Reading Between the Lines with Jo Knowles by Gary Anderson
Read Between the Lines, Jo’s sixth novel, gives us a son bullied by his father, a girl suddenly ignored by her friends, the embarrassed children of a hoarder, a star athlete hiding his homosexuality, a “chunky” cheerleader, and other compelling characters in a powerful story about the unpredictable ways our lives affect others. Each chapter of Read Between the Lines focuses on a character whose actions and attitudes affect other characters in different chapters. And each chapter includes at least one person flipping a middle finger to somebody else.
I’m happy and grateful that Jo agreed to participate in an email interview about Read Between the Lines.
Can we start with my favorite questions for adults who work with young people? What were you like in high school? Are you still the same in some ways, and how have you changed?
Oh my gosh I am totally cringing just thinking about it right now. I was very quiet and shy, and incredibly insecure. Soooo insecure. I was not very smart when it came to boys (understatement). I was a chronic worrier (sad to say I still am). I wanted to be invisible when I couldn’t be, and often didn’t want to be invisible when I was. Basically, I was kind of a mess. I’m still shy and a bit insecure, and I still worry a lot, but I’m not the scared girl I used to be. I wish I could go back and tell teen me it will all work out.
Every episode in Read Between the Lines has a moment where someone gives the middle finger to somebody else. As the title suggests, that gesture can have many different subtexts. I wonder if since finishing the book you’ve witnessed any new instances of people using their middle fingers to express themselves.
I see it EVERYWHERE now. Teens especially seem to use it as a friendly way to say, “Oh shut up” to their friends. But it’s also in the news in funny ways, too. I actually started a Pinterest page to pin my favorite stories and photos: https://www.pinterest.com/joknowles/read-between-the-lines/
The structure of this book is one of its most appealing aspects. Readers find that the characters’ lives touch or connect to each other in surprising ways. Was that a literary convention for shaping this story, or is that how you see things—that we are all somehow connected?
Oh, we are definitely all connected. You might post something on Facebook like, “Hug a teacher today!” Say 200 people will see it. Those 200 people will all instantly have 200 different associations with the word teacher. Good memories, bad memories. Regrets. Feelings of gratitude. Whatever. But planting the idea of “teacher” in all of those minds could actually change the course of each person’s day. We don’t realize what a big impact even small interactions with each other can have. Eleven years ago, my husband honked the car horn at a man who was about to drive into us. That man gave us the finger. I was upset because we didn’t deserve it. So upset, it soured my day and I couldn’t stop talking about it. The next thing I knew, I started plotting a book about all the different ways we see the middle finger in our daily lives. For the next eleven years, I worked on that book trying to figure out how to tell the story. So you see just one moment in time, a brief interaction with a complete stranger, shaped a significant part of my life for a very long time. And it resulted in a book! You just never know how a dirty look or a smile or a gesture or a word could change a person’s life, and I loved exploring those possibilities while I wrote the book.
What were the challenges and joys of writing a story with so many character threads?
The biggest challenge was keeping everyone’s schedules straight. The book takes place in one day, but all of the characters overlap, so you might read the same scene from two different points of view. Since the characters are different ages, they wouldn’t have the same class schedule, so I had to keep track of where everyone was throughout the day. I actually created class and job schedules for them so I would know where they were at all times.
Much of what we read in Read Between the Lines is each character’s interior thoughts, which seem to be a complex mix of vulnerability, confusion, anger, frustration. But when they speak out loud to other people, it’s frequently more forceful and direct. What do you understand about the language we use to make sense of ourselves to ourselves versus how we present ourselves to others?
Well, this is really the whole point, isn’t it? That none of us on the surface are the same underneath? I could meet two people at the same time and talk with them for ten minutes and then if you asked them to describe me they might give you two completely different interpretations and I would probably be shocked by how off I thought both of them were. I was just talking to some students this week about how we are all carrying some pretty heavy stuff inside, but we don’t show it. I asked them to imagine if everyone knew their secrets, their worries, the stuff they’re dealing with at home. They were all nodding and sort of squirming just thinking about it. But they also started looking at each other differently. It was kind of amazing to watch. Because it dawned on them that if they had secret struggles, most likely everyone else in the room did, too. They instantly saw one another on a deeper, more meaningful level. We learn to wear our invisible armor at such a young age. But what I think we need to learn at an equally young age is that we are ALL wearing it. A little empathy goes such a long way.
You’re a master of evoking the concerns and feelings of today’s adolescents. How do you stay so in touch with this age group?
Thank you so much. You know, I don’t think adolescents and adults are all that different, to be honest. The more time I spend with my fifteen-year-old son and his friends, the more I’m reminded of this. We’re all human. We’re all vulnerable. Sometimes we’re unbearably insecure. Sometimes we’re annoyingly cocky. Maybe we’re insecure and cocky about different things, but the raw feelings and emotions are still pretty much the same, really. I think when writers for young adults stop trying to “think like a teen” and just think like a human, that’s when their characters feel most authentic. That’s when their truest writing comes out.
Teachers comprise an interesting group of characters in Read Between the Lines. Although a couple of them are kind of blustery, we also find that some of the teachers wrestle with insecurities similar to those of their students. Can you say anything about how teachers’ lives and students’ lives reflect each other?
I suppose this reflects a bit on what I’ve already said, about all of us being human. It doesn’t matter what job we’re in, we’re all still struggling to get through each day. But thinking as a teacher, I feel a huge responsibility to be positive and encouraging. I know what an influence teacher comments can have on a student’s self-esteem. I’ve had teachers who made me feel very small, and I’ve had teachers who gave me the most generous encouragement. If it weren’t for certain teachers I’ve had, I would not be a writer. I try to remind myself of this every time I send students feedback on their writing. In terms of reflection, a student’s “success” (and I supposed I define this as when a student falls in love with writing and revising and doubles their efforts) is my success. We all really fuel one another, don’t we?
A lot of things in Read Between the Lines happen in and around vehicles. There are dream cars, boring cars, a stinky “total mommy car,” a school bus, and several other important cars. What have you noticed about the role of cars in the lives of young people?
This book is a lot about wanting to “escape,” and especially for teens, cars often represent freedom. But the ticket out for each of them is going to require a lot more than simply running (or driving) away. I think the vehicles help to illustrate the deeper level of entrapment each character is feeling. They circle the town but can’t leave, just like they circle around and around in their situations, struggling to find a way to break out.
This question is probably just an English-teacher hallucination, but Read Between the Lines has some Dickensian aspects: mean grown-ups, plot threads that eventually connect meaningfully, a stray dog named after Oliver Twist. There are also shout-outs to The Outsiders and Death of a Salesman. Are you trying to sneak in some book recommendations for your readers?
Me? Try to sneak in book recommendations? Never! You know, if I’m going to be perfectly honest these references really did just come naturally to me as I developed the stories. Books I read in high school influenced my life in such huge ways, so it just seems realistic to have them influence my characters, too.
The acknowledgements page tells about Robin Wasserman’s role in keeping this book on track. I’ve met Robin a couple of times, and she’s a force of nature. Can you tell us about how she affects your life or work?
Haha. I wonder what Robin will think of that description! Robin is one of the first people I told about this crazy idea I had to write a book with connected stories revolving around the middle finger. Every time we met up, which was a few times a year, she would ask me how the book was going, and eventually convinced me to share pieces with her. She is the first person I dared to show any of this too, and one of the people I trust most to be honest with me if something is really terrible. She was so encouraging after reading one story that I decided to try another. And that’s pretty much how it went as I slowly put the book together.
So many of the characters in Read Between the Lines talk about being empty and feeling that they are nothing. At one point Claire tells herself, “Maybe I just need to be able to feel the significance of my own existence.” How can we help young people who feel like their lives are empty?
For one thing, we can treat them as the smart, thoughtful people they are. Talk to them. Ask their opinions. Show them respect. If there is one phrase about teens that drives me nuts it’s: “Today’s teens…” followed by some disparaging generalization about how they “don’t read” or “spend all their time staring at screens.” I live with a teenager. I carpool with teenagers. I watch them struggle with school and relationships and I watch them lift each other up. These kids care deeply about the world and world events. And they have a lot of really great ideas for addressing the problems our world faces. Sure, that teen you see staring at a screen may be scrolling through Instagram, but he might also be reading a link a friend sent to him about [insert the big world news story of the day here]. Want to make a kid feel like her life is less empty? Ask her to share her opinion about something. I guarantee she will have one, and feel like you gave her a voice by asking what it is.
With Read Between the Lines, Jo Knowles continues to build a body of work that approaches the lives of young (and not-so-young) people with empathy, humor, and a sense of drama that keeps her readers eager for more. Her audience knows that Jo Knowles always shows us ways to move beyond mere acceptance of others to the importance of embracing and supporting each other regardless of our differences or how we present ourselves to the world.
Visit Jo Knowles online at www.joknowles.com and follow @JoKnowles on Twitter!
Gary Anderson is an adjunct professor and writing center tutor at Harper College in Palatine, Illinois. He is co-author (with Tony Romano) of Expository Composition: Discovering Your Voice (EMC Publishing). Follow Gary on his blog at What’s Not Wrong? and on Twitter at @AndersonGL.