Author Interview: Rebecca Coleman

I’m pleased to have author Rebecca Coleman here to talk about her book The Kingdom of Childhood.

Rebecca Coleman received her B.A. in English literature from the University of Maryland at College Park and speaks to writers’ groups on the subjects of creative writing and publishing. A native New Yorker, she now lives and works near Washington, D.C.

-taken from Goodreads 

The Kingdom of Childhood is about a middle-aged teacher and a sixteen-year-old boy who have an exciting but consuming affair. I know there are people out there who will read the synopsis and think, “why would I want to read about something like that?” When I read the synopsis, I was intrigued because I tend to like reading about the taboo. Still, I have to ask, what inspired you to write about this particular subject?

I suppose it was a similar question to yours– “why would anyone DO something like that?!”. I was folding laundry one morning while watching the news, and they aired a story about an affair between a female teacher and a very young man. I have four kids, and I’m sure my reaction was the same as any mother’s– disgust, incomprehension– but we do see these stories crop up very often. It occurred to me that if I could figure out why on earth a woman might do that, when she has everything to lose– why that would seem to her like a reasonable or worthwhile risk– it would probably be a very interesting story.

I’m always fascinated by the work that goes on behind the scenes. What kind of research went into the writing of this book? Particularly, did you do any kind of research on mental illness? Many of Judy’s thoughts and actions bordered on that of the unhinged.

Yes, and I wanted the reader to question whether she had been unhinged all along and just hiding it fairly well, or whether it was the affair that caused her mind to unravel. Many of us have had the experience of being in a failing relationship and wanting so much to hold it together, and to stop the other person from wanting to leave, that we say or do things that we feel embarrassed about later. Judy does that too, but on a very extreme level. For the book I did a lot of research into female sex offenders– reading and listening to their accounts of how they felt at the time they did these things, what motivated them, what was in their background that added to their inability to recognize boundaries. I don’t want to diagnose Judy or any of her family members with any particular illness, but I think she has a lot of narcissistic qualities, and like most narcissists, she can’t perceive that her wants and needs aren’t at the center of the universe. I won’t name names, but I know a few people like that.

I felt much more sympathetic to Zach’s character than Judy’s. I found it impossible to dislike him, while I was never very fond of Judy. Was that your intention? Or do you think Judy deserves a little sympathy?

Well, to put Judy together as a character, I thought a lot about Scarlett O’Hara: she’s not likable at all, she’s completely selfish, and she never learns from the consequences of her behavior, but you still want to read her story because she’s interesting and you kind of love to hate her. I can tell you she does get a little sympathy from me, because I think as a child she was in a vulnerable state of searching for things she never received– some sort of moral compass, a sense of safety and security– and she might have become a very different person if she had received those things. So much of our adult lives are a reaction to our childhoods, either for better or, in Judy’s case, for worse. But even when she isn’t likable at all, I did purposely try to make Zach appealing enough that you’d want to see how he comes out of this whole fiasco. He was the character I identified with.

According to the law, Judy raped Zach because of his age. I never felt like Zach was being victimized. Maybe he was being manipulated toward the end of the affair, but I felt like he chose to take part in it. He’s an intelligent boy so it’s hard for me to say “he was too young to know what he was doing.” Did you intend for him to be a victim, or did he just make bad choices because of what he was dealing with at home?

Part of the “point” I was making with Zach is that he’s very complicit in the affair, he certainly pursues it, but he’s too young to understand the repercussions of it upfront or to perceive how hard it will be to extract himself from a relationship with someone who is in a position of power. He’s an American kid, and in our society we teach kids that they’re children until they’re 18 and they’re subject to our protection up until then, and also that they’re under the authority of adults until then. So Zach is still coming from that place in his mind: that Judy is an authority, that he needs to defer to what she wants, and he doesn’t feel empowered to just say no or shrug her off even when he wants to. I can understand why someone would not agree that he’s a victim, but I certainly think he is. Mentally and legally, he’s not in any position to consent. He’s entitled to protection he doesn’t receive.

At one point, Zach calls Judy a nymphomaniac. Did her exposure to the act of sex at such a young age have anything to do with her almost uncontrollable cravings as an adult?

I think that’s more for the reader to determine, but it’s a pretty common thing for children to act out when they see things that traumatize them– they sometimes reenact traumatic scenes with their toys, or if a child sees violence in his family he or she will sometimes become a physical bully at school. A kid who can’t reconcile or process something they’ve seen has a very hard time truly setting it aside. And I think one of the things I was really focused on in this book is the ways in which we, as adults, struggle not to repeat the mistakes we saw our parents make. Your parents are your model for what adults should be like, and so when they were a poor model, it can be very hard to figure out what is the appropriate way for an adult to act.

Most of the book is set in a Waldorf school community. I’ll go ahead and admit that I’d never heard of a Waldorf school before I read this book. Could you give a brief explanation of the philosophies behind the Waldorf schools?

There are a thousand Waldorf schools around the world, and their philosophies center around forming the child’s consciousness in a very conscious way: surrounding them with aesthetic beauty and natural materials, teaching through physical motion (i.e., dance or hands-on activities) and fairy tales, which are believed to have great psychological value. In many ways it’s a very beautiful and thoughtful philosophy, but it’s also very idealistic, and sometimes, in my opinion, idealism and reality can run up against each other in some pretty unattractive ways.

Judy’s scenes as an adult are written in first person. Both Zach’s scenes and Judy’s scenes as a child are written in third person. Why not completely third person or completely first person?

I gave a lot of thought to this as I was writing, because it’s a very unconventional way to write a novel, and the common wisdom is that nobody will ever publish a novel that uses both first and third person points of view. But I decided to go with it anyway because if I tried to write both Zach and Judy in first, his part would come out reading like a young-adult novel. But if I wrote them both in third, then I couldn’t show Judy’s perception of reality and lead the reader to question whether her versions of events are accurate. In writing, in the end you have to do what’s best for the story, not what The Rules say you should do, and I felt this was the best way to tell it.

Thanks so much for answering my questions.

My pleasure!

To learn more about Rebecca and her book, please visit her website.

Read my review of The Kingdom of Childhood.

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    Some of the books reviewed on this blog were sent to me by the author or publisher for review. I did not receive any payment in exchange for the review nor was I obligated to write a positive one. All opinions expressed here are entirely my own and may not necessarily agree with those of the author, the book's publisher and publicist or the readers of these reviews. This disclosure is in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 255, Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.
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