In her debut novel, author E. M. Kokie tackles grief, war and abuse, all from the perspective of a teenage boy. Ambitious stuff for a thirty-something female attorney.
Kokie, a New Jersey transplant who moved to Madison in 2004, gives voice to vulnerable and damaged Matt Foster, a teen who lost his older brother in Iraq, in “Personal Effects,” out this month from Candlewick Press.
The story opens with Matt brawling in a high-school hallway, taking out his anger on the face of a classmate who’s keen on provoking a reaction. Matt must answer to his hard-nosed father, a former military man who is determined to make something out of Matt through verbal and physical intimidation. The Foster men are both, in their own ways, trying to cope with crushing grief after losing T.J., a son and brother. The plot thickens, inevitably, when it becomes clear that T.J. carried a secret to his grave.
Kokie spoke recently with the State Journal about her writing process and the weight of her subject matter.
Q: You’re a lawyer; how did you end up writing young adult fiction?
A: I’ve always been really interested in books that deal with identity, and people on the cusp of life-changing moments. You find that more in teen fiction. My partner’s a children’s literature specialist, so my to-be-read pile was very often mostly teen and middle-grade literature. I got sucked in to the market. When I started writing, I didn’t know what I would write. I was playing around with a few different ideas, and this one just sort of floated to the top and caught my attention.
Q: How did you decide to write with the voice of a teenage boy?
A: I kind of didn’t. I was doing a lot of freewriting exercises, trying to decide what to write. I had made a deal with myself that I would finish a book; I had never finished one before. I just needed to commit and write one. It didn’t matter if it was any good, I would just do it. I sat down one afternoon to write and this scene just happened, of this really angry kid in an office after a fight. I wrote a good chunk of Chapter 2 of the book. I think I wrote the rest to find out why he was so angry. Once I realized why he was so angry, I was so hooked into who he was that I just kept writing. It wasn’t with full intent, but once I started writing in that voice, I just needed to keep going.
Q: Did you intend to wade into topic of war?
A: No, I didn’t. I had no idea when I wrote the first few scenes why Matt was so angry. It sounds silly, but then I realized his brother has died, and then I had to stop and start making author decisions. I had to do some research and decide where this story was going.
I thought it was a really important story to tell. I had to do a lot of research because I have almost no personal experience with military life or what it means to be part of a military family.
Q: What about the grief component?
A: Obviously, I’ve lost people who I’m close to, in my family and extended relationships. As a reader, I’ve always been drawn to stories about loss and having to reidentify your place in the world. To realign what you expect of the world after you lose something or someone. I was really drawn to this whole idea of here’s this character who’s on the cusp of every possible life-changing experience while he’s in the middle of maybe the most profound grief he’ll ever have his life. It just felt really important to get it right.
Q: Who do you think your audience is?
A: I don’t think about audience when I write, but as I was doing the revisions I was very conscious of how many different people might relate to it. Obviously I hope it gets into the hands of teens and teens who need it. I’m hearing from adults, people who lost siblings in the Vietnam War, I’m hearing from teenagers who have friends who are thinking of enlisting, I’m hearing from people who have children in the services. It’s hard for me to know who my reader is because I hear from people who are connecting to the story in so many different ways.
Q: What do you want those readers to take away?
A: Primarily, I want them to lose themselves in the story, and I only want them to think about how it affects their lives later. I hope it’s a story that sticks with people. Maybe it will make people think about their relationships and what’s really important and how hard it is to balance that line of being who you are and not disappointing the people around you. I think there are so many teens who struggle with expectations.
I hope those who have grieved, who have lost someone — especially someone in a military family — will find that even if it wasn’t their experience, that I got the essence of it. And that I got it with respect.