Have you ever wondered what life is like for our imaginary friends? Curious readers of all ages will get an inside look in Michelle Cuevas’s Confessions of an Imaginary Friend: A Memoir by Jacques Papier, a truly funny, imaginative, and emotionally real middle grade novel, and one of the best I have read in a long while. To help introduce everyone to Jacques, I interviewed author Cuevas about imaginary friends, using humor to cope with hardship, and the books that she and Jacques both love.
First, Michelle, tell our readers about Jacques Papier; what kind of guy is he really?
Well, Jacques is the kind of guy who changes shape like a cloud. But he’s also a radioactive nightlight in a dark room. I guess what I’m saying is that he’s alone and adrift, like a desert island, but he’s also the coconuts, and the sky, and the life raft on an ocean of alphabet soup.
Really though, Jacques Papier is a boy who thinks everyone hates him, but discovers the truth: he is actually his sister Fleur’s imaginary friend. He is someone who searches for, and finds, himself. During that journey, when he is very lost, he is finally able to learn the magic of being there for others as well.
What inspired you to write the memoir of an imaginary friend?
I’ve always been intrigued by the imagined life of things—dolls in their dollhouses, what my toys did while I was away at school. I loved The Velveteen Rabbit as a kid, and when I was older Toy Story and The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane. In this novel I decided to explore the imagined life of imaginary things, and I wanted to hear the story right from the source.
Did you have an imaginary friend as a child?
I did! I was a bit of a lone wolf growing up, and would spend a lot of time with them. Their names were slightly ridiculous: Poodie and LaLa. One was a dragon and one a rag doll. I used to throw these very elaborate tea parties all the time. I was like the Jay Gatsby of tea parties, and Poodie and LaLa were always there.
You tackle some big topics—growing up, therapy, the importance of imaginations, purpose, and self-esteem—but over all Jacques keeps his sense of humor. Was it difficult to balance those more adult ideas with the innocent childhood humor?
I think it’s natural and human at any age to use humor to help through a hard time. I appreciate that quality in Jacques. Actually, out of all my books, I think this book feels the most like my own personality. I would say my two favorite activities are having deep conversations with my friends, and having really goofy jokes with my friends, so the voice in the book felt like home.
Jacques is a wonderfully mature and worldly character, what would you ideally like readers to come away with after reading about his life?
That’s it’s okay and not unusual to feel invisible sometimes. And to not forget those times later when you see someone who looks like they might be feeling invisible. Go over, say hi. Never be that that ship that wants to stay sunken, that needle that hides in the haystack, or that pearl that stays buried forever beneath the sand. I guess ideally I’d like readers to walk away after reading with a desire to be seen as their realest selves, and to see that in others as well.
Your other books, Beyond the Laughing Sky and The Masterwork of A Painting Elephant, also have unusual narrators, what attracts you to these unique people?
A little boy who was raised by a painting elephant narrated my first novel. The boy realizes in the end that he was the elephant’s greatest masterpiece, and I thought this masterwork-as-narrator perspective might be lovely.
With Beyond The Laughing Sky (out in paperback October 6!) I was writing a misfit story, so I wanted a narrator that was so unusual he wasn’t literally or physically relatable (he’s half bird), so that he would be universally relatable to anyone in regard to feeling like an outcast.
My next book, my first picture book illustrated by Erin Stead, is about solitary seafaring man who wishes that someday one of the bottles that he is charged with opening will contain a message for him. I was inspired to write the story after I learned that Queen Elizabeth I had appointed an official “Uncorker of Ocean Bottles” and it was a criminal offense for anyone other than the Uncorker to open messages in bottles.
I suppose, in the end, I’m draw to lonesome characters; characters that are searching, and at the same time long to be found.
Am I right to say that all of the illustrations in the book are yours? Is it a challenge to be the author and the illustrator?
The book is a memoir written by an eight year old, so the drawings were meant to look like his artwork. Luckily my skill and training level is about the same as an eight year old, so it actually worked out perfectly.
I also saw the news that Fox has acquired the rights to turn Confessions into a movie? What has that process been like so far?
The beginning of the process was mostly me bouncing around the room in excitement like a moth in a light bulb factory. After that I called my mom. Everyone at Fox Blue Sky is crazy talented so I’m just beyond thrilled for Jacques to be in such good hands.
Turning to reading, what books would be on Jacques’s bookshelf?
Well, in the novel Jacques claims he’s “the intellectual type, mostly interested in pop-up vice presidential biographies and particle physics coloring books.” It’s his memoir, so I guess we’ll just have to believe him.
What about books for grown ups? Do you have a favorite that you just can’t put down—or wait to read?
I just can’t seem to put down this one book called This Book is Covered in Glue. It’s not as much of a page-turner as I was expecting.
I read a lot of poetry, and I’m currently loving Mark Doty’s Paragon Park and Franz Wright’s Walking to Martha’s Vineyard. My favorite book of recent memory was Cheryl Strayed’s Tiny Beautiful Things, and I’m patiently waiting for Elizabeth Gilbert’s newest, Big Magic.
If you could spend real time with one imaginary friend from the book, who would it be?
Probably Stinky Sock. I think he’s a poet-philosopher-guru underneath all his stinkiness. I hope he finds the time (and ability to type), to write his own memoir one day.
Confessions of an Imaginary Friend: A Memoir by Jacques Papier is on shelves September 8.