Upper West Side Story: An Interview with Rebecca Stead | Under Cover

Rebecca Stead’s stellar new novel, When You Reach Me, is mysterious, funny, and fresh

Twelve-year-old Miranda is receiving mysterious notes, one of which says, “I am coming to save your friend’s life, and my own.” To make matters worse, the sender seems to know exactly what’s going to happen before it occurs. How did you come up with the idea for When You Reach Me? The idea came from an article in the New York Times about a guy who was walking around in Denver. He walked up to a policeman and said he couldn’t remember who he was or why he was in Denver. He didn’t even know if he had any connections there. So they tried lots of things to help him remember. Under hypnosis, he said he was married to a woman named Penny and they had two young daughters who were killed in a car accident. Eventually, they circulated photos of him, and he was claimed by Penny. But she wasn’t his wife—she was his fiancée. And they had no children. What a strange story. Maybe because I read a lot of speculative fiction as a kid, I immediately thought, maybe this guy knows something that we don’t. Or maybe this guy came from some time or place where this had actually come to pass. Maybe that’s why he’s here. What was the journey? And why did he end up with his brain kind of wiped clean? That was the nugget of the story, and it made me think of my own life and the people that I knew growing up here on New York’s Upper West Side. Your mother was a contestant on The $20,000 Pyramid with Dick Clark. Did she practice every evening like Miranda’s mom? I don’t remember her practicing—and there was also a different outcome. She didn’t win? No, she didn’t. But we did get consolation prizes, and one of them was a case of Panel Magic. What’s that? It’s a spray to clean your paneling. This is in the 1970s, and I guess a lot of people had wood paneling. We lived in this little New York apartment with plaster and paint. So we thought it was hysterical when we found out she had won a case of Panel Magic. She also won this huge case of Dentyne gum, which we loved. We were big gum chewers. That was really the highlight.

Photograph by Matt Peyton/Getty Images for RBI

Miranda is seldom seen without her copy of A Wrinkle in Time. Was that also one of your childhood favorites? I read and reread it. In fact, Madeleine L’Engle is the only author that I can remember meeting as a child. I never had any curiosity about writers, but I do remember my excitement at meeting Madeleine L’Engle. She was at this bookstore that used to be on the Upper East Side called Books & Co. I remember what the room looked like. I remember these plates of fruit they had out, because it was just a really intense experience for me to meet her. And she inscribed my book the way that Miranda’s book is inscribed. She wrote, “Rebecca, Tesser well”? Yeah. I still have that with my unicorn book plate. I really loved her books. Since your story involves time travel, was it tough to make it work logically? I had a complete meltdown, actually, and I called my dad. He’s somebody who loves puzzles that have to do with mathematics. He likes speculative fiction. We would always see science-fiction movies and watch Star Trek together. He has a great mind for this kind of thing. I called him and said, “I really would love it if you could meet me for breakfast, like right away.” We sat at this restaurant, and I tried to lay out the story. I just kept falling into the same hole with the logic, and he really helped me straighten it out. That was a pivotal day, because I never lost it again after that.

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