Myfanwy Collins’ debut YA novel, The Book of Laney, “starts with violence and heartbreak,” as teenaged Laney is haunted by her older brother’s horrific crime: a mass shooting that ended with him dead, and her life in shambles. She’s sent to live with her grandmother in the far-off Adirondacks, but finds that running from her grief isn’t enough. Here, Collins talks to novelist Evan Roskos (YALSA Morris Award finalist for his debut, Dr. Bird’s Advice for Sad Poets) about Laney, Dr. Bird, and how the age of your head is often different than that of your heart.
ER: Tell me about your new book.
MC: Partly The Book of Laney is about a massacre at a school, but digging deeper it’s mostly about Laney, the sister of one of the kids who took part in the murders. After the massacre, Laney begins to experience shifts in her perception, seeming to be able to experience brief moments through the eyes of other people, like her brother. She believes this is because something is wrong with her, like she’s losing her mind. She calls these shifts her “visions” and eventually learns why she has them and how she got them. The book is Laney’s story, not only about how the aftermath of the mass murder tears apart her life, but also about everything in her family’s past that led up to it, and, finally, about how she learns to survive, to become self-sufficient, and to overcome her history. What about you? How do you describe Dr. Bird’s Advice for Sad Poets?
ER: My son told me the other day that my book is about a bird that sits on a bench waiting for the school bus. Then he goes to school and becomes a big bird. I thought that was lovely! More accurately, my book’s about a kid named James who loves his sister Jorie and wants to help her after she’s expelled from school and thrown out of the house. But he’s suffering from serious anxiety issues and depression, things he barely understands, so it’s difficult to do much at all. In an effort to keep himself afloat, he talks to an imaginary pigeon named Dr. Bird, and also recites poem snippets from Walt Whitman. Ultimately, he’s got to find a way to speak up about how much he suffers and hope that will give him the strength to help Jorie.
Why did you have to the write The Book of Laney?
MC: Once I was living in a town where a horrible, random act of violence occurred. One of the perpetrators was a teenager who lived in a house up the road from me. I thought about the family who had been the victims nonstop. My heart broke for them (and still does), but then I also found myself thinking about this other family whose member was one of the guilty parties. From the outside, they seemed like they could be anyone’s family. I thought about how they would go through the rest of their lives feeling like they had to distance themselves and atone for what their brother and son did. And then I realized why I couldn’t stop thinking about them in this way. I remembered how I felt when I was younger, that I was marked by the actions of some family members. For this and other reasons, I felt I was damaged, flawed, and I certainly didn’t like myself very much. It wasn’t until I realized I am not only made up of my flaws but also my strengths that I learned to care about and for myself.
And so then came Laney, and I wanted all this knowledge and growth and self-love for her as well. I wanted her to never forget her past and her upbringing but also to understand that she can overcome those parts of it that left her raw. I wanted her to know that she’s strong enough and that her heart is ready to love. So I guess the short answer is that Laney came along and made me write this book and I loved writing it from her perspective. It was interesting to slip into being 15 again.
How old do you feel in your head most of the time, and does this help you write for YA readers?
ER: I feel 16 years old in my head and about 80 in my heart. The rest of my organs feel like they’re approaching middle age, as they should. It’s hard to write YA sometimes because while I teach college students who average in age from 18 to 22, it’s not the same as being immersed in the experience of being a teenager. I have a really strange memory, very visual and emotional, and I dig up stuff all the time and wonder how I’d handle it if I were 16 now. That’s not an efficient way to write, maybe, but it’s where I find the most authentically emotional material. I can’t just photocopy my experience; it’s why I call Dr. Bird an emotional autobiography. I definitely suffered some of the same things James suffers (and, in fact, the character initially began as a version of myself, that’s why his name is my middle name). But the facts of James’s story are not from my life. Even then I have no delusions about how teenagers or even adults might respond to it. Is his story authentic? Is Jorie’s? Authenticity is my goal, and hopefully people who are suffering with similar issues find the novel satisfying and people who have no idea what it’s like to suffer anxiety or depression or loneliness or abuse get a glimpse into what it might feel like.
MC: I love the term “emotional autobiography.” That strikes such a chord with me. I also feel young in my brain, in my memories. I typically do write from a younger person’s perspective a great deal of the time, whether I’m writing for a young adult or an adult audience. Writing from a distance of time and place always works best for me and, as you said, feels most authentic. Mostly, I want to give those who may feel powerless (because of age or situation) a voice. Laney, for example, is a young woman of lower-income who feels powerless in her situation, and who believes she is alone in the world. I want her to be heard. I want all of the people I write about to be heard and for their voices to matter. Mostly, I want to show that we are not alone in our fear, our hurt, our anger, our grief. I want to show that our pain is neither the only pain nor the worst pain and that, ultimately, like Laney, we are worth fighting for.