Breakfast with Neruda is young adult author Laura Moe’s tale of redemption for two troubled teens. Michael and Shelly are both sentenced to community service, cleaning up their high school for the summer. The two are from different social groups, but nonetheless bond over their shared love of the poet Pablo Neruda’s work and their unfortunate summertime situations. Both teens have their secrets, and slowly they reveal them as their relationship deepens.
Mary Sullivan: Michael’s biggest secret is that his mother is a hoarder. It’s forced him out of the house because it’s too claustrophobic, and possibly even dangerous due to bacteria and rats. He’s sleeping in his car instead. What inspired you to write about hoarders?
Laura Moe: First I’d like to thank you for your thorough questions. They made me put on my thinking cap.
A few years ago I read an article by a woman whose mother’s hoarding led to estrangement from her family. I found it so sad that someone would choose things above loved ones, yet I was also intrigued by the psychology behind it. As part of my research for my book I watched countless episodes of Hoarders and other shows dealing with hoarding. What I came away with is every hoarder is unique, each case is based on trauma, and just throwing away excess won’t solve the problem. The frenzy to hold onto things is rooted in deep wounds.
MS: Michael’s family is troubled by more than just hoarding. He doesn’t know who his father is—in fact, he doesn’t even know the man’s name—and his mother has had a string of husbands and boyfriends. She might have even worked as a prostitute at one point. Still, Michael is a good person (despite a delinquent move), trying to make it. What prompted you to write about troubled teens? Do you have experience with this population or with some of the issues discussed in the book?
LM: Throughout my teaching career I encountered kids like Michael and Shelly. Teachers often become surrogate parents to kids who are emotionally or physically abandoned. The biggest challenge is kids don’t often ask for help; there’s the risk of being judged, or belief that they are somehow at fault.
While each character in the book is not based on an actual person, I mined what I know from years as a teacher.
MS: Shelly says that she and Michael are both from The Planet of Damaged Souls. They bond over their shared love of literature and the way it allowed them to express a part of themselves they otherwise couldn’t. What is your own connection to Pablo Neruda’s work?
LM: The first Pablo Neruda poem I encountered was “Ode to a Tomato.” I was intrigued by Neruda’s juxtaposition of words to empower an object most of us take for granted. He makes the reader see the ordinary tomato through a new lens. I began to read his body of work and fell deeper in love with him with each poem I read.
If you analyze his work, his diction is simple, but the placement of words creates such powerful imagery. For example, he describes watermelon as “the green whale of summer.” This juxtaposition forces the reader to stop and consider the watermelon as more than just a juicy fruit; it’s the embodiment of summer memories, a summer afternoon in the shade on a hot day cooling off with this festive fruit.
And don’t get me started on his love poems. If everyone read Neruda, the world would be a more thoughtful place.
Over the years I amassed a number of Neruda’s books and it broke my heart when, moving across the country and downsizing, I had to sell or give away many of my books. But we have bookstores here in Seattle, so I am slowly recouping them. (I’m always one book away from being a book hoarder!)
By the way, The Planet of the Lost Souls almost ended up as the title, but I thought it sounded too much like science fiction.
MS: You are a poet, but this is your first novel. Tell us about your journey in writing. What prompted you to write a book, and how was that process different than writing poetry?
LM: I consider myself an accidental poet. Fiction was my first love, and I started writing poetry to improve my syntax. Yet I also discovered a new portal for communication and a new dimension for my soul.
I’ve written countless terrible short stories and novels. The first “novel” I wrote was a romance involving a group of anthropologists. (I was an Anthropology major at the time.) I rediscovered the manuscript when I was packing to move and over lunch one day my friend Elizabeth and I howled at some of my stilted language when I shared the first chapter with her. The important thing is, though, I finished a complete book. This boosted my self-esteem and energized me to write more novels even though most of those are still not suitable for publication.
Writing a completed book doesn’t mean it gets easier the second time around. In fact it may be harder. We often make the same mistakes again. In my case I front load my stories with way too much back-story. Eventually, though, something clicks, and a hurricane washes away all the detritus and suddenly you’ve written a readable book. I had to write ten thousand hours of terrible words to finally solve the puzzle.
Poems often take less time to write, but that doesn’t make them easier to write. At the basic level poetry and fiction both involve putting words on a page, but Poet Me and Fiction Me are two different people. Poet Me digs around the dark layers of psyche and soul, takes something seemingly small and enlarges it through metaphor. It’s often a gut wrenching process. Fiction Me also digs through the psyche, but there’s a larger canvas, and I can stand a few paces back throughout parts of the manuscript. In poems you have less space to create metaphor. It’s the difference between building a house or a skyscraper.
Thanks so much for joining us at Book Club Babble! Breakfast with Neruda is a contemporary realistic novel. I rooted for these characters, and it was an enjoyable, fast read. It was released by Merit Press in May 2016.
Laura Moe can be found at http://laura-moe.blogspot.com