In conversation: authors Elisabeth Donnelly & Stu Sherman
Fifteen-year-old Sarah Robertson is no ordinary teenager—she can control the weather with her emotions. Her older brother, Johnny, can turn water into alcohol. And their mother is Lady Oblivion, feared arch nemesis of America’s favorite superhero, Freedom Man. In this world, superheros with useful powers (creating earthquakes, flying, walking through walls) go to high school at Hero Academy to become crime fighters, while those with unsuitable powers (disappearing when embarrassed, talking to small woodland animals) get labeled as Misshapes and have to attend high school with the normals.
A few days ago, I caught up with Greenpoint residents Elisabeth Donnelly and Stu Sherman, the writing duo behind the pseudonym Alex Flynn…
We met up at Anella on Franklin Street and settled into a corner table. It was a little before nine in the evening, and both Sherman and Donnelly had just come straight from work. Donnelly is a non-fiction editor at Flavorwire, and Sherman is the Executive Director for the New York State Task Force on Life and the Law. Both originally hail from Boston, spent some time in upstate New York (“in Albany for six years, give or take, then Catskill”), before moving to Windsor Terrace, and then Greenpoint this past August (“We were looking for enough space to write in and not be in each other’s hair all the time”).
Sherman met Donnelly “at a party in Boston awhile ago,” after she recommended The White Boy Shuffle by poet Paul Beatty to Sherman. He read it within a week and gave her a call. “It’s a coming of age story, and Paul Beatty is a genius,” explains Donnelly. “There are some small references in our book to White Boy Shuffle. The crossover readership is very small, but for the one or two people out there…” We laugh. We order wine and desserts. And I flip on my recorder, so we dive right into the questions:
GPers: When did you start writing this book?
SS: We wrote it over three years, I’d say. We were both learning to write fiction ourselves while we were also learning to work on a book as two people.
ED: The book is technically middle-grade, even though the characters are teenagers. I think it’s because it’s clean, but that’s just marketing terms.
GPers: I used to read books like this in middle school, and I think part of it is that you aspire to be these characters or these teens. What was the writing process like?
SS: The process was that we’d plot it together, and then we would write separately, and then would edit each other’s chapters until we finally had one voice.
ED: Right. I would take a chapter. He would take a chapter. And, we would try to make each other laugh.
SS: There was a big breakthrough because, initially, it was written in third person and that did not work. When it’s first person, you embody the character. It’s sort of a little like acting. With third person, you have the actual things that are happening and you have the narrative voice. And, I think we could not reconcile a third person narrative voice.
ED: Also, the plotting process was interesting because a lot of Y[oung] A[dult] books are a hero’s journey. It’s a person discovering that they’re the chosen one, destined for something. This book kind of starts out with Sarah thinking she’s chosen, and that not necessarily happening. So it’s not like she’s plunged into a whole new world, per se, that you need to explain.
SS: That was definitely the hardest part. We had to figure out a way for Sarah to tell the reader about heroes without it being silly. It was also fun to figure out what part of our superhero culture was in their universe. So, did they have a Batman or did they not have a Batman?
GPers: In your book, it seems like you create all new superheros?
SS: Yeah. I think there was a Clark Kent reference once, but I think other than that it was all new. And the Clark Kent was more vernacular.
GPers: What sparked the idea to write this novel?
ED: It was a car ride. This was when we lived upstate. We were taking a long drive to the Montague Bookmill, in Montague, Massachusetts, which is this used bookstore and an old mill on a river. I was just sort of talking about like, “Hey, what would it be like if you could control the weather with you teen-girl emotions.”
SS: I think Johnny was one of the first characters, too. We were trying to think of terrible powers for teenagers to have. The first one was a girl with the ability to control the weather, but only with her emotions. And then the second power we came up with, which is Johnny’s, is the ability to turn water into alcohol. If you’re a rebellious teenager, that’s the worst thing imaginable for you.
GPers: How did Sarah end up being the narrator?
SS: Because we followed her story the closest, so when we ended up switching it [to first person], she was the one that seemed like the natural narrator. We knew she was the one getting rejected, and that she’d have a journey of discovery regarding the Hero Academy.
SS: I think one of the things we also wanted to talk about, which we find is not really discussed in YAs, is rejection and learning to deal with rejection as a teenager. All these kids are always getting into these magical schools, and there’s a struggle, but then things sort of fall their way. One of the hardest things to deal with, especially in a world in which testing is becoming a lot more important, is what happens when you fail. Or get close. How do you deal with that?
GPers: It’s also interesting that Sarah, the younger sibling and a girl, becomes the leader of the group when things get serious and they have to go to battle. There’s no point where Johnny just takes over.
ED: We’re excited to expand the superhero narrative with a girl. The realm of the comic and the superhero does always feel like a boy thing, on average, and the women characters, even if they’re strong, they’re still sexy.
SS: I love comic books, but there’s sort of an aspect of female heroes where the focus is so much more on their bodies before it’s their powers.
ED: And we’re both big fans of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. That show was really seminal. I think we really wanted to play around with the fact that a woman is discovering her powers.
GPers: Did you start out already having a publisher or was this a labor of love?
SS & ED (in unison): Labor of love.
ED: It’s a quirky book, so it’s traveled a long journey. What was really nice was that Polis Books is an independent, brand new publisher that is just starting out, and the founder, Jason Pinter, has passion and enthusiasm. Jason was responsible for bringing the book out into the world, and that’s something you value. Our book is the first printed book to come out of Polis Books.
GPers: As far as this being a first book for both of you, is any part of it autobiographical?
ED: There is a good story for Stu Sherman…
SS: We figured out Johnny’s power as something funny, and then ended up making it an allegory for Type I Diabetes with his Alcometer as basically like a glucometer. The limiting factor for someone like Johnny who could give out free drinks is that he has to check his alcohol level and take his medicine constantly. It’s sort of my experience of being a teenager with a chronic illness and how difficult that is. You want to be rebellious, but you have to deal with an illness. But Johnny’s a lot cooler than I was as a kid, and with much better taste in music. He’s my ideal teenager self, with the restrictions.†
The Misshapes: The Coming Storm is currently available for purchase at Word Bookstores, select Barnes & Noble locations, and Amazon, which also has the e-book version for Kindle. When they’re not working on the second book in the trilogy, Donnelly and Sherman are picking up cookies at Ovenly on their way to hang out at Transmitter Park.