We are very fortunate today to have an interview with Angela Morrison, YA author of Sing Me to Sleep! This interview was unplanned; I emailed Angela after I finished Sing Me to Sleep just to tell her how amazing I thought her book was, and explained I would be saving the review for BI&SP Month, and she asked me if I wanted to interview her for it! How awesome is that? Thank you so much, Angela!
How did you come up with the idea for Sing Me to Sleep?
When I sold my first novel, TAKEN BY STORM, to Razorbill, Penguin’s teen imprint, they signed for a second book—most likely the sequel. When we got STORM edited and sent off to the printers, it was time to write book two. TAKEN BY STORM’s publication was still almost a year away. They were reticent about going with a sequel. They wanted me to write the plot I’d devised for the sequel with new characters. I refused. They weren’t interested in my two other finished manuscripts, so I had to come up with a whole new novel, and they wanted it yesterday.
When our family lived in London, Ontario, Canada, my daughter sang with the Junior Amabile Singers (JAS)—a competitive girls choir. I always wanted to set a novel in that world but didn’t have a story to go with it. The summer I was going through all my idea files looking for a new book Penguin’s girl readers would love, my daughter—and the whole Amabile family—were still hurting over what happened to one of her best friend’s from their guys choir, Matt. I contacted Matt’s mother, and she was touched that I’d want to write a book inspired by her son.
My editor and I batted a rough plot outline back and forth, and then I started writing. I wrote the first draft in less than a month, researched my head off for a month while critiquers and Matt’s mom read it, revised it informed by research and some valuable feedback, and sent it off to my editor. She cried—buckets.
What research did you have to do for this book?
I lived in London, Ontario and Lausanne, Switzerland, so I didn’t have to research those settings that much. I travelled with my daughter’s choir and volunteered with Amabile, so my choir research ended up being picking her brain, going through old notes, and listening to Amabile CDs. (The members of the JAS who have read SING love the girls’ choir scenes because they recognize it’s their choir.) I’d been to Port Huron a lot to cross border shop, but I had to go to the high school’s website, search YouTube, and even find Beth’s house on a real estate site.
The bulk of my research had to do with the secret Derek keeps from Beth. That was heartbreaking stuff. I researched official websites, support group online forums, and read lots of books.
I even ended up doing research to write Beth’s lyrics. I listened to every CD in the house and downloaded more. When I found one with well-written lyrics, I wrote down the shape—like you would for a sonnet—and filled in the blanks with my own words. I used Leona Lewis a lot. She’s got great writers. We watched The X Factor on Sky TV when we lived in Switzerland and saw her win, so on a trip to London, we HAD to buy her CD.
At the beginning of the book, Beth isn’t considered to be very attractive, and suffers with really low self-esteem. Why did you write Beth’s character this way? Was there a reason?
The genesis for Beth was two memories. The first was a girl I went to high school with. She was not attractive and awkward socially. The guys were so mean to her—every day. The second memory was a tall, gangly young woman I heard sing in a concert once. She stood up in the back row and sang the most beautiful soprano solo I’d ever heard. I love books where the under dog wins or the ugly duckling blossoms. And I know how much difference a good hair cut, acne treatment, and a bit of makeup can make in how I look and feel about myself. I thought girls would enjoy the makeover sections and journey along with Beth as her experience broadens and her understanding deepens.
One could take the view that Beth’s guage of her own self-worth is reliant on what others think of her; she only feels good about herself when others do. What would you say to that?
That’s certainly Beth at the beginning. She feels good when she sings—and that’s it. I hope she grows beyond that by the end. That’s a huge part of Beth’s journey.
Considering the inspiration for this book, why did you choose to tell it from Beth’s point of view rather than Derek’s?
Two reasons. First, Razorbill’s audience is 99.9 percent girls. Girl readers relate better to female protagonists. I also wanted the readers to journey with Beth. Plus, my niece got engaged to a young man who shares Matt’s difficulty while I was developing the story, and I heard so much about her romance that I naturally went with Beth. Also, even with all the research in the world, I couldn’t begin to portray someone who suffers from what Derek does from inside his head. And it would have been far to painful to try to do that. As it was, I cried so much when I wrote the ending that I had to keep stopping and drying off the keyboard.
Did you write Sing Me to Sleep with the intent on sending out a message on body image and self-perception?
No. I think it’s the author’s role to tell a story—not decide before hand what messages readers will find in it. If my characters are complex, wounded humans, their journey will reflect our journeys. I want readers to enjoy the story—actually experience the story. And then you can decide what messages are in it. I’ve had some people criticize SING because Beth gets that makeover. Too shallow. Why go there? But books are about escape and fantasy, too. Beth is unsure of herself even after her makeover, but her new appearance opens up new opportunities and challenges for her. She learns a lot, and by the end when she is faced with the most difficult challenge we encounter in life, how she looks doesn’t even come into her consciousness. Her full journey is realized in The Epilogue—that Razorbill asked me to cut, but you can read it on my website.
Is there something you’re trying to say about:
a) Scott’s natural transformation into someone “attractive” versus Beth’s transformation with outside help?
Nope. Scott had braces, a dermatologist, and works out at the gym. He works on it. He’s a guy, though, so he would never admit he was doing all that stuff so he’d be more attractive. He grows and matures physically while Beth’s growth is more inside. Even with all that outside help that we girls seem to think we need, Beth doesn’t accept that she’s beautiful—until Derek takes her hand and says, “You sing me to sleep.”
b) Surface perfection doesn’t always equal happiness, as Beth still wasn’t completely happy even once she was beautiful?
Exactly. She’s still the same wounded girl inside. European acne cream and laser treatments can’t change that. Beauty can be a burden. The creepy guy still harasses her—just in a different way. We don’t tend to sit around feeling sorry for the pretty girls who guys say sexual stuff to, but that’s bullying, too. And can be just as damaging as being called “The Beast.” Girls must be so careful who they trust. Guys who pressure you to demean yourselves care only about themselves—not you. That won’t make you popular, solve your problems or make you beautiful. It will complicate everything you’re dealing with—and might just destroy you.
c) What is considered to be beautiful by others – i.e. Beth being told make-up, dyed hair, push-up bras and laser treatment was necessary?
This is tricky. Appearance is important. That may not be how it should be, but it is how our culture tends to be (especially in the US). Beth clearly needed help. Her helpers were shallow and went overboard, but they did help her. Maybe that’s the key: balance. I know I feel better—more self-confident, less nervous, more outgoing—when my haircut works (and the gray is covered!), my complexion is evened out with make-up, and my clothes fit and are pretty. Good grooming, is good grooming. But extremes can get us in trouble—emotionally and physically.
Seeing as Derek’s character was inspired by a real person, was Beth? If not, was there a “Beth”; someone who made Matt as happy as Beth made Derek? *ANSWER CONTAINS SPOILERS*
I told you about how I came up with Beth earlier. When I was up in Canada for SING ME TO SLEEP’s launch, Matt’s mom told me about the “Beth” in Matt’s life. Matt did fall deeply in love with a girl, but they couldn’t be together. That’s their story. It’s private. I’m not at liberty to share the details. Matt’s mom gave his girlfriend a copy of SING ME TO SLEEP. I hope it wasn’t too hard for her to read. I hope it brought him back a tiny bit.
What is your opinion on how YA novels deal with body image and self-perception?
There are so many YA novels out there these days. I’m sure you can find serious novels, like THIRTEEN REASONS WHY, that show the heartbreak that can result in damaged self-perception, and flaky ones—you all know the novels I mean—about impossibly beautiful girls getting it on with impossibly hot guys that can be just as damaging to a normal girl’s psyche as the airbrushed models in magazines and the chiselled dancers in music videos. No one looks like that. No one acts like that. Get real. (Yes, my author’s photo is retouched—I’m as guilty as everyone else!)
I think part of why TWILIGHT spoke so clearly to girls is Bella’s very human self-doubt when she compares herself to Edward’s inhuman perfection. We all are bombarded with images of inhuman perfection every day. We all feel like Bella—inadequate. But it is her very human imperfections that Edward loves. Hooray!
I’m pleased that just as many of the girls who write to me fall for Scott as fall for Derek. The Dereks of the world are exciting—and if you can by some miracle find one who isn’t totally self-absorbed and conceited—great. But the Scotts, hot or not, will cherish you.
Were there any books you found dealt well with this topic when you were a teen?
I went to my first fiction writing workshop when I was in 11th grade (12th grade in the British system). The piece I submitted was a story for kids about animated kitchen drawer tools. I was placed in a group with lots of guys who wrote fantasy and our instructor, Peter S. Beagle, had just finished writing the screenplay for a (very strange) animated LORD OF THE RINGS adaption. I hit it off with one particular guy, so I had to read lots of fantasy quickly—to catch up. I have to admit, my love of fantasy outlasted the crush on the guy.
My favorite trilogy—then and now—is Ursula LeGuin’s THE EARTHSEA TRILOGY. Her hero, Ged, who I still adore, let’s the taunts of a handsome, rich wizard in training get to him. He accepts the challenge and unleashes unspeakable evil on Earthsea. Ged’s stellar progress is ruined. He has to start all over in his training and it is way more difficult this time. He then must spend the rest of his life fighting the evil. I think that whatever unspeakable evil taunts us—whether it be body image issues, challenges with self-perception, addictions, abuse, loss, lack of love or belief in our lives—our journey is much the same as Ged’s. Read it. You’ll love him, too.
What is your opinion on how peer and media pressure on how we should look affects teenagers today?
I alluded to this in my earlier ranting. There’s a lot of negative stuff out there. What gives me hope, though, is how impressive the young women I meet as I visit high schools are. Girls are smart. They get how destructive believing they need to look and be like that can be. They know surface impressions last about five minutes. As you get to know people, what they do and say impacts how we perceive them far more than how they look.
I’d be lying, though, if I said appearance doesn’t matter at all. That peer and media pressure is there. It is real. Again, it all goes back to balance. Clothes, make-up, hair, working out—that’s fun stuff—as much a part of being a girl as zits and hopeless crushes. Some girls are tomboys. Some girls are creative. Some are brainiacs. Some are girlier than others. Some girls, like Beth, need a good friend to gently help. I guess that’s the challenge—to be that friend. I wish I would have done more for the lonely girl I knew in high school. I should have pulled my nose out of my book a little more often and looked around at the pain and drama going on around me. That’s the key to feeling good about yourself—making someone else feel better.
Anything else you would like to add?
I tell all my readers to hang on tight when the storms blow and to keep singing their OWN amazing songs.
Thank you so much, Angela, for your brilliant and thought provoking answers! As weird as this may sound, I feel a little better about myself just from reading this interview, so thank you! What do you think? Angela has kindly offered to pop over today to answer any questions you have, so leave them in the comments!
If you haven't already, read my review of Sing Me to Sleep. This is one book you need to read!