Kirby Larson and Quinn Wyatt Talk with Roger

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While I knew from the title page that Gut Reaction had two authors, I did not know they were next-door neighbors, not to mention mother (Kirby Larson) and daughter (Quinn Wyatt)! Kirby and Quinn collaborated on this novel about a middle schooler, Tess, who at first suffers alone with an embarrassing, painful, and debilitating condition that she (along with readers) comes to understand is Crohn’s disease, an illness Quinn knows firsthand.

Roger Sutton: Who said we should write a book or a book should be written?

Quinn Wyatt: I did. Ten years ago, maybe, I told my mom that she really needed to write a book about a kid with Crohn’s. Now here we are. Took a while.

RS: Did she talk you into writing it with her?

QW: She basically said, “I’ll only write it if you write it too.”

RS: Kirby, what did you imagine Quinn’s contribution would be?

Kirby Larson: If you read the afterword, you know that Quinn has been living with Crohn’s since she was really young. And I knew what that was like from a mom’s point of view, or someone on the outside looking in, but I’ve never lived with it. I felt like the voice of someone with lived experience needed to be represented on the page. I have to add I was really resistant to the whole idea because that was a tough time in our life and to revisit that — it took Quinn’s persistence and patience to get me to come around. I knew that she had lived it, so this story wouldn’t have authenticity unless she had the opportunity to talk about what that was like. Watching a sick kid is very different than being the sick kid, you know?

RS: Quinn, did you try to hide it away the way Tess does in the book?

QW: Yes. The symptoms are embarrassing. Especially for a teenage girl. I had the symptoms when I was younger, but people weren’t as open to talking about things like that thirty years ago. I figured out a lot of ways to lie about why I needed to go to the bathroom or why I wasn’t feeling well or why I couldn’t go somewhere. I didn’t want people to know what I was going through.

RS: I didn’t realize in the beginning that even Tess’s parents don’t know. That realization crept up on me until she finally had to tell them what was going on. I thought that was really beautifully done.

QW: Thank you.

RS: You know there’s nothing worse than embarrassment when you’re a teenager. The overwhelming emotion.

KL: And especially in those middle school years. Friends are so important. There were times when I had to pick Quinn up early from a sleepover, and her friends didn’t get it. Even her good friends found it hard to understand. Partly because there wasn’t a lot of open communication, but also because they’re twelve years old and don’t have the capacity to put themselves in someone else’s shoes.

RS: What did you learn about each other in writing this book?

KL: I learned that my daughter is brilliant. Seriously, I have been writing for a really long time, Roger, and we had a couple of sticky places where I couldn’t see a solution. I would get frustrated, and Quinn would say, “What do you think about this?” and it was the answer to the problem. I have tremendous respect for her creativity. She’s always been an artist, not so much with words. Quinn, did you learn anything about me?

QW: [Laughs] My mom can get kind of testy about certain things. Her books really are her babies, so she doesn’t like to see anything wrong with them. That was interesting to go through. She really treasures what she writes, and I think that’s why her work is so wonderful. You can tell her heart is in every word she puts down. But it was fun to see the other side of it.

RS: Kirby, had you been writing when Quinn was a child? (I am politely avoiding asking Quinn how old she is.)

QW: I don’t mind sharing. I am forty-one. My mom started when I was, I think, seven or eight.

KL: I was thinking elementary school. In fact, my first published book (obviously not the first I wrote; there were dozens of terrible ones stashed in the drawer) was Second-Grade Pig Pals, and it was inspired by something that happened to Quinn in second grade. I had been writing for several years before that book came out. The kids would go off to school in the morning, and I would work.

RS: What was it like growing up with an author as a mother, Quinn?

QW: It was fun to see her books out in the world. She visited our school to talk about her work, and that was pretty awesome. It takes diligence to write. You have to sit down and work at it every day. My mom had a button collection in a tin, and I remember she would be sitting at the computer, and I would be in her office looking through the button tin while she was working. It’s a job, right? That's what it was like. She would work, and we would entertain ourselves.

RS: What’s your job now?

QW: I work for my dad’s financial advisory business part-time. And I work for the school district. We don’t have art teachers in our schools, so it’s all volunteer led. I help run the volunteer art program.

RS: I thought we didn’t have much when I was in elementary school in the 1960s, but we always had an art teacher, we always had a music teacher. Good for you for keeping it up.

QW: It takes a village to keep these things going.

RS: And it seems to have taken a village, or two people anyway, to write this book. Describe to me how it worked. Did Kirby write, then Quinn read and suggest? Did Quinn write? How did it go?

KL: We have a little beach house, and Quinn and I took ourselves on a retreat there. We created the character, and we plotted out what we thought might happen in the book.

RS: Who picked Tess’s name?

KL: Quinn did. It started as a YA novel, and we worked on that version for more than three years. Five years? We were both feeling frustrated, and I came to the point where I felt I was too far from YA. My heart has always been in middle grade, and we decided to move it back to a time when Quinn had a bad flare up and the symptoms were too intense to ignore. Once we found that middle-grade voice, we found out who Tess was. Quinn wrote what I would call the heart of the story — the key episodes, like Tess being caught away from home when she’s out walking the dog and needs the bathroom. Then I wove those into our framework. We kept shifting the manuscript back and forth, back and forth, until we both were satisfied with it.

RS: We think of writers being inspired, sitting down, and writing away. But you have perfected this as a job — you know what to do when you’re stuck, you know how to rearrange things so that they work better. That only comes with experience, right?

KL: Right.

QW: We did a summary at the beginning, and we mapped out the path we wanted the story to take. We had to write a timeline of when all the parts and pieces happened. We had to keep track of how her disease progressed. There was a lot of technical stuff to writing this story, and we had to grind through in order to get it to play out right.

RS: Did you know how Tess’s story would end?

QW: We really wanted to make sure that we ended on a note of hope. Because living with a chronic illness can be very debilitating, depressing at times, and difficult. But it can also be emboldening. It can give you a voice and teach you to be brave and to speak up for what you need.  We wanted to make sure that there was an upside to everything too. One of the things we talk about in the book is that everybody has something they’re dealing with. Tons of kids are diabetic and coping with that. Some people have chronic acne problems, right? Everybody is struggling through something, and Crohn’s happens to have more embarrassing symptoms. This is a universal story about how people deal with adversity.

RS: Was it hard to separate your own experience from Tess’s? Did she become a separate character from you?

QW: She’s definitely her own character. The experiences she has in the story are related to things I went through, but they aren’t exactly the same.

RS: Did she teach you anything that you wish you had known then?

QW: That’s a good question. I think she’s much braver than I was. She told her friends what she was going through much earlier. I wish that I had that courage and bravery to be more open about what I was going through. I wish I had been able to be more like Tess when I was young.

RS: I don’t think we ever learn the lesson that what seems huge to us is never as huge to the people around us as we think it is. People aren’t paying nearly as much attention to us as we think they are.

KL: I think Tess’s friend Ellie served the purpose of being a reflection of that for Tess. It was so difficult for Tess, and Ellie embraced her and stood by her. She planned how to raise money for the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation.

RS: And they could even make poop jokes, which was great. Diffuses the situation, and I think helps make it more comfortable for the reader too. If the book makes a poop joke first, the reader isn’t going to worry about keeping one inside.

QW: It’s actually interesting that you said that, Roger, because I have a middle schooler. When something happens, her first reaction is “everybody’s going to notice” or “everybody’s going to see” or “everybody totally saw me fall, right?” But in truth we are all so concerned about our own selves or what’s going on in our own lives, especially middle schoolers, that we don’t often take in what’s happening to someone else. What’s big to us may not have even registered with anybody else.

RS: Do you think you want to try writing on your own now?

QW: No, definitely not [laughs]. It’s really hard work. I have a whole new respect for those that do this on a daily basis.

KL: That being said, we do have an idea for another book to do together. We enjoyed the process thoroughly, and we’ve come to love our character so much. But we’ve only briefly discussed it.


Sponsored by

Roger Sutton
Roger Sutton

Editor Emeritus Roger Sutton was editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc., from 1996-2021. 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 MA in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a BA from Pitzer College in 1978.

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