In her raw and eye-opening debut novel, A List of Cages, author Robin Roe draws from her real-life work of counseling and mentoring at-risk teens to craft this heart-wrenching tale. BookPage contacted Roe to discuss her new book and how even the smallest of kind gestures can save someone’s life.
The bio on your website mentions that you’ve counseled adolescents in Boston and run a mentoring program in Dallas for at-risk teens. How have these experiences changed who you are, and how has writing about it here helped? Also, how did all this shape Julian’s character?
My experiences in working with children and adolescents through the years have had a huge impact on who I am. They’ve taught me about resilience. They’ve taught me to notice when someone needs help. They’ve taught me to have hope. A List of Cages is essentially about the relationship between two boys: Julian (who’s being abused) and Adam (who cares about Julian and wants to help him). I’ve lived both sides of this, so it felt very natural to write their story.
While reading, there were a number of times I got misty-eyed when seeing what happened to Julian. And even though, to me, the way you told the story felt almost matter-of-fact—like journal entries that were later assembled into a novel—it also felt so coldly real. What was your writing process like for this book? And since this is your first novel, how is it different from other writing you’ve done?
Writing A List of Cages felt like eavesdropping on someone’s thoughts. Julian and Adam’s story came to me in a flood of ideas, and I wrote 70,000 words in the first month. I spent a year editing what I’d written, then another year working up the courage to send it out to agents. The level of intensity and passion I felt while writing Cages was something I’d never experienced before.
Throughout the novel, you unfold your tale from the alternating perspectives of Julian and Adam. How did splitting the narrative between the central characters alter your telling of the story? What did these dual voices enable you to do or say that you couldn’t have otherwise?
Writing in alternating perspectives felt very natural for me in this novel, and it’s hard to imagine the book any other way. I believe we get a clearer understanding of who Adam and Julian are when we see them through each other’s eyes.
Through your other characters, you describe Adam as a big brother and friend to all, with “a smile that could light up an entire room.” But why had it become Adam’s responsibility to help or save everyone else? Had his friends and family all asked too much of him, and had he sacrificed too much of himself in the process?
Adam is a caretaker who does his best to support the people in his life, whether they’re his friends, family or even his teachers. It’s not his responsibility to save anyone, but he has such a huge heart that he does whatever is in his power to do. At times, this might be to his own detriment.
There’s a line in your novel that Julian repeats again and again, that “people don’t mean to hurt other people, they’re just unhappy themselves.” To a certain point, I can believe this, but when it comes to extreme levels of child abuse, the line has already been trampled on and crossed. Why does Julian try to justify Russell’s actions with this mantra?
Julian does this, in part, because he sees the world through a very compassionate lens. He forgives things most wouldn’t because he understands people lash out when they’re hurting. But Julian also sees the world through the eyes of an abused child. Russell is his sole caretaker, so Julian is completely dependent on him. Like many kids in Julian’s situation, he doesn’t know that he’s being victimized, and instead believes what’s happening to him is justified.
So many of the authority figures in the story seem blind to the troubles that these young people face. Adam’s mom is too overprotective, Julian’s well-meaning counselor is unable to get him to open up, and other adults are uncaring or even damaging. In this situation, why are there so few adults for Adam and Julian to turn to? Why do these kids seem to be on their own?
Adam grew up with a loving mother who advocates for him. He has a lot of self-worth and has developed positive relationships with adults. Julian, on the other hand, like many children who’ve experienced abuse, has learned not to trust people. There are adults he could turn to, but he doesn’t know how to elicit their help or how to respond when one shows him kindness. Adam also has adults he could confide in, but he’s afraid of making Julian’s situation even worse.
If I could give your novel a subtitle, it would undoubtedly be A Lesson in Empathy, as you show how deeply one person who truly cares can affect someone else’s life. So often we’re too busy dealing with our own “lists of cages” to care about anyone else other than ourselves. What do you hope readers will take away from this book?
I hope readers realize they have immense power—in their own lives and in the lives of others. It’s human to get consumed by our problems at times. If we’re really struggling, we have to trust that there are kind people out there, and be willing to accept their help when it’s offered. Then once we come up for air, we can be that savior for someone else.
Justin Barisich is a freelancer, satirist, poet and performer living in Atlanta. More of his writing can be found at littlewritingman.com.