MY BROTHER’S KEEPER FAQ
How did you get interested in writing for children?
Even though I’m technically a grown-up, I think I must be developmentally stuck at about age thirteen. I think that’s why I still need to revisit adolescence and try to decode the feelings and experiences of being a teenager. And although the challenges that teenagers today face are far more complex and weighty than what I confronted, I think the emotional truth is the same: that the teenage years are inherently confusing, exciting, alienating and exhilarating.
What inspired you to write My Brother’s Keeper?
A few years ago, I was out walking in a neighborhood park when I saw a young man in a bright orange vest picking up trash as part of a court- ordered community service program for drug users. Our eyes met for only a moment, but he seemed to telegraph both great embarrassment at his situation and a real yearning to connect. I’ve never seen him since, but my imagination went to work wondering how he ended up there and what it would be like for him to be seen and recognized by a friend or family member. At some point, I decided to tell the story from the point of view of his fictional younger brother.
I also have a number of close family members who’ve struggled with and over- come addiction. This book is not at all their story or mine. But my hope is that it gives voice to the experience of the many, many people who are affected by the substance abuse problems of family members.
How did you manage to write in a boy’s voice?
At the time my own son was fourteen years old – and he unwittingly contributed a great deal to the voice of the main character — especially his sense of humor.
But it took a lot of rewriting to winnow out words or observations that were clearly mine, not Toby’s. For instance, at one point I saw the word “lovely”in the manuscript. I was mortified, because I know there’s no thirteen-year-old boy on the planet who uses the word “lovely.” After that, I went through every passage and put it to a test, by asking myself “Would a boy really say this?”
Perhaps just as important, I found my way into Toby’s voice by putting myself in his emotional shoes, wondering what it would feel like to keep a secret for someone else, to feel worried, angry, and left behind by a brother I adored.
What advice do you give to young writers?
My suggestion would be to cultivate the ability to be alone. Writing requires a lot of solitude, something not easy to come by — or to tolerate — in a world of cell phones and instant messages. If you can stake out and protect a portion of quiet, uninterrupted time each day for writing, my guess is that you will come to both need and love it.
Which is hardest for you as a writer: the blank page or revision? Why?
I don’t mind the blank page. At that point, anything and everything is possible. I also come from a newspaper background, where daily deadlines force you to confront — and fill — a blank page virtually every day. Revisions are harder for me, because I take criticism so much to heart. I tend to fall into a trench of worry when I hear that something’s wrong with my work. My confidence goes into free fall, taking my imagination with it. Eventually, a small, sane voice in my head reminds me that I’ve done revisions before, and little by little, I find my way back. What I often find is that a revision doesn’t need to be a major overhaul; sometimes the change of a word or a gesture — or simply deleting a scene that’s troublesome — is all it takes.
What do you want readers to take away from My Brother’s Keeper?
There’s no particular moral to the story. But I hope that readers will come away with compassion for both brothers — especially for the unkind, unwise things we sometimes do to the people we love. I would also hope that readers will see that forgiveness is possible — if we first forgive our- selves.
You capture the relationship between the brothers very realistically. How were you able to do that?
Like all kids, my children wrestle with each other, argue over the remote control, and fight over the last potato chip in the bag. Watching them, I realized that a lot is conveyed in those everyday moments — that wrestling, for instance, is sometimes just a way to connect, to show affection. And that fighting over the remote can sometimes represent a lot more than a simple choice between The Bachelor. and the hockey game. Whether we know it or not, we’re often working out big, complicated feelings in those moments. It’s the writer’s job to show what’s really being expressed and what’s at stake in what seems like an otherwise unimportant interaction. Add up a series of those interactions and you have a portrait of a relationship.
It’s important to keep in mind that people — especially teenage boys — rarely actually say what they’re feeling. (When was the last time you heard a thirteen-year-old boy say “I love you” to his brother? Or, for that matter, “I’m sorry.”) The trick, I think, is to find gestures and actions that convey those feelings in the clumsy, indirect ways real people do.
How was writing your second novel different from writing your first?
Because of the topic of my first book — cutting — I never thought a publisher would buy it. If, by chance, someone did, I was sure no one would read it. As a result, I wrote with almost no expectations — which freed me to take risks, make mistakes and write just for the sake of writing.
I put a lot of pressure on myself the second time around. I thought I should be able to write it much more quickly this time. I also thought my second book had to be better than Cut. These self-imposed expectations put so much pressure on me that at times I paralyzed myself. This book also went though several major revisions before I was able to get the tone — and then the plot — right. It ended up taking even longer to write than the first book!
What would you be if you weren’t a writer?
Sometimes, when I have a hard time motivating myself to sit down at my computer, I wish I had a job where I could just show up and be assigned a certain number of tasks each day — something simple, like making lattes at Starbucks or working in a bookstore. Honestly, though, I’m sure those jobs would bore me. Or I’d get in trouble for daydreaming or writing in my notebook. Because all I’ve ever wanted to be is a writer. I feel incredibly lucky that I get to write every day and am still amazed and thrilled that people want to read what I’ve written!
Which of your characters is most like you?
I think there’s a lot of me present in Toby. I’m a worrywart like he is, and I tend to take on the responsibility for other people’s behavior. I’ve also been known to hold a grudge like he does and to avoid asking for help — all aspects of my character that I’m trying to change. I don’t set out to work on my own problems in my books. But somehow, unconsciously, each one allowed me to tackle in fiction things I haven’t quite mastered in my real life. That’s probably what drew me to the subjects in the first place.
What do you like most about writing? What do you like least?
My favorite part of writing is getting lost in the story and finding that the characters take over. On good days, I sit down and start working and suddenly look up and hours have passed. On really good days, the characters say or do things I never expected. On excellent days, they make me laugh. (I love being in the company of funny people. The fact that they are imaginary people makes no difference to me at all.) On my worst days, they don’t talk at all. I sit at my keyboard and try to coax a few words out of them and find that they’re not speaking to me. On those days, I want to cry. Sometimes, I go out for a walk or get a cup of coffee in the hopes that they’ll be there when I get back.
Do you make an outline for each of your books or just follow where it leads?
I don’t outline. Someone once said that writing is like driving at night. You only need to see the stretch of highway right in front of you. That’s how I like to write. With a sense of what’s just ahead, but not what’s around the bend. That way, the act of writing is a discovery for me, too, the way it is for the reader.
Which authors have most influenced your writing?
My favorite authors are Tobias Wolff, Carson McCullers, Carolyn Coman, and Russell Banks. They all write about the confusion, alienation, and potential of being a teenager with compassion and humor. With this book in particular, I would sometimes look to Russell Banks’ Rule of the Bone, whenever I lost the sound of Toby’s voice. His main character, Bone, is one of the all-time great adolescent boys in fiction — funny, poignant, tough, and tender all at once.
What is your favorite scene from My Brother’s Keeper? Why?
One of my favorite scenes is when Mr. D gives Toby the baseball card he’s been longing for. That moment seems so full of feeling that neither one can express but which they both know is right beneath the surface. I like how they hurry away from the moment, dodging it with elaborate effort, so that they don’t get too emotional.
Another favorite is the fight scene at the end of the book, prompted by Toby pouring a bag of Cheetos over his brother’s head. That seems to me like just the kind of impulsive, stupid and utterly human thing a person would do when he’s beyond expressing his anger and hurt and frustration in words. It’s also the kind of ridiculous thing that can finally break the silence between two people who love each other.