I was attending the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) annual conference in Las Vegas, Nevada, November 2012, and while walking by the Algonquin/Workman booth, I was pried from the aisle by Michael Rockliff, the Director of Library Marketing for Workman Publishing. He booktalked a handful of titles, but the one that stuck out to me was Somebody Up There Hates You by YA debut author Hollis Seamon. My first thought was, “Oh no, a riff on The Fault in Our Stars.” But I really should never have been concerned. I tore through the galley in one sitting. Just as I never should have mentally categorized TFIOS as a teen cancer relationship book, readers should not judge SUTHY that way, either.
Please tell me about the inspiration behind Somebody Up There Hates You—I understand it grew out of a short story, but your dedication in the foreword leads me to believe there is a greater personal connection.
Yes, this novel grew out of a short story called “SUTHY Syndrome” that I wrote some years ago. The story was published in the Bellevue Literary Review, one of my favorite literary journals, in 2009. After the story came out, I thought I’d heard the last from Richie—but, no. He just kept on talking in my head and he let me know that he had a great deal more to say and to do. So I expanded the story into the novel, adding many new characters and events but keeping the time frame of 10 days for the whole story to take place.
But you’re also right that the real origins of this book go back much farther, to the many times that I stayed with my son in Babies Hospital at Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center in New York City. There, I met all sort of kids—sick, wounded, all hurt in some way. The ones who have always stayed in my mind—and my dreams—are the teenagers, who were both heartbreaking and hilarious. Full of wit and spirit and rebellion, even in the face of devastating illnesses. I’ve never forgotten their voices. That’s really where Richie and Sylvie came from.
Richie, believing this to be his last lap through a hospital, takes Marcus Aurelius’s advice to heart: “Wait for death with a cheerful mind.” And a mischievous mind as well, wouldn’t you say?
Absolutely. Richie, no matter what his physical condition, is still a seventeen-year-old boy who likes to laugh and who likes to disobey the rules, especially rules that make no sense to him. He has a keen sense of absurdity and a sharp wit. He’s just like any other teenage boy—full of passion and sexual longing. And he has a deep desire to pack as much living as he can into whatever time he’s got.
Early on in the book, I became very aware of Richie’s use of his sense of smell to get a “read” on something or someone. His Uncle Phil, coconspirator in springing Richie from hospice on Halloween night, is described as smelling like “bacon and marijuana smoke and outdoors air.” On the way back to the hospital, Richie again notes the smells—”Exhaust, dead leaves, wetness from the storm drains, and beyond all that, the river.” His Grandma smells like “perfume and hair spray, cigarettes and a little bit of sweat.”
That’s an interesting observation. I hadn’t really thought about it but I do tend to use images of smells in my writing, perhaps because smell is such an evocative sense, one that can transport us to different times and places with one whiff. Also, it makes sense for Richie to rely on smells to read people, since his eyesight is failing. And he’s in a place where smells are often stale and sterile. So when Richie finally gets to go outdoors, he really inhales the whole rich atmosphere because he misses it so much. And the same holds true when someone comes in from the outside world: Richie has a deep appreciation for the new air that they carry with them. It’s like a gift to him.
Sylvie is the only other teenager in hospice, and she and Richie quickly become the darlings of the ward. But her illness seems to have come on quickly, while Richie describes himself as the “Incredible Dying Boy” and has been in and out of hospitals since he was 11 years old. It obviously affects their acceptance of the terminal nature of their disease, and the reactions of their families. What made you decide to set it up this way?
I wanted Sylvie and Richie to be very different, in many ways. Sylvie comes from a wealthy family; she was a pretty, popular and successful private school girl before she became sick. Richie was raised in near-poverty by a single mom and has some fairly disreputable relatives (like his Uncle Phil). Out in the “real world,” Sylvie and Richie would never have been a couple, would probably never have even met. But, here, in the world of hospice, they have been thrown together under the most intense circumstances. So they bond, in all sorts of ways. And, yes, it’s true that Sylvie in no way accepts her diagnosis as terminal. She is fierce in her belief that she will survive. This may be because she hasn’t been sick as long as Richie but her ferocity is also part of her essential personality. She is, in many ways, her father’s daughter; Richie says that both Sylvie and her father have dragon’s blood running in their veins.
I really love the way you played with Richie’s character through the other characters’ nicknames for him. Edward, the tender-tough nurse, calls him Richard. His grandmother calls him Richie Rich, after the comic book character. Uncle Phil treats hims like royalty, calling him King Richard and addressing him as “my liege.” Did you plot this out, or did it just happen as those characters developed?
I had no plan to have various characters use different terms for Richie but as characters entered the book, they just naturally started in using their own pet names for him. I think that the names they choose do help to characterize the people who interact with Richie; the nicknames help to establish individuals as different and each relationship as unique. Phil, for example, tries always to make a game out of their time together; he’s always, in his own way, trying to distract and entertain Richie. That is Phil’s way of showing love. He’s never sappy or sugary, but always funny and a bit outrageous. Phil also has another way of showing his strong feelings for Richie and all of the other hospice patients, and that is through his drawings.
Despite his seemingly powerless position, Richie actually puts a lot of major changes in motion for those around him, some on purpose, some accidental—pushing together his mother and her estranged mother, forcing the issue of getting restitution from his long absent father, and by chance, the cop assigned to guard him has a long-standing crush on his mother. I felt respect for Richie, not pity.
I’m so glad that you feel respect for Richie. I do, too. He’s managed to grow up in this short amount of time. He’s fallen in love and done everything in his power to protect the girl he loves. He’s tried to provide for his mother, to make her life a bit easier when he’s gone. Richie, by the end of the book, has accomplished what he set out to do, under enormously difficult circumstances. He hasn’t planned it all but he takes advantage of every opportunity to help the people he loves get by when he is gone. For me, Richie really is a hero.
Respected for her adult short stories, Hollis is a recipient of a New York Foundation for the Arts Fiction Fellowship. She is Professor of English at the College of Saint Rose in Albany, NY and teaches for the Fairfield University MFA in Creative Writing Program. Her latest collection of short stories, Corporeality, was published in January 2013 by Able Muse Press. She lives in Kinderhook NY.
Seamon, Hollis. Somebody Up There Hates You (Algonquin Young Readers, Sept. 2013, Tr $16.99, ISBN 9781616202606) Gr 9 Up.
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