OFTEN USING HISTORY AS A LENS TO GAIN INSIGHT INTO THE ROLES GENDER AND RACE PLAY IN SELF-DETERMINATION, CHANDRA CREATES VIVID CHARACTERS IN STORIES THAT ENGAGE READERS AND INSPIRE DISCUSSION. Prasad says, “I knew from an early age, eleven or twelve, that I wanted to be an author. When I was a child, one of my favorite activities was spending quiet hours in my room writing short stories (come to think of it, that is still one of my favorite activities). I also reveled in make-believe games with my two brothers; I remember pretending to be pirates and Ghostbusters and jewel thieves and deep-sea divers. Those early, fanciful imaginings no doubt gave me creative fodder for the books that I’ve written, and the books that I hope are still to come.” After her life is upended by divorce and a cross-country move, 16-year-old Saskia Brown feels like an outsider at her new school—not only is she a transplant, she’s biracial in a population of mostly white students. One day while visiting her only friend at her part-time library job, Saskia encounters a vial of liquid mercury, then touches an old daguerreotype—the precursor of the modern-day photograph—and makes a startling discovery. She is somehow able to visit the man in the portrait: Robert Cornelius, a brilliant young inventor from the nineteenth century. The hitch: she can see him only in her dreams. Saskia shares her revelation with some classmates, hoping to find connection and friendship among strangers. The other girls steal portraits from a local college’s daguerreotype collection and try the dangerous experiment for themselves. Soon, they each form a bond with their own “Mercury Boy or Girl” from an injured Union soldier to a charming pickpocket in New York City. At night, the girls visit the boys in their dreams. During the day, they hold clandestine meetings of their new secret society. At first, the Mercury Boys Club is a thrilling diversion from their troubled everyday lives, but it’s not long before jealousy, violence, and secrets threaten everything the girls hold dear. Drop In with us to find out what happens and whether there is a real life happy ending ~
Her newest young adult novel, Mercury Boys, has drawn comparisons to Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs and The Fever by Megan Abbott. Chandra Prasad’s first young adult novel, Damselfly, was published by Scholastic in 2018. School Library Journal says, “Prasad’s [YA] debut is a compelling modern-day adventure,” while Booklist hails it “a compulsive read.” Damselfly is currently implemented in middle school and high school curricula across the country as a modern “parallel read” with Lord of the Flies. Prasad also penned Breathe the Sky: A Novel Inspired by the Life of Amelia Earhart. Booklist praises this “insightful novel” for getting “inside Amelia Earhart’s psyche to give life to the woman behind the myth.” Wally Lamb proclaims, “from lift-off to landing, Breathe the Sky is a novel that soars.” Breathe the Sky was a ForeWord Magazine finalist for “Book of the Year” in the category of Historical Fiction. Prasad is the author of On Borrowed Wings, a novel that follows a quarryman’s daughter as she attends 1930s Yale University in the guise of a boy. National Public Radio hails the novel “great, believable storytelling” about “race, class, gender, and family.” The author of Water for Elephants, Sara Gruen, notes that Prasad’s novel “combines drama and a strong sense of place that provides both a lesson in history and a fine read.” On Borrowed Wings was a Connecticut Book Award finalist. Meet Chandra this week on Dropping In!Leave a comment for radio show guests
Mercury Boys: Young Adult Fantasy & its Issues
What’s the story behind the story? We’ll find out on Dropping In. Our guests are today’s original thinkers. Conversations that spark new ways of seeing what’s going on. We bring it all to the table. Diverse perspectives, controversy, loving and singular voices. Magically stories reveal the common threads that link us. Experience the joys, the fist pumps, the detours and the hard-won truths of those who blaze the trail so that we might do the same and now here’s your host Diane Dewey.
Diane: Welcome to Dropping In everyone. It’s October 1st and most people don’t know how we got here to this point in a not so normal year. Chandra Prasad, our guest today has written a book about time travel called Mercury Boys published in August by Sahoo Teen. Maybe Chandra can address the issue. Welcome Chandra. It’s great to have you with us.
Chandra: Thank you so much Diane. It’s a pleasure to be here.
Diane: Chandra, your first young adult novel Damselfly was published by Scholastic to critical acclaim. By way of introduction to our listeners you previously wrote general fiction including the novel On Borrowed Wings which was a Connecticut Book award finalist. Your other novels include Death of a Circus and Breathe the Sky, a fictitionalized account of Amelia Earhart’s last days. The author Wally Lamb wrote Breathe the Sky brings us into Amelia Earhart’s cockpit and her psyche. From liftoff to landing this is a novel that soars.
Well I’m here to tell you that Mercury Boys also soars. Chandra Prasad, you are also the originator and editor and contributor to Mixed the first ever anthology of short stories on the multiracial experience. Being multiracial yourself you’ve long acknowledged the dearth of significant multiracial characters in literature especially for teens. We’ve got between seven and fourteen percent of this country’s youth population as multi-racial and less than one percent of children’s books currently feature a significant multiracial character.
Mercury Boys has as its character Saskia Brown and she is a winning protagonist. You’ve written novels and now young adult fiction. Chandra, how do you describe yourself and what you’re doing?
Chandra: Well um that was a really good summary. Thank you. I started out in writing and I started actually at a really young age I was serious about writing even as a teenager. I always wanted to tell stories about identity. I think that does go back to the fact that I’m more than one race. I’m half Asian and half white. When I was growing up some time ago now there were really no stories that had significant multiracial characters. From the beginning, from the get-go I was interested in exploring identity and exploring kind of the areas between categories of identity.
All of my books whether they’re young adult or before that I was writing a lot more general fiction or novels for adult. I still have some coming down the pike. They all explore identity in one way or another whether that is gender, race, sexuality and all of the gray areas in between. They all have that theme running through them and especially now that I’m writing novels for teens that adults also read I feel a special obligation almost to address those in between areas because all kinds of teens need to see themselves reflected in the books. I think it’s very important to provide books that cover this multi-racial sector since it is growing like you said so rapidly.
Diane: It’s also true that lives don’t look the way they used to. Saskia Brown, our protagonist in Mercury Boys. She is from a divorced family of recently divorced parents. This also gives her I think a sense of shame or of not belonging or not having the traditional family structure any longer and she’s also torn apart by it. She is African-American. She also is multiracial but she I think identifies as multi-racial but in appearance she is brown skinned and she has an afro. She is identifiably multiracial. I also wondered obviously Mercury Boys, these are the objects of affection but you also chose to write about a girl. The female lead is that something that you want to explore further and is it through your existence as an adolescent growing up as a multiracial girl.
Chandra: I think maybe just to give your readers a little just a quick little recap of the book because it does have a lot of things going through it. Like you said it’s mainly about a character named Saskia Brown and she’s a teen, a modern day teen. She has just moved from Arizona to a fictitious town in Connecticut. Most of the reason that she moved was that her parents had a very acrimonious divorce. She’s now moving with her father to a new town. Like many teen teens she is from a family that is not your traditional two-parent family.
She’s thrust into this new place where she is a complete outsider in many ways. She’s the new kid in town. She feels different because it’s a pretty white town and she’s not white. She’s used to be outgoing but now she’s quite shy because of the divorce and a lot of the emotional turmoil that’s been kind of thrust upon her. She’s starting fresh in this new town. What basically happens is she makes the startling discovery with a friend of hers that in visiting a neighboring library they find these old photographs called daguerreotypes which were made primarily in the 1800s? The girls make this startling discovery wherein they can time travel and actually visit the boys and in one case girl in the photos.
As the girls have tumultuous friendships with one another at the same time they are also going back in time and having relationships with the people in the pictures. I’d say even though it has a sci-fi component and even though there’s a lot there are a lot of things going on in the book but I’d say primarily what it is about is about an exploration of modern female adolescents and these complicated relationships that modern teens have, these complicated lives that modern teens have but using history as a lens to kind of go through that.
Diane: It’s fascinating because the daguerreotype you call it. It’s a process that is etched on copper plating and then it’s actually mirrored. You call it the mirror with the memory. Daguerreotypes, the earliest form of photography as you mentioned from the 1830s through the 1860s. I thought this was fascinating because even though as you just mentioned it does have sort of a sci-fi component but it’s also about the fantasy life of adolescent girls which from my recollection it doesn’t get any more sci-fi than that. I mean we were always fantasizing about and those fantasies that we had about boys or unattainable girls or objects of our affection they were very real to us.
There are ways in which the interpretation of the book can also be that you’re just exploring a very rich fantasy life that occurred that actually allows girls to become somewhat vulnerable because they believe. They want to believe and then they maybe transfer their beliefs to friends and sort of popular girls that actually don’t deserve their loyalties. Saskia, I mean she’s great and also she has I would say a cringe-worthy divorce scenario where her parents divorced over the affair that her mother was having with a teaching assistant. It’s mortifying what happened to her. When Saskia does, she gets this daguerreotype through her friend Lyla who works in the library. She has this kind of connection, this very kind of woowoo, ethereal connection with the object in the daguerreotype Robert Cornelius.
I mean he’s a brilliant young inventor from the 19th century but she can see him only in her dreams and she shares this idea, this group of girls whose dynamics become very warped, all managed to steal away through Lyla in the library the daguerreotypes that become their objects of affection. I wondered this idea of mirror with a memory. What drew you to the subject of daguerreotypes? How did you even stumble across it?
Chandra: That’s a great question. There were two reasons. First Robert Cornelius like you said was this brilliant real life inventor who lived in the 1800s. I encountered him or learning about him because his picture, his photographic self-portrait was actually in the news maybe 10 or 15 years ago. It’s a really arresting, memorable photo of himself taken by himself. What he did was he set up a camera and was able to take this daguerreotype by at that time standing still for about five to ten minutes because it took a really long time to take daguerreotypes at that time. The technology was very old. He took this photo never knowing that someday it would become semi-famous for believe it or not being the first so-called in today’s lexicon selfie, to take the first selfie.
It was in the news as being the first selfie and I thought oh that’s interesting but I was more interested in the photo and this person and kind of what he was like. I started researching him and I started to learn that in order to make daguerreotypes in that time you had to be a very skilled chemist. To be a very skilled chemist you needed to work with pretty toxic chemicals to make daguerreotypes and one of them was mercury. Mercury is the only metal that’s liquid at room temperature and it has a very mirror like quality like you mentioned.
Already being interested in Robert Cornelius and thinking this is good story material. I also started researching mercury and that was just fascinating because mercury has a really storied mythology to it. Throughout time people have thought it has all of these magical properties that it could enhance fertility or help people live longer, even some people thought it could help people achieve immortality even though we know mercury is poisonous. People ingested it throughout the ages. Even as late as really toward the beginning of the 1900s people are still ingesting mercury thinking it could help with different afflictions. Some famous people regularly ingested mercury Abraham Lincoln, Louisa May Alcott who wrote Little Women.
Mercury was also fascinating to me and somehow these two things, this idea of Robert Cornelius, this idea of mercury being this kind of magical element. Those two things coalesced in my mind and I started to think how they would work really well in a story about female teens on a journey of self-discovery and growing up. How these two things, this dream like universe like you were mentioning and this idea of a toxic substance could help kind of draw out that story and bring it to life.
Diane: It’s really fascinating. I love also in the book that the images, the actual daguerreotypes are there. Cornelius is exceptionally compelling looking. The others also look completely interesting if not arresting. You flesh out their histories as well. It’s just a very multi-dimensional book. As you mentioned so Abraham Lincoln was ingesting mercury. I didn’t realize Louisa May Alcott as well. Lincoln took it to treat depression and I as a child was completely captivated by mercury. Why did we have it in our house? I have no idea. My father had the beads of it in the basement at his workbench. If you pressed on it like they scattered into thousands of pieces. I mean they really beads, rolling beads like water beads. They were completely magical as you say. They drew you into, you felt like there was some sort of parallel universe.
Cornelius himself said to our beloved Saskia before meeting you because there is a reciprocal relationship across the ages through time and the time machine. He says before meeting you I never suppose that humans could travel through time the same as they travel through points in space. I wondered if you spoke through your characters about your certain philosophies of life. I mean he also said maybe this is what was supposed to be. Maybe you’re always destined to be here. It could be that the course of my life depends on your intervention to Saskia but there’s no way to know. I wondered if you were actually commenting on fate and the fates and how these might work and how powerful they are on our imaginations.
Chandra: I think in a way yes, I think I was. Maybe through those comments by Cornelius I was really saying that what Saskia was experiencing whether this was really happening or whether it was a dream or whether her exposure to mercury was having this effect that these moments with Cornelius and these times that she was having with him, the conversations and experiences that were supposedly happening in the 1800s these felt as real to her as going to school or meeting up with this group of friends that she ended up creating a secret mercury boys club with.
When you spoke earlier about teens and especially teen girls having such a vivid internal life with their imaginations and their creativity. I mean I think that’s true across the ages. I think young women have always had that and it’s been part and parcel of their development into adulthood especially now with the complicated, very complicated world we live in where teen girls they have bullying and toxic relationships with one another. We’re dealing with Covid and we’re dealing with an onslaught of technology like we’ve never had before and having one life on screen and a different life without.
Girls are navigating a complicated life like never before so it feels to me like having this internal life it would be more important than ever having this kind of secret way of imagining what life could be would be more important than ever to their survival in a sense.
Diane: Having a parallel existence almost I think it is fascinating. You’d be surprised because escapism is one of the themes that has emerged in adult publication as well in terms of books that are succeeding now in reaching a wide audience. Escapism is one of our reflexes and how we’re coping with things like the pandemic. We just have a couple minutes before the break but I wonder if you would just comment on now that we’re talking about this rich fantasy life how does escapism help marginalize girls in particular to cope do you think. Is it something even more intensive there?
Chandra: I mean Saskia is marginalized in so many ways in this book. We talked about she’s going through this divorce and she’s having toxic relationships among her friends and she’s navigating a new school. I think that escapism for her is not just something that she feels compelled to do but something that she actually just needs to do to cope and survive under the circumstances that she’s in. It’s very interesting to me what you said about escapism becoming more popular today because I think you’re right that it’s not just about teens I think that even adults need to do this right now.
That’s why there’s so much binge watching of television shows or definitely what we’re reading is a little different because nobody really wants to be reminded of some of the stark realities happening right now but certainly when you have a girl like Saskia who is dark-skinned and is a new person in a new place, all of these things coming together really are propelling her into needing to escape and to kind of get away from her reality in order to just kind of get through life on a day-to-day basis.
Diane: Absolutely and it’s a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down. In this book Mercury Boys by Chandra Prasad we find ourselves lost in a world of imagination but also one of realizations. When we come back we’ll continue our conversation with Chandra. Don’t go away we’ll be right back on Dropping In.
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Diane: Welcome back everyone. We’re here with Chandra Prasad, author of Mercury Boys. It’s young adult fiction but as a way adult reader I got a lot out of this book Chandra. It begged the question for what we were speaking to before the break. Who did you have in mind when you wrote the book or were you aware of these currents in our culture now where escapism serves a real function for us in terms of what we’re listening to, what we’re reading, what we’re looking at. Who did you have in mind?
Chandra: One of the reasons I decided to write in general fiction and then also young adult fiction is that a little known fact in the publishing industry is that adults and especially adult women read young adult books almost as much as teens do. I mean I know that I’ve always read a lot of young adult fiction and have found it very compelling a lot of the time. I really wanted to reach a broader readership with my books. I know that some of the key things key themes that adolescents love to read about coming of age stories focus on big issues like life and death and romance and friendship and how our identities change through times.
Well these are issues that not only teens are interested in but also I mean I don’t know any adults that are not also interested in these themes as well. That was important for me to try to reach as broad an audience as possible and to kind of keep my finger on the pulse of what all kinds of readers would like to read more about.
Diane: Well you’ve done just that. It’s not a one and done. The themes that are in this book certainly peer pressure, losing your identity. Losing your personal power to someone who’s intimidating. I mean obviously the most stark example is bullying but it can be much more nuanced than that. What happens in Mercury Boys is more subtle. There is a kind of a takeover of Saskia’s personality because she has this romance going, this fantasy romance going and it keeps her going but also this club that they form around the mercury boys that it gives her the sense of belonging that she’s really missing. Maybe the same thing happens at the country club, maybe the same thing happens to adults when they sort of surrender parts of themselves to fit in to some sort of cultural group.
As you say these things are not one and done. These are issues that travel with us as does identity throughout our life. I wondered if Saskia was particularly able to be manipulated because of her sense of shame and whether you felt that the sense of shame that she felt could possibly be intergenerational as well. African Americans come from a place of being undereducated historically, underserved many times and just feeling in general like they don’t really belong to the mainstream. Does that enter into Saskia’s psyche do you think?
Chandra: I think yes, it does. I made a conscious decision in writing young adult novels that I wanted at least one primary character if not the most primary character, the protagonist to always be multiracial because honestly there’s such a dearth of them. They’re so underrepresented in teen and children’s literature that I wanted to help be a part of that positive change.
In my previous book Damselfly, the protagonist is more like me, the author in that she’s half Asian and half white. In Mercury Boys Saskia is something that I personally am not. She’s half African-American and she’s half white. I’m not being black, not being African-American I can’t speak to that experience but I can speak to the multi-racial experience and I think that is shared across racial categories. If you are multiracial there are certain things that you feel regardless of what the components of your multiracial identity are. Some of those components are not being easily categorizable, not necessarily fitting in to one group of people or another, needing this ability to be slippery, needing this ability to kind of adapt depending on what group of people you’re with and which identity or persona you want to show.
Multiracial people tend to have higher levels of bullying. They tend to have higher levels of unfortunately poverty and food insecurity and emotional trauma. This is especially important to know I think as we look at the numbers of multiracial people because from the 2010 census to our most recent census last year the multi-racial population exploded. It increased 276% which is just astronomical. It was the single fastest growing population across all racial categories. We have a huge surge of multiracial people especially multiracial youth. They really have some unique situations and circumstances that they’re growing up in but I think society, culture and certainly publishing is a little behind kind of identifying them as a unique group.
Like you said with Saskia she definitely is in a very vulnerable position. I think her racial identity is a big part of that and the trauma she’s experienced with her family is a big part of that. When she makes this move to Connecticut and she falls in with this group of girls some of whom have her best interests at heart and some of whom definitely do not. She is in a much more vulnerable state than she would have been previously when she had a more secure sense of self.
Diane: Absolutely and mean teenage girls, I mean they can be so mean. Really does that kind of romp and stomp actually end in teen years. Some people just need to have be dominant in ways that are entirely uncomfortable well into adulthood for different reasons. Mostly their own insecurities but how easy is it to read that sometimes. It’s not. I think that there’s these power differentials can make us feel vulnerable whatever that is being multiracial and therefore not categorizable. Your term I think is excellent because here we’re talking about a lot of non-binary paradigm shifts.
We’re breaking down the categories that we had before but that doesn’t mean that acceptance is on the heels of those breaking down like the questioning including in terms of gender identification so there are nebulous areas and maybe that’s creating a sense that role models like Saskia, protagonists like Saskia who can’t be easily categorized become kind of heroes to us just by virtue of her challenges. These mean girls, I mean they become really mean. It’s worth mentioning that the two meanest girls Paige and her sister Sarah Beth are privileged, rich, they come from a rich family and they are white.
Not entirely unimaginable in suburban Connecticut. I wondered there were a lot of then rights of initiation to this club. As you say it was slippery from the get-go because they’d basically smuggle these daguerreotypes out of the library so ethically questionable territory that they’re on. Do you think that taking advantage then of the club members, their need to belong and Saskia’s intense need to belong at this time in her life and what teenage girl doesn’t want to belong or even teenage boy. You’ve got these punishments doled out for breaking the rules of the club. Some of them are physically dangerous. There’s a lot of harrowing episodes that I happen to think are not far from real life types of situations that happen.
It takes a real kind of narcissist to become a leader of such a pact and expect these kinds of punishments and loyalties and oath, impossible expectations of others. This narcissistic personality, does anybody sort of know that Paige and her sister are not only sado masochistic. I mean how do these masked identities as leaders, as your best friend, as somebody who has your interests in heart, how do these camouflages take place. How do they last so long because I feel like those kinds of duplicitousness have lasted, they’ve endured on the world stage as well? How come it takes so long for people to uncover this?
Chandra: I mean it really, I see it even now honestly. Like you said Paige and Sarah Beth they have a lot of privilege going for them. They’re both conventionally very attractive. They’re white. They have very importantly have money. They have a lot of money. They’ve always had kind of a high status within the school. Paige is very popular. Complicating matters is that she’s actually very smart too. I mean her IQ is very high and she does very well in school. She has leadership positions. For someone that is feeling insecure that would be exactly the type of person you might be happy to be befriended by, to be thrilled to be befriended by because if someone like Paige thinks that you’re important enough to be recognized then that would mean that you matter.
That’s kind of what you were just getting at before. Even though this is a work of fiction and Paige is not real and Saskia is not real I think definitely there are Saskia’s and Paige’s all in every town all over the country. These things endure. A lot of the structures of wealth and privilege these endure too. It is hard to disassemble these structures and to kind of figure out, for teens to figure out just because a person has all of these things that doesn’t necessarily make them a good person or a worthwhile person.
As we all know teens are figuring things out as they go so of course they’re going to not recognize people for who they really are at times. We’ve all been guilty of this and like you said even adults are guilty of this sometimes. Maybe we’ve gotten older and wiser but there are always people that are going to have things that we want or that we want to attain and we’re going to be attracted to these people. Hopefully as we gain more life experience we’ll be better able to differentiate who is in fact worthwhile and truly cares about us and who are people we’d better stay away from.
Diane: We have a need for approval. The better handle we get on that and giving ourselves the validation that we are seeking the more agency we have. Saskia, she feels also rejected and cast away from her mother who left the family. This is not an unheard of circumstance either. This fear of rejection and feelings of unworthiness, I mean how is that preyed upon in teenage life. It’s a huge theme right. It’s one that we carry going forward. Is part of storytelling the way to actually kind of heal or resolve some of these issues?
Chandra: Oh definitely because I think a lot of us read not just to escape but also to see ourselves in the stories. Any very good book I’ve ever read I’ve come away from probably learning something not just about the story but also about myself. I think that I’m hoping at least that as people read the book they identify with some of the circumstances Saskia is going through and maybe self-reflect and think how would I have dealt with that situation or have I already dealt with that situation and how did I come away from it.
One thing that surprised me when I wrote Mercury Boys is that I didn’t realize how much I would like Saskia’s best friend in the story Lyla. Lyla, at the end of the day is I think the most sympathetic, reliable, likable character in the book honestly because she’s the only one that consistently seems to have a good head on her shoulders. She has a lot of self-confidence. She knows who she is. She has a good sense of self and thankfully that hasn’t been shaken yet by life and circumstances and surroundings. She is kind of the rock that not only Saskia relies on but I think we as readers rely on too. I didn’t set out trying to make Lyla like that but I’m very glad that she was.
Diane: Me too because Lyla is the most reasonable. She stands her ground. She not taken in with them being impressioned by the so-called grandeur of these girls even though they have long tanned legs and are totally popular with the boys and brilliant and all this other stuff. Well forget it. Lyla’s not impressed. She’s got her car and it’s got dings in it. She’s relatable and we love Lyla.
We’ve got to take a commercial break right now but we’re going to come back with Chandra Prasad who’s created these lovable characters and some despicable characters when we come back on Dropping In. Don’t go away. We’ll be right back.
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Diane: Welcome back everyone. We’re sitting with Chandra Prasad, author of Mercury Boys. In this book there are a number of characters who speak to us and speak wisdom to us. Cornelius is one of them. He says be kind to others, be kind to yourself and never allow others to deter you from your chosen path. I thought it was really beautiful that we had these different voices and some object lessons from these figurative people, these kind of mythological people.
We were just talking about Lyla and how really grounding she was in that she is the person who isn’t taken in by the cute, popular girls who then abused their power um. Lyla is also human enough to be part of this group. She is the one who helps to smuggle these daguerreotypes out of the library and I wondered about the whole instance the whole phenomenon of stealing that stealing is somehow like compensating for something that you think you don’t have. I mean Lyla is flawed in that certain sense isn’t she Chandra?
Chandra: She is. I mean she is in this position in the library. She actually has a part-time job at this nearby college library that has this archive of daguerreotypes. There’s a person who works there actually. His name is Rich who is another one of the few people in Mercury Boys that I think has her best interest in heart at heart who is a very trustworthy character through and through. She’s not only breaking the trust of the college when she takes these daguerreotypes off premises but she’s also breaking his trust too but I think for Lyla she really values Saskia.
We learn, I don’t want to give too much away about in the book because it’s kind of an important point but Lyla is gay and originally she kind of has a crush on Saskia which really turns more into a friendship but she wants to please Saskia, she wants to do right by Saskia. When Saskia is asking for these daguerreotypes she does make this confession and take them out. It’s wrong but I think in Lyla’s mind the end justifies the means. She thinks well I’m doing I’m doing this small transgression but if it makes my friend happy and she obviously she’s in a bad place. She’s having a really hard time with a number of things so if this gives her some happiness I’m going to do it.
I think that’s why Lyla does it. I don’t think she gets any thrill out of taking the things out but Saskia certainly by the end of the story I think she sees just how much Lyla did for her. She realizes that this is a true friend. This is a true friend that kind of looked out for me from the beginning. She is able to compare her to some of the other girls in their group them, this Mercury Boys Club group, the secret society the girls established. She’s finally by the end of the story Saskia is able to parse through the different people and to see them for who they really are. Hopefully we all go on a life journey like that at different points in our lives. I think that’s why friendships change and evolve over time because we’re able to see who is truly you know valuing us and who is with us just for a different kind of reason.
Diane: We see through the veils. We pierce it. Lyla is also on an authentic quest herself. It’s not easy being a teenage girl and being gay. She is true to herself. I think she is the most compassionate of the figures. I wondered about this idea of you talked about it several times chemicals. Lyla is at the library. The daguerreotype process she understands very well. She actually, they create their own daguerreotype which is kind of fascinating, the process of it but chemicals. You mentioned there are dangerous chemicals involved into daguerreotype making. There’s also the pollution at the manufacturing facility in the town, wrong side of the tracks but they do get there through some of their escapades, a revo.
You’ve got then the mercury itself which you start to question is that’s what’s making me have these fantasies. Am I under the illusion from the mercury? It’s getting very slippery slope here what’s real and what’s not but one of the things that you do allude to is that there are potentially chemical causes of mental health issues. Not to be a downer from the escapism of the girls and the Mercury Boys Club but I mean there is something to that. I mean this concept that actually we could be dealing with pollution as a psychological factor.
Chandra: Oh yes, I mean there’s no question. I mean anyone that’s read any news knows that people have played a huge factor in the changes earth is experiencing. As I’ve gotten older it’s never ceased to amaze me how we can willingly harm ourselves without realizing it. I live in a town right now that has a very high percentage of physicians and that’s because we’re near a university and a hospital. I’m saying this because every time I walk around our town which is reliant on well water I noticed pesticide signs up everywhere. People have sprayed their lawns. People have sprayed their trees, whatever.
We have doctors not realizing that the chemicals they’re spraying which are in some factually they’re neurotoxicants. They can cause all kinds of very severe. In some cases are carcinogens. These chemicals are just washing off the lawn. They’re going into the ground and they’re going into the common aquifer that we all share. Then we’re drinking this water. My town is not an uncommon town. This happens all the time. Chemicals are everywhere and they’re part of a daily life. I think we don’t necessarily connect that that, the ingestion of all the chemicals in the air and in our water and in our food with the possibility that these could be affecting us mentally and physically.
It’s not until we make a solid connection between for example firefighting has been in the news lately as being directly correlated to um certain kinds of cancer. Firefighters have certain kinds of cancers. It’s not until that direct correlation is made that we’re like a-ha. This is dangerous but the fact is that we are all exposed to quite a few chemicals all the time. It is important to explore that and to really think about that as one of the precipitating factors for mental health or physical health for kids. There’s no question for me that that’s part of it, part of the problem.
Diane: Absolutely and then we’ve got the smoke from the wildfires that has drifted across the continent and is thought to cause brain damage in a very literal sense. I was just very glad to see you put that in there as an issue, a world, and a global issue and there’s also another issue that culturally I thought was important that you brought up. That is immigration, bigotry and otherism. You are again we’re off on this whirlwind fantasy ride which is entertaining if not um illuminating but here’s a quote from the book. It’s not safe here. This is one of the Mercury Boys. He whispers disease has swelled smallpox, cholera and tuberculosis. My father says, it’s the Germans who are responsible for this. He won’t let immigrants into our store even though he is one but I don’t believe the Germans are to blame. I don’t believe anyone is.
I mean the sense of otherness and the sense of someone’s got to be blamed. There has to be someone that we have to scapegoat. Is this something, another theme that you deliberately touched on and it sort of affects Saskia in a way too doesn’t it?
Chandra: Oh absolutely. I mean that’s the perfect example of something happening in the 1800s where the more thing change the more they stay the same. At this time in Philadelphia, in the 1800s Cornelius’ father is worried about Germans coming in. Well you could pick a different place in America in a different decade and you can worry about Italians or Jewish people or Muslims or African Americans or Mexicans, it doesn’t matter. Someone is always kind of culprit. Someone is always supposedly lessening your quality of life or whatever. This is just something that our country and really the world has continually struggled with.
I think when you look at it in historical context you see just how absurd that is but we have to realize that these prejudices, this bigotry, this otherness as you say it’s been around forever unless we all kind of recognize it as being arbitrary we’re never going to get past it. It’s hard. I think we really do need to see it in a historical context, understand just how flawed this idea is that some other racial group is somehow sabotaging life for everybody. This isn’t real. We’re able to see that in fiction. It’s a little harder to see it in reality sometimes.
Diane: Well incredibly we just have a few minutes until we close. I’m so glad that you zeroed in on this issue of otherness and estrangement from others both personally with Saskia and on a macro level with these speakers from another time. I also wanted to at a very personal level just talk with you briefly about just the idea of loyalty and love.
Unquestioning loyalty and love, these get confused very easily especially if you have a demanding user mother as Saskia does, especially if you have the popular girls who are mean and using you for their own ends. How do you differentiate loyalty and love? Is that part of the message of your book Mercury Boys?
Chandra: What a tough lesson that is. I mean I don’t know if any of us haven’t ever had someone in our lives that it’s been hard to differentiate between loyalty and love or someone that’s been toxic that we’ve haven’t been able to discern that about it takes time and it takes thoughtful calibration of that relationship. It’s something that Saskia is going through but it’s a really universal experience trying to sort out if I’m with someone that has always said that they’re my friend or always said that they love me and they’re a close relative but every time I’m with them I don’t feel good about myself or they say something derogatory that brings me down. We have to be able to separate ourselves from these people. It’s something that we all have to do in order to attain some level of self-peace.
Diane: Correct. You’re absolutely right and Chandra Prasad you’ve given us a beautiful book about free choice, strength, calm, equanimity and developing ourselves and our identity. You’re right that failure is merely a necessary catalyst propelling us ever closer to success. Thank you so much for being with us Chandra Prasad.
Chandra: Oh Diane. It was such a pleasure speaking with you. I love your show and I really appreciate being on. Thank you.
Diane: It’s been a pleasure for us as well. You can find Chandra on her website chandraprasad.com, mercuryboys.com. Twitter Chandra Books, Instagram Chandra Prasad Books and TikTok Chandra Prasad. It sounds like we’re going to be able to hear more from you in future YA fiction and I’m very glad of that. Thanks also to our engineers Matt Weidner and Aaron Keller, to our executive producer Robert Giolino and most of all to you our listeners. Remember to stay safe and don’t let the turkeys get you down. Till next week thank you for dropping in.
Thank you so much for dropping in. Please join Diane Dewey again next Friday at 8 AM Pacific Time and 11 AM Eastern Time on the Voice America Variety Channel. We’ll see you