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September 3, 2015

Next time you're at a museum, a zoo, an aquarium or any kind of cultural institution, pay might just find the thing that sparks the idea for a book! That's what happened to debut novelist Ali Benjamin  --- she was visiting the JELLIES exhibit at the New England Aquarium and couldn't get the haunting, translucent creatures out of her head. Eventualy, they became a very prominent theme in her new middle grade novel THE THING ABOUT JELLYFISH, in which Suzy, a seventh grader, is determined to prove that her best friend died from a rare jellyfish sting. 

Find out more about THE THING ABOUT JELLYFISH in our interview with Ali below, along with the cool thing about "quirk theory," what Ali wished she knew about science as a kid and why she has a hard time choosing her own favorite sea creatures. What inspired you to write THE THING ABOUT JELLYFISH? 

Ali Benjamin: My inspiration was the same as Suzy’s (the main character). My kids had a day off from school, so we drove to the New England Aquarium --- where Suzy’s class is at the book’s opening. I saw the Aquarium’s JELLIES exhibit and was totally awestruck. The jellyfish were just so, so dazzling, and so fascinating, and so, so creepy. I desperately wanted to learn more, but at the time, I couldn’t find any good books about jellyfish. There’s a Toni Morrison quote that says “if there’s a book you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” I started researching, and I started writing, with absolutely no idea where it would take me. I was really just following my own curiosity.

TRC: In your acknowledgements, you write that THE THING ABOUT JELLYFISH was born out of failure. Can you explain what you meant and why you feel that failure is important?

AB: When I first started writing about jellyfish, I thought I was writing non-fiction for adults. I wrote a lengthy article that I hoped to get published in a glossy science/nature magazine. I figured that once I had my name on a published essay, I’d approach a book publisher with a proposal for a full-length book on the subject. One magazine said they were very, very interested in publishing it. Then I waited. And waited. After many months, I got an email that essentially said, “thanks but no thanks.” That kind of rejection is common for writers, and it’s easy to get discouraged. Instead of letting discouragement win, I merged my jellyfish research with a fictional story I’d been working on — one about an awkward girl and her older brother. THE THING ABOUT JELLYFISH is the result.

The question of failure is a really interesting one. We hear all the time about how important it is to be fearless in the face of failure, how failure is just a learning opportunity and so on. Yet most of us remain absolutely petrified of failure. That’s because failure feels terrible. It hurts. It makes us feel ashamed and it can be deeply discouraging --- so much that we are sometimes afraid to even try something new. I think that’s pretty normal. So maybe the important question isn’t so much, “are you afraid to fail?” but rather, “what do you care about enough that you are willing to risk failure?” I cared about this. I cared enough to keep working, even if there was no guarantee that anyone else would ever care.

TRC: There are some pretty adult themes in THE THING ABOUT JELLYFISH, including depression, death and moving on. Why did you feel it was important to include these themes into your story?

AB: I didn’t set out to write a book about death or a book about grief or anything like that. I just tried to tell a story that was as real and true to the experience of growing up as I could. Growing up is messy and sometimes really sad. Sometimes it hurts like crazy. I wish that weren’t true; I wish that we could protect kids from the darkest parts of life simply by never, ever talking about them. Unfortunately, that’s not how it works. Since we can’t make the darkness go away, I figure we might as well talk about it. Maybe we can even use that darkness --- use it as a way to bring all of this world’s extraordinary beauty into sharp relief.

But kids can be wonderfully resilient. They’re generally much better than adults about feeling all the sad feels, then picking themselves up and moving forward. So I always knew that Suzy was going to be okay --- that even though her story started in a dark place, it wasn’t going to end up there. It’s a book that’s framed around a death, but it’s a deeply hopeful book.

TRC: One of the unique things about THE THING ABOUT JELLYFISH is that the book is broken up like a science project, with parts of the book labeled “hypothesis,” “procedures,” “backgrounds,” etc. Why did you decide to break up the book this way?

AB: Suzy wants to prove something that can’t be proven. She wants to force incredibly messy human emotions into a framework that’s entirely rational and predictable, with clear cause and effect. It can’t be done, of course, but she’s trying her hardest. And when kids are trying something, they use what they know. Like any of us, they use the tools that they have. What she had was a framework for asking questions and finding answers.

The idea for the science structure came really late in the game, long after most parts were written. To be honest, I had a hard time making it work. All along, this had been a really tough book to structure. I had the past-tense story and the present-day story, as well as the jellyfish sections, and everything had to rise and peak together, and connect thematically. I’d spent months and months moving parts around, trying to make it all flow effortlessly, without revealing information too soon. Then I thought about using this additional structural element. I was really excited in some ways, but it also meant I had to go back to the drawing board.

TRC: How was your writing process for THE THING ABOUT JELLYFISH different from some of the nonfiction books you’ve co-authored, like THE KEEPER: The Unguarded Story of Tim Howard Young and POSITIVE: A Memoir?  

AB: In some ways it’s similar; you’re always trying to find a story arc, deciding what moments are important to that arc and what moments need to be cut away so the story can shine through. But with fiction, there are literally infinite possibilities. You can put in anything at all: any number and type of character, a plot that can go endless directions. It’s exciting but it can also be deeply paralyzing. When everything is possible, how do you even begin to choose? So for me, fiction is much, much harder.

TRC: Is the protagonist of THE THING ABOUT JELLYFISH, Suzy Swanson, based on anyone from your own life? 

AB: My younger daughter is an introvert who loves the ocean and has a beautifully unique way of viewing the world. My older daughter is fearless and determined, and wouldn’t hesitate to step on an international flight alone if she could --- so there are elements of both of them in there. But some of Suzy’s most painful moments --- for example, talking too much in the cafeteria when it’s obvious to everyone, even herself, that it’s time to stop --- came from things that I remember doing in middle school, myself.

Since writing the book, I’ve had lots of people share their own middle school experiences with me, and one of the things I’ve learned is that almost everybody felt like Suzy sometimes when they were in middle school. Even those kids who had tons of friends often felt like they were on the outside looking in. There’s something so beautiful, and so tragic, about that --- everyone walking around feeling alone.

TRC: Suzy loves science and her science teacher, Mrs. Turton. Was science your favorite subject growing up? Also, who was your favorite teacher and what made them so special?

AB: Actually, science was hard for me. I was a messy, imprecise kid, much more like Justin than Suzy! I was easily distracted, with zero tolerance for anything tedious, and science felt tedious to me; it was it was about abstract formulas, jargon and worksheets. I got the idea pretty early on that I wasn’t a “science type.” I also thought I had to make a choice between being a “science type” or an “arty type.”

But meanwhile, I was fascinated by the natural world around me; I loved thinking about dinosaurs and extinction.  I spent hours catching and studying bugs and frogs and wanted to stare up at the stars, thinking big thoughts about the universe. So In fact, I actually was a science type. I just didn’t understand that at its heart, what matters about science isn’t the jargon or formulas; science is a way of exploring the world and opening yourself up to astonishment. I wish I’d learned that sooner.

TRC: Are jellyfish your favorite sea creatures? If so, why? If not, what is?

AB: I do love jellyfish, but I have a hard time choosing my favorite sea creature. Everything in the ocean is so interesting. Like, there’s a creature called a “pig butt worm” (no joke) that surrounds itself with mucus to catch food. There’s a shrimp that scientists just found that was thought to have gone extinct in the time of the dinosaurs; it’s been down there all along. There’s a crab covered with hair like a yeti, or the incredibly graceful leafy seadragon. How does a person choose between all of these great creatures?

There’s a terrific photography book by Claire Nouvian that I mention in the author’s note of THE THING ABOUT JELLYFISH --- it’s called THE DEEP. It’s filled with photographs of crazy creatures from the ocean. I’ve probably looked at this book 100 times, and I’m always struck by how alien ocean life seems. It’s so otherworldly, yet it’s all right here on our planet. And we still know so little. Seventy percent of the Earth’s surface is ocean, yet 95% of it remains unexplored, totally unseen by human eyes. Scientists estimate that there are a million marine species out there, but we’ve described only 250,000 of them. There’s so much more to be discovered.  I think that’s so exciting.

TRC: Have your daughters read THE THING ABOUT JELLYFISH? If so, what did they think of it?  

AB: If my older daughter has read it, she hasn’t told me yet! And that’s okay; I’m not a big believer in forced reading. My younger daughter is both fascinated and horrified by some of Suzy’s actions. Both of them think the whole idea that I wrote a book is weird because to them, I’m just their mom.

TRC: What were some of your favorite books growing up?

AB: It’s probably no surprise, but I loved stories where the main character had visible flaws, and even made really big mistakes. I also loved books where kids created their own world, totally out of reach of the adults. I loved all of the Ramona Quimby books. I also adored HARRIET THE SPY, THE SECRET GARDEN, and THE MIXED UP FILES OF MRS. BASIL E. FRANKWEILER.

TRC: What advice would you give to a kid who, like Suzy, is an outcast and is having difficulty making friends?

AB: I heard a terrific phrase recently: “quirk theory.” It’s the idea that the thing that makes you feel like an outsider as a kid is the very thing that brings great things into your life when you’re older. I believe to my core, because I’ve seen it happen over and over again. But I also know that the phrase “when you’re older,” isn’t all that reassuring to a kid who’s feeling out of place today. “Later” can feel like forever, and “someday” isn’t soon enough. So, for those kids, I’ll say this: I think you are awesome. Right now. Today. Exactly as you are. It doesn’t even matter if we’ve met yet; the very fact that you don’t feel like you fit in tells me that you’re interesting. If we meet, I hope you tell me all the quirkiest things about you. Please put your trust in the quirk theory; I swear it won’t let you down.