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While Rebecca Stead’s first novel, First Light, was a quiet debut (although it’s kind of a wild book), her second, When You Reach Me, made a great deal of noise, becoming a New York Times bestseller even before it won the Newbery Medal and the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award for Fiction. Was it a hard act to follow? Rebecca Stead and I discuss her new novel, Liar & Spy.
Roger Sutton: My first question is where were you on Liar & Spy (if anywhere) when When You Reach Me was published?
Rebecca Stead: I was thinking about the main character…
Rebecca: Yes. His name was Roy at the time, and I was actually thinking about a much younger book, either a very short middle-grade novel or a picture book. But I had nothing written when When You Reach Me was published.
Roger: What did winning the Newbery do for this book? Help, hurt?
Rebecca: I think it slowed me down, and it made me feel something I had never felt before: that people were looking at me. And that always ramps up your fear. I don’t think it really affected the writing process too much, I would just say I had a little bit of heightened anxiety. Plus, I was busy! I got all caught up in everything that was happening with When You Reach Me, and I was getting nervous about all that I had to do for that book.
Roger: I guess I wondered if you had that M. Night Shyamalan experience. He did The Sixth Sense, which got enormous attention, and it had this really high-concept element. And I thought, “Wow, I wonder if everyone’s going to expect Rebecca’s next book to do another huge, dazzling, high-concept kind of thing.”
Rebecca: I was deliberately trying to write a book that was very, very different from When You Reach Me.
Roger: It’s hugely different.
Rebecca: And I wasn’t at all interested in creating the kind of experience that I wanted the reader to have with When You Reach Me. But now that the book has been published, I’m a little worried that people are going to try to read it as an attempt to do the same thing.
Roger: One thing it does the same – but this is more thematic than anything else – is that we know Something Is Going On, and we’re wondering about it.
Roger: We don’t really know what the plot of Liar & Spy is until almost the end of the book (at least I didn’t). I felt like I was in good hands, but I had no idea where it was headed. With When You Reach Me, you’re actively confronted with a mystery, whereas here you don’t realize that you’re reading a mystery in the first place.
Rebecca: Toward the end of Liar & Spy there are two big things you find out. One of them was never intended to be a mystery at all. It was supposed to be a question that got bigger for the reader as the book goes on.
Roger: Are you talking about Georges’ family or Georges’ friends?
Rebecca: His family.
Rebecca: And then on the friends front, there’s this mystery building that is supposed to be a mystery. And when you find out what’s going on there – I’m not trying to have a gotcha moment, I’m trying to create a really loud emotional beat.
Roger: In When You Reach Me we have a situation which is not possible by the rules we know in our everyday life, but what befalls the characters in Liar & Spy is, in fact, less spectacular than what one’s imagination might create. That seems to me a theme of the story.
Rebecca: Yes, exactly. I wanted the book to be truly realistic. I find that a lot of “realistic fiction” is not all that realistic in terms of the way people interact, or their level of sophistication. I really wanted Liar & Spy to be absolutely on the scale of real life. Which is limiting, of course, when it comes to creating a huge amount of drama.
Roger: Well, you risk being boring. So how do you escape that?
Rebecca: Yes, how do you escape that? It’s terrifying. The way I tried to make it happen was by creating characters that people cared about, or that I cared about, I guess I should say, and having them do and talk about things that would a) be interesting and b) maybe allow the reader to have his or her own thoughts about those conversations.
Roger: So many things worked well not only by being intrinsically interesting, like that taste test Georges’ science class does, which is just fun, but by being integrated parts of the story. Sometimes I’ll see authors throw in – I say throw in, which is disparaging; that’s how it feels to me – but it seems like someone has put his or her own little pet project or idea into a story but really hasn’t made it part of that story. Whereas I feel like you did.
Rebecca: I do believe there’s a great temptation to throw things in, as you put it, that you think are neat, or that you have a very clear, specific memory of and think you could do a good job writing about. What I find is that it’s like a seed you plant. You can try it, and if it will grow and connect with other ideas in the book, and you can see connections that you can actually realize on the page, then you’re allowed to leave it in. But if it just kind of lies there and doesn’t really add up to anything or there’s no chemistry with everything else going on in the book, then you have to take it out. I had a couple of things I tried to force into this book that just lay there.
Roger: How do you find out that something’s just lying there? When do those become apparent to you?
Rebecca: I think if you can take something out and it doesn’t change the book, it doesn’t need to be there. For instance, there’s a scene in Liar & Spy where Georges and Safer are watching the lobby cam and Georges accidentally says a word out loud, and then they talk about words that are also what they sound like, and then Safer comes up with one.
Rebecca: Yes, bounce and yank. And I went back and forth about whether that scene was too slow or the point was too heavy, a heaviness in the book that I didn’t want. I decided that actually, for me – and when something works for you, all you can do is cross your fingers and hope that it will work for someone else – it really said something about the ways in which Georges had to protect himself at school. That wasn’t protection he needed with Safer. And I think the reason I wrote that scene in the first place was because of my own idea of what friendship is. For me one of the most important things is not feeling like you have to protect yourself if you’re with a real friend.
Roger: And being allowed to talk about things that the kids at school might think are dorky.
Rebecca: Yeah, I like to talk about weirdness. We all have strange thoughts and ideas, and when you really trust someone you can express them. And they can express them to you, and that’s one of the joys of life.
Roger: I didn’t notice that scene at all as something you could bump out. So it worked for me. Is that something you rely on your editor to call you out on?
Rebecca: Yes. Although with my editor there’s latitude and freedom. Wendy [Lamb] extends a lot of faith and gives the material a huge amount of breathing room. She’s someone you can tell your weirdness to, so if you have weird stuff in your book, she’s not going to jump on it unless it’s something that just doesn’t track. I absolutely trust her. We’re similar readers in the sense that we may be looking for the resonance of very small moments.
Roger: I think Liar & Spy shows that you’re someone who is really trusting of her readers. You don’t have a cliffhanger happening on every page, which has become more and more frequent, unfortunately. So it’s good that you have an editor who trusts you to trust your readers.
Rebecca: When you trust your readers, you’re hoping they will see what you see. Not every book is for every person. This is a fairly quiet, sensitive one about sensitive kids. There’s not a lot of rock-and-roll here. And at the same time it is the purest kind of offering that I have to give as a writer. There’s all kinds of trust necessary.
Roger: In this book, as well as in When You Reach Me, you have this great kid’s-eye view on the neighborhood (different neighborhoods, but both in New York). Is that from you? Your kids? How do you think you see that way?
Rebecca: I think it’s from my childhood. I’ve lived in neighborhoods like both of the ones I’ve written about. It’s all that stuff you have stored up in your head from that stage of life. I don’t know whether I could visit a new neighborhood now and have a kid’s set of observations about a place. I no longer can really think like a child, though I can remember thinking like one. I did go back to a few neighborhoods in Brooklyn and walk around, but mostly I was trying to remember what it was like in those neighborhoods as a kid.
Roger: Do you remember what lunch table you sat at? Was there a cool kids’ table?
Rebecca: I don’t think I ever had to deal with a cool table situation. In middle school – when I had the hardest time and was confronted by a lot of verbal crap and meanness – we went out for lunch. I would buy a chicken roll sandwich with extra mayonnaise at this deli on the corner, and would sit outside the school and eat it.
Roger: Oh, good.
Rebecca: In eighth grade I definitely wasn’t alone, because my best friend from elementary school came to my school. I did have that one friend who saves you. We were actually sort of bullied for being so close. But luckily neither of us lost faith; we stuck together.
Roger: Everybody needs a friend like that.
Rebecca: Yeah. I feel like there are stages in many, many people’s childhoods when you don’t have one good friend like that. It can happen a lot in sixth and seventh grade because that’s when things are changing so quickly. It’s like a desperate dash for some kind of acceptable identity, and it can get ugly.
Roger: And that’s, I think, a hard thing to deal with right now in writing for kids, with our emphasis on anti-bullying. I think you bravely deal with bullying in a very realistic way. The sort of everyday kind of bullying that goes on. We’re not talking about something horrific.
Roger: I mean, it feels horrific to the kid it’s happening to. But to me that is part of child life. We can’t X it out of existence just because we think it’s bad.
Rebecca: Exactly. And it’s not necessarily a traumatic story with a dramatic comeuppance. Sometimes it’s just a way of life for a while. And you may have a friend or two while it’s going on, and you may not. It’s always so comfortable to write about kids who may be different in one way or the other, but they always have some friend. A weird friend, or a popular friend, or something.
Roger: Or an at-home friend who’s not an at-school friend. Or the opposite.
Rebecca: Right. I didn’t think about all of this deliberately before I started writing, but I did think about the fact that I was writing about a kid who was getting toward the end of a year when he really hasn’t had a friend in a while. Not ever, but in a while.
Roger: Well, I’m glad you found him one.
Rebecca: Me too.