Wednesday, July 24, 2013

An Interview with Douglas Davey, author of M in the Abstract

This past spring The Bookshelf hosted a very successful reading featuring Douglas Davey, author of the YA novel M in the Abstract. Here Douglas responds to questions from Athme Sivapalan,  a member of the Brampton Library's Teen Library Council. Thanks to Michele Collins, Librarian at the Cyril Clark branch of the Brampton Library, for arranging this interview. You can also see Athme's review of M in the Abstract in our Bookshelf Reviews.

What was the initial idea in coming up with a story such as M in the Abstract?

I began at the end, with the final image—the metamorphosed girl standing on the brink—then I worked backwards.

Mary is such a relatable girl in her personality and “normal” everyday problems. How were you able to realistically create her character?

I wanted her to feel authentic even though her circumstances were so strange, so I gave her really relatable problems, such as being overly self-conscious. I think a lot of teens feel like everyone is always staring at them, judging them. She also experiences more mundane dilemmas, such as trying to put off going to the bathroom because she doesn't want to get out of bed. Who doesn't do that?

A lot of the dialogue is based on real-life conversations that I remember from my teenage years. It's strange—I can't remember what I had for breakfast but somehow I can recall every detail of a conversation I overheard when I was 16. I still eavesdrop a lot because teens are giving away free material every time they speak!

The emotions in this story are very powerful. Did you ever feel when writing that you experienced the same feeling at the same moment the characters you were writing about were?

It was more like the remembrance of feeling. Being a teen is such an emotional time—I felt like I was constantly on the edge of going crazy. I tried to remember what I was feeling at the time and then tap into that pain and frustration. But being a teen isn't all bad. When Shakespeare wrote Romeo and Juliet, he knew that there is nothing quite so all-encompassing as falling in love when you're a teenager. *Sigh*

Thinking back, there was one moment when I was editing M in the Abstract where I came across a little passage that I'd forgotten all about. Rereading it made me feel very blue, although I can't pinpoint why. It's sad when friends part.

Was there any research done in the making of this story or was everything made from your imagination?

I didn't need to do much in the way of research as much of the book is a mish-mash of my own experiences, or those of my friends. I did do some artwork to try and finalize the look of the characters—you can see some it on my website.

Where did the idea of Mary having her strange ability come from?

I wanted to combine comic book concepts (like super-powers) and the classic teen problem novel, the kind where a character has to deal with a specific, real-life issue. If you look on my website you'll see many of the comics/cartoons that inspired me. But I also wanted there to be this ambiguity about her abilities—are they even real? For me, that made it more interesting to write.

Is there any real life inspiration for M in the Abstract?

Most definitely my own life played a big part, as well as the lives of those around me. I'm still woefully self-conscious, although you wouldn't always know it. And I still want to join the X-Men.

I also used real-life people (or at least my recollections of their voices) in order to keep the dialogue consistent. I assigned people I know (or knew) to many of the characters. If I couldn't imagine my friends saying the lines, then I'd rewrite them.

The city of Guelph, Ontario where I live served as the inspiration for Mary's town, although there are significant differences. There really is a long footbridge in Guelph, but it's nowhere near as big as the one in the book.

This story's characters are largely in the teen age group. Why?

I really wanted it to be enjoyed by teens, so that's the age of the cast members. It's just more relatable for the target audience. Plus, I love writing teen dialogue!

Why is the the title M in the Abstract?

On one hand, I simply wanted an evocative title, one that would sound intriguing. Joni Mitchell has an album called The Hissing of Summer Lawns. Isn't that great? I don't know what it means but I can picture it perfectly.

On the other hand, I wanted a title that described the content without being obvious, in the same way that an abstract painting can evoke an emotion or idea without explicitly describing something.

The main character's unstable personality is reflected in the fact that she goes by many names: Mary, Mariposa, Mare, and Posey (there might even be more). When Mary refers to herself as the letter M, she is at her most reduced and abstract. She doesn't know who she is. Who does?

Also, I was reading Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad (of Heart of Darkness fame) and I came across a line referring to "ambition in the abstract," meaning a drive to achieve and excel at everything—having ambition for its own sake. That idea (or rather, the opposite of that idea) was intriguing to me and stuck around long enough in my brain to make its way into the book title.

Were there any messages you wanted readers to take away from this? If so, what would they be?

Mary is surrounded by people want to help her, but because of her overwhelming fear and shame, she refuses, choosing instead to keep both her secret and her sadness, at least until she starts opening up towards the end.

Suffering thrives in silence. Like a living thing, it will do anything to stay alive. To overcome your suffering you have to talk about it, you have to break the cycle. But that's easier said than done.

If people take away anything from the story, I hope it's this: no matter how much of a freak you think you are, you're never alone.

Can we expect to see more from Mary?

If you'd have asked me that question a little while ago I would have said no, but now I don't know. I've had a lot of people ask me what happens after the final page. I've started writing some more material, but the pieces are short stories and not a straightforward sequel. Instead, it's a collection of "what ifs?" What if the shadows are real? What if they're not?

I've written one piece I like quite a lot where Kristyn and Cammy (who are just a blast to write) take Mary out for a night on the town and show her how to get up to no good. Not only does she learn a valuable lesson (how to make a convincing lie about your whereabouts) but her mom gets to go on a date, something which is long overdue!

If the demand is there, I promise I will write more!

Thanks for reading,

Douglas Davey

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