Amazon Exclusive: A Q&A with Rebecca Stead
We had the opportunity to chat with Rebecca Stead over e-mail about her second novel, When You Reach Me. Here’s what Rebecca had to say about growing up in New York City, meeting Madeleine L’Engle, and how writing a novel is a lot like solving a puzzle.
Amazon.com: When You Reach Me captures Manhattan in the late 70s perfectly. Why did you choose to set a book for young readers today in the not-too-distant (but very different) past?
Rebecca Stead: I grew up in New York in the seventies and eighties. When I was in elementary school, I became acquainted with a mysterious sort of character, who I wanted to use for this story. When I began to write about him, I was suddenly remembering all kinds of details and moments and places from my own childhood and happily writing them into the book. And in this way the book’s setting sort of rose up around the plot.
There’s another reason I set the story in the past, which is that I wanted to show a world of kids with a great deal of autonomy, and I wasn’t sure that it would ring true in a modern New York setting. For better or for worse, life is different now.
Amazon.com: Madeleine L'Engle’s classic A Wrinkle in Time plays an important role in When You Reach Me. Why did you choose pay homage to this particular classic in your own book?
Rebecca Stead: I loved A Wrinkle in Time as a child. I didn’t know why I loved it, and I didn’t want to know why. I remember meeting Madeleine L’Engle once at a bookstore and just staring at her as if she were a magical person. What I love about L’Engle’s book now is how it deals with so much fragile inner-human stuff at the same time that it takes on life’s big questions. There’s something fearless about this book.
It started out as a small detail in Miranda’s story, a sort of talisman, and one I thought I would eventually jettison, because you can’t just toss A Wrinkle in Time in there casually. But as my story went deeper, I saw that I didn’t want to let the book go. I talked about it with my editor, Wendy Lamb, and to others close to the story. And what we decided was that if we were going to bring L’Engle’s story in, we needed to make the book’s relationship to Miranda’s story stronger. So I went back to A Wrinkle in Time and read it again and again, trying to see it as different characters in my own story might (sounds crazy, but it’s possible!). And those readings led to new connections.
Amazon.com: I love the way you incorporate hints of science fiction into the ordinary events of Miranda’s life. What scientific possibilities (or realities) did you find most interesting growing up?
Rebecca Stead: I thought about time a lot when I was a kid. Not in a mystical way--it was just the passing of time, the idea of time stretching out forever, that interested me. I used to wonder, "What will my room look like on my thirtieth birthday? What will be the first words I say in the year 2000? When I’m forty, will I remember the ‘me’ I am now? Will I remember this moment?" I guess part of it was thinking about how we leave ourselves behind in a way, which I think we do, throughout our lives.
I was also really interested in what is "knowable." There’s a certain number of people alive on this planet right now, and it’s a simple number that anyone could write down or say aloud, and so in some sense that number exists as a truth, yet we can’t know it. That’s the kind of thing I thought about when I was Miranda’s age.
Amazon.com: Each of the book’s chapters is just a few pages in length, but each scene is fully drawn. Why did you decide to write the story in this way? And why do most of the chapters begin with the words "Things That..." or "Things On..."?
Rebecca Stead: A lot of my writing is fragmented for some reason. It must be something about the way my brain works. I used to write short stories, and this was the form they frequently took. When I started writing my first novel, First Light, a lot of the raw material was also fragmented, and I had to sort of develop them into traditional chapters, which was what worked best for that story. But When You Reach Me is a little like a puzzle, and I loved the challenge of smoothing these small pieces until the whole thing fit together just right.
The chapter names are (mostly) the names of categories inspired by a game show called The $20,000 Pyramid. As she tells her story, Miranda is helping her mother get ready to be a contestant on the show. They practice every night, and the game sort of seeps into her general thinking. The book is about all sorts of assumptions and categories we carry in our heads, so it felt right on that level, too.
Amazon.com: At the very beginning of the novel, we learn that Miranda’s mom is going to be a contestant on the 1970’s TV game show The $20,000 Pyramid. Without giving away the ending, why is this opportunity so important for them as a family?
Rebecca Stead: They need the money! Part of what’s happening for Miranda during this year is that she gets pushed outside of her formerly tiny world. Not far, but enough for her to start thinking about class, and the way other people live. She starts to see the way she lives in a new way, and has to deal with that. It’s the beginning of that kind of awareness for her, and so the money they hope to win has a lot of meaning for her, but it’s a meaning that changes.
Amazon.com: Is there some significance to the way that Miranda, her mom, and her mom’s boyfriend Richard all prepare for the big event?
Rebecca Stead: They have a pretty nice system, which starts with their neighbor, Louisa, who scribbles down each day’s Pyramid clues at her nursing job because she’s the only one with access to a television at lunchtime. After her shift, she leaves the clues with Miranda, who copies them down on cards. Miranda and Richard take turns feeding clues to Miranda’s mom while the other one keeps time. They operate as one kind of New York City family, which is probably the important thing.
Amazon.com: Why do Miranda and her friends Annemarie and Colin like working in Jimmy’s sandwich shop during lunch hour? Especially since he doesn’t pay them. Why don’t they hang out at school instead?
Rebecca Stead: It doesn’t feel like work to them. They are twelve, and all they want to do is see what it’s like to be out in the world together. It’s the most exciting thing ever, except when it’s boring. Hanging out at school means sitting in the lunchroom, which is not fun. They couldn’t even sit together there, because Colin would always be sitting with the boys.
Amazon.com: Do you think latch-key kids like Miranda are any different today than they were back in the 70s? How about city kids versus suburban kids?
Rebecca Stead: I’m now raising two kids of my own in New York City, and I think a lot about the differences between today’s "preteen experience" and the one I had. Kids are generally less independent now, I think. My friends and I had a lot more freedom than I let my own kids have. The community just doesn’t support it anymore. Now we have 24-hour-a-day news and twenty-two different police dramas that make constant fear seem kind of reasonable. And the internet has changed everything, obviously. Kids socialize in cyberspace now. I’ve heard that the suburban experience has also changed a lot. My husband grew up in the suburbs and his parents hardly ever knew where he was at age twelve. Those days are gone, I think.
From School Library Journal
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