Love, Ish by Karen Rivers
No one creates characters quite like the girls in Karen Rivers' books. Following the success of The Girl in the Well is Me, Rivers has crafted another poignant tale of a girl who finds herself exploring a strange new world. Mischa, known as Ish, is a twelve year old with flaming red hair and a determination to visit the planet Mars. Her brittle exterior "I'm a machine... It makes me feel better to think that way. Machines don't have feelings. Machines don't have hearts or hopes or dreams." masks the anguish of losing her one true friend Tig. "If people broke when their hearts did, I'd have a crack just like that from my forehead to my feet, that's how bad I miss Tig. Instead, I've decided that my heart is officially closed for business, Locked up for good."
There is a quality to Ish's narration that is raw, almost brutally defiant. It is laced with Rivers' signature sardonic humor, often revealing the tender underbelly of Mischa’s fear. Coping with the loss of Tig and a prickly relationship with her sister are compounded by the diagnosis of a brain tumor. Ish needs to summon every shred of strength to battle extraordinary obstacles and hang onto hope.
This title is brilliant! How did it come about? Was the title part of your original idea, did it evolve as you wrote, or was it decided after you completed the manuscript?
The title was part of the original idea. I knew the character would be Mischa, nicknamed “Ish”, and that the book was going to be about Mars and about how she learns about love. It’s such a great tween/teen suffix. They don’t have to feel love, the can feel love-ish. So it was both a play on words, and obviously, her name.
They are such an important part of the story. I have never been much of a dreamer, but while reading this book I had one of the most vivid dreams that I can recall experiencing. It was about a deceased family member. Do you dream? If so, do your dreams figure into your writing?
I definitely dream although I’m not sure my dreams figure into my writing very much. The dreaming part of this book was inspired by a TV show that I saw many years ago. It was either a medical drama or a legal drama, and it was about a woman whose reality was sub-par. I can’t remember what the circumstances were, exactly, but I remember that she was lonely and depressed. But at night, when she fell asleep, she entered an alternate reality. Her dreams flowed like a continuous story in which she was happily married, kids, stability, joy. (The plot of the episode was that she wanted to pay a doctor to KEEP her asleep so she could exist in this better, alternate reality.) Technicalities aside, I was fascinated by this idea of realistic, somewhat continuous dreams. In the show, I believe they were trying to answer the question: If you perceive something as being “real”, does it matter if it is or not? Which became part of the question in LOVE, ISH. In dreams, if we’re lucky, we can be anyone, we can do things that are outside of the confines of reality, we can fly.
Chemotherapy touches many lives, both those undergoing treatment and those close to the individual receiving treatment. Your descriptions of chemo are so painful, poignant, and true-to-life. The rawness was hard for me to read. How did you prepare for writing the chemo sequences?
Quite a long time ago, my son underwent some tests for what doctors thought that might be a heart defect. (It wasn’t.) For one of those tests, we had to wait in a shared waiting room outside a pediatric chemo room. I was struck by it, both the absolute normalcy of what was going on in there – video games abounded – and by the kids themselves. I’ve had a few friends go through chemo (mostly as adults) and I knit their stories together with what I saw in the hospital that day to come up with Ish’s experience. I hope that I got it right.
Buzz Aldrin. Brussels Sprout. Lunch Island. etc
The names in the story are intriguing. Do you maintain a list of interesting names/words for future stories or are the names that you use very specific to one particular story?
I SHOULD maintain a list, but instead I store things in my brain which become useful later. For example, many years ago I was reading a book about Mars with my stepson, and we stumbled on the word Nirgal, meaning “Death Star” that was apparently (or according to this particular book) the Mayan word for Mars. I didn’t know I was going to use it later, but it’s something that I always remembered. The rest of the names were very specific to this story, I created them particularly for this book in the moment of writing it. The parrot’s name made a few changes, but Buzz Aldrin is a terrific name for a parrot, don’t you think? It fit the best. Sometimes you have to try a few things on for size, but when it’s right, you feel it.
“Don’t touch me. No one touch me.”
What moments in your experience inspired you to include this pivotal scene?
Ah, this is a tough one to answer. But without giving too much away, I think we’ve all experienced moments in our lives of such intense emotion that adding just one more feeling of any type – even if it’s well-meaning and genuine sympathy – feels like it might break us into pieces. When something happens that’s too much for us in the moment, we have to step away from ourselves before we can process kindness or compassion, or – even harder – someone else’s shock at what has happened. Maybe it’s a bit like having to put on your own oxygen mask before you help someone else. In that particular scene, Ish had to find her mask. Everyone else needed something from her right away that she didn’t have available to give.