About the Author:
One of Narrative’s Best New Writers, Evan Roskos’s fiction has appeared in Granta’s New Voices online feature, as well as in Story Quarterly, The Hummingbird Review, and BestFiction. He earned an MFA from Rutgers University — Newark and teaches literature and writing courses for Rowan University and Rutgers University — Camden. His debut novel Dr. Bird’s Advice for Sad Poets (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) was published in March 2013 and was optioned by Kreate Films producer Shona Tuckman. Evan lives in NJ with his wife and son.
MF: For the record, Dr. Bird’s Advice for Sad Poets is among my favorite books of 2013. Where did you find James Whitman? How was his story revealed to you?
ER: James Whitman came through his voice. I literally sat down and tried to write what became the opening chapter: a teenager trying to stay upbeat and talk like Walt Whitman. That opening chapter in the book is only a tad different from the very original. The story then proceeded pretty naturally. I wanted to follow this kid and I knew he had a troubled home and a bond with his sister. I especially knew he had a desire to focus on people other than himself, because despite how depression can cause people to turn inward, I felt like a more enjoyable and interesting story for me to write would involve a kid who would try to look anywhere BUT inside himself. I didn’t want to write chapter-after-chapter of internal wallowing. I wouldn’t have finished that book.
MF: Dr. Bird’s Advice for Sad Poets tackles depression and anxiety with humor and finesse, yet you didn’t try to gloss it over. Was the balance struck by your natural writing style or was it found during rewrites?
ER: The balance, as you can imagine, caused me much frustration. I have scenes that are nearly identical to first draft versions but their placement in the story changed a hundred times. I tend to be like James in the way I joke about serious things, so my sense of humor certainly infects the prose, but when it comes to true emotion, I had to really focus so as not to underwrite the emotions. I had to let James fall in deeply and not make a joke.
MF: What made you choose a pigeon as James’ therapist? Why not another bird?
ER: I believe, like James, that pigeons seem like therapists. I watch them in my backyard and they are deliberate and weighty birds. They won’t even fly away when a squirrel comes by to take the bulk of the food. They strike me as thoughtful, grounded, and patient. Plus, they have a stigma, and the book deals with stigma and loneliness that I think connects James and Jorie to pigeons. people in the US (and maybe elsewhere) consider pigeons dirty, stupid, “rats of the sky.” Once I knew James had a connection to trees, I knew that his imaginary therapist would be an animal and then a pigeon seemed perfect. I honestly never had another animal or bird in mind.
MF: Shona Tuckman of Kreate Films has optioned Dr. Bird’s Advice for Sad Poets. Tell us how this developed. What are your expectations?
ER: This answer is totally boring from my perspective. I got an email, then a phone call with Shona, then a deal was struck. From Shona’s perspective it’s more profound because she’s very busy and told me she knows pretty quickly if a book is worth finishing. She read DR. BIRD in a day and loved it and after talking to her and to the director/screenwriter she hired, I know the adaptation is in great great hands. My expectations are tempered by my knowledge of how many obstacles can get in the way of a book-to-film adaptation. Being friends with novelist Matthew Quick and knowing some of the ups and downs of the development of SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK, I’m simply thankful that Shona found DR. BIRD and hopeful that the various obstacles that can pop up will be limited and easy to overcome.
MF: Another of my favorite books of 2013 is Canary by Rachele Alpine. Do you think James Whitman and Kate Franklin would be friends in real life?
ER: That’s a GREAT question! Alpine’s novel is powerful and works with family dynamics so well. I loved how it progressed and the use of poetic journal entries certainly connects James to Kate pretty well. However I have to say that James would be more likely to befriend (or be befriended by) Kate’s brother! They seem more on the outside of things, whereas Kate, at least in the bulk of the novel, is navigating the social scene with more interest than James ever would!
MF: An article written by Philadelphia Inquirer staff writer Kathy Boccella discusses your relationship with author Matthew Quick (Silver Linings’ Playbook) and how you both battle depression. Would you mind sharing what you learned from your collaboration with Matthew both professionally and personally?
ER: I’m not sure I can even explain how much I’ve learned from Matthew Quick. We lived a block away from each other and after being introduced by a mutual connection (one of Quick’s former students was dating one of my students), we started getting coffee every Friday to discuss writing and publishing. It was profound for me because I was finishing up an MFA program but hadn’t figured out how to remain focused on my work in the post-MFA life. Matt, who also had an MFA, advised me to focus on writing what I wanted to write — to shake off some of the assumptions that I’d made about what “sold” and what was “of literary value.” By the time he suggested we write a YA novel together, I had a completely different view of myself and the way that publishing worked. Mostly, Matt gives me perspective, but the best part is for as much as he can impart about his experience, the fact is that we talk just as much about the mundane aspects of the writing life. Since we’re both similar when it comes to mental health struggles, our friendship is more important than the fact that we’re writers. We often help each other remain grounded (not that his wife, novelist and musician Alicia Bessette and my wife Laura are not patient and supportive and no-nonsense women who handle the bulk of emotional support work!).
MF: What can we expect next from Evan Roskos? Are you working on a new novel?
ER: I’m always working, though I tend to get the most writing done between May and September, as my adjuncting duties in the Fall and Spring semesters can be intrusive. I tend to get very focused when I write new manuscripts, whereas revision can happen in more manageable chunks of time even when I’m teaching. I have a YA manuscript currently open on my desktop and another with its arms crossed because I’m not giving it the attention it wants right now. haha
MF: What has been the toughest criticism given to you as a writer? What has been the best compliment?
ER: As a YA writer, there’s a subtle but menacing criticism that comes from people who think young adult writing is easier, fluffier, less important, or just simply bad. And I’m not capable of stopping that assumption on my own. Nor can I even overturn it by encouraging people to read more young adult — those critics will likely have to read something that’s YA without knowing it’s been marketed as such. So, that’s been a struggle in some ways. The best compliments come from my readers. I recently got an email from a teenager who called DR. BIRD “the best book in the history of books.” I will graciously and joyfully accept compliments like that every day of my life! In addition, I get very heartfelt messages from teens who struggle with mental health issues, self harm, abuse, and more. And when they tell me my book spoke to them I feel great. Not because I feel like I’m great, but because a book helped someone. The fact that I wrote it just means I get the proof that it helped. The fact that it exists and got into the hands and heart and mind of someone who needed it — that’s the real beauty of publishing.
MF: Aside from polished and engaging writing, what three things do you think every new writer must do in order to succeed in this highly competitive and ever-changing industry?
ER: In no meaningful order: A) Be polite, professional and confident — the internet makes it easy to criticize people, but it’s also easy to ruin your reputation or burn bridges. Everyone you meet should be treated with decency; any legitimate gossip and ire you might have should stay between close friends and off the internet. B) Accept that you can only control the time you spend at your desk, writing. Once you begin the path to publishing, other voices creep in. You must make choices, you must bear great amounts of commentary that seems hurtful but is just not as gentle as you might like. I tell young writers to embrace the experience of being a garage band, struggling to get your songs right. Because after you release an album, the entire process changes and you want to be able to keep your garage, where your best creativity exists. C) Learn to love revision — you spend so many hours with your writing that you have to get beyond the ideas of “I only write when I’m inspired” or “I don’t feel the same excitement as when I wrote this piece.” Sometimes you need to step away, yes, but the process of revision is similar to long term relationships — there’s still joy and passion and fun, but there’s also compromise, pain, loss, and frustration. The great news: revision makes things better most of the time; and when it doesn’t you can put your manuscript aside and not actually feel emotionally scarred as if it was a real person locked in a drawer! haha
MF: If you could jump into a book, and live in that world … which would it be?
ER: Oh, this is a good question but also one I’m so afraid to answer because I feel like it might actually happen! haha Also, lots of the books I read feel like the world I live in now. Then again, I’ve read so many sad books and dystopian novels and horror novels — it’s not a safe question! But here’s the best answer: I’d like to live in a Bugs Bunny cartoon. I grew up watching those and always love the wacky way that anything could happen, especially that one where Bugs fights with the pencil that keeps redrawing him. That seems about right. A little metafictional, fun, not dangerous. Even with all the shotguns-to-the-face! (I’d probably freak out about the racism, though, so Bugs and I would have the fight about it.)
Sixteen-year-old James Whitman has been yawping (à la Whitman) at his abusive father ever since he kicked his beloved older sister, Jorie, out of the house. James’s painful struggle with anxiety and depression—along with his ongoing quest to understand what led to his self-destructive sister’s exile—make for a heart-rending read, but his wild, exuberant Whitmanization of the world and keen sense of humor keep this emotionally charged debut novel buoyant.