Wednesday, March 11, 2020

Interview with J. Albert Mann for The Degenerates

The Degenerates

by J. Albert Mann
Publisher: Atheneum Books for Young Readers
Release Date: March 17th 2020
Genre: Young Adult, Historical Fiction
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In the tradition of Girl, Interrupted, this fiery historical novel follows four young women in the early 20th century whose lives intersect when they are locked up by a world that took the poor, the disabled, the marginalized—and institutionalized them for life.

The Massachusetts School for the Feeble-Minded is not a happy place. The young women who are already there certainly don’t think so. Not Maxine, who is doing everything she can to protect her younger sister Rose in an institution where vicious attendants and bullying older girls treat them as the morons, imbeciles, and idiots the doctors have deemed them to be. Not Alice, either, who was left there when her brother couldn’t bring himself to support a sister with a club foot. And not London, who has just been dragged there from the best foster situation she’s ever had, thanks to one unexpected, life altering moment. Each girl is determined to change her fate, no matter what it takes.

Can you briefly describe THE DEGENERATES and its characters?

THE DEGENERATES takes on disability in the United States circa 1928.

At the turn of the 20th century, eugenics – a false science – was used to cast people with disabilities (physical, mental, intellectual, and “moral”) as having “undesirable traits” which needed to be wiped out of the human condition through segregation. In other words, the U.S. government (for the “health and safety” of the non-disabled population) institutionalized people with disabilities for life.

The novel is told in the voices of four young women inside what was first called The Massachusetts School for Idiotic and Feebleminded Youth founded in South Boston. Diagnosed by doctors as idiots, morons, and imbeciles (actual medical terms of the day), Maxine is gay, Alice has a physical disability, Rose has Down Syndrome, and London is poor, unmarried, and pregnant. Together, they endure the harsh conditions of the institution while continuing to live deeply meaningful lives.

Who would you say is your favourite character from the story and why?

I waffle when it comes to my favorite character.

I adore Alice’s inner strength and unending patience. I’m in awe of Rose’s propensity to take life as it comes. London’s ability to act is amazing. And Maxine’s willingness to continue to dream against all odds is not only moving but extraordinarily powerful.

But I hold a special place in my heart for Thelma Dumas. She’s lived a long and difficult life, yet her natural inclination is to continue to open her door and help.

How did the story occur to you? Did you find inspiration anywhere?

All my life I’ve played a what-if game—relocating myself to other moments in history. For example: What if I had been born in a hunter-gatherer society? As a woman, I’d have been a gatherer. This always makes me happy because there is nothing I love more than a long walk with a purpose.

I began writing THE DEGENERATES by playing this very game. What if I had been born during the height of the eugenics movement in the United States? As someone born with an orthopedic disorder causing extreme body difference, I might very well have been institutionalized for life along with Alice, Maxine, Rose, and London.

If you could choose one song to describe your book, which one would it be?

Skwod by Nadia Rose. Rose’s lyrics are bold and unapologetic, and her take on female empowerment—surrounding herself with her Skwod—is as lovely as it is strong and sure. THE DEGENERATES is told in four voices because none of us overcomes institutionalized ableism (racism, sexism, gender binarism) alone. We need our Skwods. 

If your book was going to be made into a movie, who would play your characters?

People with disabilities are the most underrepresented group on screen. And when we are represented, this representation is often by non-disabled actors. My only wish for casting THE DEGENERATES is for the diversity of disability, race, and gender identity which exists in the novel (because it exists in history) be represented by those with these lived experiences.

What drink and place do you think will go with your book to have a perfect book date?

There is no place more perfect for a book date than your very own couch. Add a warm cider and your slippers, and they’re sure to make the descriptions of the cold institution incarcerating my characters a little less harsh.

Can you recommend your readers any other books in case they are left hungry for more once they finish THE DEGENERATES?

For readers hungry for more, let me suggest some fabulous non-fiction starting with Erving Goffman’s Asylums: Essays on the Social Situation of Mental Patients and Other Inmates. It sounds a bit heavy, and it is. But it’s also absolutely fascinating as Goffman likens being committed to an asylum to those working for large corporations and government institutions. Another classic read would be Angela Davis’ Women, Race & Class. It’s thirty-seven years old, and sadly incredibly relevant. Finally, I’d suggest James Trent’s Inventing the Feeble Mind: A History of Intellectual Disability in the United States. This slim read is a complete eye-opener, and one you won’t be able to put down.

What would you say is the most difficult part of writing a book?

Let me start with the best part of writing a book—the research. I love it! I’m in my happy place when I’m digging into gloriously written non-fiction. Sketching my characters is another fun moment in the writing process. Drafting and revising is where I begin to sweat. I equate it to the headache/stomach ache dilemma. When I have a headache, I’m like, “Headaches are the worst!” And when I have a stomach-ache, I can’t help moaning that I had no idea what I was talking about when I had that headache. Bottom line, I’m a fickle lover: when I’m drafting, I’m in love with revision, and when I’m revising, I’m in love with drafting. But I’ll commit. The most difficult part of writing a book (for me) is the end of revision where I’m so bound to every word on the page that I can feel the fear of making even the smallest of changes pulsating in all 100,000 of my hair follicles!

What’s next for you?

My next novel—FIX—is a young adult contemporary fiction from Little, Brown. It’s the story of a friendship between two teens with physical difference whose relationship is stretched to the breaking point by their own ableism.

J. Albert Mann is the author of six novels for children, with S&S Atheneum Books for Young Readers set to publish her next work of historical fiction about the Eugenics Movement and the rise of institutionalism in the United States. She is also the author of short stories and poems for children featured in Highlights for Children, where she won the Highlights Fiction Award, as well as the Highlights Editors’ Choice Award. She has an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts in Writing for Children and Young Adults, and is the Director of the WNDB Internship Grant Committee. 

Jennifer is represented by Kerry Sparks at Levine Greenberg Rostan Literary Agency.

1 comment:

  1. This historical fiction novel addresses a time in our history that I know little about, so I'm intrigued to read it. It's on my TBR.