2016 Morris Award Finalists: An Interview With Leah Thomas

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Leah Thomas is a finalist for the 2016 William C. Morris YA Debut AwardBecause You’ll Never Meet Me is the story of two boys. One is allergic to electricity,  while the other has a pacemaker. Because of the pacemaker, it would be dangerous for the two to meet.  They become pen pals.  It is a fantastic story of friendship, dealing with bullies, doing the right thing and discovering the biggest mystery of why they are who they are.Because You'll Never Meet Me

The storyline is unique.  What was the inspiration for the two main characters, Ollie and Moritz?

It would be easy to say that Ollie and Moritz are opposites, but it’s not strictly true. I sometimes describe Ollie as the extrovert trapped in the woods and Moritz as the introvert stuck in the city, but they’ve got so many things in common: unique science fictional ailments, estranged/unknown family members, a tendency towards social ineptitude, an offbeat sense of humor, a deep sense of isolation and loneliness. To me, what made their story worth writing was the thought that these two characters, were they ever to meet in person, might have suffered for it: even without Ollie’s whimsical allergy to electricity and Moritz’s pacemaker, they’re so different in personality that it seems they would only clash. They might have loathed each other.

But we live in an age where friendship can be formed on a thousand different bases. I wrote most of BYNMM while teaching abroad in Taipei, and that taught me how little proximity matters to friendship. Friends can be people you’ve never met, friends you otherwise might not want to meet, friends you never see. Sometimes this truth feels like the most science fictional aspect of the story, but it’s our reality! Amazing.

Characters with special needs are more popular in young adult novels than ever.  What do you want readers to take away from meeting Ollie and Moritz?

I wanted to write a story about people, not issues, if that makes sense. I’ll be the first to say that we need more representation for people with disabilities, but also the first to say I was certainly concerned about writing characters with disabilities.  I am so grateful to be able to address this topic!  There are lots of wrong ways to write about characters with disabilities, and no exact right way, and the last thing I ever wanted to do was marginalize anyone. I worried and still worry that the science fictional elements of BYNMM, those elements that homage X-men comics, for instance, might alienate readers with disabilities.  I can’t speak for someone who is blind. And though epilepsy has played a role in my family, I also can’t speak for someone with epilepsy. What I can do is create characters with challenges that parallel some of the challenges that people with disabilities face in our real world, and present my characters as people.  The thing is, if you want to see representation in fiction, you have to risk being misinterpreted. I can only hope that my boys, with unrealistic disabilities that parallel real disabilities, do more good than harm! That they raise awareness of the real struggles faced by real people. That they further the notion that characters with disabilities can be presented as people first, disabled second.  There are days where I feel I’ve accomplished that, and days where I feel like I’ve failed. That’s terrifying.”

On page 246, Moritz uses the line in reference to the German people, “haunted by those who came before us.”  What do you want readers to learn from that thought?   

I don’t think this idea is at all exclusive to the people of Germany. I only know that this idea was given a name in German. Many or most countries have terrifying, shameful patches scattered throughout their histories. What did feel unique to me as a student studying German in college was the decision to give the arduous process of working through the horrors of the past a concrete form: a word of its own. Words have substance. Words stick with us and can’t be ignored.

Vergangenheitsbewältigung strikes me as a very human attempt at tackling a feeling that might be universal: whether on a global or personal scale, we all have inherited aspects of the people who came before us, and we have to live with that. We aren’t necessarily stuck on the same path as our forefathers, but it behooves us to know what led us to where we are. It behooves us to learn and do better.

Did you know where Moritz and Ollie would end up or did the story evolve while you were writing?

I am very much a character-driven writer, which is, erm, pretty sorely obvious in book one! (Plot? What art thou?) But I always had a pretty strong notion of where these characters would end up emotionally. And really saw it as two people coming from opposite sides of a storyline – Ollie, trying so hard to be linear as an avoidance tactic, and Moritz more or less telling his story back-to-front, also as an avoidance tactic.

 Young readers will like the funny reference when Ollie tells Moritz that “They left us in the toilet… we are not the poop.”  How did you come up with that analogy? 

I seriously dreaded anyone ever asking about the poop jokes. Oh, gosh, the poop jokes. But you know, my family members can hardly get through a gathering without dropping a deuce joke or two. (Sorry, not sorry.)  Basically, Ollie is intentionally juvenile sometimes because it’s jarring for Moritz – it grounds him, just like it grounds us all. Because it’s the lowest humor, but it’s also something very universal: every culture on the planet has some brand of scatological humor. Honestly, when I read “How did you come up with that analogy?” my smirking eight-year-old self wanted to answer, “I pooped, of course.”  My sister reminded me that our favorite high school English teacher used to say, sagely, “I’d rather be pooped on than be the pooper.” So maybe that inspired me.  Or maybe I’m just totally gross and I shouldn’t be allowed to do interviews like this.

What is your favorite childhood book?  What are you reading now?

I can’t pick a favorite childhood book! Let me try to narrow some general children’s/YA things down by age:

Elementary school: Roald Dahl, Animorphs, anything with a cat on the cover

Middle School: Harry Potter, Lemony Snicket, Diana Wynne Jones

High School: Feed, House of the Scorpion, His Dark Materials series

Right now I’m finally reading Maggie Stiefvater’s Raven Cycle books, because literally everyone and their MOMS hounded me about it for so long. I am not disappointed. Who isn’t a sucker for boarding schools and horrifying nightmare creatures?

What is your next project?

The sequel to Because You’ll Never Meet Me, titled Nowhere Near You, is in the late stages of revisions and due out in early 2017. So huzzah for that! Things get a bit weirder and darker this time through, surprising no one.

The winner of the William C. Morris Award will be awarded on January 11th, 2016 at the Youth Media Awards in Boston, MA. 

— Kris Hickey, currently reading Grayling’s Song by Karen Cushman