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Brian Mandabach Interview with Brian Mandabach, November 2007
OR NOT? by Brian Mandabach
Or Not? by Brian Mandabach
Young Adult
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“Osama bin Sullivan.” “American Taliban slut.” “You’re going to hell!”

Cassie Sullivan had no idea defending Darwin and refusing to sing “Proud to Be an American” would be such a big deal, but it’s a brave new world of post-9/11 paranoia, religious intolerance, and spineless school officials, and Cassie quickly finds herself isolated in junior high hell. Are her beliefs worth the torment? Is anything worth the torment?

Feeling completely misunderstood, Cassie dedicates herself to recording the most trying year of her life in her journal and looking for answers in the writing of Hemingway, Tolkien, Kurt Cobain, and others. She discovers, though, that the answer will have to be her own creation—if there is an answer at all.

Or Not isn’t simply the story of girl discovering who she wants to be; it’s an intimate, hilarious, poignant portrait of a girl as she decides whether she wants to be at all. Or not.

Brian Mandabach ETC: Tell us how you came up with the idea for your first young adult novel, OR NOT.

Mandabach: The story began when I learned that an 8th grade girl in my neighborhood had taken her own life. I won't go into details here, but I could not get this girl–whom I did not know–out of my head. I'd be taking a walk in the night, as I like to do, only I couldn't just dig the stars and sing to myself and let my mind wander as I usually do–because I was preoccupied with wondering what could have brought this girl to take that one irreversible step.

Aside from reading her obituary, I made a point not to learn anything more about her. And I've got to say that this isn't a suicide novel and that the more I worked on it, researching teen suicide–especially younger teens and girls–the more my character who became Cassie grew away from her initial inspiration. But that's where she started, and I spent the coming months filling up pages in my notebooks with Cassie and her family, discovering who she was.

ETC: The voice of Cassie, the main character, rings so true, especially her thoughts and emotions as she makes entries into her journal. How were you able to achieve that authenticity, writing in the voice of a teenage girl?

Mandabach: One of my old friends who just finished the book emailed me saying, "Are you sure you're NOT a 14-year-old girl?"

I'm pretty sure I'm not, but that's the exciting thing about writing fiction–going deep into your imagination, bringing everything you know and feel, and living that alternate reality via language as you attempt to communicate it.

So how did I achieve authenticity in the voice of a teenage girl? Cassie became real and true inside me–through months and years of writing her into being. To me, she is authentic. If you say I have achieved authenticity, then I have.

In other words, I don't really know. I don't mean to say that it's all an unconscious accident, but it's not artifice–it's natural. I believe in Cassie, I know Cassie, I feel Cassie. Cassie is her language, Cassie is her voice as the pre-writing notes and the draft spilled out of me. Then, since I am not actually channeling a perfectly revealed soul, I revised. I deliberately worked to separate out the stuff that's more me than her, the stuff I thought was her when I wrote that early material, and the stuff that–though it might seem right to Cassie and me–wasn't going to work for the reader.

ETC: What made you decide to write for a teen audience rather than adult?

Mandabach: I didn't. Cassie's story came to me and I wrote it for the two of us. My agent said it was YA, so I said, "Okay, let's find a YA publisher." What made me write in a teen voice in a way that appeals to a teen audience (as opposed to what made me decide to) is probably the fact that I teach teens. I spend a lot of time with them, and a lot of that is listening to them and reading what they write. You might be getting the impression that I don't think there is anything phony about fiction. I think fiction should be natural and real. I don't like the idea of somebody saying, "Hey, there are a lot of teens reading these days, I think I can capitalize on that market." On the other hand, if a writer thinks, "This is a group of people that I want to speak with," then I agree, and I think that's cool.

But maybe I write for teens because I'm in a state of arrested development. ;)

ETC: What are your hopes for OR NOT?

Mandabach: I hope to exploit the buying power of young America. And their parents. Or not.

But seriously, I'd like lots of people to read it and I hope the story becomes part of their lives, part of their realities. I believe that music and stories are reality, and I hope to share this story with others.

ETC: What was the most challenging aspect of writing OR NOT? And what was the most enjoyable?

The most challenging thing was finding and keeping the gumption I needed to finish the first draft.

The most enjoyable was living in the book as I wrote and revised it. I love Cassie, and I loved being in the story with her and her family and friends.

ETC: Tell us about your writing habits. Do you keep to a schedule?

Mandabach: William Faulkner, when asked if he wrote on a schedule or when he was inspired, said that he wrote only when he was inspired, but he made sure that inspiration came every day at 10 when he sat down at his desk.

I love that.

I keep to a schedule, and set deadlines for myself. When I wrote the draft of Or Not, I got up every morning at four, and I had a 2,000 word daily quota. I also had to give myself permission to write a really rough draft. Otherwise, I would have been paralyzed.

ETC: What's the best writing advice you've ever gotten?

Mandabach: Ann Zwinger, who is the author of Beyond the Aspen Grove (& other books on nature) and was my master's thesis advisor at Colorado College, was shocked when I told her how much time I spent on my drafts. She advised me to keep the editing and revising separate from the drafting. That way the ideas flow more easily, and I don't waste a lot of time perfecting paragraphs and sentences that end up being cut anyway.

ETC: Who are your favorite writers?

Mandabach: J.R.R. Tolkien is my favorite. People say that he's not much of a writer, but the world that he created in language is, despite its flaws, so real to me that it hurts.

But I read as much as I can, and I love a lot of stuff. Hemingway and I go way back. I like the way he writes about things like the sun-bleached hair of a girl, a ham-and-egg sandwich made over a campfire, a bottle of wine chilled in a mountain spring. Vonnegut and I have a history. Also Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Twain, Philip Roth, Camus–should I stop yet? Right now I'm reading Denis Johnson, who is amazing. I also love Sherman Alexie, though I have yet to read his new YA book.

ETC: Can you tell us about any books you're working on for the near future?

Mandabach: I'm currently procrastinating the revision of my next novel. The characters are older than Cassie–17 and 18–and it takes place in my hometown of Barrington, Illinois, in the late 1970's when I was that age. The setting allows me to draw energy from the intense memories of my own youth as well as to work with characters who are free from the encumbrances of modern technology.