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Interview: December 2009

December 2009

In this interview with’s Terry Miller Shannon, Natalie Standiford --- author of The Dating Game series, as well as the newly released HOW TO SAY GOODBYE IN ROBOT --- explains what prompted her to write a story about the complicated friendship between two isolated teens and discusses how her own upbringing in Baltimore inspired its setting. She also describes her reaction to seeing a copy of the finished book for the first time, names a few of her writing influences --- which range from children's author Beverly Cleary to filmmaker Wes Anderson --- and shares details about her next book, CONFESSIONS OF THE SULLIVAN SISTERS, due out next fall. HOW TO SAY GOODBYE IN ROBOT is a terrific story about two high school seniors who form an unexpected friendship. What inspired you to write this book?
Natalie Standiford: I went to a high school reunion and heard a spooky story about one of my classmates. It was someone I didn't know well, and I started wondering about him and trying to remember what he was like in school. I went to a small school like Canton and knew most of the kids very well, but that boy was mysterious. As I tried to imagine his life, he kind of morphed into a character who became Jonah. Jonah took on a life of his own, and by the time I finished the book he was nothing like the boy who inspired him. That's the way it usually goes.

I also started thinking about my own youth in Baltimore, and what a unique place it is. I wanted to celebrate the oddball atmosphere of the city, to give a sense of what it's like growing up there. It became a kind of character in itself.

TRC: Did you have a specific inspiration for either Beatrice or Jonah (aka Ghost Boy)?
NS: For Beatrice, I wasn't inspired by a particular person as much as by the idea of coming into such a tightly knit society and feeling like you can never fit in. Imagine arriving at a small school your senior year; all your classmates have known each other since kindergarten, and you've got nine months to make friends before everyone scatters for college. I thought it would be interesting to put Beatrice in that situation and see what she does.
TRC: I found the relationship between Beatrice and Jonah to be unusual and refreshing in that it is an intense connection, but it is also outside the realm of the standard romance/crush. Was there any kind of parallel bond during your own high school years (or any other time during your life)?
NS: I've had intense friendships that felt romantic and I've had romances that felt more like friendships, but I wasn't thinking of any particular relationship when I wrote the book. The friendship between Bea and Jonah bloomed on its own while I was writing about them. In a way, it's a friendship I *wish* I'd had. I like intensity.
TRC: Can we take just a moment to oooh and aaaah over the striking design of HOW TO SAY GOODBYE IN ROBOT? Everything about it, from the cover to the bold red and black dividing pages to the font, set it apart from other books at a glance. Did you have any input into any of these things? How did you feel the first time you held the finished book in your hands and flipped through the pages?
NS: Isn't it beautiful? The more you look at the book, the more little surprises you find. I'm thrilled with it and feel so lucky. I had very little to do with it. My editor, David Levithan, and the designer, Phil Falco, were inspired by the spare, handmade look of some indie rock album covers. Phil drew the phone on the cover himself. David sent a sketch to me and I immediately loved it. When the first finished book came in, David walked over to my apartment from his office to show it to me personally. As I looked through it and came upon beautiful detail after beautiful detail --- the little pink phone under the jacket! the blue endpapers! the pink type in the radio scenes! --- I got so excited I jumped up and down and cried. Poor David. I hope it wasn't too embarrassing for him.

Weirdly, when I was in 10th grade I drew a similar (if very inferior) cover for a class project. We had to collect poems on a theme and draw a cover illustrating the theme, and I drew a red phone dangling off the hook (the theme I chose was "Communication (or the Lack of It)"). I forgot all about that project until I saw Phil's drawing. Coincidence…or freakish mind meld?

TRC: "Night Lights," a late-night radio talk show, forms quite the community in HOW TO SAY GOODBYE IN ROBOT. That quirky group plays a vital role in Beatrice's development as she grows and changes. I notice that you mention a couple of radio programs in your acknowledgements. Tell us about their significance in your own life.
NS: I love radio, especially at night when it gets weird. I've always been a night owl and the radio helps me fall asleep. In high school I used to listen to a show called "The Nightcaps," which came on at midnight. Most of the callers were lonely old people who talked about their grandchildren or their gardens. No controversy allowed. It was soothing and strangely fascinating. Later, in Baltimore, my brother John turned me on to a local call-in show called "Over Fifty Overnight." The callers epitomized a certain unself-conscious Baltimore eccentricity that I love, and the host, Will Taylor, was endlessly patient with them. My brother went to at least one of the listener luncheons, just like Bea and Jonah do, and told me all about it.

Now I listen to Coast to Coast AM, which has a paranormal/supernatural focus: alien sightings, ghosts, numerology, all that stuff. Sometimes it's so scary I can't fall asleep. Bring back "The Nightcaps"!

TRC: Please tell us about your writing routine. Do you write in longhand or on the computer? Are there a certain number of words per day you set out to write? Do you write early in the morning or in the dark of night? Do you listen to music while you write, or do you need complete silence?
NS: I usually write in the daytime, late morning to late afternoon, but sometimes I write at night if I'm in the mood. I can't listen to music when I write; I wish I could. When I'm on a deadline, I set out a certain number of pages a day to write --- it varies depending on how close the deadline is. When I'm just starting a book, I spend a lot of time flailing around aimlessly, trying to get my footing in the story.

I usually write on the computer, but sometimes if I get stuck I'll write longhand in a notebook. It helps.

TRC: Do you outline your plot, or plunge on in and write the story as it comes to you?
NS: When I start a new book, I create a file called "Ideas" where I jot down anything that comes to mind --- possible titles, character names, first lines, etc. --- and see where it leads. Once a real story starts to gel, I write a loose plot outline. Some books have complicated plots and require a more detailed outline. I always end up changing things as I write anyway. But I like to know what's going to happen so I can keep the story focused and sharpen every detail into an arrow that points toward the end.
TRC: Who or what, if anything, has been a major influence on your writing?
NS: Books and movies have had a big influence on me. My favorites have a light melancholy tone, sad and funny at the same time. There are too many to list, but a few examples are writers like F. Scott Fitzgerald, Truman Capote and Evelyn Waugh; childhood classics like BEEZUS AND RAMONA, LITTLE WOMEN and STUART LITTLE; old French movies like L'Atalante; and American comedies like Annie Hall and Rushmore.

Anne Tyler lived near us in Baltimore when I was growing up and her kids went to my school. She was the first famous writer I ever saw in person. Just knowing she was there and that you could write such beautiful books about our ordinary old neighborhood was a big inspiration for me. And she has that sad/funny thing down to a science.

Also, I had a teacher in fifth grade who was very strict and scary, but she made us write and rewrite stories every week, and by the end of the year I felt as if writing was something I was good at. So, in spite of the fact that she gave me a nervous stomach and made me cry more than once, I remember her fondly.

TRC: From your dedication and your website (which I highly recommend to readers), it seems you and your sister, Kathleen (Kakie), share a special closeness. Is she a writer, too?
NS: We are very close; she was my best friend growing up. She's only a year younger than I am and we shared a room. I used to tell her stories at night when we were in bed, though she didn't need any help falling asleep; I was the insomniac. I nicknamed her "Kakie" when we were little because I couldn't say "Kathleen." (She in turn nicknamed me "Nanny"! *shudder* When I turned 13, I decreed that no one was allowed to call me "Nanny" ever again. To my amazement, everyone obeyed me and I became "Nat.") She's smart, generous, good-hearted, reliable, honest, fun, and many other wonderful things. She's a doctor now. She's just a great person.
TRC: I find it amazing that you (and the rest of your bandmates in Ruffian, your rock band) didn't know how to play your instrument when you got together, but six months later had a live show. How did the five of you come up with the idea of being a band? Did you take lessons in playing your bass? Since you are actually in two bands, the other one being a group of young adult authors called Tiger Beat, do you practice with both bands regularly?
NS: My friends Biz and Darcey came up with the idea of starting a band and asked Rene and me and Hawes to join them. We are all writers (except for Hawes); we all had love troubles and thought writing songs and playing rock music would be a great outlet for our frustrations --- and it was. I took a few bass lessons, but as my teacher said, it's not brain surgery. It's mostly a matter of practice. We worked very hard to get ready for that first show, and our playing was pretty rough, but it was so much fun. We wrote our own songs and tailored them to our limited skills.

Ruffian still practices regularly, in spurts. We'll meet every week for a few months, then slack off for a while. With Tiger Beat, we only practice when we have a show coming up. Since Tiger Beat mostly plays covers, we can learn our parts at home before we get together. I miss my bandmates (from both bands) when we're not rehearsing and go through terrible band withdrawal.

TRC: What are you working on now, and when might readers expect to see it?
NS: I'm writing another teen novel set in Baltimore called CONFESSIONS OF THE SULLIVAN SISTERS. It's coming out in Fall 2010. And I have a couple of ideas cooking for after that.