Welcome to A Novel Mind, Leslie! We are such great fans of your books, and delighted to have the honor of talking to you about your latest: ANYBODY HERE SEEN FRENCHIE?
SUMMARY: Eleven-year-old Aurora is bouncy, loud and impulsive—“a big old blurter.” Making friends has never come easily - until she meets Frenchie, who is autistic and non-vocal. They share a love of the natural world in coastal Maine.
Aurora loves and looks out for Frenchie, but as her social circle expands, there's some new conflict. And one morning, when Frenchie doesn’t make it to his classroom, Aurora feels responsible. As the entire town searches, they wonder: how is it possible that nobody has seen Frenchie? Aurora must figure out how to help find him, and lift him up when he is found.
Sally: Aurora and Frenchie are both so appealing and so clearly neurodivergent -- but in vastly different ways. How did your two main characters come into focus for you?
Leslie: Hi Sally, and thanks for hosting me. I love questions about characters because they’re the most important part of a work of fiction. In the beginning, I watched both Aurora and Frenchie from the outside -- noting what any close observer sees. I like to let the scenes start rolling without knowing absolutely everything about what’s making a character tick on the inside. Later, my research into autism, and the stunning breadth of the spectrum, brought me a more vivid picture of each character’s different behaviors.
Sally: What inspired you to make your main characters autistic/neurodivergent?
Leslie: My characters often have disabilities. I’m interested in what I call ‘silent strugglers’ (though anyone could argue that Aurora is anything but silent). I think of them as the kids who are not always understood by their peers. They are coping, and they do it all day long, and it looks really hard to me and I want to know more about it. I try to feel everything they feel, and I try to give readers access to that as well.
Sally: What inspired/impelled you to write a story set so firmly in woods, fields, and shorelines – in the natural world? Do you think children get enough nature in their lives? How can books help?
Leslie: I am definitely an advocate for No Child Left Inside. There’s so much potential for discovery out in the woods, and it’s generally free of charge. There is a rare piebald deer in this story, inspired by the one I used to see here in the woods near my home. You can bet I tracked mud into the house, in a rush to find out more about him! I assigned my enchantment with the creature to Aurora. I know there are kids who cannot access the woods from where they live, just as there are kids who cannot access city life-- or Europe! There’s nothing like picking up a book and feeling transported to a place you have never seen. Books make us curious.
Sally: The story is mainly Aurora’s point of view (although Frenchie has a few moments) and there are quite a few chapters written from the POV of various adults. What inspired you to approach the storytelling with a multiple POV technique?
Leslie: Yes, Aurora demanded to be the main narrator. Are we surprised? I’m spoiling nothing by revealing here that Frenchie is lost (or at least out of sight) for a good portion of the story. (That information is on the flap copy.) Entering this project I was very wrapped in questions of how we get lost and stay lost—the mystery—as well as how we search for someone. (There are techniques!) I wanted to show how people in the community might not take notice of a wandering boy, how they might overlook a clue, and why someone might not want to tell, or might not be able to tell, what they saw. Thus, the various points of view. (I had great fun with this!)
Sally: I noticed you used the correct term of ‘nonvocal’ (instead of nonverbal) to describe those who can communicate, just not by speaking... how important is research, and getting the details right? Why is this especially important when writing about disability?
Leslie: Thanks for noticing! I wanted to make that distinction on behalf of the autism community. I felt beholden as an outsider to acknowledge nuance. If you dare to write outside your own experience (I am not autistic), you have to observe and do your research. Ultimately, you must ask for help; I had two authenticity readers.
Sally: All your wonderful books practically glow with a sort of warmth – with feelings of humanity and kindness – and this is why I adore them. Sometimes we writers get so caught up in manufacturing the plot conflict and strife, it’s easy to forget that readers – especially young readers -- also yearn for simple, positive emotional nourishment from books, and this is something your books provide. What is your philosophy on this? How intentional is the act of writing for you -- what do you start out with, when you start to write? How does a story arise in you?
Leslie: Wow, thank you, and I am going to keep your words in mind—like a new motto! Sally, this what I feel you did such a tender-good job of when you wrote THE SOMEDAY BIRDS and STANLEY WILL PROBABLY BE FINE. Both books are about kids whose brains operate outside what we think of as normal. What a relief for readers to either find themselves in our pages, or be the ones who gain some understanding and empathy. I think that is nourishment.
I begin with situation, but the character has to be there too. (Is there even a situation if no one is there experiencing it?) I think about each story a long time before I write anything. I make notes that expand into dialogue and other action, and a scene is born, or at least begun. (I don’t really write novels; I write scenes!) I am a messy worker. I write out of order and have to work hard to sew things up before deadline. I don’t recommend it, but that’s my process. I feel like the act of sitting down to write is intentional. But I count on being surprised by the work. (I hope that makes sense.)
Sally: Is there anything else you'd like our readers to know about this book, its characters, or its journey into the world?
Leslie: Hmm. I hope readers will enjoy the illustrated map by Ramona Kaulitski in the front of the book as much I do. It’s a tidied-up version of the map I used while writing the story. The map kept me on track geographically as I imagined Frenchie’s travels and the steps and missteps of those who were trying to find him.
Sally, thanks again for this wonder visit with A Novel Mind. You’ve created a rich stop on the internet for readers and writers alike. Cheers!
Leslie Connor is a “dedicated daydreamer” who believes middle grade is her wheelhouse! She is the award-winning author of the novels Waiting for Normal, winner of the ALA Schneider Family Book Award, All Rise for the Honorable Perry T. Cook, an E.B White Read Aloud finalist, The Truth as Told by Mason Buttle, National Book Award finalist, and winner of the ALA Schneider Family Book Award, and A Home for Goddesses and Dogs. Her most recent title is, Anybody Here Seen Frenchie? (February, 2022). Leslie lives with her husband and three rescue dogs in a little house in the Connecticut woods.