At Home & Living
A YA Novel that Takes You from the Ridiculous to the Devine
Have you ever heard of the Soul Rehabilitation Program for Nefarious Teens (Deceased)? No? Then you probably also don’t know that your guardian angel, if you have one, may well be a wayward teen who is just doing his best to escape Hell by looking after you.
That’s the case in the novel Devine Intervention. Heidi, a 17-year-old, gawky misfit, thinks she may have multiple personality disorder due to the “voice” she’s been hearing in her head as long as she can remember. It’s the voice that tells her that “Corn” would be an awesome name for a dog – “Corn Dog, Get it?” – who sings her to sleep with Lynyrd Skynyrd’s overwrought “Freebird,” and whose words of advice sound more like an annoying older brother than a guardian of her soul.
The real trouble starts when said guardian angel, 17-year-old Jerome, yanks Heidi from her body before she’s really dead. Heidi ends up with only 24 hours to tie up the loose ends and say goodbye to her loved ones, while Jerome ends up scrambling to find that Guardian Angel’s Handbook: Soul Rehab Edition that might just tell him how to fix the mess he’s created before Heidi ceases to exist and he’s thrown out of rehab and into some ring of Hell.
Devine Intervention is undoubtedly a funny debut novel from former newspaper reporter, high school teacher, grammarian, and columnist Martha Brockenbrough. But, it’s comedy that takes on some serious questions about living. Jerome gets an inkling about what it means to truly care for someone, and Heidi learns a lot about who she really is.
We asked Brockenbrough about her first venture into fiction for teens and what the book – and life – means to her.
SC: How in the heck did you come up with the idea of a wayward, rehab guardian angel?
Brockenbrough: It's not at all the first thing that came to mind, that's for sure. When I was just out of college, a high school friend died of a complication of Hodgkin's Lymphoma. She was an amazing person … smart, athletic, beautiful. One of the things a speaker said at her funeral was that they used to talk about "when my life would begin."
Years later, I was teaching high school and many students would say the same thing. And it struck me that we are often waiting for our real lives to begin, or at least for some other time to do what we most want to do. The huge tragedy is when people die with the true work of their lives left undone. If that happened to me, I can imagine that my soul would not want to rest.
That sounds really serious, doesn't it? I didn't want to write something tragic, though. And as I was thinking about my character who dies, I realized the worst possible person to help her through that would be the worst possible guardian angel.
When you have this underlying framework of tragedy, any humor you can put on top will make for a lot of fun. And with heaven as one of the settings, I also got to create a celestial world that pleased me. I mean, who wouldn't want a personal lobby full of vending machines of all your favorite snacks? More seriously, though, I was able to think about heaven as I'd like it to be: a compassionate place with room for people who still have some work to do on their souls.
SC: Gender aside, who is most like you, Heidi or Jerome?
Brockenbrough: I share Heidi's insecurities about public nudity and Jerome's ability to miss the obvious.
I think, though, that all of the book is like me. I filled it with many of the emotional experiences I've had – the feeling that no one's listening to you, that no one really sees you, the agony of having what you care about seem worthless to other people, the feeling that you're a disappointment to someone who matters to you. I think that's what makes good books, where we can recognize feelings we've had. They make these made-up stories feel true. And in some cases, they help us feel more compassion for ourselves and others.
SC: This is a darned funny book; do your kids think you’re funny?
Brockenbrough: I just asked them. "Yes," my 11-year-old said. "She's very funny. It is occasionally annoying. Actually, very often. But I love you anyway."
SC: This is your first novel, yes? How long have you been working on this book?
Brockenbrough: I started writing it in late 2009, finished it in 2010, revised through much of 2011, and have been counting the days till it's here ever since. I'm having two parties in Seattle, by the way: one at Secret Garden Books in Ballard at 7 p.m. on June 1, and another at Queen Anne Books on June 10 at 5:30 p.m. Families are welcome, and this book is a good fit for ages 12 and up.
Writing novels does not come easily to me. I wish it were otherwise. I've been writing professionally for more than 20 years, mostly as a journalist, and I've done two nonfiction books for adults. But that's a whole different kind of writing. It's been humbling to have to think so very hard about each sentence, each paragraph, each scene, each chapter. I know people who literally write books in a matter of weeks. I guess it's just a good thing I like hard work.
SC: What’s next?
Brockenbrough: I will have a picture book coming out next summer. It's called The Dinosaur Tooth Fairy and it's a tale of unlikely friendship and teeth. After that, I will have a really big, exciting novel set in Seattle in 1937 (with side trips to Paris, Venice). Love, death, jazz music, airplane stunts and an impossible romance: It's a lot of fun. I can't talk any more about it than that yet, but I am having a really good time working on it.
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by Martha Brockenbrough
Arthur A. Levine Books, $17.99
Ages 12 and up