Christina Collins Talks with Roger

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Photo: Emma Gornal.

Elise had long been homeschooled by her mother, but now she's in middle school, and becoming aware that her home and family are in fact odder than she could previously understand. As the disconnect between home and school becomes more pronounced, Elise finds herself compelled to grow quieter — selectively mute, a condition both comforting and alarming, and one exacerbated by growing evidence of a family secret. In After Zero, first-novelist Christina Collins brings a mythic dimension to the life of a contemporary eighth-grade girl.

Roger Sutton: What time zone am I calling?

Christina Collins: I'm living in Northern Ireland right now, in Belfast. I got a scholarship to come here—full funding for a creative writing PhD, so it was hard to say no.

RS: Did you write the book here, or there, or both?

CC: Both. I wrote the first draft in the U.S. I started it right after graduating from college. For several years I worked on it on and off while I had a full-time job, and then I began my master's of fine arts program in creative writing. The summer after my first year I finished a first draft that I liked, and I got an agent. Three years later I moved here, and the following summer I got the book deal.

RS: You know, a lot of people reading this are going to want to kill you. It seems like you've been very fortunate.

CC: I definitely have. I think about it every day and pinch myself.

RS: Did moving to Northern Ireland give you any perspective on the story that you wouldn't have had otherwise?

CC: That's a good question. The book is set in the suburbs, so I was in the right place physically when I was writing it. But I was revising it here — surrounded by scenic rolling hills, with the ocean not too far away. I feel like there's something about being near all that which is just kind of liberating.

RS: Is it set in a particular suburb? Where does the book take place?

CC: I leave it unnamed, though I named the school my character goes to: Green Pasture Middle School. It's loosely based on my own little Massachusetts hometown and a combination of the public schools I went to.

RS: As I was reading, I didn't know anything about you. All I had was a manuscript — I didn't see a cover or even a blurb. And yet as the mythic elements started to creep in I thought, oh, it's getting so Irish.

CC: I love the Irish myths. I am partly Irish — maybe that has something to do with it. But I love myths and fairy tales, so it was inevitable. There's inspiration from one particular fairy tale—

RS: "The Twelve Brothers."

CC: Yes — but there is an Irish version called "The Children of Lir," which is a little different but has some of the same basic plot points. In "The Twelve Brothers," a girl finds out something about her past, she sets off to put things right, and she has to take a vow of silence. My book is not necessarily a retelling, but that story is definitely an underlying inspiration.

RS: No, I wouldn't call it a retelling. It was quite neat the way you started and I thought, okay, this is one kind of story, contemporary realism. But then with the raven and the muteness — as you developed those themes, I thought, huh, we're getting into some folkloric territory here. I wonder what direction she's going to go. Did you always know?

CC: That was one of the trickiest parts for me in revising. I wanted to engage with this fairy tale in a way that was convincing, and I wanted it to be contemporary realism with a touch of magic. In an earlier draft there was more magic, with a transformation of people into birds. That wasn't working, but I didn't know how heavy-handed I should be with the fairy-tale and magical elements. I ended up figuring out that a lighter touch in that regard was what made the story work.

RS: Right, because if you go too far into fairyland, as it were, the harder it is to come back, and you clearly wanted to come back.

CC: Yeah, I didn't want to lose the readers. Would they buy certain things? With the raven, I kind of latched onto him and made him a character in his own right. I wanted there to be just a little bit of something is going on, maybe.

RS: Exactly: maybe.

CC: I wanted to leave it open-ended, too, because when I was that age I liked stories where there was a possibility that maybe there's something more happening. I think the raven represents that.

RS: How do you stop your realistic theme — which is about a girl who has selective mutism — from taking over your novel? Elise's problems certainly overwhelm her, but how do you stop them from overwhelming the story about her?

CC: I didn't want this to be just about selective mutism. It's about friendship, it's about family, it's about a longing for human connection and acceptance. I think bringing in the fairy-tale plot, Elise's quest to figure out this mystery about her past that her mother's been hiding from her, helps make it about more than selective mutism, although the two are very much intertwined. It's the undiagnosed experience, the experience in which you don't have any help and you don't know what's going on with you. Elise just thinks she's weird. Delaying the diagnosis until the end makes her an individual before the diagnosis. It's not "this is a girl with selective mutism, and that's how she's defined" from the beginning of the story. And this is also based a bit on personal experience. I had a similar experience in early adolescence where I was struggling and not knowing what was "wrong" with me.

RS: What did you think was going on with you? Did you think you were shy?

CC: It was kind of a dark period in my life. There were a few years where I didn't talk at school, and I just thought I was weird. Elise actually says this about herself too, that she's weird. Why can't I talk to people? Why does this happen to me in certain situations? Why do I freeze up? There are several great books out there with characters with selective mutism, but they mostly have a diagnosis from the beginning, so it's a story about the character knowing what they have and then trying to find the right help for it, but that wasn't my experience. I wanted this book to be mostly about the experience of not knowing and trying to figure it out.

RS: I think of Laurie Halse Anderson's Speak, where we see the mutism as the result of a very specific trauma that is revealed at the end of the story, but really the book is about that trauma, not about the mutism.

CC: That's one of my favorite books. That's traumatic mutism. I could talk your ear off about the differences between traumatic mutism and selective mutism. They get confused very often. We see all kinds of books about a character who, for example, witnessed a loved one's death, or some kind of tragic event. And then they stop talking as a post-traumatic response to that event. As they come to terms with the horrors of their past, they are able to start speaking again. Those can be really great stories, but that's not what selective mutism is. I wanted to see my experience in a book. This is very much an anxiety condition.

RS: Elise kind of writes her way out of it, as one kind of healing. Was that something you also experienced?

CC: Absolutely. Just by writing this book, it was a way for me to work through and come to terms with those dark years. It was very cathartic, even though it wasn't exactly my experience and I was further fictionalizing it with the fairy tale. But even before I wrote this novel, I was writing poetry and short stories. There's a poem at the end of the novel that Elise works up to writing…

RS: It's a good poem.

CC: Thank you. I wrote that when I was in college.

RS: I've always wondered this about creative writers like you who draw from your own lives for aspects of your poetry or fiction. How do you get yourself out of the way when you need to, so that you're not just writing autobiography? How did Elise's story become separate from your story?

CC: There was something easier about putting a few layers of separation between my experience and Elise's. Also, there were things I put in that story that didn't happen to me but I wish happened, like certain aspects of support. I wouldn't necessarily say it was wish fulfillment, but it was nice to see it happen for my character.

RS: Do you regard your own experience with selective mutism as in any part a gift?

CC: I do now. Back then, it felt like a curse, just like it does for Elise. Just like with anything you overcome, you feel better for it. You feel empowered. Now it feels like a gift because I am trying, anyway, to spread awareness through the book. I'm not going to lie. There was a long period when I thought, I'm not going to tell anybody this is based on personal experience. Once people know that, they might start looking at me differently. I don't need to say that I experienced anything that Elise experienced with her anxiety and her selective mutism. But then as it got closer to publication and I was being asked to submit front and back matter, I thought, I could help kids who might feel alone like I was. Even if it's scary for me to go public with this experience, I'll feel good about it. And I do feel good about it.

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Roger Sutton
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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