Noelle Stevenson Interviewed by Tim Manley

I’d heard about Noelle Stevenson from a former student who knows the best corners of the internet. “She’s big on Tumblr,” she said. A quick search revealed a rabid fan following who had created an extensive collection of art, cosplay portraits, and photos of Nimona opened up next to their mugs of tea. When I finished the book, I immediately realized I was among those fans.

Noelle Stevenson’s Nimona opens with the titular narrator applying for the position of sidekick to Ballister Blackheart, your standard supervillain with a mechanical arm. When he brushes Nimona aside, she transforms into a shark, because, you know, she is a shape-shifter with infinite powers. Together, they cause trouble for Sir Ambrosias Goldenloin and the Institution of Law Enforcement and Heroics. What begins as a silly fantasy story slowly unveils many deeper secrets, including the nature of Ballister and Ambrosias’ relationship, the mystery of Nimona’s past life, and the true intentions of the Institution. The end result is a complex depiction of loyalty and friendship.

Stevenson is the co-writer of Lumberjanes, a comic about five teen girls who fight monsters at summer camp. Stevenson is just 23-years-old, making her the youngest National Book Award finalist in history.

Nimona by Noelle Stevenson book cover, 2015Tim Manley: Nimona and the other characters seem to exist without any concern for today’s gender norms. This is similar to your work with Lumberjanes, where for a while, there is an absence of male characters altogether. In what ways does the book Nimona exist entirely outside of gender expectations?

Noelle Stevenson: My approach to both Nimona and Lumberjanes was to explore and deconstruct gendered tropes by ultimately disregarding them. Like you said, in Lumberjanes, no male characters are introduced until the 4th book. Women are the heroes and the villains and most of the faces in the crowd. What does that free you up to do with your female cast?

With Nimona it’s a little different. Obviously, Nimona is reckless and destructive and amoral – which is unusual for a female character, much less the central female character – but also, the main romance plot goes to the two male leads, and they’re both drawn with very similar ‘handsome’ designs while the women take on all kinds of shapes and sizes. The real conflict is between Nimona and the Director, with Ballister and Goldenloin almost being casualties of that. The characters are essentially gender-swapped from what you’d expect from traditional gendered roles in stories like this, but there’s also nothing that is inherently gendered about any of them. I think the characters could be any gender and the story would unfold the same way. That’s only one way to play with gendered expectations in a story and it’s not more legitimate than stories that ARE gendered, but it was what I wanted to do with it here.

TM: You published Nimona online while you were completing it. Along the way, HarperCollins signed on to publish the physical book. How do you imagine the reading experience is different for readers who followed in pieces online, and those who pick up the 266-page graphic novel? 

NS: Serialized webcomics supply a constant stream of content, which is cool, but they can also unfold excruciatingly slowly! I’ve heard from a lot of people who told me they started reading Nimona online and then had to stop and wait for it to be completed to finish it, which I totally get. It’s an interesting challenge!

I had to make sure the pacing would be right when it was read in a collected volume, but I also had to make sure that each page contained something fun or interesting for devoted webcomic readers who tuned in every update day. I definitely got some crap from people who were mad a fight scene would go for six pages. You can read six comic pages in probably 1 minute, but that’s also three weeks of waiting. Three weeks!!! One of the benefits of following it page-by-page like that was probably the community – people would read and re-read each page carefully, so there were jokes about background characters and really tiny details that everyone picked up and ran with. I’d be in on the joke sometimes, so there are extras who you can spot through all the crowd scenes, and readers gave them names and had ideas about their backstories. One of them is a couple who flees the bank scene together and later you can see them on a date and then they’re together after that.

When you’re reading a collected volume, you miss a lot of those details, at least on the first read. A comic is supposed to immerse you and have a good flow so it’s really hard to stop and look for tiny details and still get the full impact of the story, but with webcomics you can.

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”Noelle Stevenson” link=”” color=”#FBC900″ class=”” size=””]Nimona is reckless and destructive and amoral—which is unusual for a female character.[/pullquote]

TM: When Blackheart tries to calm Nimona by saying she isn’t a monster, the dragon form of Nimona shouts back at him, “You don’t know anything about me!“ How much do you think we are able to see our true selves, and how much must we rely on others’ perspective of us?

NS: Well, what’s your “true self”, anyway? Nimona is in a unique position of being able to literally shape her physical form into whatever she feels like, but does that mean it’s her true form? Is she a monster, or a little girl? You can see Ballister trying to figure out which one to talk to, but the truth is she’s both, and neither. We all are. People see parts of us and might assume that’s the whole story, and they might be mistaken in thinking they know who you are just from that, but it doesn’t make them entirely wrong either. That IS you – it’s just not all of you. This becomes much more literal for Nimona. If she feels like being a monster, she’s a monster. Ballister really doesn’t know much about her, but he knows there’s more to her than that, even if in that moment that’s her reality. He’s seen other sides of her, and the thing is, he doesn’t even know if she was telling the truth about those other sides, but he hopes she is.

[pullquote align=”left” cite=”Noelle Stevenson” link=”” color=”#FBC900″ class=”” size=””]Science and magic don’t actually have to contradict each other (this is a real-life fascination of mine!).[/pullquote]

TM: You’ve spoken previously about how online communities, and Tumblr specifically, have allowed female readers easier access to their identities as comics lovers. What benefits has Tumblr offered to you as a creator of comics? 

NS: My love of comics came from a lot of different directions at around the same time. I’d always liked comics, but I hadn’t read many and never came close to engaging with any kind of community about it. I didn’t see it as a place that would want me there or want to talk about the stuff that I wanted to talk about, but it turned out I just wasn’t looking in the right places! Then I got into webcomics, and around the same time I took my first comics class at school and I went to my first indie comics convention. So this fascinating world of comics was unfolding for me, and I was reading more and more comics, and then shortly after that the new wave of Marvel movies started coming out. I’ve always loved superheroes, but also felt alienated by them, so this was an exciting development at the time. I found the kind of comics community I’d been looking for on Tumblr – I posted goofy fanart, and I checked the tags and found other blogs to follow. There were a lot of newish fans like me, and a lot of really enthusiastic fans who’d been reading comics for years and were happy to share their passion and help the newbies find an entry point. All of these things happened at around the same time, so my newfound love of comics really developed and took shape on Tumblr. It made sense that that’s where Nimona was posted for the first time. And having this Tumblr community who was interested in similar things that I was, it was easier to channel my existing audience towards my original work. A lot of them were just there for Avengers fanart, but some of them did start reading early on and I was able to grow my audience from there!

TM: Dr. Meredith Blitzmeyer mentions her theory that all magic is drawn from an invisible source of renewable power that is everywhere at all times. Can you tell us a bit more about it, and, if possible, how to tap into it?

NS: The setting of Nimona is a world where magic used to be everywhere, but it’s fallen out of favor. People find science and invention much more reliable, and they’re uncomfortable around magic. The two coexist to some extent, but never mingle. Dr. Blitzmeyer is the only character who exists solidly in both worlds. She’s devoted her life to reconciling science and magic and proving that they DO follow the same rules somehow, and she actually has something to show for it! Magic appears to make something out of nothing (just like Nimona can destroy and recreate herself with very little effort) but Blitzmeyer’s research shows that magic DOES come from a source, it’s just one that’s never been observed or named before. So science and magic don’t actually have to contradict each other (this is a real-life fascination of mine!).

But as we’ve seen, it can be really dangerous to mix science and magic. Like Nimona, magic is temperamental and unpredictable, and if you don’t know what you’re doing you end up with a big mess on your hands.

 

Tim Manley is the writer and illustrator of Alice in Tumblr-land: And Other Fairy Tales for a New Generation, and the co-writer of The 10 Letters Project. His one-person show,Feelings, debuted this year at the New York International Fringe Festival. He is online at timmanleytimmanley.com.

Steve Sheinkin Interviewed by Tim Manley

For weeks after reading Most Dangerous, I found myself at casual lunches with friends, bringing up the Vietnam War. “Don’t you know how it really started?” I whisper over my salad. My friend look at me with a worried brow as I go on to recount the whole story as though it’s the latest and juiciest gossip.

Steve Sheinkin’s Most Dangerous is true history that reads like the best suspense novels. Daniel Ellsberg works as a government analyst in the Pentagon and abroad during the Vietnam War. The documents he has access to include what became known as The Pentagon Papers, a 7,000-page collection which details the horrifying secrets behind the US’s involvement in Vietnam from 1945 to 1967. Ellsberg’s choice to expose these secrets, the US government’s subsequent cover-up attempt, and the media’s reaction to all of it, converge in a thrilling exploration of the imperfect decisions that lead to war, and the cost and value of telling the truth.

Sheinkin has made a name for himself as a writer of fast-paced histories for young readers. Contrary to textbooks and tests which depict history as a series of names and dates to be memorized, Sheinkin shows how history is actually a story that we are very much playing out the consequences of today.


Most Dangerous: Daniel Ellsberg and the Secret History of the Vietnam War by Steve Sheinkin book cover, 2015Tim Manley: When he still worked at the Pentagon, Ellsberg was tasked with finding narratives of vicious assaults by the Viet Cong in South Vietnam in order to help convince the president to begin the sustained bombing of North Vietnam. But the American people were not made aware of this or many of those stories. What are your responsibilities as a historical writer for young readers?

Steve Sheinkin: Thanks for beginning with a simple question! But really, you’re right, stories are incredibly powerful, and I definitely thought about that while figuring about how to put this book together. I would say the main responsibility is accuracy. Everyone has a point of view, and I don’t try to hide mine, but I try to present the story accurately, and in such a way that readers can take different views on who is right and wrong.

TM: Along those lines, you used to be a textbook writer. What is Most Dangerous capable of that a textbook is not, and what can it not achieve?

SS: What narrative nonfiction like Most Dangerous can do is really dive into a story and spend a lot of time exploring it. Textbooks may be better at presenting a lot of information—stuff we want young people to know – but (as someone who has written a few) I think they’re terrible at getting that information from the page into readers’ heads. It goes back to the power of story. When you can turn something into a story, it’s more fun to read, easier to remember, and, hopefully, will do a better job of sparking curiosity and discussion.


TM: As part of your research, you spoke with Daniel Ellsberg several times. What impact did this have on your writing of the book? 

SS: I really enjoyed talking with Daniel Ellsberg, as well as with his wife Patricia Ellsberg, who is also a major figure in the story. The conversations didn’t change my views, but did provide some great material for enriching the story. Just one example: I wanted to set the scene of Ellsberg’s first day at the Pentagon by describing him walking from his car to the building. I love the image of one man, totally unimportant, walking into this massive center of power—what could he possibly do to get noticed, let alone to change the course of history? But of course, details of what it was like to walk into a building on a particular day are not the kinds of things history books tend to record. So I called and asked Ellsberg where he parked, which entrance he used, stuff like that. He thought it was a ridiculous line of questioning. But when I explained my thinking, he got it, and remembered some really useful details.

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”Steve Sheinkin” link=”” color=”#FBC900″ class=”” size=””]When you can turn something into a story, it’s more fun to read, easier to remember, and, hopefully, will do a better job of sparking curiosity and discussion.[/pullquote]

TM: In your epilogue, frighteningly subtitled “History Repeats,” you briefly discuss Edward Snowden’s leak of classified NSA documents. Daniel Ellsberg wrote inThe Washington Post that Snowden’s service to the democracy “can’t be overestimated.” How would you compare the reaction of the American public to Ellsberg’s choices with those of Snowden, and what reasons might you give for any difference?

SS: Yeah, I find Ellsberg’s reaction to Snowden taking refuge in Russia very interesting, and one I don’t totally agree with. But I think the public reactions to Ellsberg and Snowden were pretty similar. Actually, the reaction to Ellsberg was probably a bit more hostile, maybe because of how divisive the Vietnam War was. Many think of Ellsberg’s actions as courageous and even heroic today, but back then he got death threats and was called a second Benedict Arnold. What fascinates me about the Snowden story—which hadn’t broken yet when I started this book—is that we don’t know the ending. There are definitely a few more twists and turns still to come.

[pullquote align=”left” cite=”Steve Sheinkin” link=”” color=”#FBC900″ class=”” size=””]There’s no end to the potential material, the stranger-than-fiction true stories.[/pullquote]

TM: This is your fourth critically-acclaimed history for young readers. There must be many untold histories you hope to explore. What history do you dream of finding a way to capture in story? Anything you’re fascinated by that might seem too unwieldy?

SS: There’s no end to the potential material, the stranger-than-fiction true stories. I’d love to do a really rich and realistic portrait of life on a pirate ship in the “Golden Age” of piracy—early 1700s in the Caribbean—but those guys just didn’t keep a lot of diaries. (“Dear diary: today I sacked another Spanish ship…”) And from back in my college days, when I spent time in Nicaragua at the tail end of the Contra war, I’ve been fascinated by the history of U.S. policy in Central America, and, specifically, the Iran-Contra affair. That might fall under the “too unwieldy” heading… but it has all the making of that complex international thriller feel I go for. We’ll see, I guess. And I’m always taking suggestions!

 

Tim Manley is the writer and illustrator of Alice in Tumblr-land: And Other Fairy Tales for a New Generation, and the co-writer of The 10 Letters Project. His one-person show,Feelings, debuted this year at the New York International Fringe Festival. He is online attimmanleytimmanley.com.

Laura Ruby Interviewed by Tim Manley

I read Bone Gap in a single night. I didn’t intend to, I just couldn’t put it down. I maneuvered between four different positions on my couch, refusing to stop reading just because my neck hurt, or I had to “wake up in four hours.” When it was over, my eyes scanned the chairs and shelves of my living room trying to figure out what had moved, because I knew something was changed.

Laura Ruby’s Bone Gap opens on a Midwestern town where a girl — Roza — has been kidnapped, and a boy — Finn — is the only witness. Finn cannot successfully describe the kidnapper, so he places the blame of Roza’s disappearance on himself. We follow each of their perspectives, the mystery unfolding with a much larger cast of characters in the town. What seems to be a story of a kidnapping turns into something far more unusual, and ultimately becomes a moving meditation on seeing others and being seen.

Laura Ruby’s previous work includes novels for adults, teens, and children, running the spectrum of realism to fantasy. Bone Gap falls somewhere in the middle, reading the way a folk song sounds: timeless, mythical, and strange.

 

Bone Gap by Laura Ruby book cover, 2015Tim Manley: Bees and the organization of their community figure prominently in Bone Gap. What do you find most compelling about bee life?

Laura Ruby: Since I was a kid, I’ve been obsessed with all sorts of insects—praying mantises, beetles, dragonflies, butterflies—but bees are particularly fascinating to me, not least since bee colonies are primarily made up of sisters (okay, half-sisters) that cooperate in the care of the young, in cleaning the hive, in foraging for food, and the defense of the nest.  But I’m mostly fascinated with bees because bees dance to communicate where their sister bees might find the best flowers. The dance tells other foragers the distance and direction to the food source.  No matter how many times I’ve read about the science behind the dance, there’s something profoundly magical about it.  

TM: Bone Gap draws on the Greek myth of Persephone, but also creates its own mythology. Corn whispers and rivers are more than just rivers. Can you tell us about any songs, books, or memory-moments that helped you uncover the mythology of the Midwest?

LR: I moved from the East Coast to the Midwest a long time ago and it was a much more difficult adjustment than I ever thought it would be. (I didn’t realize I was actually from somewhere until I left.) In some ways, I’ve been trying to figure out the Midwest ever since I arrived. Why do people wear so much flannel? Why is everyone so nice? What is with this Cubs obsession?

I remember doing a lot of school visits in downstate Illinois, which meant I spent hours driving by myself through the cornfields. I was almost hypnotized by those cornfields, by the sound of the wind rustling through the stalks, the sight of those walls of green rising up on either side of the car. A great number of the kids I met on those visits were from farming families; one absurdly polite sixth grade boy had plans to study agriculture at the University of Illinois and take the knowledge back to his family’s business. He was so sweet and so young, so fine and upstanding, and so certain of his own future. I was confounded by this kid, but also fascinated. What was it like to grow up in the middle of those cornfields with the corn whispering at you all the time? What was it like to be so absolutely certain of your own future? So sure of the world and your place in it? How would a boy like that handle himself when he finds out that the world isn’t what it seems to be? That he, himself, isn’t?

But I’d have to say that I wasn’t thinking about the mythology of the Midwest in general as much as the mythology of one particular town in the Midwest. Bone Gap is a love letter to and a fairy tale about this single fictional town nestled in the corn.

Bone Gap is a love letter to and a fairy tale about this single fictional town nestled in the corn.

TM: The novel is written in the third person, and we begin closely tied to the perspectives of Finn and Roza. As we go on, we’re given chapters focusing on other characters. Was this always the organization of the book? Why decide to bring those perspectives in when you did?

LR: The organization of the book changed a lot over time. First of all, there were originally many more points-of-view, including the POV of Roza’s grandmother, Babcia; the Scarecrow; Calamity Jane (Finn’s cat); and one of Petey’s beehives.  I cut some of these chapters and others to streamline the narrative and then arranged and rearranged the rest many times over. Roza’s chapters in particular got a lot of attention because her storyline is shaped more like a corkscrew, with the inciting incident occurring two-thirds of the way through. I wanted to make sure that this storyline was as clear and tense as I could make it, while still preserving a lot of the mystery surrounding her character up front.

I also wanted to surprise the reader at key moments in the plot. For example, just when you think Sean is another stoic, beefy, hero-type – strong and silent, the kind of guy who might swoop in and save the day because that’s his job – you get his POV, and see how damaged and heartbroken he is, and realize that this is not necessarily the person you can rely on to save anyone, least of all himself.

But the bottom line: I’m simply not as interested in writing from one point-of-view, or in a linear fashion. Most of my books are multi-vocal in some way, and have flashbacks and, sometimes impossible, flash-forwards. That’s because I don’t feel like I live in any one particular moment. I’m writing the answers to these questions right now, but I’m also thinking about other questions I’ve answered, past interviews I’ve given last week and ten years ago, the new book I’ve just finished, other books I want to write, etc. My brain hops all over the place and I’ve learned to let it. Revision, for me, is a matter of wrestling my narrative into some semblance of emotional, if not temporal, sense.

All my main characters come to subvert the expectations forced upon them by a sexist culture.

TM: You’ve mentioned elsewhere that an earlier draft of the novel had less magic. How do you successfully build a world that succeeds in being both believably real and magical?

LR: I would say that I didn’t layer magic on top of the narrative as much as uncover the magic already inherent in the story; the more I dug into the setting and into the characters, the more magic I found.

As for how one builds a world that is both believably real and magical, well, I wonder if you have to believe at some level that magic is real, like the dance of the bees.

TM: How is Bone Gap dismantling the patriarchy?

LR: Hmmm. I’d say that Bone Gap explores the damage done to both boys and girls under a patriarchal system. The O’Sullivan brothers, Finn and Sean, are both held to ridiculous, hyperbolic standards of masculinity, and ultimately, both of them find it impossible to conform to them. (Finn because of his general dreaminess and prettiness and his passion for an extremely unconventional looking girl, Sean because he simply can’t be everyone’s hero the way he’s expected to be).

And because beauty is the only real worth a girl has in this world and in the world of Bone Gap, my female characters, Roza and Petey, are judged by appearances alone. But Roza refuses to overvalue her own preternatural beauty in the way that the men around her seem to; what she loves most about herself isn’t her face, it’s her own competence. Petey, a girl who has been deemed ‘ugly’ by her community, has the temerity to see herself as interesting and unique, even beautiful, despite what she’s been told over and over again.

So, all my main characters come to subvert the expectations forced upon them by a sexist culture. Had I set out to do this up front, however, said to myself, “I will now commence to write characters that subvert sexist expectations and/or dismantle the patriarchy” I would have ended up with something clunky and obvious. (Which is not to say that works of art aren’t/can’t be inherently political, just that I don’t begin with these ideas; they are simply part of my worldview and permeate the stories I tell). In any case, I set out to write a book about love and bees, kittens and monsters. Worked out better for everyone.

 

Tim Manley is the writer and illustrator of Alice in Tumblr-land: And Other Fairy Tales for a New Generation, and the co-writer of The 10 Letters Project. His one-person show,Feelings, debuted this year at the New York International Fringe Festival. He is online attimmanleytimmanley.com.

Ali Benjamin Interviewed by Tim Manley

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I’d like to say I read The Thing About Jellyfish in an aquarium, but I read it on my couch. Still, along the way I loaded up YouTube videos of jellyfish and scientists referenced in the book. I watched the same clips our protagonist watched. I felt the same fascination and fear — What are these things?

Suzy Swanson of Ali Benjamin’s The Thing About Jellyfish hasn’t spoken since the death of her one-time best friend, Franny Jackson. Suzy is dually haunted by the mystery of Franny’s death — drowning in the ocean while on vacation — and by the things that were left unsaid before she died. This grief becomes energized by Suzy’s newfound obsession with jellyfish, otherworldly and sometimes deadly creatures that may hold a secret behind Franny’s death as well as the future of the planet. Suzy’s investigation into jellyfish is nothing less than an investigation into how we make sense of the incomprehensible.

This is Ali Benjamin’s first novel, and first book for young readers. She mixes the painful reality of middle school social life with the true magic of nature to allow for a story that is both deep and buoyant. It’s a thing of beauty, much like the organisms from which it draws inspiration.

 

The Thing About Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin book cover, 2015Tim Manley: Like our protagonist, you became interested in jellyfish after a trip to the New England Aquarium. What about them initially fascinated you?

Ali Benjamin: It was a weekday; the aquarium was jam-packed with school groups. It was chaotic and loud. I wandered into the Jellies exhibit for the same reason that Suzy, my main character does at the start of The Thing About Jellyfish, I was hoping for some peace and quiet, a break from the noise.

Something happened when I was down there. I’d been aware of jellies my whole life, of course — I remember panicking at the beach when I was young after noticing some in the water — but I’d never really seen them. I’d never watched them move, or looked at their colors, or bothered to wonder about them. Now, staring into the tanks, I realized that they’re gorgeous. That’s the first thing that caught my attention: their beauty. But they weren’t just beautiful, they were also alien and menacing and creepy as heck.

I realized that there were people in the world who spend their whole adult lives researching jellies. That’s when a thought popped into my head, almost like a cartoon thought bubble appearing over me: Ali, you’ve done everything wrong. At that instant, those jellyfish researchers seemed like the luckiest humans on Earth.

I’ve had a few experiences like this; it reminds me of that Jonathan Safran Foer line from Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, “Sometimes I feel my bones straining under the weight of all the lives I’m not living.” I think this book [The Thing About Jellyfish] was a way of straining a little less, of living another life for a while.

 

TM: Suzy has not spoken since the death of her former best friend, Franny. At one point, Suzy says there is “a gulf between what was inside me and what I was putting out.” At another, Suzy speaks of a positive silence she shared with Justin, the “best kind of silence, the not-talking kind of silence.” What is the value of staying quiet, and when is it correct to speak?

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”Ali Benjamin” link=”” color=”#FBC900″ class=”” size=””]There are things we can’t hear, important things about ourselves and our connection to the world, when words are in the way.[/pullquote]

AB: I used to be terrible at small talk, and I marveled at people who did it well, and seemingly effortlessly. I’ve gotten more skilled at small talk as I’ve gotten older, but I’ve also had experiences that changed my perspective on it altogether. My husband and I lived in West Africa after we got married. There, neighbors often stopped by our house for evening visits. While there were always customary greetings — how’s the health, how’s the family? — our West African friends didn’t feel the need to fill up every silence. Often, they were content to sit quietly with us for long spells — five minutes of silence, ten minutes, maybe more.

After a while, the silences began to feel less awkward. Then, after quite a bit of time, I learned to relax into them. There was something so comforting, so intimate, about being together without words. If one of us felt compelled to say something, we could…but we weren’t required to.

There’s so little silence in our culture. Maybe that’s always been true, but it’s especially true today. Even when we’re alone, we’re never really alone with our thoughts — there’s always a text, or Instagram, or Facebook, or Netflix, or something — to fill up the empty space.

I can’t say with any certainty when it’s right to speak, or to be silent. I can’t even say specifically what one gets from not-speaking. But I do feel certain that most of us could use more silence than we have access to — that there are things we can’t hear, important things about ourselves and our connection to the world, when words are in the way.

TM: The Thing About Jellyfish portrays not only the pain of receiving cruelty from others, but the more complicated pain of employing cruelty on others. What do you see as the motivation behind these choices? Why do you think we all contribute to making middle school so awful?

AB: It was important to me to blur the line between hero and villain, between victim and bully. Some readers have reacted strongly to that, observing that Suzy is a poor role model for kids. I suppose in some ways, that’s true. For all her strengths, Suzy does some thoughtless things, and even a couple of cruel things. But I’ve never been particularly interested in stories where one character, or set of characters, is all good while others are all bad. Nor do I think that kind of dichotomy is useful —especially to kids. Most of us aren’t all good, or all bad; we’re a big, chaotic jumble. We have moments of kindness, but we also rack up our fair share of regrets. Sometimes we get so wrapped up tending to our own hurts that we cannot see the hurt we inflict on others.

To me, that’s where the juice is; that’s the stuff that’s worth exploring. And ultimately, I think it means much more to see a complex character choose hope, or move toward some deeper humanity.

I recently read through my middle school diary; I was so eager when I opened it after all these years but was promptly disappointed by my middle school self. I had always thought of myself as a generally nice kid, even in the throes of adolescence. But throughout my diary, I was snarky about other kids, and sometimes I was downright nasty. Practically all I talked about was boys and the pursuit of popularity and boys. Reading this diary is the strangest experience; I recognize the handwriting as my own, and I recognize the events I described.  But the words on the page are inconsistent with how I imagined  myself at the time. I remember feeling like a misfit. I remember feeling like other kids were rude, or mean, or dismissive. I remember feeling like I was outside looking in. It turns out that I was just as awful as anyone else.

I’m fairly certain that I was being defensive; by excluding others, I was somehow reassuring myself that my place was on the inside, not the outside. But I suspect there’s also this: in some essential way, I didn’t believe that what I did mattered.

[pullquote align=”left” cite=”Ali Benjamin” link=”” color=”#FBC900″ class=”” size=””]Sometimes we get so wrapped up tending to our own hurts that we cannot see the hurt we inflict on others.[/pullquote]

TM: In addition to being organized into sections according to the scientific method — Hypothesis, Methods, etc. — the novel also features a great number of facts and allusions to specific science books and videos. Were most of these already waiting in your head, or did you have to research for scientific facts that felt relevant? 

AB: The only facts I remember actively seeking were from the earliest flashbacks — like the fact that rabbits’ teeth never stop growing. In those chapters, I wanted some facts and ideas that a very young child would have had at her disposal.

All of the other scientific facts had been banging around the back of my brain for a while, waiting for some outlet. That said, I have a terrible mind for details, and my grasp on precise facts and figures can get hazy — I remember the gist, but not the specifics. So I did have to look them each again, just to make sure the facts were accurate (and even then, we hired a terrific fact-checker before the book went to copyediting).

TM: Your first two books were nonfiction narratives. You’ve spoken of the challenges of writing fiction, where there are an endless number of plot moves to choose from. What can fiction do that a true story cannot?

AB: This is such a good question, and it’s one I’ve been thinking about quite a bit. It’s tempting to say that when done right, non-fiction can do everything fiction can do. But then why, with so many great true stories to be told, do these fictional stories keep bubbling up inside of us? Why are we compelled to write them, to tell them, to read and re-read them? I think it’s got something to do with the unconscious, with the way our brains take all kinds of different input — images and memories and ideas and longings and fears — then combine them in new ways.

Nonfiction feels to me a little like that driving test where you must maneuver the car through a series of orange cones. The cones are the facts of the situation — the truth, or as close to it as one person can get. You’d better not knock them down. So those cones are always in your mind, you’re always navigating around them. Fiction is the opposite — for it to work well, you’ve got to forget about all those external things and let the unconscious part of your brain take over. For me, that’s really hard. But when it works, it’s fascinating.

When I started writing this book, I actually thought I was writing nonfiction, but then something else took over. Suddenly I wasn’t just talking about jellyfish, I was talking about guilt, and regret, and middle school, and friendships, and zombie ants, and the scale of the universe, and Diana Nyad, and heroes, and parenting, and so on. I don’t think the conscious part of my brain could have woven those things together, no matter how much time I’d been given. They were strung together in some dark, murky part of my brain. I don’t know what that alchemy is, or where it comes from. And I certainly don’t know how to control it (I wish I did). But when it works, it feels like magic.

 

Tim Manley is the writer and illustrator of Alice in Tumblr-land: And Other Fairy Tales for a New Generation, and the co-writer of The 10 Letters Project. His one-person show,Feelings, debuted this year at the New York International Fringe Festival. He is online attimmanleytimmanley.com.

Interview with Tim Manley, artist, storyteller, and BookUp instructor

Tim Manley is a BookUp instructor, longtime Moth storyteller, and multigenre artist. His first book, Alice in Tumblr-Land, was published by Penguin in 2013. His first one-person show, Feelings, is running at FringeNYC through August 29.

NBF: What drew you to BookUp originally?
TM: I used to be a high school English teacher here in New York City, and I feel like BookUp is just the most fun parts of being a teacher. From my point of view, BookUp’s real goal is just to have fun with kids with reading. What could possibly engender a love of reading more than the pure joy of being given a book and not being tested, when it’s just for fun?

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