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1. What made you choose to write a book with such dark themes for a young audience?
I am never aware of “choosing” to write anything! I only write a novel when I feel absolutely compelled to do so because something insists it needs further exploration. An idea or an image or little bit of narrative nags away at me for a long time and that my curiosity about it keeps growing rather than dissipating. Ultimately, the only way I can assuage that curiosity is to give in to it. I write the story to find out what it is that is compelling me.
The particular book was a debt I paid to a young woman I worked with when I was in university (there is a note to that effect at the back of the book). I thought about her off and on for many years. Then, one day, thirty years later, a voice started talking in my head and it was Sophie, her younger sister. I was thrilled when I realized that I had found a way into the story that wouldn’t require me to appropriate the girl’s situation by pretending that I knew what it felt like to be paralyzed. I wrote the first draft of the first chapter that night. A couple more chapters of Sophie followed and then I knew I was going to be writing half the book in her voice and half the book in Libbie’s voice.
By the way, I don’t see the book as having “dark themes”. Illness and death are part of every single person’s life, so it is hard to call them “dark” rather than simply realistic. Anyway, if you asked me what I thought the theme of the book was, I would say it is that creativity gives you freedom. Hence the title: The Discovery of Flight.
Finally, as to audience: publishers decided that it was a YA book! To me, it was just a book.
2. Was writing from the point of view of such a young narrator a challenge for getting critical reviews (young/ weak writing style)
Oh heavens, if I worried about the critics I would never write anything at all! I just tried to enter the minds of younger people (I was one once, you know, and also I have two kids). I don’t see the writing style as “weak”; sorry that you do.
3.Why did you choose to have the children follow so closely with their parents’ interests? (Elizabeth and her dad both loving birds, Sophie and her mom loving the outdoors, Malcolm and his father both being musicians).
This is my experience of the world. At least until they leave home, most kids tend to enjoy at least some of the activities their parents introduce them to. They reject others – for example, the mother is a mathematician and Sophie hates math – and also discover their own special talents – for example, neither of the parents loves writing but both girls do; neither of the parents make art but Sophie loves art, etcetera.
4.Is cerebral palsy something that has affected you personally or someone around you? Why did you choose that to write about it specifically?
There is a note at the back of the book that answers this question. I volunteered at a home for disabled youth when I was in university and encountered the original of Libby there. She was stuck in a wheelchair all day long, only able to observe other people engaging in activities. Nobody talked to her or interacted with her. She had beautifully intelligent eyes but no way of communicating. Now we have wonderful technology that allows shut-in paraplegics to communicate by controlling a keyboard with their eyes, so this gave me a way to give her the agency she didn’t have in real life.
5.The book was also heavily religious, is this to reflect your own beliefs? Or rather to question how with religion and god, do people so underserving get punished (as Sophie said with Libby and her disease being bad luck more than anything)?
The latter. I believe that all the religions in the world evolved for exactly the same reason – to explain to people why there is so much injustice and suffering in the world and to give them some kind of rationale according to which they can endure it. You can’t meet a girl who has been paralyzed since birth and not think about these things. And if the girl is your sister, you will be more preoccupied than most with how unfair her life is.
This family is Jewish because I am Jewish and that is the religion that I know most about. But the main issue was trying to understand the roles of fate or luck in people’s lives, and to dismiss facile explanations for why some people are healthy and others are not.
6.Did you set out in writing the book to have Sophie question her religion so much or is that something that developed through the writing?
That just happened. But Sophie’s voice, from the first minute I heard it, was very snarky, so once religion entered the book, there was no doubt that her attitude would be irreverent.
7.Did you intend the book for the younger audience through the writing and characters or for an older audience with the heavier themes of religion and death?
I never thought about the audience while I was writing. I only thought about being true to the characters and their stories.
8.Was it challenging to connect to the young characters in your writing?
Not at all. The greatest pleasure of writing is the opportunity to be somebody other than oneself. In this book I even got to be a hawk!
9.What did you edit out of this book? Did you feel you lost some pieces of the characters that you loved?
The book changed so much over the ten years I was writing it! There was one draft which was sci-fi, where Libby was a flying alien princess whose spirit had been sent to Earth to be preserved during a war on her planet … Then the movie Avatar came out, and I scrapped that version.
Later I abandoned the book altogether after my daughter became close with a girl whose big sister was paralyzed, because I thought that family would think I was ripping them off. Three years later, when I told them about it, they enthusiastically encouraged me to write the story saying “nobody writes about our experience.” It was lucky I had that time out, because then I learned about assistive technology, so the bits that had been a fantasy in Libby’s head turned into a book that she was writing, and their style totally changed.
10.Did you find yourself trying to hide secrets in this book for readers to find or were you trying to keep the messages very straightforward in order for them to be further understood?
There are no “messages” or “secrets”, hidden or otherwise, in any of my writing. Why? Because any message that literature could put across would be so vague and general as to be useless. “War is Hell”; “Life is complicated”; “Love one another or die”. What use are “messages” like that?
How literature teaches us about life is not by sending out “messages.” Literature teaches us by giving us the space and time to imaginatively inhabit another person’s life and empathize with his or her situation. In daily life we never get to enter anybody’s mind but our own, but literature gives us the opportunity to be lots of other people. This is the moral dimension to literature: that it insists that we transcend our egos and be empathetic.
When you write, you are creating a world for the reader to enter, building scenes for that reader to experience. Each individual work may grapple with certain themes that become a moral focus for the characters and therefore for readers as well, but this is not the same as being didactic and having a “message.”
11.Did you have a specific motivation in choosing birds for Libby to love and associate herself with?
Absolutely. She can’t move at all! So if she is going to dream of moving, why not dream big?
12.What was your motivation in having Libby create a distance between herself and Sophie when she got sicker and was writing her book? Was it a rush with her knowing her time was up or was it an issue of energy? Was it included in order to make the loss harder for Sophie? For the reader?
It just seemed natural that if Libby could feel herself getting sicker and sicker, she would want to conserve all her energy to finish writing her book. I wasn’t thinking about how that would affect anybody else, though obviously when I wrote the Sophie bits, and got into Sophie’s head, Sophie did land up feeling rejected and so forth. But it wasn’t any kind of “strategy” to make distance or affect the reader or anything like that.
13.What was the inspiration for the invaders? Were they meant to represent Libby’s disease? Why did you choose their embodiment of fire? (the red coloured feathers, black soot, etc.)
The invaders were just meant to be stereotypical nasties; Sophie and Libby have read lots of fantasy literature together and Sophie is always playing “Settlers of Catan”, so I set Libby’s story in a kind of pre-industrial medieval world, with peasants in small villages and robbers riding through on horseback burning stuff down. Fire was important because it is something that both animals and people fear, so it was a way to link the hawk and the girl from the start through a traumatic event that would engage their minds and their emotions deeply.
Though at the end Sophie does seem to see the Invaders as a metaphor for Libby’s illness (because her conclusion shows Aya being killed by the Giant) Libby never did; she was too deeply immersed in imagining the world she had invented.