Excerpted from Zipped by Laura McNeal and Tom McNeal. Copyright © 2003 by Laura and Tom McNeal. Excerpted by permission of Ember, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
IN THEIR OWN WORDS
A CONVERSATION WITH LAURA AND TOM MCNEAL ABOUT ZIPPED
Q: How did you write Zipped together–did you work straight from chapter one through to the end, or did you sometimes jump around? Did you work together to create outlines or discuss where the story was headed?
A: The first novel we wrote–Crooked–was like an unplanned car trip. Laura got behind the wheel and drove for one chapter and then slept in the backseat while Tom drove. We switched off after each chapter, so there was the more or less weekly thrill of finding yourself in a new place. About twenty chapters into it, though, we realized we had no idea where we were going, and since a novel really does need the things English teachers talk about–foreshadowing, rising action, climax, and denouement–we had to stop and make a plan. Tom had an idea for an ending, so he wrote a series of climactic scenes. Then we revised the whole thing several times to unify all the events and characters.
With Zipped, we tried to plan where we were going before we got in the car. We mapped out the beginning and the end. We divided up the characters and the chapters–Laura was more or less in charge of Lisa Doyle, Elder Keesler, and Lizette, for example, and Tom wrote scenes introducing Mick, Maurice, and Nora. Whenever a scene called for weather, scenery, Mormon culture, or bird references, Laura drove. When we needed gardening references or jokes about the mind of the adolescent male, she handed Tom the keys.
Q: How do you give each other feedback during the writing process? Is it a help? A strain?
A: One of the reasons we’re married is that we have much the same taste in books, movies, music, and art, with the exception of Gilbert and Sullivan operas and sea chanteys, which Tom patiently endures. Sometimes we disagree about a character, a scene, or even a major plot development, but we try to be tactful about it, just as we try to be polite when suggesting whose fault it is that we ran out of coffee filters. It helps that most of the criticisms are written, not spoken. Our general practice is to take the other person’s computer draft and edit it by inserting brackets. Instead of just ripping out the parts we don’t like, we put brackets around them and write alternatives, which are also in brackets. Brackets save the marriage, basically.
Q: Did you do any research on teenagers, observational or otherwise, before writing the book?
A: A lot of our research was done as actual teenagers. We had to live through adolescence, and it’s kind of nice to have something to show for it. We both taught school for a while, too. When we have particular questions about cars or school policy or music, we consult Tom’s nephew or the children of friends or students at our local high school.
Q: How do you decide what references to make to television, movies, clothes, and music? Are you trying to be up to date with teen culture?
A: We weren’t even very good at that when we were teenagers ourselves. We do occasionally refer to current celebrities or fashions, but we try to keep those references to a minimum because it takes us at least a year to write a book, and then another year for the publication process. By the time the book reaches bookstores, fashion will have moved on, and a new celebrity will be on the cover of Teen People. We can’t entirely eliminate references to clothing and movie stars, of course, because teenagers do talk about those things. What we hope to do, though, is write a book that will still be comprehensible in twenty-five years.
Q: What inspired you to write Zipped?
A: A true story, unfortunately. We heard about a teacher whose son discovered his stepmother’s affair by reading her e-mail. The other characters were also inspired by people we have known–Mormon missionaries Laura knew in high school, boys on the work crew that Tom supervised, a friend Tom had in junior high, a pair of Lebanese brothers who ran an auto shop. We’re mostly inspired, though, by the desire to take a moral dilemma and explore it in a fictional way.
Q: Which characters in the book do you most identify with?
A: Mick and Lisa, as the romantic leads, are probably the characters we’d prefer to claim as cleaned-up, cosmetically enhanced versions of our former selves. We do, however, try to identify with even the loathsome characters–to imagine their points of view, and to sympathize with them, if only for a moment.
Q: When you are writing, whom do you envision reading your work?
A: When we’re writing, we’re concentrating on making Maurice or Mick seem like real people moving through a real town. The presence of an audience would only call attention to the imaginary nature of fiction, so we don’t think about the reader in a direct way. When we’re thinking of an idea for a book, however, we imagine readers who are about the same age as the characters.
Q: What types of books do you like to read? Who are your favorite authors?
A: Laura: I love books that explore one incident and its consequences from every conceivable point of view. Examples that come to mind are the Raj Quartet, by Paul Scott; Atonement, by Ian McEwan; An American Tragedy, by Theodore Dreiser, and That Night, by Alice McDermott.
Tom: There are writers–Alice McDermott, E. L. Doctorow, and Richard Ford, for example–whose mere manner of constructing sentences draws me back to them again and again. More broadly, it boils down to whether I can become immersed in a book or not. If the writing’s good, if the characters are engaging, and if the problems they face have some heft to them, then I’ll fall into this fictional world and enjoy the visit. The best books feel like important visits, and the feelings they afford will linger after you’ve come back home.
1. In chapter one, Mick visits Nora’s classroom and talks to her about Lisa Doyle and his summer plans. What are some of the other memories he shares about time spent with Nora? Does he see her as a traditional stepmother? How does he feel about her and the experiences they’ve shared? How do his feelings change once he has read Nora’s e-mail? Mick asks Nora to drop the nickname Maestro, explaining, “I don’t like it. It’s not true” (p. 23). Is he talking only about the nickname here, or does his request have greater significance?
2. Why won’t Mick take off his coat at the end of chapter one? Look at the moments throughout the book when Mick pats the disk that is zipped into his jacket pocket. What is he thinking about when he does this? What is he really trying to keep zipped up? Does it work? Similarly, Myra puts her feelings for Pam into a letter. At the end of the novel, Mick and Myra send their disk and letter up into the sky with a bunch of balloons. What does this act symbolize for each of them?
3. On page 21, Mick takes a long look at this father, and later he challenges his father to a particularly competitive game of foosball in an attempt to “make him play a little harder” (p. 26). What is Mick trying to bring out in his father? Through whose point of view is Mick seeing his father now?
4. Internal conflict is a struggle within a character over an issue or a choice he or she must make. Lisa considers the forbidden fruits of the Mormon religion: “drinking, caffeine, boyfriends, and fun” (p. 33). How does she feel about these rules? What is Lisa’s internal struggle? By the end of the novel, do you think Lisa is on her way to resolving these problems? What choices do you think she will make? What are Myra’s internal conflicts? Mick’s? Nora’s? How are they resolved?
5. Betrayal is one of the themes of the novel. Which characters feel betrayed? How and by whom? How does each of these characters deal with his or her feelings? Would you be able to forgive an act of betrayal like Nora’s? Why or why not? Does Mick forgive her?
6. A symbol is a physical thing that stands for an idea or an emotion. Nora adds a new figurine to her car’s dashboard--a small plastic devil she calls Beelzebub. How does Mick feel about this item and why? Where do you think it came from? What does this figure symbolize to Nora? Do her feelings about it ever change? Where does this figure end up and what does its condition represent?
7. Birds’ nests appear throughout the story. Toward the end, a singing bird is building a new nest in the backyard. Contrast the image of the dried, abandoned nests in Nora’s classroom with the lively new nest at the end, in which “. . . the five white eggs were still together and intact” (p. 269). What do you think these images symbolize about the status of the Nichols family at different points in the novel?
8. The setting of a story--when and where it takes place--can establish its atmosphere, or mood. Where does this story take place? During what season? Mick observes, “The air was warm sometimes, but you couldn’t trust it ” (p. 7). How does this climate foreshadow, or hint at, the situation Mick is about to find himself in? How are the lines “Everything looked green--the trees, the yard, the valley and hillside beyond--everything” (p. 272), indicative of Mick’s new situation? Do the authors use the weather to set the mood in other parts of the story?
9. Do you think Maurice is racist or prejudiced? Why or why not? What are some of the characteristics that make the reader and characters dislike him? Describe Janice’s feelings for Maurice. Do they change when she looks into the orange juice container? Eventually, Lisa decides Maurice is not a total “sleazeball” (p. 273). Why does she come to this conclusion? Do you have sympathy for Maurice? Why or why not?
10. Lisa and Janice are best friends, but they don’t spend much time together as the book progresses. How do their differences become clearer? What kinds of choices do each of them make? Have any of your friendships ever taken similar turns? What do you think will happen to their relationship? Is Lisa a good friend? If not to Janice, then to whom? At the end of the novel, after Elder Keesler departs, Lisa visits Home Park Gardens “one last time” (p. 265). What does she see? How is this view different from what she used to see? What do you think this means?
11. Many of the characters in the book are different on the inside than they appear to be on the outside. Myra calls this phenomenon the “face behind the face behind the face” (p. 120). How do Nora and Myra fit this category? What does Mick expect from Nora and how is he surprised by her behavior? What does Mick assume Myra will be like and how does she surprise him? Does Mr. Cruso fit Mick’s assumptions? Nora says, “Adults are like everybody else, Mick. Usually they do what they’re supposed to do. Sometimes they don’t” (p. 255). What does this teach Mick about himself and other people?