Interview with Alexis Coe, Author of Alice + Freda Forever

I’d like to say that I got to sit down with Alexis in a lovely little diner somewhere, drinking coffee as we chatted about vicarious menstruation and murder, but alas, I only got to email her my bizarre questions, but the answers are fabulous, and I appreciate her being a good sport about my admitted weirdness. Here we go!Alice+FredaForever_9781936976607 Alexis Coe_Alice and Freda Forever_1Julie: One of my favorite details in Alice + Freda Forever was that Sarah Bernhardt was trying to get an opera written about the couple–I think that would have been amazing.  Do you think your book might spawn a movie which will then become a musical which will then become a movie musical? And who would you cast as Alice and Freda? 

Alexis: I like this question so much—you clearly read the endnotes! Fortunately, my literary agent is at William Morris Endeavor in New York, and their LA office is handling the creative rights, so we might just see AFF the movie->musical->movie musical. I’ve only seen one of her movies (“Hanna”), but I can see Saoirse Ronan playing a wild-eyed Alice. I’ve got no idea who would play Freda, but I imagine she’d be very pretty and flirtatious. I’ve been on a serious “Good Wife” kick, so I picture Julianna Margulies as Alice’s mother, Isabella Mitchell.

Julie: I’m now fascinated by vicarious menstruation and erotomania. Are there any other esoteric and/or antiquated diseases that you are particularly interested in?

Alexis: This is going to seem morbid, in addition to writing a book that opens with a gruesome murder, but when I worked at the NYPL I spent way too long perusing a log book about causes of death in the 1820s. That’s where I was first introduced to “bad blood,” which is syphilis, and the many ways people died by horses hooves. They were most often kicked in the face, but children crossing the street were trampled by buggies, too. Memphis had a series of Yellow Fever outbreaks that devastated the city, and there were reports of “black vomit,” which was vomiting old black blood.

Julie: The story of Alice and Freda has been compared to the Parker-Hulme case in New Zealand (upon which Heavenly Creatures was based). What do you make of these comparisons? Are they apt?

Alexis: Although Alice was never tried for murder, I can see how the Mitchell-Ward case reminds some readers of the Parker-Hulme case. In both instances, media coverage was sensational, and same-sex love was linked to insanity. Issues of morality were at the forefront. But from there, I think their stories and lives were quite different.

Julie: As a librarian I love how well-researched your book is, with great citations and list of sources. Once you’ve researched a topic, how do you transition into writing the narrative so its engaging to readers while still adhering to the facts?

Alexis: Thank you! That’s high praise from a librarian. I write a very dry first draft in order to lay a solid foundation. It could probably pass for a graduate thesis, and is by far the most agonizing part. I then rewrite as often as I can. If I take a break to walk my dog, I think about what I’m writing, where I’ve been and where I need to go. I worry. I get upset. I laugh. I get angry. That’s when I know the historical actors have become real people to me, and that shows in the writing. If I’ve got a lot of time, which almost never happens, I’ll try to take a few days away from the project. That’s the ultimate luxury.

Julie: I loved Alice + Freda Forever so much, I’m already curious about what your next book might be. As a farmer’s daughter I’m hoping it might come from one of your Modern Farmer articles. Can you tell us anything about possible future books?

Alexis: You’re so kind! I know what you mean. When I finish articles, I often think, this should be a book! People need to know about this! Alas, saying that and starting the process of researching is quite different. There have been a lot of ideas that I thought about often, bemoaning how little time I had to explore them, and then, when I finally do, they never get past the first day of research. As far as the next book, I’ve been researching an economist who had been blacklisted by McCarthy, but then AFF came out, and it has taken up all my time since October 7th. I’m still the Toast’s history columnist, so you can find me there, and check out my Author Facebook page or twitter for the latest. By the time this goes up, Vice may have posted a personal essay I wrote about AFF.

Thanks, Alexis! When that essay goes live, I will link to it here.

scoundrels, swag, and sweeping exits.

This post contains a bit o’ profanity, so consider yourself warned.

I’m not going to lie to you, I don’t know that much about Chicago, even though I’ve lived here since 2004 and I’ve lived in Illinois all my life. I was fully planning on doing some INTENSE RESEARCH regarding Barry’s questions, but time got away from me and I did the best I could with information from my own widdle brain.

For his last question, however, I figured I call upon someone who knows a lot more about Chicago than I do, and in a nice  bit of congruity, this person is also a YA author who will also be at the event of Saturday. Promotions all around! Huzzah!

So I tossed Barry’s final question (“Is it true that Chicago was settled by New Yorkers who liked congestion and overcrowding, but thought it wasn’t cold enough?”) to author Adam Selzer, whose history credentials include running Weird Chicago tours and publishing a book called The Smart Aleck’s Guide to American History (dude also has more websites than anyone else I know).

So, without further ado, here is Adam’s smart-aleck-y yet entirely factual answer for Barry:

The “New Yorkers who thought it wasn’t cold enough” joke is an old one. Our early settlers were a whole string of murderers, brawlers, liars, and assorted ne’er-do-wells. Among them:

Jean Du Sable – first non-Indian to get settle here. He came up from Haiti, and a theory right now is that he was a pirate on the run from the law.

Jean LaLime, who moved in DuSable’s house when Du Sable left (allegedly after getting pissed off that the Potowatomie wouldn’t make him chief).

John Kinzie, who killed Jean LaLime, moved into his house, and buried the body in the front yard (right around the Tribune tower – they accidentally dug him up several decades later and gave the bones to the historical society, who must have been thrilled). He claimed to be the Founder of Chicago and was thought of as such for years, though he was full of shit.

David Kennison – died in the 1850s claiming to be 115 years old and the last survivor of the Boston Tea Party, and was one of Chicago’s first local heroes (despite being, well, completely full of shit).

So, you could say we were founded by a bunch of loudmouths, liars and no-goodniks who somehow came together to found one of the greatest cities in history. And they’re still at it – Kinzie and Kennison were buried in what is now Lincoln Park, their bodies were left there when the cemetery was moved, and are probably still showing up on voting rolls in local elections.

My last question for Barry was if he was planning future awesome swag give-aways for his books, since I loved the Kyra minimates that he used as a promotional material for the release of Goth Girl Rising:

I’m glad you liked the Kyra minimates. That toy was a blast to put together. With any luck, there will be some cool promotional stuff for the graphic novel, but that’s not coming out until fall 2011, so it’s way too early to talk about at this point.

I’m imagining laser guns and a pony with face markings like a villain’s mask. I hope I’m right!

Even though the questions have all been answered, we’re not done yet! I’ll be stalking authors attending the event on Saturday, so that will be the button on this lil series of chats with Barry. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading them as much as I’ve enjoyed putting them together.

the king abides.

During my cyberstalking researching of Barry for this interview, I learned that he is a fan of Stephen King, especially the Dark Tower series. I, too, am a fan of the Dark Tower series, although I do think King lost it a bit when he wrote and released the final books in quick succession following his car accident. I will forgive Stephen, however, because that is what one does; he is the Jeff Bridges of horror fiction, and the King abides.

The thing about the Dark Tower books, though, is that it isn’t simply a 7 book series. There are related short stories scattered hither and yon, and characters from many King books make an appearance in or are referenced to in the Tower books (although King never brought back the characters from The Eyes of the Dragon in the big way that I was hoping, and I still cry about that sometimes–oh, Steve, why must you make a librarian cry?).

Barry is doing something similar with his Brookdale novels, albeit on a much smaller scale, but the effect is the same. By having a common location, and a time frame that overlaps, we are reminded that stories do not take place in a vacuum, and that even though most of the time we are caught up in our own little dramas, everyone around us has their own dramas as well, and events make an impact. The introduction to the short story “Her Decade” has the most information about Barry’s Brookdale world, if you’re interested.

Enough of my blathering on; how English major of me. Here’s the original question:

I read that King’s Dark Tower series is one of your favorite extended pieces of fiction. You’re sort of creating your own King-like universe by using Brookdale as a setting and having characters from different novels and short stories pop up in different places. Was this a conscious decision, and do you think your Brookdale will ever reach King-esque proportions? Do you think some day someone will write a Barry Lyga/Brookdale concordance?

Barry’s answer:

I think mentioning my work in the same breath as King’s Dark Tower is a stretch, to be honest with you. He’s working on a whole different kind of canvas than I am, at least with respect to the complexity and diversity of the Dark Tower stories. Honestly, with Brookdale I was reaching more for Faulkner* and Yoknapatawpha County, with the idea of stories that stand apart, but are interlinked in the backstory. And, God, I just realized how unremittingly arrogant it sounds to compare myself to Faulkner! I’m not saying I think I’m as good as he is –just that he sort of inspired the move to connect the stories. Well, that and comic books, of course. Just about everything I do probably connects to comic books in some way, shape or form, whether I realize it or not.

As to the proportions Brookdale will reach… I don’t know. It’s strange to think about because I have some other things I’m branching out into right now, new universes to play in, so Brookdale is sort of off to the side temporarily. There are at least a half dozen other books set in Brookdale knocking around in my head, though, so once I have the time to write them, we’ll see how much broader that particular world becomes. I never know these things until they actually show up on the page.

And hey — if someone wants to do a Brookdale concordance, I’d be tickled!

I say give Barry ten years, and there will more than likely be a demand for a concordance.

We’re reaching the end, friends. I think all that’s left is one more Chicago question from Barry to be answered…and then he will actually be in Chicago, if I haven’t soured him on the idea entirely. Just don’t try to park anywhere and you’ll be fine, Mr. Lyga.

*I haven’t read as much Faulkner as I should, so I was only dimly aware of this Faulkner world of related characters/incidents. I read As I Lay Dying in college, though, and my professor, Rich Martin, told us a great story about how the first time he read As I Lay Dying, when he got to the chapter that consisted of the sentence “My mother is a fish,” he threw the book across the room and didn’t pick it up again for a week. I’d love to write something–anything–that would cause the reader to forcefully fling the book across the room. The power! bwa ha ha….

play-ing, with friends

Let’s get down to it, kids. I’ve been posting these Barry Lyga interview installments at a much slower pace than I’d like, because At&t is made of fail and I haven’t had internet access at home since the end of January, so I’ve been trying to steal time to work on the blog whenever possible. But we’re here, together, at the moment, so let’s enjoy it, shall we?

[Barry, y]our story “Her Decade” reminded me of the play “Rabbit Hole” by David Lindsay-Abaire (similar plot points of kid kills someone while driving drunk, runs into the family). Which made me think: what would a play by Barry Lyga be like? Would you ever write a play, or would you ever like to see one of your novels adapted for the stage? Maybe Fanboy and Goth Girl: The Musical.

I actually started writing a play in college. It was a one-man show, inspired in some ways by The Canterbury Tales and the Decameron. The idea was it was a guy trapped in an asylum, telling himself stories as a way of trying to stay sane. I never finished it, but now that you’ve brought it up, maybe I will!

Fanboy and Goth Girl: The Musical is one of those ideas that’s so wrong, it just might be right. I can’t imagine how that would work, but I would love to see someone try.

Any time I think of this question, I get the Batman tv show theme song stuck in my head, except I substitute “Goth Girl” for “Batman.” Not really a promising start to a musical, but stranger things have happened. I mean, have you seen some of the musicals getting produced these days?

Anyway…. on to the collaboration question:

Since you’re friends with David Levithan, do you think you’ll ever follow in the steps of Rachel Cohn and John Green* and write a collaborative work with him? How do you feel about collaboration in general, since typically writing is often seen as a rather solitary profession?

David and I have actually joked about this in the past. In a way, we ARE collaborating right now because he’s the editor on ARCHVILLAIN. Collaboration sounds like an amazing experience to me, but I have some pretty serious control freak tendencies, so I sort of fear for the sanity of anyone who collaborates with me. I’m actually collaborating on my first graphic novel right now, but that’s different because I can’t draw to save my life, so I have no choice but to cede complete control over the artwork to the amazing, wondrous Colleen Doran.

But, yeah, I’d like to take a crack at collaborating with another author some day. It’ll probably just take a while for me to get to that point. Plus, I’m pretty busy right now — I don’t really have the time anyway!

Barry’s not kidding about being busy part. In addition to Archvillain and the graphic novel, Barry is working on a project called I Hunt Killers, about a boy who is working on solving murders by making use of a “killer instinct” he’s inherited from his serial killer father.  Doesn’t that sound completely awesome?  Barry’s shown us his ability to handle dark themes a little bit in Hero-Type and Boy Toy, so I’m really looking forward to his handling of this macabre material.

Speaking of macabre, did you know that Barry is a Stephen King fan? In our next installment, you’ll read about that, and I’ll expound on the origins of Chicago. Or, knowing me, I’ll wander completely off topic and you’ll have to send out a search party. We’ll see.

*I can’t wait to get my hands on Will Grayson/Will Grayson. *bounces with excitement to the great annoyance of all around me*

chicago: the cubs, heroes, and playlists

I don’t care much f or sports. I recently watched a football (rugby? It was Brits; I rooted for Liverpool, per the instructions I was given) game, and I greatly enjoyed myself (the pot of tea I had helped with that), but generally I don’t get excited about sports. If I were to call myself a fan of anything, however, I’d call myself a Cubs fan, in honor of my grandmother Theresa who was one (it would be interesting to see how many Cubs fans are fans because of a family history). Since I lack the fervor of a true fan when it came time to answer Barry’s taunt question, “As a lifelong Red Sox fan, are there any words of hope or comfort I can/should proffer to Cubs fans?” I was stumped.

I decided to ask my coworker, Miss Stephanie, who is a fervent Cubs fan, but all she could say was “THE RED SOX GET EVERYTHING.” Then she hid in the back room for a long time. She’s okay now, though. I think.

Then I sat on it for a long time (I began this post on March 4th), until finally, this morning, I remembered Steve Goodman and his two songs about the Cubs, “Go Cubs Go”, and “A Dying Cubs Fan’s Last Request”. What this tells me about Cubs fans is that it is not about winning (although they’d love to) or losing (which they are tired of), it is about the traditions, the experiences, and the communal joy in rooting for a common cause. Which I suppose is true for any fan of any team, really.

So Barry, there are no words you can offer–Cubs fans already have all the words they need, and set to music, no less.

Another of Barry’s questions was, “If a friend was considering moving to Chicago, what would you tell him/her to seal the deal?”

I wish all of my friends lived in Chicago, because wouldn’t that make life easier for me? But if someone was unsure about whether or not to move, I’d tell them all about the thriving theater scene (there’s a theater company for every man, woman and child in the city), the music scene (there’s a ukulele for every 4 people, and an open mic for every 3), and my god the FOOD. Dieters should not come near or reside in Chicago. The deep dish alone will kill you on sight.

Although, since I am a nice Midwestern folk type person (as many Chicagoans are), I would have to warn my friends about the Cook County sales tax (highest in the country, I believe), the insane parking box situation (75 years worth of money mostly GONE), and the WINTER, omg the WINTER (never ending, brutal, and exacerbates existing stupid parking situations).

On a somewhat relate note, the John Prine song “Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You into Heaven Anymore” is a perfect seed song for a playlist to go with Barry’s novel Hero-Type. Anyone have any songs to add?

Still to come….talk of novels turned musicals/plays, and collaboration!


(Villain is a hard word to spell. I keep wanting to put the “i” somewhere else)

Anyway, in this post Barry talks a bit about favorite archvillains, in honor of his new project, Archvillain, a new series he’s writing for middle-grade readers.**

The question I posed was:

One of your upcoming projects is Archvillain, wherein a 12-year-old kid who gets superpowers ends up being a supervillain instead of a superhero, which I think is a great twist. Do you have any favorite super-villains or anti-heroes, either fictional or real?

Barry’s answer:

Well, in terms of supervillains, I would have to say that I always liked Lex Luthor, just because he was the one guy who tried to outthink Superman AND actually had a decent shot at doing it. I also liked the supervillain Darkseid, before he became so egregiously overused. Oh, and Professor Zoom, the Reverse-Flash. The Flash was my favorite super-hero as a kid, so I liked Professor Zoom, who was basically a villain with the same powers who hailed from the future and therefore always had all kinds of futuristic nastiness up his sleeve.

In case you weren’t aware, Barry is a comic book fan, and one of his future projects is actually a graphic novel (and comics and graphic novels are actually somewhat of a trope in his other works, especially the two Fanboy/Gothgirl books).

I’m very Alice-like in that I heartily approve of books with pictures. Not every book needs pictures, of course, but if they are done well they can really add something to the story without a lot of fuss and bother.

In our next installment, there will a discussion of sports fandom and the giving and getting of AWESOME STUFF.

*Which I did in my email to Barry. How embarrassing.

**Since this new character is going to be somewhat of an anti-hero***, I am obligated to suggest that everyone, including Barry, consider reading my favorite anti-hero novel of all time, Arslan by MJ Engh. Imagine if Darth Vader were 100 times more cruel, and took over a small town in Illinois, with a high school as his base for his military exploits. It’s seriously good, and you should read it now, because once you’re done inhabiting its dark, depressing world, the spring will seem twice as sweet to you.

***As an English major (which is a state of mind as much as it is a course of college study), I am obligated to trot out such literary terms on every possible occasion. I can’t wait until I get a reason to use the term LIMINAL SPACE which is my favorite, OMG.

wherein I answer 2 of Barry’s 5 questions.

Barry Lyga has written several books for children and young adults, including The Astonishing Adventures of Fanboy and Gothgirl, Hero-type, and Boy Toy. Barry  is coming to Chicago soon, so I thought I’d welcome him warmly (and satisfy my own curiosity) by answering five questions he had about Chicago and asking him five questions about his writing. As my guest, Barry gets some of his questions answered first:

What is the one thing that I — as a visitor to your city — should be sure to do/experience while in Chicago?

Chicago is a city with something for everyone, so it really depends on what you’re interested in. If you like whackadoodle sculptures with goofy names, you should definitely go to Millenium Park and take a picture of your reflection in the “cloud gate“–what we Chicagoans affectioderisively call “the bean”. I like to think of it as a space fetus/egg, and wait patiently for the day Valentine Michael Smith or some other such space creature will emerge and teach us about love and grokking.

As a writer for children and young adults, you might want to stop by Oz park and loudly sing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” while holding onto one of the sculptures of Oz’s most famous citizens. This will also help you experience and participate in one of Chicago’s oldest and best loved traditions (second only to setting things on fire via farm animal), the public exhibition of weirdness. We have an entire public space dedicated to it, called Bughouse Square; although, really, any place in Chicago is perfect for railing against the guvmint, space aliens, and the eff bee eye.

If you like meat-y type things, you’ll want to get in line at Hot Doug’s to enjoy some delicious encased meats with themed names. If you’re impatient like I am, you might forego the line and go to Super Dawg instead, which makes up in anthropomorphic hot dogs what it lacks in cute, topical names for its food. It also has a slogan, “From the bottom of my pure beef heart,” that makes absolutely no sense, yet it still makes you feel all warm and beefy inside. There’s also Kuma’s Corner, land of the heavy metal burgers. They make you wait in line, too, which I don’t care for; but if you’re the kind of person who can eat hamburgers for breakfast/brunch, you might not have to wait terribly long.

You asked for ONE thing, though (have I mentioned before that I am really, really bad at math?) In that  case, go to the Gallery Cabaret in Bucktown. You’ll get the public weirdness, sculptures & art (there’s a six foot long pencil adorning one wall, as well as a portrait of Ringo Starr made entirely of stars), home-grown music of every genre, and the owner, Kenny, can tell you more tales of historic Chicago than you can shake a stick at (and I don’t suggest shaking a stick at Kenny; he doesn’t suffer fools gladly, unless they tip really, really well).

Yet even with all that rambling, we haven’t even touched upon a quarter of what Chicago has to offer the intrepid explorer. When planning future visits (which you really should, because Chicago is also a hell of a town for writers), I’d suggest using the Not For Tourists guide to Chicago, as well as Walking Chicago, to walk off all of the meat you’ll be indulging in.

Chicago is known for sausage, so I must ask: Links or patties?

See above, and you’ll realize we don’t truck much in those pansy breakfast sausages. We prefer our sausages big and on a bun and buried under many toppings.

In our next installment I’ll post Barry’s response to my comparing him to Stephen King and a [there will be a ] discussion of villains (the bad guys, not the poetry).


On March 13th, Barry Lyga is going to be in the Chicago area as part of LitWorks: A Teen READ Workshop. He’s one of eight ya authors that will spend the day speaking, presenting, and signing books. Since I am very much a fangirl when it comes to Barry’s work, I got up the nerve to ask him if he’d like to answer a few questions leading up to his visit, and in return he could ask me a few about Chicago.

Well, Barry asked me his questions ages ago (in internet time, about a week), and I still haven’t gotten mine together for him. So I kindly ask if you, dear readers, will help me out with my self-imposed assignment?

Here’s the deal– I have five questions to ask Barry. Now, I think I can come up with four on my own, so I need my readers to help me out with the fifth. Go look about Barry’s website, and definitely read his books, and then come back here and leave a question for Barry in the comments. I’ll choose one to add to my four, and that makes….yes…five!

I’d like to have my questions ready by the end of this week, so keep that in mind.