The Bookshelf: Nelson's Stacia Tolman On Her Debut Novel

Oct 25, 2019

Stacia Tolman is the author of the new YA novel "The Spaces Between Us."
Credit Steve Hooper

Writer Stacia Tolman worked for many years as a high school English teacher at a private school in New Hampshire’s Monadnock region.

Now, she’s drawn on her observations of high school social dynamics to write her debut young adult novel, The Spaces Between Us.

The story centers on the relationship between Serena Velasco and Melody Grimshaw, high school students and best friends with a common goal: to escape their dull, lifeless hometown in rural New York.

Serena is from a middle-class family, while Melody is from a poorer, more rough-and-tumble home. Their friendship and the forces that keep them apart are at the heart of Tolman’s novel.

Tolman spoke with NHPR's Peter Biello. 

Read Stacia Tolman's Top Five Young Adult Reading Recommendations: 

  1. The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas. With every police shooting of an unarmed Black American, the more relevant this powerful YA novel gets. 
  2. Juliet Takes a Breath by Gabby Rivera. A Puerto Rican 'baby dyke' from the Bronx invites herself to Portlandia to intern with a white feminist writer. Fast and funny. 
  3. The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Graeme. When you want a break from reality, go back to the adventurous comradery of Mole and Rat, their friend the grumpy Badger, and the rich but good-hearted narcissist, Toad. 
  4. Thirteen Doorways, Wolves Behind Them All by Laura Ruby. A friendship between two girls, one living and one dead, starts in a Chicago orphanage. Magical realism set in the Great Depression. 
  5. The Amulet of Samarkand by Jonathan Stroud. The first in the Bartimaeus trilogy, a YA fantasy epic, featuring corrupt magicians, captive djinns, and old-fashioned heroism. Good for reading out loud. 

The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity. 

So tell us about this story. What made you want to write a story about friendship that's strained by class?

Well, I was working as an English teacher in a high school, and I started to be haunted by an idea for a story. The story consisted of this friendship from either side of the class spectrum. It also included a triangle - the boyfriend of the one girl was an enemy of the other girl. And then these ideas kind of took shape, had voices. I definitely had the narrative voice in my head, too. I was surrounded by teenagers all day long. And so it kind of cooked down in my imagination and came out as this triangular dynamic in the friendship.

And is there something about wealth and class difference that is a particularly rich territory for you to mine?

It's particularly rich. I think it's kind of everywhere and it operates kind of invisibly. Just the outlook of a particular person can be very colored by what their class experience has been. At one point in the book, Serena is kind of challenged by her history teacher to ask her peers, What is your story? Where do you come from in terms of class? And that becomes an education for her as she tends to be kind of glib and maybe somewhat arrogant about what she thinks she knows about herself and her peers.

I wanted to ask you about some of the relationships that appear in this book. The one between Melody Grimshaw and Mike was particularly toxic. You're writing for a young audience. How do you go about constructing relationships on the page for people who are young, but maybe starting to form romantic relationships?

I try to be as cognizant as possible that there really aren't any villains. That as toxic as Mike is and as toxic as their relationship turns out to be, from his own point of view he has a story, too. He has vulnerabilities, too. And it's the vulnerabilities between Mike and Melody that bring them together and keep them together.

Does that come back to class, at least in Mike's case?

It does. I think from Melody's point of view, it's her desperation to get out of the situation that she's in and all other doors have closed for her. And Mike looks like an opportunity. And Mike says he's an opportunity.

Did I read that you've been wanting to be a writer since the mid-70s?

Yeah, I remember the moment when I... It was sort of half deciding that that was what I was going to do and half a discovery that that was was what I was meant to do. And I was on a train to New York City to visit an aunt of mine. It was 1974. I was writing in a journal and I was very excited to be making the trip, but the passengers weren't as exciting as I wanted them to be. So I improved on their performance. So my journal was basically my first work of fiction.

Did you always want to write for a young adult audience?

No. This book actually did not start out as a young adult book. I wrote this story as a manuscript and got the proverbial raft of rejections for it. And then I kind of forgot about it moved on. I was an English teacher and had a family. And ten years later, the young adult publisher at Henry Holt said, "If you take 100 pages away from this manuscript, I will consider it as a young adult novel". Getting rid of the hundred pages was the easy part, and then putting the remaining parts into its own coherent, cohesive narrative that took a couple years. But that's The Spaces Between Us.