I can’t say my name. Not because it’s a secret or anything. Honestly I’d shout it into a microphone right now if I could. I’d give up anything to be able to do that. Even my guitar-playing fingertip calluses, which took like a million hours to get. The first half-million hours hurt. A lot.From the first paragraph of THE WAY I SAY IT. Are you hooked? I sure was!
For Rory Mitchell, who struggles with his R’s, introducing himself and giving oral reports are pure torture. Making 6th grade even more unbearable, his ex-best friend Brent now hangs out with the mean, judgmental lacrosse crowd. After being forced to attend a mom-driven get together at Brent’s house with two other boys, Rory is irked when Brent ditches them to go biking with his new buddy Danny, the biggest bully in his grade. But then the unthinkable happens: Brent is hit by a car and suffers a devastating brain injury. Readers will completely understand why Rory’s feelings of betrayal cause him to experience conflicted emotions following the accident and during Brent’s rehabilitation and re-integration to school. Rory wishes he could hide in his speech therapist’s office forever, but post-accident Brent invades Rory’s sacred space. Lucky for them both, Mr. Simms is exceptionally cool and inspires them through a mixture of heavy metal rock music and Muhammed Ali videos, moves, and quotes.
LAURA: Nancy, thanks for joining Writers’ Rumpus on the birthday of your stunning debut middle grade novel! Having met you at various writing events, I’m thrilled to have the opportunity to interview you. Once I started reading the E-ARC (on my iPhone, no less), I couldn’t stop until I found out how everything resolved. Rory’s narration is so heartbreakingly honest and revealing, I kept wishing his parents would change his name to save him from all the pain, suffering, and bullying. What was your inspiration for writing this story?
NANCY: Thanks, Laura – as someone who has struggled with electronic reading, that feels like high praise!
The inspiration for Rory’s story came from my clinical work as a Speech-Language Pathologist. I worked with several kids who couldn’t say the first sound of their name (e.g., Camille who couldn’t say “kuh” and Justin who couldn’t say “djuh”). The challenges that caused stayed with me. I wondered what life would be like for a kid whose name-related speech difficulties persisted into middle school. And Rory was born.
LAURA: I already felt sorry for Rory when Brent suffers his terrible accident. I knew someone in college who suffered brain damage, and your portrayal of Rory’s conflicted emotions and Brent’s recovery process and volatile, unpredictable behavior are extremely realistic. At what point did you add Brent’s accident to the story? Did you get any pushback about including it for this age group?
NANCY: This storyline also stemmed from my work as a speech/language pathologist. In both inpatient and outpatient settings, I was constantly amazed and challenged by people’s resilience and response to healing after brain injury.
The idea for the accident emerged organically after I wrote a line Rory says to his mom: I never want to see Brent again. It made me think, how would a kid feel if they said this and then it came true (or in this case, almost came true)?
In writing Brent’s character, I worked really hard to balance the reality of brain injury recovery within the confines of creating a fictional narrative suitable for middle grade. There are a few places where the story stretches what would ‘really happen’ vs. what I needed to happen to keep young readers engaged. In a sense that was the only ‘pushback’ I got (to make changes necessary to keep the middle-grade pacing and scenes moving forward). I hope readers will grasp how unique each brain injury and recovery process can be.
LAURA: Mr. Simms is too cool for school, and I love how he introduces Rory and Brent, and thus young readers, to classic heavy metal bands like Metallica and Guns N’ Roses and to a biography of heavyweight champion Muhammed Ali. How did you choose those elements? Did you ever use them in your speech therapy practice? Is Mr. Simm’s character based upon anyone you know, or perhaps, yourself?
NANCY: Mr. Simms is totally the cool SLP I wish I had been! When I started writing I’d hear people say their characters “told them” who they were, and I was super skeptical. (You’re the writer – aren’t you the one in charge?) But I can honestly say this guy is an example of that happening to me! (And my only example so far. Wish it would happen more often!) When introducing him on the page, I closed my eyes and saw him fully formed – Metallica t-shirt, hair, voice, mannerisms. It was one of my favorite writing moments ever. Mr. Simms’s taste in music came from the fact that my son is a drummer and his band practiced at our house all the time while I was writing THE WAY I SAY IT. I’d start a scene, and Pantera would begin screaming up at me from the basement. Heavy metal was literally the soundtrack I wrote to. It was bound to find its way in! (But you’ll notice I softened it to the classics like Metallica and Guns-n-Roses. Ha.)
His obsession with Muhammad Ali was a surprise add-in as well. I was writing this book about a kid who couldn’t say his name when a neighbor friend came over for dinner and was telling us about this clip his dad had just shown him about Ali’s fight with Ernie Terrell (the “What’s my name?” fight). It clicked that adding in elements of Muhammad Ali’s life would be a great way to play with the idea of the importance of our own names, and how other people respond to us when we make decisions they don’t agree with. The fact that Ali was such a talker and that his words could be used in Rory’s speech therapy tasks was a gift that kept on giving!
LAURA: Bullying rears its ugly head in this novel, but so does compassion and understanding. What do you hope readers will take away from THE WAY I SAY IT?
NANCY: It is really, really important to me for kids to learn that hurt people hurt people. Being a writer means knowing the motivation behind each character’s actions. I wanted to show kids that mean behavior doesn’t (usually) come out of nowhere: when someone treats you poorly, it says everything about them and their history, and nothing about you. I also hope the story shows how compassion and forgiveness can sometimes help break that cycle.
LAURA: How can readers contact you? What can we look forward to next from you?
NANCY: I’m very excited that my next middle grade, THE GHOST OF SPRUCE POINT (Aladdin), will be out this summer! It tells the story of a group of kids living on the coast of Maine as they investigate a ghost living next door and work to break a curse on their beloved peninsula.
I’m happy to connect with readers and can be found here!
LAURA: Thank you, Nancy! Put me on your list for a signed copy, please!! And for your next E-ARC so I can review THE GHOST OF SPRUCE POINT, too!