Today, I welcome Robin Stevenson to my blog for an interview about her compelling new YA novel The World Without Us – available from Orca Book Publishers in February 2015.
What do you do when someone you care about wants you to follow him to a really dark place? Do you pull away? Do you help plan the trip? Or do you put your own life on the line in the hope that love will coax your friend away from the precipice? When Mel meets Jeremy, she thinks she has finally found someone who understands her, someone who will listen to her, someone who cares. But Jeremy has secrets that torment him, and Mel isn’t sure she can save him from his demons. All she knows is that she has to save herself.
Set in Florida, against a backdrop of anti-death-penalty activism, The World Without Us examines one girl’s choices in a world where the stakes are very high and one misstep can hurt – or even kill – you.
I was lucky enough to read a preview copy of Robin’s novel, and I found myself devouring it in a few days but pondering it for weeks afterward. I’m glad to have this chance to probe a little deeper in the novel and its intriguing premise and characters.
Karen: At the dramatic start of The World Without Us, Jeremy and Mel have made a suicide pact. In fact, they’re on the Sunshine Skyway Bridge in Florida, ready to jump. Where did the idea for this come from?
Robin: I wrote that opening scene without having any plan beyond that point – I didn’t even know who Mel and Jeremy were, how they came to be on the bridge together, or why Jeremy jumped and Mel didn’t. Writing the first draft was all about answering those questions and making sense of that opening scene.
As I wrote it, I remembered conversations I was part of in high school where people would kid around about suicide, and I started wondering: What if one of my friends hadn’t been joking? What if an undercurrent of truth lay beneath the humour?
Also, I used to be a counsellor, and I worked with many people who were suicidal. So it’s a subject I’ve thought a lot about over the years. I thought it might be good to write about it in a way that hopefully would lead to discussions and increased awareness.
Karen: I think the book will achieve that goal. I certainly hope so.
The failed suicide attempt is set against a backdrop of protests against the death penalty in Florida. What sparked you to link suicide with the death penalty?
Robin: I tend to get somewhat obsessed with certain topics. When I was writing this book, I was reading a lot about the death penalty, life on death row, black holes, and lucid dreaming. Sometimes my current topics glue themselves to other ideas and become part of the story I’m writing, which is what happened here. It wasn’t a very conscious process, but I enjoyed writing about these themes together in this novel because it allowed me to explore Mel’s and Jeremy’s ideas about death in more depth. Suicide and the death penalty both raise questions about whether someone should live or not – and who should make that choice. And, of course, sometimes people who seem to have every reason to live choose to kill themselves, while others who have had appallingly hard lives desperately want to avoid death.
Karen: Both Jeremy and Mel are unique, richly developed and intelligent teens. Can you tell me a bit about the process of creating them?
Robin: Mel, who narrates the story, is bright, capable, and very much loved. She’s an only child who is close to her parents. She seemingly has everything in the world to look forward to, and yet she ends up on the bridge with Jeremy. In contrast, Jeremy has experienced a terrible loss, but he’s not suffering in ways that are obvious to the people who care about him. Suicide and depression are so complex – Mel and Jeremy themselves have to struggle to make sense of how they ended up where they did. I wanted to challenge preconceived ideas about who is at risk for suicide. I didn’t want there to be any easy answers in this story.
In terms of process, I think the characters started to take shape as I wrote about their interactions and conversations with each other, and with Mel’s parents and Suzy (the girl Mel babysits). I wrote a lot of conversations that didn’t make it into the final book because that’s one of the ways I get to know my characters. Mel was easier for me to understand than Jeremy. Her family is, in many ways, quite a lot like my own family, and Mel’s difficulties in accepting Jeremy’s ways of coping mirror my own struggle to comprehend and appreciate the different journey he is on.
Karen: On your blog, you’ve said that your books are about “figuring out who you are and what you believe and where you fit in the world.” What do you think your protagonist Mel figures out about herself and her world in this book?
Robin: Both Mel and Jeremy are reading Camus, who wrote that suicide was the only truly serious philosophical problem, and both of them are, in different ways, struggling with the absurdity of life. Mel is a kid who has been raised on both skepticism and activism. She believes that the meaning in life is the meaning you give it, that your life is the sum of your actions, and that what matters are the choices you make. Jeremy is searching for a higher power of some kind and looking for a meaning that Mel doesn’t believe exists. She feels Jeremy is running away from reality, ignoring both his freedom and his responsibility. But Jeremy is terrified by that freedom because it means nothing is holding him back, nothing is preventing him from letting go, and nothing is anchoring him in this world.
Mel doesn’t have a lot of friends, and her deep, intense connection with Jeremy is terribly important to her. She feels abandoned when Jeremy chooses a different path, and her anger comes from this sense of loss. I don’t think Mel ever fully understands Jeremy’s fear and despair, but she does accept that she and Jeremy are two different people, and that he has to find his own ways of coping and creating meaning in his life. She realizes that she needs to stop trying to control what he believes and instead make her own conscious choice to continue to be a friend to him.
Karen: What’s next for you? Can you share a little about your works-in-progress?
Robin: I’m currently working on the edits for my latest middle-grade novel. It’s called The Summer We Saved the Bees, and it’ll be published by Orca in the Fall of 2015. I’m also working on my first non-fiction project – a book about Pride Day that’s aimed at readers aged 11 to 14. It’s been an interesting process – a lot of research, reading, talking with people, sourcing photographs, etc. As a queer mom to a ten-year-old, I feel strongly that LGBTQ families need to be represented in the books our kids read – and I’m thrilled to have the opportunity to contribute to the growing body of diverse books.
Karen: You’re busy, Robin, which makes readers like me happy. Thanks so much for taking the time to share your insights. It’s been a pleasure, and I look forward to reading your upcoming books.