When her home life is disrupted and Mim Malone is dragged from northern Ohio to the "wastelands" of Mississippi, she writes, "I am a collection of
oddities, a circus of neurons and electrons: my heart is the ringmaster, my soul is the trapeze artist, and the world is my audience. It sounds
strange because it is, and it is, because I am strangeĒ. To say sheís unhappy is a gross understatement, which discredits both her passion and her
talents. Everything is a drama and every day is the best or worst of her life, but Mimís heart, determination, and youth allow us to love her as she
takes her life into her own hands in David Arnoldís debut YA, Mosquitoland.
After the sudden collapse of her family, she ditches her new life along with her father and step mom and hops aboard a Greyhound bus to return to
her real mother. She meets a quirky cast of fellow travelers; she bonds with misfits. Before she gets back to her mother, Mim must redefine her
notions of love, loyalty, and sanity.
"Mosquitoland" is hilarious one moment and heartbreaking the next-just like its teenage heroine. Itís a work of fiction with an honest voice and
adventures that will grab and hold you. Author David Arnold understands Mimís needs and wants, and he captures an adventure many teens would
love-for a while. In the interview below, he shares his views on the process of writing as well as his personal story.
LG: Tell us about yourself and your writing history.
DA: I moved around a bit as a kid, living everywhere from Jackson, Mississippi, to Ashland, Ohio, to Cambridge, England. My family settled down in
Lexington, Kentucky, the summer before I started high school.
I always loved reading and writing, but music was my main thing. Straight out of college, I moved to Nashville with a band, and eventually settled into
freelance composition. From my home studio, I wrote and recorded music for indie films, youth camp videos, even a few commercials. Then my wife
and I found out we were going to have a baby (surprise!), and within an hour it was decided I would be a stay-at-home dad.
As it turns out, you really canít record music while taking care of a newborn. Prior to the baby, Iíd tried my hand at a few short stories, screenplays,
even a few picture books. I joined SCBWI (Society of Childrenís Book Writers and Illustrators). It not only gave me an education in publishing, but an
incredible writer community and some lifelong friends. Over time, I learned what kinds of stories I wanted to tell, and the best way to tell them. So
when music suddenly got tossed out the window, I channeled all my creative energy into writing a novel Iíd been too afraid to start.
LG: Amazing the way a new life can alter everyoneís path. Congratulations! What did you read when you were Mimís age?
DA: At sixteen, I was pretty hyper-focused on songwriting. But when I wasnít playing guitar or writing lyrics, I could probably be found with the latest
Michael Crichton novel, or rereading Lord of the Rings.
LG: Did you ever run away (literally or metaphorically) and how did you determine what details would capture young adult minds?
DA: I never ran away, but like any teen, I certainly thought about it.
Iím not sure how to answer the second part of this question, because while itís a huge privilege to write novels for young adults, it was never really a
conscious choice. I just had this story, with this character, that I needed to tell.
I think any writer who thinks too hard about what their target audience wants-or tries too hard in the telling-is going to write something
LG: Thatís a healthy attitude. Are Mim, Walt, or Beck based on people you know?
DA: Not in the slightest. At times, Mimís voice and my own overlap-and I did use a few settings and towns I was familiar with. But the characters
arenít based on anybody in particular, and certainly, none of the things that happen to them ever happened to me, or anyone I know.
LG: How do you find the details to create each moment so honestly and vibrantly?
DA: I wrote the bulk of Mosquitoland while taking care of my newborn son. There were moments during writing where I would look at him in his bouncy
seat or swing, and say, ďDonít you ever do this.Ē But you have to be honest to your character.
The minute you start writing what someone should do, rather than what they would do, youíve cheated the reader of an authentic experience. For
me, I found some honesty in writing for my son. Because itís pretty easy for me to lie to myself, but itís a lot harder to lie to him.
LG: Thank you for your honest answer. Your son and you are lucky to have each other. How do you pace your work so well?
DA: Oh, pacing is a total mystery for me. Iíve only successfully paced one novel, and at this point, Iím not so sure it wasnít a total fluke.
I have a lot of friends who use plotting techniques, and swear by books like Save the Cat (by Blake Snyder), but Iíve not really found those useful
yet. (Key word: yet.) Beat sheets end up making me feel a little reigned in, or something. Iím not saying those books arenít useful, or that Iíll never
use them myself. Everyoneís experience is different, none more valid than the others.
In my case, I just inundate myself with stories. I read a ton, I watch a lot of good TV-so when Iím writing a story myself, more often than not, I can
sense when Iíve veered. Most writers I know can tell you where their manuscripts feel bogged down by pacing, and I think this comes from our brains
recognizing patterns of story on a subconscious level. Now-how to fix broken pacing? Thatís a different thing altogether.
LG: Can you suggest any techniques for writing simple truths that scratch the surface of philosophical questions?
DA: Stories are complex because people are complex. No one person is wholly good or bad, and pretending otherwise cheats the story.
Part of why I love writing teen characters is because most teens blindly understand this concept. They arenít entrenched in political or socioeconomic
ideals yet, but theyíre smarter and more aware than people give them credit for. This combination allows them to confront human complexity through
a unique lens, at once wise and innocent.
LG: I like that explanation very much. It depicts many of the high school students I worked with very accurately! Where / how did you find Mimís
voice, especially since youíve never been an adolescent girl? (My husby told me it was because you are closer to her age than I am, but is there
DA: In writing, people talk about ďfinding your voiceĒ like itís something you can capture once and for all, but in my experience, this couldnít be further
from the truth.
For me, writing ends up feeling a lot more like acting. I try to inhabit a characterís head and let them tell the story. If you think about it like a field of
wells, finding your voice is like trying to locate the specific well your character is drinking from.
In the first few drafts of Mosquitoland, the protagonist was actually male; I could tell I was close, but I hadnít quite found the right well. Then my
friend and critique partner (Courtney Stevens, author of Faking Normal) suggested I switch the characterís gender, and when I tried it, the whole
thing just opened up. I knew then that Iíd found my characterís well.
LG: Wonderful. You have an exceptional critique partner. What are you working on now and where can we learn more about it?
DA: I have a second young adult novel in the works. Iím not quite ready to share details, but what Iíve been saying is that Iím trying to write a book
the way Arcade Fire performs a song. Their stage presence is just so lively, youthful, reckless, energetic-Iíd love to harness some of that in this next
book. Itís not quite there yet, so weíll see.
LG: I have every reason to believe youíll get there. You can learn more about the author at davidarnoldbooks.com.
Mosquitoland is a wonderful debut novel.
Part of its appeal is that it is a YA (Young Adult novel). Many adults read YA because the emotional honesty comes through so clearly. Adults like
resolution and happy endings, but thereís something about the teen years that calls to many of us.
And why am I pushing YA in this issue? My own YA, Talent, will be released on November 1. Fifteen-and-half-year-old Sandee Mason wants to find her
talent, get her driver's license, and stop living in the shadow of her big brother, Bri, who disappeared while serving in Afghanistan. Itís a good book for
teens, parents, military families, and those who love shows and drama.
Why not pick up two books instead of one? Mosquitoland and Talent are both worth your time. Get Mosquitoland in October and Talent in November.
If you have teens in your life, get copies for them, and consider sharing it with their teachers.
Thank you, David, for sharing your wisdom and letting me tell readers about Talent in your interview. YA is an amazing genre, and I canít wait to read
your next story.