1. How did you find out about turtles? Did you have to do lots of research?
Sometimes, people write about something they love. But Turtles...SURPRISE! I fell in love with them by writing about them! I chose turtles because, as you might know, some elements of this story are autobiographical: I did have the facial difference Will has and I did have the surgery...and kids did call me "Turtle Boy," which, like Will, made me miserable. 30 years later, when I decided to turn this challenging year of my life into a novel, turtles seemed the obvious obsession for Will. I even called my 6th grade science teacher (who Ms. Kuper is based on) for herpetology advice. He taught me about how turtles survive the winter, and helped fact-check the research I did online. Now, I'm a turtle enthusiast!
2. Do you have any experience of living with a facial disfigurement like Will?
I did; after I had the surgery, my closest friends said I looked fine, great -- but not "better." It's important for people with body differences to feel that they have the freedom to choose: do they want to learn to love themselves the way they are, or are they ready for change? I had to learn that all humans are beautiful and deserve dignity, but no one becomes better by having a surgery or changing their body. People only become better by growing on the inside. Which I did a lot of, as well.
3. Do you have experience of anxiety and being shy?
For sure! As a 12-13 year old, I had debilitating anxiety which might have been connected to my self-perception. Similar to Will, new experiences overwhelmed me. I couldn't even sleep over at a friends house without calling my Mom and Dad to rescue me! With time (and even some therapy) I learned to cope with my anxiety. Year by year, I developed the courage and confidence to backpack alone (eek!) through Egypt and Turkey, to do stand up comedy, to play in rock bands...and write a book. If you had told 12 year old me that one day I would do those things, I wouldn't have believed it. You will grow, too, and one day, "Future You" will do things that "Present Tense You" wouldn't believe. "Future You" is unstoppable!!!
4. Have you rescued any turtles?
My mom is a lover of wildlife and when I was a kid, she was constantly arguing with City Hall not to cut the milkweed along the side of the road (which is important for monarch butterflies to eat). She also rescued baby bunnies, raised duckies, taught me all the meadow flowers and birds, saved injured baby birds, moved toads from roads, the list goes on and on...and I'm sure there was a turtle or two in there.
5. What made you add the sad bits?
Will is an amazing kid. At the beginning of the book, he's barely capable of anything. I was determined to show how much a kid can grow with love and support from their friends, teachers, and parents. Sickness and death are two of the toughest things for humans to handle, so it made for an "ultimate challenge" -- Will "thinks" his problem is that he just wants to be left alone to take care of his turtles. But what he really needs is to learn how to be a human being. And he does: he learns to love and to let go, to help and support and care and have hope. If he can do that...he can do anything.
6. Have you made any stories which didn’t get published?
Yes, yes, yes! Writing is about producing garbage that no one should read -- embarrassing, awful stories with silly plots and dumb characters... and then, one day, you write something really good. I say this because NOT GIVING UP is waaaay more important than BEING SUCCESSFUL. This is true for sports, for relationships, for art, for life. For literally anything worth doing, you need to be terrible at it before you're good at it. If you can have fun being bad at something...then one day, you'll still be working at it, becoming brilliant, while all the people who had early, fast success have quit! Then, you win!
7. What do you think your next book will be about?
It's a sequel about Shirah! She's so great - strong and loud and proud and devoted to her friends...and also, she has her struggles. She demanded to have her own book, so I said, "fine. I'll write it."
8. Where is your favourite place to write? My Aunty likes to write outside.
Your Aunty sounds so cool! Writing outside is lovely! For Turtle Boy, I had a big, comfy arm chair I called "The King Chair." The fabric on the arms got so worn down from my elbows rubbing against it, from year after year of writing. Now, I have a favorite corner on my couch. "King Couch" sounds good, too...but the couch is not all mine. I have to share it with my little daughter, Anna.
9. From Mum- The Bar Mitzvah speech is so touching and moved me deeply on many levels. The book has actually helped me as an adult. Do you plan on writing more books of this nature? I’m coining it ‘hidden self help’.
Hidden Self Help! I LOVE that. Yes - Shirah's book will be about learning to love yourself not for what you can accomplish, not because you've earned it...but because you're you. Sounds like "Hidden Self Help!" to me. (I'm totally going to steal that phrase! Thank you!)
Reader Q&A with M. Evan Wolkenstein author of Turtle Boy