Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Evan Roskos: Morris Award Interview

Welcome to this year's Morris Interview series. For links to all the interviews, visit Mirth & Matter, the blog of Elizabeth Bunce, author of A Curse Dark as Gold. Today we kick things off with Evan Roskos.

Dr. Bird's Advice for Sad Poets
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013
He hugs trees and tries to save animals. He talks to an imaginary pigeon therapist named Dr. Bird. He often hates himself, but loves to recite Walt Whitman because it can be recited with exclamation points! And it annoys his father, the Brute, who dislikes all things that seem fun. And even though his parents believe life is better since they kicked his sister, Jorie, out of the house, James feels her absence deeply. How can James continue to wake up with a celebratory YAWP, like his namesake poet-hero?
James tries to connect the dots around his sister’s mysterious expulsion, but his mission falters as he discovers that some of her secrets are not that different from his own. Secrets not even Dr. Bird can help with. Might it take something radical to intervene–like helping his best friend or talking to a beautiful girl–for James to help his sister and truly celebrate himself? (description from

You should visit Evan's site and ask Dr. Bird a question: Click for Advice.
The Morris Award is for a "first time author writing for teens." Was that your intended audience as you wrote? Do you think there is anything distinctive about "YA" fiction?
I wrote this book knowing that it would be sold as YA unless I did something really insanely postmodern and literary—like put a bunch of chapters about pigeons à la Moby Dick. I simply wrote with a focus on James and what he thinks he should do to help his sister Jorie. I'd initially started the story as a different project with author Matthew Quick, who's published three YA novels in addition to adult fiction (most notably The Silver Linings Playbook and the new novel The Good Luck of Right Now). Once we decided not to work on a joint project, he encouraged me to write more about James and also helped steer me away from thoughts of market/genre as I wrote because he knew it would be easy to fall into cliché traps if I thought about what the market wanted instead of just writing about James. 

You are a teacher (day-job-wise). A recent snowstorm meant you might not have the final class meeting about The Heart of Darkness. What would have happened in that class? 

Fortunately I did get to teach that last class. I love teaching Heart of Darkness because it's filled with profound statements and also a really huge problem in how it presents the issues of national and racial identities. The biggest struggle is teaching such a grim, depressing text in December. But I had a great group of students who were committed to the ending and, I think, got to the point that's necessary with Conrad: his ideas about civilization as a fraudulent covering over of European men's true nature are sharp and convincing, but his descriptions of the Africans (mostly described as body parts, with no characterization at all), along with his presentation of women as disconnected idealists, results in a conflicting feeling. I love his writing, get irked by his sexism, and find his racism to be problematic in the wrong classroom (not unlike to Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn)

What do you think is the biggest "common-wisdom" misconception about depression? 

Biggest misconception that I run into: "Depression is just sadness." Even people who try to understand depression assume it's simply a "deep sadness." But Major Depressive Disorders have a variety of manifestations and effects. Sadness doesn't really cover it. Worse, medication doesn't cure it; medication is part of management. If more people discussed mental health with a desire to understand, it might be easier to avoid people who say, "Oh, I'm sure there's a pill for that, right?" Which I hear, sarcastically, from people who know I take medications for depression and anxiety. It's supposed to be a joke, but it's really a defensive statement from people who, perhaps, haven't actively dealt with their own mental health yet.

What do you remember about learning to read?

That goat is not to be trusted,
but the unicorn has an eye on him.
I remember very little about learning to read. My sister has always been a bigger reader, though I think I caught up when I got a MA in Literature. As a kid, I spent hours and hours playing with Star Wars and GI Joe action figures, which seems unrelated until I explain that I used to craft EPIC STORIES for them. My cousin played as well and he would like to do action stuff -- fighting, flying ships, explosions. I liked that too, but I was the one that came up with the missions, the double-crosses, the escapes, the threats to humanity. I would play by myself or with my cousin or sister for hours. Literally hours.
Reading really impacted me later -- Hardy Boys, Not Quite Human, lots of animal-centered stories like The Incredible Journey and The Blind Colt; eventually Stephen King books entered the picture thanks to my sister, who was four years older than me and clearly cool. Horror and Sci-Fi were my staples until later in high school. Telling stories was there long before, though.

The sibling relationship in this book is complex and brutally honest about the toll of witnessing abuse. Why is so much of your story told from the perspective of the witness instead of the primary target?

Put simply: I wouldn't have finished this book if I'd written it from Jorie's perspective or if James were the abused character. I wanted to write a book that could make people laugh even as it trudged through the mire of a dark subject. It would have been too easy for me to spiral into my own pit of depression if I'd written from the abused character's perspective, especially if that abused character talked to an imaginary pigeon. The pigeon might've become too out of place at that point and Whitman would've been replaced by Sylvia Plath or Baudelaire to keep the tone consistent. 
More importantly, the book is about people who need help and people who don't know how to help but try anyway. James tries to help his sister. Derek helps James. Beth agrees to go to a restaurant with James just to help him (even though it's not really helpful). The Brute and the Banshee have no idea what to do to help. How to help: that's one of the core issues I think about as a person but also in this book.

The grand passages of Yawp in your book demand to be read aloud, which I did. How did you capture that voice? 

It's a secret! Ha! The answer is 1 part former poet, 1 part Walt Whitman, and 1 part college instructor of literature. Until college, I wrote poetry almost exclusively. I loved crafting beautiful sentences and reading them out loud. It was a kind of game. That, combined with a love of music, gives me a natural urge to craft sentences that sound good. Sometimes it works, other times it's heavy handed.
Whitman (as with many poets) comes alive when read aloud. On the page he's daunting and can feel long-winded, but he's got beautiful, rhythmic passages that remind me of the ocean: each pulse and dip of the ocean is unique. Each wave is unique. The crash, the foamy sizzle, the surges—I think that's Whitman's poetry to a T. He's not interested in consistency of rhythm (in his early career, anyway). He just loves language and ideas. So, I tried my best to match that with James's voice.
As a college instructor, I read passages aloud to my students all the time. I love doing voices for the dialogue, I love giving Poe or Hawthorne's narrators deep, menacing voices; I recently read Robert Brownings "My Last Duchess" and a student told me the poem didn't make sense until I read it aloud. (Take that for what you will!) I love trying to bring stuff alive for students because it's hard to enjoy reading when you're constantly reading texts from different eras, different authors, with different perspectives. So I act it out a bit. Sometimes it helps. It definitely comes through in my writing

Speed Round
Television: Did you watch Breaking Bad? How did you feel about the way "W.W." showed up there?

In Futurama's New New York,
pigeons are not quite extinct, despite the predations of
hole-dwelling owls that hatch from dodecahedral eggs.
Don't ask me why I know this. 

Ha! I have students ask me all the time about Breaking Bad—they assume I watch the show. Now that it's over I'm going to make time to watch it. With a kid about to turn 4 years old and a relatively small house, getting time to watch TV is not easy. Unless it's really late at night, which is when re-watching cartoons like Futurama is more satisfying. 

What is your favorite picture book?

My son loves books and we read to him every night and then give him books so he can retell the stories to himself (using a flashlight, of course). The one book I remember from my childhood is actually Frog and Toad Are Friends by Arnold Lobel. What I love even more, besides how great the stories are, is that I had a cassette with the book that had Lobel reading each story in the book! When I bought a copy of the book for my son and started reading it, the cadences of Lobel's voice came back so readily. It was magical, truly. 

Revision advice in five words: Print. Retype & Simplify. Reread. Repeat.

Do you listen to music while you write? 

I must listen to music while I write. Usually it's a fixed selection, a single band, maybe two, that I'm very familiar with. When I write out in public I use my fancy headphones (no earbuds for this nerd!). When I write at home, which I do more often, I blast music, drum along on the table top, and start singing when I'm stuck. It keeps me going, even though my neighbors would prefer I had a different ritual.

How do you overcome the inertia of rest?

Birds fly to hunt for food or flee injury. That's a good way to avoid resting for too long.

For links to all the interviews, visit Mirth and Matter, the blog of Elizabeth Bunce, author of A Curse Dark as Gold. She will feature a conversation with Cat Winters, author of In the Shadow of Blackbirds on Monday, January 13. 
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