Jacob's voice: UVA MFA grad channels teen angst in debut

Gender-bending in literature is more than a common convention; some of fiction's greatest works are written in a voice of the author's opposite sex. UVA MFA graduate (2003) and Charlottesville resident Emma Rathbone joined the ranks of the likes of James Joyce, Michael Faber, and J.K. Rowling with her debut novel, The Patterns of Paper Monsters. Her protagonist, the teenaged Jacob, narrates his way through a stint in a juvenile detention center– a far cry from Rathbone's own life experience.

"The novel just sort of started as Jacob's voice," explains Rathbone. "He's very angry and has this energy and sarcasm, and writing in that voice was fun– fun in a way that my other writing was not. I'm not sure where his voice came from, but it was one of those out-of-nowhere ideas that took off."

Rathbone discovered her affinity for Jacob's wry dialogue before she entered UVA's MFA program in the early 2000s. Initially just a distraction from her other pieces, it eventually began sustaining longer and longer scenes. When the young writer decided to take the plunge and use Jacob as the basis for her first novel, she wanted to put him in one of the most confined and controlled settings she could imagine.

"The setting was this bolt of inspiration– I saw this young man in a detention center, and it was fun to think about it as this very specific environment," she says. "As a reader, I love it when you can really feel an environment, and it was satisfying to create that as a writer."

She wrote the first draft without doing much research as to the rules and restrictions most detention centers have, but was later granted an opportunity to go to a center in Northern Virginia and ensure that the details of Jacob's daily life were realistic. But for Rathbone– and for the critics from the Daily Beast and Style Weekly, among others, who praised the book as a "must-read"– the book is essentially a modern bildungsroman, as Jacob's interior development is the novel's sole concern.

"It took awhile before Jacob felt like a real person, with all the layers a real person has, hangups and memories, insecurities, and day-to-day triumphs," Rathbone says. "It was a process where I had to tell myself to go deeper and rewrite scenes so they feel like something that a real person wrote."

Despite all the praise for Rathbone's witty dialogue and detailed setting, the acclaim that delights her the most speaks to the authenticity of Jacob's voice. And while her next project goes in a vastly different direction, narrative-wise, she's pleased that her premiere attempt at subjectivity took a risk– and paid off.
Emma Rathbone is reading from her first novel, The Patterns of Paper Monsters, at the UVA MFA Graduates Reading, Friday, March 18, at the UVA Bookstore. The event starts at noon.