Thursday, October 1, 2009
Interview: Natalie Standiford (Author of How to Say Goodbye in Robot!)
Today, I'm happy to share an interview with Natalie Standiford, author of HOW TO SAY GOODBYE IN ROBOT, which hits shelves today!
First, a brief biography:
Natalie started off in publishing, working in the Children's Book Department at Random House. However, she wanted to be a writer, not an editor, so she left Random House to be a full-time free-lancer. Today, Natalie has had books published for various reading levels and ages. She is in a rock band called Ruffian, which is all female except for the drummer. Natalie also plays in a YA-Author-Band, Tiger Beat, with Libba Bray, Daniel Ehrenhaft, and Barnabas Miller. I've linked a video of Tiger Beat from Books of Wonder, but Natalie is behind a pole... the entire time!
First off, tell us a little bit about your new novel, How to Say Goodbye in Robot.
HOW TO SAY GOODBYE IN ROBOT is the story of two misfits, Bea and Jonah, who become intensely close friends and find a kind of surrogate family in a late-night radio call-in show. Bea moves to Baltimore in her senior year of high school and goes to a small school where everyone has known each other since they were three, so the person she feels most drawn to is the only outcast, Jonah. Bea's mother is acting crazy, Jonah's father is hiding a terrible secret, and their friendship takes off and deepens from there.
Where did the idea to incorporate an “old-timer radio show” into the novel originate?
I've listened to late-night radio since I was in high school--there used to be a national show called the Nightcaps, where lonely old people called up. The Nightcaps had three rules: no politics, no religion, and I forget the third. The point was not to discuss anything upsetting, which was very helpful for falling asleep. Later in Baltimore there was a great local show called Legends Radio/Over Fifty Overnight that really captured a certain lonely, insomniac feeling in the city. The callers were nutty but so Baltimore. And now I love to listen to Coast to Coast AM, which mostly focuses on UFOs, time travel, ghosts, etc.
I've always wanted to find a way to use those radio callers--and the way the night brings out the strangeness in people--in a book. So when I first started thinking about Bea and Jonah and realized their story was missing something, I decided to add the Night Lights as a kind of Greek chorus to their friendship.
In the novel, Bea mentions that she once heard that Icelandic hairdressers are the happiest people in the world: Where did this random bit of information come from? And more importantly, is it true? :)
I heard that on the BBC a few years ago (I also listen to the BBC at night). They said that some organization had done a study of various professions all over the world in search of the happiest people, and hairdressers in Iceland came out on top. While I was writing the book I went online to try to confirm this and found that the BBC had in fact reported it. But other studies had come up with different results. Still, I loved the idea--and the image--of the happy Icelandic hairdressers.
How to Say Goodbye in Robot could have easily been a YA romance, why did you decide against taking the novel that direction?
I actually didn't think about this very much. Somehow it seemed natural to me that Bea and Jonah would be friends, and that's all. I wanted their relationship to have a kind of purity that wasn't tainted by romance. And, to be honest, I think of Jonah as being kind of damaged beyond romance.
Did you do any research while writing How to Say Goodbye in Robot? If yes, please explain.
I did do a little research. I don't want to give away too much, but my father is a pediatrician so I asked him and one of his partners about certain medical situations involving disabled children. And I listened to the radio a lot (though I would have done that anyway).
What was the most difficult aspect of writing How to Say Goodbye in Robot?
A lot of it was difficult, although I enjoyed it. The book went through so many drafts and stages. I think the most difficult part came at the beginning: I knew how I wanted the book to end but I had no idea how to get there. It was hard to figure out why someone would do what Jonah does at the end (forgive me for being cryptic), so I made up my own reasons, but they had to be good to justify his decision. Also, I must have rewritten the first chapter a hundred different ways. It was very hard to figure out how to start.
Did you always want to be a writer?
Yes, I always loved books and I wrote my first "novel" in the third grade. It was called "The Hither-Heather Hiding Place" (reminds me of the name of your blog!) and it was about 7 children who build a fort to hide from their mother. I later destroyed it in a fit of embarrassment (and rightly so).
I also considered being a lawyer, a diplomat, a perpetual grad student or an interpreter at the U.N., but writer was always my first choice.
What jobs did you have on your way to being a writer? Did they help you in any way as a writer?
I think everything you do helps you as a writer. As a teenager I interned at the Baltimore Sun--I got to tag along after a Features reporter who interviewed visiting celebrities when they came to town. I didn't get to meet anyone that spectacular but it was a lot of fun. The next summer I worked at a day camp, which wasn't as exciting. In college I waitressed and worked in a museum. After I graduated I moved to New York and got a job in a bookstore. A few months later I became an editorial assistant in the children's book department at Random House, which obviously had a huge effect on me. I worked for Jane O'Connor, who writes the Fancy Nancy books and is also a brilliant editor. I learned so much there. But all experiences are useful to a writer--that's one of the great things about being one.
When and where do you usually write?
I have a small office in my apartment where I write. Sometimes I take my laptop and work in bed, but that's dangerous because I'll often fall asleep. I usually write in the daytime from about 10 to 6, but I'm a nightowl and sometimes I'll get an irresistible inspiration and write at night. Weekends are meaningless to me; I often work 7 days a week. If I'm racing to meet a deadline I'll work constantly, day and night, get no exercise, and eat junk. Very bad.
Is there something that is a must have for you to be able to write?
Quiet. My apartment is pretty noisy--traffic, car alarms, street noises--and I can tune that out, but I can't write to music with lyrics or if someone is talking, because I need to hear the voices in my head (and obey their every command . . . ).
What author or book most influenced you as a writer or in general?
One of my favorite books as a child was STUART LITTLE by E.B. White, and I still love his clean, intelligent, evocative style. As a teenager I loved Fitzgerald and Hemingway and Truman Capote. When I was writing ROBOT I reread THE GREAT GATSBY and BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY'S for their structures; both books are narrated by a relatively "normal" character who tells the story of another, more fascinating and mysterious (and damaged) character. In the same way the relatively sane Bea tells the story of the intriguingly (I hope) weird Jonah.
What are currently reading?
I just started LOVE IS THE HIGHER LAW by David Levithan (who also happens to be my brilliant editor). It's wonderful; his characters have such rich emotional lives. Next up is Libba Bray's new book GOING BOVINE--I can't wait! She's so funny.
What book are you anxiously awaiting?
I'm looking forward to reading LIAR by Justine Larbalestier (it's out now and I have to get it), and I am eagerly awaiting Rachel Cohn's next book, VERY LEFREAK, which comes out in January. I love that title.
Can you tell us anything about your next YA novel?
It's called CONFESSIONS OF THE SULLIVAN SISTERS and it's about three teenage sisters in a large, rich Catholic family in Baltimore. I'm still working on it, so that's all I'll say for now. It will be published by Scholastic, probably next fall.
The Hiding Spot is dedicated to my personal hiding spot, books. Is there a place, activity, or person that is your hiding spot?
Books are my hiding spot too. When I was a child I used to hide behind the couch and read. I was the oldest of four kids and our house was crowded. Music is also a good hiding spot--listening to it or playing it. Practicing a musical instrument is a good anxiety-reliever. That's my Mental Health Tip of the Day.
Anything else you would like to share with us?
Readers can find out more about me and my books at my web site, http://www.nataliestandiford.com/ . Thanks for the interview, Sara! It was fun.
Go here, for a chance to win your very own hardcover copy of ROBOT!