Soundproof Your Life
by Tara Altebrando
Issue #12 • November 10, 2013•Buy Now!
Edited by Patrick Ryan
The music at noon was way too loud, considering how few people were in the gym. In addition to the DJ, there were maybe twenty students and teachers who’d arrived early Saturday morning to set up for the school’s annual Super Dance. But the DJ said he had to be sure the music could get loud since there were going to be 500 more kids turning up when the fundraiser officially started.
Charlie had brought his earplugs, and he put them in as he started setting up rows of soda cans and sports drinks donated from local supermarkets. Mike, his best friend, was lining up boxes and bags of snacks at a neighboring table. He shouted something at Charlie, who pointed to his ears and shouted back, “Can’t hear you.”
There were trays of baked ziti and salad and more being arranged by other volunteers; an ambitious sophomore had even lined up a Nathan’s Hot Dog street vendor who was going to park at the back of the hall. It was going to be a long twelve hours of dancing but clearly, no one would starve. At the end of it, the committee was pretty sure there’d be more than $100,000 collected for Muscular Dystrophy research. Jerry’s Kids.
Tara Altebrando is the author of four young adult novels: The Best Night of Your(Pathetic) Life, Dreamland Social Club (A Kirkus Reviews Best Books for Teens of 2011), What Happens Here, and The Pursuit of Happiness. She is also coauthor with Sara Zarr of Roomies. Her first middle-grade novel, The Battle of Darcy Lane, is forthcoming in Spring 2014. A graduate of Harvard University, Tara lives in Queens, New York, with her husband and two young daughters.
Q&A by Patrick Ryan
PR: Charlie has a wandering romantic eye and contemplates scamming an elderly neighbor. He’s also intensely likable as a main character. Without giving away any of the story’s plot points, would you say he’s a good guy who’s flirting with being bad, or a bad guy who’s figuring out how to be better? Or maybe he’s somewhere in between?
TA: I think he’s a good guy, for sure. But he also feels like he’s having a bad run, and is attracted to the idea that maybe that justifies a loosening of the rules. Twice in the story, he is trying to do what he believes is the right thing but is thwarted, and that makes him mad. I’m interested in the idea that if that happens often enough to a person, he or she may start to lose the motivation to do the right thing in the first place. Not that I think Charlie is going to now embark upon a life of crime. I really don’t. But I think he has a fair amount of maturing to do before he will better accept the sometimes ambiguous/fluid nature of right and wrong.
PR: Where did Charlie come from? Was he a character who came to you after you had a story idea in mind, or did he come first and the story later?
TA: The story came first. Actually, it’s more precise to say the Mitzy character came first. I’d had a few false starts with plain ole ‘adult’ stories involving her, but then I got around to thinking, You know what? There really aren’t enough elderly people in YA.
I’m joking, of course, but it’s true that once I had the idea to insert a teenager into the Mitzy/sleep deprivation/soundproofing material I had floating around, Charlie sprang to life.
At the same time, I’d been thinking about writing a collection of stories or a “novel in stories” called Super Dance, in which we relive the same twelve-hour dance marathon from twelve different characters’ points of view in a “Groundhog Day” sort of way. When I added the idea of Super Dance to Charlie/Mitzy, the story clicked for me.
PR: Charlie’s sleep deprivation is cumulative and the story takes on an almost surreal quality that mirrors the euphoria of exhaustion. Very convincing, I thought. Have you ever had a chronic problem with neighbor noise—the kind that cost you night after night of sleep?
TA: Oh, boy, did I! Mitzy is actually a conflation of two elderly neighbors I had when I bought my rowhouse in Queens. One of them is now hospitalized with dementia and the other is deceased. Before the latter passed, my bedroom shared a wall with the room she was sleeping in and it was horrible. It took a couple of miserable months of being up for hours in the middle of the night, almost every night, before my husband and I realized we needed to take action, and we ended up soundproofing that wall. Almost every detail of Charlie’s situation with Mitzy (her showing up with wads of cash and cheese in the middle of the night; the grandfather clock, the boom-boom music) is drawn from my experience with those two neighbors. Wait, does that make me sound horribly unimaginative?
PR: To be in a relationship and be fairly content, then spot someone new and feel pulled away, then bounce over to that new person and find out it’s not as wonderful as it may have seemed...are these primarily the concerns of a teen, or could what Charlie’s going through be happening to anyone, at any age?
TA: I think that for a lot of teenagers adolescence involves feeling like the grass is greener pretty much everywhere else, all the time. Someone else’s boyfriend or girlfriend, social life, body, clothes, grades, house, you name it. It all seems better than whatever it is that you have until, eventually, you get glimpses that reveal it’s not actually that great over there either. All of which sounds horribly depressing, I know. But I think the optimistic part of Charlie’s having gotten that glimpse is that he is still yearning for something better.
I absolutely think that this dynamic happens in adult life, though if you are not, for example, dating, it will take different forms. Like you’re following someone’s writing career on Facebook and Twitter and you’re thinking, That. That’s what I want. And then you see them at a cocktail party and they unload some their stuff on you and you’re like, Okay, I can stop idealizing that now. Not that that’s ever happened to me. (Cough cough.)
PR: One of the things I love about “Soundproof Your Life” is that it involves a lot of social contact between its characters, a lot of communication, a lot of water testing and emotional shoulder-tapping, so to speak, and yet none of it involves “social media.” The story is set in the present day, and it’s about people interacting with people (as opposed to people walking into one another while they tap on devices). Were you at all conscious of that while writing, or did it just happen because of the story’s framework?
TA: These days writers of contemporary fiction reach a point in every project where we have to ask ourselves whether we’re using technology appropriately/convincingly. We worry about readers saying, “Why didn’t they just text?” and the like. So while I didn’t think about the sidelining of technology in this story consciously at the outset, I was tremendously relieved along the way that I didn’t need to go back and try to incorporate those elements. It’s probably true that teens at a dance of this size would be texting each other during it (“Where are you?” “By the lockers,” that sort of thing), but it also seemed possible that readers wouldn’t miss it, or be distracted by the lack of it.
PR: What else have you been working on lately? What’s next for you? And will we see Charlie again?
TA: I’m in that fun phase right now where my next two projects—Roomies, a YA novel coauthored with Sara Zarr, and The Battle of Darcy Lane, my middle-grade debut—are in the can and coming out soon. It’s easy to spend time updating my website and getting guest blogs ready and, well, resting on my laurels. But I’m also working on a new YA novel and am having fun playing around with a middle-grade series idea.
As for Charlie, I’m not sure! I’ve started two other stories in the Super Dance set, though, so who knows? Maybe he’ll have a walk-on or cameo.
PR: What is the best bit of advice about writing you have ever received?
TA: The most influential writing teacher I’ve had was a fanatic about point of view and he definitely passed that on to me. He really stressed the fact that mastering point of view is essential to good writing, and I became a point-of-view fanatic as a result. Until I had the vocabulary for POV, I wasn’t sure why my writing sometimes felt vaguely wonky. Now, one of my greatest joys as a writer is playing around with point of view, manipulating it. Countless students I’ve had over the years have had some point of view problems, and I’ve taken a borderline masochistic pleasure in highlighting those problems, and then in watching their writing come into focus when the POV light bulb goes on.