Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Interview With Rebecca Coleman, Author of The Kingdom of Childhood

Today I'm pleased to have share an interview with Rebecca Coleman, author of The Kingdom of Childhood, a book that I know is going to have me talking for a long time.

Author Rebecca Coleman

1. When did you first get the idea for THE KINGDOM OF CHILDHOOD (TKOC)?

I was folding laundry in front of the TV, watching the news, and they began broadcasting a report about some new teacher-student sex scandal. I can't remember who the players were, but it was another of these cases where the teacher was attractive and well-respected and had a family, and she had risked all of that-- and lost-- so she could have sex with some young teenage boy. And I thought, why on earth would she do that? What could a kid that age possibly have going for him that would be worth using your entire life as collateral? I thought about the fact that people usually do things for reasons that make sense to them, even if they don't make sense to you. And then it struck me that if I could answer that question-- why a woman like that would consider this a worthwhile risk, a reasonable thing to do-- it would make a great story. Because obviously her thinking departs drastically from the norm, and that can make for a very interesting character.

2. Your manuscript for the TKOC was a semifinalist in the 2010 Amazon Breakthrough
Novel Competition! Tell us a little more about this.

That was a lot of fun. My friend Erika suggested I enter my manuscript-- the contest hadn't been on my radar at all-- so I did, because it's free and I had nothing to lose. And then the book ended up making it through one round after another until it was a semifinalist. I'd gotten a Publisher's Weekly review as part of that process, and it was a very strong one-- they called the book "a scalding, engaging portrait" of two people "caught in a trap of their own making." Having that review in hand was extremely helpful in getting an agent. But the process was also just very fun and exciting-- it was like a horse race, betting on which entries would make the next cut, because Amazon posted excerpts at one stage. One of the finalists that year was Johnny Shaw, who I ran into at BookExpo as he was promoting "Dove Season." He's a great guy, very funny. Entering ABNA is like being on "Survivor"-- you make friends and alliances, and other people you want to vote off the island on the first day.

3. How long did it take you to write the book?

From concept to completion, about two and a half years. That's not a very long time, on the scale of novel-writing, but it feels like a long time when you have no idea whether this is a work
project or just an obsessive hobby.

4. How long have you been interested in the Waldorf School movement?

When I was 14, one of my mother's co-workers took me to a candlelight Christmas event at her young son's Waldorf school, and I found the environment absolutely fascinating. I had never seen such a beautiful school. It reminded me of the schools I attended as a kid in Germany, but with some elements taken to an extreme degree. So as I grew older, I read everything I could find about the movement, and decided that when I had kids I wanted them to go to Waldorf school. Then my oldest son started at a Waldorf preschool, and that didn't work out very well. His teacher actively disliked him, and there's a twisted sort of materialism that I kept bumping into at every turn. In short, I saw a side to it that wasn't as beautiful.

5. Did you do any special research on Waldorf for the book?

I read Torin Finser's "School as a Journey," which is a very detailed look into a Waldorf teacher's mind and classroom, and I read a great deal by Rudolf Steiner, who is the originator of the philosophy. But I also spent a lot of time reading forums and websites by people who felt disenfranchised by Waldorf and critical of it. Because I idealized it for so long, it's oddly painful to be critical. I felt I did my due diligence with research, but mainly I relied upon my real-life experience with it-- attending school events and festivals, observing my son's classroom, and working with the materials-- the toys and art supplies, the storybooks. It's all been a part of my life for many years.

6. Which came first, the characters or the plot?

The plot came first, and the way it emerged, the plot was to answer the question, "Why would anyone do that?" So I began with this situation-- this very common news item, teacher-student affair-- and tried to figure out what kinds of people would do this, and why. From there, the characters emerged. But because of that, I suppose I've been a little naive in being caught off- guard by how many people find the concept of the book shocking. I thought I was taking a very well-established part of the news cycle and turning it into a work of fiction. What the characters are doing is scandalous, for sure, but it's hardly as if they're inventing a new crime.

7. How did “Judy McFarland” materialize?

You know, at first, I'd conceived her as this shy, somewhat chubby, middle-aged blond woman who is tempted by her son's friend but also fascinated by a case in the news of another teacher who has actually been convicted of that crime. I couldn't get the story to gel, and eventually I realized the story of the woman who is in jail is more interesting than the one I was trying to write. But I still couldn't get Judy's point of view right, and finally I decided to throw her out and invent a new Judy. That's when I started imagining this petite, dark-haired wood-sprite of a woman, one who had been rather scary as a child and still carried some of that scary-child demeanor with her. Once I had that version in my mind, the story started flowing much more easily.

8. As a child, you spent a year in Germany – how did your experience influence Judy’s

I was eight years old that year, which was in the mid-1980s. I had a very good memory, though, and a sense that this was an extraordinary time and I needed to remember it. When writing the book, I had this character who needed to have certain events unfold-- her exposure to the dynamic between her father and the housekeeper, her love for the neighbor boy-- which were not part of my own experience at all. But I gave her all of my sensory impressions of that region, so in a way she sees her fictional experience through the lens of my real one.

9. The story takes place around the same time as the Mary Kay Letourneau scandal – did this
real-life student-teacher relationship inspire any part of the story?

The Mary Kay Letourneau case is an unusual one because it's the rare situation where we actually have the boy's point of view. Vili Fulaau has been pretty outspoken in defending the relationship. I don't challenge him on that, but I think it's unfortunate that we haven't had any counterpoint to it-- any man coming forward and saying, "I had a relationship like that one, and it really screwed me up." Because in my research for the book, I did find anonymous men saying exactly that. Both stories-- the real LeTourneau case, and my novel-- take place in 1998, but I don't think there's much similarity otherwise. Mine is influenced by real cases, but quieter, more ordinary ones.

10. How does the controversial storyline fit into our own cultural narrative about sexuality?

I think as a culture we have a well-established belief now that older men pursuing teenage girls is very creepy. But the same doesn't apply to boys. Every time a new "Twilight Saga" movie comes out, forty-year-old women are making fools of themselves gushing about Taylor Lautner's abs-- and he was 16 or 17 when the first film was made. Just this past spring, the Houston Press published a list of the "10 Hottest Female Sex Offenders," most of whose victims were teenage boys. Popular culture seems to find this whole thing hilarious. I have three sons, so I don't think it's very funny at all. It's very objectionable, this idea that because teenage boys are hormonal, it's all right for grown women to take advantage of them and that they should be considered lucky for it.

So within the novel, what I was trying to show was a teenage boy who does approach the situation as if it's a fun little adventure, but then show everything else he ends up dealing with as well-- the weight of hiding a punishable crime, the guilt at being part of an adulterous relationship, the way it estranges him from a girl his own age who is interested in him. He doesn't have the experience or the sense of authority to extract himself from a relationship with someone much more mature than himself. I think that's realistic, and I think it's something we ought to consider as a society. Because the statistics show that the majority of people don't even believe such a relationship is a crime at all, and in most of these cases, women receive probation for the same offenses that men go to prison for.

11. Some authors are very habitual in the way that they write – do you have any idiosyncrasies you’d like to share?

I can tell you what they aren't-- I don't write at coffee shops, for one thing. Writers always talk about doing that, and I have no idea how they manage it. It's noisy, there are people around, you're on display. I write on my MacBook in my rocking chair, usually between 10 pm and 2 am. My son recently pointed out to me that the upholstery where I rest my elbows has worn completely through. That's the casualty of The Kingdom of Childhood.

12. What do you enjoy most about writing?

The most magical part of it, to me, is when you develop such a firm grasp on a character that the book begins to sort of write itself. You know exactly how they would react to a circumstance, what they would say, what they perceive and how they feel. Writing dialogue becomes effortless. I loved writing Zach in The Kingdom of Childhood because I had that sense of him. My favorite characters to write are ones that struggle between their higher and lower impulses-- who have a well-defined sense of right and wrong, but for some reason have run off the rails.

13. You’ve been in a teaching capacity on many occasions – how does teaching inform your writing?

Yes-- among other things, I did school service seminars as an Elementary Ed major in college, and I'm a Sunday school teacher now. In addition to that, I have four young kids. It makes me acutely aware of the amount of trust we give to teachers, and most teachers are well-deserving of that. That makes it all the more egregious when one violates that trust, because it's such a given and children are taught to anticipate and respect it. In The Kingdom of Childhood, Zach's mother is unquestioning of the amount of time he spends with Judy because she's a teacher, and a Waldorf School teacher, at that-- one whose principles are supposed to define her all the more. Because I've been in both roles-- a teacher of little kids and a Waldorf School parent-- Judy's violation of that trust is a suck-in-your-breath type of crime to me.

14. What else inspires you? Music, art, film, etc.

Much of my writing inspiration comes from photography-- not the super-artistic museum exhibitions, but images I see around. My next book, Merciless Savages, was inspired by a photo on a friend's blog. She's very beautiful, very intelligent and creative, and she posted a photo of herself lying on the ground aiming an automatic rifle. As soon as I saw it, I wanted to write a book about that-- not about her, but about that photo. It's like a writing prompt-- "Why is this beautiful woman lying in the grass shooting a rifle? Explain in 400 pages."

15. What do you like to do in your spare time?

Well, I have four kids, the oldest of whom is 13, and a day job, so "spare time" is sort of a theoretical concept. But I love to go on road trips-- to New York City, New Hampshire, Tennessee. I love the adventure and the discoveries, and the tradition of arguing with my husband over whether we'll stop at Cracker Barrel.

16. What was your favorite book as a child?

I was a child of the '80s, but we had a lot of old story and schoolbooks from the 1940s and '50s lying around, and since I read everything in sight I read those too. My parents had a huge library. When I was very young my mother used to read to me from this ancient-looking, blue-covered book called "The Arbuthnot Anthology." It had belonged to my grandmother and was full of poetry and creepy old fairy tales. At the beginning of "The Kingdom of Childhood," Judy quote a poem that comes from there. My favorite story from it was from "The Hundred Dresses," where the small-town classmates discover that the outcast girl they had bullied had this amazing inner life they had never imagined. That big book came to Germany with us, when we lived there. It was a treasure.

17. When did you know you wanted to become a writer?

Under my senior picture in my high school yearbook, for my career goal, it says "Writer." I think I had only a vague idea of what that meant. I had this idea that I'd have a ton of wild experiences and someday I'd write about them in some form. It wasn't until after my third child was born that I really got serious about it. It was like all of those experiences reached critical mass and now I had to write.

18. Do you do any creative writing exercises to work through writer’s block?

Usually I have two books going at once-- the "official project," which is the one my editor wants, and the "hobby project," which is sort of like my mistress that I spend time with on the side. So if I get stuck, I decide I'll spend a week with the mistress. I get a lot of good writing done, but inevitably within 48 hours I've had all kinds of epiphanies about the other book, now that the pressure is off to produce it. But in my experience, writer's block usually means the story is going in the wrong direction and that's why you can't see it anymore. So taking a few steps back can help you think about what would be more exciting. Discipline in writing is good, but forcing it isn't helpful.

19. Do you ever travel back to Germany?

The last time I was in Germany was as an exchange student when I was 16. That was quite the experience-- a whole group of us American high schoolers landing in a foreign country and discovering we're all legal drinking age. But beyond that, I was thrilled to be back, even for a short time. I have a deep fondness for that country.

20. How does living in the DC area affect your writing?

Well, I've lived here since I was four, and the DC area is a lot like me in that it hovers between a lot of different ways of living. It's not quite the North and not quite the South. I live in the suburbs, so it's neither urban nor rural, and national news and local news are the same thing here, since whatever's going on in Washington is local news. Because of that, when I travel, I find well-defined regional cultures just fascinating. That shows up in my writing very often, when I'm describing Germany or New Hampshire, for example. It's like anthropology. And I make decisions about what I want to write next based on where my mind wants to live for the next couple of years.

21. What are some of your favorite indie bookstores?

I love Greetings & Readings in Hunt Valley, which is near Baltimore-- they're very friendly and the store is so inviting. And outside my home state, I love The Strand bookstore in New York City. Just walking in is blissful. I always stop by when I'm in the neighborhood.

22. What was the publishing process like for you?

Before the contract with Mira, it was hellish; since then, it's been very exciting. I'd been writing for years, trying to get an agent for years without success. Then I wrote The Kingdom of Childhood, and 91 agents rejected it. I was determined, but I also got jaded like you wouldn't believe. I'd gotten so used to rejection that even after my soon-to-be-agent, Stephany, emailed to say she wanted to talk to me on the phone about my project, I set up a time for the call and then sent out ten more queries. I ended up being glad it took that long, because I love Stephany and she's the perfect agent. But even after she took me on, I had to put the book through three rounds of revision. Once Mira acquired it, though, it was very Cinderella-like-- a lot of traveling, a lot of excitement. It's the kind of thing a writer really hopes for, along the way.

23. What was the last book you read?

That's a funny question, because the last book I read was "Notes on a Scandal" by Zoe Heller - the one other novel about an affair between a teacher and an underage boy. When I started writing "The Kingdom of Childhood" everyone told me I should read it, but I didn't want to then because I was afraid it would influence my writing. A month out from my release date, I figured it was safe, so I finally read it. And I thought it was terrific. I could hardly put it down.

24. How do you find out about new books?

Mainly from friends' posts on Facebook. If someone posts a rapturous review of a book they've just read, I'll probably download it to my Kindle app within ten minutes. That's how I ended up reading "Room" by Emma Donohue and "Infidel" by Ayaan Hirsi Ali and "Downtown Owl" by Chuck Klosterman, all within the past year. And in turn, I've sold so many copies of "Room" and Suzanne Collins's "The Hunger Games" to my Facebook friends that I should get a commission. There's so much to be said for a review from a trusted friend.

25. What’s up next for you?

I just finished up my next book-- a story about a woman whose husband decides to seek revenge on the government for the suicide of his brother, a veteran of the war in Afghanistan. It's called Merciless Savages and will be out next August.


  1. It's so interesting about the photo of the woman shooting the rifle...so interesting about what inspires other people! I might find that photo intriguing and love looking at it, but I highly doubt I'd be able to write a novel from it. :)

    Also, I love this: ---> "There's so much to be said for a review from a trusted friend." <--- So very true!! Love it.

    Great interview. I loved reading it. Thanks Rebecca and Meg!

    ~Asheley @Into the Hall of Books

  2. @SweetestLittleBookworm I agree on not being able to write a novel about a picture. That's exactly why I'm not a writer ;)


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