An Interview with Erin Dionne
AUTHOR ERIN DIONNE TALKS ABOUT HER NEW BOOK
By G. Arnold, Co-Editor
The arrival of 2009 brings a new book for young adults from writer Erin Dionne. Her debut novel, MODELS DON’T EAT CHOCOLATE COOKIES, was inspired by two unlikely events that occurred in seventh grade: when she wore what she calls a “scary” peach bridesmaid dress in her cousin’s wedding; and another time, when she threw up on her gym teacher’s shoes.
If you’re a parent , librarian, or educator, you already know that teens and tweens are an important audience for writers. The reading interests of young adults are shaped, in part, by their unique experiences. They recognize authenticity and they demand to be taken seriously by the writers they decide to embrace.
Despite popular misconceptions to the contrary, writing for this audience is immensely challenging. Many writers think they can do it, but few make the grade.
Erin Dionne takes this challenge seriously, and her new book is already generating buzz. Recently, she took some time from her very busy schedule to tell us about the book and the process of writing.
Bread & Circus: Tell us a bit about your new book, MODELS DON’T EAT CHOCOLATE COOKIES.
Erin Dionne: MODELS is the story of overweight eighth grader Celeste Harris, who-thanks to her meddling Aunt Doreen-gets entered into the Miss HuskyPeach pageant against her will. While dealing with the chaos and hilarity of becoming a fat model, she also must cope with the fact that her best friend is being stolen by school bully Lively Carson.
B&C: The main character is a teenager named Celeste. What can you say about her?
Celeste is a smart, witty girl who hangs on the periphery of basically everything-her family, the school social scene, and her life. At the beginning of the novel, she’s comfortable with who she is-or, she thinks she’s comfortable. She believes that blending in is better than standing out, especially because her weight makes hiding hard. She’s teased mercilessly by Lively, and doesn’t have the self-confidence to stand up for herself.
B&C: In terms of the writing process, did you envision Celeste’s life and personality before you started writing, or did Celeste evolve and reveal new things about herself as you were writing?
Erin Dionne: MODELS originated as a short story entitled “On BBQ Day, No One Brings a Lunch,” and I was encouraged to turn that piece into a novel. But when I began the story, I envisioned an overweight girl, sitting alone in the cafeteria, eating a spinach salad. I wanted to know who she was, why she was dieting, and why she was by herself. Trying to answer those questions lead to the short story. So when I sat down to write the novel, I had a pretty good idea of the character I was dealing with. MODELS is told in first person, from Celeste’s point of view, and “BBQ Day” is in third, so that was a major switch. But Celeste’s voice came right away, and I learned more in-depth details about her as I wrote.
B&C: The book deals, in part, with important issues. Do you see the book as specifically about these issues, per se, or about something beyond that?
Erin Dionne: Actually, I don’t see the book being about the issues at all! For me, the character is more important than anything. I want readers to experience Celeste’s growth and change naturally, without feeling like this is a “problem novel,” or that I am preaching about weight or self-esteem. If the issues in the book take precedence over the story, I’ve failed as a writer.
B&C: Most of your writing is aimed at teens and younger readers. What inspired you to write for this audience?
Erin Dionne: I believe that all writers have a voice/audience that they are comfortable working in. Writing about characters who are older or out of their teens doesn’t feel natural to me. Those aren’t the stories I want to tell. Also, young readers really fall in love with books. They inhabit the stories and bring characters to life in a way that adults just can’t. I believe it’s a privilege to write for such impassioned readers.
And sometimes I think it’s because I feel as though I finally have a handle on those tumultuous teen years-that’s why I can write about them. Adulthood? I haven’t figured that one out yet.
B&C: What are your influences? Any books or writers, specifically?
Erin Dionne: I read pretty widely and voraciously (when I have time), so my influences are all over the map. I admire good storytellers like Jhumpa Lahiri, Dennis Lehane and Stephen King. Margaret Atwood and Jane Smiley amaze me in the way they can change their styles and genres from book to book.
In terms of YA and middle grade writers, authors such as E. Lockhart, Laurie Halse Anderson, Nancy Werlin and Lois Lowry blow my mind. They are talented and smart, and their books are evocative, beautiful, gripping and complex. Every time I read one of their books, I think “I wish I could write like that!”
B&C: It seems to me that younger readers constitute perhaps the most important of all audiences for a writer. Yet, many adult readers don’t quite see it this way. What do you think are the biggest misconceptions people have about writing for younger readers?
Erin Dionne: Ugh. Don’t get me started-I’ve heard them all: Kids books are “easy” to write. “Anyone” can write a children’s book. The stories are one-dimensional. The characters aren’t complex….it goes on and on. No other genre/level has to defend itself the way children’s book authors defend their literary merit.
The “it’s so easy” attitude not only sells kids short, but it represents an ignorance of what’s on the shelves for teens and young readers today. I challenge you-check out MT Anderson’s THE ASTONISHING LIFE OF OCTAVIAN NOTHING, or Suzanne Collins’ THE HUNGER GAMES, or WHAT I SAW AND HOW I LIED by Judy Blundell, and you’ll see what I mean.
B &C: When you’re writing, to what extent does knowing many of your readers will be quite young influence what you say or how you say it?
Erin Dionne: Again, for me, it’s all about being true to the character. If Celeste is going through it, thinking it, or getting in trouble for it, I write it. As long as I am being honest with myself and my reader, I can’t worry about how the story will be perceived. We don’t give kids enough credit-they deal with bullying, loss, anxiety, fear and family problems nearly every day. They need to see their experiences reflected in the literature that’s available to them.
That said, yes, there is content in some books that aren’t appropriate for some kids-just like there’s content in books that adults choose to avoid. But it’s not the responsibility of the writer to censor him or her self to fit the audience…it’s up to the audience to chose the book that’s right for them. And that’s where parents, librarians, and teachers are huge assets.
Models Don’t Eat Chocolate Cookies
Thirteen-year-old Celeste Harris is no string bean, but comfy sweatpants and a daily chocolate cookie suit her just fine. Her under-the-radar lifestyle could have continued too, if her aunt hadn’t entered her in the Husky Peach Modeling Challenge. To get out of it, she’s forced to launch Operation Skinny Celeste-because, after all, a thin girl can’t be a fat model! What Celeste never imagined was that losing weight would help her gain a backbone . . . or that all she needed to shine was a spotlight.
ABOUT ERIN DIONNE
Erin Dionne has lived on two coasts and in four states. Her debut novel, MODELS DON’T EAT CHOCOLATE COOKIES, was inspired by events that occurred in seventh grade, when she wore a scary peach bridesmaid dress in her cousin’s wedding and threw up on her gym teacher’s shoes (not at the same event). Although humiliating at the time, these experiences are working for her now. She now lives outside of Boston with her husband and daughter, and a very insistent dog named Grafton. She roots for the Red Sox, teaches English at an art college, and sometimes eats chocolate cookies.