Leslie Connor Talks with Roger

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Anybody Here Seen Frenchie? The whole town is looking for the eleven-year-old nonvocal boy gone missing in the Maine woods. How can his best — only — friend Aurora help? I talk below with author Leslie Connor about how she got into the heads of both these kids.

Roger Sutton: The setting for your book — is that real?

Leslie Connor: It’s based on a town in Maine that’s a favorite place of mine. My settings are often based on real places, but I like to change them a bit, mostly because I don’t want anyone there to be bothered.

RS: "Anybody here seen Frenchie?"

LC: That’s right. I don't want anyone to knock on a door and ask, "Are you the woman who missed him — how could you not look up?!" It leaves me license, too, because whenever we’re writing realistic fiction, we’re making use of things that are real. Oftentimes that serves my purpose, but other times I have to tweak things. In terms of the lay of the land — there’s this beautiful map that the cover artist drew. I’m over the moon about it. Maps were such a part of writing this story — I always had maps at my elbow. I was constantly referring back, especially when I was writing about the search for Frenchie. And the terrain is a big part of the story.

RS: You started this story with two images from a dream, if I’m remembering correctly.

LC: I did.

RS: That’s not your normal modus operandi?

LC: No, but those fragments seemed important enough, in that half-sleep state, that I knew I didn’t want to forget them in the morning. And I promise I would have forgotten them by morning! I’ve written things like that down before, and nothing has come of them. It’s not like this is a regular magical thing.

RS: Unfortunately.

LC: We should all be so lucky. But in that case, I thought, Yeah, this is sticking to me. That’s what it’s about. People ask, “What do you write about: what you know or what you want to know?” I always write about stuff I can’t ignore. If it won’t leave me alone, I’m going to keep going back to it, just for the sake of purging it from my own head.

RS: And from those two dream fragments, how did you get from A to B to a novel?

LC: There are always some things falling into the bucket. What you wait for is the serendipity of, “This goes with this,” and then you apply a sort of coin-sorter feeling to the bucket. “This falls into this book.” In the case of those two fragments, which had to do with a bowl in the earth and with someone or something flapping and tweeting, that went with a study of several autistic friends, acquaintances, people I’d read about, which I wanted to explore for story material. I got really interested in how vast the autism spectrum is.

RS: I notice that you didn’t label either one of your main characters.

LC: You are right. I didn’t do that in the book. We discussed that, my editor and I. I wanted to put the character before what might be called their disability or their neurodiversity. I was getting these composite images of each character, and that’s what I wanted to write about. Doing research and diagnosing comes later for me. But I don’t think it’s always essential to the story to name it.

RS: I’m remembering a children’s lit class in library school where we were studying Harriet the Spy. There was one student who was from the psychology department, and she said, “I don’t understand why you’re all getting so excited about this book about a sociopath."

LC: Which was so great, and so ahead of its time.

RS: We can see in Aurora — she has antecedents in children’s literature, right?

LC: She does, oh yes.

RS: Compared to Frenchie, who is more clearly “different” in some way, she comes across as the more “typical” kid. But at the same time, she clearly has some particularities of her own.

LC: Yes, she does. That was one of the things I was thinking about when I started to write this book. Here’s a friendship forming in my mind featuring two characters who are in some way neurodiverse. I’m not autistic, but what my research taught me is these amplified feelings are part of the struggle for an autistic person. They’re often the person in the room who’s working hardest to maintain some sense of composure, suffering in a cycle of repetitive patterns of thought that can really restrict them from what looks like “normal” social interaction. We use this term “normal,” but what’s normal for you? What’s normal for me? That’s always in my mind. I try to stick very close to how that character is without trying to make a lot of diagnoses. I don’t think we can cure autism or Asperger’s or any of these conditions that fall on the autism spectrum. But I do think it has been worth the learning and the science to offer strategies to kids as they’re growing up that might help them be more comfortable in social settings. “Did that work? Did that feel good? Do I still feel like myself if I do it?” In this friendship, Aurora was probably reaching a level of learning, and even of just maturity, where some of those things might start to click for her. Whereas for Frenchie, he’s going to have a different experience. It’s a way of growing apart, which no one intends. She’s feeling the tug of that possible social life and having a hard time not being swept up by it after all these years. She has had a lot of trouble making friends, and I think it’s more like friends have trouble knowing what to do regarding Frenchie. It’s not knowing how to approach a child who isn’t going to speak back to you.

RS: Yes, and we get Aurora’s perspective on things from her own point of view, but with Frenchie, we’re mostly guessing. You do narrate him, but it’s in the third person, so we’re still outside of him.

LC: We are. It’s third-person close, I guess you’d say, but yes, those were really interesting passages to write. I had to slow my process and think, How could I be inside his skin? How could I be seeing this the way he would see it, or feeling this the way he would feel it? Of course, he’s only one kid on the spectrum. Something I read in my research was: “Show me one autistic person and I’ll show you one autistic person."

RS: I can think of books I’ve read in the past where the character with autism’s supposed thought processes are spelled out. I appreciated in this book that you didn’t do that. To a great extent, he’s a mystery. He’s a sympathetic mystery, but he’s a mystery. He doesn’t even know that there is a novel going on, if you understand what I mean.

LC: I know exactly what you mean, and I actually love that you say that, and that it works for you. I’m hoping it will work for other readers. He’s not as afraid for himself as the other characters in the book are for him.

RS: He doesn’t really know he’s in danger.

LC: Right. And, I should point out, another autistic person could be absolutely terrified. But that is not the way I saw Frenchie. I felt a certain authenticity in him, and I wanted to stick with that. That’s a choice.

RS: It’s really interesting that you’ve written a novel that — I don’t want to say it doesn’t have conflict, but it certainly doesn’t have a villain. There’s that bratty Darleen, who’s the closest thing to an unsympathetic character.

LC: Yes there’s not really an antagonist here. It’s more about figuring out what happened.

RS: There’s definitely a plot, it’s just not a plot with a traditional conflict in it.

LC: True.

RS: Is that the kind of book you like to read? What do you like to read?

LC: I will read almost anything character driven. And of course I’ve been reading a lot — since April, I’ve been on the young people’s literature panel for the National Book Awards. We had our big night last night.

RS: Yeah, I really loved that book you chose [Last Night at the Telegraph Club by Malinda Lo].

LC: We do too. We just love it. But we also felt like we had ten really great longlist books, and then five really great shortlist books. We were delighted. I’ve read such a variety lately. I love an underdog — I write about underdogs. Family stories. People in new situations. Their personal struggles. With middle grade, which is my main area, the parents either are in charge, so you have that limit on what your protagonist can do proactively; or they should be in charge, and too much is on the young protagonist. Those things are really explorable in middle grade. I would like to note that with the National Book Awards experience, one thing I learned was how to read a graphic novel. It wasn’t something I was particularly experienced with, and we did see a lot of them. That was a really neat experience, so I’m thinking about picking up more of them in the future and looking and seeing. There’s a neat combination between verbal and visual literacy.

RS: I judged the National Book Awards a million years ago, but that’s my job, evaluating books. What is it like to be a book creator, and then be passing judgment on other books?

LC: Really weird. What I learned was that I’m actually not super-analytical about literature. I am not an academic. I was very interested in what the author attempted and what they accomplished. For all I know, I’m thinking about my own work when I’m doing that: What are people going to say I should have accomplished? But our NBA panel found that the cream rose.

RS: One thing the National Book Awards instituted some years ago that I still hate, and I’m just going to use this interview to proclaim my hatred for it once again — is to go from an announced longlist of ten to an announced list of five finalists. To me, it seems cruel. You make ten people really happy, and then the day comes when five of them become unhappy. It used to be that we would name five finalists and then pick one. Everyone’s trying to juice the publicity machine these days, I guess.

LC: I’m trying to think about how that was for me, the year my book [The Truth as Told by Mason Buttle] was a finalist.

RS: I have one more thing I want to talk about regarding your book. Maeve Visser Knoth, a librarian who’s one of our Horn Book Magazine reviewers, used to have a shelf in her library called "Books to Make You Cry." I feel like this is a Book to Make You Cry. It made me cry. What I’m interested in from my own reaction is: Why do we cry when Frenchie is found, not when Frenchie is lost?

LC: I think we cry from relief, and we also cry from knowledge. We’ve seen what everybody’s gone through, their journeys, the angst, and the stretching out of this painful thing. We’ve all either watched it on TV or, sadly, seen it in our own hometowns, where everybody’s focused on this one event and asking themselves: What did I see? What did somebody see? Did anybody see anything? Did someone see something and not think it was important? It is such a mystery as to how something gets by everyone like that, especially once people are alerted and searching. There are those who aren’t sure what they saw, or those who cannot tell what they saw for some reason or another. So I think we cry from relief. We’ve wanted, for many chapters, for the friends and family to be reunited with Frenchie. There are two families in this book that are quite close, but there are also several people in town that we’ve gotten to know well during the time that Frenchie is missing.

RS: Those occasional interludes from the peripheral characters really help your suspense, I think. We get occasional glimpses of Frenchie, and he’s fine. They can’t find him, so there’s a panic in town, but he himself is fine. We’re not particularly worried that he’s going to drown or die. We’ve been told all along you’re not writing that kind of a book. But I was amazed at how suspenseful it remained.

LC: I’m glad that it did. I did worry about the quiet of the book, that there’d be nothing to turn the pages for because we see that he’s safe. I was not writing a scary book, for sure. But I thoroughly enjoyed those ancillary characters, and they were probably the fastest part of the book for me. I somehow just knew each of their little stories; how did they miss what happened, or how did they decide not to say something, that kind of thing. It’s partly good luck that it worked.

RS: But in the book, there’s no one to blame for anything.

LC: No, there’s not, really. Aurora blames herself. But this is the thing: slip-ups happen. There’s free will. There’s a piebald deer. It wasn’t anyone’s fault, which is also a nice outcome, I think, for the middle-grade reader.

RS: I agree with you. It’s a tribute to you that you can make this all work. You’ve got this person off by himself. You have these other people trying to find him, doing their best, and it just takes a while.

LC: That’s right. Sort of a web or a puzzle or a weaving, combined with who can offer what skills. People you might be at odds with, you can come together to have a positive outcome. I think that was in my focus the whole time, to some degree. Even when we aren’t best friends, we can cooperate over something like this.

RS: And in the end, everyone is different because of it, except Frenchie.

LC: You are right — he just can’t sit down for a while. That sort of harkens back to the thing about their friendship that I was saying — there are certain beings on earth who will remain in a certain place. As you say, he’s unchanged. We can’t know what he knows about what he went through.

RS: He may be very changed, but we don’t know it, and there’s no sense that he tells himself, “Okay, I’m never going to wander off alone by myself again.” We don’t know.

LC: Right. Most likely not.

 

Sponsored by

Roger Sutton
Roger Sutton

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 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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