If you guys followed my early reviews, then you should remember that one of my 5 stars then was attributed to Leslie Stella’s Permanent Record. It was a a spectacular read that made me feel both frustrated (in a good way) and fulfilled. It’s a novel of a boy coming into terms with his environment and with himself, and I am not afraid to say that it’s one of my favorites this 2013. You can find my review of the said book here.
With that said, I was fortunate enough to get in touch with the writer via twitter (…and I tell you, she’s an awesome person. So, yes, follow her), and was even luckier to be able to interview her regarding her own journey with the book.
So, without further ado, here’s what transpired:
* Thank you for setting aside some time to answer a bit of questions. Your book was a fantastic and thought-provoking read. What inspired you to write this story?
I was inspired by several events: First, the experience of my across-the-street neighbors in 2001, a Middle Eastern couple who had immigrated to the United States twenty years before (the wife from Iraq, and the husband from Lebanon). After 9/11, some ugly situations arose for them, always with strangers, simply because of their ethnicity. Next, the Persian background of Bud and his relatives was based on a family that my family was close to when I was in high school. I worked for them for several years at a store they owned, and my sister dated one of the brothers. I learned so much about Persian culture from them, and the dynamics within the family and what is expected of the children. Last, it’s impossible to ignore the pervasiveness of bullying and school violence in America, and I wanted to explore how these two problems feed off each other.
* Your book contained many sensitive themes. Did you find any difficulty in incorporating them all at once?
Permanent Record explores several themes: bullying, school violence, the experience of Middle Eastern people in America after 9/11, and the clash of cultures (particularly for immigrant or first-generation teens as they try to navigate the waters of the modern American high school). As different as these elements are from one another, I found they overlapped at points, which made it easier to incorporate: for example, often teens who are different (such as Bud, who is different because of both his nationality and his interests) are bullied; the clash of cultures is an especially prevalent problem for Middle Eastern people since 9/11; and school violence can result when the bullied are pushed too far. As for difficulties in stringing all these pieces together, the one I had to be most careful of was maintaining Bud’s intrinsic goodness in the face of all that he endures, and not making him a vengeful, hateful person. He treads that fuzzy line between simply standing up for himself and taking revenge on his classmates, which is an honest, human reaction, but I wanted to make sure above all that the reader would root for him. No matter what kind of bullying he had to put up with, he had to emerge a better person. A guy to emulate.
* To be honest, Permanent Record was a roller coaster ride and it felt very personal and intimate. Did you draw upon any personal experiences for this?
The primary experience that I harvested for this book is a personality quirk that I share with Bud, which is the constant vigilance we both need in order to squash our worst urges, such as those for revenge and the urge or habit to dwell on things we can’t change. For better or worse, I possess total recall of my childhood and can instantly dredge up the feelings of isolation from adolescence—useful as a writer, not so useful as a well-adjusted person.
* Bud was a complex individual, and I felt someone like him was hard to pull off. How were you able to make him who he is? Did you put yourself in his shoes to write his character?
I did put myself in his shoes, definitely. And his character grew and expanded from the original draft, written in 2001, which was an adult novel told from the perspective of a teacher who no longer appears in the story. That novel did not work for a variety of reasons, but always Bud and his friends Nikki and Reggie stayed with me. They were what I liked best from that first draft. I was lucky with Bud. He grew naturally over time and I didn’t have to struggle to figure out what he would do in a given situation. I like that he wrestles with his compulsions, just like anyone else. It makes him seem more relatable. When he does overcome his problems, you feel so relieved and happy for him!
* Let’s talk a bit about yourself this time. What are your favorite Young Adult reads?
My favorite YA authors are Chris Crutcher and Sherman Alexie. I leaned heavily upon both writers for inspiration on how to write boy characters convincingly. Crutcher’s Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes and Whale Talk are such great examples of the interior monologue of boys, and how it differs from what the boys may seem like to others—I mean, I assume it’s realistic. How would I really know, not being a boy? But it rings true to me. And that’s the hallmark of a great writer: he made me believe it. And Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian should be required reading as a perfect illustration of how sorrow and humor can peacefully coexist in a YA novel.
* What were your favorite books growing up?
I know it is clichéd for a writer to say this, but I am being honest: when I read Catcher in the Rye (J.D. Salinger) in ninth grade, it changed my life. At that age, I didn’t know there were books like that. And more importantly, from a personal standpoint, I didn’t know there were other people (even fictional characters) who had those feelings of alienation. I felt the same way at that age reading The Chocolate War (Robert Cormier), instinctively recognizing that accurate portrayal of human cruelty and conformity. Readers learn the grim lesson that if they don’t stand up to people like the character Archie, he will no doubt go on to become a CEO, senator, or worse.
* Thank you for your thoughts. Any message for the readers?
If you haven’t read The Chocolate War before you’ve turned 25, there may be something seriously wrong with you.
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