Research Advice from National Book Award Winner Kathryn Erskine

By Maryann Yin Comment

Kathryn Erskine (pictured, via), tackles tough subjects through children’s books.

Her debut novel, Quaking, responded to the Virginia Tech tragedy. Her second novel, Ibhubesi: The Lion, dealt with apartheid. Her third book, Mockingbird, featured a character with asperger’s syndrome–winning this year’s National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. We caught with her to learn about her writing process. Here are some highlights from the interview.

Q: Can you talk about the writing process you undertook for Mockingbird?
A: As in all my writing, I do a lot of research to put myself in the most authentic place. For Mockingbird, I researched how families deal with death and trauma, but focused on Asperger’s extensively, attending workshops and seminars, interviewing teachers and caretakers who interact daily with kids on the spectrum, in addition to living with a close family member who has Asperger’s.

For me, the writing just flowed. It felt very natural and, though it might be an unusual viewpoint for most people, it felt almost ordinary to me. I also had people who have experience dealing with Asperger’s read the manuscript, in part or in whole, and give me feedback. I think research and attention to detail is crucial to the story’s authenticity.

Q: You started off as a lawyer; how has your life changed since you started writing full-time?
A: Well, financially, it was a bust, but I was prepared for that! I’m fortunate to have the most amazing life — being able to do what I truly love. As a kid, I was always a daydreamer and sometimes got in trouble for that at home and at school. As a writer, that’s not only acceptable but desirable. Of course, the act of writing, and writing well, isn’t as easy as the daydreaming part, but I get to do both. And I teach and do school visits and book events which is great because I really enjoy reaching out to people of all ages about reading and writing.

Q: What similarities does your book share with Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird?
A: They share the same general theme of tolerance, of walking around in someone else’s shoes, like Atticus says, so you can really understand the person. Also, the very fresh and frank voice of Caitlin is reminiscent of Scout’s voice in To Kill a Mockingbird. Scout is a younger narrator and it’s more acceptable for her to be so blunt. Caitlin is older but doesn’t have the filters that most of us develop, even by age 10 or 11. Finally, the family situations are similar — not just the makeup of a widower with an older son and a younger daughter, but also the fact that the older brother tries to teach his younger sister how to behave properly. I didn’t do that intentionally, but as I was writing the book, I realized the similarities, and that’s when I decided to have Devon’s nickname for Caitlin be Scout, based on the book and movie. The title, Mockingbird, seemed appropriate, not just as a tribute to To Kill a Mockingbird, but also because mockingbirds imitate other birds and sounds, which is exactly what Caitlin does — imitates the words and social behaviors of others, especially her older brother.

Q: What do you hope readers take away from Mockingbird?
A: I hope readers will gain some understanding of what it’s like to live with Asperger’s, and what life might be like for anyone who sees the world a little differently. I think that helps all of us be more tolerant and understanding. And it gives us a different perspective, which is always interesting and useful. I happen to know that some kids who read Mockingbird are already standing up for kids on the autism spectrum, helping to explain their behavior to others, which is incredibly gratifying because, of course, that’s why I wrote the book.

Q: How did it feel when Mockingbird won the NBA in its category?
A: Stunning, wonderful, wow! I was so thankful and honored to be a finalist and wasn’t expecting the award. Fortunately, my wise editor told me I’d better come up with some remarks just in case, so that day I did, and somehow I remembered what to say. It was fun knowing that my sister and friends were following the tweets so they knew what was going on. I’m very grateful to the judges and everyone at the National Book Foundation.

Q: What’s next for you?
A: I’m working on a couple of middle grade novels–one historical adventure set in the Middle Ages, one humorous contemporary–as well as the adult novel I mentioned. And a couple of picture books, which I find the hardest of all. And next month, I’m going to Guam! I’ll be speaking at their chapter of the International Reading Association, and doing school visits and workshops. See what I mean about having an amazing life?

Full disclosure: This GalleyCat contributor has interned at Penguin Group (USA) in the past.