SBBT 2008: Inspiration, Evolution and Robin Brande

I am so pleased to welcome Robin Brande, author of Evolution, Me and Other Freaks of Nature, here on my blog. To tell you the truth, I should probably tell you I’m a frequent visitor of Robin’s blog and think of her as a blog friend. How can I resist when she offers up clever and insightful observations and her peeps stop by to engage in laugh out loud discussions? She’s the ultimate hostess–offering up encouragement, bits of fancy, soul-searching questions and helpful tips.

I should also admit that I loved Evolution, Me and Other Freaks of Nature. So much that after I read the book, I had to hunt down the audiobook so I could listen to the sentence structure and the pacing. And I’m not saying that just because I like Robin. The writer in me made me do it. If I find a book I really like, I get the audiobook to listen in and study the writing further.

Check out the first five sentences of her book…

I knew today would be ugly. When you’re single-handedly responsible for getting your church, your pastor, and every one of your former friends and their parents sued for millions of dollars, you expect to make some enemies. Fine.

It’s just that I hoped my first day of school—of high school, thank you, which I’ve only been looking forward to my entire life—might turn out to be at least slightly better than eating live bugs. But I guess I was wrong.

I bet you’re curious now, aren’t you? Aren’t you wondering, just a little, on what a ninth grade girl did to make so many people unhappy? Well, I’m not going to give it up–no spoilers here. However, I will tell you Evolution, Me and Other Freaks of Nature is one smart book that will give you food for thought on evolution vs. spirituality, individuality versus conformity, betrayal, hope, and integrity.

Check out the awards: Fall 2007 Book Sense Children’s Pick, September 2007 Borders Original Voices, 2008 List of the Amelia Bloomer Project, ALA (American Library Association) and YALSA Best Books for Young Adults in 2008, ALA (American Library Association) and YALSA 2008 Selected AudioBooks, and the Notable Social Studies Trade Books for Young People 2008.

Wait until you read Robin’s interview. You’re going to love what she has to say. Without further ado, here’s Robin!


HWM: Robin, before you wrote books, you were an attorney. What made you realize you wanted to write books for teens?
Robin: I always wanted to be a writer, from the time I was about 10, but I was just too chicken to pursue it. I wrote stories and plays all through school, but then when the moment came and I graduated from college with an English degree–then what? Since I had to be entirely self-supporting, I figured law school was a reasonable next step. I was a trial lawyer for several years, until the time came when I felt like I was actually going to throw up on the way to work every morning. (Is this too much information? Too late now.)

Luckily I had a husband who was against me vomiting in the car, and so when I told him it was time to quit and start my own business, he agreed. I ran my own company for a while, then 9/11 happened. And, like many people, I had the revelation that life was too short and precious to spend it doing anything other than what you felt passionate about. So I shut down the business and finally did what I’d always meant to do.

And why novels for teens? Because I enjoy hanging out with that age group–love hearing their opinions, love watching how they work out the nuances of who they are and where they belong. Plus my own high school experiences are still so much with me–I’m sure a lot of us feel that way, for better or worse. When I write novels I’m basically writing them for the 15-year-old girl I was.

HWM: What inspired you to write Evolution, Me and Other Freaks of Nature? How did the title come about?
Robin: I grew up in a fundamentalist church much like Mena’s, and I, too, reached a point one day when what I was learning about science conflicted absolutely with what I’d learned in church. I had to find a way to reconcile my strong religious beliefs with all that new-found–and entirely logical (not to mention exciting)–information. Since the book came out I’ve heard from many, many people who had that same conflict. So far everyone seems pre
tty happy with Mena’s solution to the problem.

Plus, like Mena, I was kicked out of my church right before high school. But that’s a whole other story . . .

And as for the title, I originally called it “The Theory of Evolution.” The publisher felt that sound too text-booky, so we came up with something we thought sounded a little more fun. I’ve always loved the phrase “freak of nature”–now I can freely wear t-shirts that say that.

HWM: Why did you decide to prolong telling the reason why Mena was banned from her church and hated by her former friends?
Robin: To torture my readers. Plain and simple.

HWM: Who was the toughest character to write about?
Robin: Ugh, definitely Mena’s parents. I still have very little sympathy for them. I’m happy to say they were not based on my own parents. Mostly.

HWM: I was impressed with how you were able to inject both poignant and amusing scenes in your book. Which do you find harder to write and why?
Robin: I‘m a sucker for both of those in books and movies. I love a good laugh, but I’m just as happy to sit there and bawl my eyes out. So it just feels natural to me to alternate between drama and comedy in my stories.

What’s weird is that when I first started writing this book, it was completely different–so sad and depressing, involving death and survivor’s guilt and all these other serious themes. But while I was writing that version, my sweet old yellow Lab died, and that was just too much misery on top of writing a depressing book. So I put the manuscript aside for a few weeks, did nothing but watch Lord of the Rings on DVD (which is why Casey in the book is such an expert), and then went on a backpacking trip for a few weeks. By the time I came back, I knew the book I should write instead, and here we are!

HWM: Have you had any religious groups contact you about your book and object to how you’ve portrayed the church in Evolution, Me and Other Freaks of Nature?
Robin: I haven’t heard from any religious groups, but have gotten many great e-mails from religious people. I’m happy to say the response has been nothing but positive. One of the best things about all the touring and appearances I’ve done across the country in the past year is all the great conversations I’ve gotten to have with people about faith and science. It’s a topic so many of us are interested in–and one that some people still haven’t made their minds up about yet. I’m happy if my book has helped anyone think through their own beliefs.

HWM: What is your favorite fan story?
Robin: I’ve met so many great people! But I guess my favorite event has to be the middle school in Ft. Worth, Texas. There were about 60 kids, they’d all read the book, and among them were Catholics, Muslims, Baptists, atheists–what a combo! We had a very spirited discussion about religion and science, and then they gave me the best gift: an advance copy of my novel, with their handwritten notes in the margins throughout, telling me which were their favorite scenes and why. So I have this great treasure now, a book filled with notes like, “I loved this part!” and “I hate how mean her parents are here!” and things like that. I wish I could have that for every one of my books from now on.

HWM: Do you outline or free form?
Robin: Totally free form. If I knew what was going to happen in a novel, I’d be too bored to write it. There’s nothing better than making myself laugh or cry as I’m typing. I’m the first reader of my own work, and I love to be surprised.

HWM: Where do you like to write?
Robin: I have an office with the two best views: In one direction my garden, and in the other my couch where the dogs sleep all day. I can’t imagine a happier setting.

HWM: You’ve been working on a few writing projects. What can you share about them?
Robin: I’m so happy to be overworked! Seriously–it feels so good to get back to writing after a year of traveling and doing a lot of other things except writing. So this year I’m making up for it by turning out three new YA projects. The first is a novel whose title is in flux, so I can’t help you there, but it’s about a girl who makes herself her own scienceproject. And because I believe in the method acting ver

sion of writing, I, too, am putting myself through that same science experiment. It’s been . . .interesting.

The other two are novels I’ve been researching for a long time and working on here and there. It’s finally time to finish them both. I can’t say too much about them, but I will tell you that the research involves being hypnotized, learning to horseback ride, taking archery lessons, practicing martial arts, and hanging out with people who have died. Sound intriguing?

HWM: What is your writing process or ritual?
Robin: I spend a LOT of time mulling over an idea and reading tons about it and doing hands-on research before I ever sit down to write a word. But then when I feel my brain is fit to explode, I get started and write hard and fast. I like to write a first draft all the way through before going back and fixing anything. Like I said, I’m always my first reader, so I don’t want to have to wait too long to find out what happens! I’ve written a first draft in as little as two and a half weeks, but that was insane. A more comfortable pace for me is about five or six weeks for a first draft.

Then I let it rest a little, I go watch some movies for a few weeks, then come back and do about a month’s worth of revisions. I try to get it all done in about three to four months (again, not counting the research and mulling phase, which could last six months or more). I often have several ideas going at once, and do a bunch of different research for each one, then decide which one gets to be written first.

Somehow the math works out to me generally writing two books a year.

HWM: What has been the biggest challenge of your writing career and how did you tackle it?
Robin: Last year I LOST MY MIND. Maybe I’m not supposed to admit that, but it might be useful for some other writers to know, so I’ll be honest about it. My book came out in August, but the publicity for it began back in February. I was touring, giving interviews, going on TV and radio and doing all these exciting things I’d always dreamed about, and I really let them turn my head. I couldn’t sit still long enough to write anything new, which is why I spent so much time on the blog all year long, chatting it up with all of you–and I had such a great time I actually ended up organizing a conference for all of us in October last year.

All of it was fun and amazing, but it was also completely diverting. And, ultimately, exhausting. By the time November rolled around, and I’d just spent six weeks in a row being out of town part of every single week, I was beyond my limit. I holed up (with the 15 extra pounds I’d gained from being on the road so much, I might add) and just decompressed for about a month and a half. And then I finally found my brain again, and was able to work on a book.

I’m so grateful for the experience, and especially grateful for all the wonderful people I met (including at the Kidlitosphere Conference!), but now I realize how easy it is to lose sight of what you really want to do with your writing life. I can’t be away that much and write books. I can’t blog that much and write books. Maybe other people can, but I personally can’t.

I need lots and lots of quiet and downtime, and even though all the other stuff is what you think of as the glamorous writing life–the travel, the attention, the interaction, etc.–it’s really not what I got into this for.
My greatest pleasure is in making up a story I love. That’s where I need to focus my time and energy. But I didn’t know that until I saw what the other life was like.

HWM: What has been the biggest surprise of your writing career?
Robin: There are SO many wildly creative people out there–other writers, illustrators, editors, producers, publicists, librarians, booksellers, teachers–the list goes on. One of the best things my writing career has given me is an excuse to talk to all these bright, talented, fascinating people. I love working in collaboration with them, love understanding how their minds work, love learning as much as I have in this past year. What a blast!

HWM: If you could share any unique writing tip to aspiring writers, what would it be?
Robin: Here are my three best pieces of advice, passed on from those who have taught me:

–Fast writing is good writing. Write your stories in one steady stream–don’t stop to fix that first sentence a million times, to rewrite those first three chapters for months on end–get your story out now, and fiddle with it later. We’re natural storytellers, and we need to give ourselves the pleasure of telling our stories straight through. Trust that you know what you want to say. Write it beginning, middle, and end, and do it now. Which leads to tip #2:

–Finish your work. So many people can begin novels, but can’t finish them. Be a finisher. Every time you finish a new novel, it builds your confidence that I can begin and finish the next one. Which leads to tip #3:

–Once you finish your work, mail it off, start on the next one. Don’t just sit around waiting to hear what will happen to the last one. I wasted more years than I care to admit waiting to sell my first novel. It wasn’t until I started writing more than one a year and getting them in the mail that things started to shake loose for me.

HWM: Why do you blog and when will you be back to regular blogging?
Robin: I blog because I love to play with everyone who shows up there! And that then makes it addictive! Which is why I’ve had to go cold-turkey for a while so I can get some books out–otherwise I know I’d
be right back in there, spending most of my day seeing what y’all have to say. It’s your own faults for being so brilliant and fun.

HWM: What’s your favorite post?
Robin: The one that was an accident. It wasn’t even a post–it was just this blank entry my computer wouldn’t let me delete. So I asked people not to read it, and instead everyone came over and turned it into this big party. And that, if you must know, is what eventually led to me throwing the First Annual Kidlitosphere Conference in Chicago last fall. Funny how these things evolve.

HWM: If you found a way to go back to your teen years, what would you do differently?
Robin: Aaaaack! So many things! But mostly not worry so much–I worried about EVERYTHING. This time I would just chillax and actually enjoy my life. It was so much more fun–and carefree–than I realized. Hm, I wonder if I’ll be looking back on this time in my life one day and thinking the same thing? Better chillax right now, too.

HWM: What makes you laugh?
Robin: The sweet, silly, foolish things we humans do. I love how embarrassed we get, how over-the-top we can be when we’re all hyped up about something–I just love the human race to pieces, and can’t think of anything more fun to watch. And I really appreciate smart, funny people who are funny in a kind or self-deprecating kind of way. I’m not into mean funny. Although I’ll admit I laughed way too hard at Borat.

HWM: If you were a superhero, what powers would you want and why?
Robin: Love this! I would need to be invisible, be able to fly, and be able to talk to and understand animals. That would pretty much take care of it.

Thank you, Robin!
Some Places to find Robin:
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