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Friday, May 7, 2010

My Interview with Robin Brande; author of Evolution, Me & Other Freaks of Nature

Evolution, Me & Other Freaks of Nature, is a YA novel I just finished reading by author Robin Brande.

First of all, dips on one of the best titles out there and let me tell you, the book is just as refreshing.

High school student Mena Reece has done the right thing all her life, so why is she now the official outcast of her peers. As a member of a popular Christian church group, she stood up for a boy in school who was being bullied. Now, no one in her church, including her parents, is speaking to her. Mena is alone and thrown into understanding who she is. In the meantime, she discovers her passion for science, develops a friendship (and crush) with a boy named Casey (someone she normally wouldn’t have associated with) and searches her heart to understand who she is and what she really believes in. I guess you could say Mena experiences her own evolution.

There is something enlightening about witnessing someone growing up. In a sense, I relived my own coming of age. Plus, Mena’s crush is sweet and innocent and the boy she falls for is just what she needs. I’m cheering for her the entire time.

As an almost 40-year old reading this YA novel, I also appreciate Mena’s relationship with her parents, who are horrible. It reminded when I was younger and my friends had parents who were ridiculously strict. It’s so unnecessary and in Mena’s case, painful to experience with her. On the other extreme, Casey’s mom is an artistic intellectual angel who gives Casey a ton of freedom. Mena struggles to understand why her parent’s don’t trust her and why they place such high expectations on a girl who’s already accomplishing so much. I grew up with parents like Casey’s; parents who trusted me and let me suffer consequences of my own choices. They laughed with me when I was happy and didn’t judge me when I made mistakes. I hope to raise my kids the same way. I don’t have time to micromanage their every move. I let them express themselves with very few limitations and I hope they benefit from this “hands-off” approach.

Robin, thank you so much for taking the time to share with us.

"Before I answer any questions, can I just say how much I love your parents? And love the kind of parent you want to be? Hurray! Very happy about that.

Okay, on to business:"

When you first started writing about Mena, what similarities did you recognize between you and her?

“I grew up in a church very much like Mena’s. My parents weren’t as strict as hers were, but they certainly had their moments. And I, like Mena, was kicked out of my church right before high school, although it was for an entirely different—and very bizarre—reason. But that’s a whole other story.

Why are Mena’s parents so threatened by her independence?

“Great question! I think it’s tough for a lot of parents to see their children start thinking for themselves. Add to that the fact that Mena’s choice ended up publically humiliating them and threatening their business. Plus Mena didn’t discuss her actions with them ahead of time, which made them feel like she’d been secretive. The truth is, I don’t think Mena even considered talking to them about it or asking permission—she just acted from her heart and did what she felt was the honest, “Christian” thing to do.”

How did your own writing evolve as you developed Mena’s character?

“Writing this book was such an interesting process for me. It originally started out as something completely different—a sad, fairly depressing book involving the survivors of a school shooting. Yeah. That was going to be my vehicle for talking about survival of the fittest and some of the biblical themes I wanted to explore in the book.

And every day as I got further into writing the story, I procrastinated more and more because I just couldn’t face it. I’m generally a very happy, optimistic person, and so I have no idea how I started down that other road with this book in the first place.

Then in the midst of all that, my dog died. So I was now SUPER depressed. Certainly couldn’t face writing a depressing book every day. So I put it aside for two weeks, knowing we were going on a vacation soon. I spent those two weeks doing nothing but watching Lord of the Rings—every DVD, all the special features, everything. (So now you understand why Casey in the book knows so much about LOTR.)

During that vacation, two things happened: We bought a new puppy from a family with two teenage boys, named Casey and Connor (which is why Mena’s lab partner is named Casey Connor). As Casey turned over the puppy to me, he did the thing that Casey does at the end of the novel—the thing that led to the thing (no spoilers here). And in that instant, I knew that if I were a teenage girl, I would totally fall in love with that guy. So right there I saw a new direction for the novel.

Second, I had a conversation with the woman who has been my best friend since high school (who, by the way, is the model for the best friend Amanda in my second novel, Fat Cat). I was telling her how I was stuck with the novel, it just wasn’t working for me, and she scolded me: “Why aren’t you writing funny books? You’re funny—why won’t you finally embrace that?” And so that sort of woke me up.

So I came home from vacation, scrapped that entire other novel, and completely started over with this one. And boy, am I happy about that!”

What personal research did you do to understand the science of evolution?

“I started out by reading as much of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species as I could get through without feeling like my brain was under water. Finally after a few months of reading that and several other very complex science textbooks, I got the bright idea that it would be easier to just go back to high school. So I found a freshman biology teacher who would let me sit in on her class for a month during her section on evolution. It ended up being a brilliant way of doing both the science research and also getting a close-up view of day-to-day life in a high school classroom these days. Ever since then, any time I’m researching a new book I always put myself back in high school for several days, sitting in on the relevant classes, being a shadow in the halls, generally spying on the audience I’m writing for. It’s proven to be an essential part of my preparation for every book—plus it’s fun!”

The symbolism of evolution is very personal in Mena’s story. How can this process of evolution help us in our own lives?

“If I had to pick a common theme in all of my books, it’s personal transformation. I love and believe in the idea that we can all—always, no matter what age—take what we are in this moment and imagine ourselves a little (or a lot) better. I love the idea of constantly working to smooth out the rough spots in ourselves, of learning to finally let go of grudges and prejudices and old hurts. I plan on always being a work in progress, and so I love writing about characters who are undergoing their own evolution.

Plus—and maybe this will sound strange, but—I always feel like I learn so much from my own characters. I put them through so many of the problems I had to deal with in my teen years and/or might still be dealing with now, and I usually find that they do a lot better at handling their lives than I did and do at times. So it’s valuable to me to play out the “what if” of a scenario, and see how I might still do things better.”

What is your favorite compliment(s) you’ve received since writing Evolution, Me & Other Freaks of Nature. In other words, take a moment to brag.

“One very large compliment is that the producer and Academy Award-winning screenwriter of the film Brokeback Mountain, Diana Ossana, has optioned Evolution for film. I greatly respect her work, and I’m thrilled to see what she will do with my story.

I was also deeply honored that the Michigan Library Association chose Evolution as the best teen novel last year. That was a big deal to me. I appreciate all the awards and accolades Evolution has received—and I’ve loved each and every fan letter! It’s hard to choose, because they’re all so wonderful.”

How long did it take you to write Evolution, Me & Other Freaks of Nature? What was the editing process like?

“Once I realized the book could be—had to be—funny and romantic and thoughtful instead of dark and depressing and thoughtful, the whole story came to me very quickly and easily. It probably took about five weeks to write the first draft. I sent it out to my trusted first readers, made a few changes based on their suggestions, then sent it to my agent.

And even though Evolution was the sixth book I’d written, so far none of the earlier ones had sold. But this time my agent sent out the manuscript on a Friday, and by the following Monday we had four competing offers. So it just showed me that when the book is right, when the time is right, when the topic is right and I’ve written it in a way that feels right to me—then it can all come together very quickly.”

What’s your evolution when writing a novel? Do you know where it’s going when you start it or does it take on life with each new page?

“Oh, how I love this process. I pick a topic I’m curious about—lately it’s been quantum physics and string theory—and then I give myself several months to completely immerse myself in research. I shamelessly read all day long, watch movies about the topic, spend hours on the Internet watching videos of scientists talking about their topic—until I feel like I have a decent base knowledge that I can work from. And while I’m doing all that, I’m also very gently thinking about the kind of girl who will tell this story for me. I say “very gently” because I don’t like to put pressure on myself to come up with characters. I like them to have their own lives that I discover bit by bit.

Then I work backwards. I figure out when I want to be finished with the book, and then give myself about eight weeks to get it all done. I write from early in the morning until late at night every single day until I have a first draft. This usually takes about 5-6 weeks. I send it out to my first readers, who are always really good about reading quickly and giving me immediate feedback. Then I make the changes that seem right, and send off the manuscript to my editor and my agent. Then I take about a month off to go do something outdoors—backpacking or skiing or whatever—while I wait for my completely depleted brain to refill itself. Then I start doing research for my next book!”

Mena’s sense of humor is endearing. How do you think her personality relates to the young adult audience?

“Thank you for saying that! My characters’ personalities and senses of humor are born of my own need to be amused and entertained as write the novel day after day. If it’s not fun for me, I assume it’s not going to be fun for anyone else. So I write the kinds of people I’d love to hang out with in real life. I love to think that readers of my books feel the same way about those characters.

And by the way, there are plenty of other authors out there whose books make me wish so badly that I could be friends with their characters in real life. I love it when someone’s book makes me feel that way. I’ll start by being friends with Harry Potter and his friends, please.”

Writing advice? What works for you?

“Here’s my advice: Read a LOT. Read everything you’re interested in. Don’t worry whether it’s the “right” stuff to read. Who cares? Whether you love sports articles or comic books or romance novels or science fiction—or, in my case, tales of survival in extreme wilderness situations (that’s a whole other discussion)—read to your heart’s content. There are so many excellent writers out there, and we call all learn to be better at our craft by seeing how others do it. So indulge yourself. You can never read enough.

Second, write every day. Write something. Write in your journal, write a post for your blog, write a thousand words of your novel—but make it a habit and stick with it. Even when I’m not actively working on a book, I always write three pages of long-hand journal every day, both to see what I’m thinking and to make sure I always feel comfortable writing like myself. Writing is like any other skill or sport—we need to keep our muscles and our minds limber. Plus writing every day takes the pressure off always writing perfectly and beautifully. How well most of us know that pressure!”

Robin, Thank you again. My Dear Trash is giving away a signed copy of Evolution, Me & Other Freaks of Nature. Become a follower, leave a comment below and you'll be entered to win. Winner announced Monday, May 10th.


  1. Thanks for sharing this interview. It's a great peek at the novel and at the writing process.
    Terry Deighton

  2. Loved your interview! What fun to read and the book sounds intriguing. Would love to win it! :0)