1. Piper, the protagonist of Five Flavors of Dumb, is deaf, and her disability is portrayed in a way that’s really true to life! How did you ensure that your portrayal of this side of her was accurate?
I’m so glad you found Piper’s deafness true to life. I must admit, in the back of my mind I kept thinking: If I don’t portray the world of a deaf teen accurately, then I’ve failed! It was a worrying thought, and certainly motivated me to do a lot of research—four months, in fact—before I ever wrote a word. I sat in on an ASL class, spoke to audiologists about the latest hearing aid technology, read books and watched documentaries, and enlisted the help of two deaf people, who not only gave me advice, but read and critiqued the novel as well. By the time I’d done that, I had enough knowledge to really get inside Piper’s head, although I’m still by no means an expert on deafness.
2. I know from your website that you’re also a composer. What similarities are there between creating a piece of music and creating a story?
Maybe more than you’d think. When I used to compose, I tended to devote a lot of time to considering things like style, structure, themes, and instrumentation. Well, wouldn’t you know it—these are the same things I think about now. But instead of style, it’s now voice. And instead of instrumentation, it’s now cast of characters.
The important thing, I think, is that the approach is basically the same. I like to plan thoroughly, to know my audience, and to consider what I’m trying to accomplish in this particular composition/book. Then it’s all about having the patience to see the project through to completion.
3. Your first novel, Busted, has a male protagonist. What did you find most challenging about stepping into a female pair of shoes for Five Flavors?
It’s funny, but I never really set out to write a book with a female narrator. Only, as soon as I thought of Five Flavors of Dumb, Piper sort of burst onto the scene staking her claim as narrator. Really, no other character I’ve ever written has come to me as fully formed as Piper did.
But there were certainly challenges with writing from her perspective. For instance, Piper crushes on a boy. To be honest, I wasn’t completely convinced why she would like him all that much. So I asked my wife and sister-in-law: “What makes a boy attractive to a girl?” Now, as someone who has been happily married for a decade, I probably ought to have had some idea of this already, but I didn’t. And so both of them dutifully gave me a list of things that they would have found attractive in Piper’s situation. And I thought: “Huh. That makes sense. Cool.” And I included it. All of it.
4. Even if you don’t write with a specific message in mind, what do you hope that readers will take away from your books?
If readers take one thing away from Five Flavors of Dumb, I hope it’s that communication is vital. Everyone in the band has issues saying what they mean. (Even Josh, the egotistical lead singer doesn’t tell things like they are.) Only when they all start talking and listening do they overcome these issues and start to gel.
I am constantly amazed at how useless adults are at such a basic skill as communication. (I include myself here, for the record.) So I really wanted to send the message: say what you think; be direct; be confident; and respect others for doing the same.
5. Do you think it’s important for teens to have strong role models in literature?
While I enjoy reading books that feature strong role models, I think it’s more important that teens be presented with a cast of characters as varied as themselves. Not everyone is cut out to be the leader, but I like to think that even smaller characters can have a quiet dignity if they’re well written, and can open our eyes to something we might not have otherwise considered.
All the same, there’s definitely something fun about taking a character like Piper, who has been somewhat overlooked, and saying: “See how great she is? See how determined she is to succeed? See how she refuses to let others bring her down?” Those are traits I’d like to see everyone aspire to.
6. What’s your favorite girl-power read—and why?
There are so many to choose from, but I’m going to go with the Dairy Queen trilogy by Catherine Gilbert Murdock. The narrator, D.J. Schwenk, is a supremely talented athlete who plays quarterback for her high school football team, and also basketball. She’s determined, devoted, hilarious, but also self-conscious. She’s ambivalent about every triumph, and that seems so real to me. To me, the most useful girl-power books are the ones (like Dairy Queen and its sequels) that say it’s okay to excel, to be as brilliant as you are, but still to feel unsure about yourself. Everybody has hang-ups—the important thing is not to let them stop you from achieving what you want to in life.
7. Finally, as (kind of) a fellow Brit, I have to ask—Marmite! Love it or hate it?
Loathe it. But my nieces eat it by the jarful!
Thanks for having me along today, Lale. And a big “Hi” to all your readers!
Antony John is the author of Busted and Five Flavors of Dumb. His next novel, Thou Shalt not Road Trip, is out in April 2012. Check out his website and facebook page to find out more!
To win a preorder of the paperback edition of Five Flavors of Dumb, enter the form below by July 25th. The giveaway is open internationally to all countries that Book Depository ships to.