WBBT Stop: Andrea Seigel

Andrea Andrea Seigel is one of my favorite writers. Ever since I randomly picked up her debut novel Like the Red Panda at the library, I've been ecstatic whenever I hear she has written a new novel. Her work is full of cross-over appeal for young adult audiences, which is why I was especially happy The Kid Table was being published as YA. (Spoiler for the interview: We talk about this below.) I actually believe that Andrea's work is semi-unclassifiable in the best possible way. It's less saccharine than anything out there, while still being very sincere. Her characters aren't always traditionally likeable, and that's what makes me always, always end up liking them. Her novels are recognizable as "Andrea Seigel novels" without ever being repetitive. And The Kid Table is the perfect cure for holiday mania, following a cast of relatives from festive occasion to festive occasion, with decidedly unpredictable results. So without further ado…

GB: As I always do, I'll start by asking you about your writing process with this book. How did you approach it? Do you have a pretty set working pattern or does it change from project to project?

Andrea Seigel: I used to be completely religious about writing 2 double spaced Courier New pages a day. They had to be decent pages or I wouldn't close the file. Each day, I would start by reading over the previous two pages and making sure they were solid, and then I'd continue on with the next two. But with this book, first I really got crazy and went with a different font because Courier "looked wrong" for the narrator. I wrote in Century Schoolbook. And then life intervened when my dad got diagnosed with brain cancer maybe three-quarters of the way through, and I started falling behind on that religious clip. One day while visiting him in the hospital, I guess I either got my laptop too close to a large magnet or I bumped it against a wall because when I tried to turn it back on that night, it no longer recognized that I had a hard drive. I think I still had a page left to do that day. And at that point, I melted down and even though the dude at Apple eventually recovered my files for me, I just didn't feel the same about my regimen. I think I used to be a lot more of a machine than I'm capable of being now. I tried to return to the regimen with the book I'm currently writing, but I don't feel driven by that same loop. I guess this is probably because I had some kind of magical thinking attached to the 2 page a day thing, like I'd come to believe that that's why I got published–that it was a spell–and when it got broken, it was impossible to go back to believing in it. 

GB: I'm always fascinated by big cast novels about families. Was there a kid table in your own childhood?  Did you grow up with a big extended family or is Ingrid's experience something totally foreign to your own?

AS: We had a kid table at family events, but I always had the hardest time warming
up to my relatives. I Kidtablecover think your parents assume that if you're a kid, then you're going to instantaneously bond with other kids– especially if you've been put with them since you guys were drooling–but I've never been especially close to my cousins, and so every get together felt like starting over. I'd get really anxious and my mom would be like, "This is your family!" and I had no idea what that was supposed to mean, because for me "family" only referred to the people you lived with and could yell at without feeling strange about it. So I definitely didn't have the relationship portrayed in the book, and that's probably why I wrote it–out of some kind of fascination with people who always feel like they have this club they belong to.  

GB: I'm curious whether you feel there's a difference in how you come at your work for adult readers vs. this new YA novel? To me, your work has always held appeal for both audiences, but I wonder if it feels different to you. Or if you've noticed a difference in the response you've gotten for the new book?

AS: You know, at first I was trying to tell myself (and other people) that there wasn't a difference between this YA book and the others I wrote. And I think I didn't want to admit that there was one because I've never liked the idea of bending yourself to be different people in different situations. I know that's bullshit because we all do it, but it's an idea that has always disturbed me because I guess I have a fantasy of a "true self." Anyway, the short answer is yes. There's a difference. I forced myself to try to have more defined arcs for my characters because I knew that a lot of YA readers seek that kind of reward–and I guess I still failed because if you look at the people who hated the book on Goodreads, it's mostly because they're frustrated that the characters don't evolve more. But I just don't see personality in an epic way. I think you sort of are who you are and of course your experiences leave dents in you as you go through life, but I'm not incredibly interested in that balls to the wall character arc where your protagonist comes out the other end of the story a new person. In fact, when it comes to my own reading, I think I'm particularly drawn to narratives where the change is really in the reader's perception of that character as she gets to know him better (I'm thinking about books like Catcher In The Rye and American Psycho and The Mystery Guest), so the real arc is the one that happens in the reader's awareness of who that character is and how he sees the world. And when it comes to my own characters, I'm just honestly much more interested in these inner shifts of perception and these small negotiations that we all make in order to keep up a somewhat legible identity for ourselves. I inwardly groan when I hear people say, "Life is the journey, not the destination"–which always sounds so, so gross–but I guess I'm describing a similar leaning when it comes to storytelling. This is also probably why I'm basically uninterested in out-and-out villains as well as epic adventures (unless Bill and Ted are having them). The most frequent note I got from my publisher on The Kid Table manuscript was that my narrator spent too much time pondering, which was a mode for an older audience, instead of gut-reacting, which is the mode for the YA audience. And that's true, I like an almost compulsive 1st person voice that's about the narration as plot in and of itself. So that's maybe also why I should think about sticking to adult in the future, is what I've been thinking.

GB: So you had some cover issues, but you managed to get them resolved. What happened there? 

AS: The initial cover struck me as being off-tone for the book. It was a girl who looked younger than   the character actually is, and she was dressed like an American Idol contestant circa Jordin Sparks, and she was with some kids at a table who were smearing food on their faces…and I just lost it over that cover. I have this intensely supportive fan named Danny, a soldier in Iraq who first emailed me about reading Panda inside a tank as it rolled over an explosive device, and I knew he was waiting for Kid Table to come out, and I just thought, "Man, I can't have Danny carrying around this cover." That was my first thought. Because Danny is so into the books I write, and it depressed me to have someone who's completely in tune with my sensibility to be so misrepresented by a cover. He was exemplary for me, and I felt like that cover was just wrong for the people who identified with what I'd written before. So anyway, I went through a series of negotiations with the publisher and we finally agreed on the green-blue cover with the fork and macaroni, which leaves a lot more up to the reader's imagination. It also has a wryness about it, and "wry" is one of the descriptions that ends up on almost all of my jacket copies, so there you go.

GB: And, last, plug some other people's stuff–what have you been reading/watching/listening to that you think other people should dash out and get?

AS: Well, 'tis the season so I have to recommend Hank Steuver's book Tinsel, which I probably loved more than anything else I read this year. He writes novelistically, meaning that he does these insightful, complex portraits of his characters and he follows their stories in the most intimate, satisfying way, but all of it is true. I wanted 5000 more pages of that book. (I'm a Jew who's a sucker for Christmas, but my love went beyond that pre-existing inclination.) Then my favorite documentary of the year was "The Wild Whites of West Virginia"– I'm so fascinated by this family of outlaws because they'll stab and shoot each other, but then there's a mythical attachment to the family bond and a stronger sense of loyalty than exists in families that don't stab each other. Again, the presentation of the "characters" in this movie is exactly my kind of thing. In music, I'm still listening to Alicia Keys' "Try Sleeping With A Broken Heart" on repeat since last winter, so I'm like the toddler who just watches the same movie over and over when it comes to songs. I can also recommend this pumpkin chocolate chip cookie recipe, which is pretty much the only thing I can bake. They come out like muffin tops. You'll love them.

Visit today's other WBBT stops (will update with links as I see them):

Adele Griffin at Bildungsroman

Susan Campbell Bartoletti at Chasing Ray

Charles Benoit
at A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

Sarah MacLean at Writing & Ruminating

Allen Zadoff at Hip Writer Mama

3 thoughts on “WBBT Stop: Andrea Seigel”

  1. Ooh, I’ve heard so much about this novel, and I agree so much with the writer’s sensibilities about character change that I’m really eager to read it now.
    Also, with the cousins! YES. Somehow that baby-bonding didn’t happen for me, too, and I’m deeply mystified and somewhat envious of friends who have that Cousin Tribe thing going. I really enjoy novels depicting familial relationships, so I’m doubly eager for this.
    Thanks for a great interview.

  2. I’m going to look up these novels — thanks for the interview! Love hearing about how one exemplary reader really can help support and focus your ideas about what a book calls for.

  3. “these small negotiations that we all make in order to keep up a somewhat legible identity for ourselves.” I love that. I think it’s a very real approach to character, much more so than constant drastic change.
    And I, too, dreaded the kids’ table. The worst thing is being put at the kids’ table at someone else’s stupid party where you don’t actually know anyone. Then again, I was the kind of kid who would go find a place to hide and read, even if that place was the bathroom, just so I could get away from the unwanted random relatives/strangers…
    Great interview!

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