interview with em crane, author of skin deep

courtneybooks, interviews, young adult lit


If there is one book everyone should make sure–absolutely, positively, 100% sure–is on their bookshelves, it is Skin Deep by E.M. Crane. I’ve been excited for this novel since I first glimpsed its gorgeous cover but when I finally received my copy in the mail, shortly after it hit bookstores everywhere, I was in the thick of revisions and did not really have the time to read it. I started the first few pages and was instantly drawn it but… revisions. Woe! Woe to me! And fie! Fie on my revisions! The novel, however, was undeterred and continued calling to me with its gorgeous cover and opening chapter. I eventually had to settle on a compromise: revise a few pages here, read a few pages of Skin Deep there. Genius, Y?

Cut to Courtney five minutes later, sitting at her laptop, Skin Deep open across the keys, revisions onscreen and forgotten. I read the book from cover to cover in a few hours. I could not put it down.

Publishers Weekly called Skin Deep a “thoughtful, evenly paced tale […] about self-discovery and the importance of passion and strength.” Booklist called it an “involving first novel depicting a pivotal year of loss, change, and awakening.” Courtney calls it, “an engaging, thoughtful and complex novel with vivid prose that is so honest it hurts sometimes, but in a good way.” Courtney also calls it, “a beautiful book that asks the deeper questions and forces you to do the same, never demanding answers, but suggesting beautiful, compelling and sometimes heartbreaking possibilities,” as well as, “a must-read.” Courtney also wants you to know that “Skin Deep is currently heading up my Best Reads of 2008 list.”

You oughta listen to this Courtney girl, whoever she is.

So what’s Skin Deep about?

It’s about a girl named Andrea Anderson who is carefully unravelling her role in her world. Like Shakespeare said, all the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players. Andrea knows her part–she’s a total nobody. Shy and unsure of herself, Andrea spends much of her time watching the other players in the halls of her high school. The jocks, the geeks who are worse off than she is, the popular girls, the goths. Her incisive observations about them suggests she knows their parts better than they do. At home, she contends with an overbearing and selfishly unhappy mother. Life for Andrea is a lonely show with a seemingly endless run and little variation until she takes a job walking her ailing neighbour, Honora Menapace’s dog, Zena. It seems simple enough at first, but Honora and Zena open up Andrea’s world in ways she never could have imagined. It’s through their friendship that Andrea quickly realizes all roles in high school and in life are not so definitive as she assumed–including her own. Andrea is about to discover–as the back of the book says–what’s underneath when you scratch the surface.

Awesome, yes? Yes. And the awesome doesn’t stop there either. It continues! In this very blog entry!

After I finished Skin Deep, I had questions. Questions that demanded answering! So I fired off an email to E.M. Crane and asked her if she would be interested in doing a blog interview. Having interviewed an author once before, I felt I was totally qualified to do it once again. I told her that as well. Lucky me, she said yes in spite of this. So I sent off my questions, she answered them and now I happily present to you…


Welcome, E.M. Crane! Thank you for taking the time to do this and congratulations on the release of your debut novel, which I LOVED.

Skin Deep won the 2006 Delacorte Press Contest for a First Young Adult Novel (congratulations for that too!). What was that process like, from deciding you wanted to enter it, to being notified that you had won?

Skin Deep was the first book I ever actually… finished. I had a whole lot of false starts. Years worth of short stories, because I considered myself a short story writer, not a novelist. Nothing YA in the inventory. But Skin Deep I managed to complete, and it struck me as YA. I decided to submit it to Delacorte with the hope that I’d get some red ink out of it — meaning some editorial suggestions to bring it to a level that would make it marketable. Instead, I got the call. Taking the call made me late to my best friend’s wedding. As the maid (I refuse to use the word matron) of honor, I kind of had to tell my editor….”Uh, thanks, but I really have to go. Sorry. Can we talk another time?” That’s probably not the reaction she expected. But me and my fluffy lavender taffeta dress had somewhere to be.

Okay, that wins as the best ‘The Call’ story ever. Just so you know.

Andrea is a very introverted protaganist and the way she narrates is very open and raw. There is a lot of longing for people to recognize what she is capable of and the want to be more than she is. What inspired you to tell Andrea’s story? Did the novel start with her voice or a single scene or something else?

This whole story, honestly, began with Zena. Writers make stuff up. I know you’re surprised about that. But Zena, and the descriptive scenes of her in the woods, those are real. Watching my own Saint run through the woods day after day like that made me ask myself lots of questions about beauty – because she was truly beautiful. So much today focuses on commercial beauty. We’ve become accustomed to a beauty that’s accompanied by greed, jealousy, snobbery, arrogance, sameness. But true beauty really doesn’t give a damn if anyone notices it. Beauty doesn’t need attention. It just happens, and you’re lucky if you witness it. From there, I developed a character who needed to learn that lesson.

One thing that struck me about Andrea’s mother was how easy it would be to become her. Whenever the two were on page together, my heart ached for Andrea because I could see how easily her self-imposed isolation and insecurities could turn her into the same kind of bitter and hateful person. Was this intentional? What are your feelings about Andrea’s mother, as the person who created her?

I think Andrea’s mother is the person I’m afraid to become, so it’s interesting you picked up on that. :) On the surface, she’s ordinary — she’s hardworking, she has friends, she isn’t a physically absent parent. You wouldn’t look at her on the street and think she was horrible, you’d think she was a determined single parent making it work. But her underlying bitterness and fear has completely molded the personality of her child. I’m pretty sure Andrea’s mom didn’t intend it that way. But it happened anyhow. I think it’s the lack of intent that makes her, and Andrea’s isolation, scary to me.

I loved that Honora had her quirks but she wasn’t one of those token quirky characters. She was very real and sharply drawn. She was also an equal to Andrea, which I really enjoyed. She was a strong yet subtle catalyst for change. How did you approach writing her?

Just like Andrea’s mom is the person I’m afraid to become, Honora is more like the person I would like to be. I think because of that, I haven’t entirely figured her out yet. Even now, she is elusive. She fascinates me. She’s too clever to let me analyze her. I intend to keep trying.

The passages featuring Zena were really wonderful and warm. If those passages weren’t enough to tell me you were a dog person, your blog definitely did. :) Why dogs?

Not just dogs, for me. Yetis. Huge drooling stinky hairballs. I have come to find that dog drool is a great tool by which to judge a person’s character. It also has the incredible ability to defy gravity and go airborne for twelve feet and stick to ceiling tiles. For reals. I’ve seen it happen. I’ve had giant-breed dogs, Newfoundlands and Saints, for nearly twenty years.
Why a dog as a character in Skin Deep? Because despite their alleged intellectual shortcomings, dogs do something too few humans have ever done: they live in the moment. Every day.

Very well said. According to your site, Dennis was your favourite character to write (he was such a nice guy!) and I felt his attraction to Andrea’s mom really tied into the ‘what’s underneath when you scratch the surface?’ theme throughout the book. Dennis liking Andrea’s mom made me give her the benefit of a doubt. What about him made him your favourite character to write?

I liked how Dennis came about as dopey and homely on the outside, but brilliantly aware on the inside. I liked that he knew how to subtly repair years of emotional damage between Andrea and her mother, and judged neither of them for it. While writing, it almost felt like he was winking at me, saying “Don’t sweat it, I know what needs to happen next.”

I found the homeopathy in the story really fascinating. Have you always had an interest in it or was it something you researched for the book?

I’m a wildcrafter. Anything to do with non-Western medicine fascinates me. As for Honora, I intentionally used herbs that are common and tame by comparison to some of the herbs she might have used had this not been fictional and aimed at teens. Herbalism requires care and knowledge; but just about anyone should feel free to have a cup of chamomile. Andrea’s wrong, by the way. Homemade herbals don’t taste like the gacky crap you find under your porch. Besides, how the hell would she know what that tastes like, anyway? :)

That’s a relief. I found the teas compelling and Andrea’s descriptions of their taste slightly uhm. Off-putting. :) I will not discount them yet, then!

I loved how important art was in this novel. The emphasis seemed to be on the importance of creating art, not how and what you create it with. That was inspiring. Who are your favourite artists? What are your favourite works of art?

Dale Chihuly. Carson McCullers. Cristina Pellechio. Hieronymus Bosch. Jerry Garcia. Andy Goldsworthy, John Ludwig Hacker, the Hubble telescope designers. And of course, my husband Mark.
My favorite work of art is the next one.

What was the most difficult part of Skin Deep to write?

The beginning. heh. But seriously. I still want to rewrite it. Again. Even now. Got a red pen?

Yes, but I’m not giving it to you. I loved the opening. ;)

And now my favourite question to ask an author: what do you want people to take away from your novel?

Only a moment to consider the things they find meaningful in their own lives. That’s all. Anything more specific would be an intrusion.

What’s your writing process? Do you have a rigid routine or do you play it by ear? Are you an outliner or a pantser?

No outline, no routine. I invent characters and put them in a setting that interests me. Then I let them live it out. If I know what’s going to happen too soon, I get bored writing it. I need the adrenaline of wanting to know what happens next to keep writing.

I think we have that in common. If you could pick a theme song for Skin Deep, what song would it be?

Breathe Me, by Sia

That song is fantastic. What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?

Revision is like archaeology without a shovel. Dig and scrape until your nails bleed.

I love that. Name one young adult novel you think everyone should have on their bookshelf.

Staying Fat For Sarah Byrnes by Chris Crutcher

What’s next for you writing-wise?

A tin cup, a monkey, an accordian, a street corner. And a Macbook Air. (drooling. Me, not the dogs).

It fits in an envelope, you know! Ah, Steve Jobs.

And finally: the Zombie Apocalypse is imminent. Do you have a zombie plan and if so, what is it (and there IS a wrong answer to this question)?

I not only have a zombie plan, I have a Zombie Apocalypse Day Planner. You can have it too, for just three easy payments of $19.99. Order in the next thirty minutes, I’ll throw in a FREE box of matches and some lighter fluid. (Psst: Zombies are combustible and they move real slow). Don’t delay, supplies are limited.

Dude, I am going to be your first customer. My cheque is in the mail.

And there you have it! Thank you, E.M., for taking the time to indulge my questions and giving such wonderful answers, least of all because they made my questions look good. And THANK YOU for writing such a wonderful book.

And one more time for the folks at home: the book is called Skin Deep. If you’re a fan of John Green, Laurie Halse Anderson or you just like to read novels of high quality, don’t miss out on Crane’s debut. I highly recommend it. You can order it online from amazon or support your local indie.

Visit E.M. Crane online at