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FACT AND FICTION


         

“Eddy’s voice came easily, and I grew quite fond of the boy. Plot was harder.”


                                                       


            “Good fiction and nonfiction have a lot in common—clarity, logical flow, economy of words. Every passage, every word must have a purpose, whether the characters and situations are real or made up.”   
                                                    
–Jacqueline Houtman

 

 

  

            The loose theme this week (besides introducing three terrific new releases and the stories behind them) has been to take a look at how authors use fact and fiction to inform as well as entertain.

 

            So before I introduce our last author interview, I have to add another fantastic title to this week’s FACT and FICTION books—it hasn’t been released yet but the ARCS are out, so this is a mini-Tollbooth celebration. It’s for our own Tami Lewis Brown’s Soar Elinor, coming from Farrar Straus and Giroux this October. Soar Elinor, about the early adventures of one of our first and best young women pilots, is a dynamite blend of text and artwork, fact and fictional technique. Congratulations Tami!

 

            And congratulation Jacqueline Houtman! whose debut novel The Reinvention of Edison Thomas (Front Street, March, 2010) about a very unique little boy, will win your heart.

 

            Edison Thomas, the literal minded, scientific and sweet natured protagonist in The Reinvention of Edison Thomas is teased by most of his peers. Determined to make a street corner safer for school kids when the crossing guard is let go, Eddy’s quest to save lives takes him from his basement inventions through the mine field of human relationships, in a series of often funny, and always touching, encounters.

 

            Houtman, who comes to fiction from science writing, spoke with me about the process of switching genres, getting under her character’s skin, and developing an unreliable narrator.

 

Q: Congratulations on your debut novel The Reinvention of Edison Thomas, it’s such a heart wrenching and tender read. What first inspired you to write Eddy’s story? And what was the moment like when you finally saw this inspiration become a book?

            Oh, dear, I hope it wasn’t all heart-wrenching! I tried to put some humor and hope in there, too.

            The first thought of writing Edison Thomas came to me when I was reading The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon (Doubleday 2003). I was intrigued by the idea of a protagonist on the autism spectrum. I had just gotten hooked on middle grade fiction (Thanks Harry) and I thought middle grade would be the perfect age group for the book that was starting to write itself in my head. Middle grade fiction is all about self-discovery, and for a kid on the spectrum, there’s a lot to discover. Middle school is a social snakepit for most kids, but it must be even worse for someone who can’t read social cues.

            Although Eddy shares some characteristics with Christopher from Curious Incident, he’s a completely different person. I think it’s important that characters on the spectrum be as varied as the population they depict, so they don’t become stereotyped. In the last few years there have been quite a few new books with autistic characters and I think that’s great. It’s not a novelty anymore.

            Moments. There were a lot of moments. Every step that brought Edison Thomas closer to being a book was a thrill. “The call” from my wonderful editor, Joy Neaves, revisions, first pass pages, the cover, first appearance on Amazon, ARCs, author copies.  It sometimes doesn’t feel real. I’m still waiting to spot Edison Thomas in the wild, on a bookstore shelf. Maybe then I’ll stop pinching myself. The bruises are unsightly.

Q: You’re not only a debut author, but part of the online group of debut authors, Classof2k10. Can you talk a little about the importance this group, and your author/editor relationship, has held for you as a first time novelist?

            I had so many new things to learn, so many unfamiliar experiences and emotional highs and lows. Not only was it new for me, but Edison Thomas was acquired just as the economy and the publishing industry were starting to melt down. Nobody seemed to know what was going on or what the future held. Joy and I were both affected, but she had such faith in Eddy, I just held on to that.

            These days, authors are having to take on more of their own marketing. For debut authors, this can be especially challenging. The Class of 2K10 is a group of 23 debut MG and YA authors who have pooled their talents and energies to market ourselves as a group. We have teachers, graphic artists, Twitter experts, and all kinds of other talented people. (Not surprisingly, with my experience crunching data, I’m the treasurer.) There’s no way I would have to time or energy or expertise to accomplish one tenth of the things we’ve been able to do together. A great bunch of folks, and a great bunch of books. And a gorgeous website (www.classof2k10.com).

            I should mention that I’m also a member of The Tenners, a much larger group of YA/MG debut authors with a bit of a different focus. Both groups have been very supportive. If I have a question, or a problem, or something to share, I can go to these groups and not feel like a dope, because we’re all going through the same thing.

Q: Your science background is not only reflected in the book but science becomes part of the gears that drive your story. What was the process like for you, coming from writing non-fiction, as you wove your love of science into fictional form?

            People who hated their science classes (perhaps because they were badly taught), might not see the beauty of science. But it really helps some of us make sense of the world.  My training taught me to think analytically, make connections, and think in terms of cause and effect. Not just what, but why. Eddy is a lot like me in that way. Whenever he looks at something, he’s thinking about how it works, not just how it looks.

            Science is more than just a bunch of facts. It’s a way of looking at the world, a process, really. In writing the book, I tried to be true to that, and not merely pepper the ms with facts. (Although I also peppered liberally, as I explain in the next question.)

            I also tended to use a lot of science imagery and metaphor, which comes very naturally for me. Eddy is always comparing people’s hair color to the colors of minerals, for example. Especially Terry’s hair!

Q: I really love the technique you use of dropping in Eddy’s “Facts from the Random Access Memory of Edison Thomas,” which are actually really interesting bits of scientific information that can stand on their own. But they also provide insight into this little boy’s way of thinking about the world. Was this element always part of the book? How did you decide on the order of Eddy’s “facts”? How did you settle on their placement so they feel so organic to the story?

            Those facts, as part of Eddy’s RAM, were always there, always placed at transitional points in the manuscript. They illustrate how Eddy’s mind is always working, making connections between new experiences and his vast store of science facts. (Some people call it trivia, but I think there’s no such thing as trivia. Every fact is important to someone.) Each of the RAM facts has some relationship with the previous block of text. Sometimes the facts add a layer of atmosphere or commentary.

            Observant readers will also note that even the fact numbers have significance. I made a point to have the first few numbers be recognizable, 212 and 3.14159. It’s a way for readers to experience some of what Eddy goes through, to think about what they’re reading on several levels at the same time.

Q: Your skill as a storyteller is truly amazing; especially in the way you reveal the inner world of this little boy with Asperger Syndrome by getting right under his skin. Was Eddy’s voice something you heard from the onset, or did you begin with another story element, such as plot?

            The book definitely started with Eddy. To develop his character and voice, I thought about all kinds of situations in which he might find himself and how he would react. What would be difficult or stressful for him? What would he do to de-stress?  What did he like to do? How would he approach different problems? What would he do or say that would appear weird to others? What would be his inner motivation for behaving that way?

            Eddy’s voice came easily, and I grew quite fond of the boy. Plot was harder.

            The first few drafts were very scattered and episodic; one of my early titles was Scenes from the Random Access Memory of Edison Thomas.  It took a while for me to string together a plot with any kind of momentum. (Here’s a sciency thought. Momentum is the product of mass and velocity, so you could say that you need fleshed-out characters [with mass] moving steadily forward [velocity] to generate narrative momentum.)

            Joy was a great help with the plot, even before she had seen the manuscript. She gave a talk at an SCBWI retreat that sparked major revisions—adding a couple of chapters, increasing the conflict, and pulling Eddy’s inner journey and outer journey together. I submitted the manuscript to Joy months later and I was thrilled that she was the one to acquire the ms, since she had already had a great deal of editorial input. Joy continued to work her magic on Eddy throughout the revision process.

Q: Although this is a story about a boy with Asperger Syndrome, the issues Eddy faces are ones all children face to some degree. His disappointment when he doesn’t get top honors in the science fair, for example, or his difficulties negotiating friendship. In this way any child reader will be drawn to Eddy’s story as he learns to rely on his special abilities and to value true friendship. Can you talk about how writers can develop characters that are both universal and unique?

            You make me sound like an expert! I only know what I did with Eddy. I intentionally didn’t mention autism or Asperger’s syndrome anywhere in the book. I felt it was important, especially at the beginning, that the reader get to know and like Eddy without any expectations that might be introduced by a label. There’s a lot more to Eddy than his autism, a lot of which is common to every kid. His differences make him unique and interesting, but without similarities, the reader has no emotional connection.

Q: The Reinvention of Edison Thomas is a great example of a very close psychic distance, with everything filtered through Eddy’s eyes. And Eddy of course, can be an unreliable narrator in that he doesn’t always get at the truth of what’s going on around him. In fact his ability to understand what’s really going on is part of his emotional growth through the book. What were the difficulties and advantages of your decision to tell Eddy’s story in this particular way? How did it affect the novel’s shape? 

            I never had any formal training in creative writing, so I only learned terms like “psychic distance” and “unreliable narrator” from conferences and books (and bloggers). I knew from the very beginning that Edison Thomas would be written in the third person. I felt that first person would make Eddy seem more eloquent and self-aware than I wanted him to be. Third person allowed me to show what Eddy was missing, which is just as important as what he noticed.

            The trickiest thing was to stay in Eddy’s head, but reveal things that he wouldn’t notice. One way to do that was to have Eddy misinterpret the actions of others. Another was to have him focus on some interesting detail or be reminded of a science fact, while totally ignoring the human interaction or emotional significance of a situation (which the reader would have to infer). It made the book heavy on “showing” and light on “telling.” “Show, don’t tell.” I read that in a book.

Q: Did you rely on any non-fiction techniques in writing the novel? Do you have any advice for other non-fiction writers who turn to writing fiction? 

            All of my writing techniques are nonfiction techniques! Fiction is frowned upon in the scientific literature. I guess the main difference with fiction is that you get to make up stuff. And control your character’s actions. That’s a lot of fun. It’s very freeing to be able to use dialogue and humor and imagination, but it’s easy to get carried away and write fancy prose that doesn’t belong. Good fiction and nonfiction have a lot in common—clarity, logical flow, economy of words. Every passage, every word must have a purpose, whether the characters and situations are real or made up.

Q: In introducing this week’s new titles on Tollbooth, I’ve been looking at books that not only tell a story but open new worlds of science or industry to the reader. Titles such as Leda Shubert’s picture book, Feeding the Sheep, about the process of moving from “sheep to sweaters”, and Vicki Wittenstein’s Planet Hunter about astronomer Geoff Marcy. As someone who moves easily between science and fiction writing, what’s your best advice to writers who want to create books that inform as well entertain? Put another way, any advice for those who enjoy creating books with a strong informational hook or theme?

            I think it’s important to remember that science is a process and to be sure to include enough context to make the facts you include meaningful. Try to show motivation and reasoning, so that the reader can come with you on the journey, and not just watch the slide show when you get back.

Thank you Jacqueline!


 

            Jacqueline Houtman spent much of her life in training as a scientist, earning a PhD in Medical Microbiology and Immunology. After leaving the lab in 1996, she began a career as a science writer. She has written for scientific journals, educational publishers, magazines, and nonprofits. Jacqueline’s favorite kind of writing is “sciency fiction” for kids, where accurate science is integral to the story. The Reinvention of Edison Thomas is her first novel. She lives in Madison Wisconsin with her engineer husband and two sciency kids.

 


Comments

( 14 comments — Leave a comment )
rhondahayter
Mar. 5th, 2010 02:27 pm (UTC)
Jacqueline Houtman
Loved the book and what a treat to get a look inside Jacqueline's sciency mind too.
zuvincent
Mar. 5th, 2010 07:52 pm (UTC)
Re: Jacqueline Houtman
I know! She's incredible. I learned so much while enjoying the story. Thanks for reading! Zu
sharimaurer
Mar. 5th, 2010 02:49 pm (UTC)
This was a fabulous book. Jacqueline really succeeded in making Eddy a kid and not just a stereotype.

Great interview!
zuvincent
Mar. 5th, 2010 07:53 pm (UTC)
Thanks for joining in--Eddy caught my heart from page one--he is real. Zu
leah_cypess
Mar. 5th, 2010 04:14 pm (UTC)
Great interview. I love the insights into how Jacqueline shows us the world through Eddy's point of view (I wouldn't have thought "unreliable narrator" either, but it makes sense). I've read the book, so I know those techniques worked!
zuvincent
Mar. 5th, 2010 07:55 pm (UTC)
She's so humble about the way she uses these techniques, too. And I have to admit I just learned the term a few years ago, AFTER I'd written a novel with an unreliable narrator. It's a fun challenge to try this, even in a short story.

Thanks for reading!
mcorriel
Mar. 5th, 2010 06:29 pm (UTC)
What a great in-depth interview. I was completely drawn into the conversation. Eddy is an interesting character and the book is fantastic! I think everyone, kids and adults, will enjoy getting to know Eddy. I know I did!
zuvincent
Mar. 5th, 2010 07:56 pm (UTC)
I'm so happy to hear you say you were drawn in, that means it wasn't too big a chunk all at once. I was drawn in as well, Jacqueline has a way of doing that to you! Thanks!
janetsfox
Mar. 5th, 2010 10:49 pm (UTC)
Another wonderful book and another superb interview. Eddy is going to make such an impact on the world. Thanks for this!
zuvincent
Mar. 5th, 2010 11:01 pm (UTC)
I do think Eddy is one of those characters who will make a difference. Thanks for joinng in this week!
bingham2
Mar. 6th, 2010 12:46 pm (UTC)
Sounds like a fascinating book. What an interesting interview! I can't wait to read it...thanks to you both for sharing your process with us.
zuvincent
Mar. 6th, 2010 06:24 pm (UTC)
Thanks!
tamilewisbrown
Mar. 8th, 2010 01:11 pm (UTC)
I love the points about nonfiction's connections and influence on fiction. I feel the same way when I'm writing fiction- emotional truth is emotional truth regardless of whether you're writing about a "real" person or someone who's only real on the page.

Thanks for the shout out about Soar, Elinor! Zu. I'm getting antsy waiting for the October release!!!
zuvincent
Mar. 16th, 2010 02:44 am (UTC)
And some of the best and most moving pieces of literature are often non-fiction narratives!
( 14 comments — Leave a comment )