Sweet Sixteener Jeff Zentner had the pleasure of sitting down on a cold, gray Sunday afternoon and interviewing Fearless Fifteener and personal friend David Arnold, author of MOSQUITOLAND (YA contemporary, March 3, 2015 from Penguin/Viking) by instant messenger.
After the sudden collapse of her family, Mim Malone is dragged from her home in northern Ohio to the “wastelands” of Mississippi, where she lives in a medicated milieu with her dad and new stepmom. Before the dust has a chance to settle, she learns her mother is sick back in Cleveland. So she ditches her new life and hops aboard a northbound Greyhound bus to her real home and her real mother, meeting a quirky cast of fellow travelers along the way. But when her thousand-mile journey takes a few turns she could never see coming, Mim must confront her own demons, redefining her notions of love, loyalty, and what it means to be sane.
Jeff: First, David, I want to say what a pleasure it is to speak to you about MOSQUITOLAND which is simply phenomenal. It’s everything a great YA novel should be: funny, smart, poignant, insightful, raw; and Mim is everything a great YA protagonist should be: witty, wounded, vulnerable but filled with bravado, imperfect but loveable. The thing I’ve carried with me most since reading it was the voice, which is so vibrant and unique. Henceforth, I’m going to point any writers struggling with the concept of voice to MOSQUITOLAND. How did the voice of this novel develop?
David: First off, thanks so much for having me! And thanks for those kind words. The voice came from a fairly vulnerable place. I’d been writing for a couple years, mostly middle grade manuscripts, and while I still have a soft spot for that genre, ultimately, my natural voice leans a little older. I discovered this when my wife found out she was pregnant (surprise!). I’ve said this before, but I think sometimes we have to be confronted with some great fear in order to tackle another great fear. I’d been too afraid to start writing something as serious as MOSQUITOLAND. But once I knew I would be a dad in a matter of months, I knew I had to tackle it immediately. Because if honesty is the most important element in writing (and I think it is), you cannot lie while doing it. I can lie to myself pretty easily; I cannot lie to my son.
Jeff: So speaking of pregnancy, what was it like to be “pregnant” with Mim? To have that voice bouncing around in your head?
David: Ha, that’s an interesting way to put it. But it’s not far from the truth. Voice is tough. As writers, we talk a lot about “finding voice.” But what they don’t tell you is, you have to find your voice with every project. So how do I continue to tell stories, doing so honestly, but without cookie-cutting Mim? Actually… seriously… do you know how?
Jeff: I wish I did. I wish I did. So, outwardly, you seem less…weird than Mim (hey, she wouldn’t take offense). Where does David Arnold end and Mim begin?
David: Hmm, maybe I’m just a bit better at covering up the weird. Actually, in its infancy, MOSQUITOLAND was about a kid’s first few days at a new school. I moved around a bit growing up, so it was a story I wanted to tell. But once I realized the heart of the book was in Ohio, I knew I had to get her on the road. But I think that New Kid mentality stuck. And certainly, it’s one I understand intimately.
Jeff: Why Mississippi to Ohio? Have you made this trip personally? Have you considered doing a promotion where some lucky reader can win a Greyhound bus ride from Mississippi to Ohio with you?
David: I actually lived in Jackson, Mississippi when I was young, and then we moved from there to Ashland, Ohio. So I chose some pretty familiar settings. And even though “Mosquitoland” is Mim’s derisive nickname for Mississippi, I don’t think she hates the state itself so much as what it represents: the people she’s with while she’s there, and the actual reasons for her moving there. As far as the promotion, no, I haven’t thought about that! But it’s a good idea. I did take a Greyhound from Nashville to New York once. Definitely…an experience.
Jeff: Can we pretend like you rode the Greyhound from Nashville to New York with a handwritten copy of MOSQUITOLAND in a briefcase, and you took it to your publisher and dropped it on his desk and that’s how it came to be published?
David: By all means. Do.
Jeff: Thanks. But seriously, talk about the track to getting MOSQUITOLAND published.
David: The thing about getting a book published is this: it’s hard. And at times, it can be very tedious. As with most occupations, you must a) dive in, b) have a thick skin, and c) enjoy the process. I spent almost two years writing, rewriting, gathering insightful critiques from people I trusted, revising, more revising, revising in perpetuity, really—before I felt it was as good as I could make it. At that point, I spent a solid three months researching agents, and polishing a query letter. I think there’s a notion that all legit literary agents are the same—or at least, that it doesn’t matter who you get to be your agent, so long as they can sell the thing. This is just patently false. Your agent is your representative in all things. And if those things go well, your agent is someone you will work with for years to come. Instead of “agent,” a more apt title might be “lifelong professional representative, trustworthy coach, and the person who stays in your corner when everyone else is long gone.” As such, I did a ton of research in order to make the best possible decision. Sorry. Tangent. Here’s my short timeline: After two years of working on the manuscript, I queried Dan Lazar of Writers House in June of 2013. I signed with him in July, and he sold it to Penguin in September. Which sounds quick, and maybe it is. But when you take all the prep into account, it sure doesn’t feel like it.
Jeff: In the novel, Mim has a sort of bizarre, self-inflicted injury— solar retinopathy. I know you’re a Wes Anderson fan, and a motif that pops up in his films are characters with bizarre, unexplained injuries. I know you explain Mim’s injury, but is this a Wes Anderson influence?
David: Oh man, can we just talk about Wes Anderson for a little bit? 🙂 To answer your question…I honestly can’t remember. I’m sitting here thinking about it, and I’m just drawing a blank. Which maybe speaks again to the length of the process. Big chunks of the novel, I remember writing in vivid detail—but I honestly cannot remember why I gave Mim solar retinopathy. There are obviously a few important ways this injury ties into the narrative, but… yeah, I can’t remember where that came from.
Jeff: Mim struggles with mental illness. Do you have experience with that, either personal or from an outsider’s perspective?
David: I do not have personal experience with mental illness. So in addition to about a bajillion hours of online research, whatever parts of this aspect I got right, I owe solely to Stephanie McGuire (LMSW), Sarah Hummel (LCSW), and Becky Albertalli (a clinical psychologist specializing in child/adolescent and author of SIMON VS. THE HOMO SAPIENS AGENDA).
Jeff: If you would, tell us about how the characters of Walt and Beck came into being. Do they have real-life analogues? Are they composites of people you’ve known or are they wholly invented?
David: Walt is my favorite character in the novel. It was one of those things where you start writing and a person pops up, and you’re like, oh, hello you, let’s be friends. I hadn’t planned Walt. At all. But he’s my boy. Regarding Beck…in the earliest drafts, Mim was actually a boy named Beck. And on the road, he met a girl named Mim. And that character was largely based on Zooey Deschanel. Obviously, things changed. My good friend and critique partner, Courtney Stevens (author of FAKING NORMAL) suggested I change the main character to a girl. So I ended up flip-flopping the names. In a lot of ways, Beck is Mim’s opposite: their worldviews on theology, happiness, even family are very different. But I think what attracts Mim to Beck is his disregard for what people think is right, and his regard for what is right. In a few places, we see Mim genuinely striving to be more like him, and he definitely challenges her in ways no one else does. Also, I loved this idea of him being a little older. Not much older, but old enough that any romantic relationship between the two would certainly be suspect. I don’t want to give any spoilers, so I won’t say much else on this. To answer the last part of your question, neither of them are based on anyone I know or knew.
Jeff: One of the striking features about this book is the little bits of wisdom and insight interwoven throughout. Were those something you’ve been accumulating for a long time? Was it the sort of deal where you learned those things even as you were writing them? Both? Neither?
David: This is one of those questions that I can’t answer fully, because the answer itself is a spoiler. I will say, a few of those “bits of wisdom” have been gathered through the years (the idea that a bad example is just as valuable as a good one), and some of them just came as I was writing. So it was a hybrid, certainly. But yeah — I have a great answer to this question. But I can’t say it.
Jeff: One of the wonderful, evocative phrases from MOSQUITOLAND comes when Mim exhorts someone to “be a kid of appetite.” Your second novel, in progress, is called KIDS OF APPETITE. Any connection?
David: Actually, I had that title for book two before I put it in MOSQUITOLAND. I think it was during a copyedit at some point, when I realized the title of my second novel was a perfect Mim-ism. So I went back and inserted it into the manuscript. Nice catch!
Jeff: Can you tell us anything about KIDS OF APPETITE, having established that it is not a MOSQUITOLAND sequel?
David: Yes! I’m actually in the tall grass of revising that one right now. I haven’t quite nailed down the one-liner yet, but at its heart, it’s a novel about two misfits finding love in the slums of New Jersey, while one of them is on a mission to scatter his father’s ashes across the state. But there’s also a murder, and lot of stuff about horses. And I wanted to dive into the idea that family—whether chosen or consigned—has great influence in our lives.
Jeff: Speaking of revising, what is your writing process like? For example, do you start with characters and then come up with a plot? Vice versa? Neither?
David: Plot is hardest for me. Characters come first, then setting. As far as outlining vs. pantsing goes, of the two YA novels I’ve written, I outlined one (KIDS OF APPETITE). Not sure how I’ll go about things with the third yet, but leaning toward an outline.
Jeff: You’re also an accomplished musician. How is your musical process different from your writing process? Does music serve a different creative function for you than writing?
David: Good question. It saddens me to say it, but I feel like writing sort of replaced music in a lot of ways. I’ll still write and record music, but I don’t feel the same sort of intensity about it that I used to. But I think this is natural—at least for me. I’d like to devote every ounce of my creative process into being the very best at what I’m doing. And right now, the thing I’m doing is writing books. I should also note that I probably never would have gotten published had my son not come along. I was all-in with freelance music at the time, but switched gears pretty quickly once it was decided I would be a stay-at-home dad. And I am more fulfilled creatively, professionally, and personally now, than I ever was writing music. Which speaks volumes, I think.
Jeff: That’s a very familiar-sounding story, I must say…Who are some of your writing influences and/or favorite writers?
David: Ha, yeah I thought you might relate 🙂 …My favorite writers include everyone from Salinger and Vonnegut, to Aaron Sorkin (where I go for the absolute best dialogue) and Elliott Smith (whom I acknowledge in MOSQUITOLAND for teaching me that “an honest voice is more compelling than a pretty one”).
Jeff: Aaron Sorkin once said in an interview something to the effect that he loves the “sound of intelligence.” Does Mim love the “sound of intelligence”? It felt like she does.
David: You know, I think she does. But I also think she’s the kind of person who wouldn’t admit it, at least not out loud.
Jeff: Do you listen to music while you write? If so, what was banging around in your mind while writing MOSQUITOLAND?
David: I do! Mostly instrumental soundtracks like Alexandre Desplat (his score for the movie Birth is spectacular), Jon Brion (his score for Synecdoche in particular), and Yann Tiersen. I also listened to a lot of Slowreader, Bon Iver, Nick Drake, M. Ward, and of course, Elliott Smith. Fun fact: in one scene, the song I was listening to made its way into the manuscript. Not the actual lyrics, but a song Mim hears on the radio. (M. Ward’s Undertaker).
Jeff: Desplat owned the Tree of Life soundtrack. What are the books or other works that most influenced MOSQUITOLAND?
David: Yes he did! (Though he owns pretty much everything he does.) As far as books that influenced MOSQUITOLAND, none come to mind. I think any first-person snark has to tip its hat to Salinger, and any largely epistolary novel (which mine is) has to tip its hat to Chbosky. Not that those two invented their respective genres, but they certainly brought them to the forefront. But MOSQUITOLAND was such an exercise in personal growth, it’s hard for me to say This Great Book or That Great Book had much of an influence.
Jeff: What novels are you looking forward to in the coming months?
David: There are so many great contemporary novels coming out this year, some by my friends! They are, in no particular order: THE LIES ABOUT TRUTH by Courtney Stevens, MORE HAPPY THAN NOT by Adam Silvera, SIMON VS. THE HOMO SAPIENS AGENDA by Becky Albertalli, MY HEART AND OTHER BLACK HOLES by Jasmine Warga (already out), WE ALL LOOKED UP by Tommy Wallach, CONVICTION by Kelly Loy Gilbert, THE ALEX CROW by Andrew Smith, BONE GAP by Laura Ruby, and the list goes on and on and on. (Not to mention a pretty sweet novel by a pretty sweet, Sweet-16er who goes by the name of YOU, JEFF.)
Jeff: Aren’t you sweet? Do you have any formal training in writing?
David: Ha. None.
Jeff: Good man. As a very proud Nashvillian, I want it known that this is a Nashville novel. You wrote this while you lived in Nashville, breathing Nashville air and drinking Nashville water. Say it.
David: FINE. I WROTE MOSQUITOLAND WHILE BREATHING NASHVILLE AIR AND DRINKING NASHVILLE WATER. There. 🙂 Joking aside, I do love Nashville, and I loved living there. Nothing but fond memories.
Jeff: Thank you. And thank you for taking the time to speak to me. Congratulations on writing such an excellent book. I wish you best of luck in the coming year even though you clearly won’t need it.
About the Interviewer:
Jeff Zentner is a singer-songwriter and guitarist who has recorded with Iggy Pop, Nick Cave, and Debbie Harry. In addition to writing and recording his own music, Zentner works with young musicians at Tennessee Teen Rock Camp, which inspired him to write a novel for young adults. He lives in Nashville with his wife and son. In his YA contemporary debut, THE SERPENT KING (Crown Books for Young Readers/Random House, Spring 2016), three outcasts try to make it through their final year of high school in rural Tennessee with their spirits and senses of self intact.