Thursday, July 8, 2021

Alena Dillon

Alena Dillon is the author of Mercy House, a Library Journal Best Book of 2020, which has been optioned as a television series produced by Amy Schumer, as well as The Happiest Girl in the World, a Good Morning America pick, and My Body Is A Big Fat Temple, a forthcoming memoir of pregnancy and early parenting.

Dillon teaches creative writing and lives on the north shore of Boston with her husband, son, black lab, and lots of books.

My Q&A with the author:

How much work does your title do to take readers into the story?

My original title for the novel was I Am Sera, because the book is so much about the character’s search for her identity inside and outside the pursuit of her dream, and perhaps I was inspired by the movie I, Tonya, which delved behind the polished veneer of Olympic sports in the same way my novel does. But my editor suggested The Happiest Girl in the World, which comes from an interview with gymnast Shawn Johnson, saying she felt like the happiest girl in the world when she made the Olympic team. My character idolizes Shawn to the point where she rehearses that interview over and over again. I read the manuscript again with that title in mind, and I repeatedly saw the theme of happiness rise up: what happiness means, who deserves it, who earns it, and if our goals bring us happiness or if our goals come at the expense of our happiness. It was a far more apt title than mine.

What's in a name?

My main character’s name is Sera, which is pronounced like the more conventional Sarah, but coming from Seraph. This plays on her seeming ability to defy gravity and fly, as if she had a set of invisible wings, as well as contrasting the everyday with the exceptional. I drive this point further by naming her twin brother Joe, like the average Joe.

There are several characters who resemble real people inside the USA Gymnastics space (Larry Nassar, the Karolyis, etc). There are a few reasons I fictionalized them, but I made their names capture similar spirits to draw the parallels.

How surprised would your teenage reader self be by your new novel?

My teenager self would be as horrified as anybody with the truths uncovered about Olympic athletes, particularly with the USA Gymnastics scandal. Teenagers trust adults who are presented as mentors and protectors and experts in their fields. We all do.

Do you find it harder to write beginnings or endings? Which do you change more?

In this case, the prologue was the first thing I wrote in this book. I did it as kind of a test to see if I could actually write a gymnastic routine convincingly, since I have no experience in the sport. That prologue is almost word for word how it was the first time I wrote it. I find endings to be trickier. It’s hard to know when to stop, and how to give justice to the journey and story world of the previous 300 pages.

Do you see much of yourself in your characters? Do they have any connection to your personality, or are they a world apart?

There is probably a little piece of myself in every character, as well as pieces of various people from my life. I don’t know anything about pushing my physical body to the extent that Sera does, or being driven madly by a dream, but I do know about the intimacy of childhood friendships, and how easy it is to convince yourself that an untrustworthy person is good. I never ruptured my Achilles, but I know two people who have, and though they weren’t elite athletes, it was still devastating to them. I weave familiar experiences with unfamiliar ones, flexing my empathy muscles when I have to imagine something outside of myself.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

I write all my novels cinematically, as if I am seeing scenes play out in my head, so television and movies are certainly influencing factors. Here, too, watching the Olympics every cycle was helpful, as were podcasts about gymnastics, documentaries, how-to YouTube videos, and competition footage.
Visit Alena Dillon's website.

The Page 69 Test: Mercy House.

My Book, The Movie: Mercy House.

--Marshal Zeringue