Jon Little

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Part romance, part thriller, and wholly intriguing, Anat Deracine’s Driving by Starlight is an engaging chronicle of a razor-sharp witted girl coming of age in Saudi Arabia. With a knack for the small, telling details, Deracine reveals the contours of daily life in Saudi Arabia—and the mind-boggling, complex web of culture, religion, gender and class that undergird it.

You dedicate Driving by Starlight to “all the girls of Riyadh,” but I understand that many books are still banned in Saudi Arabia. Do you think Driving by Starlight will ever be read in Riyadh?
Banning books only increases their readership. When I was living in Saudi Arabia, I smuggled in books and magazines without their covers, wrapped in dirty laundry and buried at the bottom of the suitcase. My friends did, too. I believe that water will find a way, and that people who love this story will find a way to share it. I hope, especially as the government finally lifts the ban on women driving this June, more people will read Driving by Starlight and feel less alone.

Like your protagonist Leena, you were raised in Saudi Arabia and then moved away. How much of Leena’s story is inspired by events from your own life?
While some of the characters in Driving by Starlight are inspired by my own friends and acquaintances, Leena’s story is very different from mine. I wish I’d had her foresight and her courage when I was her age. But the story is definitely inspired by people and events in my life. That scene where Daria kicks a dent in a metal desk out of frustration? That was me. The scene at Al-Kharj where the girls dressed up underneath their abayas? That was us. Also, that prank with the food coloring and the Vaseline? Sorry to say that was real.

Do you still visit Saudi Arabia, and if so, what is the experience of returning home like? Would you ever move back?
At the moment, I’m not allowed back. While Saudi Arabia is planning to open up some tourist visas eventually, I am pretty sure those will not be available to women traveling alone. Still, I don’t think I’d ever go back. I’ve grown used to my freedom now and wouldn’t be able to fit in anymore. Whenever I miss the desert, I travel as close as I can. I went to Jordan recently and it was incredible. Something about being at the mercy of that landscape always leaves me both humbled and energized.

Did you choose to publish Driving by Starlight under an alias because of the political situation in Saudi Arabia, or is there some other reason for, or significance behind, your pen name?
Deracine in the French means "uprooted." I chose to write under a pen name for a variety of reasons, the political situation in Saudi Arabia among them. Activists get arrested and charged as traitors. There were other considerations as well, like uniqueness and findability. (My real name is both common and frequently misspelled.) I consider myself a citizen of the world, having lived for years in many countries. At this time in history, when there is so much hyper-focus on identity as being defined by national boundaries, it was important to me to take on an identity that was more global. To be uprooted from one’s native homeland or society can also be a blessing. To be deracine can also mean to be free of the expectations rooted in a single culture.

We hear much about fundamentalist religion in Saudi Arabia, but your protagonist shows us an alternative approach. Did you feel it was important to expose Western readers to different branches of Islam?
Honestly, that didn’t occur to me! I wrote about people I’ve known, the beliefs they had, the struggles they went through in reconciling what they were told to believe with what their hearts and minds told them to be true. I’ve studied religion and philosophy pretty deeply, so I know that even in the smallest of sects there is often a division of belief. What’s happened in Saudi Arabia is that the conservative religious imams have substituted unity of practice instead, as if everyone appearing to believe the same thing is what matters. But conformity is not the same thing as community.

For readers who know little about Saudi Arabia, Driving by Starlight is sure to be truly revelatory. Is there one thing about Saudi Arabia, or Saudi Arabian people, that you hope readers take away from your book?
It’s very easy to turn anger and pain into a weapon against others, instead of using those emotions as a catalyst for structural change. It’s also easy to consider this a gender war, men against women, when in fact women can perpetuate some of the problems because they’re afraid of change, while many men find themselves frustrated by the same laws and cultural norms that oppress women. In some ways, the current conversations in Western feminism are leaving these people behind, because people from the Middle East can be ostracized for not being progressive enough. In Driving by Starlight, I wanted to make sure people saw the full picture in all its complexity, saw these people and the hard choices they make more clearly. In your review of Driving by Starlight, you mentioned that alongside the desperation there was hope and joy. If nothing else, I hope people remember that.

Leena is such an engaging character, is there a sequel in the works, or are you turning to a new project?
Both? My writing process usually involves more than one project at a time. I would love to write a sequel. I have so many questions, and early readers have reached out to me with their own. Will Mishail really be content in her secondary role? Will Leena come to love Faraz, or will she be destroyed by jealousy watching him go to Qaraouine? Will Sofia finally become a writer? What happens to Leena’s mother? So I guess the answer is, insh’allah?


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of Driving by Starlight

Part romance, part thriller, and wholly intriguing, Anat Deracine’s Driving by Starlight is an engaging chronicle of a razor-sharp witted girl coming of age in Saudi Arabia. With a knack for the small, telling details, Deracine reveals the contours of daily life in Saudi Arabia—and the mind-bogglingly complex web of culture, religion, gender and class that undergird it.

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The Size of the Truth is Andrew Smith’s first foray into middle grade fiction. The Michael L. Printz honoree’s latest madcap tale follows Sam Abernathy, a claustrophobic eighth grader who bridles against the stifling expectations of his parents, the identity his small-town has foisted on him, and his reemerging memories of the three days spent at the bottom of an abandoned well taking counsel from a wise and acerbic talking armadillo. Eccentric and entertaining, The Size of the Truth is for anyone who’s ever felt boxed in. We caught up with Smith to talk about forging your own path, the power of humor and more.

Sam, the protagonist in The Size of the Truth, is trapped. As a young child he was physically trapped, having fallen down an abandoned well, and now he finds himself trapped in a more existential sense—trapped by his parents’ and town’s expectations of what he is or should be. Did anything make you feel trapped when you were young?
One of the issues I tend to obsessively examine in my books is the idea of boxing (not the fighting kind) and labeling—and how external constraints and expectations on young people produce so much anxiety and unhappiness. The good news—and this may be purely anecdotal, coming from someone who’s spent the majority of his life working with kids on a daily basis—is that things are loosening up and getting better for kids, but the labelers and box-makers among us still have a lot of progress to make. I came from a very strict, regimented family, and my parents definitely started grooming me at a very young age for the future they had in mind for me. I bought into it, I suppose, until I was about 14, but after that, I was determined to go my own way. They were against my idea of becoming a writer, but that was all I really wanted to do from about that age on, so I just did it.

And how did you break free from others’ expectations of you and blaze your own path?
Or was he pushed? I don’t think I broke free so much as grew up on the outside of everything. Like Sam, I was much younger than my classmates, having been put ahead in school (which I thought was a terrific idea for about one school week). So I never fit in, and I think my peers’ expectation was that I would always be an outcast. There were no other paths but the one I had for myself, and I had no sense of what succeeding at what I desired to do would look or feel like.

I really loved Bartleby, the talking armadillo who provides Sam with words of wisdom. Did you have someone like Bartleby in your life growing up? If so, what did you learn from him or her?
First of all, I would love to have a talking armadillo, but I’d want him to be nicer than Bartleby. And I suppose the closest thing I had to him would have been a few of my favorite teachers: Miss Haines (she taught history in middle school); Mrs. Veith, who taught geometry in high school; and my favorite, Mrs. Beaubien, my high school English teacher. Mrs. Beaubien was one of those teachers who every kid was terrified of. She was brutally demanding and an impossibly hard grader, but she gave me a love for literature and writing.

Both Sam and James want to pursue careers that, to a degree, challenge stereotypes of masculinity. What made you want to focus on issues of masculinity and gender in this book?
I’ll be totally honest here—I never thought about gender roles and gender conformity when I was writing the book. I mean, James does mention the pressure society often imposes on boys who dance, but what I mostly wanted to examine and have readers question is the idea of success and the prescriptive future that so many parents construct around their children. Sam’s parents and James’s father have already mapped out for their sons what being successful and fulfilled in their futures will look like, without ever really considering what those things mean to Sam and James. As a high school teacher for going on 30 years, this is one of my biggest frustrations today. In narrowing down the fates of our children, I also see a constriction of opportunities to build a happier future for society and the world as a whole. As I often tell my kids, you only get so many trips around the sun—do you really want to spend them doing something that makes you unhappy?

Your books are, in my view, zany, off-the-wall and consistently hilarious. What draws you toward the humorous and the absurd?
Humor is the best way to challenge accepted notions of certain status-quo practices and ideas without instantly drawing dividing lines and creating enemies. And I think nearly everything has tipped toward the absurd, especially in the past few years, so we may as well just ride that wave and see where we end up, right?

Why do non-traditional characters and themes play such a large role in your writing?
Whenever I begin a new project, I like to challenge myself to come up with something that won’t be like anything else that’s out there, so I try to explore story elements and sometimes technical components of storytelling that defy the conventional. And since I like to have fun doing what I do, humor is always going to be there—even in some of my most serious work.

What’s up next for you? Do you have more middle grade books lined up, or are you back to YA?
I’m currently finishing (I swear I’m almost finished) another middle grade novel about Sam Abernathy. Then I have the young adult novel Exile From Eden, the sequel to Grasshopper Jungle, coming out in September. And I’ve also been working on a graphic novel with my illustrator friend Matt Faulkner called Once There Were Birds, which we’ve been collaborating on for more than a few trips around the sun now. I don’t envy the amount of work for Matt—illustrating is really hard! I drew the illustrations for Exile From Eden and doing it gave me panic attacks. After that? Who knows? I’m going to write some poetry for National Poetry Month in April, and one of these days I’m sure I’ll finish this adult novel that I’ve been kicking around, too.


Autho photograph © Kaija Bosket

Award-winning author Andrew Smith talks about his debut middle grade novel, The Size of the Truth.

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