Monday, September 26, 2011

Her Story: Rebecca Coleman

I knew I had to meet Rebecca after I saw the ad for her novel, The Kingdom of Childhood, in which her publisher, Mira Books, named it "the most controversial book of the year." It guaranteed that Rebecca was a writer who wasn't afraid to take risks, and that's what the publishing industry needs more of these days: writers who create works that challenge readers, not offer more of the literary equivalent of comfort food for readers. Since we're both from the DC-area, it was inevitable that we would meet at a booksigning: in this case, at one of Keith Donohue's events for Centuries of June. Turns out Rebecca is sharp, friendly, brave and yes, pretty feisty and while her characters may be "complicated," Rebecca is a straight-shooter. Kingdom, which publishes on the 27th, already has a lot of people talking and may be able to shed its "controversial" label to become one of the most widely discussed books of the year.

How did you come to writing? Did you start writing shortly after emerging from the womb or did you come to it later in life?

"From birth" is about accurate, yes. I remember at the end of my second-grade year, I brought one of my teachers a picture I had drawn of a bunch of characters from my stories, who I thought about constantly. As a teenager I behaved badly, and my excuse was that I was going to be a writer so I needed to Experience Life. So remember that, kids. You can justify all your juvenile delinquency as long as you get published one day.

Tell us about your book.

"The Kingdom of Childhood" is, on the surface, a story about a middle-aged kindergarten teacher who has an affair with her son's 16-year-old friend. But as the story unfolds, you find it's about a lot of bigger, deeper things, such as our struggle not to repeat our own parents' mistakes, and about power and trust and what happens when those things are violated. It's about how much our childhoods inform who we become as adults, and how hard it can be to find your way when your inner child feels wounded or betrayed. Some people feel it's dark or disturbing, and darn right it's dark and disturbing. But it's not without hope or redemption. I'm a reader as well as a writer, after all. I never want to read a book where at the end I feel like, gee, I want to slash my wrists now. So I wouldn't do that to my own readers.

At what point in the writing process did you think you might give up on it? Were you most inspired? What kept you going through the long dark nights?

All along the way I was determined to write this story, which I felt had great promise, and to get it finished. But at one point I caught an episode of "The Secret Lives of Women" called "Robbing the Cradle," about women who had been convicted of statutory rape or similar crimes with underage boys. And I was absolutely fascinated to listen to them. The women they chose were very self-aware, and admitted they had been manipulative and obsessed and kind of out of their minds-- they could admit that at the time they didn't necessarily understand their own motivations. But they were complicated people. And I like 'complicated'-- I like to explore why you should like and dislike someone simultaneously. A lot of agents and editors don't like it, but I do. So seeing the reality of those women in some respect, and hearing their voices, was very motivating.

What have you read lately that you love and think everyone on the planet should read?

Definitely "The Lonely Polygamist" by Brady Udall. That book broke my heart several times along the way. Now, that's how you know you're reading a hell of a novel-- when you're not sure at some points whether you're going to survive the reading. That author-- I don't know him, but he's got some incredible cojones. Everything in the book is larger than life, in Technicolor, and he pulls it off with style. I suppose that having been Mormon-- and having a relationship with the church that's both critical and affectionate-- I really appreciated the approach he took toward Mormon culture. I found it hilarious and beautiful even as he was ripping my  heart out.

What have you read that, surprisingly, didn’t grab you?

"The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo." I'm the dissenting vote there-- just couldn't get into it, and I really tried. I did name my blog after it, though-- I called it "The Girl With the Milton Tattoo," after this tattoo I have of a wing and a quote from "Paradise Lost." Kind of nutty that I can be a fanatic for a 17th-century epic poem but I can't get through the most popular book in America.

Do you have a “path to publication” story that you’d like to share? Funny agent/editor encounter? Publishing etiquette you didn’t know until you entered the business? Tip for newly published or aspiring writers?

Sure-- to the aspiring writer I'd say, be flexible and friendly and work every day at being better. Believe in your talent but avoid the extremes of egotism or despair. If you're trying to get published, a lot of days you'll feel like the Black Knight in "Monty Python and the Holy Grail," but don't sweat it. It's just a flesh wound.

Rebecca Coleman is the author of The Kingdom of Childhood. She received her B.A. in English from the University of Maryland at College Park and speaks to writers groups on the subjects of creative writing and publishing.


  1. Wonderful interview! I just read The Kingdom of Childhood last weekend and really enjoyed it. Glad that Rebecca agrees regarding the "redeeming value" at the end of a book, too; no one wants to close the last chapter feeling like they epically wasted their time. Her novel was wonderfully written.

  2. Agreed - wonderful interview! What Rebecca says about complicated characters is very thoughtful. I'm looking forward to picking up this book.