An Interview with Author Gae Polisner
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The following post is from Food, Fitness & Fiction Contributing Editor Josh Flores.
Gae Polisner is the author of the new and beautifully written novel, The Memory of Things. Told in the alternating perspectives of two teens in the midst of the September 11th attacks, Polisner illustrates the challenges of devastation, the significance of memory, and the wonder of falling in love with a stranger. With an intense, but hopeful story of self-discovery, readers are introduced to the lives of two of the most unique characters in YA fiction, Kyle and the mysterious girl with a set of wings. You can see my full review here.
I was honored to interview Polisner on behalf of Food, Fitness & Fiction and ask her about her writing process, her hobbies, and what she wants readers to know about her brilliant new novel, The Memory of Things. Here are some highlights from our email interview.
FF&F: What inspired you to write a story about two teens in the midst of the September 11th terrorist attack?
GP: I suppose writing is how I process–and try to control–my overwhelming emotions like fear, heartbreak, and grief, and certainly, as a native New Yorker after 9/11, I had an overabundance of those.
I have lived most my life on Long Island, but lived in Boston for college, and NYC from after college until 1996, before moving back to Long Island after my first son was born, and my sister still lives in the city to this day. So I had definitely been traumatized and changed by the event, and had felt compelled to write about it since shortly after it happened. But for a long time, I knew it was just too soon. Too soon for readers and for me.
Then, one day a few years ago, I was finishing up another manuscript and this very strong image popped into my head: A girl, crouched in fear, covered in smoke and ash, wearing a pair of costume wings. I knew the ash and dust were from the twin towers, but not why the wings were there. The girl intrigued me, and I pretty immediately was sure she was a character in my story, but also that she was not the main character but rather the catalyst for my protagonist to cope and heal.
FF&F: How would you describe the publishing process for The Memory of Things? Was it more or less difficult than that of your previous books?
GP: Hmmm, well, until my newest book I’ve just sold to my The Memory of Things editor (yay!!!), the business of selling books to a publisher has never been easy for me. But this one, The Memory of Things, may have been the hardest. Understandably, adults (especially adults in and from New York) still have a swift and strong visceral reaction to 9/11 and, when we were shopping the manuscript, I had editors state that they couldn’t bear to read it (before even making it to the parts filled with humor, hope and love), or editors who read and love it, but feared they wouldn’t stand a chance trying to bring it up to “Acquisitions,” a room where many of the decision makers whose job it is to market and promote a book, had lived in New York City that day and would also come at it from an adult’s viewpoint. I also had editors simply say they didn’t think teens today had much interest in reading books about 9/11.
I understood the resistance and fear, but I remained steadfast because I knew a teen audience–the audience I primarily wrote the book for—wouldn’t have the same pained reaction that most adults still have. In fact, I had seen (and heard) their reactions first hand as I visited school after school on my prior book. So I knew they felt just the opposite, in fact, that teens today feel a stark disconnect with their parents’ and teachers’ 9/11 history, and they actually want to feel more of a connection. In classroom after classroom, as students asked what I was working on next–“Well, it’s this book about a boy who is fleeing his high school in NYC the morning of 9/11 when he comes across a girl, covered in smoke and ash, and she doesn’t know who she is or why she is there. . .” — I received the most enthusiastic, excited reactions I’d ever gotten regarding a work in progress of mine.
Not only did the story sound intriguing to them, but students wanted to read stories set during 9/11. They were hungry to experience it, to know what it felt like to live through it, and how we survived that day.
And that’s what The Memory of Things is about, it’s a story of how we process and survive during times of tragedy.
FF&F: If you could choose one character from The Memory of Things, which one do you most relate to? How so?
GP: Oh, definitely Kyle. I always relate to the characters who, as teens, are afraid to let themselves be who they really want to be, and I love helping them come around to it sooner than I was able to in real life.
FF&F: What were your biggest influences during your writing process (books, movies, authors, life events, etc.)?
GP: I think my biggest influences during my book writing are always the same: a combination of the little observations about life that fascinate me, and the stuff I keep learning—the wisdom I gain that helps me be a happier, more satisfied human.
FF&F: If you could tell your readers one thing about your book, what would it be?
GP: That it’s more than just a “9/11 story.” It’s a mystery, and a romance, and a coming-of-age story. That despite the setting–or really because of it–I make sure the characters find lots of light in the dark. It’s filled with both love and humor.
FF&F: What does a typical day in the life of Gae Polisner look like?
GP: Depending on the season, it’s usually filled with a combination of writing, swimming, maybe some yoga, playing with the dog and cleaning and straightening things. Oh yeah, and spending WAY too much time on social media. If you read the book and love it, feel free to chat with me about it on twitter! https://twitter.com/gaepol
FF&F: Is there something specific that you hope readers take from your work?
GP: A sense of hope and connection, though usually mixed with a bit of longing. Mostly, I hope when they close the book, the characters stay with them.
FF&F: If you were not a writer, what career would you have?
GP: Apparently, a lawyer, since I am one. And I still practice today. As a kid and teen, though, I took acting lessons and was in a lot of community theatre, and there are times I still long to see what I might have done in that realm. Oh how badly I wanted to be Annie!
Alas, I doubt I could remember lines or act very well now, so writing it is.
FF&F: How do you like to #moveitorloseit (stay fit and active) on a regular/daily basis?
GP: I swim and I swim and I swim. #openwaterlifeforme
FF&F: What advice do you have for aspiring writers? And are there any resources/websites you would recommend?
GP: I think the best advice I have to offer is to keep reading and keep writing. And the thought that It takes a combination of three things: skill, perseverance, and LUCK to get published, but you’ll rarely have the third–luck—without the first two.
As for resources and websites, it depends what phase of writing they are in. Harold Underdown has a wealth of information and resources on his site for the aspiring writer. For writing inspiration and perseverance, I like to read Chuck Wendig’s Terrible Minds blog (*language warning*). For craft, you can’t beat the hilarity and smarts of Geoff Herbach’s “Stupid Craft” videos:
Hope those help!
To learn more about the author, visit her website.
Joshua Flores, a junior from Tustin, California is currently an editor for the Beckman Chronicle and enjoys both reading and writing. He spends most of his free time writing, and coming up with weird characters for the novel he is working on. You can follow him on Instagram at @booklover41899.
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