For her debut children’s book, actress and author Jane Lynch teamed up with child psychologist Lara Embry and children’s books editor A.E. Mikesell to craft Marlene, Marlene, Queen of Mean—a heartwarming rhyming tale about a bully just looking to fit in. While many know of Lynch’s experiences as small-screen bully Sue Sylvester from Glee, few know that in her childhood she too was a playground terror. Bookish got a chance to chat with Lynch, who gave us some insight into the mind of a bully and the dirt on how Sue Sylvester is a warrior in disguise.
Bookish: Maybe it’s the pink bow, but your protagonist Marlene reminds me of Helga Pataki from the TV show Hey Arnold. What inspired you to write this book?
Jane Lynch: Well, I don’t know that show, but who knows where inspiration comes from? My co-writers [Lara Embry and A.E. Mikesell] are both parents and Lara is a psychologist. We were talking one day about getting inside the mind of a bully and how easily kids will turn their power over to someone who’s so threatening. So I thought, let’s do it from the bully’s point of view and have a kid call her out and tell the other kids, “You know, she’s really not that powerful.” Marlene just wants to connect and be understood. [That message] might change a girl young enough before that behavior becomes too solidified and she becomes a mean girl in high school. I think that it’s effective in that it’s a very sweet story that shows how bullying is the result of just trying to connect and how you can remedy that. And because it’s for young kids, it rhymes, which makes it very sweet.
Bookish: What was the writing process like for you and the other two authors?
JL: We used email. It was very modern of us, sending drafts back and forth. Elizabeth [Mikesell] was the one who was really good at the rhyming. She is just genius with that and a lot of other things too; she’s a wonderful writer.
Bookish: Did you or the other authors have a vision in mind when it came to the design or did you let the illustrator, Tricia Tusa, work her magic?
JL: Oh we definitely let Tricia take the reins, but we did say it would be nice if Marlene was a little odd, a little different, and a little awkward. We said, let’s make her bow too big for her head, make her somebody kind of socially awkward, like all of us are. Kids are especially awkward, they just don’t quite know how to act. Marlene also has freckles and red hair. Gingers are rarer these days so it makes you feel a little different, too.
Bookish: You’ve said that you were a bit of a bully growing up. When and how did you turn it around?
JL: It’s one of those things that you realize doesn’t work. My desire was to connect and I imbued that need in Marlene. There were times I’d go on the playground and change the rules of the game just to play, just to be part of the group. I still am kind of socially awkward, I’m not great at parties. When I was a kid, I dealt with it by either just being quiet and hoping nobody would pick on me or I’d be aggressive. I’d go into a situation and try to shake things up, but it was all in an effort to be part of the group.
Bookish: What’s your advice to kids who are socially awkward?
JL: It depends on the kid, really, and what their anxieties are. For me, I wish someone had said, “You don’t have to be friends with everybody, just find that one person that you’re comfortable with.” To this day, I have a very small amount of people that I hang out with. I don’t push the boundaries and go to big parties, I don’t do things that make me uncomfortable. I stick with my friends and every once in a while someone will come in and I think, “Oh, this could be a new friend.” With kids, you can’t push them to go out of their social comfort zone. Let them know that bullying and pushing your way in isn’t ever long lasting and ultimately isn’t very satisfying.
Bookish: From your personal experiences and your time playing a bully on Glee, what’s the most valuable thing you’ve learned from getting inside a bully’s head?
JL: They’re protecting something, they’re protecting a very vulnerable heart. That’s what I found for Sue Sylvester and really any bully that I have played, and I’ve played a lot of aggressive people. They’re protecting something very, very tender and they know no other way to protect it.
The thing about Sue Sylvester is she goes in and out of what feels like random violence to being the most fearsome advocate for the downtrodden and the vulnerable. For her, it’s almost about being a warrior. She’s your greatest enemy and also your greatest advocate.
Bookish: What is that draws you to playing characters like Sue and creating characters like Marlene?
JL: Well, it’s interesting. I think that actors represent archetypes of people and I represent, I think, a kind of warrior energy. I’m not afraid to go face-to-face with the bully or an enemy and tell people what’s what. Going back to Greek mythology, it’s kind of like the goddess Artemis, the protector. I really relate to her. I think that’s why I gravitate towards those roles and why people gravitate towards those characters.
Bookish: You’ve written a play and a memoir. How was writing a children’s book different for you?
JL: The memoir was me, alone, feverishly writing my story in fits of inspiration. My ex-wife Lara did a lot of editing on that, which was extremely helpful, but basically it was kind of me sitting in a room. This was definitely a collaboration and writing it via email was different too.
Bookish: Is there anything you learned as an actress that you bring to writing? Or vice versa?
JL: I always start with the achilles, the vulnerability, and I work from that. I think this is just my process as an artist.
Bookish: Are there any other forms or genres you’d like to write in?
JL: I very rarely have plans and goals; I’m just pulled by whatever creative force there is in me. With no plans, there’s no limitations.
Bookish: What were some of your favorite kids books growing up?
JL: I don’t remember. I’ve been asked all the time. I do remember reading kid’s books and them being made out of that sturdy almost wood material, I loved that, but I don’t remember one book. Dick and Jane, maybe?
I didn’t read a lot as a kid. I wasn’t a big reader, I was of the television generation.
Bookish: Did that change at a certain point for you?
JL: Yes! I don’t watch television at all anymore. I shouldn’t admit that, it’s what I work in. But I don’t watch it at all, I read all day long. At any moment I’m reading or I’m on YouTube and going down the rabbit hole.
Bookish: What’s the best book you’ve read this year?
Bookish: Kids are often encouraged to seek adult help when it comes to bullying, though in this book it’s a young boy who stands up to Marlene. Why did you chose to have adults absent and to have Big Freddy stand up to the bully?
JL: I don’t know that we made a conscious decision to do that. It kind of came out of the story, but in retrospect I think it’s a book for kids at the hands of a bully. One of the lines is, “She’s not very tall, not really at all. It’s just her shadow that’s large.” We want to teach kids that it’s an illusion that anybody has that much power over you. It’s like when you’re dreaming about a monster; they say the best thing to do is to stop and face it and it just kind of shrivels.
Jane Lynch is an actress, singer, playwright, and author. She can be seen in the TV show Glee, for which she won an Emmy and a Golden Globe for portraying the iconic bully Sue Sylvester.