TANYA EGAN GIBSON TALKS TO SHAREN FORD
Tanya Egan Gibson is another of the wonderful writer friends I’ve made through Backspace, the online writers’ community. I was intrigued by both the title of Tanya’s debut novel, How to Buy a Love of Reading, and its premise: Hoping to fix their high school daughter’s “intellectual impoverishment”, wealthy parents decide to commission a novel to be written especially for her.
How to Buy a Love of Reading has been described as “a wholly original and wonderful first novel about growing up in the strangest of worlds, and the incredible power of storytelling to make that world livable”, and “a novel for those of us who love both Buffy the Vampire Slayer and F. Scott Fitzgerald”.
Certain you’d be intrigued, too, I was delighted when Tanya agreed to answer my questions about her writing.
SHAREN FORD: How to Buy a Love of Reading explores the myriad ways in which reading can affect our lives. Unlike your protagonist, Carley, a girl who “never met a book she liked”, most writers start out as avid readers. What was your own journey from reader to writer?
TANYA EGAN GIBSON: I became a writer because I love stories so much that reading them wasn’t enough. You know when you read something and you can’t bear that it has ended? You read it again or daydream about it. (Though I’ve never written fan fiction, I assume that the “I don’t want it to be over ” feeling is the impetus for writing fanfic?) For me, writing was this kind of extension of reading–a way to get even closer to a text than reading took me.
FORD: In what ways did your experience as a high school English teacher find its way into your book? Did you ever have students who just weren’t interested in reading?
GIBSON: When I was a high school English teacher years ago, one of my students explained that although she did not particularly enjoy a book I had assigned for class, it wasn’t my “fault.” She just had never read any book she liked. “Then what do you do?” I asked, thinking, Too Much Television–TV being a reliable scapegoat for such things as why one’s students do not listen/have time for homework/use pronouns properly.
Instead, it turned out that she spent her free time “replaying” in her head what she’d done with her friends earlier in the day and daydreaming about things that she might have done. Unlike books, she told me, her daydreams felt “real.”
I was quite taken by her explanation. Book-hater or not, she was an empathetic, interesting, imaginative person who used stories to understand her world better. In her case, they just didn’t happen to be ones that were written down. Years later, when I began writing what I thought of as The Book About The Person Who Writes The Book For The Girl Who Hates Reading, I gave that talent to Carley, my book-hating protagonist.
FORD: HTBALOR is full of literary references. The novel fulfills the definition of metafiction by posing questions about the relationship between fiction and reality. Once you decided to write a novel about the power of reading, did you intentionally write it as metafiction?
GIBSON: You know, I didn’t set out to write a novel about the power of reading. When I write, I start with characters and place (the “world” of a story) and see what happens from there. I’m not a linear writer–I like to just keep asking myself “What If?” and keep revising and changing until things fit together for me. Themes come about on their own, and the metafictional aspects of the book evolved over time throughout many drafts.
Much of the book focuses on Carley, the book-hater, trying to teach Bree, the author commissioned to write a book for her, about what she values (which is quite different than the things Bree has come to value): people (rather than characters), story (rather than style), and love (rather than intellectualism). When I realized a few drafts in that my own writing was changing as the novel progressed–that is, I was being influenced by Carley’s influence on Bree–I decided to play up this difference rather than “fixing” it. In short, I decided to overwrite and overstylize the opening section and to keep paring down and changing the writing, section by section, until the end, the most accessible and straightforward part of the novel. The evolution of the writing style in the book echoes the evolution of Bree and her writing.
It was a move that felt right for this story, one I don’t regret (I’d do it again in a heartbeat), but one that I knew could be risky. Indeed, I’ve read reviews on Goodreads in which some readers said they stopped reading early on because they felt like the writing at the beginning calls attention to itself (it absolutely does, in a way I meant to be mock-worthy), and that they assume the whole book would be overwritten. That’s disappointing, of course, but there are always risks when you do something unconventional.
FORD: What are some of the elements in the book that contribute to its classification as metafiction?
GIBSON: Oh gosh. There are a lot. Among the ones I feel comfortable mentioning (I don’t want to “spoil” aspects of the book for folks who haven’t read it, as some are integral to the way the book ends) are: the aforementioned evolving writing style; the naming of each section after a literary device that gets discussed in that section and gets used in that section; and the way the book-within-a-book that Bree writes echoes aspects of HTBALOR.
FORD: There are parallels to The Great Gatsby and other sly references to F. Scott Fitzgerald throughout the book. Is Fitzgerald one of your literary influences?
GIBSON: I love the way Fitzgerald creates characters who, having constructed facades to try make others love them, find themselves emotionally disconnected from the very people whose attention they sought. I love the way he brings to life entire characters with single turns of phrases–”her voice was full of money.” And, thematically, I’m drawn to an idea that surfaces again and again in his work: that we can neither return to our past nor escape it.
FORD: You live on the West Coast and How to Buy a Love of Reading is set in a wealthy enclave on Long Island. Are you personally familiar with the setting and the character types or did they come from your imagination?
GIBSON: While the characters in HTBALOR are 100% fictional, I did work on Long Island’s North Shore at a private school over a decade ago. Unlike Bree, though, who encounters an eccentric, elitist community when she moves to “Fox Glen” to write the book for a teenaged book-hater–I worked in a community of friendly and smart people. (None of whom had a bra museum, or padlocked the refrigerators, or claimed a spiritual connection to Jackie Kennedy!)
I spent a great deal of time researching Gold Coast mansions (for people who share this interest, there’s a section of links to my research sources on my website), as well as food, flowers, furniture, and brands that one might expect to find in a hyperbolically wealthy community such as “Fox Glen.” I love inventing worlds, and this one was great fun to create.
FORD: Although there is a large “supporting cast” of adults, HTBALOR‘s main characters are teenagers. Did you have a target audience in mind—either YA or adult—when you wrote it?
GIBSON: I wrote HTBALOR with an adult audience in mind. I read a lot of YA–I’ve published some YA short fiction in Cicada magazine and have an idea for a YA novel that I’d like to write after my next project is completed–and I’m pretty certain that HTBALOR isn’t YA. But I can see why some people regard it as such. The POV’s of two of the teen characters, Carley and Hunter, are in very close third person (and were certainly influenced by amount of YA I read). I wanted their voices to feel like those of real (if precocious) teenagers rather than like an adult’s perception of teen voices, and I wanted to engage in their angst–I like angst–rather than view it at a distance.
But for me, the fact that I include adult POVs as well makes the book definitely not YA. In a YA novel, you might see the main character’s father’s affair through the eyes of the teenager (“Ew, my father is doing it with my best friend’s mother!”). In YA you don’t see the affair through the eyes of the father, as you do in HTBALOR.
FORD: Have you received an equally positive response from both YA and adult readers?
GIBSON: There’s been some terrific crossover to older teens, particularly to those who enjoy reading books that are mainly targeted to adults. I’ve read reviews where the reader wished the book was either one thing or another–more categorizable in terms of either being straight-YA (get rid of the adult POVs) or straight-adult (less “angsty,” more narrative distance)–but as I indicated earlier, I’m not that interested in following conventions. I’m interested in testing–or breaking–them.
FORD: In the book, Carley learns to cope with her problems by finally becoming a reader. On your clever and creative website there is a link to a section called “How did reading save you?” where people post stories about their own reading experiences. So, Tanya, how did reading save you?
GIBSON: Like so many people who turn to books, for as long as I can remember I’ve felt a little (and sometimes a lot) socially out-of-sync. During my childhood and teenage years, this was exacerbated by my being raised by grandparents who were loving but whose nineteen-fifties values didn’t mesh with the nineteen-seventies and eighties, and who were adamant about my trying to hide the fact that my mother was mentally ill. They did what they thought they had to do–they thought of mental illness as stigmatizing and shameful–but for me this meant a lot of lying. I envied other people for not having to be constantly afraid of being exposed or ashamed, I spent a lot of energy pretending to understand the way other people experienced the world, and I felt alone even when among a group.
The saving grace of books, I think, is that they let us be alone with other people, albeit fictional ones. I felt safe, and honest, in the company of books. So many journeys in books are emotional ones, steps across the threshold that characters need to take alone. Along the way they might come upon companions–and sometimes even champions–but at the toughest times (I think in a Hero’s Journey it’s called The Abyss) they turn inward for answers and strength. You read enough books, and you start to internalize this–that you are not alone in your aloneness, and that the person who can save you is you.
FORD: You have two small children. Do you manage to have a writing routine, or do you fit it in when you can?
GIBSON: I write when I can–often late at night, after everyone is asleep. I love working during vampire-type hours, which are kind of hard to keep with a five-year-old and a two-year-old. Two a.m. was always a very creative time for me–but now I have to get up at seven a.m. to pack someone’s lunch for her to take to kindergarten, so there are fewer 2 a.m.’s.
FORD: Are you working on your next novel and, if so, can you tell us a little about it?
GIBSON: I’m working on a novel about an eighteen-year-old figure skater who, after being disfigured in a skating accident, ends up skating in the ice show at an underwater-themed amusement park called Mertopia, a place whose advertising slogan is “Wonder Exists.”
Brenna is in a terrible and unbalanced place in her life–she is facially scarred, her competitive skating career ended on the day it was supposed to have taken off, and the mother she adored died shortly afterward. She’s never attended regular school or had a “normal” life, and now she’s living and skating in a full-body jellyfish costume in this unreal place to which families make pilgrimages (the way people do to Disneyland) that cost more than they can afford.
As cynical as she wants to be about Mertopia, with its corny mantras about magic and hope, and its overpriced gift shops, she realizes she is being changed by it, learning to pay attention to strangers–truly looking and caring about them–in a way she never had room for in her old life. It’s this knowing how to really look that leads her to suspect there’s more to the park than guests realize–perhaps a real mermaid lives in a secret underground tank, perhaps the handsome new dolphin trainer possesses an uncontrollable power to make people happy, and perhaps wonder truly does exist.