Between the Lines: An Interview Series with Kelly Corrigan

Lesson 8/16 - RJ Palacio


Between the Lines: An Interview Series with Kelly Corrigan


Lesson Info

RJ Palacio

(upbeat jazzy music) Hi. Hi, how are you? I'm great, I'm so happy to be sitting across from you.` I am too. So, you made up a story in your little head, and the whole world read it. And I wonder if you have a point of view about why you think that story what about those themes or those characters has captured such broad imagination? You know, well, it's funny because on the surface Wonder is about a kid, you know, with a craniofacial difference, and you would think that a lot of people can't actually relate to that kind of thing, but I think what I was really writing about was kindness and the impact and the need for kindness in this world, and I think that's why the story has sort of resonated with so many people because it's so much more than about a kid with craniofacial differences. It's about accepting people with kindness and with love and tenderness and... I think people read it and like to be reminded that there's goodness in the world and that people are just tryin...

g to do their best and that there's sort of a hopefulness to it, I guess. Without sounding too corny, but I think that that's what's really resonating with people. And how intentional was that? Like when you sat down, were you like, I'm gonna write, I'm gonna put some kindness into the world, like I wanna show some goodness? You know, when I wrote Wonder I honestly didn't, I had no way of knowing that it would be read beyond my little, like, family circle, and my little group of friends. But I was writing very intentionally. My older son was in the sixth grade, so he had just gone through fifth grade, and he doesn't look like Auggie Pullman, he doesn't face any of those issues, and yet, it was a really tough year for him, that transition to middle school, and as a parent, I mean, you know you watch your kid kind of, you see their little social dynamics, and you want not to get too involved, but on the other hand, you know, you're watching, and it's heartbreaking. It's awful. The little dramas, whether you have a boy or a girl, it's still, you know, you still have... You see them go through the pain of, you know, a best friend that used to be a best friend. I know. And is no longer a best friend, and all of that sort of played out, and I realized as I was watching, and it might have been that my son's grade was a particularly, I don't know, because other grades seemed nicer. Uh huh. But that particular grade at that particular time, it wasn't the nicest group. Yeah. And you know these were parents that I had known forever, and I kept on thinking, you know, why aren't the parents sort of reminding their kids to be kind to one another. It's okay that kids don't want to be friends with one another, but they can do it with sort of respect and kindness. Right. And I know I keep sort of talking to my kids about this stuff. Right. Why aren't other parents sort of reminding their kids about this, and so, yeah, it was very purposeful. I wanted to sort of inject, I wanted to Trojan Horse this message of kindness in a book that, you know, has farting nurses, and is funny and has other stuff... As all books should... Really, have farting nurses. That's exactly, well you know, it makes kids laugh. But I decided if I can get a little spoonful of sugar in the medicine... Yeah. Then... I think that sometimes, I think that the messaging around kindness and compassion is at odds with achievement. Mm hmm. I've noticed sometimes, let's say that a group of adults is visiting together over a glass of wine, and a kid, kids, are around, and a kid comes in who doesn't play a sport or an instrument or isn't in the school play or isn't class president, and I find people feel kinda tongue-tied about how to talk to them. And then the brother comes in from the basketball game, and the whole room turns. Did you win, did you score, how'd you play? And I think sometimes there's this tremendous focus on achievement that could, if you were just a little being in the world trying to figure out what mattered, and you were just reading the transcripts, you would think, oh this is what matters. Right. Cause this is what people ask about. Right. People don't say in that situation, they don't look at the girl and say, isn't that lovely how kind you are, and there's no award for kindness at the graduation. You know my daughter just graduated from eighth grade. Yep. And it wasn't one world about kindness. <v R.J.>Yeah. The words were about grades and sports. Yep, and that's exactly, in fact, I gave Mr. Tushman the speech that I wished they had, sort of, given at my son's, you know, graduation ceremony. And at his class ceremony at the end of the year because it's exactly that. It's like, okay, you know, cause my kid was not a sports kid, and he wasn't, you know, he's great academically, you know, and all of that, but there is, exactly, it's like, wait a minute, you know. Let's celebrate kindness. Yeah. And I think you're right, too, in that sometimes when people talk about kindness, especially with children, there's a tendency to like, just kind of like, want to mandate, you know, be nice. Yes. And to a kid, that doesn't really, you know, I think the whole idea of choosing kindness is that you have to give them the option. I mean, the reason kindness is so special is because we have the choice of whether to show it, do it, make it, spread it, or not. And that's what elevates us, you know, that choice of being, and if you don't have the choice of being kind, but you're just, you have to do it... You're just required. Yeah, it's not the same, so that... That's interesting because that's where all the self-esteem is, right, because you don't really get the bonus... <v R.J.>Right. You don't get that little, like power pack. unless you do the work. Unless it was your decision. <v R.J.>Right. And probably, of course, the harder the decision is, like in your story, the first person to reach out is different. It's a different degree of difficulty then once the circle starts to build, and it's been made okay... Right. Then we all kind of fall in line. The popular kids are being nice to Auggie, so okay, yeah. Do you remember the book A Thousand Dresses? Hm mm, no. It's so old, I mean, it was probably written in like 1957 or something, and it's really about bystanders and who is the first person to cross the line and step into somebody who is different. And this girl's dreadfully poor, and she wears one dress everyday, and she tells this elaborate story that she has a thousand dresses at home. <v R.J.>Mm hmm. But she doesn't like to wear them just to school. She saves them for special occasions. <v R.J.>Right. And, but they often use it as a way to talk about where are you in that hierarchy? Are you the first person to say hello? Are you the fifteenth person to say hello? Are you the person that's mad at the people for saying hello? <v R.J.>Right. You know, like where are you on the... <v R.J.>Right, I have to read this. That sounds amazing, yeah. Yeah. Well, it's funny cause I've always, weirdly enough, I've always been drawn to stories and movies and books, you know, about wars and people surviving under dire circumstances, and I think part of the appeal for me has always been sort of those questions of who, you know, those moments in history when people have been tested. Yes. And they find out who they really are. Am I the person that would be the, you know, am I the person that would get in front of the Nazi and stay stop the, you know, what... Right, would I take a Jew in my house. I always think about that. Right, right, like would I, I mean, how... Risk everything. Exactly, and in fact, we're living in times like that now to a certain degree. And, not that I'm putting fifth grade on that level. Yeah. But in a way, you know, middle school is kind of a little bit of a version of that sort of reality where kids for the very first time are being tested in terms of, you know, the parents aren't making the decision for them. Yes. It's the first time when they're actually deciding who to sit with at lunchtime. The teachers aren't deciding it. Parents aren't deciding who play dates are with anymore. You know, they have their little independence. They're kind of testing the waters of who they are. And for the first time there's a lot of unobserved time. Yeah. So, where nobody's looking. It's the wild west. And that's really where a character plays out, right? Exactly, yeah. So did you think maybe I'll write an adult book? Like, were you reading YA stuff? No, actually not a lot. I mean, I read aloud to my kids, so I did. But I can't say that I was a big YA reader myself, other than stuff I would read to my kids. I really just wanted to write a book for my son's generation. I thought, and frankly, by the time it came out, it was too late for them. My younger son is 13 now, and they've all, you know, I think I've hit that demographic cause my older son is now in college. What went wrong in the writing of the book? I think it's really helpful for people who want to be storytellers to understand how much failure is baked into this thing. So, what were you not able to achieve with this, or what was the hardest part of it to get right, to feel good about? The hardest part, I guess, was making something, writing something, that felt real. Was, you know, and kids can talk to each other in a mean way, you know, and sort of balancing being a writer and being a mom, you know, and kind of like, not wanting to write, not wanting to put something out, even though its realistic, putting words in the mouths of characters, that is too harsh and might hurt someone's feeling. Because I was always very aware of the fact that there might be real life Auggies who read this book, and I didn't want them ever to read this book and think, oh, is this what people think about me behind my back, you know? So I didn't want to put too much out there that could be possibly make their struggles even worse. I can only imagine how many distractions there are in your life right now. I mean, you've got a huge movie coming out with all the big names, Julia Roberts, Owen Wilson, my man Daveed Diggs, and you have this book probably publishing around the world, and there're probably the request for your time to do readings is tremendous. How are you managing that and is it in any way feeding your ability to tell stories better? No, it's the distraction... Not at all (laughs) Not at all. I realized, and I guess I should have known, that since, you know I had so many years working sort of on the other side of book publishing, you know, I was graphic designer and an editor at different publishing houses, and so I knew this conceptually, but it wasn't until I sort of stepped into the shoes of being an author that I realized that being a writer and being an author are two entirely different things. Absolutely. They're related, but you know being a writer is, you know, you're writing in your pajamas, in your little home office or your little corner of the room or wherever. For me it was like the middle of the night in a walk-in closet when I was writing Wonder because that was my only private space in our little home. That was your room. That was my room, yeah. (laughing) It's the new reality. It was, and I was still working because I didn't give up my day job until just two years ago. You are so funny. Yeah, but I did not give up my day job because, you know, I always tell my authors when I was, you know, don't... It's really hard to make a living writing for royalties . I mean, it's, you know, that's why so many authors do something else on the side, you know, they're journalists... Yes. Or they're teaching or, you know, they're any number of things, and that's great. Podcasting. (laughs) Exactly, so I wasn't gonna... I think the difference between being a writer and being an author is the difference between being pregnant and having a child. Like you're, you know, it's so exciting when you're in your own private pregnancy, especially the first time where you're not telling anyone... Right, yep. And you know that you're making this thing, and you're alone together with it, and it's with you in the night, and it's with you in the shower... So true. And it's with you on every walk, and you're feeding it, and then all of a sudden it becomes separate from you and so insanely demanding, if it works, if it hits, it becomes this incredibly demanding toddler. That's so perfect. Yeah, you name it, and suddenly it becomes part of the world, absolutely perfect. Yes, and it has a voice and an appetite. Yeah, and it's also social. I do now actually in retrospect sometimes feel a little badly as an editor having pushed out, and it's just part of the game, but there are some authors who are naturally fine in front of crowds. Yes. And there are some who are painfully not fine. Yes. And either way we ask them to go and promote their book and to do the little dog and pony show, and it's, now looking back, I feel a little badly about, you know, sort of... It's like low-level cruelty, right? (laughs) For some people? Oh, and you tell them to go out to a bookstore and, you know, they get all dressed up and they're all set, and you know four people show up. And there's nothing that can be done. That's part of the nature of the game, but it's, now looking back, I think I might have done more of like, you know, maybe you don't have to do that. Yeah, it's no fun. What kind of storytelling experiments have you tried or are maybe on your agenda? Like what other ways would you like to try telling stories? I mean, now that you've seen a YA book, and then also this movie which I know you were on set for, some of it, so you can see that process, like, what other kinds of storytelling might you want to try to do? You know, I've always loved movies and been drawn to movies, and I think my next... I'm finishing the book now that I should have finished a year ago, but again, talk about distractions. It's been impossible. And don't should yourself. It's been tough, and no one's complaining, I think. But, I think after I do finish this book and get it out of the way, I really do want to maybe go to school and study directing. I think I want to try my hand at movies, like maybe writing some screenplays and then making a film or something. I'm not sure, but that to me would be a great creative challenge, and it would also sort of bring a lot of my skill sets into play, you know. Because my background is in graphic design and art and photography, you know, so I have that. And then, you know, I think movies are telling stories, so it's sort of marrying those kind of things and writing dialogue and... And if you are a person who's worked hard and done the blood, sweat, and tears that writing requires, to then have access to visuals and sound. Like I often, when I'm watching, I just watched a movie last night that I really enjoyed, and there was this scene where there were hardly any words, and it was visually stunning, and they played a great song. And my sense, I was like, oh, you're such a cheater. Yeah. Like all we have is print on a page. Right. Like if I could pull like a Shins' song into this... You could use, yeah, exactly, it's kind of like all the... People would love it. Yeah, absolutely. So I am also very drawn to the idea of movies. I mean, I almost know too much about how hard it is to make one and to preserve the heart of it without it getting kind of polluted with multiple voices and commercial interests... <v R.J.>Yeah, yeah. To dare, but I totally feel the urge. There's a lot of politics, but I feel like, you know, in book publishing there's a lot of politics, and I was kind of able to navigate that for a long time. You know, there's politics everywhere, but you still kind of every once in a while you're able to produce something that stays very genuine and true to your first vision. Cause I did book covers for a long time, and talk about like everyone's got an opinion about what makes a good book cover or not. And so part of your job is to do that best you can and then sell it. And it's with diplomacy You know it's interesting about book covers is similar to doing readings which I wanted to ask you about, and is that you have this idea about what your book is about, and then you hand it off to readers and also graphic designers. And the first person to give you feedback about what they think your book is about is the person who designs your cover. <v R.J.>Absolutely. And it comes back and you think, this is what you think the heart of this book is? Like, I blew it. Or you say... Or not, yeah. Oh, how interesting, there's more here. There's different things here for different readers, and depending what mindset you come to it and your background and the place you are in your life that day, maybe this is what the book is about. So when you're out and about, connecting with readers, do you ever get feedback about what Wonder is to them that you could have never seen coming? Yeah, you know, so many of my readers are little kids, and little kids can be very literal. Yes. I mean really literal, especially, you know, I just did the picture book of We're All Wonders. Yeah. And in the picture book I thought, and this, actually had not occurred to me, what I wanted to do stylistically, sort of riff on the book cover, you know, sort of very linear art. Did you design it? I did not design that. I had a hand in sort of the art, well, I made suggestions that were, I think, very helpful to the art director, but I purposely did not want to design it, though I did have sort of an agreement with my editor that if they came up with a design that I really didn't like, that I would go ahead and design it. But they came up with this, and I loved it. It's fantastic. But with We're All Wonders I wanted to kind of stylistically follow that, use it as a sort of style guide kind of thing. Sure. And so I made Auggie's difference in the picture book because I didn't want to make him have features, you know, it's for younger kids. Sure. I didn't want to dwell on those kind of differences, but I wanted him to be different from everybody else in the book. So I gave him, I followed that same, he has one eye, and sort of malformed ears, and everybody else in the book has two eyes and a nose and a mouth. So that's, for little kids, that's the difference. Yeah. So now when I go to readings, I have four and five year olds asking me, why does he only have one eye and how does he eat if he doesn't have a mouth, you know. (laughing) They're so literal, and these are things that I actually hadn't thought of ahead of time. Or you forget, I mean your own kids go through this stage. You forget, yeah, exactly. Like I'll say hand me my pocket book. They obsess on this one little thing, right. And Georgia doesn't know what that is. (laughing) She's like, you mean your bag? And I'm like, are you hazing me? <v R.J.>Right, yeah. What's happening here, it's like... <v R.J.>Fax machines. A shirt is not a turtleneck, right? They're different things. Oh, that's so funny. Well, you have two girls, though. Yeah, yeah, I do, so I'm in the thick of it. (laughing) Do you feel certain pressures, either commercially or from your readers, to deliver the next thing that's gonna suit them? Well, yes, in that I feel that kids have fallen so in love with Wonder and then the three stories that I wrote after Wonder, and they're used to, we're living in a world of sequels and series, and so, you know, I mean they really want more. And there's a part of me that completely, as a parent, when my kids like something you just want to feed them, you know, it's like fanning the fire. And so, here, here's another book... And this is why every parent is so delighted with J.K. Rowling. Yeah, exactly, just keep writing. Like my kids just read 7,000 words thanks to you. Thank you, exactly. And for my younger son, I remember he loved the Warrior series, and there's so many of them. It was great, I'd keep, here's another one, and it's wonderful. You just want to feed them. And so I get it when parents say, please write another one cause my kid never read before and now with Wonder he's read it three, you know, four times, and he just wants more. And so you feel kind of an obligation, and you want to say yes, but as a writer and as an artist, you kind of want to... I feel like I wrote Wonder, and I said everything I wanted to say in that book. I never meant it to be a series. I never wanted it to be a sequel. Imagine it, yeah. Yeah, so I probably won't go there. Having said that, I may at some point. I can't even imagine how desperate your publishing house is for that. I mean it would just be incredible for people. It's funny I was talking to my editor about it yesterday, should I, you know, and she was like, you know, you're a writer. You should be writing whatever you want to write. How wonderful is that. I know, I know. Cause I'm working on something that's so different now, and I just have a feeling that it will disappoint a lot of people who are expecting another version of Wonder. And this is so different, and yet, I'm really into it, and I want to go there. Good for you. Yeah. Good for you. Alright, so we just have a few minutes left, and I wanna give you a little speed round. Okay. Name a book you wish you had written. One Hundred Years of Solitude. Right, man is not born once and for all on the day his mother gives birth to him, but rather life obliges him to give birth to himself over and over again. Oh my goodness. I mean that has been in my pocket since reading it in that book. Look at you. What, yeah, what was the last story that made you cry? Ava Moves the Furniture, Margot Livesey. Great, I've never heard of it. <v R.J.>Yeah. If your mother wrote a book about you, what would it be called? I should say it in Spanish. My Daughter Can Do Anything. Aw. She thought that. Who can't you live without, creatively speaking? Like, is there an editor, a friend who reads you work early on, or... This is gonna sound corny, I guess my husband. He's my first reader, and he's a good reader You know, we get into arguments over it because, you know, I ask him to be completely honest. Right. What do you think? And then he's completely honest, and I was like, huh, what? You do it then, you think you're so... I mean, I have the same exact moment. Where it's like, alright, but like temper it a little bit. Yeah, but he's still honest, and he's very good about sort of getting through the BS in writing. I mean, he doesn't, he's not distracted. He doesn't fall in love, you know, we fall in love with our little words. We're so vain. And he's really good at sort of like saying, uh, that's, that's what? I know it hurts so much, though, doesn't it? <v R.J.>Yeah, yeah. If you could get everyone in the world to read just one book, what would it be? Oh, wow, oh, you ask good questions. This is going to be weird. I'm vacillating between The Little Prince and The Road. (laughs) Sort of strange. Maybe we'll do Little Prince for like 21 and younger, and then The Road, maybe The Road is like 30 and over. <v R.J.>Yeah, exactly. You might have to be a little bit more... <v R.J.>Yeah. Sophisticated in your understanding. Yeah, maybe, I guess, but ask me tomorrow, and I might change my mind (laughs). Fair enough. Hey thank you so much this was awesome. Thank you so much, this was so great. This has been such a fun series to talk to people about. Thank you so much. Thank you. (upbeat jazzy music)

Class Description

Between the Lines is a series about uncovering the REAL story of these 16 best-selling authors and what story telling means to them. Each of these authors has their own stories that influence their work. Most writers are writing either directly or indirectly based on their experience, their dreams, or their realities. They are telling their stories, whether they are "made up" or based on real life. That takes a ton of bravery, a ton of courage, and that is what stops people generally from putting themselves out there. There is a fear of being not only judged on your work but your ideas. Writing takes BRAVERY. It takes a leap to put yourself out there for eyes to read what you have to say, and then there is the part of actually getting it done. This series is really about being brave, how these authors write their truth and how they MOVE people through their creative pursuits. This series is about what is "between the lines" for each these authors.



I love hearing from all of these authors! Some of my longtime favorites and I also discovered some new authors I didn't know about. AMAZING!

Justin Barker