Lisa Thompson is the author of our June middle grade book selection. The Goldfish Boy centers around Matthew Corbin who is struggling with his obsessive compulsive disorder. His profound fear of germs keeps him in his room mostly where he looks out his window and observes the goings on of his neighbors. One day his neighbor’s grandson goes missing and Matthew realizes he was the last one to see him. Matthew is at the center of a mystery that may require him to step outside the safety of his home.
You’ve been writing since you were little, but it wasn’t until you were around 40 years old that you decided to try to pursue it full time. What prompted that?
It was literally turning 40. Looking back I think I put it off because I was frightened of failing. You’ve got this dream that one day you'll be a writer, but it’s drummed into you how hard it is to get published. So I worked in radio at the BBC for many years. Had a nice career. Still in the back of my mind I thought, one day I’ll be a writer. So I turned 39 and decided to give myself one year, until I’m 40, to try to get an agent. Just having that deadline helped. And I managed to get an agent in that year.
I like that you gave yourself a deadline. It makes a big dream seem more manageable.
I also stopped worrying about being published. My sister said to just write the book and give it to my children. Also self-publishing was going to be my plan B.
The Goldfish Boy is such a great concept for a book. What gave you that idea?
It came from a short story. While I was trying to get the agent, I thought I couldn’t write a whole book because I thought you needed to know the whole story before you started. So I started with short stories with twists in them. You know the Rear Window film? I liked the idea of someone seeing something from the window, but they can’t do anything to help. So I wrote the short story. A boy watching from the window sees a toddler pushed into a pond and, for some reason, he hasn’t got the bravery to leave his room. My agent said this is the strongest short story you’ve written, why don’t you try to turn it into a book? The OCD angle came a lot further on when I happened to see a documentary on television about it.
As you mentioned, the main character, Matthew, has OCD. Did you know anyone with obsessive compulsive disorder or did you develop his character from research?
I think we all have quirks, i.e. I like to have the radio set on an even number etc. So I think there is something about OCD that we can all relate to on a very low level. I haven’t experienced it myself, but when I was doing research I asked family and friends on Facebook if anyone was willing to talk. One of my friends got in touch and I didn’t realize he had OCD. He’s in his 40s now. He hid his OCD from his family and struggled. He read The Goldfish Boy and gave me advice. I also had help from an OCD therapist and did a lot of research. It just rang a bell with me. It’s as though you’re a record and you’re stuck in a groove. Matthew knows he’s not going to die from a germ, but he can’t stop himself from washing. That’s the thing I found really fascinating. Your brain is stuck in a loop and you can’t get out of it.
For our monthly middle grade book pick, we choose diverse books to ensure as many experiences as possible are being represented. One thing that drew me to The Goldfish Boy was that there are not many children’s books that focus on children who suffer from mental illness.
As I started to finish the book I was really nervous of upsetting or misrepresenting anyone because I don’t have OCD. When I was watching the documentary there was a scene where the presenter went to a lady’s house and she refused to let him in. I was thinking OCD was washing your hands or keeping your books straight. The typical cliche. This lady was extremely frightened of germs and wouldn’t let the presenter in. I was shocked. I didn’t realize how bad it was. As I wrote the book it became more important to me to represent the condition in a way to make people understand. I’ve had lots of people say it opened their eyes, which it did for me as well as a writer.
As important as I think it is to shed light on this issue for young people, it can also be hard to understand and even a bit scary for children ages 8 to 12. When you were revising your book, did you make any changes to your depiction of Matthew’s disorder to account for the target age group?
I deliberately chose the phobia of germs because it was the easiest to understand. There are so many strands of OCD that would be hard to explain, so I tried to keep it more simplified in that respect. Also I didn’t want Matthew to go skipping off into the sunset. I wanted it to be a real journey that he was starting towards recovery. I didn’t want to be pessimistic about it, but I wanted him to be making the first step.
We touched on how The Goldfish Boy was influenced a bit by the movie Rear Window. That happens to be one of my favorite Hitchcock movies. How much was the book influenced by the movie?
I’ve only seen Rear Window once about 20 years ago, but I know the premise. And I deliberately didn’t watch it, because I thought I’d copy it. I’m on my third book now and all the main characters are quite lonely and self-contained. I’m not sure why, but I love that concept. Films like Castaway and books like Room where the room becomes their whole world. Like when you are feeling poorly in bed and you notice things like paint dribbled down the back of the door, which you wouldn’t normally notice. That becomes your world. So that side of Rear Window influenced the book, more than the "who done it" angle. Something extraordinary happens in an ordinary place. Matthew’s world is really contained and he sees something outside that world.
One of Matthew’s neighbors I found the most interesting was Jake. While he begins the story as the neighborhood bully who gives Matthew a hard time, you delve into his character and show us the things he is struggling with, including making friends. Another important message for middle graders - everyone is struggling with something.
That was definitely something I wanted to show. Jake was kind of a typical bully cliché and it was only in re-editing that I thought about his story. Why is he like this? Maybe Matthew has let him down. Because we do judge people. Matthew judges everyone in the cul-de-sac until he realizes more about their background. That is something I wanted to get across for children. Until we know people’s story, we shouldn’t judge them.
And we see this in Matthew too. Matthew is much more than his OCD. He is really funny and also solves a mystery.
That is very much what I wanted to convey. I didn’t want it to be all about his OCD. I wanted you to see that he’s a funny, loving boy who happens to have OCD.
Another thing I found interesting when I was researching for this interview, is that when you began writing the book you weren’t sure where the toddler was going to end up. Do you often not know the ending when you start writing a story?
I talk about this frequently because it was Stephen King’s book on writing that was a real influence on me. He said you just need to have one line. I think it’s quite hard to have just one line, but I always thought you needed to know the whole book. You needed to map everything out, plan it, and then write it. And I don’t like planning, particularly. So for The Goldfish Boy I had no idea. It helped because I was leading the reader along to think it was one character who did it. Then I thought it was too obvious. I used her as a red herring and changed it. I’m glad I didn’t plan it in advance so I could change it. To not know the end allows you to move more in a book and change directions. I love books with twists.
How far along were you when you made the change?
Oh, at least halfway if not more.
Since writing The Goldfish Boy, you have also published The Light Jar. Can you tell us a bit about that?
The Light Jar is told from the point of view of a boy named Nate. He’s running away with his mom. His mom has a mentally abusive partner. From a child’s perspective you would just see him as a not very nice man; quite controlling. They leave in the middle of the night and they end up in a really dilapidated old cottage in the woods. They hide out there. Then his mom goes out for some provisions and doesn't come back. So another lonely boy. He’s left on his own. His imaginary friend, who he hasn’t seen since he was four, comes back. It’s kind of a spin on Toy Story; what happens to your toys when you don’t need them anymore. Here, it’s what happens to your imaginary friend when you don’t need him. He comes back just when Nate needs him. There is another mystery in the book as well. He meets up with a girl named Kitty who lives in a big house with a maze and they are on a treasure hunt. It is out in the United Kingdom now, but comes out in the United States in January 2019.
Are you currently working on any new projects?
So my third book will be coming out here in 2019 and in the United States in 2020. That one is a spin on It’s a Wonderful Life. The main character is always in trouble. He’s ruined things at school. His best friend is on the outs with him. His parents are really struggling. And he wishes he’d never been born. So he gets to see the world without him in it. All the good things he’s done. I’m really enjoying it.
We look forward to reviewing The Goldfish Boy on our Facebook, Instagram and Twitter pages on July 12.