Nicole Yasinsky, marketing manager at Novel. in Memphis, Tennessee, who served on the panel that selected Schmitt’s debut, said Speechless “tackles a difficult subject — death, and specifically, the entire confusing and emotional pageant that is a funeral — with honesty and authentic humor.”
“Here we have a boy, Jimmy, faced with eulogizing his cousin, who, honestly, he never cared for, and who maybe never cared for him,” said Yasinsky. “As he combs through his memories, searching for the right words to say, we get a very intimate picture of his family over the years. Jimmy finds out some hilarious truths and some hard ones, and he left me laughing out loud, and eventually sobbing. This book may, at face value, appear to some as a topical book, just for kids experiencing funerals or deaths in the family, but it explores universal emotions and very real family relationships that we can all relate to and that we should maybe pay a little more attention to in our own lives.”
Schmitt, a middle-school teacher and father of two in Oswego, Illinois, writes mostly on the weekends and worked on Speechless for a few years before Candlewick picked it up. Here, Schmitt and Yasinsky discuss the author’s publishing journey and what he hopes readers connect with in Jimmy’s story.
Nicole Yasinsky: Congratulations on a writing a stunning, touching, and funny debut novel! What was the journey like trying to make this happen while teaching and raising a family?
Adam P. Schmitt: Thank you so much! As a husband, father of two boys, and middle-school educator, it took some time for Speechless to gain some traction on the pages. At first, I had a lot of notes and ideas sketched out, but nothing solid. I remember having an awful day at school, and that week I wrote a chapter in one sitting. It was like I needed a bad experience in my primary job to push me to be a writer. Once I had that chapter, though, I put myself on a schedule to have a draft finished by the end of summer. My family is really fantastic in helping me balance time for writing when I’m not in school.
Speechless went through numerous revisions for a few years and I worked on it whenever I could make time. What I never take for granted is that any time I was almost ready to walk away, someone came into my life who brought me to a new level. Winning a contest connected me with a mentor, then I met my agent, then Candlewick bought it and continued to work with me. I’m incredibly lucky to have met the right people at the right time. Their voices are all in this book.
NY: Why did you want to write about a funeral? This is something many kids don’t experience, and if they do, usually not in such a personal way — by participating in the service itself.
AS: I think those formative middle-school years are full of fish-out-of-water experiences. It’s an age where you are thrown into a lot of environments that are new, scary, and frequently without any guidance. On a small scale, this is when kids go to bigger schools and are part of athletic teams that are competitive and don’t have participation medals. On a bigger scale, this is often the first time kids are exposed to death or the services that go with it. I wanted to put my protagonist in an environment where he had no say in being there and no idea what to expect. I also wanted a setting that would bring in all walks of life and all kinds of personalities. My inspiration when designing the wake was actually the DMV; it’s a place that everyone has to go to and you always see characters.
NY: You managed to infuse humor into a book that could have been much darker, given the subject matter. Was this intentional, or just inevitable with a middle-grade boy protagonist?
AS: I absolutely wanted humor to be part of this. While attending services for a loved one brings a great deal of grief, it’s also a time that brings joy when friends and family come together. Jimmy’s a funny kid with a cynical side. Even when he’s anxious and scared, he’s still staying true to himself. His humor is what keeps perspective on everything.
NY: How did you choose the chapter structure, laid out in the beginning of the book as a list of things our protagonist is about to learn?
AS: That structure was part of the book from the early stages. I started it by thinking, “If a 13-year-old is going to their first wake and the family has a level of dysfunction…what unflinchingly honest advice would I give them?” That list helped me define the characters that shaped the wake scenes. A wake is something that, no matter where you are in life, sometimes you just can’t be ready for it. The emotions, the personalities, and the unexpected can overwhelm you.
NY: There is a powerful message in Speechless about listening to the things people aren’t saying. Did you have any personal experiences as a teacher, parent, or maybe even as a kid that inspired you to write about this?
AS: Absolutely, and yes to all three. I think it’s difficult for some kids to express their needs when they are still developing emotional intelligence and the skills to communicate. If they don’t have anyone to guide them, their needs can come out sideways. It’s very easy to dismiss this as bad or anti-social behavior, but so often there is a reason for it. And something behind it that may not be the child’s fault. Jimmy and Patrick are very different kids, with very different experiences, but each of them is desperate for someone to listen to them. I wanted to show how people can ask to be heard in extremely different ways.
NY: There is so much to love about Speechless — the authentic voice, the humor, your depiction of the weird things we do when a loved one dies. What do you most hope your readers will get out of this book?
AS: My hope for readers is to have is a connection to a character, and not just our main characters. Every scene introduces a new friend or family member whose quirks make them stand out from a crowd. I’d love for these characters to stir up memories of real people in the reader’s life. I have this hopeful image in my head of someone reading Speechless while nodding and smirking as they think of a person they know who could be at the wake.
On a deeper level, I’d love to know this book sparked some reflection on who needs to be heard. Not just kids, either; plenty of adults are looking for someone to listen to them as well. It would mean a lot to me if readers put Speechless down and starting thinking about who in their life may need a willing ear.
Speechless by Adam Schmitt (Candlewick Press, 9781536200928, Middle Grade Fiction, $16.99) On Sale Date: 11/6/2018.
Find out more about the author at adamschmittwrites.com.
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