Today I’m excited to welcome Natalie Whipple to the blog for a discussion of her new book, Fish Out of Water!
Fish Out of Water
Author: Natalie Whipple
Publisher: Whipple House (US)/Hot Key Books (UK)
Editor: Jenny Jacoby
Agent: Ginger Clark, Curtis Brown Ltd.
Pub Date: February 2015
Review copy received: Author
Mika is one step away from landing her dream internship at the Monterey Bay Aquarium when the grandmother she never knew arrives on her doorstep. It’s not long until Betty has made herself persona-non-grata, and Mika’s parents realize that they’re all going to have to put their research (and Mika’s internship) on hold to take care of Betty, who has Alzheimer’s.
Meanwhile, Mika’s boss at AnimalZone has hired Dylan to help at the store. With his apathetic attitude towards fish and his general moodiness, Mika is not impressed with the boss’s rich, bad-boy nephew. Slowly, though, Mika sees that there’s more to Dylan than his first-class annoyingness.
In this contemporary YA novel, Mika has to navigate her first real love, shifts in her friendships, and how to love somebody that you barely like.
Betty Arlington can be monstrously offensive to Mika in one moment, and then sweet and friendly to Mika the next. How does Mika’s struggle to build a relationship with Betty parallel your struggle with your own grandmother?
This is a really tough question because my relationship with my late grandmother became very strained and distant after my mid-teens (when she actively tried to convince me to leave the religion I was raised in, which was very uncomfortable for me). While Betty isn’t an exact replica of my grandmother—mine did not have Alzheimer’s, and I never heard her directly say things as cruel as Betty (though I did hear from my parents and got a lot of “softened” insults)—I did take some things personally from my own family dynamics.
The whole book, essentially, was based off of what my father told me happened when he went to see his mother on her deathbed. She essentially told him that she never forgave him for joining the LDS faith, and then she told my uncle that she never approved of his Filipino wife. And while I knew this, it was just so incredibly sad to me that these were some of the last things she chose to say to her children. When something impacts me that deeply, it usually ends up in my writing.
Because, see, at the same time that I knew these terrible things about my grandma, I also knew she was kind. She had a way of making people feel welcome when she wanted to, and she was a great conversationalist with a wonderful laugh. She worked hard for years to help provide for her family. She was faithful and passionate and had an amazing sense of humor.
And, well, I loved her. It was hard for me to understand how I could both dislike and love someone, and how that person could be both kind and cruel to me. That’s why the book is dedicated to her.
I really wanted to show that muddiness in humanity, I guess. How we have this amazing capacity for love and cruelty at the same time, and also a big capacity to accept both facets of a person.
Mika occasionally gives Betty a pass because, “She’s just a crazy old lady who doesn’t know what she’s saying” (69). These passes come at a personal price, though, as it’s not like Mika can unhear what’s been said. And when she finally speaks out about intolerance, it’s not to Betty. Why do you think some of us are so reluctant to address issues of racism or bigotry in our own families?
It’s just plain tough to tell anyone they are being racist. When I moved to Utah (from the Bay Area), I actually did try to do this! There were boys telling awful Mexican jokes in class, and I told them they were being racist. I mean, I had lived my whole life in the Bay Area and grown up in very diverse communities—I was taught this was not okay. What happened? I was the one who got bullied! Those boys were awful to me after that for years just because I stood up for something that was right. I wish families were different from strangers, but well…
I very intentionally gave Betty Alzheimer’s, because I knew it would be easier for some readers to take a “crazy old lady” than a person who was considered sane and still saying the things she says. We want so badly to pretend this doesn’t happen anymore, but I have seen it in my lifetime and I have even seen it in my young children’s age groups. So I guess this was my way of giving the topic one degree of distance from my own reality with my sane-but-still-racist grandmother.
As for reluctance in a family, I honestly don’t have a good answer. I’m not even sure it’s reluctance so much as, perhaps, ignorance. I was taught how to be respectful because of a few factors—I actually lived in a diverse community as a child, and, while I don’t look it, I am Maori. My mother’s mother immigrated from New Zealand and we have a very rich Polynesian culture from her. But in families that don’t have these kinds of factors…it’s just very easy to keep on keeping on, to not even talk about it because, as a white person, you really don’t have to.
After Mika defends herself against London, Mika notes that London’s mother told London to stop, “though it seems half-hearted” (265). It reminds the reader not only that prejudice is learned from parents and peers, but also implies that for London’s mother, certain ideas are okay to believe but not okay to say in public. How do we avoid teaching this more subtle, but just as damaging, form of prejudice?
Oh, this is a juicy question! Actually, this scene is toned down from the original. The first draft had London’s mother being much more cruel and okay with her daughter’s statements, and—get this—I got accused by some crit partners of making the white, rich people in my book too mean. Because not all white rich people are that rude. And I was stereotyping them. This was very hard for me to take. These kinds of crits made me realize how deep racism can run subconsciously, because my very kind crit partners were, somehow, sympathizing with my antagonist who was white and mean over my protagonist who was half-Japanese and being insulted.
That was a surreal and disheartening moment for me. And a huge lesson and reminder for me to check my own privilege. It was also the moment I knew this book wouldn’t sell as easily as I thought it would, because my MC, by virtue of just not being white, would receive less sympathy.
So yeah, the scene got altered so that London’s mother is more subtle in her prejudices. What’s interesting is that some people read the scene like you, in that they believe Mika’s assessment that London’s mother is “half-hearted” in her chiding. And other people actually read it that Mika is being too judgmental of London’s mother who is trying to do the right thing. It very much depends on the point of view of the reader, what they end up taking away from this scene (or this book, really).
I’m not sure we can avoid some of these more subtle things sinking into us, but I think it’s very important that when we’re made aware of it that we stop, check ourselves, and do better. Even growing up in a pretty accepting household, there were things I mislearned and had to correct. We just need to be humble and willing to learn and acknowledge our faults.
I’ll be honest, I had so many conflicting feelings when Pavan was kicked out for bringing home a non-Indian girl. My first thought was, “That doesn’t still happen – it’s 2015!” And then I realized what an incredibly privileged feeling that was, particularly given the events of these last few months. What would you say to readers who might also have that reaction?
It IS tough to believe this actually still happens, but it does. It seriously does. Not just in Indian families but in many cultures. And it is just as sad and heartbreaking as it ever was. I introduced this dynamic with Pavan and Shreya’s family because I wanted to show a few things—that prejudice isn’t just in US culture but a worldwide struggle, that it IS still happening today, and sometimes things just don’t turn out perfectly when it happens.
To people who might not think it’s believable, I guess all I can say is that it happened, in a less extreme way, to my father’s family. There has been a divide between those my grandmother didn’t approve of and those she did. I myself have been told if I married outside my race my kids wouldn’t look like me, that I’d be “sinning,” that I’d get divorced because we just wouldn’t understand each other (and I’m just 31). I hope very much that it happens a lot less than it used to, but it certainly still happens.
There’s been a conversation in children’s literature about whether authors that are in a majority should or can accurately write characters that are in the minority, be it race, gender, class, sexuality, health status, etc. How do you approach writing characters with a different background than your own?
This is where it gets tricky, because in the US we base so much of what we assume about a person’s background by what we see. But the thing is…I’m part Maori. And I’m the whitest person in my family. I am the only blonde (before I went red, heh). I am the palest. I’m the only one of my siblings who hasn’t married a Polynesian. I grew up in a household strongly influenced by our Maori and Kiwi roots, but because I look white I’m not really allowed to claim my race. This is called “white-passing.”
On top of that, I have social anxiety (which I am medicated for), and I am part of a religion many people view in a very negative light. I’m also, well, female. So while no one would guess that I am familiar with minority struggles, I do feel like I have a lot to pull from. When you’re white-passing, you’re painfully, horribly aware of your privilege because you see the way you’re treated in comparison to someone from your very same background who looks “the part.” You hate it. And you feel like there is a part of your culture you can never claim, never speak up about, because people either don’t believe you, accuse you of trying to be something you’re not, or just push you out.
For example, even though I love and support and know the people behind We Need Diverse Books, I’ve really struggled with even pointing out that some of my books have POC characters. I certainly cannot get myself to point out that, technically, I’m a POC writer—because I don’t look it and have not been discriminated against in the same way. So would I be included or accused of trying to take advantage? That’s my whole life in a nutshell when it comes to my heritage. Even now I feel embarrassed just for pointing this out. I didn’t apply for college identifying my culture because someone said I just wanted scholarships. I have gotten laughed at and called a liar when I mention my Maori side. I’ve been told by other Polynesian people that I don’t belong. This is all stuff that’s shaped who I am.
So yes, I do feel like I have some familiarity with the topics I tackle in all my novels with POC characters. And where I don’t know something, I learn and research and ask. That’s really the best thing you can do. Before I submitted this book, I asked a friend who was from this culture to read and flag anything I might have gotten wrong, just to be extra sure. No one is perfect—and every POC experience is as individual as all human experience—so there will always be criticism. But I would rather have that than not write diversely at all.
Why was it important for you to write this particular book now?
As I mentioned before, it was my way of coming to terms with my own family struggles. In all honesty, I thought I was writing a pretty mainstream YA Contemporary Romance. HA. It wasn’t until I got my first crits and saw the responses to the topics I tackle that I realized it was a lot more than that.
Honestly, I didn’t write about Mika to try and send any huge message. I didn’t set out to write a book about racism. I wanted to write about this girl who happens to be Japanese-American and falls in love and learns to love despite hard things…who really faces “normal” stuff that many POC have faced in their lives. They seem huge to white people, I think, but as I was writing it just was part of Mika’s daily life to face some “casual” racism and some not-so “casual.” It doesn’t encompass all of Mika’s life, and she doesn’t sit around pondering about it constantly. Mostly she lets it roll off her back unless it’s really horrible. This was realistic to me, and I try to write as authentically as I can.
Fish Out Of Water is published by Hot Key Books in the UK, and independently here in the US, making it a ‘hybrid book’ of sorts. How did this change the editing, distribution and marketing process?
It’s been very interesting! I am so pleased Hot Key wanted this book, and they have adored it as much as me. It was very reassuring to know they thought I did a great job with this book and believed it was important, because at the same time I was on submission in the US getting rejection after rejection. Ultimately it became clear this wasn’t a book that traditional publishers wanted to take on in the States, so I had a couple choices—sell US rights to Hot Key or use my indie imprint to publish it on my own.
I chose to go indie because Hot Key doesn’t have a strong distribution network in the US. I learned this from my 2nd book with them (BLINDSIDED), which also didn’t sell to a US publisher. Between that book and now, I had gone indie for another project I couldn’t sell (RELAX, I’M A NINJA), so I knew that I could provide better distribution myself in the US than Hot Key could. Not that my distribution is as strong as a traditional publisher, but it was a happy medium considering my options.
It really didn’t change much of the editing process. Hot Key edited the novel, and that meant I didn’t have to pay for that on the indie side (which is one of the biggest expenses). I did have to design and pay for a new cover, and I’ve had to also work with my lovely agent instead of going completely alone (she did sell the UK rights and I believed she deserved her cut of US sales as well).
As far as marketing, honestly, I haven’t been able to garner much. Both because of money and time. I never have received much marketing in trad pub or indie, so I don’t think it’s been that different overall.
Finally, is there anything you’d like to share that I haven’t thought to ask?
I guess just that, if anyone reading this interview does read FISH OUT OF WATER, I hope you enjoy it! It’s been a very interesting book for me to get feedback on, because I’ve found in many ways that, instead of the feedback reflecting me, it tells me a lot about the people who read about Mika and her life. It’s made me really grateful, because I keep learning something new every time I talk to someone who has read it. This is a story of my heart, with many pieces of me throughout, and I just feel really lucky that I get to share it at all.
Thank you for stopping by, Natalie!
Natalie Whipple grew up in the Bay Area and relocated to Utah for high school, which was quite the culture shock for her anime-loving teen self. But the Rocky Mountains eventually won her over, and she stuck around to earn her degree in English linguistics at BYU, with a minor in editing. Natalie still lives in Utah with her husband and three kids, and keeps the local Asian market in business with all her attempts to cook.
She is the author of the TRANSPARENT series, HOUSE OF IVY & SORROW, the I’M A NINJA series, and FISH OUT OF WATER (Feb 5th, 2015 [UK], Feb 10th [US]). In addition to that, she is on the writing team for the cRPG Torment: Tides of Numenera that should be out sometime in 2015.
More about Multicultural Children’s Book Day…
The mission of Multicultural Children’s Book Day is to raise awareness for kid’s books that celebrate diversity, and to get more of these books into classrooms and libraries. The co-creators are Mia Wenjen from Pragmatic Mom and Valarie Budayr from Jump Into a Book/Audrey Press. You can also find the list of co-hosts here.
MCCBD is also collaborating with Children’s Book Council to highlight wonderful diversity books and authors on an ongoing basis all year.
Multicultural Children’s Book Day 2015 sponsors include Platinum Sponsors: Wisdom Tales Press, Daybreak Press Global Bookshop, Gold Sponsors: Satya House, MulticulturalKids.com, Author Stephen Hodges and the Magic Poof, Silver Sponsors: Junior Library Guild, Capstone Publishing, Lee and Low Books, The Omnibus Publishing, Bronze Sponsors: Double Dutch Dolls, Bliss Group Books, Author Richa Jha, Rainbow Books, Author Felicia Capers, Chronicle Books, Muslim Writers Publishing, East West Discovery Press.