Swanky Seventeener Chelsea Sedoti recently sat down with Sweet Sixteener Sonya Mukherjee to discuss her new contemporary YA GEMINI (Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, July 26, 2016).
In a powerful and daring debut novel, Sonya Mukherjee shares the story of sisters Clara and Hailey, conjoined twins who are learning what it means to be truly extraordinary.
Seventeen-year-old conjoined twins Clara and Hailey have lived in the same small town their entire lives—no one stares at them anymore. But there are cracks in their quiet existence, and they’re slowly becoming more apparent. Clara and Hailey are at a crossroads. Clara wants to stay close to home, avoid all attention, and study the night sky. Hailey wants to travel the world, learn from great artists, and dance with mysterious boys. As high school graduation approaches, each twin must untangle her dreams from her sister’s, and figure out what it means to be her own person.
Told in alternating perspectives, this unconventional coming-of-age tale shows how dreams can break your heart—but the love between sisters can mend it.
Sonya Mukherjee grew up in California’s Gold Country, where she spent a lot of time sitting in trees, reading books and writing stories in her head. She studied English and creative writing at Stanford and San Francisco State University, and went on to work as an editor for a variety of book publishers, magazines, and websites, from The Future of Children to Dirt Rider. Now she lives with her family in the San Francisco Bay Area, where she spends a lot of time sitting in coffee shops, reading books and writing stories on her laptop. Gemini is her first novel.
Follow her on Twitter @SonyaMukherjee or visit her on her website.
Chelsea: GEMINI alternates between Clara and Hailey’s points of view. Considering that the twins grew up having all the same experiences, I was impressed with how distinct their voices were. I knew exactly which perspective I was reading without having to look at a chapter heading. While writing, did you find it difficult to keep them so different? Was one twin easier to write than the other?
Sonya: I’m so glad you found their voices distinct! That was definitely something I spent a lot of time trying to get right. I had originally written the whole book from Clara’s point of view. Later, when I brought in Hailey’s point of view, I kept Clara’s voice the same, but I gave some thought to how Hailey’s would be different. It’s partly a matter of how she sees things, and the perspective that she has on everything as it happens, but I also tried to have her distinct personality reflected in some of the language she uses—her word choices and her sentence patterns. She’s more direct, where Clara can be a little more flowery.
Chelsea: Despite being conjoined twins—and all the struggles that come with it—in so many ways, Clara and Hailey are like any other teenagers. They have friends, and think about boys, and are both quite funny at times. Was it difficult to decide how much being conjoined had (or didn’t have) on their personalities? How did you find balance between their everyday teenage problems and the more serious issues the twins face? Or would you say that, being conjoined, every issue is serious and never a “normal” teenage problem?
Sonya: Oh, I definitely don’t think that being conjoined would make every issue a serious one. One thing I heard a while back, which made a big impression on me, is that people greatly overestimate how much a person’s happiness would be affected by some long-term change, like winning the lottery or becoming paraplegic. Because we forget that any of those changes, even big ones, quickly become just one part of your life, not the whole, overriding thing. You still have other stuff going on.
Of course, in the case of being conjoined, this isn’t a change; it’s a lifelong thing. But I think that’s all the more reason why it’s not an overriding issue that dominates everything about their lives. It’s significant, but it’s also just one of the things that’s true about them. Like, for me, being a woman is an important part of who I am, and I never exactly forget about it, but I also don’t spend all that much time consciously thinking about it.
So I never really worried about how to balance their conjoinment with other issues. It was more like I was thinking about how these characters might navigate each of the story lines and questions that they’re dealing with, given the combination of their personalities and all their different circumstances, which include being conjoined.
Chelsea: Conjoined twins are rare. But I think most teens will see some of themselves in Clara or Hailey. The themes in this book—finding your place in the world, struggling to be independent, coping with being different—are very relatable. Did you pull from your own experiences when writing about the twins’ lives? Do you have siblings, and if so, did your relationship with them influence the sibling relationship in your book?
Sonya: Yeah, I was definitely thinking about some feelings that I’d experienced myself. As a teenager, I worried about figuring out who I really was, and about whether there was something just too odd about me—about whether other people liked me, and more than that, whether I was, in fact, likeable. At the same time, there was a part of me that, like Hailey, felt defiant about it—like I didn’t even want to be strictly “normal,” whatever that means.
As far as the sibling relationship, I have a sister who’s three years younger than me, and a brother who’s seven years younger. If there was anything that I drew from those relationships, I think it was the sense of a certain type of love, where the bond is deep, but you also kind of take it for granted, because this person is just automatically a part of your life. Of course, Hailey and Clara’s relationship is more complicated and more intense, but I also imagined it as having some of that same character. It’s different than the bond you have with someone you’ve chosen, and it’s also different from the love between parents and children.
Chelsea: I can imagine that before writing GEMINI you did a lot of research on conjoined twins. I’d love to hear about some of it! Was there anything you learned along the way that significantly altered the course of your novel?
Sonya: My research was pretty diverse, covering medical journals, biographies of conjoined twins, interviews, documentaries, and even a TLC reality show. But the single most important thing I learned was that the great majority of adult conjoined twins who have talked about their situation publicly have said that they wouldn’t choose to change it.
Of course, there are people who will say, “Oh, they must be lying or deluding themselves, or they just don’t know what it’s like to be a singleton.” But you know what? You and I don’t know what it’s like to be conjoined. And most of us wouldn’t change our own essential characteristics, like gender or ethnicity, even if we saw societal or practical advantages to changing them. So to me, the interesting question is not whether they’re telling the truth, but why this is true.
Chelsea: In order to give Clara and Hailey the most normal life possible, their parents put aside their own ambitions and move to a small town where the twins can be somewhat shielded from the world—within such a closed community people are less inclined to treat them like a curiosity. Do you agree with the decision to raise Clara and Hailey in this sort of environment? Or do you think it, in some ways, has harmed them?
Sonya: Well, maybe some of both. If they lived in a city, the hassles of attention from strangers could be pretty draining, though that would also help them build their immunity to dealing with it. I suppose as a parent, I might choose a compromise – live in a small town, but make regular visits to other places.
Chelsea: GEMINI is your debut novel. Is it the first book you’ve written? And when you first had the idea for it, did you know it was “the one”?
Sonya: It’s actually the sixth book I’ve written, and I definitely didn’t know it was the one. By the time I was submitting it to agents, and later editors, I was confident it was the best thing I’d written, but after so much rejection, I definitely wasn’t sure that it would be published. In that sense, I didn’t know it was the one until I had the contract in hand! Actually, I might not fully believe it until I see it in a bookstore.
Favorite writing snack?
I usually don’t eat when I’m writing, but I do have to have a cup of coffee.
Plotter or panster?
Messy confused person. I write outlines, don’t stick to them, and keep trying over and over again as I write.
What were you reading as a teenager?
Everything from Jane Austen to V.C. Andrews. And I loved it all.
Favorite fictional character?
I’ll have to say Elizabeth Bennett. I love her personality, though I certainly don’t envy her circumstances.
Best place to write?
Coffee shops. There are fewer distractions there than at home.
In honor of Clara and Hailey: Astronomy or art?
Oh no, do I have to choose? OK, I confess: astronomy.
Chelsea Sedoti fell in love with writing at a young age after discovering that making up stories was more fun than doing her school work (her teachers didn’t always appreciate this.) In an effort to avoid getting a “real” job, Chelsea explored careers as a balloon twister, filmmaker, and paranormal investigator. Eventually she realized that her true passion is writing about flawed teenagers who are also afraid of growing up. When she’s not at the computer, Chelsea spends her time exploring abandoned buildings, eating junk food at roadside diners, and trying to befriend every animal in the world. She lives in Las Vegas, Nevada where she avoids casinos, but loves roaming the Mojave Desert.
Her debut, THE HUNDRED LIES OF LIZZIE LOVETT comes out January 3, 2017, from Sourcebooks Fire. A teenage misfit named Hawthorn Creely inserts herself in the investigation of missing person Lizzie Lovett, who disappeared mysteriously while camping with her boyfriend. Hawthorn doesn’t mean to interfere, but she has a pretty crazy theory about what happened to Lizzie. In order to prove it, she decides to immerse herself in Lizzie’s life. That includes taking her job… and her boyfriend. It’s a huge risk — but it’s just what Hawthorn needs to find her own place in the world.