Credit: Pete Stenberg
Joelle Charbonneau, known for her humorous adult mysteries, started out as a stage performer who turned to teaching. Her teenage students study music, theater and opera. "Not only do they have to do the ACT and SAT and college applications, but they also have to audition," Charbonneau said. "I'd say to myself, 'It can't get any worse. I wonder what could be worse?' " The answer is: The Testing, her first book for young adults.
Q: At the heart of the novel is this idea of competition at the peril of one's peers--do you think that's what testing encourages?
I know it does. I've been doing theater and music since I was a kid. In general, the person who's the lead isn't often the most important person in the play. You're only as strong as your weakest link. In The Testing, a lot of people wouldn't consider Cia a leading lady. She'd be more of a supporting character. In this case, she's forced into the spotlight.
Is a real leader someone who's necessarily [been elected] the president? Or is it the person who questions? You should care when something affects anybody, not just you. Cia does question, and that's what makes her unusual. She'd like to be a leader because she'd like to make a difference, not because she wants to be the leader.
Q: Did you have an outline of all three books? Or do they unfold as you write them?
I never have a clue where I'm going. By page 60 or 70 I take a left turn in Albuquerque and there's no way back. I had no idea where it was going. Every action that happens propels it along, sometimes in a direction that I'm not sure where it will take it. Why did I make a heroine who's so smart--in science and engineering? I'm studying the mechanics of a bridge! I've finished book two. The series was supposed to be a book a year. Now it's every six months.
Q: Cia's father raises the question of trust. But you also raise the question of whether Cia can trust her father. Will we learn more about that in future books?
The second book takes place in Tosu City. We only get glimpses of what happens in the past. We do get to see some family dynamics. The end of book three should also give the idea that kids go off to college, and home has not changed, but you have. What do you do with that? A lot of that Cia has to work out in her own head. We do see the father a bit in the prequel, a short e-book, available on the series homepage TheTestingTrilogy.com, and soon on other e-retailer websites.
Q: Tell us more about the parallel you see between The Testing and the audition process that your performer-students go through.
Sometimes it's a question of are you confident enough in your own abilities? I have to warn my students there's a warm and fuzzy quality to a school, and then there are others where snarkier kids go. They're always trying to psyche you out. If they can, they will outperform you. I have always wanted to be judged on my own merits. The question is: Are you willing to trust your own abilities, or do you want to bring others down in order to shine brighter, even if it will bring the whole show down?
This is excerpted from a longer interview that first appeared in Shelf Awareness.