October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Author Hollis Seamon recently wrote an amazing young adult novel, Somebody Up There Hates You, featuring two teenagers living in hospice care while suffering from terminal cancer. Despite the grim subject matter, I can honestly say that this was one of the more heartful and thoughtful books I've read this year. Hollis was kind enough to answer a few questions about the book for us. Check your local library and reserve your copy.
I was fully expecting to get bummed out by this book. At times, it was really touching and sad. But there are several moments that made me laugh out loud—in particular, the opening scene with Richard and Sylvie's prank. Did you strive for lighter moments in the book or did that just happen organically while you were writing it?
"I'm so glad that you weren't bummed out by the book. I know that when someone hears the overall situation, with Richie and Sylvie in hospice, it seems like it will be a grim story. But it's really not, because Richie himself is a funny, witty guy who perceives—and reports on—all of the absurdities around him. It's his voice, I think, that gives the novel its humor and its lightness. This did happen organically, as Richie's voice rolled on in my head, describing his adventures and misadventures. As Richie falls in love and grows up, under the most extreme conditions, his humor is more tempered by understanding of others around him—he becomes just a bit wiser, more sympathetic to fellow sufferers of the human condition."
All of the staff at the hospice were such great characters, in particular Edward and Mrs. Jacobs. Did you base elements of those characters on real people that you had met?
"Not in terms of their physical attributes, but all of the nurses are based, in part at least, on the nurses that I knew in children's hospitals. They were extraordinary, in their compassion and ability to let sick kids be, first and foremost, kids. So, sure, the hospital floors were a little more chaotic and messy than might have been strictly allowed—but the kids were having some fun, mixed in with all of the pain and misery.
So I tried to capture the spirit of those nurses. Mrs. Jacobs took on a life of her own, as I was writing: she starts out as a sort of 'Big Nurse' character, all starchy and rule-bound. But, as Richie learns, she has had her own share of tragedy and she has much to teach Richie. And Edward? He is, as Richie says, the world's best nurse, and they should double his pay. Edward is a consummate, skilled professional—but he's also a human being and it's his human qualities that make him such a friend to Richie."
I really liked Sylvie. Even with the novel told entirely from Richard's point of view, I feel like we got a good sense of her character. That said, were you ever tempted to tell a chapter from her perspective? Or from any other character's point-of-view? Or was it important that this be Richard's story?
"Ah, Sylvie. I'm delighted that you liked her. She's not always easy to like: she's tough and fierce and often not very nice. As Richie says, she has some of her father's dragon blood running in her veins. I didn't consider using Sylvie's perspective in this novel but I did, in an early version of the book, have some sections from Richie's mother's point of view. As the book was edited and shaped, however, those sections were removed. It seemed crucial that the whole story be seen/heard/experienced through Richie's eyes—even when his viewpoint becomes fuzzy, with drugs and his worsening condition. It is his version of this tale—others, I'm sure, would tell it differently. But this is Richie's book, through and through, and I'm happy with it being so strongly his."
Somebody Up There Hates You is one of my new favorite books to recommend. Are there any novels you drew on for inspiration, or that you would recommend for fans of your book? Any chance you might be working on a new novel in the future?
"There are so many wonderful young adult novels out there. Right now, I'd recommend Two Boys Kissing by David Levitan, Y by Marjorie Celona, and September Girls by Bennett Madison. I've recently read all of these and find them impossible to forget. Their stories are multilayered and their characters are utterly real and engaging. And, yes, I'm working on a new novel. It's too soon to say much about it but I'm excited to feel this sort of swelling in my chest that is my signal that there's a new novel in there, wanting to get out. (I know: that sounds weirdly like something from the movie Alien but it's exactly how it feels!) Stay tuned……and thanks so much for recommending Somebody Up There Hates You."
Be sure to check out some of our previous blogs, including a breast cancer research guide and a cancer survivors reading list.