There are many different types of bravery, and one type is imbued in the pages of Laurel Snyder’s Bigger than a Breadbox, set to be released on Sept. 27th. It’s a story about magic, primarily, but interwoven in that magic is the event that causes the need for the magic in the first place: her parents’ divorce. I say HER parents, though of course the story isn’t about Laurel, it’s about Rebecca. Only the divorce part is based on Laurel’s childhood, which is where the bravery comes in. To write this story she had to relive those my-parents-are-splitting-up days – the days where you feel like you’re living in an after-school special. And to write the story knowing that her parents were going to read it – and read into it? That was brave, people. And perhaps, for Laurel, necessary.
To help promote the book, Laurel asked for divorce stories from those of us whose parents divorced when we were at a vulnerable age, which is to say when we were anywhere between the ages of 1 and 70. I was in high school when my parents split up and I didn’t own a breadbox, magic or otherwise. I have stories, but I’m not brave enough to tell most of them, in part because I don’t want to go back there myself and in part because I don’t want my parents to have to go back there, either. So instead of opening the door, as Laurel did, I’m cracking a window.
Divorce has a color, in case you didn’t know that. For me that color was beige, the same color as my father’s new condo: the walls, the paintings, the chair, the couch, the linens. When my father remarried, he offered me his Divorce Furniture. It didn’t seem like the best omen, but I took it anyway. I covered the couch with the loudest slipcover I could find. I painted the dresser bright blue and added stars and moons, my own brand of exorcism.
The taste of my parents’ divorce: That would have to be Chinese food that caught fire in the oven because my father didn’t know you couldn’t put cardboard containers in there when you turned it up to broil.
A casualty of my parents’ divorce: My grades. RIP trigonometry, which was during the period when my usually together mother locked her keys in the car and needed me to bring her mine. Obviously, this happened more than once.
A benefit of my parents’ divorce: My friends started hanging out at my house again.
The sound of my parents’ divorce: The Police’s Synchronicity album, which, thank G-d, I was able to separate from the rest of their catalog. It was in huge rotation in the early 1980s, on every rock station. Only my father never let my brother and I listen to rock stations when he was driving, preferring, instead, the generic classical of WPVR. But in those early weeks after he and my mom separated, he decided that being a cool parent meant buying us Billy Idol cassettes and letting us listen to Rock 105.
“There’s a little black spot on the sun today.”
Things were going fine until Sting sang that it was his destiny to be the king of pain.
“That’s me,” my father said. “King of pain.” He stared straight ahead and gripped the steering wheel. He wept. I haven’t been able to listen to that album since. Even when Sting had moved on from pain to sing about lemmings and breathing, I was done.
Another sound of my parents divorce: Cards. When my parents told us, my brother and I sat on the floor of his bedroom and began playing War, even though we knew hearts, spades, poker and three kinds of rummy. But we needed something mindless, something that could go on forever, so I remember the flicking sounds the cards made as we pulled them from the deck and placed them on top of each other. Flick. Flick. Flick. It seemed sort of appropriate, war, because wasn’t that what our parents were having? Except they weren’t. They were “growing apart.” That was their line. They stuck to it and I knew it was true, long before they even mentioned the word “divorce.”
That’s it for me. You can get plenty more from Laurel on her blog, in Breadbox, and here and now, as she stops by in her frantic week before publication to answer a few questions.
Me: You’ve talked a lot about wanting this book to be able to help kids grapple with their parents’ divorce. Which books helped you?
Laurel: I don’t remember a specific book that addressed divorce in a way I could believe. But the books that helped me most with that time were books about loner kids. Harriet the Spy and The Egypt Game, Wrinkle in Time and Dicey’s Song (which I seem to keep bringing up lately). Books that showed me I could be okay on my own made me feel like I could be okay with my family in a new formation.
Me: I know this book is extra personal for you. Does that make any reviews you might get extra personal as well? Or is every book personal, really?
Laurel: Every book is NOT personal. Every book is my work, and I want my work to be good, but usually I can handle almost any criticism. The things that sound like garbage roll off, because I don’t bother thinking about them. The valid criticism I try to accept and process, so that I can learn. This book–it’s hard. It feels, on some level, like I’m Rebecca, and so if she’s unbelievable or unlikable, I am too. I can still handle general criticism, but the character stuff is hard with this one. It’s like people are reading my diary.
Me: Did you talk to your parents about this book during the writing process?
Laurel: Oy. I did. My mom read an early draft– actually I read the beginning of it to her, in a hotel in LA. It was really good for me to do that, freeing, because she liked it. My dad knew about the book, and I offered to let him read it, and he said something like, “I can’t do this. You make art. Your job is to do what you need to. If I don’t like it, that’s okay.” My parents are pretty great.
Me: How hard was it to go through these emotions again? Who was your biggest support?
It was hard, reliving some of this. Writing the book stirred up a lot of feminist issues for me, as a stay-at-home-mom. I got a little crazy there for a bit. So my biggest supporter is definitely my husband, Chris, though he hasn’t read it yet.
Me: How do you feel this one is different from your other middle-grades? (For those of you who haven’t read them, Laurel is also the author of Up and Down the Scratchy Mountains, Any Which Wall and Penny Dreadful.)
Laurel: It’s sad. I let that be the most important thing. It’s character driven, in a way the others aren’t. I’m still pretty new to writing long-form prose. With this one I got “lost” for the first time in the characters.
Me: I realize I’m blasting out the questions here but: What role do you think magic plays in a kid’s life, or in your life, when you were a kid? Do you think it’s changed since those days? Since you’ve had kids?
Laurel: Wow, okay. In order to talk about this, I have to introduce an intimidating word– faith. As a kid I believed firmly in magic. I think that was important for me. A defining part of my personality. I had never SEEN a fairy or a unicorn, but I just HAD TO BELIEVE they were out there. Because they were beautiful, perfect, somehow MORE. I wanted to believe in beauty and perfection and more. My life wasn’t perfect.
As a grownup, I think I operate the same way. I don’t believe in heaven or God or peace in any way that suggests they’ve been proven in my mind. I believe in them abstractly, because to rule them out would be crippling to my sense of how to live in the world. I believe in the potential of anything wonderful that I can imagine. So on some level– I still believe in unicorns. Or in families working things out. I am absolutely raising my kids this way, and I am trying to foster that sense of potential and imagination. It certainly enters my writing.
Does this make sense?
Me: It does!
Me: Bruce Springsteen: Discuss.
Laurel: Ha! People who read the book will understand. The Springsteen connection is autobiographical, completely. Springsteen is soundtrack.
Me: What’s next?
Laurel: A companion to this one! Though it’s taking me two years to write it. I’m trying to go slowly. It follow Annie, the mother in Bread Box. In the new book, Seven Stories Up, Annie is 12 (in 1987) and readers will get to see her as a person. I wanted to try and show how each member of a family has a story, but also how all the stories are linked. Annie falls back in time, to meet her own grandmother, in 1937. In turns out time travel is HARD.
Me: We will be waiting for that one! Okay, my usual last question is: What’s your secret talent? For instance, my brother can make a house look clean when it isn’t, really.
Laurel: The talent I am proudest of is that I speak in metered rhyme. And if you get me drunk on scotch I’ll do it till you lose your mind.
I should have mentioned that Laurel is a poet, too — was a poet, first, actually. Thanks so much to Laurel for stopping by and best wishes for a Happy Book Birthday! You can find out more about Laurel through her website at laurelsnyder.com or by following @laurelsnyder on twitter.
On a related note: A book that I read a number of times when my parents were splitting up was called _____. Okay, I can’t remember the name and it’s been driving me NUTS for weeks. A lovely Isaac Asimov listserv came through to help me find the name of The Missing Persons League, even though it wasn’t by Asimov. It was a book I’d loved as a kid and I’d remembered the plot and that the perfume smelled like marshmallows but I’d blanked on the title. Hoping someone will remember the title of the divorce book if I tell you: It probably came out between 1979 and 1984. It had something to do with horoscopes. The main character’s mother had remarried, moving the Main Character from place to place. It drove her crazy and she tried to prevent it, especially when she developed a strong relationship with her stepfather, whose name was Fidel. She tried to get her parents to sit on the same couch together, tried to prevent their marriage from falling apart, too, but in the end, she realizes that her mother’s marriage — and her mother — are out of her control. Anyone? Bueller?
Want to check out other interviews with other authors? Interview Wednesday is being hosted today by Tina Nichols Coury.