Rebecca Stead is the author of First Light, the Newbery Medal winner When You Reach Me, and the five-starred, award-winning Liar & Spy. With over 1 million copies of her previous novels sold, her newest book, Goodbye Stranger, is sure to become another favorite.
I chatted with Rebecca about destiny, agenting, and Little House on the Prairie.
So I know that you have written more than one book. Do you have a favorite?
Oh, it's always hard about that. I often say that, and I'm sure you've heard this before, but your books are like your children. I may have a favorite on a given day, but I probably don't have a favorite at all. So you know right now I'm feeling very warmly about Goodbye Stranger because it's the last one I wrote and because I'm still kind of separating from it and still in this world a little bit.
I love the setting of NYC in this book. Why did you decide to use it? Was it like a character of its own?
Well, I have to be honest and say that I think I write about the city a lot because I've always lived here. It's easier to draw on the little memories of my own childhood than it is to fabricate something. When I'm looking for something that will resonate with my readers, my instinct is to think of something small and true that's already inside of me.
What do you think are some of the themes of Goodbye Stranger?
This question is always interesting for me because I rarely start out with big theme idea. I don't find that a very productive way to write. But I've almost always found that when I look back, I can say that book is sort of about [whatever.]
I feel like this book is a lot about finding an identity and I feel like identity is such a complicated issue for everyone kids and adults, especially now that we all have electronic identities to juggle or what have you in addition to these real life personalities. I'm always interested in the different ways to kind of build ourselves up, to an extent, for other people. It was something that bothered me when I was young and also interested me.
I think it is a lot of what drove the story was the subject of love in the ways we love one another and, you know, love among friends or love in the family, the beginning of romantic of romantic love, and the way that things get complicated. So I would say love and identity.
The thing I always care about most is a feeling of authenticity. I just always want it to feel true. I think that's what I love as a reader, you know. I like to experience and that's something always strived to do.
I definitely got so angry when things were happening. I was like like "Why can't they just be happy?"
That's an interesting question. Why can't we just be happy? Sometimes we choose to spend time with people who make us feel badly. It's hard. Sometimes we want to show love and affection in a way that is more complicated.
I think it must be very boring to write a book for your answers. Part of writing a book is sort of asking all these questions and watching your characters kind of grapple with those questions and mess around with them.
What type of middle grade stories would you like to see more of?
I would like to see more books for eleven and twelve and thirteen year olds. Tell me if you disagree with me, but some middle grades feel a little too safe too much, not facing all of those complex questions and less pretty scenarios. Maybe be a little more for the middle school years.
And I'd like to see more scenarios facing all those complex questions and maybe slightly less pretty scenarios toward the beginning. YA, a lot of them, are about the sixteen and seventeen year olds ready for college, you know? So a lot of them are past those initial questions.
Okay, so this is a weird question. Do your kids read your books in school or anything? I've always thought about that, and how interesting it would be that your mom could give you the answers.
I don't think they've ever read one in school. They've been old enough, so they generally read them when they're close to done, but not done, so that there's still time to comment and fix things. They're happy and generally very supportive. I get a pat on the head like "Good job, Mom!"
What role do you think that adults played in Goodbye Stranger?
I think about adults a lot, and I think it's because of the memories I have.There is this idea that you have to get rid of the adults [in young adult or middle grade,] but when I'm writing I tend to write more realistic relationships between kids and adults.
I had teachers who went way out of their way to help me and make my life richer and more interesting, and there are a lot of adults like that in the world. They were an important part of my life, and didn't really mess with my autonomy. I got to have my own matters and friends, and they were really helpful. That's the kind of world I want to show, with adults who are characters in themselves, complicated and making mistakes.
Do you think it's harder to be in middle school now? I feel like when my parents were growing up, it was obviously hard, but they didn't have camera phones and Instagram. Do you think that the new wave of technology has complicated middle school?
Absolutely. I do think that, you know, when I was in middle school it was challenging. Middle school is a very tough time for a lot of reasons, and it's a time of change and change is painful. When I was in middle school, I would be in that challenging space, but then I would go home and get a break. I would go to my apartment and I was on my couch and had my bowl of Cheerios and watched Little House on the Prairie, to be in my safe space. There was comfort.
Now, it's very very different. Generally, a lot of kids are watching your problems on social media, and they follow you home. You're saying "Oh, these three people got Starbucks and I feel bad because I wasn't invited." I think there's a this kind of anxiety it's created. It's now like a twenty four hour question. I think that must be stressful. Where do you get to shut everything down and watch Little House?
From the moment she's hit by the car, Bridge questions the reason why she's still around. Do you think that people ever discover their place in life?
For me, it's happened in these very small moments. It's like when Bridge is watching Emily sing and she gets this wave of feeling connected to people and feeling "Oh. This must be it."
In my experience, it doesn't work in that way. There are these days in this world to be connected and having an incredible moment. But three days later, I can still be wondering [what my purpose is.] I think there are still moments of doubt in a lifetime, and both are important.
What are some of the differences in the process as an agent and as a writer?
I love it, mostly because there's a lot of action with clients. I actually sold a book a few weeks ago, a middle grade from Jake Burt, who is a teacher and lovely writer. I love the business side, but also collaborating creatively. I mean, I'm not really part of all the process, but the end of it is sort of its own work.
I get very self-conscious when I feel like I'm promoting myself, but I have no problem yelling and talking about other people's books. To know what's working, what's working, and what kind of challenges are presented by the story and what's the most powerful way to deal with them.
Are you working on any other books at the moment?
I'm in that awkward in between book stage. I have ideas and take notes. Sometimes I think maybe, but it doesn't always work. It's this very yucky period, and I'm trying to figure out where my material lies.
Awesome. Thank you!
Goodbye Stranger was released on August 4, 2015. It has received five starred reviews from The Horn Book, Kirkus Reviews, Booklist, Publisher's Weekly, and School Library Journal. It is also a New York Times Editor's Choice.