Author Interview: Sashi Kaufman

Author Interview: Sashi Kaufman

 

 

Figure 1. The Other Way Around by Sashi Kaufman

Figure 1. The Other Way Around by Sashi Kaufman

 

Yall, I was so excited about Sashi Kaufman’s The Other Way Around when I first heard of it. I think I already loved it before I even cracked it open.

Because: Carolrhoda LAB, duh

Because: Contemporary YA featuring a boy narrator

Because: It’s about freegans! Dumpster-diving street-performing free-wheeling FREEGANS!

And then I read it and loved it even more. It’s a wonderful book. Funny and sad and unexpected. Plus, it’s kind of a road-trip book in a way, but it’s more than that, too.

Sashi’s editor Andrew Karre said it best: “I love all books about teenagers trying to slip the noose of conventional adulthood – to ‘light out for the territory’–and this book seemed to me to embody that spirit incredibly well.”

 

Figure 2. Author Sashi Kaufman (photo credit: Travis Gray)

Figure 2. Author Sashi Kaufman (photo credit: Travis Gray)

 

I’m so pleased I got the opportunity to ask Sashi Kaufman a few questions! What we talked about is below:

The Other Way Around is narrated by a teenaged boy named Andrew West. As far as I can tell, you have never been a teenaged boy, so I’m sure you have an explanation for this – everyone wants to know how you come to write from a different gender. I realize you may be sick of this question, but tell me: where did Andrew West come from?

So I’m a middle school teacher. And the first thing my students always want to know is if there are any characters in my books based on them. And then secondly if any of my characters are based on students at all. And the answer is yes, but not in the way they might hope for -in that none of my characters are based on any one specific student. Andrew West is an amalgamation of many students I’ve had over the course of 10 years. Male, clearly, smart -usually very verbal, and incredibly unmotivated. No matter how cool I think I’m being -in that adult way that is never really cool to anyone under 25 -or how fascinating I think I’m making the work -these kids would simply not engage or perform. And they would refuse to do so even when they were clearly hurting themselves academically and emotionally (usually with their parents). I guess I’ve spent a lot of time wondering about these kids, wondering what kind of future they might envision for themselves, wondering if they ever change, if something finally motivates them to start pushing themselves toward any kind of goal.  And that wondering and what-iffing is the beginnings of a character.

As far as Andrew being not of my gender, that part was just incidental. In addition to not being male, I’ve also never been the child of a single parent, nor have I ever been academically unmotivated the way he is. Andrew was always a dude -there was really no other way to write him.

So, would you say that Andrew West is the kind of reader you write toward? Or the kind of reader you’d want to read your book? Or is that not anything that factors into your thinking?

It doesn’t factor in to my thinking when I’m writing the book. I mostly, and selfishly, write to entertain myself. However, I would love it if Andrew read my book. I’ve definitely had less motivated students that were great readers. And that’s always a great point of connection with students is talking about what they read and what they think about it. In fact, it’s one of the ways I get to know my students best. Middle school and adolescence in general is a tough time for kids to reflect and talk about themselves. But by talking about characters in a story sometimes they reveal things about their thinking that they wouldn’t ever say directly.

I like the idea of writers writing to please themselves. Probably because it’s my own reason for writing! But YA as a genre is so fraught with people thinking that certain topics or treatments of topics aren’t okay for adolescent readers. How do you explain yourself to those people?

One of my big pet peeves as a teacher, and a human, is when people treat kids and adolescents like they’re never going to be adults. Or that one day -like the magical drinking age they’ll just be ready for adulthood without any preparation. That doesn’t mean that kids of all ages are ready for everything content wise. That’s why there aren’t picture books about the guillotine or keg parties. However, we learn by reading. We learn about others and we learn how to think. Kids are thinking and wondering about sex and other “wring your hands” topics. If kids don’t have access to adults to talk about these things with, or don’t want to talk with adults about it, then I can’t think of anything better than a really smart thought-provoking book to make them feel like they’re a little less alone with their questions and their wondering. I would much rather that my kid learn about sex and relationships and all manner of adult topics from a good book than from reality tv or something even more tawdry.

Sheesh – I could probably go off on that one for a while!

Let’s talk about the kids in The Other Way Around. It can be difficult to create ensemble casts of friends. How did that work while you were writing the story?

Ooh, this is so tricky to think back on. Once you have your characters it just seems like they were there all along. I don’t remember consciously adding anyone -more like discovering who was there. I guess that sounds kind of airy-fairy. One thing I like about the Freegans groups is that they’re all outsiders in some way even as they belong together.

Let’s talk about the Freegans: what they do, why they do it, what you like about their ideals.

So “The Freegans” was one possible title for the book back in the day, but we discarded it partly because the Freegans don’t self-identify that way. Only Emily, a character who kind of enjoys self-labeling, uses the word. That brings me to one of the things I like about the Freegans. Even though they live an unusual life –dumpster-diving, street-performing, existing outside a more traditional economy–it’s not really motivated by any huge political agenda. Individually they all have issues that are important to them but it’s not like some big “group think” drink-the-Kool-aid kind of existence. They’re open to Andrew and his skepticism and for the most part they’re not trying to cram their ideas down anybody’s throat.

What do I love about them personally? I love their rejection of capitalist values -the idea that more things will make you happy. I love that they live very much in the moment -something that I personally struggle with. One minute they’re washing dishes for their dinner and the next day they’re pitching in on chicken-killing day on a small organic farm. And they get by, they survive, and they’re having a pretty good time. I like presenting that to high school kids who may not be aware that there are all these different ways to live and be in the world.

I like that, too. I rarely live in the present, myself; people who don’t spend a lot of mental energy anticipating and worrying are fascinating to me! But I think this brings us to Emily and her character. She’s got the zeal of the newly-converted, but it also seems like her motives are suspect in some ways, because there’s a manipulative side to her, as well. I love that and I love how complicated she was. Talk a little bit about Emily and how she came to be in Andrew’s story.

Oh, this is a great question! As much as I enjoy Emily’s character, I enjoy even more the way people react to her character. I never imagined Andrew’s story as a love story. It’s a lust story and also, as Le Karre characterized it -a tantrum story. I really liked the idea of writing about the first time a character gets real attention from someone they’re attracted to. I feel like that’s such a seductive moment that when you’re an adolescent you are completely blind to any negative aspects of that person. Emily is such an attention seeker and yes, so manipulative. And Andrew is drawn to her despite these things, and maybe to a certain extent because of them.

I once had a student read John Green’s Paper Towns, and I remember the next day he came in and said he was disappointed that at the end of the book the main character didn’t follow his love interest to New York. And I was like, “What?! But she was terrible for him. She was using him and manipulating him, and it would have ended badly.”

And this kid, this 8th grade boy looked at me and said simply, “Yeah, but he should have gone. He should have gone anyway.”

That conversation has stayed with me for a long time. To me it’s a reminder that adolescence is about doing the wrong things, sometimes again and again, so that you can learn what the right things are. And just because as adults we think we know what’s best for someone, real or fictional, that doesn’t make it so.

So when I wrote Emily, I knew she wasn’t the “right” person for Andrew. But I also knew she was the right person for him in that moment, and at that time. And I knew I could have a lot of fun writing about him figuring that out.

 

Figure : Sashi, circa 1994, during her choir trip to England senior year. QUOTE: "I definitely had more awkward hair earlier in high school but I thought this let my inner dork shine through nicely.  Yes, choir, huge part of my life in high school."

Figure 4: Here is Sashi, circa 1994, during her choir trip to England senior year. Sashi says: “I definitely had more awkward hair earlier in high school but I thought this let my inner dork shine through nicely. Yes, choir, huge part of my life in high school.” ALSO – that is totally a J.Crew anorak, isn’t it?

 

Let’s talk about you a little. How long have you been writing? Did you always write stories? Did you always want to be a writer?

Oh boy, my favorite subject! *wink*

I can’t say I always wanted to be a writer but I’ve always wanted to be a part of stories and books.  I’ve been writing in one form or another since forever -I have a lot of highly dramatic angsty books filled with my high school and junior high school journal entries. Early on writing was a way for me to process the horrific growing pains of adolescence. And since I still write about adolescents, I guess in one way or another, I’m still processing -but aren’t we all?

I’m also very much a “center of attention” type person. I hope not in a narcissistic way – I hope by acknowledging the possibility of narcissism you’ll know that while I enjoy being on stage I’m not self-centered. Anyway, writing combined that love of stories and love of the spotlight. I get to be the one telling the stories.

I only started making attempts at novels in the last 8 years or so. The Other Way Around was the second novel I ever finished.

I think people who aren’t still processing their adolescent years are lying to themselves or somehow blissfully unaware of how those years still affect their daily behavior and general outlook. With YA, we get the double-whammy of people carrying around shame from those years, which is translated into disdain for the genre and “why does anyone care about this?” This gets at the heart of the wanting-to-be-published dream, which is that a writer suspects that she has something to say that is worth hearing. Which, for a woman, can also be a hurdle to get over, mentally, as women’s views are often discredited or dismissed. In a roundabout way, I guess I’m asking how you look at that prospect: being a writer about characters coming-of-age, while being female, and contending with that sort of judgment we get from our culture.

Wow, that is a doozy! You might laugh at this -perhaps this isn’t something that people (or women) are supposed to admit -but I’ve never felt any doubt or shame about letting my voice be heard. I suppose I feel pretty lucky -privileged in fact to have been raised that way. And I give a lot of credit to my parents for giving me the confidence to subvert that particular societal paradigm. Most people who know me perceive me as a person with a lot of confidence and someone who has no trouble giving her opinion freely and publicly. I’m sure that some people think I give it too much. However, if I resent anything it’s that this is seen as a somewhat unusual trait for women. “Like, ooh, Sashi -she’s so assertive.” Really because I say what I think? I see this in my teaching profession – a field dominated by women but where male voices still seem to hold more weight.

Overall though, I feel there are more aspects of my life and background that are privileged as opposed to oppressive so I’m grateful for that and aware that a lot of other people have to fight a lot harder to be heard in life and in fiction.

I do think people can be judgmental about YA as a genre or sub-category of fiction and it’s a little annoying when even friends or family are dismissive of your writing because it’s not “adult fiction” but I console myself with the knowledge that there is just as much silly frivolous “adult fiction” as there is silly frivolous YA and kid lit. It all has its place.

I’m not laughing – I’m glad! Women get so dinged for taking up space or being vehement about their feelings. Maybe we’re really fearsome and that’s why people lose their minds? Let’s switch gears and talk about another aspect of your book and your life – what I call “thrift culture” or the reuse and recycling of objects, which mirrors the rejection of consumer culture the kids in The Other Way Around also share. Have you ever Dumpster-dived or cruised sidewalks on garbage day (some people call the weeks around end of spring semester around the universities, where everyone’s moving out and abandoning furniture on the sidewalks “Hippie Christmas”)? Do you buy secondhand? Tell me all!

Roar -that’s me being fearsome. And yes, I do think strong women throw some people (small people) for a loop.

Anyway, I am very excited to talk about my addiction (maybe too strong of a word, maybe not) to all things thrift store, yard sale, reused and re-purposed. I suppose we’d have to begin with my mother.

No – actually, probably my Grandmother, who was a child of the Great Depression and unfortunately lived through her own father taking his life because of debts at the time. My Grandmother loved to get something for nothing. If dumpster-diving had been a thing when she was a teenager I’m sure she would have been all over it! That said, she was also incredibly generous with what she had and basically financed my entire college education because she was so thrifty otherwise.

My mother loves a coupon. Seriously, don’t buy her jewelry (unless you make it yourself) and definitely not new clothes unless it’s a really cool hand-printed t-shirt. So a love for thrift is definitely in my gene pool. The dining room table I eat off today with my husband and daughter was something my parents pulled out of the trash in the East Village of NY in the seventies. It’s sitting on top of a rug I scavenged from our local big trash day -called “Heavy Item Pick Up” -which unfortunately was cut from the budget a few years ago. I flirt with people who have a dump shop in their town. I’m shameless. I’d like to chalk it up to some greater ecological ethic and that’s probably true in part but mostly I just love to get things for cheap/nothing.

I do have limits; bras, undies, shoes, bathing suits -support items or things that are going to rub up against your parts are a no-no for me. Shoes more because I have such gigantor-sized feet I’m never going to find them anyway.

On the rare occasion when I decide I need something new I’m usually so grossed out by the prices at a regular store that I end up walking out before I find something. It’s just galling to me that you’re expected to pay 28, 38, 58 or 80 bucks for some cheap cotton shirt, pants, whatever that’s going to fall apart in one season anyway. I find that to be a very messed up part of our consumer culture.

More than an environmental ethic I have a real problem with the idea we’re fed constantly that the acquisition of more things is the key to happiness. I even have to catch myself with thrifting and yard sale hopping. Do I really need a new night stand, bookshelf, red cardigan sweater, or am I feeling anxious about something or upset and I’m trying to distract myself? That might be heavy on analysis but I do think the need to acquire items is often a substitute for something else lurking in the psyche. That said, I really do enjoy it and it’s a hell of a lot less guilt-producing than your standard trip to the mall.

I’m taking a bit of a mental tour of my house right and struggling to find a single piece of furniture that was bought brand new -okay there’s a few.  But even my bed frame I dug out of the clearance area of the furniture store because it had been returned when the original customer didn’t like the stain color. I’m happy to provide more examples of my thrifty life if you want them.

 

Figure 3.

Figure 5. The Kaufman family table, liberated from trash in the 70’s East Village by Sashi’s parents. Note that the rug beneath it was also scavenged from curbside trash in Portland 5 years ago

 

It’s interesting how thrifting can even be about consumerism. For sure, when I worked at thrift store, there were always customers who had cars FILLED with previous purchases. You would carry out a heavy item for them and see piles of things you’d rang up for them in the past. You talk about limits, though, and I think many people have them regarding thrift. What about Dumpster diving? Would you ever do that?

Oh it’s so true. Even when you look at the stuff people are dropping off at Goodwill -so much of it is such junk. You have to wonder if it was useful at all or brought them any enjoyment before it was discarded.

Hmm, limits you say. Well I know dumpster-diving is quite a bit trickier these days than it used to be. I took a bit of creative license there because if you drive by most big box stores these days their dumpsters are completely sealed off and inaccessible to the outside. I’m sure the corporations have some song and dance about liability that they’ll sing but more likely they just don’t want people getting something for nothing or seeing how much waste they’re producing.

Personally, though I prefer the trash of individuals to the company store although I have been known to sniff around the florist’s dumpster at the end of our street. They throw out half wilted flowers all the time that are gorgeous and I’m a sucker for flowers. The limit for me is the sticky factor. Coated with any kind of stickiness and I’m probably out.

What’s a typical day for you like? And where do you fit the writing part into it?

Wow, a day in the life. Can you really handle the glamour? I rise at the obscene hour 5:45 in order to get to middle school by 7:25 or so. Kids get there at 7:30. My teaching day ends at 2:20 but I’m usually there until 3. I pick up my daughter from daycare around 4 and then I’m in Mama mode until she hits the hay around 7:30.

If I have writing time (because sometimes I have to grade papers) then it’s 7:30-8:30. I’m NOT a night person and it’s even a push to get myself to be productive after 8 pm.

If i’m really on a roll I might push it to 9 but usually it’s junky TV and the occasional monosyllabic grunt at my lovely husband before I’m completely unconscious by 10. I know, I’m making some people jealous out there.

Perhaps the big takeaway is that you really can write a book in half hour increments if you’re consistent about sitting yer ass down for those half hour increments. Half hours and a page here or there adds up over time.

Sometimes I’ll take an hour on the weekends in the morning or during my daughter’s nap but not always. I really like to be outdoors so if I’m going to sit inside and type I try and get in and out pretty quickly.

What’s next for you?

So the next big thing. I have a couple of next big things actually. The one I’m hoping you’ll hear about first involves a girl who’s parents are Doomsday Preppers. It’s not so much about trash but there’s definitely a survivalist element to both that and TOWA. I have other projects in the works too and I’m hoping to get some time this summer to crank on those. Oh yeah, I’m a teacher so that daily life I described is a bit different in the summer when I do send my daughter to daycare a few days a week and get some longer chunks of time to write. I love summer.
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Thank you, Sashi, for answering all my nosy questions!

To keep up with Sashi, visit her website and on Twitter: @SashiKaufman

Get a copy of The Other Way Around:

IndieBound, Barnes & Noble, Lerner Books & The Walmart of Books Drone Delivery Emporium

2 Comments

  • Sashi on May 18, 2014 Reply

    Busted! That was totally a JCrew Anorak. I’m sure my mother died a thousand deaths when she saw the price tag. Hopefully it was on sale or I used some babysitting money.

  • Sarah Ahiers on May 15, 2014 Reply

    I can’t wait to read this book. It sounds so awesome.

    Also! I want to have a florist nearby that throws out half wilted flowers I can scavenge.

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