Emma Rathbone’s debut novel, The Patterns of Paper Monsters, is not autobiographical. In fact, she chooses a character her polar opposite: male, violent and disinterested. Its diaristic, ADHD chapters feature, like, a firestorm of oddly apt teenage similes. Some of these are brilliant (a rape victim who comes to talk is ‘a pillaged field with a guest pass’), some a little wayward, much like the character of her adolescent protagonist.
The simple story follows Jacob Higgins, convicted of violent crime, to the Midland County Juvenile Detention Center, where instead of fun and frolics, he discovers utter tedium. This ennui is alleviated by the arrival of Andrea, a ‘perfect quivering cupful’ of a girl. She calms Jacob and stands diametrically opposed to the disturbing influence of David, a sly, broody maniac with fantasies of destruction for the JDC. Jacob has to choose between his impulse for havoc and a burgeoning sense of responsibility.
The Patterns of Paper Monsters has a similar topic to D.B.C. Pierre’s Booker-prize winning Vernon God Little, featuring similarly messed-up teenage boys and their realization of empowerment. Whereas Pierre places Vernon on a grand scale and tackles the ‘big’ questions, the smaller scale of Rathbone’s book means the novel is touching, and ultimately heart-warming.
Jack Palmer: The central challenge that Jacob seems to face in the novel is that of responsibility versus destruction. Did you as a writer also feel this conflict? Was there a responsibility to end the book positively?
Emma Rathbone: I wanted to end the book in a way that felt true to Jacob. It’s probably clear from pretty early on that while Jacob is very angry and emotionally bruised, he’s not a sadist. He doesn’t actively hope for or revel in other people’s suffering. But I still wanted to explore the really dark parts of his character—not necessarily his capacity for cruelty, but whether or not he was willing to stand by while someone else did something terrible. I think that’s a more ethically troubling place for most of us. I mean, no one I know would set out to hurt someone else, but if you turn a blind eye to some kind of abuse or injustice that’s going on around you, is that just as bad as inflicting it? That’s the question that I wanted to investigate with the end.
JP: The mentally unstable American adolescent male is a richly mined vein in literature, but primarily by male authors. Where did the idea for Jacob Higgins come from?
ER: The character of Jacob Higgins came to me out of nowhere. I had previously been writing thinly veiled portraits of myself, and that felt uninspired. Then this angry, brutally sarcastic, confined voice came to me in the most random way, when I was drifting to sleep one night, and it was a revelation. It felt more electric, more relevant that anything I’d been writing. And when I decided it was going to be set in a juvenile detention center—that’s when it really started to pulse with possibility. There was so much I could describe about the environment, so many opportunities for comedy and things for Jacob to rail against. I hit a vein, and I was actually having fun.
But writing is difficult for about five hundred different reasons, so it wasn’t just a slip n’ slide to the end. I wrote about thirty pages and then couldn’t see my way out of it and so I put it down for two years. When I picked it up again, strangely, I could feel exactly what it could be, and so I got to work.
JP: Correct me if I am wrong, but I presume that you have not spent any time in a Juvenile Detention Center yourself! How did you research life in a JDC? Were you able to talk to anyone with experience of life there?
ER: When I was writing the book, I was able to take a tour of a youth corrections facility, and that was really helpful. I got to ask a lot of questions about protocol, scheduling, what the detainees were actually doing on an hour to hour basis. It wasn’t that different from what I’d already imagined, but it was good to actually see the lighting, see the round tables in the cafeteria, the common rooms and so forth. What was shocking, and sad, were the kids. They were just kids!—and they seemed really nice. One of them would be talking to a counselor and you could see their face sort of break open with a smile, or some shade of embarrassment, and your heart would kind of break wondering what their circumstances were that they had ended up here.
In terms of research, I also had the opportunity to give the manuscript to someone that worked in the court system, and she was able to give me some more details and point out where something was unrealistic.
JP: The character Jim appears as part of the Second Cousin scheme, a JDC mentorship program that pairs older members of the public with JDC inmates. He eventually becomes a source of support to Jacob, but there is a sense he is motivated by a privileged guilt. Did you feel that sense of guilt when writing the novel?
ER: No, I can’t say I did feel that way when writing this novel. I’m not sure why. I didn’t grow up super rich or anything, and I knew kids like Jacob growing up, so I didn’t really look at his economic strata with a sense of tourism. At the same time, I think everyone is uncomfortably aware of class differences, and so maybe that was siphoned, through me, into Jacob’s general anger at the world, but it’s not something I thought of that much when writing about him.
JP: As the story is written in first-person you replicate the tone of an angry seventeen year-old boy. How hard was it? The subtleties of teenage conversation, which you capture very well, are much more complex than just adding ‘like.’ Did you listen in on teenagers to make sure you got it right?
ER: The voice was actually one of the easiest parts of writing the novel, and was my starting point. I don’t know if it’s because I had significant male relationships as a teenager, or because I grew up with two brothers close to me in age, but I didn’t think too hard about whether I was “getting” the teenage boy voice. I also don’t think the general chatter and tempo of a girl’s mind and a boy’s mind is actually that different. We may have different priorities and insecurities, energies directed in different directions. But there’s a general personhood, vernacular, and sense of humor, that reaches across both genders.
Like much of writing, I think it was also just a matter of imagination. I know, from experience, what it’s like to be smitten with someone. From there, it’s a matter of extrapolating what that would be like for a guy. You do it with as much specificity and precision as you can, and you have the beginnings of a character.
JP: Violence and sex are strongly linked in the book. Jacob’s mother receives physical abuse from her partner ‘Refrigerator Man’ and as Jacob and Andrea’s relationship develops he expresses his desire in terms of physical violation. ‘I want to like, turn her inside out and look at all the folds.’ Is Jacob just struggling to express his desire or does he too have the violence of ‘Refrigerator Man’?
ER: I don’t think he has the violence of his stepfather. But I do think that in meeting Andrea he’s confronted, for the first time, with a girl with which he feels more than a superficial connection—a girl he could love. And he struggles with that very intense, blindsiding feeling. He wants to invade Andrea, find her very essence, and be invaded by her as well. I suppose there’s an element of violence or force to that, but no more than the usual power dynamics in sex.
With ‘Refrigerator Man’ and Jacob’s mom it’s different. That’s an actually physically abusive relationship that has jumped the tracks from some sex/power continuum. The way I see it, Jacob wants to find his way in to Andrea because he feels a connection with her, ‘Refrigerator Man’ is abusive to Jacob’s mom because he’s completely disregarded her humanity.
JP: What did you learn from writing The Patterns of Paper Monsters?
ER: Oh man. I learned a lot. I learned, pretty much, how difficult it is to write a novel, to actually finish something, but that it can be done. I think I developed a stamina I didn’t have before, and more of a stomach for the frequent paralysis, moments of discouragement, and just all of the infinitesimal choices you have to make to move something forward.
The Patterns of Paper Monsters is out now from Reagan Arthur / Back Bay Books.