Today’s guest is author Meg Mitchell Moore. Her critically acclaimed debut novel, The Arrivals, was just released in paperback. And her highly-anticipated second book, So Far Away, about the lives of a wayward teenager and a lonely archivist that are unexpectedly joined through the discovery of an old diary, will be released May 29th.
More about So Far Away:
Thirteen-year-old Natalie Gallagher is trying to escape: from her parents’ ugly divorce, and from the vicious cyber-bullying of her former best friend. She discovers a dusty old diary in her family’s basement and is inspired to unlock its secrets.
Kathleen Lynch, an archivist at the Massachusetts State Archives, has her own painful secrets: she’s a widow estranged from her only daughter. Natalie’s research brings her to Kathleen, who in Natalie sees traces of the daughter she has lost.
What could the life of an Irish immigrant domestic servant from the 1920s teach them both? In the pages of the diary, they will learn that their fears and frustrations are timeless.
We’re so glad Meg’s with us today to share her insights on why and how she decided to write about the topic of cyber-bullying in So Far Away.
The Social Network
When an author includes in a fictional work a current social issue, he or she faces certain challenges and responsibilities. I thought Anita Shreve did a admirable job of meeting these challenges in the novel Testimony, which depicts the fallout from a sex scandal involving teenagers at a New England boarding school. So too did Helen Schulman in last year’s This Beautiful Life, which examines one family’s deterioration following a sexting incident. I recently spent some time thinking about these books and wondering why and how they worked, and I decided that it was because the books themselves didn’t serve as comments or judgments on videotaped teenage sex or sexting; they used these very particular and very modern issues to explore universal human experiences and reactions.
I was thinking about these books because my second novel, So Far Away, has a teenage cyberbullying victim as one of its three main characters, and a few recent interviewers have asked me about how and why I chose to write about the topic.
The why is pretty simple.
When I first pulled together the plan for the novel I knew my 13-year-old character was struggling with something, but at first it was merely her parents’ separation. I really wanted to up the stakes for her, and cyberbullying was and is so much in the news that I started thinking about how terrifying a cyberbullying experience would be for an already fragile young girl. The more I read about the topic, the more I knew I wanted to explore those fears.
The how is a bit more complex, and ultimately it involved trading in my novelist’s cap for a journalist’s cap (long unused, but still hanging in the mental closet). Many outside sources were invaluable to me during the writing of the book—they included a wonderful employee at the Massachusetts Archives, the curator of my local historical society, a couple of doctor friends, and my cyberbullying expert, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and a co-founder of the Cyberbullying Research Center. I found him through a Google search and approached him the way I used to approach sources in my journalism days, with a mixture of hope, trepidation and awe at people’s ability to master at a topic I knew little about.
This kind and patient person allowed me to interview him several times by phone and tirelessly answered my followup emails. He offered me a few scenarios that a teenage victim of cyberbullying might encounter. He helped me figure out how adults in this girl’s world might react—both correctly and incorrectly—to bullying incidents, and what the fallout might be.
Once I had the facts, I switched back to the novelist cap, and this is where, of course, some of the most important work happened. Though cyberbullying is a crucial element of the book, it is not the only element. And even if it had been, I didn’t want the novel to read like a journalist’s treatise on the topic. I didn’t want to judge my 13-year-old character or any of the adults around her. I wanted their fears, thoughts and actions to speak for themselves, and I wanted them to fit into the overall narrative, which included two other main characters with seemingly unconnected storylines.
Then—and here’s the most important part—I didn’t let myself be finished when I thought I was finished. I went right back to my cyberbullying expert and asked him (a very busy man, involved in his own teaching and writing and family life) to read a close-to-final draft of the book and give me an honest assessment of where I’d gone right and wrong. He did it! And I will be forever grateful.
In preparing for this post I looked back through my inbox to see when I first contacted my expert. Tomorrow it will be exactly two years since my initial email to him. (I don’t know if that detail is truly telling or not but it seems significant to me.) And so, two years later, I am indebted by people’s willingness to share what they know with random authors they’ve never met. I am humbled by the responsibility I feel to treat an issue as important as cyberbullying with honesty and care. And I’m grateful to the authors who have shown me how to do it right.