Big Apple Diaries Interview
History’s weird when it happens to you, but history’s even weirder when it happens to someone younger than you and then they write a book about it. Alyssa Bermudez was just a kid when the September 11th attacks occurred and she lived in NYC with both her parents working in the area of the Twin Towers. Now she’s taken that story and turned it into a highly engaging, highly illustrated novel.
Here’s the official description:
“In Big Apple Diaries, a heartfelt diary-style graphic memoir by Alyssa Bermudez, a young New Yorker doodles her way through middle school—until the September 11, 2001, terrorist attack leaves her wondering if she can ever be a kid again.
It’s the year 2000 in New York City. For 12-year old Alyssa, this means splitting time between her Puerto Rican dad’s apartment in Manhattan and her white mom’s new place in Queens, navigating the trials and tribulations of middle school, and an epic crush on a new classmate. The only way to make sense of it all is to capture the highs and lows in doodles and hilarious comics in a diary.
Then life abruptly changes on September 11, 2001. After the Twin Towers fall and so many lives are lost, worries about gossip and boys feel distant and insignificant. Alyssa must find a new sense of self and purpose amidst all of the chaos, and find the strength to move forward with hope.”
Alyssa was kind enough to answer my questions about this book. And, BONUS, she brought visual aids!!
Betsy Bird: Alyssa! Thanks so much for answering my questions. So here we have a book set in New York City right on the cusp of 9/11/01. The book itself says that it’s based on your actual diaries. Is this true? And how did you get the idea to make your life into a book?
Alyssa Bermudez: Thank you so much for having me! Big Apple Diaries is in fact based on my actual diaries. I wrote in them religiously and fervently. As a child, I was definitely impacted by The Diary of Anne Frank and dramatically imagined that I was creating something that people would read one day too. I thought that no adult could ever understand what really goes on in the mind of a young teen.
The actual idea of turning this into a book came from revisiting the diaries as an adult. I found them in a storage box and started sharing some of the funnier entries with friends and family. In 2013 I was taking a comics class at the Fashion Institute of Technology and used the entries as examples to explore something further. I wasn’t sure exactly where to take it at that point, but it snowballed into a narrative with more time and I knew I needed to make it into a book.
BB: To create BIG APPLE DIARIES you probably had to look through your own diaries and then figure out what to keep, what to change, and what to chuck out. What kinds of changes did you make so that the book worked?
AB: That part was really challenging at first. It initially didn’t have a thread connecting all of the entries together and I was hesitant to change the wording or time frames. I eventually gave myself permission to move things around and change things up a bit. That unblocked the writing process for me and allowed me to add things in that I didn’t necessarily write about but actually happened. My editor, Connie Hsu, also suggested referring to the character as “Little A” so it helped me separate myself from the story and widen the perspective. I wrote many of the funny things before seventh grade when the book starts, but once I decided to stick to the two-year time frame of seventh to eighth grade, I moved up a few of those diary entries to be included.
I didn’t want to make any of the classmates too specific, so most of them are blends of multiple people. Except “Alejandro”… he is exactly as he was, but with a different name. I had a separate diary just to write about him and I really did save the rose he gave me for several years. He knows about the book and hopefully finds it as funny and nostalgic as I think he does
BB: Was there anything you wanted to include and just couldn’t fit in?
AB: There were so many entries that got cut because they didn’t move the story along. One of the funnier ones that didn’t make it in was “The Fourteen Steps” diary entry. I was dared to touch a cute boy’s hair and wrote how it took fourteen different calculated steps to go through with it. I was very shy and would brood over things, so I must have taken the dare very seriously. The first step was “I moved myself closer to him,”… while the fourteenth step was, “I took a deep breath and then smelled my hand.” It’s one of the first entries that I made into a comic and is eternally one of my favorites.
BB: Was the original thought always to make this book a kind of a DIARY OF A WIMPY KID mix of art and text or did that come later in the process?
AB: I think I’ve always seen Big Apple Diaries as a mixture of art and text. I remember when Diary of A Wimpy Kid came out in 2010 and Dork Diaries in 2011. This was around the same time I found my diaries in storage and it absolutely planted a seed for later. I didn’t read comics as a kid, so when I was finally introduced to them as a young adult I had a lot of catching up to do. I was very drawn to diary formats and also graphic memoirs like the ones by Lucy Knisley and Alison Bechdel. I had never seen books like those before and knew I had to join in at some point. I think the mixture format allows the reader to see it unfold in real-time and truly be in the character’s shoes.
BB: So a kid that picks this up expecting the Twin Towers to fall on page one is going to be in for a bit of a surprise. You don’t get to September 11th for roughly half the book. Was it always the plan to lead up to it? Did you ever consider reworking the timeline?
AB: In the first few years of planning this book, I didn’t even have September 11th included! That was crazy! Luckily I let it marinate and finally had the sense to add entries that I didn’t actually write at the time. It was most important to me to show the inner thoughts of a middle school kid in New York City. I never set out to write a story about 9/11 itself.
I think by starting the book in one school year and ending it in another there was the opportunity to show the change and growth that happens when September 11th, 2001 is smacked into the middle. There was a groundbreaking contrast in my life before and after it happened. That’s what I ultimately wanted to portray. It was the first time I saw the world differently. Everything that mattered before became smaller and it felt like we had to grow up overnight.
BB: Okay. Penultimate question. Did your mom really drop her old Christmas tree out of the window rather than lug it down a bunch of flights of stairs?
AB: Yes, she really did! That moment encapsulates so much of what I love about my mom. Life is too precious to spend that time cleaning up pine needles from 3 flights of carpeted stairs and beyond. It might have been the last time we ever had a full-size Christmas tree!
BB: Finally, what’s on the roster next? What do you have coming up?
AB: I am working on the sequel/companion book to Big Apple Diaries. It’s called Run Home and it covers another two years of my diaries and life as a high school teen going through the monumental loss of a parent while finding refuge with new friends and the track team. I think after that one I will be done with memoirs, but who knows!
Big Apple Diaries is out today (hooray!). Thanks to Morgan Rath and the folks at Macmillan for setting this up. And thanks to Alyssa Bermudez herself for so patiently answering my questions.
Filed under: Interviews
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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