Get THE OBVIOUS GAME here:
A few years ago, Rita asked me to read a draft of a novel she had written. I read the draft and then I told her what I thought. Over the next year or so, Rita tweaked the draft, signed with an agent, made more tweaks, then signed with a publisher. And then, I imagine, she made a few more tweaks. (I am always fascinated when folks I know manage to write a book AND survive the arduous process it takes to get it published. And I have seen Rita do this not once, but TWICE.)
I was very excited to read this book and I was not disappointed. THE OBVIOUS GAME is the story of a teenage girl living in a small-town in Iowa. Diana's world is falling apart as her mother battles cancer and just as Diana takes part in that delicate social dance known as "high school". Her best friend (who is not always the nicest person in the first place) is losing her own footing and her other friend is too wrapped up in her new boyfriend to take notice of the downward spiral that Diana is in. And soon, Diana has a new boyfriend of her, which makes things even more interesting. As Diana navigates all the challenges that life is throwing at her, she finds herself on the path to an eating disorder.
I really appreciated how Rita eloquently and respectfully approached the dissonance of living in a small town. Yes, there can be a safe, cozy embrace of being surrounded by people and traditions that never, ever change. But the environment can become stifling, particularly if you are a teenage girl trying to find yourself but are limited by the constraints of a small town mentality that expect you to never change or God forbid, to be different (Not that I am bitter about my own small-town experiences. Never.) Generally, I thought Rita's observations of living in a small-town were spot-on.
As a mother, this was interesting for me to read. I probably had far more sympathy for Diana's mother than I did Diana (Obviously, I will need to become more sympathetic for the Plight and Angst of the American Teenager in about 6 years. Ahem.) Still, I felt it was important for me to read this book as a mother of a daughter. I thought Rita was compelling in the way she depicted Diana's gradual march into her eating disorder. It did not happen over night. And as a mother, I am glad that I read about some of the methods girls use to hide their eating disorders. I had no idea.
Thank you for writing this, Rita.
Interview With the Author1. How much of Diana herself was autobiographical for you besides the obvious bit where you have both fought an eating disorder? Did the similarities make it more difficult for you to write in the 1st person narrative?
We both fought an eating disorder and we both had moms with cancer and we both grew up in small-town Iowa. My mom had cancer when I was in elementary and middle school -- years away from when I developed anorexia at 17. Diana has it all happening at once, which I think is a very different experience. Diana has a really rocky relationship with her best friend, whereas my best friend in high school has been my friend for 35 years and has been one of my biggest cheerleaders all through my life, particularly when I was sick and when my mom was sick. My life was easier than Diana's. I took every problem I could think of and threw them at Diana all at once to see how she'd handle it.
My first, unpublished novel was written in close third person. I found my real voice through blogging -- to the extent that when my former thesis adviser read a draft of THE OBVIOUS GAME, he was shocked at how much my voice had changed since grad school. I find it much easier to write in first person, and YA does quite well with first person, so I went with it.
2. While writing this novel, who (a fellow author or someone else) most influenced you during the process?
My agent, Eric Myers, was hugely influential and helped me isolate what was not working at all very quickly. My former professor, Michael Pritchett, helped me line edit the finer details. Author Jean Kwok talked me off the cliff more than once -- I met her through my work with the BlogHer Book Club. And I had beta readers -- including you, bless you -- who told me what just smelled wrong in earlier drafts. And I read tons and tons and tons in the last three years -- I'm up to about a book every week now, which is much more than I was reading before I started working on THE OBVIOUS GAME. Anything I read I try to learn from, even if it's what not to do. I'm reading a mix of review books for BlogHer Book Club, YA novels and adult novels right now from my review queue.
3.The novel is based in Iowa in a town that is similar to the one in which you grew up. Did this make it easier for you to write the novel since it was coming from a place of familiarity? How will you react to potential criticism to the parts where small-town life in Iowa is not portrayed in a positive light?
I knew I was taking a risk by setting this book down in Snowden, Iowa (which I made up -- Snowden is the name of the bombardier who dies in the opening scene of my favorite book, CATCH-22) because it is so similar to the town in which I grew up, which will remain nameless in deference to family who lives there. The setting -- small town, 1990 -- was like a character for me. I can't imagine writing this particular book in any other place. The one I'm working on now takes place in Chicago, so they won't all be like this. It would be hard for me to set a book down somewhere I'd never been, though, so maybe also setting the book in small town Iowa just removed months of research.
In terms of potential criticism about small towns -- if they don't pick that, they'll pick something else, right? I don't plan to respond to criticism of any kind online. Authors get themselves in trouble when they do that.
4. My mother had breast cancer and the scenes with Diana and her mother really rang true for me. How was it for you to write scenes? Did you talk to your own mother about your shared experiences when she battled cancer? As a mother yourself, how was the experience of putting yourself back into the role of daughter to get yourself into the mindset of writing Diana's character?
My mom actually had malignant fibrous histiocytoma, which is cancer of the soft tissue. It is crazy super rare: As with all sarcomas of soft tissue and bone, MFH is rare, with just a few thousand cases diagnosed each year. MFH of soft tissue typically presents in a patient that is approximately 50 to 70 years of age though it can appear at any age. MFH is very rare in persons less than 20 years old.
My mom was in her early forties when she got sick from the mysterious lump in her shin that has made me forever paranoid about lumps and bumps. She had chemo and radiation twice, lost all her hair twice. I gave Evelyn the same kind of cancer out of laziness, because I don't know how other cancers are different. I found it shocking no one ever questioned me on this bizarre cancer that very few people have, but apparently that detail wasn't important to the story -- the fact that she was sick was the important part. I've talked to another reviewer who had a sick mama and really related to that part of the novel, too. It's a weird thing when your caregiver suddenly needs care.
I didn't talk to my mom about it as much as I wrote the book and then gave it to her -- and then sat around fretting until she read the whole thing. We had some really good talks about our experiences, as well as her experience of my eating disorder. And my dad, and my sister -- my sickness affected the whole family just as hers did. I have no idea who we'd be if we hadn't had sickness in our family tapestry while my sister and I were still at home.
I had a lot of catharsis while I was writing THE OBVIOUS GAME because my daughter is just a little younger than I was when my mom got sick -- she's in third grade and I was in sixth (my sister was in third). I started to see how very young my mother was when she had cancer and how completely terrified and exhausted she must have been -- my dad was our sole income provider and she had to send my sister and me over to my cousins' house to get on the school bus in the morning because she was too sick from chemo to get out of bed. There was still a big stigma. People didn't talk about it. The hospital where she got treatment was forty miles away. And there we were, needy little kids who didn't understand what was going on. On the flip side, I got so into the character of Diana that I actually woke up from dreams mad at my mother because I'd dreamed she grounded me or something. It was bizarre. Depending on the scene, I related more to Evelyn or Diana as a mother or as an adult child. The experience also made me extremely humbled and grateful for every day with my daughter when I'm not sick. Not being sick is a huge thing.
And..... here's your softball!
5. What are you currently reading??
I am currently simultaneously reading MRS. LINCOLN'S DRESSMAKER (BlogHer Book Club), ASK THE PASSENGERS (YA novel) and CITY OF WOMEN (adult lit). I'm farthest into CITY OF WOMEN which is so, so good.
I am giving away a copy of this book! Since I am receiving a free copy myself anyway, this is my way of "paying it forward". And I suspect that I could strong-arm Rita into signing it, as well.
To enter to win a signed copy of THE OBVIOUS GAME, simply leave a comment here and tell me what YOUR favorite book has been lately. I will have a child (or pet) select a randomish number from the comments. (Giveaway ends January 31st, at midnight, CST. Open to US addresses only -- Sorry!)