Wednesday, August 03, 2011

"I hear them like migrant birds." A Conversation with Audrey Couloumbis

This week's Kidlitosphere roundup for Interview Wednesday is at Gathering Books. Myra's on Singapore Time so if you're anywhere in the Americas, watch for additions through part of tomorrow.

The borders we're crossing in today's interview are those that exist between the adult writer self and the child character.

In Audrey Couloumbis's latest middle grade novel, Lexie, ten-year-old Lexie deals with the aftermath of her parents' divorce during a week spent at the beach with her father, who's invited his girlfriend and her two sons to join them.

From a starred review, The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, June 2011:
As she did in Jake (BCCB 12/10), Couloumbis demonstrates her skill at writing with quiet understanding and unstudied polish for younger readers. Her ability to walk through complicated emotional dynamics in kid-accessible impressive, making Lexie a perceptive narrator but not requiring her to be implausibly sophisticated.
I have known Audrey for years in the way that one can get to know people through letters and then e-mail and phone conversations, through correspondence about the things that matter to both of us in writing and in life. I'm very pleased to be able to talk to her now about this book that is sometimes funny, sometimes tender, and always spot on.

[Uma] Lexie's voice rings so true, endearing and compelling yet completely unsentimental. How do you tap the sensibility of the middle grade child with such perceptiveness?

[Audrey] I start writing the moment a character has something to say that interests me—I hear them like migrant birds, listen now or let them go on their way, probably never to return—and go from there. For Lexie it was a comment that let me know we had something in common: waiting for a father to arrive. Mine was always coming in on a plane that was late, late, late. And in my case, people around me never came to realize that tardiness was, if not deliberate, at least a condition he didn’t object to. He liked arriving to be greeted by a welcoming entourage.

[Uma] "Like migrant birds." I love that. So how did Lexie's story arrive on the page for you?

[Audrey] Working with Lexie, I drew on the reality of being met with an awareness that life went on without me. Oh, a stepmother. Oh, a pregnant stepmother. Oh, no longer traveling, but not coming home to live either? On the rare occasions I think of those surprises, I wish my grandparents were around so I could ask, What did you really think of all that? Because they were being surprised too.

So there was more than a little of my father in Lexie’s dad. Funny to realize that now, because recently I was asked if I’d patterned any of the characters after someone I knew. I said no, I didn’t think so. I liked bringing a little of the childhood experience of separation out into the open with Lexie.

But isn’t it funny how writing works to bring out a little of the old stuff we’d shoved into a drawer years ago, and even then we don’t recognize it right away.

[Uma]  How do you know when some of that old "stuff" might be ready to grow into a story, or don't you always know?

[Audrey] Usually I start with a piece of dialogue that ends up somewhere in the story, occasionally it’s more of an image that evokes the mood. In both cases, although I sometimes realize there was a trigger, the starting point rises from some mysterious where, like champagne bubbles. Once I start writing, the voice is steady on.

I realize that’s a less than helpful answer.

[Uma] No, actually it's a good one. I think we often go looking for the superficial story event as a trigger when what we need to be attending to is something much deeper, something that creates the conditions for that mysterious bubbling up of story.

[Audrey] I’ve tried starting stories from something overheard and fascinating—“He was killed by a tornado ! Drug right outta the winda!” but it never seems to work the same way. Probably the main criterion I use for writing a story is the willingness of the characters to offer up their points of view.

[Uma] And they do. Listen to this:
He sure could yell. Vicky picked him up and sat on the bed and rocked him, crooning over him. Harris's face had turned beet red. But he wasn't bleeding and he didn't look broken, the first thing Mom always checks. He looked like he would live.
In your writing the bonds between children are luminous, almost magical even though stories are realistic fiction. We had Willa Jo and Little Sister in Getting Near to Baby, which is to my mind one of the most wonderful renditions ever of a sibling relationship in fiction. And in Lexie we have the evolving relationship with the three-year-old Harris. What's the importance of these connections, child to child, in your writing? How do they serve to enable your child characters to maneuver through a complicated adult world?

[Audrey] You’ve approached the question with a very generous compliment, which I warn you, I resist.

[Uma] Resist away, Audrey! I insist on it. I love that book!

[Audrey] The first thought to come to mind is, my experience of these moments in a sibling relationship, often couched between the various conflicts of age, gender, family placement, circumstances, and just plain old chemistry, are about those events that require us, any of us, to step up to a higher level of understanding and tolerance, even if only temporarily. So while an instance represents those ultra protective moments when siblings recognize a need, they aren’t representative of the entire relationship by any means.

That said, I think the relationships that grow between the child characters in all of my books reflect that moment, partially or wholly, when kids recognize their essential helplessness in the face of a difficult situation—their helplessness to change how the adults are likeliest to respond, that is--or their dependence upon the adults in charge of what happens next.

Kids do realize they have to depend on each other to some extent in a crisis, and they are largely more trustworthy, in my view, than adults. They’re pure in their intent. I remember living from that feeling, and if I can’t always operate from there now that I’m “older and wiser” I can reexperience it with my characters over and over.

[Uma] It is true, isn't it, that your child characters draw on inner strengths they often didn't know they had?

[Audrey] Kids are rarely truly helpless. They extend themselves in quietly heroic ways, rising to an occasion to a degree most adults don’t expect of them and possibly won’t appreciate—even though that adult is expecting a kind of cooperation, a moderated behavior, that they might or might not get—and kids are selfless in the way of people who think they’ll last forever, that nothing of themselves is finite. I admire children, generally, and I like to show that not-so-helpless side of them. But I also like looking at how that intersects with some hapless adult’s expectations.

[Uma] Thank you Audrey. Here's to heroism and rising to the occasion, and to good books for children, books with humor and heart!

[Audrey] Thanks, Uma, for the opportunity to talk about Lexie, and writing.

[Uma] My pleasure. Come back and talk to me any time.

Oh, and another thing about this book. It's charmingly illustrated by Julia Denos. Look at this picture of Lexie reading in the window.  I love the fact that so many middle grades these days are getting the benefit of interior art!

Finally, here's Audrey's interview with Erika Rohrbach on the Kirkus blog.  Here's a snippet from that interview:
Conflicting emotions are where you begin to find characters like Ben—where there will be real ambivalence about what they’re dealing with. I hope that I deal with conflicting emotions well in whatever I write because it seems to me that any experience of emotional value is going to have some of that; it’s going to have places where other people looking are probably going to make judgments.
A summer-perfect read that captures the eccentricity of its child characters, and will warm the heart anytime.


  1. Oh Uma, this has truly made me smile and made my day. Such beautiful voices from two lovely authors. It's such a pleasure to round up Interview Wednesday seeing this kind of interview. I will look for this book straightaway. =)

  2. Thanks, Uma, for such a wonderful interview! I've been a fan of Audrey Couloumbis since first reading GETTING NEAR TO BABY years ago. Can't wait to read LEXIE.

  3. I loved Audrey's writing too, Dianne, and the way she puts a story together.