I, a lady of fine literary stock, have had a sometimes contentious relationship with Genre over the years, and only as I’ve been listening to some of Iambik’s offerings have I discovered the hidden pleasures of titles whose shelf classification would have turned me off. (This is not something I confess happily!)
Even still, I have to remind myself of this whenever someone recommends to me a Regency romance or a sensationalistic family melodrama, or some days, anything that doesn’t have to do with the upcoming zombie apocalypse. In the first of our two-part interview with author Mary Anderson, she and You Can’t Get There From Here narrator Elizabeth Klett discuss the impact of theatre on writing, as well as what makes a Young Adult novel.
Elizabeth Klett: Mary, I really enjoyed narrating You Can’t Get There From Here. It’s a book I wish I had read as a teenager, since I would have related to it enormously. Like Reggie, I grew up in the suburbs (albeit New Jersey instead of Westchester) and wanted desperately to be an actress in NYC. Do you have a background in theatre at all? Or are you a particular fan of New York theatre? Are there playwrights (past or present), particular theatre companies or performers/directors whose work you admire?
Mary Anderson: Yes, I do have a brief background in the theatre.
Although I’ve lived in Manhattan all my life I never saw any plays when I was a child. My brother Andy and his wife were original members of the Actor’s Studio and attended during the well-known days when Marilyn Monroe and other famous folk were there, helping to make “The Method” a household phrase. Before that, Andy had moved into an acting school which is very similar to the one depicted in my book. That’s when Andy took me to see my first Broadway play… Richard II with a Royal Shakespeare Theatre cast. I was 17.
Up until then I’d wanted to be a writer but after that, my allegiance suddenly switched and I wanted to act on the stage. So at 18, I also moved into the acting school. Many of the incidents described in the book are based on my experiences there. In fact, it is the only book I’ve written which is essentially based on my personal life. I lived at the school for six months (the name of which I’ve changed in my story). In the book, Reggie’s brother Jamie is the one who points out the the potential dangers of the problems she encounters there, but in real life, Andy was sharing some of the very same problems. After performing in many of the original, weird avant garde plays, I felt I wanted to rewrite them all!
So I soon realized my original love for writing was far stronger than acting, although there are many similarities. The famous book Building a Character by Stanislavski, a valuable primer for young actors, is also a wonderful primer for fledgling writers. The steps required to bring a character to life on stage are the same ones a writer should learn to breathe life into a character on paper. Getting into the souls of people, seeing through their eyes, knowing what they feel, what motivates them, is also the job of a writer. So acting experience can be invaluable. Since those early days,I’ve been an avid theatergoer. My favorite playwrights? Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, of course for passion and understanding of the human spirit. On the lighter side, there’s Neil Simon (open a book of his plays to any page and there will be a laugh awaiting you). For those two things combined, I enjoy Alan Ayckbourn. My favorite plays? CYRANO de BERGERAC, THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST, OUR TOWN, HARVEY and NORMAN CONQUESTS — for a variety of different reasons. Performers? Too many to mention. In the past, I loved watching Colleen Dewhurst and Jason Robards on stage. At present, Ian McKellan, Mark Rylance, Liev Schreiber. Oh, and seeing Angela Lansbury on stage doing anything is a joy to behold. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Young performers get better and far more versatile every generation despite the fact that acting on stage is what one famous actor referred to as “writing in snow”. Each performance is a unique experience never to be repeated because each audience brings something new and different to the occasion. That’s what truly makes it “living theatre”.
EK: I was very impressed by the psychological dimensions of Reggie’s experience with Adam’s “method.” Could you talk about how you composed this part of the book, what might have influenced you, and if you did any research on this kind of “psychodrama”?
MA: Thanks for referring to the psychological dimensions of Reggie’s experience as she struggles through her acting sessions with Adam. Your narration captured Reggie’s frustration and confusion wonderfully. I didn’t research “psychodrama” per se because as mentioned, I based this on my actual experiences. The person who ran the Adam Bentley Studio in my book was based on my real teacher who used his own questionable method which turned out to be so damaging to his students’ psyches. Just as Reggie had to struggle to understand her emotions and frustrations, I did as well, before finally discovering the extent of mental manipulation and misuse of trust going on within his private sessions and acting classes. Personally, I could never decide whether the character of Adam (and the real man) knew how much potential psychological damage he was doing to his students. Was this his personal ego trip or his honest desire to get to the depth of understanding of genuine emotion? Was he using his students or trying to help them? Who is the ultimate judge of that? Hopefully, the readers can draw their own conclusions.
The important thing is that in the final analysis, Reggie decides to take total control of her choices and actions. She becomes quite a different person at the end of the book than she was at the opening. Elizabeth, you did such a great job of bringing this aspect of Reggie’s character to life. “Growing up” is a journey we all take in life and if we’re lucky, we begin it when we’re as young as Reggie because one way or another, it can last a lifetime.
EK: What do you think defines “young adult literature” as a genre? Although You Can’t Get There From Here is “YA” in the sense that it focuses on an adolescent’s encounters with the wider world and her attempts to define herself in relation to it, I think it’s easily read and enjoyed by adults (as is a lot of contemporary YA literature). I’m curious as to how you see YA literature as distinct (or perhaps not distinct) from adult literature.
MA: I feel YA literature is totally the same as adult literature in every and all ways except one. In a YA book, the protagonist is generally a teenager so the book engages the reader with problems faced by this particular age group. In every other way, there’s no difference. Remove that YA label from a book and potential readers wouldn’t make any distinction. Is The Catcher in the Rye a YA book? Yes and no. Is Jane Eyre adult literature? Yes and no. Is Alice in Wonderland just for children? No!
I teach children’s book writing which encompasses everything from picture books through young adult literature and always tell my students that if a picture book can’t engage an adult as well as a young child, it isn’t a successful book. A good story should hold any reader’s interest. There are some picture books I’ve read aloud to students endless times yet they never cease to make me laugh/cry/ feel renewed or provoke a thoughtful conversation. Of course, I ‘d say the same for all middle readers as well as YA.
Every good book should do this, no matter what age label is placed on its jacket.
Stay tuned for Monday, when Mary gets serious with Step on a Crack narrator Xe Sands. In the meantime, Mary Anderson’s You Can’t Get There from Here, is available from Iambik as an audiobook for only $6.99, and is loved no matter how young of an adult you think you are.
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