Young Adult Fiction in #20gayteen: A Conversation with Adrienne Kisner
Tiffany Jones & Adrienne Kisner
Adrienne Kisner is the author of Dear Rachel Maddow, a novel in which the protagonist Brynn Harper watches the Rachel Maddow Show daily and writes its star an email. Maddow responds, setting Brynn off on a frenzy of further emails about her first serious girlfriend, her brother Nick’s death, her passive aggressive mother and student representation at school. Only one student representative will be allowed to have a voice among the administration in the selection of a new school superintendent; however Brynn’s ex-girlfriend Sarah believes only high-achieving students are worthy of the selection committee seat. Brynn feels all students deserve a voice, so she begins to ask herself the question that is lately haunting many daily news viewers: What Would Rachel Maddow Do?
Bent Street editor Tiffany Jones interviewed Adrienne Kisner about Maddow fangirls, the new youth activism, being an ‘YA Fiction’ writer on LGBTI themes and more …
TJ: Many people passionately watch Rachel Maddow’s political news analyses, especially now as a guide to the problems of the Trump Administration … I am finding myself relating to how your book’s main character Brynn Harper watches Maddow daily! Despite (or because of?) Maddow’s political PhD she really simplifies complex concepts behind news events; I imagine young people finding her helpful in understanding current crises. And, dashing. So the basic concept behind this book is very timely and relatable: a young lesbian protagonist Brynn Harper receives a response to her Rachel Maddow fan mail, and then starts writing Rachel a series of confessional emails … Are you or people in your life daily Maddow fans?
AK: I definitely am! I started watching by accident and kept watching because Rachel became like a really informed friend I had never met. I dragged people in my life along with me and now I think several still watch out of habit.
TJ: I dearly love that part of the basic premise of the book is that Brynn writes, but does not send, these emails to Maddow. Ahhhh the awkward, tragic yearning for connecting with our idols! I felt voyeuristic reading such personal fan-mail, until I saw Brynn’s teacher was reading it too … this narrative device made me even more embarrassed for Brynn (at her naïve self-exposure) but less embarrassed for myself (since she knew adults would be viewing her effort at connecting to Rachel). Who were your idols growing up, and why did you connect to them?
AK: LOL, I had a few and they were random. I rather liked ‘Deanna Troi’ from Star Trek: TNG, because I am as cool as they come. She could feel people’s feelings! I always wondered why she was the only psychological professional on a ship for thousands, though. That’s pretty bad ass. I also admired a man named ‘David Horowitz’, who had this consumer advocacy show that informed people on advertising versus reality. I loved that guy. And finally Ann M. Martin – creator of The Baby-Sitters’ Club. She was the first writer with whom I felt really connected. All of her work just spoke to me. They were all a mix of empathy, advocacy, and fun. How could young me not want to emulate them?
TJ: I met some of my idols; dubious choice. Our own fabrications about our idols can be the part we had most connected to. Did you ever meet any idols in the flesh?
AK: I once met Rainbow Brite when I was eight. I was horrified when she was a large, polyester facsimile of a person who was not at all magical. Since then I’ve made it a point to avoid the famous.
TJ: What do you see as the main value of idols for their younger (or any) LGBTI fans?
AK: Idols, like any character we know but don’t quite, point out how we might be in the world. What is possible, someone to whom we can ideally aspire. Are some idols famous for not really doing anything (I won’t name names)? Yes. But they provide a window into another reality, because sometimes our own isn’t that great. That is valuable.
TJ: The plot explores how Brynn becomes aware of oppression in her life and tries to get active in the political world of her school. Were you politically active at school?
AK: I was on the paper. I wrote snarky little op-eds that got me called into the principal’s office more than once. But I WILL say that the school orchestra was forced to practice in a bathroom for a semester. I wrote about that, and they moved us. I was a volunteer in an in-patient child psychiatric unit, I convinced people to fundraise for different causes with me. I tried in small ways. I wasn’t very good at it, as I was largely afraid of talking to people. But I always believed you had to try to push yourself out of your comfort zone to make a change.
TJ: Your book’s focus on youth activism is well-timed given US youth are featuring strongly in 2018’s political activism in and beyond schools – in protests on transgender youth bathroom access; #20gayteen; Black Lives Matters; Women’s Marches, March for Our Lives campaigns … and now on the mistreatment of immigrant children. Is this cohort more politically engaged, or more affected by recent political decisions?
AK: I think that it is easier to see and thus experience the injustices of others. These things are on film and widely distributed, instead of just talked about in marginalized communities. I hope it continues to wake the sleeping.
TJ: The book comments on some key barriers to political engagement in a clever way. How are these barriers playing out in the US at the moment?
AK: I worry that the American experiment is crumbling. It is giving way to the dark impulse of totalitarianism because of fear. The free press is under attack, the rule of law is under attack. But I also think hope is not lost. People are protesting. People have lived with dystopian fiction long enough that we can’t say that we weren’t warned. People will continue to resist. I just hope it’s enough.
TJ: You teach people to write; this came through in the witty authenticity of the teacher’s comments on Brynn’s writing development in the book … and Brynn’s resistance to being edited. We have many creative types reading Bent Street journal; what advice features in your current writing lessons?
AK: You have time to write. Yes, yes. I’m sure your car broke down and your partner broke up with you and your basement is filled with feral cats. That’s life. It you want to write, you can do it. Ten minutes at a time every other day will finish a novel eventually. Not only can you do it – you should. The world needs your story. Also, learn to format dialogue properly. Break the rules if you want, but know them first. And know your character as well as you can – that is where the plot will come from.
TJ: Your book is categorised as ‘Young Adult/ YA Fiction’. Whilst categories aid in indicating reading difficulty, separation of fiction into ‘adult’ and ‘YA’ genres feels artificial; kids can love adult books and adults can love ‘YA fiction’. I use YA fiction with thousands of pre-service teachers (adults), who are often already reading it! We perhaps start reading with a ‘young adult imagined reader’ alongside us; a great book evaporates that device. Are you aware of your adult fans, or adult YA fans broadly?
AK: I would not call myself a fan of any fiction outside of that for younger readers; save Elizabeth Gilbert (I’m a sucker for Elizabeth Gilbert). Adult fiction is packed with middle aged angst, and I can just get that anytime I want in my daily life, thanks. Kids haven’t given up on the impossible, they allow for the imagination to have the most say. They will also call a writer out for inauthenticity. So their books are just better written. If adults read my work for similar reasons–hello, readers. You are my people.
TJ: What is different about writing YA fiction versus fiction intended for adults?
AK: I’m not sure how to write for adults. Maybe take the fun and possibility out of things? Ha! I kid. (Kind of). I’m always baffled why someone would write for adults on purpose. Is there more money in it? That seems unlikely. Do they enjoy being an adult? Adults can stay up later and spend money the way they want, but I’ve found that just leaves me tired …and broke. BORING.
TJ: Recently Australia has had inquiries into the ‘age-appropriateness’ of texts on LGBTI topics for young people. Perhaps it’s a fabricated concern to provoke conservative outrage for our elections … Does your work garner this sort of critique?
AK: I haven’t gotten that. My character swears a lot, so I don’t know that it ever makes its way into the hands of really young readers. But casting LGBTI content as age-inappropriate is just another way of trying to censor it. You aren’t helping kids by keeping the world from them. They are the world, what benefit is there in hiding them from themselves?
TJ: Wonderful points. It’s a shame YA writing experts are overlooked in these debates, in favour of people lacking expertise on LGBTIs or writing. On to your new work; what are you writing now?
AK: My current book is about two younger kids who live in a high rise dormitory. It’s basically a love letter to my own children, who have always lived in a dorm because of my job. I don’t know if anyone will think it as funny as I do, but I crack myself up every day while writing it. I get funny looks in the library. It’s better than Dear Rachel Maddow or my second book out next year, The Confusion of Laurel Graham – I burst out crying once or twice with those. I should probably just write at home.
TJ: A good laugh is just as necessary as a good cry, so we’ll have to keep an eye out for your upcoming books. For now, I’m hoping we’ve sparked readers’ interests in your 2018 book for themselves or the young people in their lives (we’re including an excerpt here); where and how can interested readers find more of Dear Rachel Maddow?
AK: It’s available from online retailers, and can probably be ordered at the indie of your choice (in the US . . . I’m not sure about abroad). It’s also in libraries or could be ordered.
Adrienne Kisner is a popular young adult fiction writer who lived her entire ‘adult’ life in a college dormitory working in both Residence Life and college chaplaincy. She prefers the term ‘dormitory’ better than ‘residence hall’. She went to school for a long time so that now she gets to swoop around in a fancy robe and silly hat (like at Hogwarts). She has an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts (a place like Hogwarts). She plays both the viola and tennis with more heart than skill. She loves her current home in Boston but will always be a Pennsylvanian at heart.