Author Interview: Caragh O’Brien

CaraghCaragh M. O’Brien is the author of BIRTHMARKED, a YA dystopian novel published by Roaring Brook Press in March, 2010. Born in St. Paul, Minnesota, Ms. O’Brien was educated at Williams College and earned her MA from Johns Hopkins University. She has recently resigned from teaching high school English in order to write full-time. For more information, visit http://www.caraghobrien.com. (source)

1.      As a high school teacher, you have had a lot of experience with the teenagers your novels are written for. Has your teaching experience at all affected the way you create characters? Do you feel that you are able to create more authentic characters due to your interactions with and knowledge of teenagers?

Let me first say thank you, Nafiza, for inviting me to answer your thoughtful questions.  It’s interesting to think my work has come to the attention of grad students in children’s literature.

Being with teenage students certainly influenced how I create YA characters.  I was inspired by how artistic, resourceful, and brave many of my students were.  I’ve tried to create characters who can live up to the real teens I’ve known in my classroom and in my family.  I’ve also seen firsthand how teens pick books for independent reading.  No topic is too complex or dark for them if it comes with a decent pace, a tight plot, and engaging characters.  Most of all, I try to remember how smart my readers are and how quickly their minds work. 

 2.      Birthmarked is focalized on Gaia whose imperfections have barred her from entering the enclave and living an easier life but these very same imperfections have allowed her to experience the love of her birth parents. Gaia’s birthmark emphasizes her physical self and juxtaposes it with her inner, mental, self. While she is not the conventional warrior heroine, Gaia does not shy away from battle. Is it important for you to create strong, though not necessarily physically so, heroines? Do you think Gaia makes an appropriate role model for the teen girls reading her?

Role model.  I find the term daunting, and Gaia is not the right model for every teen girl reading the Birthmarked series, particularly those readers who have different values.  Gaia always does what she thinks is right, but her choices result in suffering for herself and others, and her choices would be a mistake for some readers.  What’s valuable, I think, is that people who are drawn to the series are curious to see what a girl like Gaia would do in a complex moral situation, and that lets them ponder what they might do, too.  As for strength, yes, it was a pleasure to work with a character who had inner strength and beauty.  Gaia helped me become more courageous myself, and I think she makes a flawed but intriguing leader.

 3.      Dystopian fiction is extremely popular among teenaged readers. What aspect of the genre do you attribute to its popularity? What do you think is the function of dystopian fiction? 

I believe many current YA writers have been disturbed by a sense that the common person has no control of politics, the economy, or the environment, and we’re doubtful that our leaders will be able to turn the boat around, so to speak.  I cannot give in to this underlying sense of disaster, so I write books that grapple with the questions and play out my hope that we’ll find solutions and be kind to each other in the process.  I suspect dystopian novels are popular because readers are also uneasy about the future, but also, at a more basic level, the dystopian novels are good stories.  The evil in them is so pervasive and so powerful that it allows for meaningful conflict and character growth.  

 4.      The trajectory of children’s literature over the past forty years reveals that contemporary children’s literature narrate stories much darker in theme and content than children’s novels released twenty years ago. As an author of children’s literature, and keeping in mind that almost all of children’s literature is produced by adults, do you think the change is brought about by the demands of the readers for darker and more serious children’s literature or simply, what adults feel like writing in reaction to the world with its wars, failing economy etc.? 

I believe there might be a difference between what you’re calling children’s literature and what I’m considering when I think about what kids read.  Perhaps, too, you’re referring to a spell of lighter books in the nineties with which I’m not familiar.  From my perspective, teens have always devoured whatever they could get their hands on, and in the past, that included The Lord of the Rings, Lord of the Flies, Go Ask Alice, and Flowers in the Attic, to name a few from the dark end of the spectrum.  I would be hard pressed to say today’s works are darker or more serious.  Rather, it seems that publishers have found a clearer way to market to YA readers (of all ages) and deliver more books to meet the current demand.  As a result, we have a crop of novels now that deal with addiction, abuse, violence, and intolerance, but the YA books, unlike their adult counterparts, tend to supply a glimmer of hope at the end of them.  Teens have more works to choose from, and many of them, like many adults, are choosing to read YA fiction.

5.      Are there any trends in children’s literature that you have a fondness for? Any that you do not like? Have you ever had to defend children’s literature from being maligned by people who think it is not sophisticated enough to belong to the literary realm?

I don’t defend children’s literature.  Occasionally, I’ll have an adult reader who tells me he’s surprised he likes my books, but such a reader always means it nicely.  The trend I like is that so many teens are reading and talking about books and writing their own.  They’re having this explosion of creativity and empowerment, and the ones who connect to other readers and writers online see possibilities for their own expression, like at figment.com or through self-publishing.  That’s very cool.  I also like how the Internet makes it easy for readers to connect directly to their favorite authors.  We’re part of a community.  That doesn’t exactly answer your question about a trend in children’s literature, but kids lit now is not a tidy list of books.  It’s stories and people interacting.

6.      On your website, it states that one of your favourite words is “syzgy.” Is it the poetic definition of the word that appeals to you or the mathematic or is it the syzgy in astronomy? (There is even an X-Files episode by the title.) As an author, how would you explain your relationship to language?

Staring at the letters of “syzygy” makes a bit of a tongue twister for me, and I also like picturing the lining up of the sun, moon and earth for an eclipse: these huge spheres with all that black distance between them, perfectly poised on one thread of a line.  Language, for me, is a tool.  When I’m working, I’m most often trying to say something as clearly as possible, so that the words vanish and the story is revealed.