September 30, 2011

Reasons to Be Happy: Interview with Katrina Kittle (Blog Tour)

I'm pleased to welcome Katrina Kittle, author of Reasons to Be Happy, to the blog today for an interview!
"Hannah's parents are glamorous Hollywood royalty, and sometimes she feels like the ugly duckling in a family of swans. After her mother's tragic death, Hannah's grief is compounded by her desperate need to live up to her mother's image. She tries to control her weight through Bulimia, and her devastated father is too distracted to notice. The secret of her eating disorder weighs heavily on Hannah, but the new eighth grade Beverly Hills clique she's befriended only reinforces her desire to be beautiful. The only one who seems to notice, or care, that something is wrong is Jasper, the quirky mistfit." (from Goodreads)

Hi Danya, Thanks so much for hosting me on your wonderful blog. I really appreciate the opportunity!

1.) You’ve published several adult novels previously, but this is your first tween book. How has the writing and publishing experience for this one differed?

 In early drafts, I made the mistake of “watering down” and playing it too safe. A wonderful editor encouraged me to “forget your audience.” That sounds crazy, right? But she said, “I picture you picturing this room full of middle school girls. Forget them. Just write the novel you'd always write. The only difference is that all the protagonists happen to be in middle school.” This advice really spoke to me and allowed me stop trying to “filter” for the tween audience. Those attempts to filter will always show and will inevitably be insulting.

    Don't get me wrong. Of course there is a difference in presenting tough subject matter for a tween audience and an adult audience. But for me the key was my protagonist. Especially since Hannah tells the story in first-person, the only “filter” I needed was her. She tells the story with her perspective and understanding of events, not mine. That became important in revision: I would comb through looking for lines or passages that were colored by my own, more experienced viewpoint. When I found them, they had to go. Hannah could only know what she would know as an eighth grader with her own life experience so far.

     That was the biggest difference, and a good exercise for me as a writer: to really capture Hannah's voice I had to stay true to her frame of reference.

2.) On the surface, it seems like Hannah feels the need to purge just to lose weight. But we see her experiencing a kind of physical and emotional relief after her bulimic episodes that suggests there might be more at play here than simply body image. Is this typical among individuals with bulimia, or is something more going on with Hannah?

This is typical among most eating disorders. They may initially begin with a desire to lose weight, but then the need morphs into something else. Lots of people try to lose weight, after all, but the majority don't descend into the hell of an eating disorder. Often the eating disorder provides a feeling of control when the rest of life is chaotic, or it can provide release from painful emotions (Hannah likes the numbness, the “feeling nothing” after a binge) or the rush from the purge. It becomes much like an addiction—the ritual itself becomes somewhat of a comfort, but the person loses the ability to control the behavior. The best treatment of an eating disorder involves delving deep into the need, the void it fills, rather than focusing on weight alone.

3.) How much research did you have to do for Reasons to Be Happy? Did you use anything from your own or a friend’s experience?

As a middle schooler and high schooler, I studied classical ballet very seriously. Unfortunately, at the time, that world was quite the window into eating disorders! This has happily improved in recent times. The ballet world, combined with being a middle school teacher, gave me quite an education in eating disorders. I had to work with parents and therapists when students were struggling with bulimia and anorexia. I didn't rely on my own observations, though. I read and studied widely, and even worked with a therapist, scheduling an appointment for my fictional character! Dr. Diane Ackerly met with me and talked me through the therapy she'd plan for Hannah, if Hannah actually existed. Because it's fiction, Hannah moves through her recovery fairly smoothly. Hopefully the “jump in time” at the end of  the novel shows how long the recovery can be, and shows that Hannah recognizes she's not entirely out of the woods yet. As with other addictions, the patient must remain very vigilant to avoid falling back into self-destructive behavior at times of stress or sorrow.

4.) As a writer, what do you feel is the greatest challenge to accurately and genuinely conveying a character with bulimia?

I worried a bit that I had a difficult balance to maintain: enough graphic detail to show how horrifying and damaging it is, but not so much that the book reads like a “how to” manual. Again, I focused on using Hannah as my guide, my filter. If I stuck to what she was experiencing—what the disorder did for her, as well as how it betrayed her—then I felt I wouldn't go wrong. I think the greatest challenge was to show how she loses control of it, how she wants to stop but genuinely can't. That's such a misconception for people on the outside of an eating disorder. It can be so frustrating—you just want to say, “Why can't you just eat?” to an girl with anorexia, or “Why can't you just stop?” to a girl with bulimia—but it's not a question of simple willpower, and we do those struggling girls a huge disservice if we refuse to understand that. Eating disorders are just that: disorders. It's very complicated psychology.

5.) Did you have to deal with a “B-Squad” of mean girls when you were in middle school? If so, how did you handle that?

Didn't everyone have to deal with a B-Squad in middle school? I was lucky—while I knew there were girls who didn't like me, no one was overtly cruel to me. I didn't experience any of the awful bullying I became aware of while teaching middle school. I had plenty of strong interests, many of which happened outside of school, to help my life feel balanced. I think that would help a lot of girls who find themselves in Hannah's position—you've got to hang on to the activities that make you happy, give you power, where you excel or feel successful. When Hannah gives up all her activities (running, art), she loses all sense of identity. That makes it easier for her to accept the image the B-Squad presents of her.

6.) What were your top five “reasons to be happy” when you were Hannah’s age?

When I was in eighth grade, I would've listed my top 5 reasons to be happy as: 1) the sweet dusty aroma of horses in the sunshine, 2) putting my pet rabbit Stevie Bunny, (aka Stevie B, the Fun Bun of Fairborn) in my bicycle basket and taking him for a ride (he loved this) 3) mastering a tough combination in ballet class and reveling in the muffled clump sound of pointe shoes on the wooden studio floor, 4) “baking” chocolate chip cookies solely to eat the raw cookie dough, and 5) reading reading reading every chance I got! (I particularly loved mysteries).

Twitter:  @katrinakittle  (Reasons to Be Happy Blog, lists a reason to be happy everyday)
There's a hash-tag—#reasonstobehappy—for your tweeting purposes. :-)

Thanks very much, Katrina, for taking the time to give these thoughtful answers to my questions!
A bit about Katrina, from her website:
"Katrina was born in Illinois but has lived in the Dayton area since first grade, (except for her Year as a Gypsy). She attended Ohio University and was Outstanding Graduating Senior for both the English and Education departments. She taught high school English and theatre at Centerville High School for five years, and she taught middle school English and theatre at the Miami Valley School for six. She has also worked as a house cleaner, a veterinary assistant, a children’s theatre director, a costumer, and as case management support for the AIDS Resource Center (formerly AIDS Foundation Miami Valley).

Katrina is the author of Traveling Light, Two Truths and a Lie, and The Kindness of Strangers, and The Blessings of the Animals, all with HarperPerennial. The Kindness of Strangers was a BookSense pick and the winner of the 2006 Great Lakes Book Award for Fiction. Early chapters from that novel earned her grants from both the Ohio Arts Council and Culture Works. The Blessings of the Animals was an Indie Next pick (August 2010), a Midwest Connections pick (September 2010), and chosen by the Women’s National Book Association as one of ten Great Group Reads for National Book Group Month (October 2010).

She earned an MFA in Creative Writing from Spalding University in Louisville. Katrina is thrilled to announce that her first tween novel, Reasons to Be Happy, will be published by Sourcebooks Jabberwocky this October (2011)."

I recently reviewed Reasons to Be Happy here.

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