Have you ever hoped for a miracle? If so, you have something in common with Iris, the protagonist of Elana K. Arnold’s debut middle grade novel The Question of Miracles. After the death of her best friend Sarah and moving to a rainy new town, Iris goes on the hunt with her friend Boris for a miracle to turn her life around and maybe connect her with Sarah. As it turns out, a real-life miracle helped to inspire part of this story. In this interview, Arnold shares with us a Vatican-certified miracle, the middle grade novel that most influences her, and more.
Bookish: In the book, Iris’ friend Boris is being interviewed by the Vatican because they think his birth may have been a miracle. I’ve heard Boris is based on a real boy and that you accompanied his mother to the Vatican this fall. Can you tell us about that?
Elana K. Arnold: When I started imagining The Question of Miracles, it was strictly Iris’ story of loss. But within the first few paragraphs, Boris showed up—helpful, apple-loving Boris. He showed up all on his own, unbidden and doglike. Not much later, it occurred to me that Boris’ history could be modeled after my friend’s son, whose healthy birth (after early prenatal signs that he would not make it to term, let alone live) had been investigated by the Vatican as a miracle. This was interesting to me—the machinations of declaring something miraculous, rather than just lucky—and I knew Iris would want to know more. Why do some people get miracles, but not others? Who decides if something is miraculous? Can we manifest miracles on our own?
So when my friend invited me to accompany her to the Vatican last fall to witness the canonization of Pope Paul VI that was happening because of my friend’s son’s healthy birth, after I’d fictionalized and incorporated this story into The Question of Miracles… well, how could I say no?
So I boarded an airplane headed to Italy 72 hours after deciding to go. I am not Catholic, but sitting at the canonization ceremony, holding hands with my friend, with an advance copy of The Question of Miracles tucked into my bag… it was a moment full of beauty, serendipity, and a spine-tingling sense of mystery and magic.
Bookish: This is your first middle grade novel. Did you learn anything surprising while writing this that you had not experienced as a young adult author?
EA: My YA novels deal with sexuality—lots of kissing and touching and awareness of the body. The Question of Miracles, in that respect, was a wonderful breath apart for me. There’s not so much as a crush in this book! I actually wrote The Question of Miracles while simultaneously writing a heady, fierce YA novel, and I found that working on these projects in tandem made both books better.
Bookish: Do you have any favorite middle grade novels or authors that helped to inspire you?
EA: I love middle grade novels. I love them so. Bridge to Terabithia absolutely influences everything I write, The Question of Miracles, especially. My YA novels seem to circle around much of the same thematic material as my middle grade work—friendship and loss of friendship, family, and the fragility of life.
Bookish: You dedicate the book to your dad, who unfortunately passed away before the book was released. Could you talk a little about the influence he had on your writing career?
EA: What was great about my dad Alex was the purity with which he supported me. He was one of my first readers of The Question of Miracles, and all my novels. He never tried to edit my work or poke holes in the plot. He just… loved me, and, by extension, loved my books. The book’s dedication says that my dad made me feel like a miracle, and he did. There are plenty of people who can help you figure out what’s wrong with a work in progress—teachers, friends, and later, agents, and editors. Having someone who always sees what’s right with your story is a wonderful gift. It’s one of the many wonderful gifts my dad gave me. I wish he could be at my book launch, and knowing that he won’t be around to read the next book I write makes me incredibly sad. But my dad did see the dedication before he died, and that is something. He knew I loved him the way he loved my books.
Bookish: Iris believes the ghost of her friend Sarah lives in her closet, and on your blog you’ve said that you once lived in a possessed house. What’s your experience with the paranormal?
EA: Ah, our possessed house! Well, to be fair, it was my sister Mischa who was certain that the place was possessed. She is more sensitive than I. My experience with the paranormal is limited to always being the person who moves the Ouiji board planchette and having a more-than-usual number of déjà vu moments.
But I do dream about the people I love who are dead, remarkably realistic dreams, though not always happy ones.
Bookish: Iris is uprooted from her home after Sarah’s death, and you’ve moved around quite a bit as well. What’s your advice for making a new place into home?
EA: I have moved a lot, both as a kid and as an adult. A few years ago, my husband and I even moved our whole family (including pets) into an old RV and hit the road. My advice for kids is to try to make sure your siblings are your friends. That way, no matter where you go, you won’t feel entirely alone. Also, if you have any sway in the matter, try to move mid-school year rather than over the summer or at the beginning of September. That way, you’ll be the new, interesting kid after everyone has already settled in, and you increase your odds of having people to hang out with during the summer break.
For grown-ups, I think that it’s really important to invite people over to your new place, be it out-of-town family or the new neighbors. A house becomes a home when it’s filled with people.
Bookish: When Burning was released, you featured writers on your blog who shared the thing they’d want to burn. While working on this book, did you find people who were eager to share miracles they’ve experienced?
EA: I haven’t yet met people eager to share their miracles, but I’m definitely open to listening.
Bookish: Have you ever personally experienced a miracle?
EA: I know that I’ve spent my share of time wishing for a miracle—for the dead to be resurrected, for time to unspool and past wrongs to be righted. And wonderful things have happened to me, things that changed my life’s course. But I don’t think any of them would qualify as miraculous. Becoming a published writer was always my goal, and the day I sold my first book felt miraculous, but lots of work went into getting me to that place—sweaty, crying, intense work. My children’s healthy births felt like miracles, too, though there was no reason to suppose they would be anything other than healthy.
Bookish: Burning features a fortune teller and Sacred has a character grieving after the death of her brother. Iris is still recovering from the death of her best friend and, in her search for a miracle, she visits a fortune teller. Is there anything else this book has in common with your others?
EA: Like Iris, I have a dead friend. Recently, her mother told me that she believes my friend is my muse. Maybe so. Shadows of her appear in everything I write.
Something else my books share is the presence of flawed but realistic parents. Familial relationships fascinate me.
And, setting is important in all my books—Catalina Island, the desert of Nevada, Corvallis, Oregon, and Venice Beach, California. These locations determine much of the books’ trajectories.
Elana K. Arnold completed her M.A. in Creative Writing/Fiction at the University of California, Davis. She grew up in Southern California, where she was lucky enough to have her own horse—a gorgeous mare named Rainbow—and a family who let her read as many books as she wanted. She lives in Huntington Beach, California, with her husband, two children, and a menagerie of animals. She is represented by Rubin Pfeffer of Rubin Pfeffer Content.