Wednesday 31 October 2012

Blog Tour and Giveaway: This is Not a Drill

Today, Buzz Words is thrilled to welcome Beck McDowell to talk about her debut YA novel This is not a Drill (see the Buzz Words review here). Answer the question at the end of the interview for your chance to win a copy.

Lillian Rodrigues-Pang asks Beck a few questions on the inspiration behind TINAD.

What inspired you to write this story? Was it originally a romance or sparked by the war veteran story?

The soldier story – and its impact on the small children - definitely came first.  I think a seed was planted years ago for THIS IS NOT A DRILL when my second grade nephew told me they’d been told, if they were in the bathroom and heard a “lockdown” announcement on the intercom, to lock the stall, sit on the toilet, and pull their feet up so an intruder wouldn’t see them. It broke my heart to think of him in there alone and terrified. I realized that innocence was a thing of the past when events in our world necessitated lessons like that. I’d also had a number of conversations with former students-turned-soldiers about their experiences during war, and since they were “my babies” at one time, I was struck by how they’d lost their innocence, too, because of the things they’d witnessed in battle.

You offer the story from two characters' perspectives, alternating between Jake and Emery for most of the book. What were the factors that lead you to this decision? 

I really like alternating viewpoints and I think teens do, too. Maybe it’s because the internet allows us to see different sides of every story, which is good. In THIS IS NOT A DRILL, I knew there had been a messy break-up, so I wanted to tell both sides of that story. Also I liked the idea of having a female character who would try to draw the soldier’s story out and empathize with him, plus a male character who just wants to beat the crap out of the guy. I don’t like gender stereotypes, but I think these two reactions are fairly true-to-life, and both are legitimate responses to the crisis. The hardest part of writing this way is to keep both stories straight and to make sure the two voices are distinct enough to help the reader separate them, too.

Okay, delving into the story itself. The first page is an offering of incongruent images – first graders, a gun, hospital beds, morning, night, “turned the warm yeasty air ice-cold”. I enjoyed this set up. It lays out the beginning and the end of the story – we meet guy with gun, Emery, the start of the day with French nouns and finish of the day with three people dead. Why did you choose to give us the ending upfront?

Thanks! I liked the idea of letting the reader know up front where we were headed and then unwinding the story of how we got there. And from my years of teaching, I knew there had to be a compelling reason for teens to turn the pages. It seemed to me that knowing from the first page that there are three deaths would make the reader feel more protective of the first graders and the teens – almost like helping pull them through.

The other thing I really enjoyed about the beginning is the introduction to the classroom. The kids are all unique characters within the group. You have the louder-than-everyone-child, the one who doesn’t stay focused, the repeater, the cheeky one, the class roamer, the mothering/protective girl, etc. It is a very realistic picture of first grade. Did you spend time in a classroom for this insight?

I can’t say that I’ve stepped foot inside a first grade classroom since my own grown children were there. In writing the story, I found that I could trace back the same personalities I saw in my middle and high school classes and imagine what those students were like in first grade. We don’t really change that much when you get right down to it. I’m also fortunate to have a cousin, Jeanne Wilson, who teaches first grade in Mississippi, so she shared stories with me. It’s funny, but I think you can take almost any picture of a first grade class and “spot” the kids from THIS IS NOT A DRILL. Those personality types are universal.

On the point of research, your main character Emery has an illness that I personally have never heard of before; POTS. The statistics you offered and the process of doctors being unaware and the fear that Emery faced when dealing with her illness were an insightful inclusion. Where did you come across POTS?

I had a family member who dealt with POTS as a teen and then several of my students were diagnosed. I learned that it’s very common in young people, but that many doctors don’t know about it. It’s easy to diagnose if you test someone’s heart rate sitting, then standing – and very treatable.  But when undiagnosed, it can lead to people thinking you’re lazy or that it’s “all in your head.” In crafting a character who suffers from it, I hoped to raise awareness.

Keeping the focus on the main characters: when Brian Stutts interrupts the class he is very stereotypical:“big guy, late twentyish, dark hair buzzed close, square jaw. Black t-shirt stretched tight across puffed-out chest. Muscular legs in camouflage pants. Army boots planted wide. His eyes scan the kid’s faces like he’s searching for a tasty meal. His focus stops on one.” (p. 4) 

For some time we see him as the bad guy, but when Emery decides to talk to him we learn a lot more about him as a man, father, war veteran and husband. I found myself becoming much more sympathetic to his situation. We learn of his fears – he is trained to kill and sanctioned by the government to kill. The IED – Improvised Explosive Device and the permeating fear they lived with as well as the specific mention of PTSD – Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Why did this topic appeal to you?

As I mentioned, I’d talked with students who’d served in Iraq. The loss of innocence in war is a fairly common theme in literature, but I felt the timing was right for this particular story. We have an entire generation of young men and women returning home from Iraq and it’s important that we, as a society, help them deal with the psychological trauma they’ve suffered as well as the physical. I like the fact that there’s a movement now to drop the “Disorder” part of PTSD and just call it “Post Traumatic Stress.” If we’re honest about it, many of the symptoms (nightmares, etc.) seem like a pretty normal human response to seeing people die – instead of a “disorder.”

I have to admit I enjoyed the paradoxes in Emery. She was a shy girl, overprotected and with an illness who had real strength in decision-making. Most of the solutions came from her. It felt refreshing to read of a vulnerable but strong female character. Was this your intention?

I’m glad you liked her. I do, too. While Jake actually verbalizes that he’s always wondered how he’d respond to a life-threatening situation, Emery deals with that question internally. Even though she’s not, by nature, outgoing and pro-active like Jake, she rises above her natural shyness when she sees this horror unfolding. Her reaction is from the gut and out of character, but it’s how we all hope we’d respond when others need our help. She’s smart and she’s kind, so she uses her best assets to overcome her physical limitations and her fear. I like to think we all have inner resources we don’t even know about that will give us surprising strength in an emergency.

You have included a lot of pop culture references – kung fu panda, Reese Witherspoon, Edward and Bella (Twilight) etc. No fear of these references dating your story?

I know some writers and editors think this way, but middle and high school students are very tied to popular culture. It’s a huge part of their daily lives, their conversations, their jokes. I don’t see stripping down a story of those details to give it longevity. Many of those references will be around for a long time and the story’s not really affected by how well the reader knows them. It’s a judgment call, so I’m glad my editor agrees with me.

I noticed Jake was the bringer of all things naughty – like the drugs charge, the alcohol abuse and violent father of his friend, he calls Stutts “the asshole” Was it a difficult choice to put these words/situations into your novel or do you see it as necessary to truly relate to the YA reader?

In my experience, these are all pretty pervasive aspects of high school life. You mentioned the contrasts in the book in an earlier question, and it’s fair to say that Jake’s big personality and bad choices highlight Emery’s quiet studiousness. Part of Jake’s rebellion, of course, is that he hasn’t dealt with his anger over losing his mother to cancer. And you get the sense that he’s also trying to get his dad’s attention since he talks about the things they used to do together.

You have very carefully planted humour into the story – the kids and their caricatures, the Justin Bieber t-shirt, the maniac mother references. Was this difficult to achieve? Did you have to map it out?

I knew this story was going to need some comic relief. That wasn’t hard to achieve in a first grade , in spite of the terrible events unfolding, because little kids are funny. Some might call it irreverent to include laughter in a story that involves a crisis like this, but to me, life is never all funny or all sad.  In times of grief and trouble, our sense of humour is sometimes all that saves us. Those parts of the story just flowed naturally for me. When I envisioned what was going on in that room, I knew the kids wouldn’t truly understand the magnitude of the danger and that they would just go right on being themselves – no matter what was happening around them.


For your chance to WIN a copy of This Is Not a Drill. In 25 words or less, email Vicki your stand-out school memory. Competition closes midnight 7 November and is open to residents of Australia and New Zealand. Winner's name will be published on this blog.

Beck McDowell's blog tour will continue tomorrow at YA LOVE BLOG If you missed Beck's blog tour post from yesterday, read it at YA BLISS

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