Interview with Anna Shinoda: “I Was Getting Overwhelmed With The Story”

A month ago, Anna Shinoda published her debut novel “Learning not to Drown” (LNTD), a heartbreaking novel about the 17-year old Clare trying to fight her way through the net of secrets and lies revolving her incarcerated brother Luke. While I’ve already written a detailed review of the novel, I also had the chance to interview the lady herself! Big thanks to Anna Shinoda for answering a few questions about the writing process, the complex characters of LNTD, imagery and her plans for the future.

In LNTD you address a very complex and tough topic for a young adult novel: the struggle of a sex offender’s family. Why did you decide to approach this topic from the perspective of 17-year old Clare and address the young reader?

The general reason why I like writing for teens is that they haven’t had enough life experience to water their emotions down, so everything they feel is so intense. As adults, sometimes we forget what it feels like to experience something for the first time – how the littlest thing can feel like it is the end of your world. For Clare, being a teen would be hard enough – she wants to be independent, but she is still so dependent on her parents because of basics – food, shelter, their signatures on permission slips. Add on to this her complex family dynamic and what she needs to do to preserve her future. She’s trapped. I think a lot of teens feel that way. But I also wanted to show that even when she is feeling trapped there are still things Clare can do to thrive. Clare saves her money. She works hard in school. Those are steps that she has made toward her independence, things she can control even in the midst of everything else being so out of her control. I hope to inspire teens to find healthy ways that they can be in control, and look toward a future that is better than their present.

Anna at a private release party

The type of storytelling in LNTD is very interesting. Clare’s point of view is the only source of information but, as the reader has to find out throughout the novel, it is flawed because she’s living in denial. The reader is forced through a similar learning process as Clare which made me personally more sympathetic of her emotional turmoil. Did you intend that or do you have other reasons why you used this technique of storytelling?

Yes, that was intentional. Having a loved one incarcerated is not the cut and dry issue that makes us more comfortable. It’s easier to imagine that criminals are terrible without a good moment in their past. But the truth is that everything is in the grey area. People do awful things, their families ignore it or allow good memories to overshadow it, not because they are bad people, but because they have seen the good and know the potential for good. I wanted the reader to experience that as Clare – to really understand her family through her eyes.

In the novel you don’t try to explain Luke’s course of action. You don’t discuss possible reasons why he became a sex offender. Was this a topic you avoided on purpose to concentrate on the other family members as victims of his actions, or was this just a task that turned out to be too hard?

Luke’s story could be a full novel itself. Certainly there are a lot of questions of nature verses nurture. Does a person do terrible things because they were born with a certain disposition? Or does a person learn that behavior? Is it a combination of the two? I don’t know what makes someone become a sex offender. I probably will never know. But I do know how it feels to find out someone you love did something monstrous. That was the seed that began the novel and I wanted to keep the concentration on telling the story of the family members.

“Thank you to @booksoup for hosting my first ever book signing tonight and thanks to everyone who came! A book is never complete until someone reads it and brings their own experiences to the pages. So excited and grateful that my book can now be complete.”
– Anna Shinoda on Instagram

The novel is full of imagery such as the water-related motifs like learning to swim, drowning, the swamp/lake, and of course Skeleton, the personification of Clare’s trauma. Why did you choose those images in particular?

Early on, I knew that the scenes with the lake and swimming needed to be in the book, but I didn’t realize how big a part they’d play. Through edits and the story’s evolution, I came to realize the metaphors of that imagery and then concentrated on developing it.

As far as Skeleton goes, his character was created on purpose. I was getting overwhelmed with the story and Clare was getting overwhelmed, too. I realized I needed someone to guide Clare. It felt natural to bring her family skeleton literally out of the closet and make him into a character.

Clare’s mother is one of the most intriguing characters in LNTD. She’s extremely multi-layered: helpless, but practical when Luke needs her, caring when her children are in danger, but overall unfair in her distribution of love towards her children. Personally, I felt a deep empathy for her, because she seemed so broken, even though she made me angry during some parts of the novel. Did you have to struggle with the creation of her character? Was it hard to imagine how a mother reacts to her child being confronted with the law and to anticipate her emotions and decisions?

In early drafts, Clare’s mother was a very flat character, with close to zero redeeming qualities. My editor asked me to work on making her more three-dimensional. At that time, my own family was growing and, as a mother, I had a deeper understanding of the fears and daily struggles that moms go through. A hundred times a day I was making decisions to pay attention to or help one child first simply because there was only one of me. I started imagining what I would do if I had an incarcerated child. How would that be different than what Clare’s mom does? And why? What was in her past that would drive her to act in those ways? I realized an important part of Clare’s story is her mother’s childhood, and how underlying negative family cycles can continue and cause skeletons to live on.

Photo: Bobby Kim

Photo: Bobby Kim

You’ve started writing LNTD about ten years ago and your own brother is incarcerated, so I think we can assume that this issue is very close to your heart and this novel is very important for you. Still, it is a novel with a fictional plot and not your autobiography. Are you worried that readers who know about the parallels of your and Clare’s story could get confused and read LNTD as an autobiography after all?

I assume that will happen a little, so just to recap here: my family is complex and each person has their own story. Out of respect for them, I wrote this as a work of fiction. I did a ton of research – interviewed people with incarcerated family members, watched documentaries, read articles, visited message boards – all resulting in a fictional novel that is a blend of all of that with my experiences and my imagination.

You must have thought of many other story lines during the ten years you spent working on LNTD . Will they tackle similar complex issues as LNTD or do you plan a change in genre and maybe write something lighter and more fun? Can you give us an outlook of what’s in store for the next years?

Most of my story ideas center around complex issues. I’d love to write something that is also fun at the same time. I’m not sure which idea will be complete first, but some topics I am interested in are body image, our complex relationship with the environment, and the temporary fixes that can actually make things worse. I like writing realistic fiction, but since I grew up reading a lot of fantasy, it would be fun to dive into that world one day.

Check out Anna Shinoda’s website, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to get informed about her future projects.


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