Today I’m welcoming Pat Schmatz to my series of author interviews. Pat is the author of a number of novels for young adults including Bluefish, Mousetraps, Mrs. Estronsky and the U.F.O., Circle the Truth, and the recently released Lizard Radio.
Q: Welcome, Pat! Can you tell us about your new novel, Lizard Radio?
A: Lizard Radio is a coming of age story that takes place in an alternate universe, about Kivali, a gender-queer teen who might also sometimes be a lizard. It started a few years back when I sketched a young lizard wearing headphones. The lizard was trying desperately to get a signal. I began following the character, and she led me to some very unusual places. Kirkus Reviews called it science fiction, which surprised me. Others have called it dystopian. I don’t think it’s much more dystopian than our own world. I think my favorite description of it came from The Horn Book, who called it “mildly magical.”
More than anything, I’d say that it’s the story of Kivali figuring out how to tune into her own sense of ethics and truth, and to find the gray areas and gaps in the borders of a world that constantly demands either-or decisions and commitments.
Q: Many of your novels are character-driven, with a teenage protagonist who is, or thinks s/he is, an outsider. How do you go about developing your characters?
A: Like the lizard, most of my characters come to me as an impression, a feeling. They present themselves, and then I begin asking questions. I do a lot of question-asking throughout the writing process, actually writing out the dialogue of question and answer. I’ve found that a good tool for drawing out the character’s authentic voice. I also do a lot of work with setting, because I think setting and character are inextricably intertwined. I use poetry a lot. I’m not a particularly good poet, but I find the characters will often say things to me in poetry that they might not say in prose.
Q: You mentioned at a recent conference that because your novels are focused on characters, your books have been criticized for being “light on plot.” However, a starred review from Kirkus says that Lizard Radio has an “intricate, suspenseful plot.” Did you do anything differently when writing your most recent novel?
A: I did! I made up my mind that this time, by God, I was going to figure out how to plot. Someone had recommended The Plot Whisperer by Martha Alderson on draft #3, or maybe it was #4, I read from that book every day and followed instructions. I drew charts and graphs. I wrote out note cards. I hung graphs on my office wall. I thought very consciously about the rise and fall of action and emotion. I found it difficult – sort of like incorporating math into writing – but I think it helped.
Q: What do you find the greatest challenge in writing books for teenagers?
A: I don’t find any different challenges in writing books for teenagers that I do any other kind of writing. The greatest challenge for every writing project is to get a draft written. Once I have a rough story on paper, honing it is a matter of patience and hard work. But to go from the blank page to a real story, with living breathing people? That’s the challenge.
Q: What are some of the things you’ve done to promote your books?
A: I’m not a great promoter. When I visit schools or libraries, I like to have a topic or a workshop to teach. I find readings and signings excruciating, and I’m not much of a performer, but I do enjoy teaching. I’m passionate about books and creative expression – whether that’s writing, music, art, dance, whatever – so it’s fun to bring kids into that world with me.
I usually start my school visits off with the (true-ish) story about my very first school visit, which involved an almost debilitating case of nerves and an unfortunate encounter with a poopsicle (dog-flavored). That story generally loosens up the crowd and settles me down. Most everyone likes a good dog poop story.
Q: Do you have a favorite book or author?
A: The book that changed everything for me was The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton. I read it when I was 10 or 11, and it told some truths that resonated for me in a way nothing else ever had. I decided after reading it that I wanted to write for teens. I’m amazed, when I talk with students about it now, how much kids still engage with those characters.
We’ve now reached the time in our interview for the let’s-get-to-know-the-author-better, nearly-pointless, sort-of-silly, rapid-fire questions:
Q: Pizza or salad?
Q: Ocean or mountain?
Q: Tree house or doll house?
Q: Violin or piano?
Q: Comic story or learn-something story?
A: Neither. I’ll pick feel-something story every time.
Q: Laura Ingalls Wilder or Hermione Granger?
A: Can I pick Ginny Weasley?