me on this, but I believe the gist of it was that until the frontal lobe finishes developing, people are actually biologically unable to view the world in a not-entirely-egocentric way. The idea that people (and characters) are limited by this brain development to seeing the world in this utterly up-close way at all times is fascinating to me. It explains why I can remember with 100% clarity, things that happened to me, who I had a crush on, what I wore, and how I felt when I was young, but I have only vague recall of what I said or did or wore in the intervening decades. The intensity of that stage of life is what draws me to it again and again. The first time you feel something, it's so powerful. Kids are figuring out who they are, like a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure, except more like a Choose-Your-Own-Character. The possibilities are endless, which makes teen and pre-teen characters so much fun (and so endlessly interesting) to write.
As a teen/pre-teen, I never felt quite comfortable in my own skin. Now, when I talk to the kids who I perceived as problem-free and popular and perfect, I find out that they struggled with similar feelings. Who knew? It seems as though everyone always feels like they are slightly on the outside, looking in. In a way, I want to send a missive to my younger self that effectively says, "Look! Everyone else feels the same way! You are going to be OK!" Except maybe now I can send the bulletin to my readers: You ARE going to be OK. I promise.