David Arnold makes his YA debut with Mosquitoland, the tale of a teen runaway on a 947-mile journey to find her mother. It all begins on a Greyhound bus, but dangers big and small make Mim’s journey treacherous and transformative. “I am Mary Iris Malone,” our heroine says, “and I am not okay.” Through letters to a character named Isabel, as well as through clever, authentic narration, she reveals the confusion, pain and heartwrenching vulnerabilities that spurred this epic journey.
What inspired you to write this book?
If I had to point to one single inspiration, it would be the moment my wife and I found out we were going to have a baby. Until that point, I’d been working on a few other manuscripts, but there was no sense of urgency behind them, and the work suffered for it. Once I learned I would be a father, I threw caution to the wind and decided to tackle this idea I’d had that didn’t feel particularly safe, and that turned out to be Mosquitoland. But that’s the thing about writing: I think sometimes we have to be confronted with one fear in order to face another.
How did you tap into this impeccably teenage voice?
Voice is a funny thing. In writing, people constantly talk about “finding your voice,” but what they don’t tell you is that you have to find it over and over and over again. I’m not sure how to answer this question except to say that for me, writing often feels a lot more like acting. I try to get in my character’s head, and once I do, it’s more about letting them tell their own story.
How did your musical background and growing up in the South influence this book?
I did spend quite a few years of my childhood in Jackson, Mississippi, but we also lived in northern Ohio and central Kentucky and Nashville, and I also lived in England for a bit when I was in high school. So I’m not sure growing up in the South had any great influence on the book, but certainly moving around a lot did. In its infancy, Mosquitoland was going to be a story about a new kid at school. It was something I was quite familiar with and wanted to explore. But once I realized the key was back in Ohio, I knew I had to get Mim on the road. Even so, I tried to keep this sort of “new kid” mentality throughout the book.
Mosquitoland offers plenty of funny moments, but it addresses some really dark themes, including coping with mental illness. What was the hardest part of this book to write?
Mim can be quite a frustrating character. Certainly, she’s incredibly flawed and makes all manner of questionable decisions throughout the book. At times, this was very difficult. I’d find myself trying to write the things she should do, rather than the things she would do. As a writer—especially one whose primary focus is authentic, character-driven storytelling—I had to fight this urge, be true to who my character was. Because you cannot apply an adult’s wisdom to a teen’s decision and expect it to be believable. I had to let Mim be Mim. And that was no easy task. (Especially for a father!)
What do you think it is about the road-trip narrative that appeals so well to teen readers?
“It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, stepping out your front door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.” Tolkien got it. Because WHO doesn’t want to be Frodo in this scenario? We imagine Bilbo saying these words to us, speaking of mountains and elves and dragons and man: Is it time to go yet? I won’t speak for other readers, but I think part of why I’m so drawn to a journey story is because it’s an outward display of every character’s inward struggle: How do I get from here to there? You could set an entire book in one room, and that question still holds true.
If you could sit next to anyone (real or fictional) for a 1,000-mile bus ride, who would you choose?
I’m going to cheat and give you three: Elliott Smith, Aaron Sorkin and Samwise Gamgee.
What’s one thing that you, as an adult, wish you could tell Mim?
It’s going to be okay.
What has been your favorite part about publishing your first book?
The community. I’ve made some of my very best friends through this process—the writing and the publishing. I couldn’t be more grateful for my book people.
What are you working on next?
I have a few things going on, but the main project is another standalone YA novel, tentatively set for release in late 2016.