City Book Review-er Jane Manaster interviews Alex Hiam about his latest book for tweens, Silent Lee and the Adventure of the Side Door Key. See below for more information about Jane and Alex, and see our review of Silent Lee here.
Jane Manaster: Why a female protagonist?
Alex Hiam: I never considered anything but a girl protagonist. I’m raising two girls, and my 14 year old is an avid reader. We share a love of YA fantasy adventures, and the theme of a young woman who has to handle a major challenge just seemed natural. I should add that my daughter Sadie gets editorial credit in the front matter. She listened to each chapter and gave me firm feedback that really helped tune the book to her ear and the tastes of her peers. Although it’s not hop or trendy. Silent Lee spends most of her time in a parallel world set in Boston’s Back Bay neighborhood, where I used to visit my great grandmother as a child. And like my great grandmother, the “side door world” where Sie goes to school is about a hundred years out of date, if you want to call it that–and also much more full of magic than our side of the door. Anyway, I was writing for my daughters and their friends, so of course the kick-ass hero is a heroine!
JM: How does adoption function as personal theme for you?
AH: My twin brother and I came from an orphanage in the midwest. My adoptive parents got the call that there was a baby available, but… After some panic, I hear, they decided to take the two of us, which was a lucky break! So, growing up, I did wonder where we came from and whether I’d ever meet my birth mother and father. That seemed impossible because adoptions were closed in those days. The courts created a fictional past for you, complete with a “forged” but legally real birth certificate stating that we were born to my adoptive parents. I guess there was a lot more stigma to being a foundling back in those days, so it was hidden by law. A few years ago, I hired a private detective who tracked down a redacted social worker’s report from the orphanage. It gave some tantalizing details–like that my birth mother was in college and my father was her painting instructor, visiting from France and already with a family over there. He abandoned her, she pretended she was going to some college in Boston for the next semester, and the orphanage hid her until she gave birth. Well, this is the stuff of Thomas Hardy novels, and it wove itself into my imagination rather deeply.
It also explained some puzzling things from my childhood. My father was an MIT-trained engineer, and I was a dyslexic, artistic kid to whom he patiently tried to teach algebra and Latin declinations night after night, but not much of it would stick. Ah ha! My genetics came from two painters. Well, at least that made sense. But the trail eventually went cold. After unearthing the hidden first birth certificate, and coming up with my birth mother’s age and name, the detective could not locate her. She seemed never to have been born or gone to schools or anything. It was a shameful experience, and she probably gave a false name.
This is a long way of saying that a mysterious back story is almost inevitable whenever I create important characters! Adding to the mix is the wonderful fact that I adopted my daughter Sadie. She hadn’t been abandoned to some orphanage, her mother was raising her quite lovingly, but I fell in love with her mother when she was one, and it seemed natural to formalize our family through the courts. Being adopted, and now finding myself adopting…of course Silent Lee has a many-layered backstory! In book two, which is already drafted, we learn more about her adoption and so does she. But as in real life, the truth will be difficult to dig up and there may be more revealed in book three.
JM: What are some of the positives and negatives of adoption, in your experience?
AH: I’d like to say that love makes a family and it doesn’t matter where you come from, and that is exactly how we feel in my current family. However, the details of each person’s background do have some gravity and can affect both actual and (more often) emotional experience. For instance, when my Uncle Alex who I was named for passed away–he’d been single and without children–I was surprised to learn that his will named all his nephews and nieces except for the adopted ones. He didn’t explain why.
Now, was it because we were adopted and the others were blood? I can only speculate, which is of course a nagging sort of thing. It got me thinking how it was odd that I went to college in Cambridge, just a fifteen minute walk from his apartment there, and yet I didn’t hear from him for four years. Maybe he never thought to take me out to dinner or see how I was doing because he just didn’t do things like that, but I vaguely recalled hearing he saw my cousins on occasion. This is the sort of thing that probably isn’t about adoption, but one can’t help but wonder if one’s somehow a second-class family member. I bet everyone who’s adopted wonders, when their parents are critical or other relatives are cold, whether it’s because they were adopted. Doubts will come up, but my overarching sentiment is a very warm one. To have been given an opportunity to be raised in a proper family and not as a ward of the state–what a huge thing that is! And for my part, I truly do believe that family is a verb, not a noun, and you build it by how you love and care for children. There is no doubt in my mind as a parent who has adopted myself. But I do think I know better than maybe most parents that I need to reassure my adopted daughter often that I love her and am forever her dad, period!
Another thing about adoption is that it leaves you uncertain about what heritage to claim. I want to own the fact that I’m the biological offspring of painters, being artistic by temperament myself. But I don’t like to think about a biological father who gets his student pregnant and abandons her to give birth to twins. Then there is the rich heritage on my adoptive mother’s side of people whose work inspired me: Illustrator/author Tasha Tudor, author and naturalist Thornton Burgess, and yacht designer William Starling Burgess, to name a few. And my dad’s grandmother, Jane Webster, whose house was full of the art and architecture that inspires my work today. (I actually used to run my fingers over a Monet, wondering about those wonderful brush strokes.) Is this a legitimate inheritance? I don’t share their genes, but I did soak up a lot of inspiration.
JM: Why write about middle schoolers?
AH: The stock answer is because I’m a parent whose children are in and around that period of life, but I bet I’ll still write in this category when my children are grown. Did you know that Harry Potter is eleven in the first book? Many of the best loved books are about younger characters tackling their first major challenges in life. I’m a big fan of Dianna Wynne Jones, and the same is true of most of her protagonists. If you look up the statistics on bestselling novels, you see how central middle-school stories are. Of the 59 books that have sold more than 30 million copies, 55 are novels. Humanity loves a good story. And of those, 22 are aimed at a young audience: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Ann of Green Gables, Black Beauty, To Kill a Mockingbird, Rebecca, to name a few.
That’s 40%, almost half. Is it just a statistical anomaly that so many of our best-loved books prove to be about pre-teen and tween protagonists? Everyone loves a good story about this time in life when we first really begin to step out and shape our adult selves through a flood of new responsibilities and experiences.
It’s the same time of life in which all the traditional coming-of-age trials and rituals took place over ten million years of human prehistory. Pre-teens and early teens. Not older teens, who were until very modern times treated by their societies as adults.
I think these so-called middle-grade years (with a year or two added to bracket on either side) are a hugely important moment of maturation in our lives. Telling an adventurous story about this time of life is getting at something so fundamental that we continue to buy and read books set in this period of life by the hundreds of millions.
The book trade may currently view this category as a side niche, but in our emotional lives, it’s huge. The better written (not insultingly simplistic) novels that take the category seriously are really such wonderful stories that we reread them throughout our lives.
There’s about to be a summer film festival around where I live featuring the Ghibli Studios classic films. There will no doubt be quite a mix of young and adult fans in the audience, even though the protagonists are quite young. It’s a well we all need to go back to on occasion because these are stories about a very important stage of life.
JM: Why bring in a range of plot devices instead of just focusing on character?
AH: I taught a class all year called “Making Writing Exciting,” for tweens and teens. I did it with my fourteen-year-old daughter, Sadie, at a center for home-schoolers, so it was only serious young writers who all wanted to be there and worked really hard. They, like me, prefer to read and write about character development through challenges and actions, not just in the abstract. I think maybe contemplative narratives with a lot more description or self-description through reflection are for older readers, not for younger teens and preteens. It’s just so natural for younger characters to find themselves through experiences, the more challenging or exciting the better. So, the best stories in this genre are, I think, all action-adventure plots, in which character emerges, along with, we hope, the relatively unscathed protagonists, from a series of wild adventures. Not to say you couldn’t use some other sort of plot, but that’s what I love and what many of my writers love, too.
My daughter also pushes my writing back toward action and excitement and away from lengthy description or dialog or internal dialog. I believe that most readers in this age range don’t like slow-paced chapters and either drop a book or skip ahead if you stray too far off pace. Fine with me. I used to read books when I was that age that most kids won’t today–Dickens, Hawthorne, Tolstoy–at least until they’re older. Now I find these classics beautifully written but harder to stick with because my life is faster paced, too. I appreciate the need to write to today’s audience, not yesterday’s, and Sadie is a stern editor when it comes to that!
JM: What’s the importance of Silent Lee in relation to other books you’ve written?
AH: I’ve published thirty or forty books, including novels and nonfiction. This is by far my favorite. I feel it just sprang together so eagerly and has such a lot of fun momentum to it. I enjoyed writing it, and the first draft came together very quickly. Now I’ve finished the second book and it’s out for editing while I dream up the plot of the third, so I can report that the momentum is real and the characters and settings continue to excite my imagination. I’d guess that this is because Silent Lee and her world are so enriched by my own experiences. She’s certainly based on my daughters, and Boston and I go way back, so the settings are very personal and fun for me, too. Also I bet that just doing so much prior writing helped this story and the characters come to life more easily and well. Hopefully we get better and better the more we write!
And then there are the characters themselves, who come to life and take over the story-telling to some extent. This book by good luck seems to have some of my most interesting and fun characters in it, so it’s entertaining for me to explore their stories and see what they’ll do next.
JM: What research did you pursue for the book?
AH: I like to walk up and down Newbury Street, which I first explored as a college student when it had lots of exciting galleries and bookstores that fired my imagination. I also like to swing past my great-grandmother’s old mansion, which has so many rich memories for me. And whenever I go to Boston for an overnight trip, I stay in one of the original hotels like the Parker House, the Lenox, or the original Harvard Club, So in a way, I’ve been researching the setting for years. Then when I started working on the story I got my twin brother, Jerry, to spend a day showing me around Back Bay as only he can, having studied architecture at BAC when he was younger. He knows the city not just as it is today but as it was through layers of history. It was a lovely summer day and we must’ve walked ten miles, poking our noses into many of the places that feature in the current book or future stories.
My great-grandmother used to tell me stories from her recollections, but of course there is a lot more to learn now that I’m a writer and an adult. I began to read about turn-of-the-century Boston, and to study old maps. I have old maps in my studio that tend to stay unfolded on a big old trestle table for me to consult. The side door world is a fantastic version of old Boston, but it certainly draws on historical Boston in many ways.
JM: What’s your preferred time period to write about?
AH: I like the idea of stories starting out in modern times, which are familiar to my readers. But then I want to bring them and my protagonist somewhere new; well, new to them. Most people associate Boston with Paul Revere’s ride and all that early nation-building history, but I focus on the Belle Époque, that golden age in cultural history from the late 1800s to the early 1900s. I love the literature and art and architecture of that era. It’s kind of a passion, actually. I’m working right now, in addition to the Silent Lee series, on restoring and exhibiting a bunch of oil paintings of domestic interiors from that era. Many of them remind me of my great-grandmother’s house. Or Great Aunt Generous’s rownhouse on Newbury Street. Back Bay was built in that era. They filled in marshy land along the Charles River and created an entire new neighborhood. Walk or drive around it and study the facades of the old houses and you’ll see how varied and gracious and fascinating the architecture was back then. It’s a fun period. I like it. Maybe because when I visited my great grandmother when I was Silent’s age and younger, her house really was a time capsule that was from that period?
Also, gosh, now I think of it, many of my favorite classic books are from that time period. Think of all those great adventures written and set in the Victorian era. I read Sherlock Holmes and Dickens and Hugo when I was ten and eleven, I think.
JM: How similar is the protagonist to your own daughters?
AH: Like my daughters, Silent is biracial, she can be outspoken or even rude (but usually for good reason), and she’s got strong values and a strong sense of injustice. Sadie edited the manuscript for me and her initial reactions were critical: Cut down run-on dialog, clarify confusing passages, and other helpful editorial input. But it definitely held her attention. Now that it’s edited and in print, I asked her what she thought about it. Here’s what she said: “You’ve definitely got a unique story idea and your execution is well done.” Okay, I’ll take that. As for the protagonist, she says, quote, “I like Silent Lee. She’s like a role model, how she stands up for herself and what she believes in, which is that her great aunt isn’t dead. And it’s funny to have characters who are like, FU authority!”
My younger daughter, who is nine, wants me to read it to her at bedtime, but we are finishing The Lives of Christopher Chant first. I’m okay with taking a back seat to Diana Wynne Jones. 🙂 I’m excited to think that she and her friends will have some Silent Lee stories to read as they start devouring full-length novels. It’s probably a hard read for third graders unless read aloud.
JM: What’s the significance of being a twin in adoption situations?
AH: Adoption and twins. Two ancient and fascinating themes in stories from prehistory on. Put them together and it definitely seems interesting, at the very least. In my family, sometimes we wonder what it would have been like if we had been separated, and whether we would have ever run into each other (The Parent Trap?). And I do wonder if it was even harder for our birth mother to give up two babies instead of one? It is a cool thing, in case you’re wondering, to grow up with an identical twin. And also, sometimes, funny or annoying. We do confuse people sometimes. But appearances don’t tell the whole story (book v cover?). We think of ourselves as mirror twins. I’m a creative lefty, he’s a practical righty, and he builds real houses while I create imagined ones. I intend to work twins into a story sometime, I’m just not sure how. Yet. What if Silent Lee was separated from a twin at birth? A friend told me about a waiter who served him when he was traveling in Italy. The man apparently looked just like me. So, what if we were actually triplets? Or was it just a very odd coincidence? There’s certainly a deep vein to poke around in when mining the imagination for story ideas. What a boon to an author to have these elements of mystery and curiosity in one’s own background!
As a child, writer and artist Alex Hiam spent holidays in the mysterious Boston mansion of his great-grandmother on Dartmouth Street. A graduate of Harvard College and UC Berkeley, Hiam was awarded the English Department’s Arnold Prize. But the honor he is most proud of was being entrusted as a student with the key to the iron gates of Mount Auburn Cemetery, where he would let himself in at dawn on spring mornings to study the migrating birds before the rest of Cambridge awoke. Previously a teacher at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, today he teaches Making Writing Exciting! at North Star, a learning center for self-directed teens. He has sailed the Atlantic, Gulf of Mexico, and Caribbean, logging thousands of nautical miles and plans some day to write a book about pirates. Hiam lives with his wife and daughters in an old farmhouse in Amherst, Massachusetts.