Welcome to day four of the Morris Interviews! Today it is my pleasure and privilege to interview Stephanie Oakes, author of The Sacred Lies of Minnow Bly. If you’re unfamiliar with this hard-hitting debut, have a gander at the cover and the blurb below:
The Kevinian cult has taken everything from seventeen-year-old Minnow: twelve years of her life, her family, her ability to trust.
And when she rebelled, they took away her hands, too.
Now their Prophet has been murdered and their camp set aflame, and it’s clear that Minnow knows something—but she’s not talking. As she languishes in juvenile detention, she struggles to un-learn everything she has been taught to believe, adjusting to a life behind bars and recounting the events that led up to her incarceration. But when an FBI detective approaches her about making a deal, Minnow sees she can have the freedom she always dreamed of—if she’s willing to part with the terrible secrets of her past.
The Sacred Lies of Minnow Bly is a hard-hitting and hopeful story about the dangers of blind faith—and the power of having faith in oneself.
Interesting, eh? It’s like nothing I’d ever read before. I’m not always the biggest fan of “realistic” fiction – I’m a spec fic girl, sorry – but this was one of those special cases that not only kept my attention but kept me fascinated. Oakes delves into cult life, but more importantly (to me) into Minnow’s psychological and philosophical fallout once she’s out. This focus reminded me a bit of Stephanie Kuehn, who won the Morris two years ago, so maybe that’s a sign! I tend to get embarrassingly partisan about the books I read, so all my fingers are crossed (making it rather hard to type).
Without further ado, let’s hear what Stephanie has to say for herself! (My questions are in italics)
I am always amazed by the amount of research that goes into fiction. Your book has a daunting triple dose: cults, prison, and disability. What did you do to educate yourself on these topics? Do any of them have roots in personal experience? What preconceptions did you go in with, and how did your research shine a new light on them?
Very little of the book came from personal experiences, except in pretty oblique ways, so a lot of research was involved. I’m a school librarian, and internet research is basically my life blood, so a lot was done just by digging around the internet. I read lots of articles and perused websites—the typical stuff—but videos were probably my most helpful resource. For example, it was quite difficult to learn what someone with Minnow’s particularly type of amputation would experience, but watching lots of vlogs by people who’ve undergone amputations gave me a ton of insight into what that might actually be like. And of course writing a character with an amputation necessitated educating myself on how physical disability has been represented in media (spoilers: it’s usually done terribly). It made me really determined to do better.
I was interested in how you refuse to romanticize nature in this book. There are moments of beauty and transcendence — particularly when Minnow looks at the night sky — but there are just as many of hardship, pain, and bare-knuckled brutality. Minnow herself seems to have complicated feelings about the wilderness. What is your own relationship with nature, and is there something specific you were hoping your readers will come away understanding about it?
I spent a couple of summers in western Montana around the time I got the idea for this book, and I was really enamored with it. In that part of Montana, you are very much in nature’s realm. I saw tons of wildlife: moose, and bald eagles, and Grizzly bears running down the traffic strip on the side of the highway. Since I wasn’t a permanent resident of that place, I could sort of study this strange dynamic, of the people living and working in sometimes very flimsy-looking buildings just a step away from the kind of nature that can easily kill you. It’s also a place where people can disappear from society, like Minnow’s family does in the book, which was a really fascinating idea to explore, too. Isolation was a necessity for her community to exist, and nowhere could that happen except in the wild.
Reading — both learning to do it, and being affected by what you read — looms large in your novel. It’s beautiful watching books expand Minnow’s mind and horizons. I’m guessing it’s no coincidence that you’re a librarian. Could you talk about some of the texts Minnow and Angel read, and why you chose them?
I’ve been a reading teacher and a school librarian, so lots of those experiences crept in. The method that Miss Bailey uses to teach Minnow the basics of phonics was a program that I used with Kindergarteners in my first year of teaching. The novels Minnow reads were essentially books I would’ve picked out for her had she walked into my school library (Bud Not Buddy, Out of the Dust, The Giver, etc). Those were books that I felt were developmentally appropriate for Minnow in terms of her reading level, but also ones that had opened doors for me as a reader. And Tess of the d’Urbervilles, the last book Minnow reads in the book, was hugely influential to me as a young adult. I realized way after I “gave” Minnow Tess to read how many of the themes in that book are present in Minnow Bly.
Another big sub-current in this book is ideas about belief: why people believe, whether belief is necessary, what purposes it serves. You’ve got arguments for and against, which I really liked. This is a preoccupation of mine as well, and something I don’t see addressed quite so directly in YA very often. Why are these questions important to you, and what kinds of questions are you hoping readers come away asking themselves?
Belief was an extremely relevant topic when I was a teenager—or, I should say, it wasn’t up until the moment that it, very suddenly, was. I had this massive crisis of faith when I was around 19. It was sort of like a bomb going off in my mind. I started questioning everything I had once taken as truth. Since then, belief has been a complicated and sticky thing, so I never expected that I would write a book about religion. It was incredibly difficult, and the tone around the discussion of religion was something that underwent many, many revisions. I don’t have an agenda with this book, but I guess I hope it might cause readers to consider their own beliefs. Not necessarily to change them, but just to take stock and to understand why they believe what they believe. It can be really uncomfortable and difficult, but so valuable.
How has your New Author experience been? Is it anything like you imagined it would be? Have you gotten any interesting feedback from readers? What advice would you give to someone just starting out?
It’s been a whirlwind! There’s so much more to being an author than I ever anticipated, and I’m completely amazed at how much I’ve learned. My advice to new authors would be to not worry about the fact that sometimes you have no idea what’s going on (totally normal). It gets easier.
a) cats or dogs?
b) favourite writing snack?
c) silliest thing you do in public?
Sing songs from musicals in the car. Does that count as public? I’m going with yes, because I’ve definitely made awkward eye-contact with other drivers in the middle of a passionate rendition of “Valjean’s Soliloquy.”
d) most embarrassing book you’ve never read?
I just read To Kill a Mockingbird, which has been my standby for this question. I’ll go with The Outsiders. Pretty shameful for a YA author, right?
e) next project?
The Arsonist, a YA mystery out in 2017.
Huzzah! Stephanie, thank you so much for your time and have a wonderful time at ALA. Your personal cheering section (Vancouver, BC branch) will be right here with the popcorn.