On behalf of the Palatine Public Library District, Tracie (a librarian in the Popular Materials Department) recently spoke with Karen Rivers, author of the hilarious middle-grade novel, The Encyclopedia of Me, via email. The conversation spanned everything from writing to love, motherhood to Thanksgiving, and good books to bad days.
Palatine Public Library District (PPLD): We are a public library, and we are interested in finding out how folks experience us. What do libraries mean to you?
Karen Rivers (KR): Libraries mean the world to me. I used to suffer from really paralyzing panic attacks, and -- no joke -- what I would do (this was before medication existed for it) would be to go to the library. I would drive to the nearest library, find a place in the stacks that was relatively unpopulated, and just try to get it together. Libraries have always been my happy place. Even now, I stop at the library to return a book and I emerge two hours later with 26 books and the same feeling I imagine other people get at the spa. I LOVE libraries.
PPLD: And libraries love you right back! We also love books. And movies. And music. What have you been reading, watching, and listening to lately?
KR: I try to mostly read YA -- there is SO MUCH good stuff out there right now -- unless I'm editing or rewriting something of my own, in which case I swap over to adult books. Right now, I have The Dog Stars on my side table, The Light Between Oceans beside the bath tub, and Molly Ringwald's story collection on my Kindle.
PPLD: You were born in British Columbia, Canada and currently reside there. What do you love about your hometown?
KR: It's certainly gorgeous...We are surrounded by ocean on all sides and have the mildest weather in the country. I grew up here and I can't imagine living anywhere else.
PPLD: Canada recently celebrated Thanksgiving (October 8); here in kind-of-like-Chicago, we are gearing up for gratefulness and turkey on November 22. What were you thankful for this year?
KR: I'm thankful for my mum's turkey dinner. I'm jealous that you guys still have that to look forward to. But seriously, I am grateful for so much. For getting through a rough couple of years, for my kids (who are hilarious and awesome), for my health, for the fact that I get to do this for a living. I just moved to a new house that backs on to a forested mountain, and it's literally my dream come true. I can't believe how lucky I am. AND I have a new boyfriend, but I won't embarrass him here by talking about how incredibly grateful I am that he came into my life. (He's the best.)
PPLD: Go to the nearest window. Look outside and tell us what you see.
KR: Well, it's dark. But if it was light, I'd be able to see the soccer field where my son plays soccer, the culdesac where the kids ride their bikes, my overgrown front garden, and a really unique view of the city. Right now I can see the moon through the old-growth trees and that's pretty magical.
PPLD: In addition to being a writer, you’re also a mom. How do you strike a balance between the work of motherhood and the work of writing?
KR: I am terrible at it and I'll never pretend to offer much advice on that topic. I write while they are at school and while they are asleep. A friend of mine got really really sick earlier this year, and I spent a bunch of time with her at the hospital, and I had this revelation (which most people probably intuitively know) and that is, people are more important than everything and anything. The work will still happen, but people are irreplaceable. I try to make my kids feel like the most important things. I don't want them to remember their childhood as a series of my deadlines. Of course, right now I have plonked them in front of a movie so I can answer these questions as well as attend to a big edit. There is balance, I just may not have quite found it yet. I'm working on it. Everything is a work-in-progress.
PPLD: Your latest novel—The Encyclopedia of Me—has such an original premise and format: it is written as a series of linked encyclopedia entries that capture a formative summer in the life of almost-13ish Isadora “Tink” Aaron-Martin. Tink is a stand-out star in literature for several reasons: she’s got spunk to spare; she’s biracial; she has an autistic older brother (Seb); she’s a girl who
skateboards; and she’s completely—to borrow one of Tink’s own words—“hilair.” Those are all things that we don’t see in books for young people as often as we’d like. What inspired you to tell Tink's story?
KR: I started writing this book when I was pregnant with my son. I already had a stepson, and he was (still is, of course) autistic. At the time, my ex and I were talking about what the autism-factor would be like for a younger sibling. Different rules would apply to them as to their older brother. I played with it in my mind for a long time and read a few "autism" books and pondered and pondered. The character of Tink grew from my wonderings. What I really wanted to do was write an autism book where the autism was somewhat incidental, just a background fact, and not the focus of the story. To Tink, autism would just be a part of her life. She would never know anything different. The encyclopedia entries kind of just evolved. I'd just read A.J. Jacobs brilliant The Know-It-All and wanted to move a similar idea to a middle-grade novel, but couldn't make it work. Then it occurred to me that because Tink was being raised in a home with someone with autism, this idea of categorizing and managing things through a very strict format would be ideal. My editor took my sporadic entries, interspersed with a narrative thread, and suggested we remove the narrative and make it entirely encyclopedic. And so, it was. It was a lot of work, I'm not going to lie, but I am so proud of it now.
PPLD: What would you like readers to take away from this novel?
KR: I think the message I want kids to take away from ALL my novels is that they are going to be OK. We are all big weirdos, really, and we get through it, we CAN get through it, we are equipped to get through things. All my characters have huge flaws and obstacles and all the stuff that life deals out, regardless of who you are, and at the end, they are always OK. Or on their way to OK.
The fact [that] Tink is biracial just kind of happened. I think at 12-going-on-13, everyone feels like they are "different" from everyone else. In this case, Tink had a visible "difference". It was incidental, it's really just the way it unfolded. Sometimes things really do just decide themselves.
PPLD: Can you
KR: No! I am horribly uncoordinated. Really terribly, badly uncoordinated.
PPLD: The Encyclopedia of Me is a friendship story wrapped up in a bit of a first-love story. What does it mean to be a “good friend?”
KR: I think that most of all, it means that you are entirely accepting of the way the other person is. I'm not sure I was a terrifically "good friend" to my friends during my teen years, but now that I'm a grown up, I think I'm better at it. I hope so. I think it's hard not to see yourself reflected in your friends, and [hard not] to resent the things about your friends that you don't like about yourself.
PPLD: How does The Encyclopedia of Me compare to your other books?
KR: It went through a LOT more editing. And I think I believed in it more than any of the others. I have a whole raft of rejection letters (from effectively every Canadian publisher) that I got before I got the nod from Cheryl Klein at Arthur A. Levine. I just loved this book so much, I refused to abandon it. And believe me, I have abandoned books before when the chips were down. This one, I refused to give up on, and I'm so glad I didn't.
PPLD: What are you working on now, writing-wise?
KR: I am writing a semi-sequel to Encyclopedia of Me that is still looking for a title. Right now it's called The Mystery of You and Me and it's about Ruth, who was a secondary character in Encyclopedia. I'm also working on a book called The King of Bananaland, that's a male-protaganist YA. And an adult non-fiction book about writing, love, life, and sharks.
PPLD: How do you make a bad day better?
KR: I go for a walk in the woods. I spend a good long time walking in the woods. Really more time than you can imagine.
PPLD: Do you have any advice for tweens in general and aspiring tween writers in particular?
KR: My advice to tweens in general would be that no matter how hard things seem in the moment, they WILL get better. And being a grown up is every bit as amazing as you think it will be. You CAN eat cake for dinner! And all the people who hurt your feelings are eventually not going to be a part of your life. When you are older, you get to choose. The mean girl in biology class? She won't exist in your world. Besides which, regardless of what she thinks of you, you are YOU. And you are amazing.
Tween writers should just keep writing. That's all that being a writer is: Writing. The more you do, the better you get. Read. Write. Believe in your own voice. And never try to be someone else.
PPLD: Would you rather have a rewind button for your life...or a pause button?
KR: Definitely a pause. I've been through what I've been through and I wouldn't want to relive it, but some days now are just so good that I want to pause them in their tracks and say, "THANK you."