Heart and Spirit: Lisa Fipps Discusses Her Debut Middle-Grade Novel in Verse

By Carol Coven Grannick

Starfish by Lisa Fipps (Nancy Paulsen Books, 2021) unfolds as eleven-year-old Ellie, who has been fat-shamed and bullied since childhood, begins to break away from “Fat Girl Rules” she’s been told are foundational to her life. Ellie’s loving friendships, close relationship with her father, and a growing positive connection with a fabulous therapist, accompany her on her painful journey. Ellie is perceptive about herself and others, as well as vulnerable, persistent, and empathic. Readers will cry as Ellie is hurting, and cheer as she enjoys time with loving friends and gradually develops the ability to navigate and respond to bullying at home, school, and in the world, in order to become her authentic self.

Several middle grade books handle fat-shaming, dieting, and eating disorders. Among them, Lisa’s book and my own anti-diet novel in verse, Reeni’s Turn (Regal House, 2020) zero in on the younger audience within middle grade, those under age 12. Our books speak to the reality that these issues are common in that early tween population, and seek to correct the underrepresentation of that dynamic in the literary conversation.

Lisa, what can you share about your own “inner” journey as you wrote Starfish. What’s the journey been like for you?

Starfish is not an autobiography, but in some version, everything said and done to Ellie has been said and done to me. The journey was torturously introspective. I did a deep dive, emotionally, to mine every bit of my pain, shame, fear, and anger. I visited familiar places and I thought back to every horrible moment. Gym classes where I was always chosen last for teams, pummeled during dodgeball, laughed at when I ran, and traumatized in the locker rooms. Playgrounds where I’d sit behind a tree to read, write, or draw, trying to stay separate from others for much-needed breaks.

But without fail, kids found and bullied me.

I remembered lunchtimes in the elementary school cafeteria, where I’d watch with envy as others ate without everyone staring in disgust with each and every bite they put in their mouths. Lunchtimes in junior high, where I’d just sit at a table in the back and not eat, even though I was hungry. Lunchtimes in high school when I could go to the library instead—and did, grabbing a book or my journal, sitting at a table in a back corner with my back to the wall so I could have plenty of warning when someone came at me to hurl an insult or do something to me.

I recalled how it felt to carry all my books for every class so I didn’t have to go to my locker; I could get to classes more quickly, and classrooms were safer than hallways. But not by much. When I walked down a hallway, people pointed, stared, and laughed. Mooed. Oinked. People slammed their backs against the hallways, as if I took up every single inch of space.

I remembered the school buses. Cruel buses, I called them. I always sat alone. People threw things at me. Every morning on the way to school, I prayed that people would just leave me alone. I didn’t dare pray for them to defend me or like me. That seemed like way too big of an ask, even for God. I just wanted them to stop hurting me. I longed to be ignored. Those prayers went unanswered.

But some of my strongest emotions came when staring at the doors to the schools. Whenever I stood before them – even decades later when I revisited the schools and remembered everything as I worked on Starfish – there was a tightness in my chest. I struggled to swallow. To breathe.

Lisa in first grade.

Every day from kindergarten through twelfth grade, I’d had to steel myself and force myself to walk up to the doors, open them, and walk through them. Because I knew. I knew what was in store for me inside. School, for me, was a prison. A hell.

But I didn’t just visit schools. I drove by the house I grew up in and relatives’ houses, remembering hurtful things my family had said and done. I sat in my car in the parking lots at all the doctors’ offices and hospitals my mom dragged me to in her quest to “fix” me.

As I reflect on my writing journey for Starfish, I’m reminded of a quote from Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within (Shambhala, 1986): “Writers live twice. They go along with their regular life … But there’s another part of them that they have been training. The one that lives everything a second time. That sits down and sees their life again and goes over it. Looks at the texture and details.”

That’s the most accurate description of my Starfish journey.

I want to be known for telling stories that make people feel. And for readers to feel, the writer has to feel, to be authentic. Feeling boils down to empathy. To me, empathy isn’t walking in someone else’s shoes because shoes are easy to take off. Empathy is living in someone else’s skin. Feeling what the character feels. As I recalled and then felt everything Ellie would feel, I could transfer that to poetry and paper.

Lisa with her grandmother, the one relative who never said anything about her weight.

Have you had ups and downs during your writing journey? Was there ever a time when you questioned your persistence and resilience?

I don’t know a single writer who hasn’t had ups and downs. We’re artists. One minute we’re bold and taking risks, stretching ourselves and our craft, and the next we’re curled up under a blanket in bed and doubting ourselves.

When it came to Starfish, my ups and downs came in large part from reliving so many soul-scarring moments. I also had ups and downs simply because I was working full-time and taking care of my mother, who has Alzheimer’s, as I wrote Starfish. I never thought about giving up. It didn’t even cross my mind. I needed this book when I was little. I know kids today do, too.

How do you celebrate the “ups” and manage the “downs”? And is there any advice you’ve received that’s been particularly helpful?

I mark highlights in my career in an online calendar. Every October eleventh, for example, I’m reminded of the day my book deal for Starfish went public. That allows me to celebrate it all over again. And if I’m having a down when that career highlight on my calendar pops up, it reminds me that they’ll be another up.

I took the Hemingway path to being an author— I was a journalist first. It’s rare for journalists to get compliments. Usually you just get threatening emails and people cussing you out. So, when I got a compliment, I saved it in a folder. Now I keep a folder for good things people say about my novel writing, whether that’s a critique partner, expert at a workshop, my agent, my editor, reviewer, reader, whomever.

Your main character, Ellie, invites us inside her experiences, thoughts, and feelings from page one, and never lets us go. I found Ellie vulnerable, perceptive about herself and others, and clear that her sense of who she is and her right to take up space in the world is distinct from the attitude, words, and actions of those who bully her—at home, at school, and in the outside world.

Although she is repeatedly victimized, she is never a victim, never feels completely hopeless. Her journey is one of small and careful steps in the context of beautifully described therapy sessions that accurately convey how most of us grow. I could go on…but I’ll ask, instead: can you talk about what went into creating Ellie?

Lisa’s pug Gigi, the inspiration for Ellie’s dog in Starfish.

I didn’t create Ellie as much as I she came to me and I watched her. My process is kind of weird. I guess the best way to describe it is the heart of the story, key scenes, and the characters come to me, videoclip by videoclip, in my head. It doesn’t all come to me at once, though. Darn it. And the clips don’t come in order. Sometimes I see the ending of a book before I even know how it starts. And for Starfish, I was able to use all that I went through to add more flesh to the bones. Starfish is my heart and soul.

The key to creating any authentic character is to spend time with them. Know them as well as your best friend. Your partner. Yourself. Don’t rush the process and submit too soon, or meet a deadline. Readers might forgive some weaknesses in your writing or plot but won’t tolerate characters who don’t come alive.

As a reader, the books I love are the ones where, weeks later, I find myself still thinking about the characters. I miss them, and don’t want to say goodbye. They were part of my eyes, and then the relationship ended.

When my bookshelves get full and I have to weed through the books to decide which ones to donate, I always choose the novels I don’t even remember reading. Inevitably, each one of those books had one-dimensional, stereotypical, trite, underdeveloped characters who, if they were food, would be soggy melba toast without so much as a little jam topping to redeem them and make them easier to swallow. Give the reader characters who are chocolate-filled croissants: lots of rich, melts-in-your mouth layers on the outside, and a delicious surprise on the inside. Something they’ll crave more of. Tell their friends about. Remember. Miss when they’ve finished their last bite.

Thank you for sharing the heart and spirit embedded in Starfish, Lisa. And best wishes for your success! 

Cynsational Notes

Lisa Fipps is a former award-winning journalist and current director of marketing for a public library. Starfish is her debut novel, published by Nancy Paulsen Books. She is represented by the Liza Royce Agency.

Carol Coven Grannick’s debut MG novel in verse, Reeni’s Turn, is available through Indiebound and other stores via her website, where she’d love you to visit and say hello! Her children’s fiction and poetry appear and are forthcoming in Cricket, Highlights, Ladybug, Babybug, Hello, and Hunger Mountain, and her poetry for adults appears in numerous online and print journals.

In addition to being a reporter for Cynsations, she is a columnist for the SCBWI-Illinois Prairie Wind, a member of the GROG Blog, and guest blogger for children’s lit blogs.