November 18, 2017

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Finding a Creative Frequency: Tuning in to Pat Schmatz’s “Lizard Radio”

LizardSchmatz’s novel comes at a key social moment, with trans identities and gender fluidity gaining increasing mainstream recognition in media and libraries. Lizard Radio (Candlewick, 2015), which received a  starred review from School Library Journal, tells the story of introspective, cautious ‘bender’ Kivali, a 15-year-old who was born female but feels trapped and misrepresented within a culture that touts strict gender boundaries. The seasoned YA author spoke with SLJ on the nuances of that well-wrought term dystopia, trusting one’s own experience, and letting characters speak for themselves.

The premise of this novel is a society in which much is regulated, including gender. How did this universe and its stipulations come to you?

The world came to me as something just a few shades different from our own, sort of a fun-house mirror reflection. I took some of the regulations I see in our world, both concrete and unspoken/cultural, and made them more rigid. Others, I loosened up. I played with the concepts as I went. I was especially interested in matters of gender, sexuality, defiance of norms, socialization of teens, and drugs that influence the chemical balance in our brains. I imagined different ways of addressing these issues.

Why choose lizards as the particular animal with which Kivali identified?

I didn’t choose lizards…the lizard chose me. I’m not a fan of reptiles. The lizard rose straight out of some backwater of my consciousness, popping up in my sketchbook connected to nothing, and I went with it. I was between drafts three and four when I happened upon the middle grade novel Lizard Music by Daniel Pinkwater (Putnam, 1976; NYR Children’s Collection, 2011). I was astounded at how many ideas we shared. That made me think I was getting the signal from some distant radio and I should just keep following the lizard trail wherever it took me.

Some of my favorite moments are when Kivali “goes lizard” and enters trances. The text in these passages seems particularly lyrical. Was this a conscious style decision? Are you also a writer of poetry? 

The lizard passages were my favorite parts and the easiest to write. I’m not much of a poet, but I use poetry as a tool when working on a book. I find that if I use a strict form (I tend to like sestinas and villanelles), the characters will often loosen up and speak more freely. Kivali in particular liked sestinas, so it was a good way for me to access her internal experience. I also listened to a lot of John Coltrane while working on the book, and his music definitely influenced the lizard passages.

Another aspect that stood out as I read was the blurring of conventionally “good” and “bad” characters. Sully feels she is a bad person because she often acts in defiance of Cropcamp regulations, even though she is a primary support system for Kivali. Machete, the apparent villain, has more dimension than simply an authority figure hungry for power and control. How did you craft this complexity surrounding typical dichotomies such as good vs. evil, and hero vs. villain?

People are so complex. I know kind people who are sometimes cruel and controlling. I know people who have done tremendous damage and also have shining spots of beauty and moments of kindness. It was fun for me to create complex characters with layered backstories, study them in depth, and let them act out all the way to their edges. I’ve never been good with multiple choice or true-false tests. Lizard Radio is an essay answer to some of my own questions about human nature and character.

Photo by Barrie Brewer

Photo by Barrie Brewer

In the ever-broadening realm of dystopian YA fiction, how do you feel Lizard Radio stands out?

I don’t think of Lizard Radio as dystopian, although I can see how it fits in that category. I really do imagine Kivali’s world as only a twitch-and-tick different from our own. In order to live together as a community, we develop ways of controlling one another’s behavior. The problem is people have such different ideas of what is “good” and what is “bad.” We see this in our culture today, with sharply differing ideas about ethics and standards for right action. Kind and generous people with good hearts whip into a fury over political discussion and cannot begin to understand one another’s mind-sets. Dystopia is defined (using several different sources) as an “imaginary bad place”—“a society characterized by human misery, as squalor, oppression, disease and overcrowding”— which is not the case in the Lizard Radio world at all. Or at least, not anymore than in our own world. I think the best way I can answer is, one person’s dystopia is another person’s reasonable solution to societal problems. Lizard Radio was a way for me to explore some solutions and possible consequences, and I guess it ended up being a bit dystopian.

How does this novel fit in with the nature of your other works? 

Lizard Radio might look quite different on the surface from my other books. However, I find myself returning to the same ideas over and over again, in different forms. How do we learn to trust our own experience? Is it possible to maintain one’s individuality— especially if you fall considerably outside of the norm— and still have deep and meaningful connections with individuals and the larger group? Also, all of my books include the power of connection with the natural world.

Are there any particular books that moved you as a young adult?

The book I thought of the most while writing this one was The Illustrated Man by Ray Bradbury (Doubleday, 1951). The first time I read it I was 13 years old at summer camp, and I only picked it up because I had nothing else to read. I wasn’t a science fiction fan, but I loved it from the first page. Those images from Bradbury’s collection of short stories are still what I remember most clearly from that summer. I read it again while working on Lizard Radio.

How did you want readers to feel after finishing this novel?

I’m not much of a message writer. When I write, I’m telling myself the story I most need to hear. But I realize that now the story is told, I do have a hope for how readers will feel. I hope they’ll come away with a sense of expansiveness and possibility. I hope they’ll feel some reassurance that even when the world seems rigid and impassable, there are ways to live creatively with integrity. And above all is the hope that I have for every book I write—that it will help at least one reader to feel less alone in the world.

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