Did “Cassie, Two Kids” come from something you’d heard about, or personally went through? Or was it pure invention?
In high school, I worked at an ice cream store. In the winter, nobody bought ice cream, because ice cream is cold and therefore redundant. So we wasted time playing games on the store’s computer. But that’s where my personal experience ends and the invention begins.
People’s lives are often broken up into segments: home, school, work. And it’s always interesting when these different worlds come together. What’s your teacher like outside of school? What happens when your parents meet your friends or girlfriend? What happens when you try to date your co-worker? When you mix these separate worlds together, you often get interesting and unexpected results.
Cassie is kind of into Stevie. Stevie is kind of into Cassie. Do you think Stevie has a realistic idea of what he might be in for, if they became a couple?
Nope. And not just because Cassie has children. Any time you intertwine your life with someone else’s there are unexpected complications. And even once Stevie and Cassie begin hanging out and hooking up, I don’t think Stevie really understands how profoundly his life would change if they became serious. It’s one thing to visit a young family like that. It’s another thing entirely to become a part of it.
In the story, Stevie’s mom has to deal with 1) her son’s wanting to date a young mother and 2) her daughter’s coming out. Do you think her handling of one affected her handling of the other? Would she maybe have reacted differently to either one if they weren’t happening simultaneously?
I think she might indeed have handled these things differently, had the two events been independent of each other. I’m not a parent, but I imagine it’s difficult to see your children grow up and assert their differences and individuality. Stevie’s mom wants her children to be freethinking and independent, but it’s still hard for her to process such sudden developments.
Katie’s coming out takes her mom by surprise, and it’s not something her mom is prepared for: it’s not something she’s experienced before, and she doesn’t know exactly how to deal with it. So when Stevie wants to date Cassie, she seizes an opportunity and says, basically, “Okay, I do know how to deal with this one,” and I think she’s more assertive—or pushy—about the Stevie-Cassie situation than she might have otherwise been.
Here’s a really goofy question, but I can’t resist: If you were Stevie’s Life Coach, what would you want him to take away from the experience of trying to date Cassie? And how does that compare to what he actually takes away?
Stevie’s a pretty smart kid. And that’s actually part of the problem. He’s perceptive and intelligent, and, as Cassie says, he’s a “fast talker.” But he needs to see that, even though he’s quick on his feet and mature for his age, there’s still a lot he can learn from people who have more life experience than he does.
Were I Stevie’s Life Coach, I’d like him to view the whole Cassie situation as a learning opportunity. This experience will serve him well in his future friendships and relationships. I think he’s a little too hurt—too discouraged—to feel that right now. But he’ll get over his resentment toward Cassie and his mom. And when he does, I think he’ll feel good about the choices he’s made, and hopeful about the adult life that awaits him.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on a middle grade novel about a band of kids living out of abandoned strip malls in post-apocalyptic Philadelphia. When conditions in Philly become too difficult, they depart on a quest to cross the world, to reach the only place where there are still blue skies and ample food: Bulgaria, home of the world’s crown jewel, the Bulgarian National Circus.
Yes, it’s a really strange idea. We’ll see what happens.
What is the best bit of advice about writing you have ever received?
A professor told me that you should take your favorite sentence in your story, and cut it immediately. I hope she didn’t mean it literally. But I always keep that advice in mind when I revise. You shouldn’t be married to particular sentences or paragraphs or ideas. You should be ready to change anything, even your favorite sentence, if that change will improve the work as a whole. I think if you commit yourself to that idea, and stay open-minded, you’ll edit and revise better.
That advice made it a lot easier for me to accept constructive criticism. And the stories and essays I’m most proud of are all the result of relentless revision, and the ruthless criticism of friends and editors.