Today I have the absolute pleasure of interviewing Olugibemisola Rhuday-Perkovich about her novel Eighth Grade Superzero, which I read (and loved) for the first round of Nerds Heart YA. I meant for this interview to go up during the summer, but it turned out that both of us had insane summers, and it just didn’t work out. However, late is better than never! So, without further adieu, here is the delightful Gbemi.
MF: Is this your first novel? If so, congrats! Even if it’s not, can you tell us a bit about the whole process — from inspiration to publication?
ORP: Yes, Superzero is my first novel. I’d only written a few scraps of paper before, and I got to a point where I told myself that I had to stop “wanting to be” a writer, or being afraid to think of myself as a writer, and just…write. And keep going. I started out with an image of a 10-year-old boy hiding under the covers in his bed, afraid of bugs and terrified of being laughed at. I knew that he’d thrown up in front of everyone on the first day of school. Over a four-year period, that character, Reggie, grew and bloomed, and we got to know each other well — it was a tumultuous love/hate relationship! I spend a lot of time thinking about characters and making random notes that are not part of the story. I need to really know
my characters in order to know how their stories go.
MF: You juggle a lot of issues in this book: race, religion, unemployment, bullying, homelessness, among others. How did you go about finding the right balance for all of them?
ORP: I really kept my mind on the characters and the story; it felt natural. Those issues were a part of what was going on in his world. I’m blessed to live in such a lovely and amazing and heartbreaking city (New York), and there are so many stories to see, many opportunities to listen.
MF: It showed in the book that the characters were front and center. Reggie is such a strong character with a unique voice. What did you do to tap into a 13-year-old boy’s head? Anything special, unique, different?
ORP: Thank you! I don’t think that I did anything special. The character came to me as a boy and stayed that way. I was inspired by people I knew, people I saw…my own life…I didn’t think too much about it while I was writing, though afterward I wondered what I could have been thinking, trying to write a boy!
MF: Whatever you were thinking, it worked great! I know this is an unfair question, but do you have a favorite character or scene?
ORP: Yes, it’s totally unfair! 🙂 I love Ruthie, George Henderson, Monica…really I love them all. Reggie was a struggle for me, and it took me a while to warm up to him. He started out very whiny and too passive, and it took a while to find the Reggie I now know and love. When I was writing the first few chapters, I was in a workshop with the author Kate Morgenroth, who was well aware of my struggle with Reggie, and she advised me to look again at the beauty and strength of his relationship with his friends — that really helped me turn a corner and anchor him in something good and strong.
It’s been a while since I’ve read it, I almost can’t bear to now! But I think that my favourite scenes are the ones in the cafeteria, the one where Reggie and Charlie first meet, and the one where Reggie sits with Charlie after they’ve suffered a big disappointment…
MF: I agree: those are good scenes. You’ve made God, faith, and religion a central part of your novel. Did you experience any resistance from publishers with that? How do you hope it will go down with your readers?
ORP: My editor really understood that those elements were part of Reggie’s story and not part of a particular agenda or lesson of mine. I think that the kids and teens who read the book understand that too — their responses have been wonderful, whether or not they share Reggie’s perspective and ideas about faith and spirituality.
MF: What would you like your readers to take away from their experience with 8th Grade Superzero?
ORP: I hope that a reader connects with the idea that there are many different kinds of “heroes”, many ways to be an activist. I hope that readers know that the small things they do matter, and not everything that we say, do, and think needs to be for public consumption or for some sort of recognition. And there is always room for mercy, redemption, and growth. I hope that they’re inspired to make things, without worrying about being good at it. And I hope that they challenge themselves, be willing to be uncomfortable regularly. And smile often.
MF: Is writing for a middle grade audience something you’ve always wanted to do, or did you just fall into it?
ORP: I think that it’s always been where I’m most comfortable. I’d love to write for all ages…one of these days, I’ll get a picture book done.
MF: Who, or what, inspires you to write?
ORP: I’m fascinated by people, by the small moments, and the big what ifs…I’m inspired and buoyed by my fantastic family and friends, by the children and teens that I meet…I have always needed to write, and always will — it’s my way of growing and working out what I think, figuring out my place in the world, sharing a bit of myself with others.
MF: What’s the most recent book you’ve read and loved, and why did you love it?
ORP: Another tough question….Water Balloon
by Audrey Vernick is exquisite — the writing is both delicate and sure, and the main character Marley, is wonderfully vivid and real. I’m currently reading and enjoying The Reluctant Pilgrim
by Enuma Okoro, Tiny Sunbirds Far Away
, by Christie Watson, As Always, Julia: The Letters of Julia Child
by Sheela Chari, Inconvenient
by Margie Gelbwasserand Manning Marable’s Malcolm X
. I’m re-reading Doublefields
by Elizabeth Enright and studying Kevin Henkes’ novels; I’m in awe of his ability to write such spare but full-bodied stories.
MF: That is a very impressive list of books! If you don’t mind telling us, what can we expect from you next?
ORP: I hope that the two books that I’m working on now, about Ruthie (a Superzero character), work out. And I’m also working on a book about Harriet, a swimmer and knitter who believes that she’s responsible for her brother’s death and believes she has a chance to make things right through a visit to an abandoned subway tunnel. I’ve been working on that one for years, since before Superzero; it’s very close to my heart.
MF: A book about Ruthie would be amazing. And the second one sounds intriguing as well. Thank you so much for your time!
ORP: Thank you so much!