Thursday, May 14, 2009

Siobhan Vivian's Same Difference

I’ve known Siobhan Vivian since our New School days, and have been utterly thrilled to see her bloom into such a fantastic author. She started with A LITTLE FRIENDLY ADVICE, which earned raves, but has topped it with her new novel, SAME DIFFERENCE. It’s the story of a girl, Emily, who makes some big choices about who she wants to be and who she wants to be with (both friendwise and romantically) over the course of an arty summer. I’m totally biased, since I edited it, but I can’t stop recommending it.

When I edit a book, I try not to ask too many questions about what’s going on, since the reader won’t have the author’s explanation when he or she is reading, and I have to be putting myself in his or her place. So it’s fun now that the book is out to be able to ask Siobhan all about it.

Q: I know Emily’s summer in SAME DIFFERENCE is based on a certain part in your own life. Can you talk a little about where the book comes from?

A: During the summer before my senior year of high school, I decided to escape yet another typical summer in NJ and take art classes in Philadelphia. I had a great group of friends in Jersey who had known me since kindergarten, and while that was nice and comforting, it also didn’t give me many chances for change. Life was feeling stagnant, and I had a real itch to reinvent myself someplace new and exciting, where I had no history. SAME DIFFERENCE was born of that experience.

Q: So what are some of the wildest – or least characteristic – things you ended up doing that summer?

A: Aside from going to every single hardcore show that was advertised in the free City Paper, I cut my hair super short, bought an entirely new wardrobe from the local thrift store, and would sit in the window of my dorm room, smoking cigarettes (illegal!) and talking to the people who walked by about their lives.

Q: Are you still in touch with anyone from then?

A: Yes, lots of people, actually…including my two professors, my roommate, and a bunch of other girls and boys. I made life long friends there, for sure.

Q: Both of your books explore all of the ins and outs of female friendships in high school. I’m wondering what your best-friend experiences were in high school, and how they echo with you now.

A: I’ve been lucky to have a lot of close girlfriends during my life. Back in high school, I tended to be the kind of girl who fell in love with her friends…not in a romantic sense, but I was always personally attracted to girls who were already the kinds of people I wanted to be—cool, smart, into skateboarding, in a band. I basically collected cool people. Also, my friends were all different sorts of people. Never from one group, or one kind of person. And the friendships themselves were varied, too. Some girls were high maintenance, some you could talk to once a year and feel like no time has passed. I think because I’ve had friendships with so many different types of girls, it’s given me endless dynamics to explore as a writer.

Q: Do you feel friendship-related heartbreak is different from romance-related heartbreak, or is it really the same feeling?

A: For me, losing a good friend was always more painful than losing a boy. I guess because I always felt boys were expendable. That is to say…I never, EVER had a problem finding a new cute boy to fall in love with. : ) But finding a friend who will really listen to? Who you can trust to have your back no matter what? Who you intimately connect with? Those relationships seem much more precious and rare. I still mourn a few close friendships that I’ve lost. But I definitely couldn’t name every single boy I’ve loved in my lifetime.
Q: If you could make up with one of those lost friends, who would it be? When did you last see her/him?

A: I last saw my friend Marisa out in the neighborhood where I grew up, about a month ago. It was very awkward, running into each other, because we hadn’t seen each other / spoken for about 5 years. Our lives went in two very different directions, and we were definitely strangers. But there was a nice undercurrent running through our small talk, and part of me hoped that we might reconnect. But we didn’t, not beyond that night anyway. I think maybe the differences between us + time lost became insurmountable.

Q: A lot of Emily’s discoveries in SAME DIFFERENCE have to do with works of art – whether they’re ones she’s seeing in a museum, ones created by her fellow students, or (ultimate) ones she’s creating herself. Are there any works of art that you feel have opened you up in the same way?

A: Absolutely. In fact, the two scenes where Emily views Marcel Duchamp’s The Waterfall are pretty much moment-by-moment my experience in the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Q: Do you have any postcards or posters or photographs up over the place where you write? (Up until last week, I had all these random postcards send to me by random friends from random places… as well as a poster of Snoopy being frustrated while writing his novel. I never noticed them…until now, when they’re gone.)

A: I sure do. My favorite little piece of inspiration is this vintage felt flag I found at a thrift store in Brooklyn. It’s from an old New Jersey theme park that I remember going to as a kid. It was called The Land of Make Believe. I like to imagine that’s where my office is.

Q: What do you think you’d be doing if you couldn’t write?

A: I’ve allllllways wanted to be in a band. Lead singer, natch.

Q: Without giving too much away, one of the sweetest things about the love story in SAME DIFFERENCE is how genuine it feels, incorporating all the moments of doubt and miscommunication as well as the more swoony moments of serendipity. If you don’t mind sharing it, I’m wondering what the best date you’ve ever been on is . . . and what the worse one was.

A: Best date was when my old boyfriend and I drove up the coast of California at midnight, lay in the desert on a blanket, and watched a meteor shower.

And the worst date? Uh. I actually mention that one in my first book, A LITTLE FRIENDLY ADVICE. I ended up kissing a boy who had a runny nose. *barfs*

Q: One of my favorite scenes in the book is the concert scene. Can you talk a little bit about where that came from? (It seems so completely wild in the book – and, of course, the scenes that seem the most random in books are usually the ones that are most grounded in truth.)

A: Another true moment in the life of Siobhan! That scene was based on a date I had in college, when this super punk rock boy named Mike took me on a date to see a GWAR show. We were totally making out in the crowd as we were being sprayed with fake blood. The scene is the book isn’t quite as gruesome, but Mike and I had a mutual love of zombies (we actually met in a Horror Film class), and thought that would be a nice nod to our all-too-brief romance.

Q: It’s too bad the romance was all-to-brief, because that would’ve been one helluva theme for a wedding. You and I are both friends with a lot of writers who dabble in the supernatural with their writing. Have you ever been tempted to throw in a zombie (or a vampire or a ghost or a faerie)?

A: I took a literature class in undergrad that focused on Magical Realism. and I loved every single thing we read. I’ve always wanted to write a story that had some magical element present, but one that didn’t seem completely abnormal or freaky to the rest of the world-within-the-story. A hard-core idea has yet to crystallize, but I’m keeping my fingers crossed. And lighting a candle.

Q: You’re an author, you’ve been a grad student in writing for children at the New School, and now you’re teaching – so you’ve really seen literature from all sides. What are some of the books that mean the most to you?

A: Ooh baby. Well, I absolutely love BLANKETS by Craig Thompson – that’s a book I’d recommend to anyone! Other personal favs include PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER, anything by Melissa Bank, and RABBIT RUN by the late, great John Updike.

Q: Because we’re both avid music fans, I feel I have to end by asking you to make a ten-song mix for the readers here. What’s the tracklist?

A: I’m going to tailor this one specifically to songs I listened to while typing SAME DIFFERENCE. Here goes!

1. When You’re Away by BEARS (Chapter One)
2. It’s 5! by ARCHITECTURE IN HELSINKI (Chapter Four)
3. Same Old City by VELOCITY GIRL (Chapter Eight)
4. Tuff Luff by THE UNICORNS (Chapter Ten)
5. Great Lengths by THE LUCKSMITHS (Chapter Thirteen)
6. Other Side by BEAT HAPPENING (Chapter Fourteen)
7. Rain by BISHOP ALLEN (Chapter Fifteen)
8. There is a Light That Never Goes Out by THE SMITHS (Chapter Sixteen)
9. A-Punk by VAMPIRE WEEKEND (Chapter Twenty)
10. Loop Duplicate My Heart by SUBURBAN KIDS WITH BIBILICAL NAMES (Chapter Forty-One)

Check out the iMix at

And now, an excerpt from SAME DIFFERENCE:

Mr. Frank holds a hand high, calling for everyone’s attention. “We’re about to enter the Duchamp gallery.”

“This is the best freaking part of this whole museum!” Fiona says, bouncing up and down. She pulls Robyn’s arm and Robyn pulls Adrian’s arm as they weave through the crowd.

I’m almost the last one in the gallery. I don’t know exactly what I expect with that kind of buildup, but I’m curious to know what someone like Fiona finds inspiring. I’m almost the last one in the room. All the spotlights in the room are pointed at three pedestals. There’s bicycle wheel perched on a stool. A white porcelain urinal. Something metal and spiky that looks like a coat rack. I double-check that the walls around me are white, that there are no paintings hanging up. That this is really the stuff I should be looking at.

This gallery looks like the curbs of Blossom Manor on heavy trash day.

Mr. Frank steps forward now. “These pieces are some of the most important in the history of art. The Readymades were constructed between 1913 and 1917, and were a sensation at the Armory Show in New York. And see how modern, how artistically striking they still are today.”

Is this art Mr. Frank would value, considering how intent he is on making his students make perfect, calculated drawings?

“Would anyone like to explain their thoughts?” I watch as Mr. Frank’s eyes settle on me. “Emily, what is your response to these pieces?”

My ears fill with the imagined voices of Meg and Rick, making fun of this kind of art. How Rick could go to Home Depot and buy a white toilet and put it on a block and call it art. I shift my feet. I look down into the ripped blank sketchbook pages in my hands, hoping an answer will appear.

“Emily? Do you feel like this art is meaningful?”

I don’t know what to say. I definitely don’t want to look stupid in front of everyone. My heart pounds. I search the crowd. And there’s Fiona, looking right at me, waiting to hear what I have to say about her favorite pieces in the whole museum.

“I’m sorry” is all I can manage. “I don’t get it.”

Mr. Frank laughs, amused. “But that’s the point, don’t you think?” A few other chuckles come from the crowd.

I shake my head. “Wait. What’s the point? That I don’t get it?”


“Well… what’s the point of us not getting it?” I ask.

Mr. Frank’s grin spreads even wider across his face. “Duchamp was playing right into this kind of thinking about art, questioning the notion of what can be classified as art. Thank you, Emily, for illustrating my point so beautifully.”

My face burns. Mr. Frank is basically making fun of the fact that I don’t know anything. That’s probably why he called on me in the first place. When I meet eyes with Yates, his gaze falls to the floor, no doubt wondering why he ever spent his money on a cup of coffee for me.

The attention shifts off me, and I take the opportunity to step backward into a dark doorway. I prop myself up against the wall and wait for the students to move to another section. The rest of my energy is spent fighting back tears.

The cool shadows of this room are a stark contrast from all the brightly lit galleries we’ve circled through. Nothing’s hanging on the walls in this space. Have I stepped into somewhere I shouldn’t be?

I turn my head to the side and stare down the long dark corridor.

At the other end is a huge barn door, made of rustic, splintered wood. Big black metal hinges bolt it to the wall. Light streams through two small knotty holes, just at eye level, tempting me to come closer.

I take a few steps but then I stop. It’s hard to explain the feelings that suddenly overwhelm me. My hands get sweaty and my heart races. It’s like I’m at home alone, and I’ve just heard a noise in the basement that and I have to decide whether or not to explore. Even though I know there’s nothing to be afraid of, I still can’t will myself to move forward. I’m still scared.

“This is my favorite piece in the whole museum.” Someone struts past me. Fiona.

She walks straight up to the barn door and presses her face to the wood. “It’s called The Waterfall. Duchamp didn’t tell anyone about it. Not his assistants, or the museum directors. He didn’t want to spoil the surprise. It took me like three times before I had the guts to look.”

She stands there for a few seconds, taking in whatever she’s seeing. Then she pulls away and spins to face me. “It sucks, though. As soon as you know what’s behind the door, it changes the whole experience. Once you see it, you can never go back.”

I still don’t have quite a hold of myself, and I’m sure it’s obvious. But Fiona looks at me with this sort of delighted smile, like she’s relishing my discomfort. I’m afraid she’s going to stand here and watch me sweat it out, but then Robyn and Adrian crane their heads around the wall. “You coming?” Robyn asks.

“Yeah,” Fiona says. And then she walks right past me like I’m not even there, like I’ve turned invisible.


  1. great blog post! I loved reading Sibhan's answers!


  2. Thanks to both of you for such a thorough interview!

  3. Thanks!

    Funny, Siobhan: the Duchamp exhibit shaped a scene in THE OPPOSITE OF INVISIBLE, too, and I totally remember the feeling of "discovering" The Waterfall. I knew we had similar brains.:) I've been putting off reading SAME DIFFERENCE 'til I finish my WIP 'cause it involves an art student, and I don't want to unintentionally steal your brainwaves, but it's burning up the top of my to-read pile!

  4. I can't wait to listen to some of those songs!

    - Mia

  5. Hello Mr. Levithan. I am not sure how to get ahold of you, nor whom I should be contacting. My wife and I are image/text artists and are hoping to make a series of short films interpreting one entry from each letter of "The Lover's Dictionary" - an embellished letter and said paragraph the frames preceding the silent embodiment. Do we need permission for this? And from whom? Thank you - and sorry to post such an unrelated thing here. Nathan & Holly :;;