A Conversation with Ingrid Sundberg
I first met Ingrid Sundberg…okay, I don’t remember how we met. Honestly. It was sometime earlier this year, in some sort of email swap for reasons I can’t remember. But we agreed pretty quickly that joining forces was a good idea, and since then I’ve read her wonderful ALL WE LEFT BEHIND and done the following interview. As you’ll read in this interview, Ingrid’s novel was about as far removed from my life as a novel could be. That doesn’t mean, however, I didn’t enjoy the hell out of it, and that goes to show you just how great of a writer Sundberg is.
I’m going to cheat and use an online summary of the novel because, as I’ve mentioned countless times before, I’m terrible at explaining a novel quickly. But–and here’s the most important part–her main male character’s named Kurt, so you know the novel is going to be excellent right from the start.
Here’s the (copy and pasted) rundown: When Marion Taylor, the shy bookworm, meets sexy soccer captain Kurt Medford at a party, what seems like a sure thing quickly turns into a total mess. One moment they’re alone in the middle of a lake, igniting sparks of electricity. The next, they’re on dry land, pretending they’ve never met. But rather than the end, that night is the beginning of something real, terrifying, and completely unforgettable for them both.
1. First off, let the readers know a little about you. And just to complicate your life a little, you have to use 50 words, no more, no less.
I’m the purple-haired author of ALL WE LEFT BEHIND. I love stories with complexity and emotion, which also (preferably) have characters that make-out. My friends call me the ambassador of awesome, probably because of my super-hero hair and craftiness (my super weapon would be a glue gun), and my ability to make epic baked goods.
2. The acknowledgments in ALL WE LEFT BEHIND explains that this started as your thesis project. Can you give us the history behind that? Did you write the whole novel in that program? What’s the story there?
ALL WE LEFT BEHIND actually began years before my thesis project when I was studying screenwriting. The first version of this story was a screenplay. Over time (as I learned how to write) it changed from a drama to a comedy, back to a drama. The plot changed about five times, and eventually I wrote it as novel instead of a screenplay. My adviser at Vermont College read the novel version, and we decided to throw it away and start over. That sounds painful huh? But honestly, it was the most liberating thing I could have done.
Using the character of Marion, who’s been in all my previous drafts, we started from scratch and built a new story that turned into my thesis project. But we did something experimental. I wrote the new draft in non-linear vignettes. It was an exercise in getting me to break all my screenwriting plotting habits and learn to listen to my characters. The new draft was a mess: a pile of fractured bits and pieces without a through line. But under the guidance of my advisers we found the connective tissue and gave it a plot.
Sometimes you have to throw out everything you think you know abut writing to tell a certain story.
3. The acknowledgments also say that the character of Marion has been with you a long time. Care to elaborate?
She’s been with me for over 10 years. She had a story to tell, but I didn’t have the writing chops to do her story justice. When you’re first starting out, so many of your drafts are about learning how to construct a scene, build a plot, develop a character. She was the story I kept re-writing as I learned all those techniques. It took me a long time to discover I had to listen to her – rather than my own authorial agenda. Authors like to think of themselves as Gods moving the chess pieces of their characters and plots around. For me, I had to let that concept go and learn how to be Marion’s best advocate. It wasn’t until I had the writing chops — and the bravery to listen — that I was able to bring what she needed to say to life.
4. I have to be honest, I’m old. Like 44, which is ancient. So while I do teach high school, I’ll admit that I’m not really privy to the private lives of my students, especially those of my female students. Reading this novel was, therefore, in a way like entering a foreign world. Marion’s high school experience, and even Kurt’s, weren’t anything like mine, although I was pretty much a boring nerd back then. But times change, and each generation is different, so I’m curious to know how close is this to a teenage girl’s high school experience? Is part of this biographical?
No, this isn’t autobiographical at all. But I remember my first romantic encounters being more awkward than they were romantic. I really wanted to be authentic to that. I feel like a lot of love stories teens see on TV are a farce. High-stakes “love at first sight” relationships can make for good drama, but they seldom tell us anything truthful about real relationships.
5. I’ve read a lot of contemporary YA lately, and yours is definitely the rawest, specifically in regard to it’s openness regarding sexuality. How did you approach writing those scenes? Was there any pushback from editors or early readers to reign those scenes in?
I had absolutely no pushback from my editor, agent, or beta readers. I think the rawness is what makes the book stand out. To tamp it down would be like asking Marion to lie about what happened to her. When we talk about something honest, we realize we have to be brave and listen, instead of censor. I’m really lucky to have worked with people who knew that about this book.
As for writing those scenes, I had to learn how to turn my inner critic off. My inner critic kept saying “Your mom is going to read this! You can’t write that.” But this is also a story about silence and not being able to talk about the things that happen to you. I discovered the only way I could be honest would be to write everything that made me feel uncomfortable, and censor nothing. The story came alive when I did that. It’s like it knew I was finally listening.
6. Most writers don’t write with a specific message in mind, but do you hope for certain takeaways by your readers?
Part of the writing process of ALL WE LEFT BEHIND was to learn how to move away from having a specific message or an author agenda. I was really conscious about NOT telling people what to think or takeaway from this book.
Reading a novel is intimate and personal, and every reader’s relationship with these characters is going to be different and special. I don’t want to invalidate anyones experience by telling them what I want them to takeaway from the book. For me personally, I wrote this book because I wanted to explore the awkwardness and vulnerability of a real high school relationship, one where the characters have to face the true meaning of intimacy. Romantic relationships tread a complex space that is often unspoken and hard to articulate. I think what each reader “takes away” from that unspoken space can only be articulated by each reader individually. Which is awesome. I guess I hope each reader looks into that unspoken space and ask themselves for meaning.
7. Okay, speed round time. 5 questions you can answer without any explanation. Think of it as a chance for your readers to learn things about you they wouldn’t know otherwise. Here we go:
(1) You’re dictator for the day. What one book will you force everyone to read?
Miss Rumphius by Barbara Cooney. It’s a picture book. See … I’m a nice dictator, I picked something short.
(2) Good news, bad news. The bad news is you’re dead. The good news is you now get to know the answer to one mystery of the universe you’ve always wanted to know. What do you ask?
Are crop circles real? I know they can be hoaxes. But are all of them hoaxes?
(3) Your execution by the state is scheduled for tonight. What’s your menu for your final meal?
Grilled cheese and tomato bisque.
(4) The government forces you into a Hunger Games-like competition where you’re forced to fight to the death in Home Depot. On go, what aisle are you rushing to and what “weapon” are you grabbing?
(5) Dinner party! You can force the attendance of one rocker, one writer, one actor/actress, and one miscellaneous person. Everyone must currently be alive, and sure, all of your friends are already invited. Who are you force-inviting?
Katy Perry, Libba Bray, Gary Oldman, and Christoph Waltz.
8. Great job on the speed round! And finally, anything else you’d like to add? The floor is yours!
Thanks for interviewing me Kurt! I hope my fictional Kurt lived up to his name. 🙂