Getting to Know Best-Selling Author Jacquelyn Mitchard
By Joan Brunwasser
I grew up with the story of Our Lady of Angels fire all around me. It was more than an event, it was a sunset on the bright stable way people saw their world. That fire blew that neighborhood up. There was no one who didn’t know someone who’d died in OLA. I was struck by how surviving an event could be just as paralyzing as dying in that event — that the survivors were changed forever.
Trial by Fire, The Backstory of Second Nature
me, literally, today by Chris Cohen [photo credit]
My guest today is best-selling author, Jacquelyn Mitchard. Her first novel, The Deep End of the Ocean, written in 1999, was also the first selection of the Oprah Winfrey’s Book Club, making for a stellar career kickstart. Welcome to OpEdNews, Jackie.
hardcover book jacket by Jacquelyn Mitchard website
JB: I just finished reading Second Nature, a novel based on the 1958 fire that killed 92 children in their Chicago school. What made you choose this as the backdrop for your book?
JM: That happened when I was a baby, and I grew up with the story of Our Lady of Angels all around me. It was more than an event, it was a sunset on the bright stable way people saw their world. That had been a close-knit, West Side neighborhood, filled with brothers who married sisters and cousins and grew up down the block from each other, who played cards and had dinner together on Sunday nights.
That fire blew that neighborhood up. People didn’t just move to the suburbs; they moved to Miami, to California, as far as they could from that school, because there was no one who didn’t know someone who’d died in OLA. A friend’s older brother died in that fire, and his presence in that house was as real as any of the living children, even those who never knew him. I was struck by how surviving an event could be just as paralyzing as dying in that event — that the survivors were changed forever.
JB: I grew up in Chicago, too, and that fire has haunted us ever since. You chose Sicily Coyne as your central character. At the time of the fire, she’s a 13-year old student. Why a girl and why that particular age, Jackie?
JM: Twelve or thirteen is the time in a girl’s life when she’s at the end of childhood and becoming aware of herself as a woman. It’s when her awareness of her body image is at its most self-critical. She’s not a little kid. Little kids adapt to injury; their awareness of themselves in a wheelchair or having lost hair to chemotherapy or sustaining a wound, those are real, but, if the kid has a reasonably supportive family, those things are tempered by the resilience of being accepted, at the deep heart’s core, for who you are rather than how you look. Sicily had this sense of herself, too.
So in a very real way, she became trapped in a damaged face — that was all anyone could see — and she was screaming, “Hey, look! I’m still me!” The burn itself was a source of both bitterness and toughness, but her sarcasm and bitterness came from being seen, yet unseen. And I’m just very attracted to understanding the psychology of that age of person, which is why the imprint for which I’m the editor -in- chief is a Young Adult imprint. It’s the age of being epic, living a week in an hour, a year in a month, a lifetime in a year.
JB: And, boy, has a lot gone on for Sicily. She’s a woman/child who had to grow up fast because of that fire and losing both of her parents. Yet, she’s also very unsophisticated and sheltered in many ways. It’s an odd combination. Can you talk about this?
JM: Like many “sick kids,” Sicily has been both coddled and deprived. Life itself has robbed her of so much; and yet she’s given everything but what she can’t have — the chance to be normal. She has every material advantage and she’s protected from the realities of paying bills and jockeying for social position.
People may whisper about her, but there’s a kind of holy deference for a kid who’s part of a local legend: her prerogatives are in line with her losses. And the aunt who adopted her, Marie, is torn between those two poles, as well — deeply and nearly neurotically protective of Sicily, but also determined to push her into as normal a life as is possible, for Sicily to be “not as good as, but better than.” The reason that some readers found Sicily annoying is that she really never grew up: she’s stopped, an accomplished adolescent but in her reactions and her emotional landscape, still a middle-school kid.
JB: Interesting. I didn’t find Sicily annoying. I found her situation incredibly and painfully poignant. I admit I’d never really thought about what surviving such an experience might be like before.
JM: Many people thought of her as “spoiled” and “shallow.” Many other readers found her affecting and real. I think it often depends on what you’ve been through in life, and maybe what you’ve been through in books, what you tend to gravitate toward. Sometimes, people just really don’t have a big tolerance for real life in fiction, even though they say they want characters who are “real.” Like take Kinsey Mulhone, in Sue Grafton’s wonderful mysteries. She’s tough, thin, single, smart, and she never gets past the age of about 36. She goes down easy, like a cool drink on a hot day, so the story can gallop off everywhere.
when my last child was born, six years ago by Arty Hitchcock [photo credit]
JB: The Cappadora family was featured in your first book, The Deep End of the Ocean and you bring them back in Second Nature. In fact, we see that Beth Cappadora becomes surprisingly close to Sicily. Why does using utilizing the reappearance of characters from one book to another seem like a good idea?
JM: With continuing characters, you have to be careful about flaws because unless it’s a very literary novel or the flaws are the point (I’m thinking here of John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany), you have to convince readers to embrace a character who has flaws, because there’s a belief about how you’d react in the same circumstances and that way is usually very positive or even heroic — and that’s exactly how I am too!
You try to think you’d be the best at this. But the psychology in this book is based on real accounts of people who are disfigured, and it affects people in ways that aren’t always attractive. It’s the same way as dealing with depression in another person. Depressed people are sad, and it’s awful that they’re sad, but they sometimes behave in ways that are deeply provocative or upsetting to other people. They’re not fun to be with.
Personally, I thought Sicily was just what she should be, smart and strong but also naive and bewildered, and really able to put up a good front by talking tough. As for the Cappadoras, it wasn’t a marketing decision. So many people, thousands of people, have asked me, what happened to [Beth’s son] Vincent? And I knew that Vincent would not have grown up to be a perfect human being, either, not given his temperament.
I thought, what if Sicily — with this new face which actually would be aesthetically very good, given that this book is set about ten or fifteen years in the future, when face transplants won’t be so uncommon — were to run toward love and fall for just the most attractive, worst possible guy, in the encyclopedia entry about commitment issues for reasons of his own past?
But it was natural, because she already loved Beth, who had documented this whole process [face transplant] because of Sicily’s past, because of the fire and its being the stuff of legend on the West Side of Chicago. Why think up new people to populate a place you already know, if the people who already know are already there, frozen in time, like the game Statue Maker? They were perfectly interesting people.
with son Rob, 1999 by Jill Krementz [photo credit]
JB: Agreed. All that medical information, both about burns and recovery and the whole field of organ transplants, was fascinating. And I found the most compelling images to be Sicily’s prosthetic nose, on the one hand, and her inability to eat properly, a routine task we do daily and take completely for granted. Was it hard to find the right balance between giving enough grisly details to make it real without grossing readers out or turning them off?
JM: Readers still found it grisly! I did an insane amount of research on burn injury and musculature and anatomy. For me, the prosthetic nose was one of the tenderest details, the way she had to take care of it because it was, you know, the Cadillac of prosthetic noses. It was just fascinating, like the way a prosthetic nose, for example, attaches (with magnets!).
I majored in Biology, and, I have nine children, thus, you know, nothing grosses me out. I’d have gone on forever. But yes, had to back off on some of the detail. Burn victims go through an incomprehensible hell — so, by comparison, the face transplant, even though it required, well, removing Sicily’s existing face, was relatively simple compared with the fifteen surgeries she’d had to try to mend the tissue on her face. In real life, that would have been more like thirty surgeries, each more appalling than the last.
JB: Magnets? Yikes! What a concept. The book is very steeped in firefighter culture and lore. It sounded very authentic to me. How did you accomplish that? Did you get to ride around with them?
JM: Oh, yes I did! I spent two weeks with the gallant ladies and gents at Madison Wisconsin’s Southside Station 6, and they taught me with generosity and detail. Firefighters in a number of cities surrounding Chicago also answered my questions. You know, there is no better job on earth than theirs. Indeed, they could get badly hurt; they could die. But who can do what they do, deny instinct for the greater good, as they do?
Despite danger, there is such intense training, minute attention to safety and detail, that tragedies such as what happened to Jamie Coyne are almost unknown. But authentically, if they happen, they happen in those kind of gruesome old buildings where fire can’t escape. My pal Eric used to be an English teacher before he became a firefighter, and he told me, “You know, you admire police. They lay it right down every day. But when the police show up, people grumble. When we show up, everybody cheers. Here come the Marines!” They’re just so cool. I guess they know it, but can you blame them?
my favorite, my ‘Wuthering Heights’ picture by James Schnepf [photo credit]
JB: Lucky you! Thank you, Jackie. Let’s take a break here.
When we return for the conclusion of our interview, we’ll talk about the time she called Buckingham Palace, how she juggles her writing and her family of nine children, and her quirky ambition now that she’s no longer afraid of heights. Please join us!
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Joan Brunwasser is a co-founder of Citizens for Election Reform (CER) which since 2005 existed for the sole purpose of raising the public awareness of the critical need for election reform. Our goal: to restore fair, accurate, transparent, secure elections where votes are cast in private and counted in public. Because the problems with electronic (computerized) voting systems include a lack of transparency and the ability to accurately check and authenticate the vote cast, these systems can alter election results and therefore are simply antithetical to democratic principles and functioning. Since the pivotal 2004 Presidential election, Joan has come to see the connection between a broken election system, a dysfunctional, corporate media and a total lack of campaign finance reform. This has led her to enlarge the parameters of her writing to include interviews with whistle-blowers and articulate others who give a view quite different from that presented by the mainstream media. She also turns the spotlight on activists and ordinary folks who are striving to make a difference, to clean up and improve their corner of the world. By focusing on these intrepid individuals, she gives hope and inspiration to those who might otherwise be turned off and alienated. She also interviews people in the arts in all their variations – authors, journalists, filmmakers, actors, playwrights, and artists. Why? The bottom line: without art and inspiration, we lose one of the best parts of ourselves. And we’re all in this together. If Joan can keep even one of her fellow citizens going another day, she considers her job well done. Joan has been Election Integrity Editor for OpEdNews since December, 2005. Her articles also appear at Huffington Post, RepublicMedia.TV and Scoop.co.nz.