Daily Archives: September 14, 2015

Letting the Lizard Speak

In Lizard Radio by Pat Schmatz, fifteen-year-old Kivali (aka Lizard) is a bender teen in a gender-rigid futuristic society navigating her way through a tricky maze of rules and ethics at the Gov-run CropCamp, where teens leave their childhood behind.

By Pat Schmatz

schmatz-lizardradioI was scared to write Lizard Radio. Scared through the first draft, scared through revisions, scared to have it critiqued. Scared when it sold! Scared when the release date was set! And yes, scared now that it’s launching into the world.

Writing for young people is all I’ve ever wanted to do. The books I read between the ages of four and sixteen kept me alive physically, emotionally and spiritually. They taught me about other people’s insides. I loved the characters who were outcasts, and I most loved the characters who were deeply afraid, like Johnny Cade in The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton. Johnny and others — major and minor characters — gave me dreamscapes and hope, friendship, and creative survival strategies. I wanted to write like that. I wanted to give back what those authors gave me.

I took a turn into escapism in my teens, and got sober in my mid–20s. Once I cleared away the drugs and alcohol, I asked myself what I wanted to do and there was only one answer. I wanted to write. I finished my first YA novel in 1988, and a writing mentor gave me the gift of candor. “I’m bored,” she said. “Your character has no heart. I don’t care what happens to her, and nobody else will either.”

Well, no wonder. I was a young, genderqueer dyke, and the world had so far not been kind to me. The images roiling inside of me were disturbing, furious, and offbeat. In trying to write for kids, I had stripped out all of the passion and most of the truth. I wanted to write the kind of book that had saved me but didn’t know how. I was still scared, and wrote my first four books with protagonists who could pass in the ways I tried to pass as a kid, long before I understood what passing was. One was a “tomboy” and one had gay friends, but none were overtly queer.

The idea for my fifth novel first appeared to me in 2009 as a sketch of a lonely lizard. The lizard wore headphones with a cord that went nowhere. The lizard was trying desperately to get a signal. From where? That’s the question that started the story. For the first time, I followed the answers without caution. I let that young lizard speak freely.

The lizard had a lot to say about the dominant paradigm in her world. She had a lot to say about authority, about rules, and about living in reality. She had a bold heart. She had the courage to make decisions I was not able to make at her age.

The thing about fear earned as a child is this: a social movement and some changed laws don’t make it go away. Thanks to the legalization of same-sex marriage and increasing understanding of transgender people, the derision and danger that came with being myself have faded, but things are still rough out there for queer kids. Some of them speak and write with fierce voices that blow me away. They challenge me to deal with my own leftover nightmares and write from my core.

I’ve learned some things by writing with the shadows of fear crouched on my shoulder. Fear unleashes all kinds of energy. You can feel it when you shiver, when your heart pounds, when you can’t quite catch a deep breath. When I stepped fully into that energy and embraced it as an ally in the creative process, it propelled my writing along avenues that surprised me. I began to understand the cost of self-censorship.

It has taken me years to write through the fury and fear, and more years to learn the craft of creating story from that tangle. Now Lizard Radio is getting ready to launch. My queer protagonist is scared and so am I, but we’re walking forward together. Heads up and hearts open.


Pat Schmatz is the author of five books for teens, including the award-winning Bluefish from Candlewick Press. Lizard Radio, Pat’s 2015 young adult novel, also from Candlewick, has garnered two starred reviews. Kirkus Reviews calls it “Sophisticated, character-driven science fiction, as notable for its genderqueer protagonist as for its intricate, suspenseful plot.” Pat grew up in rural Wisconsin, and after stints in Michigan and California, now divides her time between Wisconsin, Minneapolis, and various travels. A lifelong language learner, she currently studies Japanese, Spanish and Italian, along with music and art to bolster her writing.

Lizard Radio is now available.