M. E. Rabb was born in Manhattan, raised in Sunnyside, Queens, and now lives in Brooklyn, New York, with her husband Marshall. She's published short stories and essays in various magazines including Seventeen, Mademoiselle, and The Atlantic Monthly. Her series of young adult novels, MISSING PERSONS, is about two sisters from Queens who run away to the Midwest and become private detectives.
Q: Where did you get the idea for MISSING PERSONS?
MER: A few years ago, I gave a reading at a Barnes & Noble in Manhattan of a story that featured a teen narrator. An editor was in the audience and asked me if I had any ideas for a teen series. I then came up with the characters of Sam and Sophie Shattenberg, two sisters who've lost their parents and run away from home. Around the same time, I met a woman who was working for a private detective. She told me all sorts of funny stories, and I decided I'd make Sam and Sophie into detectives. I've always loved mysteries --- our father used to read Sherlock Holmes stories to my sister and me when we were little, and I devoured the Nancy Drew books and Sue Grafton's mysteries. And I always secretly wanted to be a detective myself.
Q: Why did you decide to have the sisters leave their home in New York City and run away to the Midwest?
MER: Sophie and Sam's experience in Indiana is based partly on my own experience attending college in Indiana. While growing up in New York City I'd always fantasized about living in a small town in the Midwest, near farms and horses and cows. (I think this fantasy came from reading too many Little House on the Prairie books as a kid.) When I first arrived in Indiana I was in for a major culture shock, but I quickly grew to love it.
Q: That seems funny that you longed to move to a small town, since so many girls in small towns dream of growing up in New York City.
MER: Even though New York City has a reputation for being such an exciting place, when you grow up there it's really not very exciting at all. It's just home --- a home that's often dirty, smelly, and way too crowded!
Q: THE ROSE QUEEN and THE CHOCOLATE LOVER are as much about the sisters and their relationships and romances as it is about the mysteries. Was this a conscious decision?
MER: My favorite parts of mystery novels are often the sections that discuss the characters' inner lives and relationships. In Sue Grafton's Kinsey Millhone mysteries, I love the parts that discuss Kinsey's personal life and romantic interests. And I often thought while reading Nancy Drew, "Enough about the clue in the diary. Are you going to kiss Ned or what?!"
Q: In THE CHOCOLATE LOVER Sophie struggles to come to terms with her Jewish identity. Was this an important issue for you too?
MER: I didn't think too much about being Jewish until I lived in Indiana. In New York City you can kind of take being Jewish for granted. There are a lot of Jewish people in New York, and Jewish culture is everywhere --- Jewish food is commonplace, and Yiddish is intermingled in most people's vocabulary. In Indiana I tried to make matzo ball soup for Chanukah and the man in the grocery store had never heard of matzo meal. He said, "Check in the ethnic section, near the salsa and the soy sauce." I knew in theory that Jews were a minority, but I'd never felt it until I left New York City. Being in a non-Jewish environment actually made me feel more Jewish than I'd ever felt before, and that was a surprise to me. I decided to put that experience in the books.
Q: When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
MER: I've kept a journal since I was ten years old, and I've written in it almost daily since I was fifteen. Keeping a journal has been extremely important to me as a writer --- it's made me realize that I can't live without writing. Writing helps me make sense of the world. I'm often not sure what I think of an experience until I see it before me on the page.
Q: You also write literary fiction for adults. What's the difference between writing for adults and writing for younger readers?
MER: You can be goofier in young adult fiction. An asthmatic cat appears in the third MISSING PERSONS novel, THE VENETIAN POLICEMAN. It would be difficult to write asthmatic cat scenes in a serious adult story!
Q: Sophie in THE ROSE QUEEN discusses the books that have meant a lot to her. What books have been important to you?
MER: THE DIARY OF ANNE FRANK, ANNE OF GREEN GABLES, TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, and I CAPTURE THE CASTLE were very important books to me as a teenager. Anne Frank, Anne Shirley, Scout Finch and Cassandra Mortmain are such strong, inspiring role models. Those books helped me figure out who I was and who I wanted to be, and helped shape my dreams and ambitions.
Q: In THE ROSE QUEEN and THE CHOCOLATE LOVER there's a lot of humor mixed in with sadness over the loss of Sophie and Sam's parents. Is this based on personal experience?
MER: Unfortunately my sister and I also lost both of our parents early, although we weren't as young as Sophie and Sam were when they lost theirs. Part of our way of dealing with it was to try to keep our sense of humor as much as possible, even during the worst times. There's sort of an archetypal "orphan" character that appears in lots of young adult novels, but I wanted Sam and Sophie to deal with the loss of their parents in a real way. For instance, the loss is part of what makes the sisters so close, since they're the only family they have left. This was true for my sister and me also. And there are scenes where Sophie decides she needs to just put the grief out of her mind --- this was true for me, too.
Q: What advice do you have for aspiring writers?
MER: Never give up. That's the most important thing to remember. It's so easy to be discouraged, but you have to believe in yourself and keep writing no matter what.