Sharon Harrigan Interviews Emma Rathbone
Emma Rathbone’s debut novel, The Patterns of Paper Monsters, was published by Little, Brown and Company on August 9, 2010. The book has been called “irreverant, perceptive, and achingly funny,” “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest meets Napoleon Dynamite,” and “one of the best books of the year.” It’s a hilarious and touching coming of age novel in the outrageous and inventive voice of Jacob Higgins, a seventeen-year-old boy at a juvenile detention center.
She was a Henry Hoyns Fellow at the University of Virginia, where she received her MFA. She has taught fiction at the UVA Extension Program and WriterHouse in Charlottesville, Virginia, where she lives.
Sharon Harrigan: I thought you did an impressive job getting readers (even hardened readers like me who are parents) to empathize with a seventeen-year-old boy with anti-social and criminal behavior. When I started reading, I was intrigued to see if you could pull it off through the whole book, and you do. Not only did I not get annoyed with Jacob, I wanted him for a friend. How did you do that?
Emma Rathbone: That’s a really wonderful question, and I’m so glad you felt that you could relate to him, while seeing him for who he was. I think that it’s hard not to empathize with first person characters, especially if they’re written as honestly and unpretentiously as they can be. Because Jacob was writing in a journal, he could share his deepest thoughts. He didn’t need to hide anything. It’s easy to relate to people when they’re being honest and when they’re being as specific as they can be about their own feelings.
SH: He’s also so self-aware you have to love him for his insight.
ER: He sees a lot, and he’s sensitive to how people react to him. He can see the tapestry of what’s going on in a given situation, so I think that probably contributes to readers’ empathy. And even though he is angry, rude, and grumpy, it’s evident that he’s not a cruel person. David [another boy at the juvenile detention center], on the other hand, is cruel, and putting him in the book helped me show the contrast between David and Jacob.
SH: How did you figure out Jacob’s voice, which is the driving force of the novel?
ER: His voice was the jumping off point for me. I found it really easy, maybe because I grew up with two brothers and have good male friendships. I also don’t think that girls and boys think that differently.
SH: It’s not just that he is a boy. It’s that you got the vernacular. Instead of saying: “Who’s that?” you say “Fuck’s that guy?” You got the music of his language. He has a street voice, but he also talks in colorful and surprising metaphors, and you make them sound authentic.
ER: I think I just hit a vein. I got lucky in that way. There were other things that were really hard for me, like how to move the story forward and how to describe the juvenile detention center.
SH: You did research for that?
ER: I went to a youth corrections facility and walked around with one of the people who worked there, and that was really helpful. I had a lot of questions about the procedures and routines, what everything looked like, what they ate, what they did from hour to hour. My mom had a friend who worked in the court system, and she read some of the manuscript and gave me tips. I think it’s accurate enough. It is fiction, and it’s filtered through Jacob’s brain, which isn’t supposed to be objective.
SH: Another way Jacob won me over was through his humor.
ER: The humor is one of the hooks that kept me in the book. I didn’t sit down thinking I was going to write a funny book. But copying the way Jacob spoke and thought, it ended up being that way. Jacob isn’t trying to be funny; he’s just observing the world in his prickly, sarcastic, Jacob-specific way. And using his voice allowed me to be a lot more inventive and gave me the energy to sustain the writing.
SH: Part of the humor comes from Jacob’s exaggeration, like when he says that his therapist’s whole office is made of denim. His descriptions and lists are hilarious.
ER: That was one of the cool things about having him write in a journal. You can list things. You can fully describe something. You can take the twists and turns a teenager’s mind would have when writing in a journal. That format was inspiring. It allowed me to be inventive and imaginative.
SH: Is your next book in the first person?
ER: So far it’s third person, three characters. I’m excited about trying something different. I’m enjoying the ability to get both in and out of my characters’ heads.
SH: What’s your writing process?
ER: I wrote the novel piecemeal. I did outlines as I went, but they were constantly changing. I was always thinking about a mile ahead, not looking over the whole landscape. I write in the morning or afternoon. After about six o’clock my brain is not good for anything creative. I try to write every day, because I like the momentum I get from building on what I had the day before.
SH: At the end of the novel, you recommend some books that you read as a teenager and that Jacob might have read. What about adult books that influenced you?
ER: Lately I’ve been reading a lot of Edith Wharton. It’s so delicious and so good, and I was totally surprised. She’s so deft, so great at nailing social interactions. That’s something I’ve been really inspired by lately.
SH: Not the same social world as in Patterns.
ER: No! I’m always afraid of reading something similar to what I’m writing because I don’t want to accidentally start copying.
SH: Who do you imagine as the audience for Patterns?
ER: I was writing for my peer group. I would read it to friends on the phone and if they thought it was good and laughed, I figured I got it right. But I also hope that it appeals to a much wider age range. I’m going to be giving readings at some high schools, so I’m looking forward to seeing how teenagers respond to the book.
SH: I love the way you describe the setting, almost as if it’s a character: “It’s not the northern Virginia of freshly painted highways and wincingly bright glass buildings. It’s not the northern Virginia of tailored town centers with marble walkways and aggressive-looking plants. It’s a land of deserted concrete plazas, slumping strip malls, and schools with losing sports teams.” You’ve lived in a lot of places, from South Africa to Texas. Why did you choose Northern Virginia as the setting for Patterns?
ER: We moved to Northern Virginia when I was twelve, so it was the thing I knew. But then I found that I had a lot to say about it, that Northern Virginia is a very specific, bizarre landscape that’s different from a lot of places.
SH: The setting allows you to talk about class, especially when you introduce David who, unlike the other inmates, is from the wealthy part, not the rural part, of Northern Virginia.
ER: The contrast between the classes in that part of the country is pretty noticeable. When I was writing the book, Fairfax County, in Northern Virginia, was designated the wealthiest county in the whole United States. That’s very weird, because that’s where my family lives, and they are not super rich. But when you drive around in Fairfax, you see huge gated communities with gigantic houses, which are weirdly close together. They have enormous security systems and no one’s ever outside. Then you drive not far away, into some parts of Springfield, and it’s a lot more depressed. Loudoun County, also in Northern Virginia, is the richest this year, and I think it goes back and forth between Fairfax and Loudoun. I thought it was so interesting that you have ornate castles that have sprouted up and then the county still has some more rural, poorer parts to it.
SH: David, the one from the wealthy area, turns out to be the most dangerous.
ER: I’ve always been interested in white male rage that keeps popping up in our country, like Columbine and Virginia Tech, and other random shootings. A lot of the times these people are not poor, they’re people like David.
SH: How long did you work on Patterns?
ER: About three years.
SH: Did the novel change much from your original conception?
ER: It went through a lot of changes. One of the first drafts was a series of columns that Jacob wrote for the juvenile detention center’s newsletter. That was a fun gimmick and it’s what got me into the voice, but once I tried to make it a larger piece it was not sustainable because I couldn’t talk about what he was thinking. Then I wrote another draft, in which I decided to have him blogging from the juvenile detention computer room, and that was a left turn into a really bad idea. I started all over, and from the ground up, I wrote it as journal entries. Even then I had to be careful that readers didn’t get too distracted by the fact that he’s writing it in a journal to actually experience the story. I had to find the frame then make it seem to disappear. There were definitely several drafts and incarnations. And there were times when I thought I was never going to finish it.
SH: What does the title mean?
ER: I wanted the title to reference the format, that Jacob is writing in a notebook. Also, one of the questions of the book is whether people can break out of their previous ways of being, their patterns.
SH: At your last reading, you had everyone in stitches and tears. How’s life after publication?
ER: The reception has been wonderful. The thing I’m most proud of is that people have voluntarily finished the book. I’ve had people whom I only vaguely know come up to me and say they loved it, they read it in two days, or they stayed up all night to finish it. They didn’t have to say that. It’s gotten some press; I’m still waiting for it to all unfold. The launch date was August, and I think that’s kind of a slow time. You’ll have to ask me a year from now how the book did. But it feels great to see it in a bookstore. I saw it on the shelf when I went to get something else, and I felt happy, relieved, and excited, though it’s a roller coaster ride waiting for the reviews to roll in. I did a reading in Richmond and that was really fun. I read in Charlottesville, and I’m reading in Northern Virginia and New York City. I just got engaged, and I’m lucky to have a partner who is not involved in the publishing world at all. It’s nice to have Adam say, “Calm down, relax. There’s a whole world out there besides this book.”
SH: Do you also write short stories?
ER: I’m not a natural short story writer; I keep gravitating toward the novel. It’s rare that I think: That’s a great idea for a short story. Which kind of sucks, because I love short stories, and I love the idea of writing and getting it out into the world quickly, but I can’t seem to work that way.
SH: Tell me your journey to publication.
ER: It didn’t take that long. I went the normal route of looking for an agent and having the agent shop the manuscript around. I wrote a query letter. I found an agent who agreed to represent the novel, and about two and a half weeks later we had an offer. My agent didn’t ask for any edits, but my editor did. I feel lucky that the first novel I wrote got published. I did think about the novel for a really long time. I started it in 2003, so the idea, the whole world of it had been percolating for years and years. It’s not like I just sat down and said, I’m going to write a novel and then did it.
SH: Do you have any tips for other writers?
ER: When you’re feeling really frustrated, like you have no idea what to do with something, put it down for a while. That’s one of the hardest things, but one of the best things you can do. Time can be such a tonic to your brain. So many times when I’ve been stymied, I waited a week or a month or longer and then knew exactly how to get out of my problem.
SH: What are you working on now?
ER: I’m working on a new novel. I’m really excited about it. I’ve told myself it’s OK if for a month if I’m distracted by the first book and can’t write, but now I’m starting to feel that yearning again to sink my teeth back into it. I’m hesitant to say too much about it, because I started a novel about a year ago and worked on it for about six months and abandoned it, so this is the thing I started after that.
Sharon Harrigan has fiction published or forthcoming in Slice Magazine and Pearl Magazine. She is a features writer and columnist for Albemarle Family Magazine and is getting her MFA in fiction from Pacific University. She lives in Charlottesville, Virginia.