Author Interview: Pat Schmatz
Shelf Notes had the pleasure of sitting down with author Pat Schmatz (it rhymes with “lots”) the other day at BEA 2015. We got a chance to discuss her upcoming new YA novel Lizard Radio, as well as her favorite books, her writing process, and potentially dangerous adventures with aliens and Komodo dragons!
We sat down with Pat first thing on Wednesday, shortly after she had arrived in the city. She had flown in the night before, just in time to catch the Candlewick Press dinner, which she’d really enjoyed. Pat hails from Minneapolis, a city she loves for its bicycling and the students to whom she teaches writing.
We began by asking Pat what she thought the book’s genre was, because we were stumped! It doesn’t clearly fit into any genre (YA? dystopian fiction? LGBTQ?); Pat claims she was somewhat startled herself when Kirkus categorized it as science fiction. She also doesn’t see the setting as futuristic so much as just a slight shift from our own, current world - a cracked lens, a possible other existence that is happening parallel to our own.
This world spawned from a drawing of a lizard wearing headphones that came out of Pat’s pencil point one day. She realized that lizard was trying to tell her something, so she stopped to listen. “I knew right away it was a lonely lizard, and that the lizard was trying to get a signal,” she related. “The lizard would only speak very cryptically for a long time, and maybe in poetry, but not very much else” and Pat had to figure out from there where her story was going. She says she often doesn’t know until the copyediting stage what her story is really going to mean for her, because she is telling herself the story the whole time, watching it unravel.
What are you?
Ultimately, she realized that the story encompassed two questions for her: “What are you?” and “What if she’s not?” The former she asked of the lizard drawing as she worked to determine where the story was going. The latter has a more complicated backstory which traces its origins to Pat’s childhood. At age 12, while at summer camp, she made friends with a yellow-eyed girl who pulled her aside one day to tell Pat that she was “part of an interplanetary coalition in the war against evil”, and had been sent to recruit Pat because she would someday play a major role in this war. Pat shrugged the girl off as crazy, but always remained niggled by the little question in the back of her mind: “What if she’s not?” The book, then, tries to answer both of these questions for the author. She tries to answer them through the conflicted protagonist, Kivali, who struggles to figure out who she is and what her role is: Is she really supposed to save the world? For what, for who, in what way?
What if she’s not?
We thought this book would resonate with young adults trying to figure their own selves out during adolescence. Kivali is ultimately trying to figure out who she is, and the author hopes that Kivali’s situation and strength will resonate with readers.
She ties Kivali’s strength into that of lizards, which are very resilient and strong creatures. In the course of writing the book, Pat did a ton of research on lizards, and became particularly fascinated with the Komodo dragon. She loves how they can do anything: climb trees, swim, run 30 miles an hour - and she loves their distinctive walk. She became so interested that she even reached out to a friend who owns a Komodo dragon, and had the opportunity to get dangerously close to the creature - they can be deadly! They are quick and their teeth contain venomous pockets which slow any bitten prey and ultimately kill them. So Pat put her life on the line in her pursuit of research for this book!
This fascination also lends Pat some great material for when she teaches writing to her own students - mostly sixth graders in the Minneapolis area. She loves to share facts with her students about lizards, as well as read them some great passages from her favorite books. One which she loves to use to teach from is A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness (always a favorite author), because she draws them in with the suspenseful introduction which shows the students how to describe the feeling of fear in such a real way.
And speaking of favorite authors, here are a few books that Pat mentioned loving right now (but warned that her list changes all the time!) --
- Meg Medina’s Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass
- Maggie Thrash’s Honor Girl
- Steve Brezenoff's Guy In Real Life
- Hannah Moskowitz’s Not Otherwise Specified
- Rita Williams Garcia, Jacqueline Woodson, MT Anderson are all current favorites
(And we were thrilled to hear that she also shares a long-time love of The Outsiders!)
We finished up our interview asking Pat to name her favorite candy, and her answer was: kickshaw*! You’ll have to read the book to understand that reference, but you will understand when you do. Please don’t hesitate to immerse yourself in this incredible new world that Pat has created, complete with its own very fitting vocabulary!
|Pat Schmatz signing copies of her new book|
* Fascinating origin story, too: Pat tells us that “kickshaw” originates from a French word for “a sweetness or a morsel.” I looked it up, and it’s related to “quelque chose” - neat!