Interview: March 2008
In this interview with Teenreads.com's Alexis Burling, Siobhan Vivian --- author ofA LITTLE FRIENDLY ADVICE --- describes how the dynamic amongst her own group of friends in high school inspired the plot of her debut novel, and sheds some light on why each character acts the way she does, given her upbringing and family relationships. She also weighs in on the best way to give advice, talks about her favorite part of the publishing process and shares details on her next book, SAME DIFFERENCE.
Teenreads.com: As many of your characters in A LITTLE FRIENDLY ADVICE realize, there’s a fine line between offering up suggestive advice and outright telling someone what to do. The same line also exists when it comes to taking advice. What inspired you to focus on this subject matter for your first novel?
Siobhan Vivian: I had a small group of friends in high school, and one girl was dating a real loser. They would fight, break up, then make up over and over and over again. The cycle was making her miserable, but she’d always take him back.
Of course, my friends and I were there to pick her up each time she was feeling low. That is, until one friend finally lost her patience with the situation. She drew a line in the sand, saying something like, “If you go back with him again, don’t come crying to me next time he breaks your heart.”
It was such a strange situation, because while I understood the frustration everyone felt at our friend’s repeated mistake, I couldn’t imagine not being there for her if she needed us.
But sometimes friendships are complicated like that, and the difference between being a “good friend” and a “bad friend” gets all blurry. That moment stuck with me, and I thought it might be a really juicy plot for a book.
TRC: A LITTLE FRIENDLY ADVICE is a book that deals a lot with… well… advice giving and receiving. Ruby brings up a relevant point: “The thing is, when friends ask you what’s wrong, there’s this part of them that doesn’t really want to know the answer. Especially if they’ve seen you upset before over the same thing, again and again and again.” Throughout the book, many of your characters do, in fact, illustrate this behavior. Would you say this is a realistic snapshot of how people young and old treat each other? After a while, isn’t it hard not to judge or get exasperated?
SV: I absolutely think so! It can be hard to be the friend in that situation, because when you care about someone who is upset, you feel upset too. You go through everything with them, whether you want to or not.
TRC: Ruby continues this train of thought by saying, “If you’ve been given a strategy to deal with your problem, it’s time to deal with the problem already. If you don’t, if you avoid changing things, it kind of becomes your own fault when they don’t get better.” I must say, the older I get, the more I realize how true this statement is. How did you use this idea to reflect Ruby’s change in behavior from the beginning of the story to the end?
SV: Well, as much as Ruby began to blame Beth for being too invested in her family drama, I also wanted Ruby to own up to the fact that she was happily pushing stuff off her plate.
TRC: A major theme in A LITTLE FRIENDLY ADVICE involves characters protecting other characters for their own good. Both Beth and Ruby’s mother try to shield Ruby from the truth in order to protect her feelings. Some of your readers might think this is selfish behavior. Others might feel that what they did was justified. Where do you stand on this issue? Do you think it’s best to tell a loved one the truth, even if it might hurt her/him in the end?
SV: It’s a tough situation. I think, in most cases, you can’t go wrong when you stick to the truth. But there’s also a side of the truth that’s subjective. You might interpret the way someone says something completely different than another person. It’s totally tricky. So how you deliver the truth can be really important, too.
TRC: The familial relationships in A LITTLE FRIENDLY ADVICE are quite disparate. Might you discuss the ins and outs of the various relationships and what effect they have on the characters and each of their approaches toward life? (Beth’s Beaver Cleaver family; Katherine’s dysfunctional one; Charlie’s zany dad; Ruby’s mother/father)
SV: Beth --- Beth’s family is relatively well-adjusted and happy, and I think that solid base makes her confident that she has the best strategies to deal with other people’s family issues.
Katherine --- Katherine suffers from the fact that she doesn’t have much of a say in the problems going on between her mom and dad. That frustration drives her to lash out, to act impulsively. She wants to be heard.
Charlie --- Charlie’s dad is very artistic and emotional, and Charlie has had to learn how to deal with his outbursts. That experience definitely helps him to coax Ruby into opening up when she’s feeling overwhelmed.
Ruby --- Ruby has never had to talk emotionally with her mom about what happened to her family. That lack of communication stunts her ability to deal with her dad when he comes back. Her first impulse is to shut down when life gets complicated.
TRC: Did you base Ruby’s character on anyone in your life, or is she a figment of your imagination?
SV: Ruby is like a mosaic --- she’s pieced together from lots of friends and people I’ve known. And also, she’s a little bit of me.
TRC: Despite their differences in personality and occasional catfights, Ruby, Beth, Maria and Katherine seem to be a fairly tight knit group. Did you have a group like this in high school?
SV: I was more of a floater than someone who had a single group of close friends. But there was one group of girls who I’d known since kindergarten (and are still friendly with today). They were definitely part of the inspiration for the friendship dynamic in A LITTLE FRIENDLY ADVICE.
TRC: Out of the four, which girl do you think you would have related to the most in high school? How about now? If your answers are different, why do you think that is?
SV: Honestly, I am most like Katherine. I’ve always been sort of a ham --- acting out and showing off for attention. But inside, I am really very insecure. All my bravado is basically to fool everyone.
TRC: Photography plays an important role in Ruby’s life. Why did you choose using a Polaroid camera over a digital one? And why photography over, say, writing?
SV: I wanted Ruby to have a creative impulse that would help her make sense of all the complicated feelings she was experiencing. Photography was an easy choice, since it gave a way for Ruby to look at emotional things in an objective, almost detached way. Writing would have been too introspective, I think. And I picked a Polaroid camera, partly because I happen to personally love them! But also, because photography is a more intimate experience when your camera actually spits out a picture that you can hold in your hands.
TRC: Charlie is definitely a cutie! What was the impetus for introducing him into the story rather than just focusing on the four girls?
SV: Ruby needed a true outside perspective on these long-standing problems. Too many people knew all her business. And also, a boy would be some serious competition for Beth.
TRC: As a debut novelist, what part of the publishing process was most exhilarating to you? Which part was the most frustrating?
SV: Getting e-mails from girls who have read the book is the very best part of writing. It is unbelievably awesome to hear that your words connected with someone you don’t even know. It seriously makes me want to be best friends with everyone who writes me. I feel that connected to them.
The most frustrating part of the writing process was managing the flow of ideas! They were coming too fast for me to get them down on paper. I felt like I was always playing catch-up, and the story in my head was like three drafts better than the one I was currently writing.
TRC: Have you ever toyed with writing a book for adults, or do you feel you’ve found your niche with the YA crowd?
SV: I’ll never say never, but pretty much all my ideas for stories are of the YA variety. It’s just how my brain works!
TRC: Do you prefer to read a specific genre of books? Might you have a few favorites to recommend to your readers?
SV: I love graphic novels. Love, love, love them. And the one I always recommend is BLANKETS by Craig Thompson. It’s stunning.
TRC: What are you working on now, and when can readers expect to see it?
SV: My next book is called SAME DIFFERENCE and will be out in the spring of 2009. It’s about a girl named Emily who struggles with having two different identities --- depending on whether she’s at home with the popular, suburban friends she grew up with, or hanging out in a city with a super cool, wild new girl she befriends in a summer art class.