Book review: The Last Suppers serves up solid, surprising drama

Arts & Entertainment

Book review: The Last Suppers serves up solid, surprising drama

Mikulencak
The Last Suppers by Mandy Mikulencak
A conversation with Mandy Mikulencak

Q: Do you see some similarities between your main characters Ginny in The Last Suppers and Arlie from your YA (young adult) book Burn Girl? If so, was it a conscious decision?
A: There are definitely similarities. Both are complex, flawed characters – maybe even a bit broken – who aren’t always aware how their pasts shape their feelings, motivations and actions, even when detrimental to themselves and others. I didn’t make a conscious decision to write them that way. You’ll find that the female protagonists in my next two books are the same. I firmly believe we can’t escape our pasts and that our complexity comes from those emotional intangibles. This, of course, has frustrated some readers who want the characters to be more self-aware. That doesn’t always happen in real life.
Q: What is the greatest difference between writing for teens and adults?
A: I make a conscientious decision not to treat those audiences differently. In my mind, themes in YA and adult fiction have crossover appeal. And I don’t think a person’s age should dictate his or her choice of literature. With that said, I think it’s imperative that authors not talk down to preteens and teens; that we respect their experiences and world views, and capture them to the best of our ability. It requires a different head space to be sure. Obviously, we speak and communicate differently. And our musical preferences are vastly different!
Q: What kind of research did you do on the ’50s and Louisiana? Did you actually go there?
A: I didn’t go to Louisiana to do research. One invaluable resource was a book written by a Louisiana State University professor that talked about the state’s penal system from the 1800s through the late 1960s. It gave those realistic details I wasn’t able to find elsewhere, such as the use of inmates as guards; that inmates were allowed to take part in funeral processions and burials for fellow inmates; and that a state prison reform board actually existed at the time the fictitious Roscoe was warden.
The writings of Sister Helen Prejean were also helpful, as were online articles and historical photos. I found a list of actual death row prisoners in Louisiana in the 1950s at DeathPenaltyUSA.org, which gave me some insights on the types of crimes committed, the ages and races of inmates, and the Louisiana parishes where they lived. However, all inmates and crimes portrayed in the novel are fictional.
Q: Did you actually visit a prison? Talk to people who worked there?
A: No, it wouldn’t have been appropriate. Because the book is set in the 1930s-60s, the fictitious Greenmount Penitentiary is unlike any modern-day prison I could tour. However, the book addresses topics like prisoner rights and living conditions, which are as relevant today as in our nation’s past.
Q: What are your views on the death penalty?
A: What I wanted to convey with the novel is that families of both the victim and the perpetrator are forever changed. Rather than call attention to my personal views, I prefer that the book spark discussion and debate among readers, hence the reading group questions as an appendix. But I do agree with an editorial in the Dec. 31 New York Times that called for an end to the death penalty. There’s just too much information out there that shows it is not a deterrent to crime.
Q: You grew up in a small town in Texas. I’m wondering if you were exposed to some of the racist experiences and name calling that are found in the book?
A: Yes, of course. There was even an area of town where most African-Americans lived that was called The Flats. As a child, it was hard to understand why there was any distinction based on color. One of my earlier short stories was about a hedge that separates the yards of a white girl and a black girl. They use the canopied space beneath the hedge as a place to meet and play as equals.
Q: How did you decide to go back and forth in time to let the reader experience the growth of Ginny and Roscoe’s relationship?
A: I wanted to show that their present-day relationship didn’t materialize out of thin air. To do that, I needed to introduce Roscoe as a point-of-view character, even though most of the book takes place from Ginny’s point of view. It was imperative to show how Roscoe’s past shaped his decisions, particularly one that had catastrophic effects. I also wanted readers to get an unbiased glimpse into Ginny’s childhood and her relationship with her father. I couldn’t do that if I kept the story in Ginny’s head because her memories aren’t always accurate.
Q: How did you plan/plot the twists and turns revealed in the novel? Outline?
A: I have never outlined any of the six books I’ve written. The characters surprise me as I go along. Their habits, their choices, seem to bubble up naturally. And in every book I’ve written, the plot shifts and morphs according to what the characters want. Me? I take dictation from them.

If you go

What: Meet Mandy Mikulencak, author of The Last Suppers


When: 6:30 p.m. Wednesday


Where: Maria’s Bookshop, 960 Main Ave.


More information: Visit http://www.mariasbookshop.com/events-calendar

Book review: The Last Suppers serves up solid, surprising drama

Mikulencak
The Last Suppers by Mandy Mikulencak
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