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T. R. Burns Talks with Roger

T. R. Burns Talks with Roger

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T. R. BurnsRS: When I was a kid, on the last day of school, you’d clear out your desk and take all your stuff home. And the first thing that we would always do, the next day, was play school with our liberated supplies. Why do you think kids enjoy school stories so much? Did you read them?

T. R. Burns: Did I read school stories? Yes, absolutely. I think it’s the shared common experience that maybe kids like to imagine doing differently. Or at least I did. I was a good girl, a good student. I got very good grades, and school was important to me in the academic sense. But there were other kids who had different priorities; just having fun and doing mischievous things and experiencing school in a different way. When you’re on vacation — or when you’re reading — it’s your time to imagine how school could be different.

RS: Did you have friends among the troublemakers?

TRB: I had a close group of girlfriends when I was Seamus’s age. There were about five or six of us, and we were all really, really good. Occasionally — usually during sleepovers that were fueled by lots of snacks and with parents being out and it being late at night and having the security of one another — occasionally there would be a prank phone call. I don’t know if I’ve ever told anyone this before, but you know how on the backs of shampoo bottles and other products like that there’s a 1-800 number to call if you want to complain or discuss your problem with the product or whatever? We would call the 1-800 numbers and make up stories about the shampoo, like how it turned our hair green.

RS: I think you did a good job in Seamus of showing what it’s like to get into trouble, really, really, really without meaning to.

TRB: All the kids at Kilter Academy are naturally talented at their specific troublemaking skills but they’re also very good kids. In future books, we learn that that they all came to discover their troublemaking talents quite accidentally. It’s all innocent fun for them, but they’re good at it. And maybe in the other parts of their lives there are other things they’re not very good at, but their skills at troublemaking are what give them confidence and help them feel better about who they are. But what’s interesting — and what was fun for me to write — is that kids seem to have a natural ability to find trouble even without meaning to. And I guess some children, those with weighty consciences, feel really, really guilty about it, especially if they do something as severe, if accidental, as shooting the substitute with an apple!

RS: And then there is that wonderful surprise we get at the end.

TRB: Yes. Which is quite a revelation for Seamus. He’ll have to figure out how that affects him and his standing at school in the next book.

RS: How far ahead did you have to plan this out?

TRB: When I first started writing I had not planned very far, so it took a while for me to find the story. I knew how the first book would end — I knew what that final scene would be — but I hadn’t thought past that. My agent wanted me to think bigger: bigger picture and more dramatic. So before we did anything else, before we submitted or I even had a finished draft of the first book, I did go through and outline, loosely, an arc that would go beyond The Bad Apple. I had to think about the greater issues of Kilter Academy — what the real purpose of Kilter Academy is, and what its headmistress Annika’s ultimate goal is, and all of that. Right now I have five books in mind. Three are signed up so far, so we’ll see how it goes.

RS: There seems to be a lot of pressure now to publish books in series.

TRB: I don’t know that I felt pressure. I like writing series. [Writing as Tricia Rayburn] I have two trilogies: the Maggie Bean books, which are for tweens, and the Siren Trilogy, which is YA. I really enjoy being able to go back and revisit the characters. I’m part of their world and vice versa, so it’s fun for me to explore that much deeper.

RS: When you began The Bad Apple, what did you start with?

TRB: I really wanted to do something with a male main character because I hadn’t done that before. I came up with a list of maybe five or six small kernels of ideas, and sent them to my agent. What she responded to most was an idea about a young kid thinking that he killed a substitute teacher but actually didn’t. Once I then got the idea of the school for troublemakers, I was surprised at how — not easily; it’s not easy — all the other aspects of the story came to me pretty quickly, like the Hoodlum Hotline, the Good Samaritans, the demerits for good behavior. It must have been all that observing I did back when I was a good girl. I was taking mental notes without even realizing it.

RS: It must be a hard thing to do, to keep the action going on an immediate level, and at the same time you’ve got these larger themes that you need to carry from book to book. Showing a little piece of the puzzle at a time.

TRB: There is definitely a big arc that goes far beyond the school in its present form. In the next book the characters go across the country for a particular reason. There will also be more exploring as far as the relationship between the kids and their parents — how kids can be resentful and sometimes parents (or other adults for that matter) don’t know best. At the same time, your parents are your parents for a reason, and you need them and they need you.

RS: What’s your troublemaking talent?

TRB: When I was Seamus’s age, on the rare occasions that I did something bad, I managed to get out of it. For example, I played the violin in middle school and I usually took the beginning of orchestra rehearsal as my chance to use the restroom; in all my other classes I’d have to be there early, at my desk, books out and everything, but for whatever reason I thought orchestra was a little more relaxed. So I would ask our conductor if I could use the restroom, and one day he said no. But I really had to go! So I left anyway, and then when I came back, he told me I had detention. And that was just the worst thing. I was mortified; I just couldn’t believe it. When I went home and told my mother what happened, I utilized all of the theatrics in my twelve-year-old’s arsenal: I cried and apologized and said I’d never do it again and I explained the situation. I don’t know if my mother believed me or if she just wanted me to be quiet, but she called my orchestra conductor and somehow got me out of detention.

RS: Whoa.

TRB: I knew what I was doing. I didn’t whine and cry and all of that because I felt like venting, I had a hunch my mom would pick up the phone and act on my behalf. I thought I was preserving my wholesome good-girl reputation, but actually I was being very manipulative.

RS: Really a master manipulator.

TRB: I know.

RS: In some ways your book reminds me of Holes, where we also have an innocent kid shipped off for detention, but of course in Holes it’s a truly gruesome place. And instead of the evil warden lady, you give us the mysterious nice lady, Annika, running things at Kilter Academy.

TRB: But is she nice?

RS: She had better be. I like her.

TRB: She’s very helpful. But everyone’s doing what she expects them to at this point. She may have other goals and reasons for the school that we’ll find out about later.

RS: “She may?” Does that mean that you’re not telling, or you don’t know?

TRB: I’m not telling.

RS: I think that the hero of your book, and heroes of books like yours, where they are sort of The Chosen One, must be really appealing to kids. Like Seamus doesn’t really think he’s wonderful. He gets into this school because of an accident, and then he succeeds in this school because of a series of accidents. But nevertheless there’s something special about him.

TRB: Yes. He was chosen for a reason. And I think he’ll do a good job in fulfilling his role as the books go on.

RS: And we will find out what that reason is?

TRB: Absolutely.

RS: I’ll take your word for it.

Sponsored by
Simon & Schuster

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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