By Olivia Mules
Today we’re pleased to welcome Lin Thompson to the WNDB blog to discuss middle grade novel The Best Liars in Riverview, out since March 8, 2022!
Aubrey and Joel are like two tomato vines that grew along the same crooked fence—weird, yet the same kind of weird. But lately, even their shared weirdness seems weird. Then Joel disappears. Vanishes. Poof. The whole town is looking for him, and Aubrey was the last person to see Joel. Aubrey can’t say much, but since lies of omission are still lies, here’s what they know for sure:
- For the last two weeks of the school year, when sixth grade became too much, Aubrey and Joel have been building a raft in the woods.
- The raft was supposed to be just another part of their running away game.
- The raft is gone now, too.
Aubrey doesn’t know where Joel is, but they might know how to find him. As Aubrey, their friend Mari, and sister Teagan search along the river, Aubrey has to fess up to who they really are, all the things they never said, and the word that bully Rudy Thomas used that set all this into motion.
Tell me a little about your new book, The Best Liars in Riverview. What can readers expect? What do you hope readers take away from the book?
The Best Liars in Riverview is about Aubrey and their best friend Joel, who have both been coping with a rough first year of middle school by imagining running away from their hometown. They’ve been building a raft for this imaginary escape plan, but then Joel and the raft both disappear, and Aubrey sets out through the woods to find him with help from their sister and another friend. Along the way, they’re unpacking some hard truths about everything that’s led them all up to this point, and Aubrey is also finding space, away from the assumptions and expectations at home, where they can start questioning their gender in a more conscious way.
The oversimplified summary I like to give is that it’s a little bit mystery, a little bit adventure, and a lot of long walks in the woods while thinking about queerness. 🙂
Who was your favorite character to create and write lines for? What is your favorite line that they say or action that they do?
I obviously really loved writing both Aubrey and Joel, but probably my favorite character to write was Mari! She’s a new friend who moved to town this year, and she goes with Aubrey on the journey to find Joel. I loved balancing Mari’s confidence and sense of justice with her self-doubts, and it was very cathartic to write the scenes of her being rightfully outraged on Joel’s behalf. I feel like most of us should have a Mari in our lives.
Sometimes music can be a great outlet for our feelings. What songs (or genre of music) would Aubrey and Joel have on their playlists? How would their music choices change from the beginning of the story to the end?
Realistically, I don’t actually think Aubrey or Joel would listen to playlists full of bluegrass and folk music, but I’ve also never been able to figure out their musical tastes outside of that because that was my soundtrack the whole time I was writing them. Just tons of guitar and fiddle and Brandi Carlile and the Carolina Chocolate Drops.
Where did the inspiration initially come from for this book? How did you pick Kentucky for the setting?
All through my pre-teen and teen years I had this vague longing to run away and start a new life somewhere no one knew me. It was a theme that kept popping up in everything I wrote, and it wasn’t until I started letting myself explore my own queer identity that I realized how much of that was coming from my gender and the discomfort I was feeling at the mismatch between who I was and who the people around me thought I was. I wrote a short story in college about these best friends who built a raft to run away on, and that was the story I kept coming back to for years as I was figuring out my own identity.
As for the setting, I grew up in Kentucky and had imagined the story there from the very beginning—whenever I picture “woods,” the first thing I see will always be the dense, lush, green woods I knew growing up. I also really wanted to explore this complicated feeling of loving a place that doesn’t always love you back, and of feeling like a place can be such a deep, important part of you, even as you’re dreaming of leaving it.
Aubrey’s narrative includes references to their family’s faith and Catholicism (and that of churches). Why was this important for you to include?
I grew up very, very entrenched in Catholicism, and as I was exploring all of these questions of identity and community, I just kept realizing that I couldn’t really explore these questions honestly without looking at Catholicism, too. It’s so tied up in my own experiences that it’s hard to separate out, and so I leaned into it instead. I feel like it’s important to show characters having questions about the faith they’re being raised in, especially in middle grade, since that’s often the age when kids are starting to differentiate between what they’ve been told to believe and what they actually believe—which can obviously be really scary and isolating.
So, the community and beliefs I drew from were Catholicism, but I also wanted to look at the ways that any community can fall short in supporting and lifting up the people within them who often need that support the most.
When you write, what is your favorite part of the writing process? Why?
I really like the untangling, problem-solving aspect of revisions! I like the part when I get stuck on something and don’t know how to fix it—whether it’s a problem in the plot, or something about a character that isn’t working, or just a logistical issue—and I mull it over for ages and am convinced I’ve broken the book, and then suddenly the answer comes, and I know how to fix it. It’s like figuring out how to untie a knot. It’s frustrating in the moment, but I love the relief when I realize what I need to do.
Did you encounter any challenges or unexpected surprises when writing the book?
So many! One big challenge was that I had worked on this particular manuscript for a very long time before I started trying to get it published—I think almost seven years before I got my agent, and then of course it’s been two more years of working on it with her and with my editor. It’s gone through so many different changes that pieces from previous versions that didn’t fit anymore kept sneaking through without me catching them. My editor would say “I don’t understand this line” or “I don’t think this fits with the character’s emotions here” and I’d realize it was because the line was referencing something from five drafts ago, and I’d have to go back and smooth out all these ghosts of versions past.
Did you have to do any research for this book? If so, what was the most interesting thing you found out about?
I dug up a lot of charts of the velocity of the Green River at different points along its route, and I spent a lot of time making elaborate maps and doing very simplified math to try to figure out how far Joel and his raft could get along the river. It turns out that if you’re just relying on the current and aren’t rowing, you really don’t travel as quickly on a river as I would have guessed!
I also got to listen to a lot of recorded bird calls from common birds in Kentucky so I could try to figure out how to describe them, which was fun.
We know that representation in books/media matters. What advice would you give to other authors who want to write about characters with diverse lives and identities?
There’s so much good advice given by people much smarter than me, but I think the question I’m always trying to circle back to is: what are the stories that I’m the right person to tell? Because when I’m writing a character who shares my marginalized identity, that question helps me remember why I write and why it’s important, even when sometimes the experience is emotionally fraught or draining. And when I’m trying to write characters with marginalized identities I don’t share and experiences I’ll never have, that question helps me navigate my lane. It reminds me that I don’t know everything and that I need to read widely and work with sensitivity readers and make sure I have friends who I can trust to point out when I’m messing up.
Do you have any recommendations for published or forthcoming books or voices we should be reading?
The pandemic has really messed with my reading habits, so I feel like I’m playing catchup with all the phenomenal queer MG books that have been coming out over the past few years. If you haven’t already read Kyle Lukoff’s Too Bright to See, you definitely should—the main character’s experience of gender had me crying within the first fifty pages because of how seen I felt. Nicole Melleby’s In the Role of Brie Hutchens is the best book I’ve read yet about navigating queerness and Catholicism—and it’s also hilarious. Other queer MGs that I’ve really enjoyed lately include Thanks a Lot, Universe by Chad Lucas, The Best at It by Maulik Pancholy, and of course King and the Dragonflies by Kacen Callender. And I’m so excited to read Kacen’s new book Moonflower later this year, and also Ellen Outside the Lines by A.J. Sass in March!
For YA readers, I’m also thrilled to shout about two upcoming books: We Deserve Monuments by Jas Hammonds and When the Angels Left the Old Country by Sacha Lamb! Jas and Sacha are both in my Lambda Literary writing cohort, and based on what I’ve read of their writing so far, these books are going to be stunning.
If you could have your dream panel promoting The Best Liars in Riverview, what would it be about? What other authors and voices would you like to have on it alongside you?
I keep getting overwhelmed by all the possibilities on this one, but I’ll say that one pie-in-the-sky dream panel would be about middle grade books set in or around the woods, and about the woods as a space for coming of age and exploring identity—mostly so that I could kick back and listen to Kacen Callender, Kyle Lukoff, and Erin Entrada Kelly all say brilliant, intelligent things.
What question do you wish you were asked more often (and the answer)?
Honestly, I’m very new to being interviewed, and these questions have been amazing and have covered so much! But I guess I do always love the question, Do you have any pets? just because then I get to talk about my cat who loves to snuggle and has a ridiculous number of allergies and is basically perfect.
Can you share anything about any projects you are currently working on?
I’m currently in revisions for my second middle grade book, which is about three siblings visiting their grandmother in her house that might be haunted. The main character, Simon, is in a much more confident place internally with his gender than Aubrey is in Best Liars, but he’s kind of navigating a lot of things changing around him while trying to figure out where he fits within his family—and also hunting ghosts with his siblings. 🙂
I’m also working on a YA historical fantasy about a queer group of sailors in the 1840s—it’s obviously a very different kind of story with a different audience, but I’m getting to explore a lot of similar themes around queer coming-of-age and found family, and I’m very excited about it!
Lin Thompson (they/them) is a Lambda Literary Fellow of 2018. An earlier version of this novel was workshopped in Pitch Wars and it also received the Travis Parker Rushing Memorial Writing Award at Emerson College. Lin grew up in Kentucky but now lives in Iowa with their wife and cat.
Olivia Mules is currently pursuing her master’s degree in library and information science. Olivia’s goal is to work in academic librarianship and reference services with a focus on information literacy. Before starting her degree program, she was a special education teacher and taught math and science. Her favorite literary heroines are Elizabeth Bennet, Gemma Doyle, and Arya Dröttning. When Olivia is not doing schoolwork, she enjoys cooking, music, hikes with her wife and daughter, and drinking an inordinate amount of iced coffee.