“Skeletons don’t like to stay in closets.
Most families try to lock them tightly away, buried beneath smiles and posed family pictures. But our Family Skeleton follows me closely with his long, graceful stride.
I guess people in my town think they have a pretty clear picture of Skeleton. Their whispers have haunted me most of the seventeen years of my life, stalking me almost as closely as he does: prison, prison, prison.
Shame, shame, shame.”
Stacey: Learning Not to Drown takes on a lot of difficult issues, addiction, family secrets, and heartbreak of the worst kind — by your parents, the people you’re supposed to trust. Was there one issue that spoke to you more than the others and why?
Anna: When I started working on Learning Not to Drown, I knew I wanted to write about the reality of growing up with a sibling in prison. Addiction, family secrets and betrayal were all an important part of Clare’s story and are issues that many people with incarcerated family members deal with on a daily basis. They all exist together in her story, so I can’t say that one speaks to me more than the others.
Stacey: How much of the book is based on your own life?
Anna: I often turn to books for advice, guidance, and escape, and as a teen, I never found a book that I could relate to about having an incarcerated brother. When I first started writing seriously, the manuscripts I completed before Learning Not to Drown were mostly for younger audiences, lighter stuff that was a ton of fun to write. But always nagging at me was the much more serious story of the reality of having a sibling in prison. I knew that was the subject that I wanted to write about, but I didn’t want it to be about my family or myself.
I failed miserably at that in the first draft. So I scrapped it and r-started by creating a scene where Clare sneaks out of her house to go to a party. It’s something I would have never been daring enough to do in high school. I was an extreme rule follower who never wanted my parents to have any reason to be disappointed in me. After I wrote that scene, Clare immediately took off as her own person, and her story was able to form around the emotions I handed to her. In doing this, I was able to write what I wanted, but still be respectful of the people in my family and their individual stories.
Stacey: There are actually two layers happening in the story — what’s happening to Clare in the present — her brother is home form jail again, full of promises to do better, alternating with Clare as an adolescent. Which was the harder Clare to write and why?
Anna: The younger Clare. I had to keep making changes to reflect how old she is in each memory. I also had to rearrange those chapters close to a gazillion times to make the past story arc work, and each time I did that, her age was often changed in the memory, so her voice and point of view needed to be adjusted.
Stacey: Was the younger Clare there from the beginning?
Anna: She was. But the memories were more random. They weren’t triggered by anything in particular. They weren’t in chronological order, which turned out to be confusing and unsatisfying. It was a lot of work to make it right, but I am happy with the end result.
Stacey: Describe how you created “Skeleton,” a personification of Clare’s emotional baggage.
Anna: When I realized that Clare was getting completely overwhelmed, I knew that I needed to create someone or something that would be there to guide her through some of the scenes. It had to be someone who could be there at any time. Someone that she could have a complex relationship with. Skeleton was born early on and changed very little from draft to draft.
Stacey: I’m fascinated by Clare’s relationships with her brothers. At the beginning, Luke (the brother in/out of jail) is still Clare’s hero, but as she discovers more about him, that relationship begins to deteriorate. Conversely, her relationship with her brother Peter starts off rocky and grows in ways she doesn’t expect. Was it your intention when you started writing this book to have these brother relationships in counterpoint to each other?
Anna: Yes. In fact, originally I didn’t reveal who was in prison until half way through the book because I thought that would really make the reader feel how betrayed and shocking it is to find out that someone you love is capable of doing something terrible. My very wise critique group told me it wasn’t working. The “twist” turned out to be frustrating, and they felt betrayed by me instead of by Luke. I was, however, able to keep the trajectory of the relationships with each brother.
With the reveal to the reader early on that Luke was the one in prison, it left room for the reader to evaluate Luke and Peter as people, and questioning why Luke was the one in jail when Peter, on the surface, feels more likely to be hurtful to someone. As Clare becomes more aware of the truth about Luke and starts to accept who he is as a whole person, she also becomes aware of who Peter is as whole person.
Stacey: In keeping with our Freshman Fifteens theme, what did you eat too much of freshman year of college?
Anna: I was a freshman at Whittier College (I transferred after one year to Long Beach State) and they had a cereal bar at every meal. So I’d pretty much eat a bowl of cereal with every meal as dessert. We would even sometimes grab the huge bag out of the bin and take it back to our dorm room. Fruit Loops, Captain Crunch. bunch of hard sugar-coated goodness that would rip up the inside of my mouth. But I loved it anyway.
Stacey: Thank you so much for chatting Anna! Go Whittier (my hometown)! LEARNING NOT TO DROWN is available now from Atheneum Books.
Anna Shinoda was raised in a mountain town so small it lacked a stoplight. She used to escape into the high branches of trees to read and dream stories, out of reach from her own family skeleton. Eventually, she climbed down with her debut novel, LEARNING NOT TO DROWN.
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