Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Apocalypse Now: An Interview with E.M. Kokie, Author of PERSONAL EFFECTS

by Mindy McGinnis

After his older brother dies in Iraq, Matt makes a discovery that rocks his beliefs about strength, bravery, and honor in this page-turning debut.

Ever since his brother, T.J., was killed in Iraq, Matt feels like he’s been sleepwalking through life — failing classes, getting into fights, and avoiding his dad’s lectures about following in his brother’s footsteps. T.J.’s gone, but Matt can’t shake the feeling that if only he could get his hands on his brother’s stuff from Iraq, he’d be able to make sense of his death. But as Matt searches for answers about T.J.’s death, he faces a shocking revelation about T.J.’s life that suggests he may not have known T.J. as well as he thought. What he learns challenges him to stand up to his father, honor his brother’s memory, and take charge of his own life. With compassion, humor, and a compelling narrative voice, E. M. Kokie explores grief, social mores, and self-discovery in a provocative first novel.

Apocalypsie E.M. Kokie's debut novel PERSONAL EFFECTS releases today from Candlewick Press!

MM: PERSONAL EFFECTS is about many things - a teen boy dealing with the grief of his brother's death, having a major crush on a girl who happens to be his best friend since childhood, and trying to find a way to stand up to his overbearing father. You write Matt very well, in every aspect. Was it difficult to write from the POV of a male?

EMK: You know, I didn't think about writing a boy -- I was writing *this* boy, and I felt like I knew him very well, and I got to know him even better as I revised and worked on the book.  In fact, I tried very hard while I was writing not to overly think about the fact that I was writing from the POV of a male character. I just tried to be true to him, to his world.

When I first started writing this story, I had no idea where it would go (I don't really plot too much before I start writing), and it took me several drafts to really understand Matt. By then I understood what he felt, thought, wanted, needed, etc. I did do some reading to better understand certain aspects of his world, especially his physical reactions to the world  (and there is a memo in my research file about the results of some of my early research searches, as you should really be careful how you phrase google searches), but I felt his voice and his desires weren't foreign or unknown to me. For example, I can relate to being seventeen and attracted to a girl and both thrilled and confused by my reactions. For me it was never a close friend, but I can still remember feeling desperate that I never let my feelings show. Those aspects of Matt are not just things that boys feel. ;)

Later, in revisions, I certainly paid careful attention to whether I got the details of his life experiences and his  physicality right. And after my own revisions, I found some great male readers who I trusted to be brutally honest about where I didn't get the details right. I also have a male agent, and he was terrific about pointing to words or phrases or moments he felt might be off. But overall, I think when writing we need to be true to the life and experiences of every character, and think of them as individuals, rather than get caught up in the assumed characteristics of any group.

MM: TJ's death overseas is the catalyst that sends Matt on a road trip motivated by Matt's desire to honor TJ's memory. But the destination doesn't end with the mission. Matt learns a lot about himself, and TJ. So much of what Matt struggles with is internal. Did you find it difficult to work out so many issues without using dialogue?

EMK: You know, when I read this question I thought, "Without using dialogue? Of course there's dialogue..." But then I really thought about it, and I guess there are key sections where it is Matt, in his head, sometimes even arguing with himself. And I had never thought about it before. I was so sunk into Matt's world, Matt's POV, that I didn't find it odd that these parts of his character arc are entirely internal. There are moments he wishes he could talk with someone, especially Shauna, but it wouldn't have been in his character to do so.

It is organic to Matt and to the plot that there are certain things he has to figure out for himself, and it would have been out of character for him to discuss those feelings, and fears, and confusions, with anyone else.

MM: There were some really tense scenes between Matt and Shauna, his best friend since childhood who he happens to have a massive crush on. For a lot of teens that relationship is going to be the easiest one for them to identify with. What kind of role does Shauna play for Matt, and how does that change as the book moves forward?

EMK: For Matt, Shauna is a weird juxtaposition of comfort and frustration. She has been his rock, his conscience, and his one true ally for most of his life. I don't think it goes too far to say that what he feels for Shauna and the parts of himself he shares with her are what keep him an essentially good person. She more than anyone is the person who gets to see his humor, to see the moments when he lets go of his walls and defenses and breathes free for a few minutes. When he is with her, those times are respite -- they are what keep him going, keep him sane-- and they also are what gives his life hope. Tied up in the attraction he feels for her are all of Matt's defenses and fears, kicked into high gear by the growing tension between them. He doesn't believe he deserves her, doesn't believe she could ever be attracted to him. But she is there, continuing to support him even when many would have walked away.

She is his one good thing, driving him forward. Whether Matt can fully admit it or not, he knows things are changing, and he fears what will happen when they change. That ticking clock in the back of his head, high school and even childhood winding down, his desperation to figure out what he is going to do with his life, a big part of all of that is his fear that Shauna will move on and he will lose her, too. Part of what Matt has to face is how he allows fear and self-doubt to control his life. He needs to figure out when something is worth fighting for, when something is worth the risk of whatever bad consequences he can imagine.

MM: Matt isn't a squeaky-clean hero. The book opens with him beating up a fellow student and breaking a trophy case. Matt has a lot of anger in him. How do you think readers will perceive Matt as he makes his journey of discovery?

EMK: Before PERSONAL EFFECTS was out in the world, I worried about readers being turned off by Matt's anger and his violence at the beginning of the book. It's difficult because in first person present, the reader is getting Matt's skewed view of the world, and he doesn't think very well of himself. But I hoped they would see his good, his vulnerabilities, see his humor, find moments in the midst of the chaos to feel for the circumstances of his life. I hoped the reactions of other characters would help readers see Matt better than he sees himself. Of course, not all readers will be able to relate to Matt or find his story compelling, but so far the response has been amazing. I've actually been surprised by how different readers relate to the book, and the different pieces of it that resonate with them.

E. M. Kokie writes novels for teens. Her debut novel Personal Effects is available from Candlewick Press. As a lawyer, she loves a good story and a good debate. She likes to have the last word.

Mindy McGinnis is a YA author and librarian. Her debut dystopian, NOT A DROP TO DRINK, will be available from Katherine Tegen / Harper Collins Fall, 2013. She blogs at Writer, Writer Pants on Fire and contributes to the group blogs From the Write AngleBook PregnantFriday the Thirteeners and The Lucky 13s. You can also find her on Twitter Facebook.


  1. Thanks for the interview and for helping me celebrate launch day, Mindy and The Lucky Thirteens! Can't wait to cheer on all your books!


  2. Thanks EM for coming onto the blog for the interview! We love our Apocs!