Sonya Sones is the author of the young adult novels in verse Stop Pretending: What Happened When My Big Sister Went Crazy, What My Mother Doesn’t Know, What My Girlfriend Doesn’t Know, One of Those Hideous Books Where the Mother Dies, and To Be Perfectly Honest. She also wrote the adult novel in verse, The Hunchback of Neiman Marcus. What My Mother Doesn’t Know has landed on the list of top one hundred books banned over the past decade.
Roz Weisberg interviewed Sones in September 2015.
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Novelist and poet Sonya Sones invited me to her home in Santa Monica to speak during September’s unending heat wave that dominated life in Los Angeles. It was the end of the day on a Friday, and commuters were already in full force using the wide residential street she lives on as a way to avoid major intersections on their way to the 405.
The traditional house with its brick walkway is set away from the street with a large protective tree that shields the front from the sun. Sones led me to the cozy living room with its vintage reading lamps, old family photos, and book-lined shelves. I couldn’t help but notice the old toys—including a talking Pee Wee Herman doll—scattered among the books. The noise from the street faded away as we settled in, and I felt like I was catching up with an old friend.
We talked for an hour and a half about everything, from how her past lives as a film editor and animator influenced her transition to writing, to the responsibility she feels for her audience, and her sense of pride for getting “banned in Bakersfield.”
To start, I was curious about how her background as an animator and film editor influences her poetry, and how she found the form of narrative poetry.
Sonya Sones: I see each scene as a movie. I wrote poems when I was a little kid and then when I got to be about sixteen, I kept a journal and I wrote everyday. Sometimes I would live for twenty minutes and spend half an hour writing about it and then live another twenty minutes and spend half an hour writing about that. I have boxes and boxes filled with my gushing journals.
Then when I was sixteen I learned how to make animated films, so filmmaking is what I thought I was going to do. I had worked my way up to being a film editor, but I didn’t have too many good credits. The one I’m proud of is co-editing River’s Edge. That was my first time of getting to edit footage of really great actors like Dennis Hopper.
When I had my kids, I didn’t want to go to work twelve hours a day. So, I looked around at my life and I thought “what else can I do,” and here’s where the animation weirdly led me to writing. My favorite time of day was when I read to my kids. I really loved that, and so I thought maybe I could write and illustrate books for kids. I thought, I used to make animated films so I know how to draw—that was my theory. Turned out, I could draw pretty well, but my first book, Smitty the Hollywood Kitty, absolutely stunk. I didn’t realize it was bad. I joined the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) and went to a conference and brought Smitty the Hollywood Kitty and got a critique of it. Before I went into the meeting I had proudly showed it to so many people who said “nice illustrations” that when I got to the critique I already knew that my words were lousy. But through the SCBWI, I started making friends with other people who wanted to become writers, and then I started hearing about classes, and then I started taking classes at UCLA which were pretty good. I kept hearing about Myra Cohn Livingstone and what a mean and scary teacher she was, and how she was super critical and made people cry, and I was afraid to take her class, but a friend of mine said let’s do it together.
I do like the books to be more poemy, but if they can’t be, they can’t be. I have to go with whatever each book is needing. It’s like when people ask, “What’s your favorite book that you’ve written?” and you say, “I don’t have a favorite, I love all my children” and that’s true so you just have to accept what gets born. My real kids are fantastic. My book, well, to put the amount of time into writing a book, you have to love it while you’re doing it.
I was taking Myra’s class, and very quickly I became the funny one in the class. I would read a poem and everyone would laugh and Myra would say, “Oh Sonya, you bring us up, what would we do without you? Oh Sonya, you bring us up from the depths!” And I loved being the funny one. Then she gave us an assignment, write in dactyl and trochee rhythms, which are very somber rhythms. I sat down to do my homework, and a poem popped out about my sister having a nervous breakdown and having to be sent to the hospital and how horrifying and scary it was. I was really concerned about passing this in to Myra. I thought, this isn’t going to bring anyone up from the depths, and what is she going to think? It was so personal and private I couldn’t bare the thought of reading it aloud in the classroom to the other students. I wrote copiously in my journal trying to decide what to do and I decided to compromise and pass it in to Myra, but not read it aloud. And then I had to wait a week to see what she thought.
She hoped to see the initial “VG” for very good across the top. Instead the note read: “we have to talk about this one!”
I thought she was going to say, “Stop writing this, do what you’re good at. You’re funny, what are you doing?” and instead she said, “You should write more of these and if you can put yourself through it, you’d be doing a service.” The idea of doing a service, and the idea of pleasing my teacher who I had on a pedestal, seemed so fabulous to me even though I didn’t want to particularly think about my sister and that terrible time in our lives. I tried writing more poems about her. Myra’s theory was that anybody who had anyone in their family who was throwing the rest of the family off-kilter would be able to appreciate these poems and would feel they weren’t alone.
Sones credits her editor Alex Reed at HarperCollins for asking the right questions that led her to the novel-in-verse form.
Alex wrote me this ten-page letter that was so nurturing. It would say, “I love this poem and here’s why . . . and I loved this poem and here’s why . . . and then this poem made me wonder if you shared a bedroom with your sister. This poem made me wonder if your parents ever met your boyfriend . . . .” So she asked all these questions, and I was so thrilled and excited that my book was going to be published that I wrote fifty more poems in two months. I had a notepad next to the bed and I would say to the family, “Wait, wait, I gotta go write something down.” I was just in a state of exaltation and it was thrilling. [Alex] turned it into a novel-in-verse by asking me so many questions.
And then once I finished that book, I realized that that was a form I could really enjoy doing. I had written some love poems in that book or poems about falling in love and that’s what led me to wanting to write my second book, What My Mother Doesn’t Know, because that was all about firsts and I think firsts are so powerful for a teenage girl.
Roz Weisberg: Does the poem come first or the narrative?
SS: Each book varies. I would say the second book started out very much the way Stop Pretending did. I knew I wanted to write poems about first experiences, so . . . I just mined my own first experiences and then the character’s voice emerged. It happened with one poem. The first poem in the book “Nicknames”—after I wrote the poem, I walked around happy for two weeks because I felt like my character had walked up to me and introduced herself: “Hi my name’s Sophie and I have a sense of humor and I’m a real romantic and I don’t like to put up with any shit from anybody,” and as soon as I knew those three things about her I could write the rest of the book.
But you know three books, Stop Pretending, What My Mother Doesn’t Know, and The Hunchback of Neiman Marcus, are much more poemy than the other books. One of Those Hideous Books Where the Mother Dies, What My Girlfriend Doesn’t Know, and To Be Perfectly Honest are more narrative. The way that I realize it is, when I think about what poems I can read at readings, the ones that are more poemy are easier for me to pull and read out of context and can stand alone. The ones that are more narrative, it’s hard to just read one poem; I feel like I have to read four in a row or it won’t work. At first I was worried about this other kind of book, the more narrative kind, but I am a novelist so I have to let the story come first. If the story is the kind of story that needs more words and more dialogue, and feels less like a poem, then I’m going to do that. The poems may not like it, but that’s how it’s going to be.
RW: Do you have a preference?
SS: I do like the books to be more poemy, but if they can’t be, they can’t be. I have to go with whatever each book is needing. It’s like when people ask, “What’s your favorite book that you’ve written?,” and you say, “I don’t have a favorite, I love all my children . . . ” and that’s true so you just have to accept what gets born. My real kids are fantastic. My book, well, to put the amount of time into writing a book, you have to love it while you’re doing it.
The book I’m writing now, which is called Saving Red, it was so much easier for me than any recent book has been. It felt almost back to the first glory days. It was flowing out of me, but here’s what I did to trick myself: I set the book in Santa Monica, which is where I live, so I didn’t have to do any research because I knew all the settings. I did not allow myself to rewrite and rewrite and rewrite. Once I completed a poem I moved it to a file called “locked poems.” I was allowed to read the previous five poems that were in there, but then I had to work in a new file on my newer poem, and at the end of the day I could move the poem into the locked file. I wasn’t that strict, I allowed myself to tinker a little bit, but I tried not to look back.
My first draft of this book was 317 pages. I cut it to 264 pages instantly so I didn’t waste any time revising something that I later was going to remove. I left things sloppy for the first time. I even had notes in the margins asking if this word was right or to cut this stanza, but I left them that way ‘til I got to the end. So when I first went through it, I cut out all the stuff I didn’t need, and then got rid of all my notes and answered any questions that I needed to, and it saved me a ton of time by not revising something that was going to disappear anyway.
I also wrote an outline for the first time. It was interesting. I didn’t know the first thing about writing an outline and felt very at sea. So I looked online at Syd Field’s screenwriting book, and he had the three-act structure so I thought I’d see if I could put the three-act structure into this. I decided ahead of time that this is a story about this and this, and at the end of the first act this going to happen, and at the end of the second act this is going to happen, and this is the ending. So this time, I actually knew it instead of just writing a bunch of poems.
This book happens to be about a girl who has to do community service and she’s waited ‘til the very last minute, so her only option if she doesn’t want a bad grade is to help Santa Monica do their annual homeless count. There’s an annual homeless count they have to do every year. She goes out that night to count the homeless and she sees this one person who wakes up and is having a nightmare who’s only a few years older than her, and she’s very moved by this girl and thinks, “Wow, she’s just a little bit older than me and here she is living in Palisades Park and how terrible.” It’s December and her school break has just begun and she decides to make it her mission to get this girl back to her family in time for the holidays. That’s what she wants to do. It was so good knowing that and I discovered a ton of stuff along the way.
RW: You didn’t feel burned-out by the outline process?
SS: No, it was very undetailed so I didn’t feel like I’d already written [the book]. I just felt, “Whew, I know where I’m going.” And my husband is a writer, so right before I would begin each act, I would go to breakfast with him and tell him, this was going to happen and then this is going to happen. And he’d say, “That’s fabulous,” or “This part is great, but I’m not sure about that,” and it was so useful having someone I could bounce my acts off of.
RW: What was the inspiration for writing about homelessness?
SS: I thought about writing about a teenage girl who befriends a homeless person for years, but every time I pitched it to my husband or my agent, it sounded like a bad after-school special, it was maudlin. I originally thought the homeless person was a grown up, but once I realized she was 18 and my main character is 14 about to be 15, the whole thing changed for me.
The germ of this idea came from two different things. One, when I was sixteen and walking home through the Boston Public Gardens, and I saw all these people gathered in a circle around a crazy person who was spouting about our Lord and trying to proselytize to everyone that they should be into God. Everybody in the circle was taking turns making a joke about the person and what she was saying, and then everyone would laugh. I watched for a long time and my sixteen-year-old self was so horrified because my sister had a mental illness, and I finally got the courage together to stand up to them and say, “If you don’t like what she’s saying fine, then go away, but don’t just stand here and make fun of this person.” I actually said that at sixteen, and it was a powerful moment in my life that I had the courage to do it. I actually thought that moment would happen in this book and it happens, but in a much less brave way.
The other germ of the idea came from the fact that my sister does have mental illness, and as a kid I used to worry that she would end up homeless, that she would have a mental break down, that her medication would stop working and she would disappear because she lives in New York and I live here and she’s not married. She can go out of her apartment and then not come home and she can become a bag lady. That thought was really scary to me. This is kind of a fictionalized version of what I imagine could happen to someone like my sister because this girl who is homeless has mental illness. I’m sort of revisiting that theme in my own life, and how do we help somebody with mental illness, and how do we try to destroy the stigma against mental illness?
We talked about how Stop Pretending resonated for me as an adult, and how I wished I had the book when I was fourteen.
SS: That’s lovely to hear. I’m thrilled because that book was huge for me in terms of the amount of feedback I’ve gotten for years from readers, and that book came out in 1999. I still get these gorgeous heart-rending letters from people thanking me for that book.
I recently switched from Simon & Schuster back to HarperCollins, and my editor, just the other day, was telling me that they’re going to repackage Stop Pretending and reissue it even though it’s never been out of print, and give it a whole new look and a whole new push right when my new book comes out. I feel very glad about that because the more chances it has to be alive the better.
It occurred to me as we talked how Stop Pretending specifically, but also her other books as well, create a platform for teens to talk about difficult subjects that adults don’t know how to discuss either.
SS: It’s interesting you use the word “platform.” When I got the courage up to tell [my sister] I wrote this book about what happened I thought, if she doesn’t want her life exposed in the manner, which would be completely fine with me, it’s her private life, I’ll use a pen name. But as soon as I told her about it she said, “Oh, that’s so great. A book like this can be used to open up discussion about mental illness in schools.” And those were the first words out of her mouth, and she [had been] a public librarian for twenty years. After she said that I was so moved, and I feel like in some way the fact that that book is out there helping people has kind of redeemed her suffering a little bit.
I feel a responsibility when I write for teens that I leave them with a feeling of hope. I had two teenagers living in my house when I started writing those books, and my characters didn’t have sex because my kids hadn’t had sex yet and I didn’t want them to feel, “What’s wrong with me, the characters in my mom’s books are all having sex.”
RW: Speaking of teenagers having sex, What My Mother Doesn’t Know is on the most banned list.
SS: And there’s no sex, there’s no drugs, there’s no cursing, no alcohol.
RW: So what was it?
SS: People who ban books are idiots. I often will get a letter from a parent who says, “I read excerpts of your book and . . . .” They’re just reading two or three pages that someone might have pointed out as possibly objectionable, and they don’t ever read the whole book so they take it out of context. Here’s an example: In What My Mother Doesn’t Know, after the girl falls out of love with her first handsome, gorgeous boyfriend because she realizes he’s an anti-Semitic idiot, she ends up falling into an online relationship with a guy named Chaz. And the reason I put that in was it was the early days of internet chat rooms and I wanted to show teenage girls without being didactic that it was unsafe to go meet up with people who you don’t actually know, who you’re meeting because you met them online. Therefore, I had to make this guy do something horrendous to make her realize just in the nick of time, “I’m lucky I didn’t go meet him because he could have raped me.” He seems very funny and charming at first, and this is all done over email and online. Then he says, “What’s your favorite thing to do?” and she says, “I don’t know, what’s yours?” And he says, “I like to jerk off in libraries.” So, if a parent just reads the page where a boy says, “I like to jerk off in libraries,” they might think my book is smutty. If they read the whole book, they would realize it’s teaching twelve- and thirteen-year-old girls to be safe when they meet people online.
That was one issue, and another big issue was with the poem called “Ice Capades,” where it says, “Sometimes/on cold nights/I like to press my breasts against the cold glass of the window,/unbutton my nightgown,/and press my breasts/against the cold glass/just so I can see/the amazing tricks/that my nipples can do.” That poem with the nipple word in there, and the idea that she would press her breasts against the glass and her nipples would get erect, was more than people could handle. They couldn’t take it. They were freaked out. It wasn’t even a masturbation poem, it was a “first.” She was going through having breasts for the first time. “Oh what can they do?” And it wasn’t in the daytime, where anyone could see it, it wasn’t for an audience. It was at night, in the dark and she did this thing. I can’t tell you how many letters I got from girls telling me, “You made me feel like I’m not so weird.” It didn’t mean they were at home putting their breasts against a glass, but they were doing something else that they were feeling weird about, and then they don’t have to anymore because this character has done this thing. That’s why I left the poem in. After I wrote it, I told my husband I didn’t think I could put this one in there, and he said, “No, you gotta keep it in there.” I’m glad I did.
Sones explained the process that happens when there is “a challenge to a book,” the forms from the American Library Association that asks for the offense, and then how the book faces the City Council for public libraries or the school board.
SS: It’s actually a great thing, because the whole community has to come together and decide whether this person should have the right to remove the book, and kids will get in on it and say, “No, you can’t do it.” And I was thrilled that my book was one of the Top 100 Most Challenged Books of the decade. Because as a result of that, I often get asked to speak about why you shouldn’t ban books, and you can’t change an adult’s mind about that, but when you get out to a middle school or high school those kids may never have even thought about it, and so you get to them before a misguided adult gets to them and tells them banning books is okay. I like that I get to influence younger people.
I was at a middle school speaking, and it just so happened that Ellen Hopkins, who also writes novels-in-verse, had just been uninvited by a book festival because a parent found her books objectionable. I thought this is a good example of it, so I told the kids what happened and that some of the other authors in solidarity decided not to come and speak, so if you were one of those authors, what would you do? A girl raised her hand right away and said, “Well, what I would do is I would go, but when I got there instead of reading from my book, I would read from Ellen’s book.” What a fantastically subversive, brilliant thing. So it’s great to be able to talk about banned books with kids. The way I describe it in a nutshell to kids is if your mother doesn’t think you’re ready for a certain book, she has every right to say, “I’d like you to wait until you’re fourteen to read it,” but why should your mother be able to tell every other kid in your school they can’t read it too?
I wondered if she felt like she had to self-edit or reconsider how she approached the themes and ideas she was interested in as a result of the ban.
SS: It would be the other way around. I would be delighted if one of my other books was banned, but I think it had to do with the title. What My Mother Doesn’t Know made them perk up their ears and peek over their daughters’ shoulders and ask, “Wait, what does this character’s mother not know? What do I not know about my own daughter?” I think the title itself might have gotten it into hot water. One of Those Hideous Books got banned a little because two of those characters are gay, but no one had the nerve to say it was because those characters were gay.
RW: You’ve tackled mental illness, teen firsts, and homelessness. What’s next?
SS: I have a huge file, and I find when I’m writing I’ll often come up with a gillion ideas that seem so much more interesting than what I’m working on, which is just smoke screen. You’re putting things up in front of yourself to keep you from doing the job at hand, but rather than just throw those away, I put them in a file. I know I’ll find something good in there to write next, but I’m not allowing myself to think about it yet.