My testy interview ... with myself
When my YA novel The Revealers was just breaking through, a friend in Montpelier, Vermont, where I’d lived for many years, asked if I would write about the experience for The Bridge, the state capitol's local paper. I asked if I could interview myself, and if it could get testy. So ...
How much longer do you plan on exploiting your pathetic childhood for personal gain?
That’s your first question? That’s how you want to start?
I think the usual journalistic approach is to build up a feeling of trust and rapport, then take the cheap shots.
It’s a perfectly good question. Are you scared to answer it?
No. I’m not. Let me just say that I wrote a young-adult novel about bullying because ... well, it was my son’s fault.
Oh, that’s mature.
Well, it was! He gave me the idea. Brad and I were having lunch one day when he told me that he and some friends had a secret bully lab at their school. I asked what that was; he said it was a secret place where they would lure the bullies and dissect their brains. As I kept asking, I got the sense that the kids were, in reality, observing bullying and wondering if they could find ways to leverage change — if they could locate the bullies’ weaknesses or vulnerabilities, and use those to get them to stop. From that grew my idea for a story about three middle schoolers, each one a bit of a misfit and each being bullied by more popular, powerful kids. They connect with each other, and try to investigate why this stuff happens. In the process they turn their whole school inside out.
I understand that in developing the book, you talked with middle schoolers in several Vermont communities, and gathered their own experiences of bullying.
That’s true, I did. I also drew on my own rich fund of bullying experiences from my days as a skinny, awkward, dorky middle schooler.
Are there any ways in which you’ve changed since then?
Oh, very funny. I mean yes.
Since the book came out in 2003, it has been used in various ways by ... how many schools?
There’s no way to get a complete count, but I’ve known for several years that it’s well over 1,000. In my small state alone, over 100 schools have made The Revealers the focus of reading and discussion projects, and I’ve visited schools that have done projects all over the U.S. The book is the middle-school selection in “Using Children’s Literature to Address Bullying,” a curriculum project by the Anti-Defamation League in New York. That’s a first-class resource, available at www.adl.org.
But the most unusual — and ambitious — project must have been the staging of the book as a full-length play.
Definitely. Most recently it was performed in about two dozen historically black townships in South Africa, by the National Children’s Theatre over there.
What was most satisfying about seeing the play performed?
Is there anyone else here?
Did you actually prepare for this interview, or are you just winging it?
What, the question’s too deep for you?
No, no ... It’s hard to say what was most satisfying. To see your own story take life ... to see the passion that the cast and crew brought to telling it ... it’s really an unforgettable experience. And in the case of the South African production, to see the play done so professionally was incredibly moving. I only wish I could have been there, instead of watching it on DVD!
Did you plan or imagine all this happening with The Revealers?
I had no idea. I just thought I had a good jumping-off point for a story, one that might touch a struggle that’s real for kids at this age. I didn’t understand how real it is, or for how many kids.
I think those of us who were bullied severely, especially in early adolescence, tend to imagine we were the only ones who had such a bad time. It turns out that people everywhere have vivid memories of being made to feel we had no friends and didn’t belong. I’ve come to think that bullying is, for young people in almost every school community, a formative struggle at the crucible time of our lives — the time when we’re figuring out who we’re going to be as adults, and whether and how we can belong. It turns out that the experiences which I thought made me so alone, back then, have connected me to people all over.
So we’re back to exploiting your pathetic childhood.
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