When tragedy strikes, what happens to those left behind? This is the question authors Kekla Magoon and Lindsey Lane answer in their novels. Lane’s Evidence of Things Unseen deals with the mystery surrounding the disappearance of high schooler Tommy Smythe. Magoon’s How It Went Down is a fictional work straight from our modern headlines. She explores a community’s search for answers and closure in the aftermath of the shooting of a black teenager. Here, Lane and Magoon interview each other on their work and discuss the benefits of multiperspective narratives, their shared obsession with timelines, and why it is important to talk about the ones left behind.
Lindsey Lane: Hey, Kekla. So glad to be doing this interview with you.
Kekla Magoon: Hi, Lindsey. Me too.
LL: I was blown away by How It Went Down (HIWD). Why? Because you took me inside the headlines. You created a world of real people who were living and breathing and thinking. We don’t think about all the people around a crime/tragedy when it rips across the headlines. You did. How did Tariq’s story/world come to you?
KM: I wrote How It Went Down in response to the media coverage around the shooting deaths of young black men like Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown. It frustrated me that the news seemed to be ALL headlines, controversy, and sound bites from people who wanted to politicize and polarize the issues. I wanted to dive a little deeper, to know what happens at the community level in the wake of such a tragedy. How would it feel if the boy who was killed was your brother, or your best friend, or the kid who bullied you? And what if suddenly he was gone, and the whole world was talking about him? The most interesting effects of controversy occur behind the headlines, so this novel explores how young people react in this kind of crisis, and how the shock and grief of loss might be compounded by the controversy and the national media attention.
LL: Well done. I definitely felt the community.
KM: Evidence of Things Not Seen also centers around the loss of one boy’s presence from a community. As you carry us through many different voices, you draw us deeper into the mystery of Tommy’s disappearance, and you paint a compelling picture of the community he left behind. What drew you to writing in this style?
The stories are tied together by place but the stories within are fractured and separate.
LL: Three of my favorite books are Kathi Appelt‘s Kissing Tennessee, Cynthia Rylant‘s Van Gogh Cafe, and Sandra Cisneros‘ House on Mango Street. In all of these novels, the stories are tied together by place but the stories within are fractured and separate. I love that effect. The reader has a bazillion entry points into the world of the story. They interact with each piece of the story and then they dance to the next piece. I love how the fragments play in the imagination and make connections in the readers mind. The writer doesn’t have to write all the connective tissue. Also, I have to confess, I am a spare writer. I don’t like to dilly dally so these kinds of taut scenes work for me.
KM: The fragmented-but-connected effect you describe is a favorite thing of mine as a reader, too. It is really effective in Evidence. I enjoy the feeling of gathering puzzle pieces and mentally assembling them in my own way. My first-draft writing tends to be fragmented, so short bursting scenes and vignettes are a very natural form for me. If it serves the story better, I can work those fragments into longer more cohesive scenes, but in this case I felt the cacophony of voices added to the meaning of the piece.
LL: The danger, of course, with this kind of multi-perspective structure is that the reader will lose his/her emotional connection to the story, that when we shift the story to another perspective, he/she will lose interest and close the book. Did you think about the reader’s journey when you were writing?
KM: I’d say I become more aware of the reader in revision. I always feel emotionally connected to my fragmented first draft, so when it comes to shaping and polishing I want to be sure that the central question I have been writing about (“What really happened?”) remains front and center for the reader throughout the book. Writing in an alternative style does require placing a lot of trust in the reader—to stay engaged and to form his or her own opinions about the characters and the situation. For me, the use of recurring voices helped shape the emotional narrative. Each of my central characters has a story arc that unfolds over the course of the book, and I expect some readers may become attached to the emotional journey of one character or another.
LL: I loved how your central characters had an arc that unfolded over the course of the book. The characters were very three dimensional. I felt like I knew them.
I attempted something very different in Evidence. Especially in the third person sections, which each had their own arc within the larger frame of Tommy’s absence. It was a risk, having them be so separate from Tommy’s story, but what I decided to do was really sharpen the epiphanies in those sections so that they would be very vivid for the reader.
KM: Your novel is structured so differently from mine, with the only recurring voice being Tommy’s journal entries. Did you consider returning to any other character’s perspective?
LL: It was important to me that the sole recurring voice be Tommy’s because his going missing sets off the inquiry. Have you ever lost anything? Like a pet? Or a child in a store? Even keys or a book? It whacks you out. You can hardly drive down the street without looking for that missing animal or person or book. So that’s how I set the wobbly world in motion. Everyone is looking for Tommy to some degree or another. It’s almost like the reader is driving through this town looking for Tommy and while he/she is looking, he/she peers into these other lives. The through line is Tommy, but everyone is a bit off course. In a way, I had be careful of having characters recur because I didn’t want them to pull focus away from Tommy.
KM: Were there any voices that you wrote that you ended up not including?
LL: I do have one more story from the world of the book that I will put on my website soon. It’s about Sam, the guy at the Whip In. I didn’t put it in the book because it occurs a few months after the book ends. It felt separate but he did have a story I wanted to tell.
KM: I always think it’s really cool to get a glimpse behind the scenes of a book, and getting to consider what the extra material adds as well as why it didn’t fit in the final book.
LL: I count 18 points of view in HIWD. Did you throw anyone out?
KM: Eighteen voices in the final book, yeah. I started with quite a few more viewpoints, but several got cut and a few others got combined/expanded in the revision process. Originally I was envisioning perhaps 30 or so viewpoints, a few of which would recur but some of which would appear just once to offer a new perspective on the controversy. Most of those extra people did not feel as real, in the end, because they were basically vehicles for expressing the different intellectual arguments that I thought were worthy of mention, from diverse points along the political spectrum. But in the end, that sort of survey of opinions did not do what I wanted, in terms of rising above sound bites. It turned out to be better to dig deeper into fewer voices, and to let those people be the ones to hold opinions that conflicted at times.
The shooter doesn’t speak because Tariq can’t speak.
LL: Did you have a favorite?
KM: I didn’t really have a favorite, but the characters that I spent the most time with were Tyrell (Tariq’s best friend), Tina (Tariq’s sister), the two neighborhood girls (Kimberly and Jennica), and the graffiti artist, Will. I viewed the five of them as my main protagonists, the ones who would be most deeply affected by Tariq’s death, and whose changes would be most dramatic and most obvious to the reader. Even though Will is on the page less than the others, the story arc of his relationship to his stepfather is fairly concrete. I enjoyed Tina’s innocence, and I hoped Tyrell’s struggle would draw people in.
LL: Each voice is so distinct. Especially the boys. Applause. Wild and loud applause.
KM: When you mentioned writing a story that takes place long after the book ends, I got to thinking about how we both used the passage of time as a marker in our books. HIWD spans just 10 days, while Evidence unfolds over a whole year. I’m impressed that you were able to sustain significant tension and intensity while dealing with such a long period of time. How did time considerations factor into your writing process?
LL: The time thing was important. When do you give up looking? When do you put it to rest? When do people move on with their lives? It’s different for each person, right? Tommy’s parents, his mother really, is still stuck, looking. But his father needed to find closure after a year, even though his interaction with Chuy opens up the mystery again.
KM: When in the writing process did you determine how much time the book would cover? Did you have to rearrange the stories much?
LL: The year mark was pretty solid in my mind. Also I talked with cops and sheriffs about how long actual searches go on. It isn’t long because there aren’t the resources to go beyond two weeks. Really after one week, the searches thin out. Because it was a smaller town, this sheriff kept going.
I didn’t rearrange the sections much. Once I had the people and the stories, I deepened their connection to Tommy and to one another and made the timeline work. I kind of got a little obsessive about the timeline at the end, making sure the moon matched the phases as the book went along.
KM: We have the timeline obsession in common! I love that you studied moon phases. Details like that make the environment within the book feel so real, in subtle ways that add up to a fully-realized whole. I’m excited on behalf of all the readers who will discover Evidence of Things Not Seen and become immersed in this richly-drawn world. So, so awesome.
LL: There is one more thing I want to know about your process of writing HIWD: the shooter. His story pretty much stays off the page. What was your thinking in making that choice?
KM: Jack Franklin doesn’t speak because Tariq can’t speak. In a book about perception and drawing conclusions from fragments, including the shooter’s perspective would mean giving too much information, skewed in one direction. It might cause the reader to feel more confident in the decision either to hate him or to excuse him. Only the shooter knows what he saw, and what motivated him to act, in the same way that only Tariq knows what he thought and who he really wanted to be. It heightens the controversy if both of the involved parties remain silent. No one knows every aspect of what really happened, and no one ever will. All that the characters—and the reader—can do is to put the pieces together to the best of their ability.
LL: Which is exactly how it is in life… minus the media onslaught. Well done, Kekla. And thank you for doing this dialogue with me.
KM: Thanks, Lindsey, it’s been great talking with you. Congrats again on such an exquisite debut novel!
Lindsey Lane received an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts in 2010. Literary agent Erin Murphy sold her debut YA novel Evidence of Things Not Seen to Joy Peskin of Farrar Straus Giroux Books for Young Readers. It was released in September 2014.
Kekla Magoon is the author of five young adult novels: How It Went Down, Camo Girl, 37 Things I Love, Fire in the Streets, and The Rock and the River, for which she received the ALA Coretta Scott King New Talent Award and an NAACP Image Award nomination. She also writes non-fiction on historical topics, including Today the World is Watching You: The Little Rock Nine and the Fight for School Integration 1957-58 and the forthcoming PANTHERS! The History and Legacy of the Black Panther Party in America. Raised in a biracial family in the Midwest, Kekla now teaches writing in New York City, conducts school and library visits nationwide, and serves on the Writers’ Council for the National Writing Project. Kekla holds a B.A. in History from Northwestern University and an M.F.A. in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Visit her online at www.keklamagoon.com.