This January, Book Talk was lucky enough to pose a few questions to Kathryn Erskine, author of the National Book Award–winning Mockingbird. (You know how excited we are about this book!)
Read on to find out how Erskine came up with Caitlin and the whole Mockingbird story, as well as her own history as a reader.
Book Talk: You just won the National Book Award; are you going to Disney World after this?
Kathryn Erskine: Well, I came home from New York to a broken fridge-freezer and rotten, stinky, dripping food, so I got to clean my fridge! Woo hoo! Actually, I thought it was pretty funny—no chance of the award going to my head when I was on my hands and knees scrubbing out the fridge!
BT: How does it feel to win the National Book Award?
KE: Pretty amazing. It’s still sinking in. When I read an article about it in my local paper, that’s when it felt real. I guess I’m such a reader that I have to read something to believe it!
BT: After you finished the book, did you know you had written something special?
KE: Because Asperger’s is so much a part of my life, I thought it might be too ordinary, but others who don’t live with it every day assured me that it was something quite different and special. People seem so touched that I think there must be something special about it.
BT: When you first conceived of the idea of this book, which came first for you—the plot or the characters?
KE: The characters always come first for me. They have conversations in my head and whole scenes take place. The plot is often hard to pin down. After the Virginia Tech shootings, however, I knew I had to incorporate a school shooting aspect into the plot and, since it’s a book for kids, I wanted that event to have already occurred before the book opened, so it wouldn’t be so scary.
BT: In your mind, is this a book about a girl with Asperger’s or a family dealing with an unspeakable act of violence?
KE: It’s more about a girl feeling alone in dealing with her brother’s death. To her, the fact that it was a school shooting is not as huge as it is to the rest of the community. For Caitlin, the bottom line is that she has lost her brother who was her link to the outside world. And, because she has Asperger’s, she has a particularly tough road to travel to make connections with her community again.
BT: Caitlin is so endearing. Was there an inspiration for her character?
KE: As always, my characters contain bits and pieces of people I know. Caitlin, in particular, was inspired by a close family member, but mostly she’s a made-up character. She is, so to speak, her own person.
BT: How did you manage to get inside Caitlin’s head in order to write from her point of view? Did you have much prior knowledge of Asperger’s?
KE: I do have experience with Asperger’s, but I also did a lot of research. Just as every kid is different, every kid with Asperger’s is different, so I needed to look at a wide variety of personality traits, behaviors, and habits in order to create an authentic character on the autism spectrum. I went to seminars and workshops, read a lot of books and articles, talked with teachers and parents who interact daily with kids on the spectrum, and I know kids with Asperger’s, too. For me, it felt perfectly natural to be inside her head, and the story just flowed.
BT: Caitlin starts the book by looking up the word “closure.” Language is a big aspect of Mockingbird with certain syllables of words being capitalized and Caitlin’s own infatuation with language. Did this evolve naturally from Caitlin’s character or did you want language to be a part of the book from the beginning?
KE: It’s really a part of Caitlin’s character and I wanted to preserve the unconventional way she wrote throughout the book as a constant reminder to the reader that she sees things differently. Also, words and books are a source of comfort to Caitlin because they don’t change. She can rely on them because they’re constant. Finding a definition is another way for her to hold on to something and have control over her world.
BT: This is such a heartbreaking story; did you cry while writing it at anytime?
KE: Yes, particularly at the end. I needed to rewrite the final chapter because it wasn’t quite working, and my editor told me that when I was crying at my keyboard, I would know I’d hit the right ending. And that’s what happened.
BT: When you hear from kids, what do they tell you they’ve learned or thought about as a result of reading Mockingbird?
KE: Younger kids tend to be very pragmatic about it. They say that now they get people like Caitlin and they think she’s funny—but ha-ha funny, not weird funny. Older kids, teens, and adults feel the poignancy and are grateful to have a chance to understand those like Caitlin. And people, young and older, with Asperger’s have thanked me for “nailing it” and telling this story.
BT: Were you a big reader as a kid? If so, what books?
KE: I’ve always loved reading and read a lot as a kid. I went through phases: series, biographies, mysteries, adventures, encyclopedias (really!), nonfiction on specific topics (horses, Australia, earth sciences, etc.), and specific authors like Enid Blyton and Arthur Ransome. I tended to pull books off our shelves at home, so I read Nevil Shute and Graham Greene when I was 10 and 11. We were allowed to read anything, encouraged to, actually. That’s why I read To Kill a Mockingbird at 8. I don’t think any of the books scarred me; in fact, they helped me look at the world from viewpoints I’d never imagined…sort of like Caitlin does.
You can find Mockingbird on TAB this January!