A conversation with Michelle D. Kwasney
Discuss your inspiration for writing Itch.
Itch, aka Delores Colchester, first began to “speak” to me about ten years ago. Instantly I was under her spell, writing down everything she had to say. Itch informed me she’d gotten her nickname from an especially bad brush with poison ivy that left her scratching all summer. I immediately liked her voice, her spunk, her straightforward approach. And I enjoyed her tendency to ponder things; she even had a special Thinking Swing for the job. When a character appears as full-blown as that, I’m all ears.
Did you start with a character or a plot? How did the story emerge?
I always begin with character. Plot tends to intimidate me, so I prefer to think of it as my main character’s travelogue. My first drafts are pretty open-ended: I provide the wheels and fill the tank with gas, but my character sits in the driver’s seat. Plot evolves as I ride along, taking notes. After we’ve reached a destination (which may or may not be the ending) and we’ve parked the car in the garage, I start to look at the mechanics of the trip we just took. From there I question what needs to be added or cut to make the next venture more satisfying.
Briefly describe the revision process. Did the story change much over the course of the revision?
Absolutely! Itch isn’t the same novel I submitted to my editor, Christy Ottaviano, many years ago. Originally, it was about a girl who lived with her alcoholic mother and who, along the way, befriended a popular girl with a dark secret. Over the course of two revisions, Christy—who has amazing instincts—made several suggestions. Among them, she hoped I would make Itch and Wendy’s friendship the focus of the novel, omit the character of Itch’s mother, draw Itch’s Gramps into the novel more (even though he has passed on), and have Itch live with her no-nonsense Gram.
This novel takes place in the 1960’s. You grew up during this decade, so many of the period references were familiar to you. Please discuss.
I loved revisiting a world of wooden swings and Black Jack gum, paint-by-number sets and watches you had to wind every morning. And because I’m a huge fan of 1950’s automobiles—and have a large collection of model cars that line my writing room shelves—writing about Gramps’s 1957 Bel Air convertible was pure pleasure. I love that his car becomes somewhat of a character in the novel, a vehicle for more than just travel.
You tackle some serious topics in this novel, such as death and child abuse. What motivated you to delve into these issues?
As a teacher, I’ve had students who were abused, have been involved in reporting abuse, and have been called to testify in court. Abuse victims exist in a kind of parallel universe that makes them feel less connected, less real than their peers. They need books that point the way toward hope, and I feel drawn to be a part of this. Regarding the issue of death, my own grandfather passed away while I was writing Itch, and I don’t doubt that my sadness spilled over into her story. He and I shared a closeness much like Itch shared with Gramps, so she and I moved through the grieving process together. Still, though, I can’t say that I intentionally set out to write about death or child abuse. Like I’ve mentioned, I don’t go in search of my stories, they tend to find me.
Talk a little about Itch and Wendy’s relationship. How do each of them benefit and grow from their friendship?
When the two girls first meet, Wendy appears to Itch to have everything going for her. She’s pretty and popular, a hometown celebrity because of her baton twirling talent. Seeing her own life as seriously lacking by comparison, Itch wants nothing more than to be Wendy’s friend. When school begins, Itch realizes Wendy’s life isn’t as perfect as it seems on the surface. Wendy is secretive and anxious, and she’s absent far too often. When Itch’s worst fear is confirmed—that Wendy is being abused at home—she leans heavily on what she’s learned from Gramps to advise her. In order to prove to herself—and to Gramps’s memory—that she’s strong enough to help her friend, Itch must test what Gramps has taught her: “Speaking up takes courage.” Otherwise Wendy might never break the silence that will end her abuse. And Itch might never discover how strong she really is or how much she is like her beloved Gramps.
Itch loves words and has a “Favorite Word List.” Did you keep one when you were young?
Yes, I’ve always collected words. My favorite childhood gift was a beautiful hardbound dictionary, which I would read constantly, memorizing words I was drawn to.
Was your experience writing this novel similar to or different from your first novel, Baby Blue? How so?
The writing process was very similar. Blue and Itch spoke quickly and easily. I wrote both first drafts longhand, since that was the only way I could keep up with them. Also—perhaps because of my background as an artist—both of their stories unfolded with amazing visual detail. I could “see” the scenes in my mind’s eye. This has always happened when I read, so I was delighted that it happened as I wrote. The revision process for each novel was much different. In Christy’s words, Baby Blue had “good bones,” so in terms of mechanics, it was much easier to rework. Itch had many significant issues to tackle, and the final revision was an almost complete rewrite.
In many ways, this is a coming-of-age novel. What does Itch discover about herself through the course of the novel?
Itch learns she is much stronger than she realizes. She learns that loss occurs, and we can and do go on to survive it. She learns that parents are imperfect. But I think the most important thing Itch discovers manifests in a quiet shift within her. A word from Itch’s Favorite Words list begins and ends the novel, and each of those words says something about her journey.