In Liar & Spy, after Georges' family moves into a new apartment, he spends a lot of time watching America's Funniest Home Videos with nobody but a print by Seurat (his namesake) for company. His dad is trying hard to build up a clientele, and his mom is working double shifts at the hospital to keep the family afloat.
But when Safer, the boy who lives upstairs, starts giving him spying lessons, Georges finds more than he expected in his new home. Rebecca Stead talks about families, names and the writing life after the Newbery.
Find other books about families coping with tough times.
The families in your book are nuclear families that have been disrupted by situations other than divorce. Why might these families be good for children to read about?
I rarely start out from position that I want to write about something because it's good for kids to read about it. I selfishly write to explore my own questions or the material that's intriguing to me. The idea of family is one of those things that keeps popping up in my writing.
I think I'm a little bit in love with the idea of a flexible notion of what a family is, that an imperfect family can still be a really wonderful, strong family; by imperfect, I mean not everyone is acting as their best self. We have weak days when it's hard to be your best, as a parent or as a kid. I think I'm attracted to situations where things are far from perfect and yet everyone is getting enough, and there's a lot of love and it works. But again, I don't think about this ahead of time. It's a great way of learning about yourself—writing and then reading the books you've written.
You include a great metaphor of a Seurat painting, how if you look closely you only see dots and if you step back you can see the whole picture. Your book feels like this, too; it's not until the end that we get the whole picture. Was writing the book like that?
I'm almost always looking at the dots! I'm one of those people who has her face pressed up against the mirror. That's the way I write and the way I experience life—I'm always thinking that the way things are now is the way they're going to be forever.
When I'm writing I'm usually focused on the moment. I might be trying to get some emotion down on the page between two people, or a moment when one person quietly realizes something about another person. But I rarely do it with the knowledge about why that is happening. I don't outline, I don't know what's coming, I don't know the resolution. I just try to write as well as I can, and then during revision I step back and ask myself all those big hard question about what the arc of story is, where I want things to end up. It's a whole separate process.
Has your writing process changed since winning the Newbery Medal for When You Reach Me?
Winning the Newbery was this huge shot of joy, and you can't really set that aside, especially when writing. I think you should wrap yourself in as much joy as possible when writing because there's so much self-censorship and self-judgment—it's good to cloak yourself in good feelings if you're able to.
I don't think I'm in control of my process. I think I change very slowly as a writer. I will say I felt more nervous! It cranked up the voice of my inner critic. You write something and the next day it doesn't feel like great work and when you're imagining people with high expectations reading it, it's worse! So I became a little bit more critical of myself, but I realized the alternative is to not write. So I had to get over it.
Names are very important in the book; can you talk about that?
Names are mysterious things to me. Sometimes when I'm writing a name comes to me and it just feels right. Bob English Who Draws was one of those. I felt like his name captured not just who he is but how he's seen in the world. Georges' name—he actually had a completely different name. I was walking down the hall at some giant conference in Chicago, and I realized I wanted Georges to have the name Georges for Georges Seurat, and it came along with the whole idea of Seurat's painting and what it represents, and it immediately appealed to me as an idea that anyone of any age can understand.
When I write I'm trying to open up questions and explore things. This idea that we should question everything—what is a name, why should kids go to school? Most of the time I'm trying to dig under things, air them out, open them up and get readers to ask themselves questions.