Author Interview: Amy Goldman Koss on Side Effects

Side Effects by Amy Goldman Koss (Deborah Brodie/Roaring Brook, 2006). From the promotional copy: “As if it doesn’t suck enough to have cancer, practically every time you pick up books or see movies where characters get sick, you know they’ll be dead by the last scene. In reality, kids get all kinds of cancers, go through unspeakable torture and painful treatments, but walk away fine in the end.” “Side Effects is about the pain, fear, and unlikely comedy of 15-year-old Izzy’s journey, told in her own powerful and authentic voice. It is Izzy’s story—screams and all.” Ages 10-up.

From Roaring Brook: “Amy Goldman Koss is the author of The Girls (Dial, 2000), an ALA Best Book for Young Adults and Quick Picks selection, and Poison Ivy (Roaring Brook, 2006), called ‘fascinating and intriguing’ by Publishers Weekly. She lives in Glendale, California.”

How did fiction writing first call to you?

Probably in babytalk. I’ve been fictionalizing forever.

What drew you to young people as protagonists?

I wrote for little kids at first, but since discovering middle grade and YA there was no turning back. It never again occurred to me to talk to or as anyone much older or younger–both seem relatively pale and limp. Whereas that middle stuff is so vivid and wonderful and terrible to live through–who could resist?

Could you tell us about your path to publication, any sprints or stumbles along the way?

Ha! Any stumbles! Although actually, I’ve been inexcusably lucky–which is not to say that I don’t feel entitled to wall-to-wall complaining. Next year it’ll be twenty years since my first book was published. It was a picture book, illustrated by me, with great enthusiasm and ineptitude, called What Luck! A Duck! (1991)(sigh).

After that came three more picture books including Where Fish Go In Winter (2002)–non fiction science questions in verse, that actually made some money and is still out there though re-illustrated.

That earliest stuff was with Price Stern Sloan Publishing. I’d been liberated from the slush pile–although the book that got picked never actually got published.

Then I had some kids and one thing and another that I can’t recall, until our story resumes with the wise and wonderful Cindy Kane, then editor extraordinaire at Dial Books For Young Readers, pulling a picture book proposal outta their pile and suggesting it would really rather be a chapter book. I was pretty sure I couldn’t sustain interest in anything so long and arduous and wondrous–so I tried, and that became my first of twelve or so novels. Some successful, others, well, let’s just say they lived quieter lives…

Cindy Kane has long since abandoned, deserted and forsaken the business and resorted to educational publishing of all things. Leaving me in the gentle hands of Lauri Hornik for several books with Dial. A pleasant little interlude with the breathtakingly lucrative Pleasant Company overlapped in there, with a few books, and now I am working on my third novel with Roaring Brook Press under the editorship of Deborah Brodie.

Could you briefly catch us up on your back list, highlighting as you see fit?

Price Stern Sloan: What Luck! A Duck! (1991); Where Fish Go In Winter (2002); Curious Creatures (1989); City Critters Around (1991); all picture books.

Dial: How I Saved Hanukkah (1998); The Trouble with Zinny Weston (1998); The Ashwater Experiment (2000); The Girls (2000); Strike Two (2001); Stranger in Dadland (2001); Gossip Times Three (Dial, 2003); The Cheat (2003); (not necessarily in that order).

Pleasant Company: Stolen Words (2001); Smoke Screen (2000); and Kailey (American Girl Today)(2003).

Roaring Brook: Poison Ivy (spring 2006) and Side Effects (fall 2006).

Congratulations on the publication of Side Effects (Roaring Brook, 2006). What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?

Spite, mostly. I wanted to get back at all the people I thought acted like jerks when someone I knew got cancer. (I don’t want to exploit this kid, since she’s a minor so I’m not saying who it is) But ah! Writer’s revenge! It shows up in all my books in little or big ways. It’s the tattletale in me I guess. But besides spite, I also thought writing a funny, tough cancer book would be fun. A real life horror story–as far as the ghastliness of chemo etc. but un-sentimental, non-denominational and sap-free. Above all I wanted to write a first person survivor’s story that I wouldn’t be embarrassed to have an actual teenager with cancer read.

What was the timeline from spark to publication, and what were the major events along the way?

Some books have to be savagely scraped and gouged from the leathery resistant lining of my skull. Others, like Side Effects, land effortlessly on the page like bird doo on the windshield. Concept to completion this book was…maybe eight months?

What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, and logistical) in bringing it to life?

Research-wise… First I lived it through my secret source. Next I pooped it on the windshield. Then I sent it to a case worker on the blood cancer aisle of Children’s Hospital Los Angeles to make sure my meds and reactions and sequence was correct.

Emotionally, I had to deal with various superstitious relatives of my secret-inspirational-cancer-patient, thinking whatever hooey weirdness people think when you write anything. Example, my book would cause a recurrence and death. It would tempt the evil eye. The usual.

What do you love about your writing life?

When it is going well there’s no buzz like it. Ah! The good days, when the words flow onto the screen, when I crack myself up, when I stroke my theoretical beard of wisdom murmuring how true, how pithy and true, upon re-reading my own words. How tall and strong and young and thin and blond I feel! How smart and funny and clever and charming and how lucky are those who can read my books and bask in my mighty glow!

What are its tougher aspects?

The days when the words are stilted and stupid and I hate my dog and my kids piss me off and my husband is a jerk and the world sucks in its entirety, and I must gorge on chocolate and know, deep within my shabby soul that I’m am a has-been, talent-free hack finally revealed as the fraudulent turd I’d always suspected myself to be.

What advice do you have for beginning authors?

Be honest, even as you lie.

How about novelists specifically?

Here’s what I tell my students: think of it as a water color. You keep going back and adding layer upon transparent layer, but try to stop before it turns to mud.

What do you do when you’re not reading or writing?

I yell at my children, gain weight, and play snood.

What can your fans look forward to next?

I’ve got a novel oozing out in fall ’07 that I’m quite pleased with as of 2:14 this afternoon. It’s about two sisters who live upstairs from a woman’s rest home. I’ve been having a blast with these characters, but I still don’t have a title that works.