28: Julie Chibbaro
young adult author
Julie Chibbaro is the author of three historical young adult novels: Into the Dangerous World (2015), a novel about a female graffiti artist, Deadly (2011), a novel about a girl’s experience hunting Typhoid Mary, and Redemption (2004), a novel about a girl’s trip to the New World in 1524. Her novels have been recognized with the 2011 National Jewish Book Award, a top 10 spot on the American Library Association’s Amelia Bloomer Project list, and an American Book Award, to name a few. She now lives in Beacon, NY with her husband and daughter, and, while working on her novels, conducts author visits and teaches writing.
Emily Kimura is a student at Barnard College and a violinist at the Manhattan School of Music.
This interview was conducted by Nicole Blackwood on April 15, 2017 in Julie’s Beacon, NY home. Emily Kimura photographed and witnessed the conversation.
NICOLE: Tell me about your experience of girlhood.
JULIE: I had extremes of girlhood. When I was really young, I lived with my mother only. I don't remember my father as a young person. I grew up with my two older sisters, too, and we always had a lot of fun with my mother. She played the grand piano and lived on 93rd Street in this huge apartment. Then she had a breakdown when I was about six, and we went to live with my father, and with a woman I thought was his girlfriend but later found out was his wife. That was the opposite of fun. She was a very strong woman, but not strong in a positive way. She was very controlling, so that turned girlhood into a competition between my sisters and me or us and her.
NICOLE: Were you consciously aware of that competition at the time, or was it something you realized in retrospect?
JULIE: That's a good question. No, I wasn’t aware at all. You know how competition is: when you're in it, and when you're young, you don't really know what it is. You just know that you have to get the attention. I think the whole time I was just doing anything, even sort of criminal things, even things that hurt my sisters, to get attention. But she was always stronger. I didn't realize until much later that that's the game we were playing. I'm happy I had my mother on the other side of it. I still saw her, and I still had a good relationship with her, so she helped to balance that out. She was all about love and support, and I think that helped me learn faster that this wasn't a good way to be.
NICOLE: I wanted to speak about the bridge between your life and your novels: there is a focus on an absent father figure in some way, and it becomes a fixation for your protagonists. There's also a focus on the maternal relationship that's left in the father’s absence. Can you speak about why that exists in your novels, and how it connects to your girlhood?
JULIE: Well, I can't write about [what happened to me] in my life because these people are still alive. I don't have a relationship with my father, even though he lives in the same town [Beacon, NY], oddly enough. We all moved here after my sister became ill and died. But I think that those relationships can only come out in my fiction, because I just don't have that David Sedaris courage of outing everybody. I think my fiction is always about the father I wish I had, that love that I wish had been reciprocated, or just a longing for a good relationship with my father. I think my writing fulfills that made-up father figure. Or maybe it’s just that he was absent, and that was my experience.
NICOLE: And when you craft the maternal relationship, is there anything in particular that you're careful to make sure goes into your depiction of the relationship?
JULIE: I'm very careful, because I had a mother who was ill and couldn't be the mother she wanted to be, but I saw her wanting to be that mother, making that effort, giving love as much as she could. I don't have that "Mommy dearest" or cruel, crazy mother. Even though my stepmother was all those things, I don't have that as my experience, and that's not something I want to write about. I want to write about a good mother.
NICOLE: In general, what about the female teenage experience is of particular interest to you, and why do you choose to focus on it?
JULIE: [Teenagedom] is the period that I don't understand the most, and I like to write about what I don't understand. The more you write, the more you learn. I think that's why I'm fixated on that period of time — it was the most difficult for me, and there's so much that I want to share with young women and girls. Like, if only I'd known. That feeling I have — that's where I write from.
NICOLE: In all of your books, there are protagonists who are relatively isolated from their peers for large portions of the story, by choice or by circumstance. I'm wondering what your teenage experience was like in terms of this isolation. On your website, you wrote, "I didn't have a whole lot of real friends, and books are rather non-judgemental. They liked me no matter what." I always kind of think of the female teenage experience as a story of isolation, whether literal or figurative. Can you speak at all about that?
JULIE: I think that that's pretty common in young adults. Maybe not the popular kids; I don't really know.
JULIE: I had such a strange home life...this very controlling stepmother, a violent father. We didn't have TV, we weren't allowed to eat sugar, we only owned, like, one pair of pants. We weren't allowed to have friends, we weren't allowed to use the phone. And because of the competition [my stepmother instilled], I had a hard time making friends, because I was very competitive with other kids, and I couldn't have them at my house, and I couldn't call them. I think that's where I always write from: being an outsider. I've tried to write about popular girls, Gossip Girl or rich kids.
JULIE: But I don't even understand that. I have no idea what that feels like as a kid. Now I have lots of friends and I made the life I want for myself, but as a kid, I didn't have that opportunity. I always go back to that, because that's the truth I know.
NICOLE: And when you were a young girl, was there ever jealousy of other girls?
JULIE: Oh, yeah. There was a lot of jealousy in my house. My father was jealous, my stepmother was jealous. I figured it out now, finally, but then, I didn't understand what was going on. She's very beautiful, a very thin, very rich, very accomplished woman, but jealous of these three girls who suddenly started living with her husband. And I didn't understand that that was jealousy. With other girls, I felt that feeling of competition, as in, making fun of another girl so that you look better. Girls don't like that, and it took me a long time to understand that I was being a jerk. I did have all those ugly feelings. I just didn't know that that's what they were.
NICOLE: Still speaking about that teenage isolation, I'm curious to know what kinds of books you were reading as a teenager. This is a question I'm invested in because personally, when I was a young girl, 12-13 years old, I was reading a lot of young adult novels, and because I was at a certain reading level and knew I wanted to someday be a writer, I was being told to start on the literary canon and stop reading young adult novels. But I was reading them because I was identifying with a particular teenage experience. So I'm wondering what you were seeking as a teenager in the books that you were reading, and how that connects to the work you do now.
JULIE: That's a good question, because I think that this marketing label of “young adult” is pretty new, started maybe within the last twenty years. It really wasn't a label when I was growing up — there were kids books and there were adult books. I was also reading way ahead of my age group. I wasn't a writer, because I wasn’t under the impression that I was smart enough, but I was reading very eclectically and voraciously. Anna Karenina was my favorite book and I read it over and over again, trying to understand this world. Little Women was another favorite book.
NICOLE: Mine as well.
JULIE: Just these crazy sisters. I read a lot of kids' books, too. Judy Blume. But I didn't only read what I was supposed to read, either. Although in high school I felt like they pushed you more.
NICOLE: It's a little different in high school. In middle school, it's a weird, in-between period.
JULIE: There was a huge range of things that were going around in middle school. There were also the taboo books. Like Anais Nin, and books that described sex before I knew what that was.
NICOLE: There's a certain degree of intimacy in the narration of your novels. You utilize a diary format in Deadly, and first-person narration in both Into the Dangerous World and Redemption. I've noticed that in young adult novels, it's very common to strategically utilize the intimacy these types of narration grant the novel. What do you think that intimacy provides for the reader?
JULIE: A lot. I also teach writing, so I see a lot of writers who are just starting out trying to use third-person. But you just don't really see it anymore in young adult. You want to inject the story into the reader. You want to go straight into their brain. That third-person is so distant now. The diary, then, is even more intimate, and goes deeper into an awkward person's brain. I write in a diary every day, and it just seems like the most potent way to get to what you wouldn't tell anybody else. A confessional kind of thing.
NICOLE: Have you always written in a diary?
JULIE: I always wrote, but not regularly in a diary. I started writing every single day in 2000. So I have many, many, many books. It’s helpful to know your own history.
NICOLE: This is a big question, but I'm really interested in love stories as they exist in young adult novels. There's a quote in Deadly which I thought was really beautiful, when Prudence [your protagonist] describes her feelings for her older boss, saying, "I'm emerging. I'm afraid, like a butterfly, a shimmery bright thing coming into being." The common argument among people who read young adult, or don't read it but think they understand it, is that love stories or love triangles trivialize the female story, or remove dimension from the female protagonist. I disagree — my experience reading young adult was that the vast majority of times, love did what it does in real life, which is add and not subtract. Can you speak about your position within this argument, and about what it means to grant a female protagonist the experience of love?
JULIE: I always fight with my editors over love stories for some reason. It's exactly what you're saying: a lot of them feel that you have to concentrate on this girl becoming herself in this heroic way. And she can't do that with the weakening of love. I think that love is so important; it’s a mirror, it shows you who you are. As a young person, it shows you a certain...I wouldn't say value, but that you have something that someone can love. I don't hit it hard. I don't write romance, obviously. But I try to find a way to put love in the story because I feel like I can remember loving boys from a very young age, being completely fascinated with these beautiful beings.
JULIE: I looked at boys and I had feelings about them. And why shouldn't I put them in the story? Why does that make [the protagonist] any less of a strong woman? It's a passion like any other, as valuable as becoming a doctor or an artist.
NICOLE: Where do you think the desire to heroicize young girls by isolating them and forcing independence comes from? I feel like it’s a new trend.
JULIE: I feel like editors have a different point of view, because they see a lot of books. As writers, we see what we want to write, or we see what's in our head. But you have to think about how many books editors shuttle through the process of becoming published. What they say to me over and over is that there's too many books with just love stories, as in girls being crushed by other girls or boys or whoever they decide to love. And they say that all the focus is on a girl's whole being being determined by a man or a woman they love, and that's what they're fighting against. They don't want books like that. So they think the only way to avoid that is to have the girl focus solely on the thing she wants to be, to do, her purpose. But I feel like...why can't we find a balance? It's what I've always wanted, so why wouldn't a girl want that?
NICOLE: I completely agree; that’s how I feel as well. So this is another big question: as I see it, girlhood is a series of very gradual shifts: growing up, internalizing the beneficial and the harmful, and not realizing you’re doing it. But in young adult novels, there's almost always a catalyst or a sudden shift that speeds up girlhood, or makes the transition between girlhood and the adult world identifiable. For example, in Redemption, your protagonist loses her innocence very quickly after she realizes her mother is being sexually assaulted on her way to the New World, and your protagonist in Into the Dangerous World has to confront a new reality after her father burns down their commune. Because I write, I know that these catalytic moments are necessary in a narrative sense, but in connecting them to female teenagedom overall, I'm wondering whether you think those moments oversimplify the female experience, or whether you think they actually encapsulate the experience in a way that other forms of expression can’t?
JULIE: Well, something I learned early on with writing is that it's not life.
JULIE: You can't write a good story the way life goes, because that would just be really boring. Life goes a lot slower. In order to manufacture drama, you have to concentrate life and create frames of experience. You want the reader to look here or look here; there's no way you could capture the chaos of a teenager's mind. Having hindsight and being able to look at my life, I could point out moments: "Oh, if I look at it, that's what was happening there! I didn't know it, but that was a huge shift in my experience.” When my best friend decided he didn't want to be my best friend anymore and I cried from heartbreak for the first time, that was a huge shift. That would be what I would pull out and make seen. If we're good writers and we're good artists, we are always making those little decisions.
NICOLE: Your historical novels are all set in different periods, and all focused on girls going through various awakenings and, as we talked about, identifiable shifts. What do you think is universal about the female experience that allows you to write confidently about girlhood in very different time periods?
JULIE: Well, we're all human.
JULIE: We have some very basic similarities, I think. These emotions: love, family, fear, being forced to do something. I know what it feels like, and I feel confident that I understand what it might have felt like 500 years ago. There's a lot of things that I don't understand, but even a cursory look through history shows me that other people were feeling what I was feeling. I think it's that universal thing we're always looking for that makes really good books, classics that stand up through time: can we understand the reason people did the things they did on a very basic level?
NICOLE: I was really struck by your conscious effort to make these historical experiences deliberately familiar to a modern audience and yet still disparate. One of my favorite parts of Deadly was an illustration of Prudence writing her name as a doctor’s name in different styles. It reminded me of a girl writing her name with her crush's last name.
JULIE: Yes, totally. I did that! I think that's where it came from.
NICOLE: Oh my god, that's amazing.
JULIE: Or his name over and over.
NICOLE: Speaking of Deadly, can you talk a little about why you wanted to write a novel on Mary Mallon, and what interested you about her?
JULIE: Growing up in the city with germaphobe, clean-freak, controlling parents and grandparents, she came up an awful lot. "Don't be like Typhoid Mary. You're leaving your germs. Don't touch that. Don't put it in your mouth, because you'll kill us all." There was a sense of the impending doom of Typhoid Mary. I honestly thought she was this psycho, serial killer, crazy lady. And then when I was doing research for something else, I found her story, and as it turns out she was this semi-innocent woman who happened to kill people. That gave me my purpose. Now there's a comic about Typhoid Mary, and she’s an evil supervillain...I wanted to bring [Mary’s story] back to reality.
NICOLE: Were you consciously trying to make her as human as possible?
JULIE: Yeah. It was a time when the Irish were really having trouble with prejudice; they were the "dirty Irish." [Mary Mallon] had this sense of, "This is all a lie about my being a healthy carrier. There's no such thing. There's no such thing as a germ, even." I just felt that she was justified in feeling that the world was after her for no good reason, and it was important to show in Deadly that she wasn't this crazy woman wielding knives. She genuinely thought that people were just prejudiced, similar to how we understand prejudice today. I think a lot of people who experience prejudice become paranoid for a very good reason, so I wanted to show that, as well.
NICOLE: The plot of Deadly actually made me think a lot about the kind of female relationships you were developing, because there’s many scenes of Prudence being very protective of Mary, and seeing her as more human than others involved in the case. On the other hand, in Into the Dangerous World, you write about a very contentious relationship between your protagonist and the girlfriend of the boy she likes. Are you ever worried about creating too much tension between female characters? I’m sure editors, in addition to being worried about love stories, might not want as much contention between female characters because that's no longer something that's wanted. But it is something that's real. Can you speak about that at all?
JULIE: I think it's more my own desire to not have such competition and jealousy with other women. I don't know if it's that I'm getting older, but it's hard. It's a very human feeling, jealousy, as is fighting and competition. Some people want to take what you’ve got, you know? So if you're fierce, you're going to fight for it. Rather than my editors, I think it's my own nature to love women but also be frightened of them and what they may take from me: my lover, or whatever. It's mostly around a lover if it's jealousy. Competition happened when I was an actor, for example, fighting over roles. I do have a very strong consciousness on the other side of it: I don't want to be doing this. This isn't the person I want to be. I don't want to fight with women; I love women. But it’s an internal battle.
NICOLE: Can you speak about that competition when you were acting? I know performance is capable of heightening every ugly feeling.
JULIE: I went to a school that was called Performing Arts and is now called LaGuardia — the Fame school, the year after the movie came out. The teachers encouraged similar competition to my stepmother: who's more beautiful, who's smarter, who's more talented. It was very competitive, and I had almost no female friends, nor did all the other females have other female friends, because we were all fighting over the same thing. I really did try my best not to be that way, but it does take you out of the running if you're not going to compete. All those women who are successful have that ruthless streak in them; they will step on your face to get what there's only one of. I decided that I didn’t want all that. I just want this. I want what I can manage while keeping my heart intact, and my sense of self.
NICOLE: In Deadly, Prudence is very aware of her own gendered limitations, and remains pretty steadfastly determined to subvert norms, to some degree. She seems to have internalized some negative ideals of women, but typically within professional frameworks: wanting to be taken seriously, needing to be respected by men at all times. Her awareness is what I found really remarkable – she tells her mother, “If I were a boy like Benny, you would let me take [the job].” Is there ever a conscious desire on your part to practice a kind of revisionist history and imbue your protagonists with self-awareness ahead of their time?
JULIE: It may be slightly revisionist, but I don't think of it that way. I think of it as making [the novel] relatable to girls today. I think if I were to write the way women thought, it wouldn't be read, because we can't relate. We can't understand it. When you come to realize that Dr. Seuss was an anti-semite, you're just like, "Oh, shit." But he was a man of his time and that's what his friends thought! They saw nothing wrong with it, but you can't write from that place. You have to really think about what you're trying to show, both about history, but also about youth, and the reader now.
NICOLE: Speaking of the reader now, how much awareness do you consciously maintain of your audience when you're writing these novels, particularly young girls? I've spoken to other writers, and they've said that the audience is not on their minds at all, but I feel like with young adult novels, it must be to some degree.
JULIE: That's one of those trick questions. I don't believe any of those writers.
JULIE: You always have to think about your audience, or else you're writing in your journal. You always have to think: how is this coming across? What [the other writers] are saying is that you can't only write for your audience. You can't think, "What do they want?" But you do have to think, "What do I want to write, but how do I make it something that my audience will read?" You can't skip that step.
NICOLE: Do you have a particular message for young girls?
JULIE: I don't want to be didactic. I do want to write what I want to write, but for each book I have a different answer. When I was writing Redemption I didn't know I was a young adult writer. I wanted to be Don DeLillo! I was very interested in style and quality, and I read very difficult literature and that's just what happened to come out at the time. Then my agent said, "Oh, this is young adult." I didn't even know what that was. So we made a bet — I said it was adult, and she said it was young adult, and she ended up selling it as young adult, so she won the bet. Since it was a two-book deal, I was on the hook for another novel, which is where Deadly came from. I worked with an editor on that one to help shape it for the audience — I did get into a little bit of trouble with Redemption because of the curses and the rape, so she encouraged me to think about writing for younger people. Then my third editor, for Into the Dangerous World, told me when I was worried about the gatekeepers, the teachers and the librarians, that I can't worry about them, because if I did I wouldn’t be able to write an authentic book about a girl on the streets with graffiti. So then I was like, "Wait, what do I do?" It's kind of confusing. I don't know that anybody has that answer.
NICOLE: Has having a young daughter impacted that awareness at all?
JULIE: Yes, a lot. I did find the courage to write the book I wanted to write with Into the Dangerous World, but I won't let my daughter read it because of the curses and the harshness of it. The book I'm writing now, I'm writing more for her age group, because I'm aware of somebody actually reading this stuff. [laughs] I've met people at festivals, and I visit schools a lot, but when it's your daughter...that makes me understand mothers, teachers, and librarians a little better.
NICOLE: Do you want to speak at all about what you're doing now, or is that under wraps?
JULIE: It has to do with Zelda Fitzgerald. I'll leave it there.
NICOLE: I interviewed Maira Kalman recently — she takes moss from different places and she has some from outside the asylum that Zelda Fitzgerald stayed at.
JULIE: That asylum is right down the street. It's vacant now, but it's a beautiful old building called the Craig House, and she was there for awhile. In my book, she's haunting this girl who lives in Beacon now, and that's the story.
NICOLE: There's a pretty noticeable thread in your novels of being watched or examined. In Deadly, Prudence says, when she starts working in a lab, "I don't think I've ever been in a room with so many boys before." She frequently discusses the way she’s being watched for a slip-up, which I saw as mirroring the discussion surrounding young adult novels with female protagonists. Can you speak to the standard that female protagonists are held to? There’s a kind of male gaze, even if it's not necessarily men — a really watchful gaze that doesn't exist in other kinds of novels, particularly ones with male protagonists.
JULIE: As we all know, the politics is so different for women, just proving yourself. That was something that I was really conscious of as a younger person, especially somebody who was looked at a lot and wanting to be looked at, but also had trouble with being looked at as an actor. I wasn't quite pretty enough to be an ingenue, but I wasn't quite funny enough to be a character actor. This was before Tina Fey — I didn’t know where I fit. But I also didn't think I was smart, because that seemed to be the message that I was getting, even though I was in a household with a brilliant women. I think girls are always trying to prove themselves on these levels, in fiction and in life. Am I smart enough, am I pretty enough, am I skinny enough? I am very aware of that, and I do try to put that in my novels. Less so with what I'm working on right this minute, because now I'm writing about a contemporary person who goes back and forth in history. Historically, though, it was especially bad. I'm not sure of a young woman's experience now. Maybe you could tell me about it. I mean, do you feel that as a young woman?
NICOLE: Yeah, especially being at a women's college.
JULIE: You're expected to achieve at a super high level.
NICOLE: And expected to maintain a very particular standard of feminism. What made you choose to tackle the issues of girls in STEM in Deadly? Were you thinking about the challenges that exist now and seeing them mirrored?
JULIE: Absolutely. I think I’m a closet scientist.
JULIE: If I knew I was smart enough, that might've been what I would've gone into. I do see the struggles girls are having: engineers I hear about who are being sexually harassed because they're with a bunch of men, and men think, "Hey, why not?" I was writing from that place — what happened 100 years ago is still happening. Why?
NICOLE: What do you think women in the world need or can do for each other presently?
JULIE: Without sounding too New Age-y, I think the word "support" comes to me — not doing things to hurt each other. Trying not to compete against each other, trying to watch out for one another. It's hard to remember to do that.
NICOLE: Even now that you're older?
JULIE: I've been through so much and I've been with the same person for so long that I think my jealousy has kind of gone away, or is certainly not as intense. I feel more secure in who I am, thank god. I was very insecure for a long time, and the ground was always shifting on me. Now I feel like I have things a little more under control.
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