Q&A with Leslie Stella How did you get inside the mind of a teenage boy?
Badi grew into a fully realized human being with each draft of the novel. I confess I never thought, “How do I get into the mind of a boy?” as much as I thought, “Who is this particular person?” The boys in my books are not typical pop-culture renditions of boys; neither are the girls. Badi is a little bit of the teenager I was and a lot of the person I wish I had been. Is it difficult balancing the humor in the story with the more serious subject matter?
Sometimes, yes. I used to have a horror of inserting a message in my novels: “All right, boys and girls, get ready for the lesson!” Chalk it up to a certain immaturity on my part—this fear I had of being serious, perhaps of being taken seriously—because I don’t take myself seriously at all. But I learned that there’s a difference between taking yourself seriously and taking your work seriously. I find that now I do want to say something with my writing, and when you have complicated subjects such as the ones explored in Permanent Record, or a complicated main character, there is going to be a strange balance of humor and drama. Which is just like real life, you know? There is humor in pathos. There is comedy in sorrow. Badi’s simultaneous good humor and crippling depression mirrors our messy lives. What was the biggest challenge for you in writing this story?
The biggest challenge was reining in Badi when he became angry. Part of me wanted to let him inflict damage. But I realized that was my own problem, not his, that I struggled with disproportionate rage and elaborate revenge fantasies. He wouldn’t pull pranks on people for no reason. He would not be cruel. So in a sense I had to rein myself in, too. I don’t go in for the cheap thrills. Did you let go of these characters or do you find yourself continuing their stories in your head?
I did let go of these characters. Maybe it’s because I felt I told their entire stories, explored their arcs from beginning to end. For a book that can be at times a difficult read, it ends with renewed hope and strength for each character. I feel confident that they would go on to greater things, whole and positive lives, despite life’s thorny twists. Do world events such as the recent Boston bombings make you think any differently about your characters and what happened in this story?
I don’t feel differently about my characters, but perhaps I feel differently about the world. Is Badi really so special and unusual with his complex views of good and evil, his ability to sort out his humanity—and others’ humanity—from the baser human instincts? Maybe. It’s depressing, actually, to realize how often we fail to measure up to these fictional characters who are supposed to reflect us. But then again, maybe there is a Badi out there, a quiet, unassuming, put-upon boy, who, despite all the disadvantages that the world throws at him, decides not to inflict damage on the rest of us. He changes his mind and goes on about his life, and none of us know how close we came to destruction. I have to believe he is out there.
From Publishers Weekly
***Starred Review*** Adult fiction writer Stella's first YA novel smartly tackles ethnic and social prejudice while introducing a remarkably strong underdog
: 16-year-old Iranian-American Badi Hessamizadeh. Following Badi's destructive behavior at a public school (a result of being targeted by bullies post-9/11), Badi's father transfers him to Magnificat Academy and changes his name to Bud Hess, in hopes that he will clean up his act. Badi's depression, anxiety, anger, and compulsions make fitting in a challenge, though he does befriend two fellow outsiders, Nikki and Reggie. When Badi refuses to participate in the school's chocolate bar sale (he sees it as "forced labor"), and anonymous, antagonistic letters start appearing in the student newspaper, he is assumed to be the culprit and again becomes the victim of bullying. Readers will be absorbed by the mystery of the letter writer, as well as the tension surrounding acts of sabotage leading up to homecoming, but it's Badi's sardonic narrative that makes the novel crackle. Behind his nervous distrust of the world is a burgeoning resilience, depth of character, and commitment to battling injustice. Publishers Weekly
March 2013 Starred Review