Erin Bow: Comedy with a Strong and Tender Core

Erin Bow, née Noteboom, is a poet and novelist (The Scorpion Rules; Plain Kate). She is also a particle physicist and writes about quarks and quantum theory for a research institute devoted to theoretical physics. This unusual skill set comes together in her delightfully offbeat, funny and affecting middle-grade novel, Simon Sort of Says (Disney-Hyperion, January 31, 2023).

There is so much going on in Simon Sort of Says: animals running rampant, neurodiversity, PTSD, religion, astrophysics, extraterrestrial intelligence, undertaker humor.... Did you know all these components were going to be included in the book or did they take you by surprise?

I often talk about the "original equipment" of my books--the things that seem to be given to me when the book is created. Generally, this includes a character or two, and something a little bit more than a premise and a little bit less than a plot.

For Simon Sort of Says, the original equipment included Simon himself, a kid famous for surviving a school shooting who flees that fame by moving to the offline world of the National Quiet Zone, in the shadow of a giant radio telescope. I knew he was something of a storyteller, and that he would use those stories as a smokescreen. The first thing I wrote was chapter one, where his father--a church deacon--is conducting a blessing of the animals, and it goes off the rails. So that gave me a lot of it: the animals, the tragedy, the family that takes their Catholicism seriously, the astronomy and the SETI project.

What I didn't expect were Agate and her family and their service dog side-hustle. She's the surprise of the book and--along with Hercules the puppy--its heart. She really did turn up, as Simon says of her, "like a penny landing on its edge."

Simon Sort of Says is hilarious (when it's not heartbreaking). Is it easy for you to write humor?

I've always wanted to write a funny book. When I was a middle-grade reader myself, I adored All Creatures Great and Small by James Herriot. I think that probably shows in this book. More recently I've joined the church of Sir Terry Pratchett. That probably shows, too.

My books are often funnier than people expect. The talking cat in my otherwise dark Russian fairy tale Plain Kate is funny, and the artificial intelligence that takes over the world and rules it via a carefully rational system of terror in The Scorpion Rules is very funny. But it says something about me that my first book that could really be called a comedy is the one set in a funeral home.

I'm not sure what it says. Probably nothing good.

Or, possibly, that I need my comedy to have a strong and tender core.

In Simon Sort of Says, you approach the horror of mass shootings in a sensitive, honest and unsensational manner. Your authorial restraint allows readers to focus on what Simon and his friend Agate refer to as "Simon from Now and not Simon from Then." How did you decide what to include and what to leave out? 

When it came to the school shooting itself, I left out as much as I could--which was almost everything. Sadly, school shootings already live in the imagination of young readers, so Simon's half-page, just-the-facts account of the actual shooting, buried deep in the chapter "in which Kevin googles alpacas," is all it took. I didn't need much detail.

I also didn't want much detail. There are some great books for young readers where the school shooting is the plot, but this isn't one of them. It's not a book about experiencing trauma; it's a book about recovering from trauma. I wanted to focus on the aftermath and the healing--the now, and not the then. In fact, I almost called this book Simon from Now, but someone persuaded me that titles based on general relativity are not huge with the 8-12 set.

Would you want to live "surrounded by emu farms in a town that's half astrophysicists and half people who are afraid of their microwaves?"

I kind of do. I live in a community whose first European settlers were Old Order Mennonites--we have horse-and-buggy parking at the Home Depot--but I work at a place called the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics. This means I literally have days where I buy apple fritters from a lass in calico and a bonnet and then head in to write about black hole thermodynamics.

I will skip the emus, though--emus are terrifying.

Simon Sort of Says is filled with people who are cool about brain stuff, as Simon says about Agate. Do you think society is getting better at understanding neurodiverse people? 

I think society is getting better at recognizing that neurodiversity exists, and that mental health challenges are common, even in kids. That's both an enormous first step, and literally the least we can do. Real conversation is the next step and I think we are starting to take it. I hope books like Simon can help. But to me, the ultimate goal--true inclusion and meaningful support--still feels a long way off. I am neurodivergent and have mental health challenges and so do both my kids. It does not feel like it's getting easier.

Was there a single kernel that sprouted into Simon Sort of Says

I was trained to be a particle physicist--one of those people smashing high-energy beams of particles into targets in order to create something new in the resulting mess. I sometimes describe my drafting process as what happens when particle physicists write novels: I have what seems like a solid idea, but it doesn't get going until another idea hits it at full speed.

So. Before I started Simon Sort of Says, I had been tucking scraps of a comedy set in a funeral home away for years. It had a precognition plot and an invisible talking raven named Loki, and it was reasonably solid on paper but hadn't come to life.

Then three things happened in one week: my child had to hide in a supply closet for hours during a school lockdown; I read a long-form article about the real National Radio Quiet Zone, where cellphones are banned; and I saw this MAD magazine cartoon on school shootings. The first two, the lockdown and the Quiet Zone, collided to create the plot. The cartoon felt like a kind of permission to write something hard and healing for my kids and kids like them and to make it funny.

I know this kind of humor isn't for everyone, but I have always used lightness and humor to pull myself, my kids and my readers through dark places. That's what I hope this book can be: a light.

Are you Team Science or Team Farm?

I'm a little bit like Agate, who is described in the book as the Team Farm kid most likely to build a death ray. I have ambitions to retire to a cabin in the woods and collect fox skulls, but also to build my own telescope. And maybe a cloud chamber!

Is there anything else you'd like to add?

I really want everybody to rest easy: nothing bad happens to that dog on the cover. --Emilie Coulter

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