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Susan Nussbaum Individualizes Institutionalized Children by Diane Slocum

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Good Kings Bad Kings Susan Nussbaum

Good Kings, Bad Kings by Susan Nussbaum

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Susan Nussbaum Individualizes Institutionalized Children

Susan Nussbaum’s award-winning debut novel, Good Kings Bad Kings, enters the world of youths with disabilities who are housed in a facility that is run by a company that cares more about its bottom line than the welfare of its charges. Each of the youth – Yessie, Mia, Teddy – speak in their own way of their lives and desires. Some of the staff – Joanne, Jimmie, Ricky – intertwine their lives with these young people, others are the bad kings.

 

AUTHORLINK: One of the characters uses the words “good king…bad king” in the story. How did you decide on that for your title?

NUSSBAUM: I read a very long piece from the NY Times while doing research for the book. A young boy lived in an institution somewhere in New York. The boy was in the institution’s van, accompanied by two aides. The boy, seated in back, kept trying to stand up out of his seat. So the aide moved to the back of the van and put the child facedown on the seat and straddled him, on his upper back. This kind of “take-down,” as they are called, is quite common, even though they’re illegal in many states. It’s an extreme form of restraint, no matter how it’s done, and this particular child was only about 13 years old and very slightly built. Anyway, the aide who was driving later testified that he saw the boy was struggling, and he heard the other aide saying “I can be a good king or I can be a bad king.” At some point, the weight of the aide crushed the boy to death.

It became the title because it reminded me how when it comes to kids, the adults have all the power. And when the adult in question has no emotional connection to the child, and the child’s welfare is turned over to that adult – as is the case in many institutions – terrible things can happen.

"Well, I never had a writing coach, so I had no idea what the rules were."
NUSSBAUM

AUTHORLINK: Many new novels use formats or styles that writing coaches and agents used to say couldn’t be done. Did anyone object to what some might call character sketches opening your book?

NUSSBAUM: Well, I never had a writing coach, so I had no idea what the rules were. I came to novel-writing through a few twists and turns and I never expected to find myself writing a book. I actually went to acting school when I was young, where they don’t teach you any useful skills, at least in my case, unless your job requires you to fake a swordfight or break into an Irish accent. Then in my last year of school, I was injured and became a wheelchair-user, and after a few years, began writing plays in my spare time. And being disabled, which led to meeting all kinds of people I would never meet as a non-disabled person, gave me tons of stuff to write about. Maybe that accounts for my preference for first-person, very close up glimpses of characters when introducing them to a reader. I hoped to tell enough to get a reader interested, kind of oriented, and then deepen the character out as the story unfolds. And I had seven main narrators to introduce. So maybe I was lucky not to have a writing coach tell me I shouldn’t do that. My agent was a big fan of the book from the beginning, though.

You know, my big thing is the voice. It’s always been about hearing the voice of the character. Even in this interview, I see I’m throwing words in like “you know” and “well.” But my point is, to some extent, I’m trying to inject my voice into my answers.

". . . there are some amazing books that read exactly like novels but are actually factual accounts written by journalists."
NUSSBAUM

AUTHORLINK: Another technique that is different is the way the characters are telling their stories. It’s reminiscent of a documentary.

NUSSBAUM: I really think that’s a result of the first person, present tense approach. I’m pretty sure present tense is something writing coaches also warn about! But there are some amazing books that read exactly like novels but are actually factual accounts written by journalists. Have you ever read Random Family by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc? I loved that book. But Good Kings Bad Kings is fiction through and through. It is based heavily on facts that I gathered through interviews and all kinds of written accounts and studies. Some of the voices in the book have a rhythm and style of real people who I know, but, of course, what they say and do and the circumstances of their lives are fictional. But I can see why it feels real. This is a world I know a great deal about.

AUTHORLINK: Which characters surprised you the most or demanded more attention?

NUSSBAUM: Teddy was tough to write. His voice came in dribs and drabs. Teenage boys are hard to write for me. I could never do the job I wanted to with Pierre, either, so I ended up letting Ricky tell Pierre’s story. But I originally spent a lot of time trying to get a handle on Pierre’s voice. Mia was tricky, because even though I am very familiar with her accent from other people I know, I had to continually make decisions about how much of what she said would be written phonetically, and at what point that would become tedious for a reader.

AUTHORLINK: How was the experience of writing and publishing a novel different from your plays?

NUSSBAUM: The process of writing is similar, in that it’s a solitary, very internal experience. The similarity ended there for me. Even in that one way, the process of book-writing was infinitely more consuming, more complicated, more demanding in every way. I was able to sidestep the whole problem of finding an agent and publisher, though, by winning the PEN/Bellwether Prize. In that way, I was luckier than just about all your first-timers, unless you’re a Navy Seal, for example, or Justin Bieber. I also made the mistake of imagining that once you’ve finished the book and have a publisher, you’re done, when in fact you’re just beginning. There’s a lot of social interaction required with a book. Readings, interviews, going places, wearing make-up, etc. I’m a bit of a loner, and I tend to be a private person, so I was unprepared. With plays, you might show up now and then and go out after and have a beer or two with the actors.

AUTHORLINK: What do you hope people will gain from your story?

NUSSBAUM: I hope they will on some level register that disabled people don’t think much, if at all, about their disabilities. Since the dominant culture seems to believe we are all totally consumed and tortured by our disabilities, all of the time, then my book will be a refreshing change. Otherwise, I only hope they will enjoy it. For the reasons we enjoy reading.

"I never expected to win. I knew a lot of people would enter their books in the competition."
NUSSBAUM

AUTHORLINK: How did you feel when you won the 2012 PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction?

NUSSBAUM I never expected to win. I knew a lot of people would enter their books in the competition. I felt mine would be a major longshot. Although I did have that disability angle going for me. And then somewhere along the way, I began to find myself sitting in my living room trying out acceptance speeches. I mean, without even realizing it, I would suddenly start rhapsodizing about how grateful I was, but very modest, you know? Then there was a very long period of waiting to hear. I started to believe I had definitely lost. One morning I woke up and I had had enough. I thought they should at least notify people that the winner had been chosen so we could get on with our lives. I fired off an email to the contact person at PEN, telling him that very thing, and pushed “send.” The next moment the phone rang and it was Barbara Kingsolver.

About Susan Nussbaum:

Nussbaum has been honored for her work with girls with disabilities. Her plays have been produced at many theaters. Her next work will definitely include disabled characters.


About Regular Contributor:
Diane Slocum

Diane Slocum has been a newspaper reporter and editor and authored an historical book. As a freelance writer, she contributes regularly to magazines and newspapers. She writes features on authors and a column for writers and readers in Lifestyle magazine. She is assigned to write interviews of first-time novelists and bestselling authors for Authorlink.