BACKSTORY: I met Julie Schumacher almost three years ago as one of her students in University of Minnesota’s MFA program, but knew her through her work and venerated reputation within the Twin Cities writing community prior to that. I first encountered her work in Book of One Hundred Truths, which won a Minnesota Book Award in 2007, and was drawn into the work at the end of the first chapter in which our narrator states, "I should probably mention something right now before this story goes any further: my name is Theodora Grumman, and I am a liar.” Um, yes, Hooked.
Schumacher’s latest novel Black Box has been named a Junior Library Guild selection, ALA Best Book for Young Adults 2009, and a ALA Quick Pick (for Reluctant Readers) 2009. Even more honorably, Black Box makes my list of fav books for the year. Impressed by the choices and techniques that Schumacher brought to this novel, I taught it in my young adult and voice class at the Loft last summer. And, because Julie gives her time and attention, she agreed to answer some questions.
Q: I think the decision to go into flashback from page 4-20 was a risk (i.e a ballsy and brilliant move) Did you see this as risky? Were you concerned about losing the forward motion of the book?
**SPOILER** Why did you chose to start where you did and not, as this question implies, when Dora swallowed the handful of anti-depressants?
JS: Yes, I do see it as risky (because of the forward-momentum issue), and the editor had a bit of a problem with it at first, for the same reason. I don't see it as brilliant, at all: this is one of those cases in which, Yes, I knew the early flashback presented a problem, and Yes, I knew I'd probably have to argue for it/justify it, but.... that's where the book started from fairly early drafts, and it Just Felt Right, so I was willing to leave it there and to argue for it. This was always Elena's book, and I think that entry into the hospital would have been the moment that struck Elena hardest. I imagined that moment as the one that would always be foremost in her mind. It would be the moment when she recognized, for the first time, that something was truly happening to her family -- a story was unfurling itself in front of her, and she had to begin to try to tell it.
Q: Right before the flashback Dora poses the question: "How did my sister fall through the hole in her life..." Because of that (and something I think you said to me earlier), I'm wondering if you structure your books as a series of questions for the reader to answer?
JS: Interesting. I do think that part of the author's job -- particularly in y/a lit -- is to raise a series of questions in the reader's mind that will inspire that reader to continue turning the pages. If the reader isn't, at some level, wondering "what happened next?" you lose your audience. I didn't consciously think about structuring the book via a series of questions, though. The "How did my sister fall..." is the one huge primary question in Elena's mind, e.g. "How can this have happened to us?"
Q: My students (and I) were blown away by the one line chapters and asked me: "How does she get away with that?" I'm wondering if you have any insights about how you made that work?
JS: Initially there were a few more one-line chapters, and the editor (wisely) said, "These will be more powerful/more effective if there are fewer of them." So I excised a few very short chapters (folding them into larger chapters) -- while insisting that I had to keep #5 ("Dora got worse") and #61 ("A bottle of pills, a tube of glue. She broke her promise.") I see these two as echoes of one another. In any case, my intention, with these very short sections, was to try to capture Elena's distress and her fragmented thinking, the sense of shock. In chapter 5, there is no room for anything else in Elena's mind but "Dora got worse." Those three words entirely occupy her thoughts and her imagination, crowding everything else out. In effect, I didn't see these short chapters as stylistic flourishes, but as a way of conveying the quality of Elena's emotions.
Q: **SPOILER** Toward the end, Dora is talking to the grandma therapist, she narrates, "I felt as if I were waiting for the end of the story, for the moment the crisis passed and the characters wisely understood what had happened to them and someone shut the book with a satisfying snap. But what if the story didn't end and the book stayed open?" Your book, does have an open ending. At what point in the writing process did the scene with the grandma therapist come into the novel? Do you feel that it, if you are giving the reader an ending that is not as clear cut, you need to foreshadow it? I ask, in part, because I've been seeing this more frequently in open endings.
JS: I didn't feel obliged to foreshadow the ambiguity at the end of the book. But I wrote the ending relatively early (something I often try to do), and then struggled to find the best ways to work toward it, so that the final page wouldn't seem to come out of nowhere. I suppose one of those ways in which I worked toward the ending was the passage you're referring to. In general, I think the aim is for all the portions of a novel to cohere and to echo each other, and to add to the power of the whole.
Q: I think you set us up nicely, foreshadowing that the ending won't be exactly clean, but it is an ending that has no clear (if any) denouement. Again, a risky successful move. Which I see as even more risky because it is a YA novel and you're employing an ending that really requires a sophisticated reader, that requires that reader determine whether Dora's ability to face her emotions is enough for her to heal or not. Did you see that as risky? I see this as an ending that makes me understand the whole of the book in a different way, which is not the way I'm used to thinking of endings, actually. In our class we discussed what makes a good ending, what would you say?
JS: While I was working my way toward the end of the book, I knew I couldn't write either a "happy ending" (it would be unrealistic, and not in keeping with the tone of the novel) or a disaster scenario. (If Dora had died, Elena would have had to say so earlier -- for Elena to get to the end of the book and only then reveal that her sister was dead would be too manipulative.) So I knew I was aiming for ambiguity in some form or another. I have always loved (and often taught) Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, which ends with the handmaid "stepping up into the darkness, or else the light" -- either being rescued, or heading off to her doom. And I often tell my students, if you're headed toward a choice between two possible endings, Ending A and Ending B always head for C. You want an ending that will cast a shadow over everything that has preceded it, so that the reader will want to look again at the beginning of the book in the new context of the ending. (I'm not advocating for a "surprise" ending, but for complication and resonance.)
More specifically, regarding Black Box: what mattered to me most in the novel was Elena's reaction to Dora, the progress of Elena's emotions being more central or primal than Dora's deterioration. Logically, even if Dora were to get better, Elena would always worry, would always be left with some emotional ambiguity. So that's where I decided to leave her.
I have gotten emails from some teenage readers asking me whether Dora is going to be all right. To me, that's a great source of satisfaction: to have a reader contact me, worried about the welfare of a person I have invented. I want my readers to worry about Dora; I worry about her as well.
Thanks to Julie Schumacher for providing this insight into her book.