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November 29, 2011

Stephen Emond: Me in My Books

Posted by Katherine


Stephen Emond is a part-time superhero but more importantly he is the creator /writer /artist of young adult novels HAPPYFACE and WINTER TOWN, as well as the comic book series EMO BOY. He grew up and still resides in Connecticut. Here he talks about how autobiographical his work really is.

The number one question I get asked about my books is “so is that you?” or “did that really happen?” It’s kind of a loaded question and isn’t really a yes or no, so what better place to answer than here?

The way I describe my writing is that it’s definitely not autobiography, but anyone who knows me will know it isn’t all 100% made-up either. I think of my stories as “personal stories.” There are elements of me in everything I write, and elements of people I’ve met, but there’s a lot that’s completely made up, too.

With both of my books, HAPPYFACE and WINTER TOWN, and even with my comic book series Emo Boy, I always start off with a story that I am not at all present in. It usually starts with a title. HAPPYFACE:  it’s about a kid with a dark secret, and he puts on a smile to hide it. It’s a story about a person falling apart and unable to show it. I never thought, “It’s about me, hiding secrets and falling apart.” That would be a weird thing to think. With WINTER TOWN, it was all about two characters and how they’ve changed, and how they struggle to find each other. I was nowhere in that. As the story develops, you have to come up with these pesky details, like what are the characters actually doing? I start to introduce myself into the story here. Maybe they take the train to New York --- I’ve done that, I can write about it. Or maybe they draw “jam strips” and pass art back and forth --- I’ve done that a million times. What does this character’s room look like? Well, I imagine it like an ex-girlfriend’s room.

Eventually theme becomes something I think about, and that’s where it really becomes personal. Coming up with a theme is basically saying, “What do I care about? What do I want to talk about and explore, what’s interesting to me?” Suddenly my books are less about hiding secrets and walking around in the snow; they are about creativity, shyness, chasing your dreams and why that’s hard sometimes. I could probably come up with something less personal, but I wouldn’t be attracted to the subject; I wouldn’t find any thrill in writing it. It wouldn’t be fun, it would be work. A book has a whole bunch of words in it! I don’t write a whole bunch of words unless I feel connected to them. I like to write to show what I believe in, what I think about, to connect to people I’ve never met, to find other people like me. There’s something exciting in that.

Let's look at WINTER TOWN. There are two main characters, Evan and Lucy. Evan draws, like I do! He's kinda easy-going, doesn't get too excited, and doesn’t get too depressed. He jokes around a lot. He likes arty things, movies, books, and comics. That's all me. He's also a straight-A student, has a lot of friends, his parents push him towards college; he's very academic and wants to walk a narrow path: college, high paying job, wife, kids. I'm not so much those things. They work for the story I want to tell, though.

Then there's Lucy. She's pretty sarcastic. She has a negative streak running in the back of her mind most of the time. She comes from a broken family; she's very uncertain about anything in her life. I can relate to all those things. She has a tendency to act before thinking, though she gets into trouble, she's easily misled and she doesn't have a lot of hope --- those things aren't coming from me. A lot of writing is looking at topics from two sides - you'll fall on one side personally but you need to be able to see issues from both sides. Sometimes you need to write things you don't agree with. You have to show the good things that come from a strong close-knit family as well as the bad things, and the same for the broken home. Lucy feels a lot of insecurity and loneliness, but she's a stronger person than Evan and more confident in her actions as well.

Obviously, I'm not 100% Evan or Lucy or any other character, but they all have strong traces of me in them.

There are some flaws to the approach. For one, even though it’s thrilling to write a deeply personal story and have someone say it’s an “achingly beautiful piece of work” (thanks, Publisher’s Weekly!), it’s equally heartbreaking to have someone tear it apart. To hear ‘people don’t do that’, ‘this character is annoying’, ‘I wanted to strangle him’. When it’s that personal, it’s hard not to hear “Stephen Emond is annoying, I want to strangle him!” Ouch.

Every writer puts part of him or herself into their work, though, it’s inevitable. Whether it’s their personality, their heart, or what they had for breakfast last Tuesday, every author’s work has their fingerprints all over it. We all share ourselves, scary as it may be sometimes. Everyone wakes up each morning and goes out into the world and shares a piece of themselves, there are risks and rewards every time you put yourself out there, and sharing your existence with the world at large is what makes life worth living. Likewise, it makes writing a book worth any criticism we get. The rewards are always worth it.

Read more about the author on his website