Shelf Unbound: What is it about middle school that makes many kids feel like aliens? Merschel: Good question. You know, part of the inspiration for this novel was the realization that everyone —at least in my generation—has a story of something horrible they endured in middle school. My theory is that it’s at least partly biological: It’s an age when we’re beginning to separate from our families, but we don’t yet know exactly who we are. So everyone feels lost and adrift. Even if you’re not a new kid in town. Although that certainly amplifies the issue ... The other part of it is perspective. Older people tend to mock young teenagers for their intensity. The way everything is either “the best ever” or “worst of all time.” Thing is, when you are a young teen, you’re going through experiences that are entirely new. So, say, if your heart gets broken, of course it’s the worst heartbreak of all time—because it’s the worst you’ve ever experienced. Clark is kind of in shock about his new school even though Festus Middle School is not really the most horrific place imaginable. But it’s certainly the hardest thing he’s ever had to face.
Shelf Unbound: Will we see Clark Sherman in a future novel? Merschel: I didn’t envision a series, but if thousands of people demand more, who am I to say no? Shelf Unbound: You’re an editor at The Dallas Morning News. What has being an editor taught you about writing? Merschel: Oh, probably everything. Or everything I know, at least. I started off as a copy editor. It’s a job that teaches you the value of each individual word and punctuation mark. I spent a lot of years looking at pieces of copy that needed to have several inches snipped out, quickly, without changing the meaning of the story. You learn not to waste words. Or even letters. When I became an editor who works directly with reporters, I learned from watching really talented writers at work. We would talk about the shapes of stories. We would talk about finding details that revealed character. We would look for ways to pace stories that compelled readers to read further. I learned that in writing, everyone’s first draft needs work. In fact, on all the best stories I have edited, the magic did not usually happen until