It’s Day 6 of the PASADENA blog tour!
Bad things happen everywhere. Even in the land of sun and roses.
When Jude’s best friend is found dead in a swimming pool, her family calls it an accident. Her friends call it suicide. But Jude calls it what it is: murder. And someone has to pay.
Now everyone is a suspect–family and friends alike. And Jude is digging up the past like bones from a shallow grave. Anything to get closer to the truth. But that’s the thing about secrets. Once they start turning up, nothing is sacred. And Jude’s got a few skeletons of her own.
There’s been a whole lotta Sherri L. Smith on this blog. One of the verrrry first reviews we featured, way back in the mists of time (in 2005) was of Tanita’s then-fave Sherri book (the wearer of the “favorite” title tiara changes from moment to moment), LUCY THE GIANT. This was more gushing than an actual *cough* review, but we live to improve, people.
As we blogged on, reviews of Sparrow, Flygirl, Orleans and The Toymaker’s Apprentice were interspersed with guest posts from Sherri on such topics as blended families and the historical price of passing for white for African Americans in the US. Today this superb author is dropping by again to talk about her latest – blow-your-hair-back, Muppet-flail-and-exclaim-at-its-excellence novel, PASADENA. (You’ll note Aquafortis had to take on the latest review. Tanita’s had too many exclamation points.) We are – well, I’d say “speechless,” with joy, but “speechless” rarely happens to Tanita, at least — we are giddy with the privilege of probing her brilliant brain for all the writer goodies, so sit back and enjoy!
Finding Wonderland Blog: Readers by now are already being teased by a lot of little sneaky peeks at the book, knowing it’s all about the Southern California scene. With idiosyncratic elements like surfing and rampant wild fires, in PASADENA SoCal culture is pretty much a character in its own right. Is this a novel you could imagine set elsewhere? Other than the aforementioned elements what do you think would and would not translate if this novel was set in the Midwest or in the South?
Sherri L. Smith: Hmm. Aside from the Los Angeles-based roots of so much of the original noir fiction canon, there is noir around the world, so I’d say, in some ways, yes Pasadena could translate. I’m thinking of another landscape I know fairly well, Chicago. If I tried, I could certainly adapt this story to be called Lincoln Park. I could even possibly write a Southern version called Orleans (wait a minute. I… uh… maybe I’d call it, Crescent City.) But the details would change.
What I think is key is having a line between the haves and have nots—which you can do just about anywhere. And you need to have a landscape with a voice of its own. It has to have a history that can echo throughout the story. Pasadena is special in that it offers such beauty and glamour, past and present. But you could say the same for the other cities. We’d lose the fires in favor of a snow storm in Chicago, or something out on the lake. I’d probably set it during the winter—such fantastic imagery as frozen beaches, and those first few blocks by the water where cars get iced in by the waves. Summer is another story in Chicago. The oppressive humidity, the experience of hot sidewalks and crowds. Maybe the pool would be indoors, though. The greenness of the river. There’s stuff to work with there. And New Orleans—I mean, come on! Maggie would have totally shopped at Trashy Diva down there. Mardi Gras, Jazz Fest, gothic imagery… Now you’ve got me wanting to write two other versions of the book, just to see what would happen! What makes Pasadena the right spot for this story, though, are those noir roots, and the dream factory that is Los Angeles hovering just over the hill. There’s an unreal quality to Southern California, both a pretense and a grit, that isn’t quite the same as anywhere else.
Wonderland: So, here’s another writer-ly question – this book is written so far inside Jude’s point of view that we don’t ever “see” her, and our vision of Maggie’s circle of friends is filtered through what Jude knows – and what she does not. Kirkus Reviews comments (or, complains?) that “the absence of other markers implies [Jude’s] white.” What influenced your choice to write a so indeterminate a character?
Sherri: I did find that an interesting call out in the Kirkus review. Part of what pleased me about it, if that’s the right word, is that it touched on my original intent. When I set out to write this book, I decided the narrator would have no name. I wanted her to be the camera, and I wanted you, the reader, to be her. See what she sees, feel what she feels, but not limit yourself by deciding what she must look like. I didn’t want any judgement calls to be made on “that kind of girl.” However, when it came to Jude’s friends, they showed up the way they did. I had a really diverse group of friends in high school, so much so that a cab driver told us we looked like a United Colors of Bennetton billboard walking down the street. We were cool with that (and embarrassed, and creeped out, because… what?). But, as with Orleans, I didn’t want race to be the issue. People are the issue. That’s it.
Wonderland: *takes a moment to revel the über 80’s cool that was Bennetton… and the peak randomness of that comment*
Hmmm! With voices from the YA and children’s lit book community emphasizing a need for more diversity of experiences written by writers of color, this “you are the camera” method is an often overlooked way of allowing every reader to see themselves – by deemphasizing appearance. I feel like in PASADENA, it really worked. Enough to cause comment, anyway, and comment is good, in this case! ☺
So, the big, exciting thing about this novel is that it’s described as “noir.” According to Wikipedia (so it must be true), noir fiction is a literary genre characterized by an amateur detective protagonist who is either a victim, a suspect, or a perpetrator in the explored crime. Additionally, the protagonist is also usually self-destructive in some way. YA lit has been criticized in the past as being too dark, as both celebrating and normalizing self-destructiveness in teens. What’s your take on that, and the way adults view younger adults’ capacity for painful and disturbing topics?
Sherri: First off, I have to disagree with part of that Wikipedia definition. These detectives are not always amateurs—just ask Sam Spade and the Continental. The key trait in noir is damage. Not just the crime committed, but the people involved. Everyone has ghosts. Everyone has scars. Young adult lit—all literature, in fact, is a reflection of life, informed by the experiences of the authors, and the stories they see around them. It’s possible that some books out there glorify this damage (or that some marketing teams do, sometimes it’s hard to tell), and it’s definitely possible that young readers take away the “wrong” side of the story. (I put that in quotes because neither side is wrong, but both sides should be taken into account.)
A friend of mine went to a girls’ boarding school. She had trauma in her past and tried to commit suicide. What followed was a rash of attempted suicides. (Somehow, no one succeeded). So, did she inspire a trend because it was “cool,” or did she give a bunch of other traumatized kids the inspiration to act out similarly (and, similarly, try to get help)? I don’t know. What I do know is, she was a teenager, and that some rough crap goes down in life, no matter what your age. We do a disservice to young people if we pretend otherwise. Can kids take it? Not always. Can adults? Not always. It doesn’t change the fact that life can be painful, terrible, and hard to navigate, or that it can also be amazing, blissful and joy-filled. In my opinion, YA books are there to help negotiate the middle path. How do we survive to adulthood? How do we not just survive, but gather the tools we need to thrive, both along the way and once we get there? We start with stories that have truth in them. Stories that say, this secret you live with is not just your secret. The shame you feel has been felt by others. You are not the first, and you are not alone, and guess what? We’re still alive. We’re still here. And you can be, too.
Wonderland: Yes. That’s just the message we all hope comes away with every book we write, isn’t it? “Not alone” is probably the first thing any of us want to know, ever.
So, another writer-ly question – Kurt Vonnegut once said that every (short) story writer ought to give the readers at least one character he or she can root for. How important do you think it is that readers strongly identify with the protagonist in a novel?
Sherri: Ah ha! Is this a question about likeability? You phrased it well. Characters do need to be identifiable, but not necessarily likeable. Jude is a tough cookie. I’m not, particularly. But I can get behind her. I think some of the best protagonists are complicated people who maybe even scare us a little, but we want to go along for the ride because we believe in what they are doing, or trying to do. We have access to their inner selves. We know what hurts them (surprise, it’s what hurts us, too!), we know who they love and what they fear, and we see ourselves mirrored in that. Maybe they deal with problems differently—I’ve never staked a vampire in my life, but I totally get Buffy. The main thing we connect with in a protagonist is their striving for a goal. I heard a Radio Diaries piece recently about how everybody loves an underdog. According to a study they sited, the majority of people root for the little guy. We love the idea of overcoming the odds. So, even if your protagonist is a puppy-kicking malcontent (boo!), if he or she is struggling to overcome a seemingly insurmountable obstacle, we’ll read along. Even if we secretly hope a bigger puppy comes along to bite him/her in the butt. (That’s just another obstacle to overcome—being a jerk.)
Wonderland: The likeability question is a little silly in some ways, but it really is a big deal for a lot of readers unsure how they’re supposed to “like” some protagonist whose experiences – level of privilege, gender or ethnicity, sexual preferences, etc. – do not match their own… It can also come down to empathy building in some instances, too — a tool which readers of any age can develop through reading and benefit from…!
And speaking of that empathy connection, after a fashion — many fandoms basically live in ‘shipping culture right now, with lots of romance and furious discussion about who ends up with whom, or who they should have ended up with as part of the YA’s fandom’s oeuvre. Will you talk a bit about how you chose to write about relationships in this novel?
Sherri: Ugh. So, me and romance. I tend to paddle around the edges rather than go into the deep end with love stories. (I’m working on that!) For a lot of my characters, love just isn’t the priority, at least not within the scope of the story. But Pasadena is all about relationships: who’s with whom, who means what to whom, who did what to whom—all the whoms you can fit matter. Friend circles are like that, like a giant kinetic sculpture that tilts and whirls wildly depending on the connections. I think there’s a question teens ask themselves that gets overlooked by a lot of the love triangle romances in YA lately, namely—am I loveable? Do I deserve love? Triangles imply that yes, you are the center of the universe and at least two people should be chasing you down at any given moment. And maybe that’s true for some people. But, ahem, for the rest of us, there can be some lonely nights spent wondering if it’s going to happen at all. And then, what is “it” anyway. Jude’s got baggage she’s not willing to unpack. Dane and Tallulah are storybook perfect, but it’s a short story and a long life. Hank and Eppie have their issues. Everyone does. Joey might be the most normal guy in the book, but his damage is his circle of friends. There is a saying I read somewhere that I think about whenever I see a friend who deserves better: “We only accept the love we think we deserve.” Chew on that for a while. (Bitter? Maybe. True? You decide.)
Wonderland: I like how you put that – what is “it” indeed! And, since no one has time for my rant on The Statistical Improbability Of Love Triangles In The Average Lifetime, we’ll just move on… ::cough::
So, your last novel prior to this one was a crazily magical historical fantasy; the post-apocalyptic novel before that was a different beast entirely, as was the WWII historical fiction you published prior to that. Would you speak a bit about writing across various genres, how you approach publishing for different groups, and why you chose, unlike many writers, to write everything under the same name?
Sherri: I believe you were the ones to call me the “will not be pigeon-holed Ms. Smith!” I love that title. I will wear it proudly! My writing is as broad as my reading and my interests. If you write what you know, and what you love, I couldn’t do any less. The biggest adjustment for me was not so much genre-based, but age- and gender-based. Adjusting my vocabulary to better suit a middle grade reader was a challenge. The Toymaker’s Apprentice also features my first male protagonist (with apologies to Daniel, who is really a secondary character in Orleans). In various drafts, Stefan—this boy on the cusp of adulthood—came across as too young, too old, too emotional, too pensive, too everything. It was Lisa Yee who told me to cut his dialogue by a third and use action instead of dialogue wherever possible. And my husband who said, “If you love this other character, make him like that guy.” And I did. And it worked!
As far as pseudonyms go, I have notebooks full of pseudonym doodling the way I used to write my own name (or more often, my crush’s name) in bubble letters down the page in elementary school. I’m jealous of Anne Rice for having such a pseudonym-able name! Sadly, I have never settled on a good one. When I first thought about it, I canvassed a few writers. One told me the story of a person who wrote a fun little book under a pseudonym and saved their own name for “serious” writing. Well, the fun little book became a huge success. The serious stuff did not. And then they were faced with outing themselves so they could promote (and enjoy) their success. So, no pseudonyms for now. Although my agent once suggested Bella Donna Boudreaux. (Any X-Men fans out there?)
Wonderland: Okay, that has GOT to be the pseudonym you use for your first realy bodice-ripper of a romance: the beatific Bella Donna Boudreax. I LOVE it. The pseudonym of an already fictional character wins ALL the things!
What is the first piece of noir – book or film – you remember coming across and really enjoying?
Sherri: My introduction to noir was probably in film school, or more likely in a Sunday matinee on TV as a kid. But I wouldn’t have known it at the time. The first noir to really speak to me was probably neo-noir: Blade Runner. I’d say that grabbed me for both the visuals and the story. But, if you want to go for pure cinematography, then Touch of Evil, directed by Orson Welles. The opening shot of that movie—three and half minutes, uncut—is legendary. Unmatched until Robert Altman’s insane eight minute opening in shot in another noirish film I like, The Player. And Alfonso Cuaron’s mindblowing three minute 20 second shot in Children of Men. In fact, Children of Men might also qualify as a noir—gritty world, anti-hero—except, unlike so many noir stories, it ends with a spark of hope. (I hope you’re making a list. We have a whole film festival here!)
Wonderland:(I AM making a list. Not even joking, here.)
While noir is traditionally a male-dominated genre with the hard-boiled detective type, you went with a female narrator. There’s a sort of accepted conventional wisdom that YA readers need to see “strong female protagonists.” Is “strong” the right word, and would you describe the women in PASADENA in that way? Who do you characterize in this novel as being most and least in need of rescue?
Sherri: While “strong” is a fantastic trait to explore, I’d say what’s needed are well-rounded, “real” female characters across the board. I say “real” because there will always be an element of the unreal in fiction, an elevated version of reality. But, real women are multi-faceted. They can be strong and sometimes weak, smart, creative, insightful, and the opposite of each. If we create characters with depth, you’ve got something that lasts. The wonderful thing about Pasadena is how messed up everyone can be—sometimes. The men, the women, the boys, the girls—I think there is a sense of reality to each of them because of the damage that noir insists on in its residents. They each have their moments of strength, wisdom and weakness. And, to me, that’s very human. To answer your second question, again noir is the great equalizer. Everyone is a lost soul to some extent. Everyone has a psychic wound. Sometimes they save each other, sometimes they have to save themselves. Or, at least, they have to try.
Wonderland: YES. Strong is a thing, yeah, but real is … something so much bigger and deeper and more vital.
And speaking of real, let’s talk about Sherri-when-not-writing. As well as being an author, you have had creative day jobs working in film and stop motion animation, creating comic books, working in construction, and in a monster factory. Does your hands-on creative work fuel your brain, or does your writing brain more inform your hands-on work? Which do you find more challenging?
Sherri:I tend to have the most boring job in the most interesting places, so the chicken or the egg question has changed over the years. I had my own stories first, and my work in animation in particular helped me further develop my writer’s toolkit. Since then, it’s been a bit of a volleyball match. I always have a story on the stove, and being around other creatives helps add to the soup. Then, I can operate on auto pilot in the real world, making the donuts, while in my head I’m in the kitchen doctoring my soup. The most challenging part is being in one realm when you want to be in the other. There are days when writing gets so lonely and isolating (when you are slogging through a rough spot) and I long for a co-worker to stop and tell me a story or someone to joke with. And then, when the crap on the desk is piled high and there are a million interruptions, or worse, when you are chained to a desk and phone and nothing is happening… then, I wish for nothing more than to be in front of my laptop writing furiously away. That’s the hardest. Loneliness passes, but the denying the urge to write turns me into a harpy.
Wonderland: The best thing in the previous answer is that there’s ALWAYS A STORY ON THE STOVE. The Sherri-well has not run dry! *happy dances*
So, a final question on the story – Maggie and Jude are, in some ways, polar opposites, just as Maggie and many of her friends seem to be equally dissimilar. What was it about this girl, Maggie, and her particular friendships which called to you? What is the big idea, or takeaway that you want readers to derive from your story?
Sherri: There are some people that move between worlds. Maybe they’ve got charisma, and everybody loves them. Or maybe they just know how to listen, and everyone needs that. Maggie is that girl, “genre” hopping, like me, I guess. When my mother died, we had to pull the funeral together rather quickly, so we had no idea who would show up. Who actually came was amazing. There was a two-year-old boy who had been her friend his whole life. College and grad school friends of my brother’s who remembered how she would cook for them whenever they passed through town. Old men, war veterans, young mothers, a woman she hadn’t seen since high school. It was beautiful and the priest, who had never met her, could not help but comment. Who was this woman who had appealed to so many different folks, enough so that they were willing to miss school, or work to see her off? Maybe I was echoing that. We walk through a lot of different lives and leave footprints. Maybe being aware of that will make us tread more kindly through the world.
As for the big idea, the takeaway from this story? Remember, everyone has felt what you feel, even in your darkest moments. Show a little love, and lighten the burden if you can. If not, show the love anyway. Sometimes all you’ll have left is knowing that you gave what you had to give, even if it doesn’t end the way you want.
How sad is that? Maybe that’s the other takeaway—Sherri L. Smith is effing morose. But that’s okay too, because she’s well-rounded and “real” so she’s got some peppy moments, too. Cheers.
Wonderland: You are not morose! That’s… well, now you’ve cast aspersions on “real” so I can’t say you’re realistic, but… asi es la vida. The takeaway of the novel for me is that this is life – in its more weighty, specific instances, and in its broader aspects as well. Sometimes the load we bear is pain — and realizing that yours is not the only pain scours clean your perception — sometimes just in time, other times, when it’s too late to do anyone much good.
As we always do, we’ve gone deep and splashed some in the shallows as well – thank you, Sherri, for coming by and dropping some wisdom (and some film suggestions) and having a most excellent conversation with us!
Thanks for joining us for Day 6 of the PASADENA blog tour. Blog-friends, do NOT miss PASADENA – it’s a book with a cynical protagonist who made me laugh and wince – about the unexpectedly wrenching banality of life and loss in sunny Southern California.
Have you missed any stops on this blog tour? Check this handy list and see where Sherri has been & where she will appear next:
* Day 1: @Karen’s TEEN LIBRARIAN TOOLBOX
*Day 2: @Ana & Thea’s BOOKSMUGGLERS
* Day 3: a [email protected] GREAT IMAGINATIONS
* Day 4: @Jen’s I READ BANNED BOOKS
* Day 5: @Tirzah’s THE COMPULSIVE READER
* Day 6: ~ HELLO, YOU ARE HERE ~
* Day 7: @Christin’s PORTRAIT OF A BOOK
* Day 8: @Bonnie’s FOR THE LOVE OF WORDS
* Day 9: with the smiling kitty @IN WONDERLAND
* Day 10: @Sabrina & Samantha’s THE FOREST OF WORDS AND PAGES
*Day 11: Finishing up @HERE’S TO HAPPY ENDINGS