Going Bovine is Libba’s fourth novel, following the successful A Great and Terrible Beauty, Rebel Angels, and The Sweet Far Thing. This Texas-born minister’s daughter now lives with her husband in New York, where she plays in a band in addition to writing.
I had fun with this interview due to Libba’s sense of humor – I couldn’t bring myself to delete her answers to the questions I didn’t have time to send her. You may notice some similarities to a Duck Chat. I think Sandy’s done a great job of making them emblematic of the Pond, so I asked permission to use some of her questions. But on to the interview! (After all, you’re here for that, not my babbling.)
L: Based on your blog and involvement in the all-YA-author band TIGER BEAT, music is fairly important to you. What songs do you associate with Going Bovine? Does music help you write or do you need a quieter environment?
LB: I’m a stone-cold music freak. A music nerd. A musicaholic. I love everything about it. And yes, music really helps me write. I make an iPod playlist for every project, and part of the writing process for me is trying to figure out what songs set the mood for the book. I’ll add and delete songs as I go along and get a better sense of what’s what.
For Going Bovine, I picked songs for Cameron’s life before he’s diagnosed and songs for the journey/quest he takes after his diagnosis. So, in the beginning, there’s Add It Up/The Violent Femmes (the ultimate adolescent angst rant) and Pompeii AM Gotterdammerung/The Flaming Lips, which gives me a sense of existential loneliness, of trying to outrun your demons. Later on, there are funny-weird songs, like Mama Told Me Not to Come/Three Dog Night. There are thoughtful songs: Pink Moon/Nick Drake and Trouble/Ray LaMontagne. There are songs that impart a sense of impending doom, like Klaus Nomi’s version of Purcell’s The Cold Song.
The last song on the playlist is Joy/Apollo 100. Isn’t that where we’d all like to end up? (Not necessarily in a discofied version of Bach but Joy for sure.)
L: What is sure to distract you from sitting down and working/writing?
LB: Being at home. I really need to get out to another space so I won’t see the laundry, hear the phone, check the refrigerator for food distractions. If I write from home, I need the company of other writers to help me focus.
LB: Hmmm. I think I’d probably be the least qualified person to answer that as the writer. That’s really more of a reader/critical question, and if I’m in that head space, I’m not in a creative head space, you know? What I will say is that there are more obvious allusions in Going Bovine—Don Quixote, Norse mythology, Greek mythology, Ovid. But yeah. I’ll have to let others answer that.
L: Your popular Gemma Doyle trilogy is a paranormal period piece. Going Bovine is contemporary and satirical. You’ve published short stories in different kinds of anthologies, from 21 Proms to Vacations from Hell. Clearly you’re comfortable switching genres. Is there one you find easiest to write? Hardest? What themes do you feel unite your works?
LB: Wow. Great question. I do love to switch genres. My husband (literary agent, Barry Goldblatt) once asked all of his clients whose career path they admired and I said, “Johnny Depp.” I love that he can just disappear into characters as far-ranging as Ed Wood and Edward Scissorhands, Sweeney Todd and Captain Jack Sparrow. I want to play in a big sandbox with all the toys. J Humor is probably the easiest thing for me to write, but a particular voice in humor—sardonic, surreal, absurdist. The hardest thing for me is linear thought. I am total stream-of-consciousness, often to my detriment. I like to weave in lots of plot strands but considering that I can’t even take an organized trip to the grocery store, this is a challenge. Plot takes a lot of work. A LOT of work. Argh.
As for uniting themes, I’d say most of the characters I write about are outsiders in some way. They’re loners who long to belong, to be a part of the world, but who secretly suspect that they will not be able to. They are afraid of their own messy human vulnerability.
Any resemblance to the author is purely coincidental.
L: What genres would you like to explore in the future? Do you think you’ll write a non-YA title in the future?
LB: I’d like to explore everything: Mystery, romance, horror, Haiku performance art in Pig Latin. Screenwriting. Playwriting. Everything. I really love writing YA. There is one adult novella I’ve been kicking around for about ten years. I hope to finish it before the next ten years are up. And at some point, I really would like to write another play. I love theatre.
L: Do you ever argue with your characters while you’re writing? Who usually wins?
LB: Oh yeah. And they flip me the bird and say, “Screw you. We’re doing it this way. And you know what? It’s going to take even longer to write this book because of it! Ha!”
L: If you could retire any question and never, ever have it asked again, what would it be? Feel free to answer it.
LB: Q: Where do your ideas come from?
A: I stole them from the last person who asked. And then I lay him/her in a shallow grave deep in the forest where no human ever goes. But that was a long time ago, and I’m in need of new ideas. By the way, did you tell anyone you were meeting me here today?
L: I’ve heard writers often say their stories take them in surprising directions, or dialogue flows from some unknown place. Is it the same with you? Do your characters surprise you sometimes?
LB: Oh, absolutely. The whole process surprises me. I’m always amazed by people who seem to be The Book Whisperers and who can prove to their books that they are the Alpha Writer who will be obeyed. For me, writing a book is more like a relationship between two strong-willed people. You each have illusions about the other, about how this thing is going to go, and at some point, you’re going to have those illusions challenged: One day, your loved one tells you he’s quit his job so the two of you can take an RV across America. And you think, “Are you insane? Wait, I didn’t sign up for this. This was supposed to involve a Craftsman bungalow and children who learn Chinese as a second language. Let’s stick to the plan.”
And he says, “Yes, but I don’t think you really want that. And neither do I. I think there’s something profound waiting for us out there.” He pats the side of the RV, and you feel slightly panicked. “Let me get this straight: You want me to abandon the plan we had and take a crazy, who-know-where ride in THAT? It says ‘Love Machine’ on the side in bubble letters, for Christ’s sakes! And who is that person in the clown suit? He scares me. We’ll probably need shots.” And your loved one offers you his hand and says, “Trust me.”
The temptation is to cut and run. To refuse his open hand and say, “No. We are not doing this,” and try to change the person into an accountant with a steady paycheck who works well on paper. But if I resist that temptation, if I allow the person to be who he is, if I have some trust and take the ride, he’ll probably show me who I really am, too.
I just try to be really open, to remove the blocks as they come up—and they do come up. They say that there should be conflict in your writing. I also think there should be conflict between you and the book. That you should feel a little scared by the book you’re writing. Otherwise, it’s probably not worth a damn.
L: I love the title Going Bovine. Was it your title, Random House’s marketing department, or some other source? Were any other titles considered?
LB: That one’s all mine. It’s funny with titles. It seems like they either spring from your head fully formed or you kill yourself trying to come up with them. That one sprang fully formed. Thank you, universe.
L: What has been your favorite book cover from all of your releases and why?
LB: Going Bovine. Trish Parcell Watts, who has done all of my covers, is fabulous, and I think she outdid herself with this one. I mean, she found an anxious-looking cow! How inspired is that? I think it does a terrific job of describing the book with minimal fanfare. Trish is so talented. I’m lucky to know her.
LB: My least favorite cover was the first cover concept for Rebel Angels. That first concept was a little slicker and magazine spread-ish, and I felt that it didn’t really fit the book. (Authors don’t get cover approval, by the way.) But we all sort of came to the conclusion that the cover wasn’t exactly right and that it needed to look stylistically like a companion to the first book. After much thought and consideration, Random House decided to go with the cover you see now, which was more in fitting with the tone of A Great and Terrible Beauty. Like I said, I think Trish does great work.
L: What’s it like to be part of the New York Young Adult literary scene? It seems like there are a number of close relationships between the authors as well as a variety of events designed to get local teens reading.
LB: You make me sound like I lead a very glamorous life. The truth is, there’s a lot of laundry and early morning soccer matches and wondering what exciting things can be done to dinner.
But yes, there is a wonderful NYC YA scene. Maybe it’s that YA has been so marginalized by the adult writing community and many factions of the mainstream press (Really, if I read one more story that starts off with something along the lines of, “Well, I don’t usually bother reading that crappy, emo YA…” I will scream. Why is that okay? Why is it okay to denigrate an entire area of literature—and be wrong about it? But I digress.) but the young adult writing community tends to be pretty supportive of one another. We attend each other’s events. We publicize each other’s events and retweet those good reviews. I feel quite lucky to be part of such a great group of human beings, not to mention great writers.
David Levithan really should get a lot of credit for fostering these close relationships in the New York community. He’s the one who organized YA Author Drink Night once a month. And this year, he started the NYC Teen Festival, which was a success and will start up again next year. Sometimes, we writers get together to work; sometimes we get together to hang out and eat guacamole and watch movies and kvetch.
L: Which of your narrators do you empathize most with? Who from your non-POV characters?
LB: Whomever I’m writing at the time. J
With my non-POV characters, I can relate to some of Gonzo’s little phobias and to Dulcie’s free-spirited delight in simple things and the Gorgon’s attempt to accept what is and Mrs. Nighwing’s desire to do the right thing. I’m glad I got to spend a fair amount of time with all of them.
L: Question about novel
LB: Answer about novel.
L: Question about novel
LB: Witty and profound answer about novel.
L: Question about novel
LB: Slightly contentious answer about novel with a smart, rhetorical question at the end.
L: What advice would you give to your younger self?
LB: Wear sunscreen. Also, seat belts. And don’t quit piano lessons.
L: 10 seconds on your blog (or a viewing of your book trailer) reveals a wild sense of humor. What were your biggest comedic influences? Do you ever worry about jokes falling flat or do you just blurt them out before you have time to overthink it?
LB: Sadly, I often blurt things out before I have a chance to think about them. It might explain my limited social pool.
My biggest comedic influence, hands down, was Monty Python. That just shaped my whole world. Also, National Lampoon magazine (especially the writing of Doug Kenney and P.J. O’Rourke), Saturday Night Live, The Carol Burnett Show, Douglas Adams, Kurt Vonnegut, Tom Robbins, Woody Allen, my parents, Mel Brooks, bands like The Tubes, movies like Harold & Maude, Spinal Tap, and The Graduate, drag queens, The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
Really, it explains so much about me. Like the uncomfortable laughter at my dinner parties.
L: If you were a book, what would your blurb be?
LB: “Libba Bray, the novel, is a wild, rollicking ride of odd quirks, strange delights, and quiet insights with an edgy punk beat you can dance to. But beneath the book’s gimlet-eyed quips and Absurdist humor lies a surprisingly tender heart concerned with the fragile beauty of trying to be fully human in an often inhumane world.”
L: What would be your “voice’s” tagline?
LB: It’s always the ministers’ daughters you have to watch out for.
L: If you had never become an author, what do you think you would be doing right now?
LB: I’d be a bitter alcoholic. Or dead.
– dark or milk chocolate? Milk
– smooth or chunky peanut butter? – Chunky
– heels or flats? Converse. So, flats.
– coffee or tea? Both
– summer or winter? Both
– mountains or beach? Beach
– mustard or mayonnaise? Mustard. (Mayo. Eww.)
– flowers or candy? Candy flowers.
– pockets or purse? Pockets.
– Pepsi or Coke? Coke.
– ebook or print? PRINT!
And just because:
1. What is your favorite word? Redemption. Also, wow. I say “wow” a lot, I realize.
2. What is your least favorite word? I’m a writer. I don’t have any least favorite words.
3. What turns you on creatively, spiritually or emotionally? Everything. And music twice.
4. What turns you off creatively, spiritually or emotionally? Mediocrity. And my own tendency toward artistic self-flagellation.
5. What sound or noise do you love? My son’s laughter
6. What sound or noise do you hate? Vomiting.
7. What is your favorite curse word? Motherfucker. (I’m smiling just typing it.)
8. What profession other than your own would you like to attempt? Musician or humanitarian aid worker.
9. What profession would you not like to do? Submarine commander (claustrophobia)
10. If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates? Great to see you again.
Thanks for visiting the Pond, Libba!