Sweet Sixteener Kiersi Burkhart recently spoke to Fearless Fifteener Kate Axelrod about her debut Contemporary YA novel, THE LAW OF LOVING OTHERS (January 8, 2015 from Razorbill).
Kate Axelrod was born and raised in New York City. She has a B.A. in Creative Writing from Oberlin College and a Masters in Social Work from Columbia University. Kate has written for Nerve.com, The Nervous Breakdown and various other publications. She lives in Brooklyn and works as an advocate in the criminal justice system.
Hours after Emma returns home from boarding school, she realizes that her mom is suffering from a schizophrenic break. Suddenly, Emma’s entire childhood and identity is called into question. Desperate for answers, Emma turns to her boyfriend, Daniel. Will he love her even if she goes crazy too? But it’s the lonely, brooding boy Emma meets while visiting her mother at the hospital who really understands Emma. Phil encourages Emma’s reckless need for hurt and pain in the face of all this change and she is soon caught in a complicated spiral of loss and mistrust. In the span of just one winter break, Emma’s relationships alter forever and she is forced to see the wisdom in a line from Anna Karenina: “The law of loving others could not be discovered by reason, because it is unreasonable.”
Kiersi: When and how did you know that you wanted to be a writer?
Kate: In some sense, I have always wanted to be a writer. My mother is a novelist and I think, at least subconsciously, I grew up wanting to do that. But I’m also a social worker and there were a handful of years after college when I wasn’t sure which I wanted to pursue. I applied to both MFA programs and MSW (Masters of Social Worker) programs. I ultimately decided that I needed an MSW to move forward in my social work career, and that an MFA was entirely necessary for me to keep writing.
Kiersi: The title comes from Anna Karenina. Is that a favorite of yours? Why did you choose it to feature in this novel?
Kate: One part of the novel that is autobiographical is the story that Emma’s grandmother shares about reading Anna Karenina to her grandmother as a child. My grandmother, Judy (to whom my book is dedicated), read Anna Karenina to her own grandmother, and I always found that story so touching. I was on vacation with my grandparents several years ago (while I was in high school) and I was reading AK at the time, and actually struggling with it quite a bit, and hearing that story compelled me to keep reading and made me feel more connected to it. AK is obviously such a beautiful and complicated story, but it became a lot more meaningful to me after hearing my grandmother’s history with it.
Kiersi: Was the inspiration for this novel drawn at all from personal experience? What inspired you to write about schizophrenia?
Kate: One of my first jobs after college was doing homeless outreach in Manhattan. There was an older woman homeless woman who I would often see downtown. She was very kind and quiet, always reading. Sometimes I would try to talk to her and she would, very politely, tell me all the reasons why she could not live indoors. She had schizoprehnia and was exhibited a lot of psychotic symptoms; her homelessness was largely a result of paranoid delusions she had about what would happen if she lived in an apartment. But other times we would have more conventional conversations and she came across as a lovely maternal woman. And at some point I started thinking: what if my mother had schizophrenia? And that was essentially the germ of the novel.
Kiersi: Emma’s thought processes are authentic and honest to someone her age, going through what she’s going through. You seem to understand her so well. Were you anything like Emma as a teenager? Did you go to boarding school?
Kate: Thank you! I didn’t go to boarding school and luckily I didn’t go through an experience like hers (my mother is healthy!), but I do feel like a lot of my personality (or my younger self) is infused in her character. And I think a lot of people who know me would probably say that we are similar or have a similar voice. I was an angst-y teenager in a lot of ways, but I also really loved my family and friends in the way that Emma does too. I have also struggled with anxiety and channeled a lot of that into Emma’s anxiety.
Kiersi: Daniel or Phil? (or maybe that’s giving away too much?!)
Kate: That is a tough one! I think there are certain things that I find compelling in both characters. Daniel is so comfortable and playful. But he’s also immature in a lot of ways and just clearly not ready to be a boyfriend and a companion in the way that Emma needs. Phil is obviously easier to connect with because he’s suffering in a similar way to Emma. He has something wise about him. But he’s also mysterious and Emma doesn’t actually know him that well! I think that’s part of why she’s so attracted to him.
Lightning Round Questions:
Favorite writing snack?
Oddest job you ever had?
Hmm. I drove a homeless outreach van in the early hours of the morning, trying to engage homeless people and connect them with services.
Big brother, little sister, in the middle, or one and only?
I’m the little sister.
Music to write by?
I don’t really listen to music when I write.
What were you reading when you were 16?
I took an American Lit course that year that I absolutely loved. It was the first time I read Faulkner and Edith Wharton and I was blown away. The Age of Innocence and As I Lay Dying are two of my favorites.
Robot revolution or zombie apocalypse?
This is a tough one, Robot Revolution?
Favorite Broadway musical?
“Bye Bye Birdie.” Definitely.
A band you loved when you were 16 that you still listen to?
I have a cat named Cooper. He is the best.
Do you write longhand or type?
About the Interviewer:
Kiersi Burkhart grew up riding horses in Colorado. At sixteen, she attended Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon, where she now lives and works as an author and freelance writer. With a background in Political Science and Constitutional Law, she does nothing with her degree and instead writes contemporary fiction for children and young adults. She also has a dragon tattoo with which she consults for inspiration. In her MG contemporary debut, SHY GIRL AND SHY GUY (Darby Creek/Lerner Books, Spring 2016), the only thing Hanna Abbott fears more than being sent to Second Chance Ranch is being asked to get on a horse. As ranch owner Ma Etty points out, for every troubled kid, there’s a horse that can help—and for Hanna, it’s a beautiful, abandoned horse called Shy Guy, who’s just as afraid of people as Hanna is of horses.