Today we’re in conversation with Lisa Thompson, whose debut novel, The Goldfish Boy, is both a compelling mystery and a heartfelt character study. The book’s protagonist, Matthew, is struggling with increasingly severe obsessive-compulsive disorder. He spends his days watching the world from the safety of his bedroom window, noting the predictable routines of his neighbors. When those routines are shattered in the wake of a kidnapping, Matthew knows that he can help solve the crime... if only he can find the strength to get the help he so desperately needs.
Lisa, thanks for talking with us! The Goldfish Boy is especially impressive in that it crosses genre lines so well, providing a perfectly satisfying whodunnit while also functioning as a thoughtful examination of one boy’s experience with grief and mental illness. Was it a challenge to do both things, to progress both narrative threads? Or were these two aspects always inextricably linked?
It was quite hard to start with because my main character, Matthew, is confined to his house for a lot of the book. I always wanted to write Matthew as a boy who was smart, with a great sense of humor and a big heart, but who just happened to have OCD. I didn’t want him to be all about the condition. I had met with a psychologist and did a lot of research, and when I was ready I just sat down and wrote. His voice came really easily and the novel completely developed out of his character. Adding the mystery actually helped things along, as the “whodunnit” soon developed into the perfect vehicle for us to not only witness Matthew’s vulnerabilities, but to also see his great strengths.
How did you strike the balance between writing about some very big, potentially scary issues while staying appropriate for young readers? Did you ultimately go back and soften anything with the audience in mind?
I think seeing the world very much through Matthew’s eyes and from a young person’s perspective instantly helped to keep my writing accessible. I did have to soften some parts at the request of my editors (!) but on the whole it’s mainly as it was in early drafts. I also like to use a lot of humor and, even though the subject matters are very serious, there are quite a few laughs in there, which I hope younger readers will love.
While the book is largely focused on Matthew, each of his neighbors gets a moment in the spotlight as they come under suspicion. What was it like juggling such a large cast? Did any of these characters surprise you as you dug into their back stories?
I loved coming up with the characters on Matthew’s street! As a writer, it was a joy to visit each one and find out a little more about their lives behind closed doors. I think I was most surprised about how Jake’s story turned out. I knew I wanted to have a ‘bully’ on the street who was giving Matthew a hard time, but I hadn’t really thought about his background and why he was behaving in that way. It was only when I was writing that I thought more about what a tough time he’d had and how he was struggling to make friends. He’s actually one of my favorite characters.
Did you know the answer to the mystery before you started writing, or did you have to figure it out alongside your protagonist?
I very much worked it out with Matthew! For a long time, I was convinced you had to know the start, middle, and end before you could even begin writing a book. This is not true and don’t let it put you off (which it did for me for many years)! I really wasn’t sure what had happened to Teddy until about half way and, once I knew, the pieces all fell into place. Of course, once I did know who was the culprit, I then had to take a step back and let others read it to make sure it wasn’t glaringly obvious!
What is the biggest piece of advice you’d give to children who like fiction writing?
Think about using your senses to add color to your writing! My favorite is ‘hearing.’ I’m a huge radio fan and worked in Radio Production for many years so I may be biased, but I’m sure listening to the world around me has really helped with my writing. If I’m stuck with a plot, I’ve been known to talk through my questions out loud with myself! I always read my work back, and when I’m not writing I listen to the radio and podcasts as much as I can. If you can absorb those voices and stories around you, you will automatically make your work richer in the process.
Thanks for your time, Lisa!