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Kathryn Erskine Talks with Roger

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Photo: Jen Fariello.

Julian isn’t at all happy that his moms are moving him and his cranky older sister to a house in Maine on a lake. Thus the life jacket he wears everywhere. A friendship with new neighbor Mr. X, who is more and less than he seems, might provide some hope in The Incredible Magic of Being.

Roger Sutton: What do you like best about visiting schools?

Kathryn Erskine: I like having contact with the kids and hearing what they think, hearing what books in general (not just my books) mean to them. They’re the reason I’m writing, so it’s important for me to be in touch with them. It’s also nice, frankly, because they treat you like a rock star.

RS: Not something writers are used to.

KE: Not at all! And then I come home and clean the toilets. While I’m at the school, I’m special.

RS: I know writers who like to wall themselves up and work. I know other writers who are very scientific about the way they go about gathering opinions from kids. I guess you’re in a different place.

KE: Yeah. I’m not a structured, ordered person. I’m not a linear thinker. I don’t like doing the same thing every day. That’s something I enjoy about traveling for school visits — it breaks things up, gives you opportunities to look at life from a different angle.

RS: Do you write in a linear way?

KE: Not at all. I sometimes wish I did — I envy my writer friends who start at the beginning and already know the ending and also what’s going to happen in the middle. I really have no clue. I just have these voices talking in my head. I know who they are, like they’re my friends. I feel the setting very distinctly too.

RS: So what came first in this book? Or who came first, I guess I should say?

KE: The voice of Julian. One day I was making some healthy cookies, thinking no one’s going to want to eat these, and this voice in my head said, “I wouldn’t be caught dead eating pumpkin cookies. I wouldn’t be caught alive eating them, either.” I used that in the book — not about cookies, but about getting in a boat. And then he just went on and on. I have never written down so many things a character has said to me. I have three notebooks’ worth, because this kid would not shut up.

RS: Here we get into an interesting metafictional topic. Your book is, in part, about hearing people that you’re not actually talking to. How real is Julian to you?

KE: He is very real. I do feel that there are things in the world we can’t explain, but that do happen. It’s like Julian says: maybe in the future we’ll figure it out. We don’t know yet, but that doesn’t mean it’s not true. I’ve had so many experiences of just knowing somebody is hurt, or when you think of the name of somebody you haven’t talked to in six months, and then the phone rings and it’s them. That’s more than coincidence. I think if you’re open to that kind of thing, it will happen. There are ways people can communicate thoughts and feelings without being in the same room.

RS: I agree with you, but I’m wondering: if I were a cataloger, would I say that The Incredible Magic of Being was realism, fantasy, or science fiction?

KE: That’s a good question, because I never thought of myself as writing anything fantastical, but the story just came out this way.

RS: Our reviewer called it magical realism, but I’m not sure that’s the term I would use, because the theory underlying the story is not that this stuff is unexplainable or magic, but as you just said (and Julian says in the book), we don’t know the science yet.

KE: Yes. It could be science fiction because it is pretty science-oriented, and I did that on purpose. I enjoyed science as a kid. I would like more kids to be curious about science and pursue some of the concepts that are mentioned in the book.

RS: I was reading the new Philip Pullman book at the same time as I was reading yours, and it was quite a trippy little exchange of thoughts. That’s a big theme for him: why is something we don’t understand — in his case God — necessarily fantasy?

KE: Right.

RS: I love the idea that as soon as you can imagine another world, you’ve created it. I have friends I meet in alternate universes. Do you?

KE: For me it’s always people I already know. I’m having conversations with them — like a friend of mine who recently passed away. I woke up in the middle of the night and she was saying, “It’s okay. You don’t need to worry. I just want you to take care of my husband. But I’m okay.” My husband and I were on an anniversary trip, so I didn’t learn until later that she had died. And I found out she passed away exactly when we were having that conversation. There’s something out there. I’m a big believer in that.

RS: I like that Julian has a diagnosis because of his heart problem, but he doesn’t have a diagnosis because of the way he sees the world.

KE: The only thing mentioned is that he’s emotionally gifted. But there’s nothing specific like that he has Asperger’s or clinical anxiety or depression or anything. He’s just a kid — a kid very much like I was at that age.

RS: Were you as irritating?

KE: No, that’s the difference. I can make him say all those things that I thought but never said—partly because I knew, even as an eight- or nine-year-old in the 1960s, that if I said stuff like, “Maybe when I go to sleep and dream, that’s the real world, and when I wake up, this is not reality,” I would be put away. I knew not to say anything.

RS: I did have to laugh when I was reading one of the conversations between Julian and Mr. X, and I’m like, kid, you’re being annoying. And then he says, “I know I’m annoying.”

KE: Yup. I have known kids like that.

RS: He has huge problems. He’s not just this sensitive little kid who can talk to everybody in a wise way. He’s really screwed up — he’s scared of the water, his one mother is so overprotective…

KE: Right. He has a lot of issues.

RS: But he doesn’t feel like an issue-book character to me, which I appreciate.

KE: I’m glad. I wanted Julian to seem like a regular kid who just happens to have all of these things going on. Especially considering that a lot of kids feel that way — that there’s so much going on in their lives that is out of their control, and they’re fumbling along.

RS: As you channeled Julian’s voice, from the ether or your imagination or someplace, and started writing it down, did he keep at you? Did you contradict him? Are you like Muriel Spark, who said writing for her was like taking dictation from God?

KE: For Julian, it really was. Mr. X was a completely different story. He was one that I just couldn’t figure out. I interview my characters to try to get information out of them. It really taps my subconscious. But with him, I had pages of interviews where he’d either not answer at all or say things like, “That’s for me to know and you to find out.” Or “Yes and no.” I even wrote him out at one point. He said, “You can try it, but it won’t work.” And it didn’t.

RS: Maybe he only talks to Julian.

KE: Well, that’s the other thing I do. I will interview another character, like Julian, about someone who won’t talk to me and ask, “What is going on with your sister? What’s going on with Mr. X?”

RS: How do you interview them?

KE: I go into the living room and give my character the nice chair. I actually ask a question out loud, and then I write down whatever comes into my head that the character is supposedly answering me.

RS: I don’t want to give away the book’s ending because it’s a really good surprise, but I didn’t see it coming.

KE: Nobody has yet — they always say, “I had no idea!” Those are the endings I love, the unexpected but not unexplainable. If you know Julian, then you can see where it came from. It has been building towards this, but you wouldn’t have guessed it.

RS: Right. And certain kids, when they’re done, will want to go back and figure out if they could see it all along.

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Roger Sutton About Roger Sutton

Roger Sutton has been the editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc, since 1996. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his M.A. in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a B.A. from Pitzer College in 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @RogerReads.

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