On October 24, Kate, a hard-working attorney and single mother, is called away in the middle of a crucial meeting to pick up her 15 year-old daughter at her fancy private school in Brooklyn. Amelia has been suspended for plagiarizing an English paper. When Kate arrives at Grace Hall, she learns that Amelia has jumped from the roof, committing suicide.
The story backs up to the beginning of September and switches to Amelia’s point of view. Her narration is interspersed with text messages, Facebook posts, and excerpts from a gossip blog. Readers learn about Amelia and her best friend, Sylvia; Amelia’s invitation to join a Grace Hall secret society, the Magpies; and the shocking lengths to which she goes to prove herself to the leaders of the “Maggies.”
Weeks after Sylvia’s death, Kate receives an anonymous text message, stating, simply, “Amelia didn’t jump.” From there the story accelerates, moving back and forth in time, between Kate’s investigation and Amelia’s last weeks. Many twists and turns follow, and readers won’t want to put this book down until they know just what happened on that roof, and why. Adult Books 4 Teens blogger Angela Carstensen talked with debut author Kimberly McCreight about Reconstructing Amelia (Harper, 2013).
The mixture of narrative voices and styles, including text messages and blog posts, is perhaps this novel’s greatest strength. Did you plan this from the beginning, or did your method of telling the story change as your worked progressed?
Every [unpublished] book I’ve ever written has been from multiple points of view and shifting time frames. There’s just something about that kind of storytelling that I find appealing. For me, this orchestral approach to narrative most accurately reflects how people experience situations and relationships. It’s never linear—not the events, not the memories, and certainly not the emotions.
The multimedia elements flowed from Amelia’s point of view. Once I was writing from the perspective of a teenage girl in 2013, it was only natural that she communicate in these various mediums and that they be as important sometimes as her face-to-face interactions. Moreover, to truly understand either a friendship built on texts or an electronic assault that can come at any hour, it helps to actually experience it that way as a reader. Plus, I just loved the idea of someone as bright and articulate as Amelia using her Facebook status updates to show her literary flourish. I like to imagine I might have done that if Facebook had been around when I was her age, but I’m not sure I’d have been that clever.
How did you work to differentiate Kate and Amelia’s voices?
Writing Kate in third person and Amelia in first helped to naturally distinguish them. I decided to put Amelia in first person to give her story greater immediacy. With Kate, I honestly wasn’t sure—as a mother—that I could handle writing about her grief in the first person. A little narrative distance seemed critical to doing justice to that kind of loss.
Beyond that, the voices simply came out very differently as I lived inside the two characters. I also edited the two threads separately. Once the first draft was finished, I worked on one voice at a time from beginning to end, starting with Kate then Amelia. And then, of course, I had to be on the lookout for the odd slip—like Kate saying “whatever.” It did happen occasionally in early drafts, but luckily it tended to jump off the page.
Why did you set the novel in a New York City private school? Did you attend a private school? If not, how did you go about researching that world?
Those decisions didn’t feel like choices so much as the way things already were. I often feel when I’m writing that I’m recording something that has already happened. That said, I did go to private school—a boarding school in Princeton, New Jersey—for high school. Even though it wasn’t an exact fit, I probably did feel a little more equipped to write about that kind of setting.
But so much of the novel is also informed by my experiences as a mother, and that has been shaped in large part by Park Slope, the Brooklyn neighborhood where I have raised both my daughters. I know what it feels like to be walking down a sidewalk and to hope that the ambulance that has just sped by isn’t racing to your child’s school. In the writing, it absolutely made everything feel more real to me, having it set here in Brooklyn.
I also did a fair amount of research into teens, their lives online as well as in person, including bullying and sexuality. I spoke with local private school students as well to find out how they spent their time away from school, where they hung out, how they communicated—texts, Facebook, IM-ing—and what they talked about.
Did you set out to write a book about bullying, or did you begin with the idea of writing a mystery about a teen suicide and the mother’s need to understand her daughter’s motivation?
The bullying aspect of the book developed from the characters. Once I was living inside Amelia’s skin and had developed the secondary characters, the rest of the story played out in its own, tragically inevitable way.
But you’re exactly right that I was first motivated by the notion of a mother trying to understand the profound loss of a child through a supposed suicide. As my children get older and are off on their own more in the world, I’m increasingly aware of how little I know about what goes on in their lives. And they’re still so young and they tell me a lot. Sometimes, I can’t get them to stop talking.
Yet, they leave things out. Not even on purpose, but occasionally, they’ll just say something innocently that hints at some larger narrative. I’ll find myself saying, “wait, back up, tell me more about that.” Next thing you know a whole story unfolds that I might not have otherwise known anything about if I’d been distracted for that split-second, which—believe me—happens all the time. They are young still, so these dramas are mostly innocuous, but already I can see how it would be so easy not to know things. Even when you’re trying so hard to know everything.
The reality is that as much as our children feel like they are part of us, they aren’t. Every day they chart their own little course in this world. They must, and it’s our job to help them do it. That’s awe-inspiring and beautiful—and utterly terrifying.
Was there ever a point when you considered publishing this novel for the young adult market?
I do remember having coffee with a good writer friend after I was finished and telling her that I thought I might have written an adult-YA crossover. “Is there such a thing?” I remember asking. I wasn’t even sure. I never made a conscious decision to go for one market or another, I just wrote the book I had to write.
Would you consider secrets to be a central theme of the novel? I was struck by the number of secrets being kept by both adults and teens, from secrets of parentage to secrets of sexual orientation. And, of course, the secret society at the center of it all.
Secrets and their potentially toxic consequences are absolutely a central theme of Reconstructing Amelia. The best protection for children—whether it’s from bullying, or drugs, or depression—is a honest, trusting relationship with a parent or someone they’ll speak to when things go off the rails or reach out to before they go over that fateful ledge.
For me, that openness is a two-way street. For children to be willing to share the things they’re ashamed of—and often that includes being bullied or even being the bullier—they have to know that we won’t judge them, that our love is unconditional. That’s easier said than done, I know. Because words so often aren’t enough.
But I think it helps for them to know that we’re not perfect either. That we’ve made mistakes—loved the wrong person, been unkind to a friend, lied when we shouldn’t have, trusted when we knew better—but that we survived. And that they will too.
Please see the SLJ review of Reconstructing Amelia, published on the Adult Books 4 Teens blog at http://blogs.slj.com/adult4teen/2013/04/03/weekly-reviews-debut-novels/.
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