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Robin Brande
Evolution, Me & Other Freaks of Nature


Original Airdate: April 9, 2008

 

About the Author

Robin Brande worked as a trial attorney, Wilderness First Responder, yoga instructor, insurance agent, Girl Scout leader and a Sunday school teacher, among other things before becoming a writer. She recently appeared on Broadway in "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" as one of the spelling bee participants. Brande lives in Tucson, Arizona with her husband and their dogs. "Evolution, Me & Other Freaks of Nature" is Brande's first novel.

 

About this Book

Mena Reece faces a lonely ninth-grade year. All of her best friends, her parents and her church have left her adrift after she sends a letter of support to an injured classmate. Mena knows she's done the right thing, but all the same her year looks bleak. Next, Mena is assigned to Ms. Shepherd's science class where she is partnered with Casey Connor, a science geek. This partnership, however, soon leads to a special friendship and an intellectual awakening for Mena. When Rev. Wells, the pastor of Paradise Christian church, leads a protest against Ms. Shepherd for teaching evolution, Mena learns about the importance of academic freedom, friendship, courage and passion. Through it all, Mena remains religious and finds creative means to draw connections between the Bible and science.

 


More Resources

Robin Brande's website

 

Transcript

RON CARLSON:
Hello, welcome to Books & Co. I'm Ron Carlson, and today our guest is the writer Robin Brande, who's here with her novel Evolution, Me & Other Freaks of Nature, published by Knopf. Welcome.

ROBIN BRANDE:
Thank you, Ron.

RON CARLSON:
That's a provocative title.

ROBIN BRANDE:
It is.

RON CARLSON:
And the "me" in the title is Mena, who is a 14-year-old high school student just crossing all the frontiers that a person crosses when they're 14.Why don't you give us an overview of the book first, and then I want to get into how you wrote it.

ROBIN BRANDE:
Okay, sure. So Mena is just beginning her freshman year in high school, and unfortunately, she's going to a high school that all of her old friends from her entire youth go to, but she is now completely on the outs with everybody. She has done something that she felt was the right thing to do, but it ended up getting her church, her pastor, all of her friends and their parents sued for millions of dollars. So that's the environment that she's --

RON CARLSON:
It starts with that, it starts with a bang.

ROBIN BRANDE:
It's a little harsh.

RON CARLSON:
Yeah, she's behind when she starts, so from page one.

ROBIN BRANDE:
So she has no friends going into high school, and so this is in some ways a coming-of-age story of a girl not only trying to figure out who her people are now -- forging new friendships, new alliances -- but also, because this book revolves around the fight over teaching evolution in a high school, it puts a girl who has a Christian background, very strong Christian beliefs, right square in the center of the controversy of "do you believe in god, do you believe in evolution, is there some way of bridging those two and saying, 'I believe in both'?" That's kind of the larger theme of the book.

RON CARLSON:
Right, so you have -- and I think we see these themes played out in the news and come to us in various ways. Did you start with the theme?

ROBIN BRANDE:
I did. I was really fascinated by the news reports that were coming out in the country around this time, this was in 2005. And there was a fight going on in Dover, Pennsylvania, in a High School over teaching evolution.

RON CARLSON:
Was it about the textbook?

ROBIN BRANDE:
It was. And the textbook -- this is really an interesting background to this book. The textbook was written by a Professor at Brown University named Dr. Kenneth Miller, who is also a science advisor for Nova, also the News hour -- fine PBS shows here -- and he is a devout Catholic who also is a renowned biology Professor. So he has written this textbook, and the school in Dover, Pennsylvania, decided that they didn't want to teach out of that unless it contained a sticker saying evolution is just a theory. And so then everything broke loose, and that case ended up going to trial. And so I followed all of that action for a while, and this story kind of follows a little bit of that. And what was fun is last year, when I was doing my book tour, I got to go to that high school. And enough time has passed now that all the kids who were freshmen during that period of time are now seniors in the high school, and so it was an audience full of kids who had gone through that. So I had the chance of asking them, "What was it like living in that?" And they're saying, you know, "we just want to be known from a small, beautiful town, and instead we're the town that fought about evolution." and there was always a little perimeter outside the school that CNN and all of the cameras couldn't cross, but as soon as the kids would step over that, it's cameras in their faces. And so it was really an interesting time for them, but it was great to meet those kids. And the Ken Miller connection, the professor who wrote that, ended up being an advisor for me on my book. And I modeled the science teacher, the high school teacher in this book on him.

RON CARLSON:
Ms. Shepherd.

ROBIN BRANDE:
Ms. Shepherd.

RON CARLSON:
Or Ms. Shepherd, right.

ROBIN BRANDE:
Who's a very fun character? And when we recorded the audio book of this, Dr. Miller and I have a whole long interview at the end of it. He's a really fun, entertaining guy. So that's kind of the way all those things have come together.

RON CARLSON:
Well, the -- and this book, is it -- it is what we call "young adult," for a young adult audience. What does that mean?

ROBIN BRANDE:
That's a good question. A lot of people wonder about that. Theoretically, it is written with characters that are of the teen age. So it can be -- it's usually high school and not beyond high school. And it is involving their coming-of-age issues. They're breaking away from their parents, making decisions for themselves. Those are kind of the themes we see in young adult literature. But a wide variety of things are considered young adult. So Harry Potter's considered a children's book, but we know children all the way up to -- 95-year-olds are reading that.

RON CARLSON:
I looked at one of those books.

ROBIN BRANDE:
One of them? Jeez, those are the greatest! And the same with young adult literature, that I find that a lot of adults read that because just the stories are so interesting and they also remind us of a time in our lives that we may have felt excluded or have had issues with friendships and, you know, identity issues. And I read mostly young adult just because I prefer that. I also prefer happy endings. Literature kind of bums me out, you know, adult literature. I kind of get tired of the unhappy, unsatisfying endings. So -- and not that there aren't unhappy endings in some young adult literature, but that's the main thing, is it's dealing with teens and it's written for – a teen can come to it as well as adults.

RON CARLSON:
Mm-hmm. Are there strictures in it? I mean, is it -- who is the youngest reader for this book?

ROBIN BRANDE:
Twelve-year-old.

RON CARLSON:
And is there -- are there guidelines in terms of how to keep it over the line?

ROBIN BRANDE:
You wouldn't think it, reading some of the books that are out there right now. They've gotten very explicit, a lot of the books.

RON CARLSON:
I thought so. When I -- I saw a series of books in the last four years, and there was a lot of – there were some addictions, there was some sexuality, and so it's – I thought it was undergoing some kind of change.

ROBIN BRANDE:
Well, some of those novels -- like a friend of mine, Barry Lyga, who's written a book called Boy Toy that was just reviewed in the New York Times, that's a book that's about a young boy's affair with his teacher, with his female teacher, and so there's a lot of explicit passages in there, and it's meant for 16 and above. But does that mean that younger audiences don't read it? I don't know. It just depends on where it gets shelved. So the publishers try to give you some guidelines of, "this is 12-and-up, 14-and-up, 16-and-up," but it's sort of a gray area right now.

RON CARLSON:
And there must be also some style and language issues. I mean, I notice your book has real verve, the paragraphs are short, it moves right along, and it's in her voice, which is very saucy and --

ROBIN BRANDE:
Thank you.

RON CARLSON:
Now, let's go back to this notion of writing a book – so you have a theme, very controversial, and when David Guterson was on this program, he talked about writing Snow Falling on Cedars based on the injustices in Romeo & Juliet. His students really fired to that, and then he talked about the injustices of the internment camps in World War II and went in and then populated it. What are the challenges of a writer who's trying to bring an idea to life, to dramatize a theme, as opposed to letting that book, letting the idea take too much charge?

ROBIN BRANDE:
Right, and that's a really interesting issue that comes up, because you never want to beat someone over the head with your issues and themes; that's a boring book. And that's -- you know, nonfiction is there to give you the facts, the straightforward arguments that people want to make. When it's fiction, the first thing is the story: it's got to be an entertaining read. And if as part of that, you'd also like to weave in themes that you care about, put forth opinions that you're interested in, it still has to be in service of the story. You cannot bore your audience or they're not going to get past the fifth page. You've just got to keep it moving, and if every now and then you want to sneakily slip in things, well, that's a matter of style. That's what we work on.

RON CARLSON:
Well, I think you did a masterful job in terms of making this about the girl first and her issues, and then the issues second. They come along, of course, and they're everywhere. And of course, it's sort of a hot-button issue, this whole idea of evolution. Has it quieted down now?

ROBIN BRANDE:
No, it's -- I mean, when you look at how the presidential campaign was going, too, there was still the question being asked during the republican debates of, "do you believe in evolution or not?" And there are just little pockets of dissention all around the country that it'll be – one school board will decide, "we're going to fight this issue." So, no, I don't think it's going -- I don't think it's ever gone away, and I don't know when it ever will, because there's just a very strong religious take on it that, "genesis is the only way that we should be learning about the universe." And one of my concerns about that, and I grew up in a Baptist Church, I have a very firm bible background, I loved my upbringing, and I've taught Sunday school. I'm not in any way an atheist. I'm a Christian girl. But it does concern me when we talk about taking evolution out of the high schools, because I don't know where we think our future doctors and scientists and researchers are coming from if we're going to water down science. You know, I think science is a wonderful, beautiful thing, and I would like to encourage as many kids as possible to go into it. That's where our future lies.

RON CARLSON:
I remember that as being part of the case with that textbook that you talked about in terms of that we need good, strong science if these people are going to go on and compete in college and graduate school. The -- let me ask you about her other adventures, Mena's -- yeah, she's going along, and this issue -- is intelligent design part of this?

ROBIN BRANDE:
It is. Intelligent design, it's – her church, her former church, the pastor begins a campaign in this high school to have intelligent design taught either exclusively or side-by-side with evolution. So one of the issues in the book that Ms. Shepherd, the science teacher, discusses is, is intelligent design science? And that's something that was argued about at length for – I think it was a six-week trial in Dover, Pennsylvania, all sorts of scientific experts. And the judge in that case ultimately decided intelligent design is not science, it's more of a religious, philosophical viewpoint. But that's something that's discussed in the book. And what I tried to do in the book, I'm not here to shove any dogma down anybody's throat. I want to raise the issues, because I think it's a fascinating conversation. I love being someplace and talking to kids about it. I was at a school where we had in the group Baptists, Muslims, atheists, Jewish, Catholic, you know, a really wide variety, and to talk about the issue of, first of all, do we believe in god, do we believe in evolution? I want the conversation. I want people to feel comfortable talking about it, and that's what the book is. It's not to say, "You should believe this or that." That's boring. I want people to just be excited about the issue.

RON CARLSON:
Yeah, you're much better -- the responsibility of fiction is to ask the question in a vital way and not try to be partisan or advance a cause. Well, let's go back to Mena’s other issues. Now, she meets Casey.

ROBIN BRANDE:
Yes.

RON CARLSON:
And she tells her parents originally that Casey's – she doesn't tell that Casey's a boy.

ROBIN BRANDE:
Right.

RON CARLSON:
And she's a little nervous about -- her parents are very conservative?

ROBIN BRANDE:
They are. The church is very conservative, and the parents are still part of the church, so Mena has been kicked out, but her parents are still very firmly in with the whole group there. And so she's been raised very strictly. She's not allowed to watch movies, a lot of popular movies, she's not allowed to read magazines, watch TV shows, anything, unless it's on a list of shows that are deemed clean and pure.

RON CARLSON:
There's a list.

ROBIN BRANDE:
There is a list. And she's certainly not allowed to date boys or be alone with boys, and so she develops this friendship -- the only friendship she has at the school is with her lab partner, a boy named Casey. And when she finally gets up the courage to ask her mother if she can go to his house to work on a science project, her mother is busy and kind of misunderstands the whole thing and assumes that Casey's a girl, and Mena doesn't correct that. And so that's kind of the beginning of her lies. And that's one of the issues of the book is that -- and it's a real common teenage issue, is you want to be a good person, you want to be honest with your parents, but there are times when sometimes these things happen, and at what point do you continue, because you want your independence and you know you're not doing anything wrong, so is it better that what they don't know doesn't hurt them or do you need to spill it all out just to keep your reputation as being an honest kid? So that's kind of one of the issues in the book, too, is how far can she go in being deceptive? And that's not the only lie, there's then a series.

ROBIN BRANDE:
Well, it's interesting. There's omissions, and it's tough. She was a girl who told her mother everything, and now she finds herself omitting a thing or two. And part of it is because her parents have -- are really cold to her right now. They're very angry about what she did, and so there's a barrier that her parents are also partially responsible for. They don't agree with what she did. And again, one of the issues in the book -- and I can't tell you what she -- I mean, you know what she did, but I won't tell anybody else -- is she feels like she did the right thing. And so it's very hard for her to be ostracized because of it and to be condemned when she feels in her heart that was the right, Christian thing to do. And so it makes it extra unjust for her. It's hard for her to deal with.

RON CARLSON:
Right. And so you have this confrontation -- in the meantime, in the confrontation in evolution in the classroom, there are the back-turners. Now, what is that?

ROBIN BRANDE:
Well, the back-turners – and that's based on some of the stuff that was going around the country. So again, because the church has decided that this is going to be our campaign right now, is we're going to fight evolution being taught in the schools, every time the science teacher even brings up the issue of evolution, all of the kids from the church group pick up their chairs, turn around, and put their backs to her. They won't listen to it, they won't involve themselves in the evolution discussion. And when I was on tour, one of the stories I heard was a classroom where, every time it came up, they would very loudly slam their books shut, throw them on the floor, and reach down, pick up their bibles, and slam those on the thing. So there's all sorts of strange, disruptive techniques being used around the country, so I didn't make up everything in the book.

RON CARLSON:
Well, the -- so you have this struggle with evolution and then her incipient romance and the larger issue of the lawsuit, the issue with the church, and there's several other things, including her parents, there are some puppies in the book. And this is your first novel.

ROBIN BRANDE:
It is.

RON CARLSON:
Now, how -- how did you approach the writing of the book? Did you -- are you a person who just sat down and wrote page one, here we go?

ROBIN BRANDE:
Oh, no.

RON CARLSON:
Okay, why don't you talk about the process?

ROBIN BRANDE:
Okay, one of the things that I felt was really important is I am not a science-minded person, I'm very much arts and entertainment, and so I knew I needed to have a good, solid science background for this book. I couldn't just fake my way through it. So I started by spending several weeks trying to read Charles Darwin's Origin of Species, which is quite a dry read, I might mention. And then I decided that the easier way to do it would be to go back to high school. So I found a freshman biology teacher who would let me sit in on her class for an entire month, and I took freshman biology. And that was the best way to do it, because I was in the high school atmosphere again, I got to learn my basics of evolution and biology, and that was just a fun way to research the novel.

RON CARLSON:
How was it, how was the class?

ROBIN BRANDE:
It was great. And the teacher was very spirited and the kids were fun, and it was a great experience as an adult who is nervous about science to be able to sit in the back of a science class and know I was never going to be called on. That was one of the sweetest moments of my adult years. So that was very generous of that teacher to do that, too. I was really happy about that. And ever since then, with the novels I've written since, I now always go back to high school. I pick a different high school and I'll go and sit in on various classes, because I also like to be around the kids, I like to pick up some of that atmosphere.

RON CARLSON:
Has the language -- has the vernacular changed since you were in high school?

ROBIN BRANDE:
Yes, quite a bit, yeah. And that's another thing when you're writing young adult literature, is some people I feel try too hard and they try to be really trendy, and these trends come and go.

RON CARLSON:
Very fast sometimes.

ROBIN BRANDE:
Yeah, and so you can date yourself very easily. So it's easier to pick sort of neutral words and not try to be ultra cool, because the kids will pick up on that – the readers will pick up on that right away.

RON CARLSON:
Let me remind our readers that we're talking with Robin Brande about her book Evolution, Me & Other Freaks of Nature. Robin, can I ask you just to sample the book, to read a little something from it, give us a sampling of what it's like?

ROBIN BRANDE:
Sure. Okay, this is a scene in Ms. Shepherd's science class, and this is Mena talking in the book. "Coffee must be very, very good for Ms. Shepherd's system, because she was all animated today. She spent the hour talking over examples from history and science and life to prove to us that even though we might guess what will happen in the next moment or the next century, we can't absolutely know. 'And this,' she said toward the end, 'is why evolution rules the day, because nothing is static, everything changes. That is the beauty of life. And the successful organisms, the ones like you and me and viruses and sharks and everything else that's out there today, we owe our existence to the genes that kept mutating and adapting all along. Thank you, mutations!' I love it when she says things like that, like she doesn't even care how weird it sounds. 'If you think about it,' she went on, 'not a single one of us is exactly like anything that came before. In a way, we're all truly freaks of nature. That's what it takes to survive. The freaks shall inherit the earth. Look how well viruses are doing. They mutate and adapt constantly. It's why we have to develop new vaccines all the time to keep killing them. Which raises an interesting question,' Ms. Shepherd said, glancing over at the back-turners. 'Because if you don't believe in evolution, then you must not believe that diseases change over time, in which case there would be no need for anyone to get new flu shots every year, because obviously, if we've been vaccinated once, that should last forever, right?' Brilliant,' Casey whispered. 'Just something to think about,' Ms. Shepherd said, and then the bell rang. And I just sat there. I didn't want to move. I wanted to sit there and understand everything I had just heard, because I think until that moment, I was only sort of paying attention. I was treating biology like any other one of my classes, just something to learn so I could get a good grade and move on. I appreciated that Ms. Shepherd was making it fun and interesting, but it was still just a class. But as of today, I have to admit it, I have a crush on science. Can you love a thought? Can you love a concept? I mean, not to be too dramatic, but when Ms. Shepherd explained that about the flu shot and about us all being freaks of nature, it was like something reached inside my chest and yanked on my soul, like somebody opened up my head and shouted down into my brain, 'do you get it? Mena, are you listening?' It's just that it all makes sense. In the same way that god makes sense to me sometimes and I really think I can feel him, I can see the order to things, his purpose behind them. I wish I felt that way more often, about god, I mean, but whenever I do, it's like someone has pumped up my heart with helium and I can barely keep from floating off into space."

RON CARLSON:
Nice. That's sort of the center of her thinking right there in – under the tutelage of Ms. Shepherd, who is sort of a hero in this book.

ROBIN BRANDE:
She is.

RON CARLSON:
And she's a real mentor, especially in her notions on mediocrity, which she won't grade toward, lying, which she abhors, and then finally there's -- maybe we'll talk about it in a minute, that whole midnight confession on the blog, which is awfully fine. Now, Casey's an interesting character, because he comes from kind of an odd family, and you populated him with -- his father is a science-fiction writer?

ROBIN BRANDE:
Right, Right.

RON CARLSON:
And that was a purposeful choice.

ROBIN BRANDE:
It was. First of all, I think it's interesting to meet a kid who has a parent who's a writer. I think writers look exotic in literature. They don't know what we're really like in --

RON CARLSON:
Right.

ROBIN BRANDE:
So that was fun. And what I love about Casey's family is they're very open and accepting. It's very different from Mena's family, who is pretty closed-in and conservative, and so it's a nice contrast for her to see those two.

RON CARLSON:
Also, she has to break the rules in order to read Casey's father's books.

ROBIN BRANDE:
Exactly.

RON CARLSON:
Which are fanciful and fabulous and other cosmos and --

ROBIN BRANDE:
Right, and she's not supposed to be watching lord of the rings, she's not supposed to be reading Harry Potter. Any of those kinds of things are off-limits, so yeah, the father's books are probably off-limits, too. And also, she has to lie to be able to go over to Casey's house. And so every time she does that, even though she has a great time there, it still feels awful. She knows she's being deceptive to her parents. One of the characters that I really love in the book is Casey's older sister, Kayla, who is just a very loudmouthed, very left-wing political girl, senior in high school, and she was a blast to write. And that's one of the characters who -- every now and then you write one who's funnier and smarter than you are, and it's fun to write.

RON CARLSON:
No, she's really tilted nicely, I think. She's a real addition to the book. The -- now, you -- this is your first book. And so you had -- you went back to high school, you made some notes, then did you just start on page one and type it up?

ROBIN BRANDE:
I did. Well, the truth is, there was actually a first -- a different version of this book originally. It was very, very depressing, it was very dramatic. I thought that to write real literature, it had to be depressing and dramatic. I don't know where I got that notion. And so I worked on that for maybe a month and a half, and it was just getting harder and harder to be excited about writing it every day. and in the midst of that, my beloved Labrador Retriever died. And so then it's just – you know, the whole thing was just too depressing. So I put it aside for a while and did nothing but watch Lord Of The Rings for three weeks straight, including all the appendices, all the special features, which is why Casey in the book knows so much about Lord of the Rings is I had just done that.

RON CARLSON:
You weren't going to let that research go to waste.

ROBIN BRANDE:
No, no, no. Everything I do is research. So after taking that break from it, I went to Colorado to get myself a new puppy and met this family that was raising puppies, and when I met the two young men who were part of that family, whose names are Casey and Connor -- and that's the name of the boy in the book, Casey Connor -- suddenly the whole different tack on this book came to me. And I went home and then I did right from page one write the whole book very quickly through, because I'd already done the research and it was ready, I just didn't know the right approach to this topic, so it was fun.

RON CARLSON:
Did you do anything to try to develop the voice of Mena, or is that you somewhere or what --

ROBIN BRANDE:
A lot of it is me. And this is a struggle that I went through. Like I said, I grew up Baptist, and I, too, was kicked out of my church right before high school, although for a totally different and very ridiculous non-noble reason.

RON CARLSON:
We're sure it's not important.

ROBIN BRANDE:
It's not important.

RON CARLSON:
All the viewers understand.

ROBIN BRANDE:
Yeah. So anyway, moving on, but yeah, so there's a lot of her in me, but I also, because I in my heart am still a 15-year-old girl, I love to write for this audience, because I feel like I'm really writing for myself at that age. And so it's bizarrely easy for me to tap into that part of myself again. And I try not to fake it. Like I said, I try to be just a regular teenager without trying to be cool about it. I hope it works.

RON CARLSON:
You had -- and we're getting close to the hour here, but I -- you had another career that somehow fed into -- you're writing this very vital 14-year-old girl, but you were a lawyer.

ROBIN BRANDE:
I was a lawyer.

RON CARLSON:
And you were a trial lawyer?

ROBIN BRANDE:
I was, accidentally.

RON CARLSON:
How does that inform this book? How do you go from that to that?

ROBIN BRANDE:
Well, first of all, it informs the book because I'm so much happier being a writer. That's one of the things, that -- that was the right choice for me. But I feel very strongly that it's important to have girl characters who are strong, independent, who learn to think for themselves. And all of my novels in some way involve teenagers blossoming in some way, either intellectually, emotionally, some other way. So this -- I just feel it's important to have role models of girls who are strong and independent. That's the kind of lesson that I would like to do. You know, teenage girls are my people, and like I said, I write for myself at that age, and so I think about what books I would've liked to have had as I was dealing with different issues. This is one of the issues that I dealt with in high school, and so I would've loved to have a book like this, and one that made me feel like I could stand up for what I believed, whether it was popular with my classmates, my parents, anything like that. So that's how it informs that, is I just like having strong girl and strong women characters.

RON CARLSON:
Is the character in your next book a young woman?

ROBIN BRANDE:
It is, she is.

RON CARLSON:
And is it first-person, too, as a speaking voice?

ROBIN BRANDE:
Yeah, I really like that approach with young adult. It feels easier to access the emotions and thoughts of teenagers if I'm writing from first-person. I just -- it's sort of method acting for me. I just really put myself in their place.

RON CARLSON:
Excellent. I think that you're on to something very strong. I think we're all -- there's all heart -- I mean, this whole idea that there is an audience of the 12-year-olds or 13-year-olds. I think we all have that kernel in us still and we're looking for those vital books that embody these ideas. Well, congratulations on your nice work. We've been talking with Robin Brande. Her novel is called Evolution, Me & Other Freaks of Nature. It's published by Knopf. I'm Ron Carlson. This has been Books & Co. I hope you'll join us next time.

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