Lisa Fipps Talks with Roger

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Ellie, the protagonist of Lisa Fipps’s first novel, Starfish, has a very difficult relationship with her mother, who is constantly badgering Ellie about her weight. How much of Ellie’s story, I wondered, was Lisa’s? Not an easy question to ask in any case, but even more difficult here, because Lisa’s mother died the day before Lisa and I spoke. She’s a trouper, this one.

Roger Sutton: I’m so sorry to have heard about your mother.

Lisa Fipps: She had Alzheimer’s, so we knew one day it would be coming. I moved her to the nursing home last July, and the last few weeks I could tell when I would call every day, that she was getting worse and worse. Thank you.

RS: You know, the mother in this book is quite something. How much of that is your mother?

LF: Actually, it is based on my mother. Our relationship was very complex. I loved her, but she was very hurtful when it came to my weight. I really don’t believe she ever intended to be as hurtful as she was, but in the end she was.

RS: Ellie’s mother is like that too. She doesn’t think she’s being mean. She thinks she’s being helpful.

LF: I think a lot of parents are like that, and not just about weight issues. Even if you don’t understand exactly what a kid is going through, it’s better to just love them. I wanted to show how much the mom is hurtful, but also that she’s trying to help. She just does it in the worst way possible, with all the negative comments and consequences.

RS: It’s the hardest thing in the world for a kid, if it’s your family who’s saying these things to you. It’s so tough to remove yourself from that situation, to think maybe it’s not me; maybe it’s my mother’s problem, not mine.

LF: Right. That’s a very hard concept for a kid. Their brains aren’t fully developed until, what, twenty-something?

RS: Sixty-four and I’m still working on it.

LF: I totally hear you. As a child, you don’t really have any power. You can’t just leave the situation. You have to stay home and find a way to navigate those tumultuous waters. It makes life very complex. I’ve been on a couple of panels about tough topics and middle grade, and there are parents and other adults who ask, “Why did you include hard topics like this in middle grade? These are kids.” Well, kids are living them. They’re living with drug-addicted, alcohol-addicted parents. They’re living with bullying, divorce, death, illness (themselves or others), and to not address these issues is almost, in a way, cruel. When you address them, at least you’re giving a child some tools, and some comfort in knowing they’re not alone. They can read about someone like them, see themselves in a book. That’s an amazing gift to give a kid.

RS: How do you get over the hump, though, as a kid with a marginalized identity, and one that’s pejoratively regarded? Would it be hard to be a fat kid carrying your book with a fat kid on the cover around in school?

LF: When I was in school, kids would carry around Blubber — I was never going to touch that book, because I was already being tormented about my weight. A lot of thin girls read that book, and it never dawned on them that it might set a bullseye on them. That’s one of the many reasons Starfish is the title of this book because it doesn’t have any negative connotations. And then the cover illustrator, Tara O’Brien, did such a beautiful job.

Yes, the character is fat, but she’s beautiful, and there’s no denying it. How you get over that hump — one way is a support system. But what’s hard for fat kids is that studies show they have fewer friends. Even really young children — they’ll be shown pictures and asked, “Who is going to be your friend?” They’ll pick the skinny kid over the fat kid.

RS: Right.

LF: So fat kids have fewer friends to begin with, so it’s harder to have a support system. That makes it challenging right there. In the book, I wanted to ramp up the tension for Ellie. Her friend Viv, who looks like her, who is fat as well — her ally, her support — is going away, and in comes the neighbor, Catalina, who is amazingly interesting but then doesn’t look like Ellie. Ellie’s kind of scared, because sometimes when someone doesn’t look like you, you think they’ll never understand you. She takes a big chance. One of the saddest parts for me, when writing the book, was how distrustful from the get-go Ellie is of Catalina because she just assumes she’s going to be cruel to her. I think that’s so telling of what it’s like to be a fat kid.

RS: And it feeds on itself. You start projecting an effect of being afraid to talk to people. You’re only making it worse, but you can’t help it. I was a fat kid, and you really couldn’t pay me to go back and revisit some of the torture I got. Some really terrible things happen to Ellie in this book. How did you dig into yourself to revisit your own scapegoating as a child to make it part of this character? I couldn’t do it. Ever. Denial, denial, denial.

LF: I always tell people that not everything that happened to Ellie happened to me, but that a version of everything that happened to Ellie happened to me. The words “where angels fear to tread” come to mind. It was not an easy task. I think of the quote about writers “living twice.” We experience life, and then we experience it again when we write about it. Even if we’re not writing exactly about ourselves, we draw from these wells. In a way, we get to fix what happened.

While working on the book, I would do things like go back to my school and just sit in the parking lot. It was amazing, some of the things that came back to me, and what I had forgotten. I just let myself feel it again. Probably a form of torture, but I needed to remember what Little Lisa felt like if I was going to write about it. Another thing I did was look at pictures of myself when I was a little girl. I was fat, but it was no big deal. What I found was that the bigger deal that was made of it, the bigger I got. The more you bully a kid about their weight, the more they gain. If a parent is worried about their child being fat and unhealthy, and they’re always on them about being fat, then the child is actually going to get fatter. But I would look at those pictures, and think, “Oh my gosh, there was nothing wrong with her.” And yet inside I felt, all along, like something was wrong with me, being taken to doctor after doctor. It made me sad for Little Lisa because she endured so much.

How did she do that? While writing the book, I was trying to figure it out. I know that my story’s different from Ellie’s, but I tried to tap into what it felt like for a kid who is going through that. When I dug, I dug deep. When you sit down at a typewriter, you open a vein. Totally did that. Blood everywhere.

RS: When did Ellie become a separate person from Little Lisa?

LF: That’s a really good question. I’m a former journalist. I love it when people ask me really good questions. I know it’s not easy. This is a brand new one. Here’s what I think happened. Just by creating the different other characters in Ellie’s life, I was able to disengage Little Lisa from Ellie. I didn’t have that dad who is so supportive and wonderful, and the friends that I had were nothing like Viv and Catalina. Some of the “friends” I had back then were bullies to me as well. There was this one girl I was de facto friends with because our moms were friends, and we ended up having to do stuff together. You know how that works.

RS: Yup.

LF: This “friend” would say stuff like, “So-and-so called you Miss Piggy,” and then she’d laugh. First of all, I don’t need to know that. Second of all, that’s not funny. Third, you’re supposed to be my close friend. But creating the different characters in Ellie’s life is how it became separate from Little Lisa. That’s where they diverge, their roads fork. That actually helped — after I did all my emotional work, I was able to write the story, because it had separated from me.

RS: Do you feel that writing this novel — it’s all done; it’s out there and published — has been a kind of therapy for you in any way?

LF: It’s cathartic, that’s for sure. Getting it all out on paper is very cathartic. And hearing that people love Ellie and love her story is very healing as well. When they say, “Oh my gosh, Ellie,” it’s also kind of saying, “Little Lisa,” right? There’s that cathartic part of it. And then there’s the other part, of having to talk about it over and over again.

RS: Sorry.

LF: It’s kind of a double-edged sword. It’s healing in one way, and yet. But that’s okay. I wrote the book because I needed it when I was a kid, and it didn’t exist. When I started writing for children, it still didn’t exist. It had to be my very first book. It’s cathartic, and at the same time emotionally difficult.

RS: Did your mother read it?

LF: She read it in different forms. She had already started her Alzheimer’s journey when I was working on it. I do remember sharing some of the big moments. I would read these passages out loud, and she’d say, “Well, that was not nice to say.” And I would be like, “Yeah, Mom, that wasn’t very nice of you to say years ago. That’s what motivated me to write this story.”

We did have conversations about it after I grew up — there’s the scene where the family is watching TV, and there’s a fat girl at the beach, and the mom says, “Look at that big ol’ fat thing.” That actually happened. That was very hard for me, very painful. Years later (but before her Alzheimer’s diagnosis), I asked, “Hey, do you remember when we were watching TV one time?” And she remembered it. As soon as I knew she remembered it, I knew she knew it was important. I said, “You basically called me a big ol’ fat thing. I knew you thought of me as a big ol’ fat thing.” And she was like, “Well, I didn’t mean you.” And I said, “Mom — that would be like if you made fun of a tall person and there’s a tall person in the room. Just insert anything else.” And she said, “Well, you’re just too sensitive.”

I knew what she was doing. She was deflecting because she didn’t want to admit she had hurt me that deeply. That was, “I don’t want to be reminded of what I did.” Because if she remembered it, then she did know it was wrong. The night it actually happened — after she said that, I just sat there, and after we finished watching TV, I went to bed and cried myself to sleep. She never knew in that moment how it hurt me, but she remembered it, so I know that she felt bad as soon as she said it, or she wouldn’t have remembered it decades later.

RS: You talk in the afterword about originally thinking of this as a novel for teenagers, and then Nancy Paulsen, your editor, suggesting that you go into middle grade — when the story’s events are actually happening. I thought that was an interesting difference because remembered pain is different from pain.

LF: Yeah, it is. That’s the genius of Nancy Paulsen right there. She said, “I have no doubt this would sell as a YA novel, but I really think you should rewrite it as middle grade. If it’s YA, people in high school and maybe early college are going to read it, and it’s going to be a book of reminiscence, and they’ll say, ‘Oh my God, that happened, how horrible.’” Like you said, remembered pain. “But if you rewrite it for middle grade, you’re getting this in their hands while they’re going through it. You’ll let them know they’re not alone. You’re giving them some tools for their toolbox, so they know how to stand up for themselves. And maybe, just maybe, you’ll get some of the bullies to realize what they’re doing."

RS: You never know what's going to happen.

LF: No. As soon as she said that, I realized that was really what I wanted to do. I’d much rather write for middle grade than YA. I’d felt like I needed to write YA, I guess because I’m such an issue-oriented thinker and writer, based on my years in journalism. My book has a few tough topics, and I thought tough topics should be in YA, even though I know, as a person who lived tough topics, that middle grade needs them as well. I just didn’t know middle grade would allow you to go that far. But now middle grade has opened up.

RS: When I think about problem novels back in the ’70s when I started working, there were books about kids dealing with being overweight. Those were considered teenage novels. You didn’t see that in middle grade so much. Someone in a middle-grade book might be “chubby” but that wouldn’t be the focus of the book. The novels about fat kids dealing with being fat were written for teenagers. But everything’s gotten younger because we’re allowing middle grade to be truer to what middle graders are going through.

LF: Yes, and that, I think, is a gift to children around the world. I really do.

 

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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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