Interview: Jamie Sumner

Hi there, Jamie! Thanks for swinging by the MG Book Village to talk about your new novel, TUNE IT OUT! Can you tell us a bit about yourself and the book?

I am so very happy to be here, Jarrett! I’m a writer based in Nashville, Tennessee. I’ve written articles and essays for the New York Times and the Washington Post, but my heart lies in middle grade fiction. Before I was a writer, I taught high school English for over a decade and before that I worked in New York at a small publishing house in Chelsea. The love of language has carried me through all my jobs.

TUNE IT OUT is my second middle novel. My first, ROLL WITH IT, came out last year. TUNE IT OUT is the story of twelve-year-old Lou Montgomery who has the voice of an angel and a mother who wants to make her a star. The catch is, Lou also has an undiagnosed sensory processing disorder that makes performing nearly impossible. Sounds and crowds overwhelm her. When Child Protective Services separates the mother-daughter duo, Lou is sent to live across the country with her aunt and uncle. This is where she finally attends school regularly, makes her first real friend, joins the theater class, and begins to understand her SPD. This is Lou’s journey to find her own voice and take ownership of what she lets define her.

Music and musical theater play a big role in the book. Have they played a big role in your own life?

I love musical theater (she says with jazz hands)! It’s where I first found my home and my people in high school. I tended to stick backstage and worked as assistant director on all the plays. My senior year, I did an independent study where I wrote a one-act play that I was able to cast, direct, and put on for the entire school. It was epic. And it was all due to my theater teacher, Paula Flautt. She took a risk on me and I am so grateful. This book is dedicated her.

I think there’s something about music and theater both that open you up to parts of yourself you might never have recognized. They allow you to explain the unexplainable through movement and sound. Everyone has a favorite song that the minute you hear it, you think, yes, this is me, this is my experience and I couldn’t have said it better myself. I believe really great books do this as well. They make you feel a truth you knew deep down, but never recognized until the moment you read it on a page.

Do you listen to music when you write? Or do you need quiet? Or can you listen to music during some parts of your creative process, but not others?

I need quiet while I write. Well…I’m home writing with three kids, so I need whatever level of quiet I can get. However, I listen to music as I’m plotting and also when I get stuck. I have certain songs and styles of music that I associate with each of my characters and if I don’t know where to go next or I start to feel disconnected from a character, I’ll put something on that reminds me of them. Lou’s music was an eclectic mix of Patty Griffin, Dolly Parton, and Pink. She’s tough and also heartbreakingly vulnerable and these women know how to rock that complexity.

Lou, TUNE IT OUT’s main character, has a sensory processing disorder. Can you share with us exactly what it is?

Thank you for asking this. The best way I can explain it is to think of a sensory processing disorder as a traffic jam of the senses. Sounds and touches and tastes, even light, collide in a way that overloads the brain. It’s too much to process and can make the world feel unbearably overwhelming at times. Each case is different. Some people have difficulty with certain fabrics on their skin. Others are sensitive to loud or sudden or specific sounds. Some need firm versus light touch, like a hug or a handshake instead of a pat on the shoulder. Unfortunately, as is the case with many invisible disabilities, SPD is often misdiagnosed or misunderstood. I hope this book can spread some understanding of it.

Can you discuss your relationship with sensory processing issues, and why you were compelled to create and write about a character like Lou?

My son, Charlie, has both cerebral palsy and a sensory processing disorder. The SPD diagnosis came later in his life when we noticed his sensitivity to particular sounds. Vacuums, hair dryers, razors, lawn mowers – they all brought him to tears. He was terrified of them. It wasn’t something you could rationalize him out of because this is how his brain works and his brain is wonderful and he deserves to be understood. As a teacher, I also came into contact with students with sensory issues and I watched them struggle to explain something that no one else could see. In TUNE IT OUT, I wanted to create a character that might help bring awareness to and empathy for their situation. Lou’s story is ultimately about how she grows brave enough to speak her truth to the people in her life who need to accept her for who she is. I think middle school kids are so much better and braver than adults at this and I hope they cheer her on as the story unfolds.

What sort experiences did you call upon and what sort of research did you do before and while crafting Lou’s story? Did you use sensitivity readers?  

My priority in writing Lou’s story was to portray her experience as authentically as possible while fully acknowledging that is not my experience. To do that, I called upon sensitivity readers with sensory processing disorders as well as occupational therapists who work with those with SPD. A judge and a social worker also read early drafts to make sure Lou’s experience with Child Protection Services was accurate.

What do you hope your readers – especially the young ones – take away from TUNE IT OUT books?

Middle school is tough. You are just beginning to peel yourself away from the identity your parents and teachers place upon you and figure out who you really are apart from those labels. I hope this story helps readers feel brave enough to voice their wants and needs and to dive headfirst into who they want to be, no matter what anyone else says.

When can readers get their hands on TUNE IT OUT, and do you have any other exciting appearances or events around the release?

TUNE IT OUT is available on September 1st, 2020 wherever books are sold! Personally, I’d say order it from your favorite independent bookstore, because they need us as much as we need them right now. I’m having my launch party/live Facebook chat with Parnassus Books here in Nashville on September 2nd at 6 p.m. (CST). If you want to “tune in” (pun intended), you can find all the info here!

Where can readers find you online, and how can they learn more about you and your work?

The best place to find me is my website: www.jamie-sumner.com. If you’re a teacher and looking to schedule a Zoom/Skype visit, this is the best place to contact me!

I’m also on:

Facebook: @jamiesumner.org

Instagram: @jamiesumner_author

Twitter: @jamiesumner_

Jamie Sumner is the author of the acclaimed middle-grade novel, ROLL WITH IT (Atheneum/Simon & Schuster, October 2019). Her second middle-grade novel, TUNE IT OUT, which has received starred reviews from Kirkus, Publishers Weekly and the School Library Journal, will be coming out September 1st, 2020. She has written for the New York Times and the Washington Post as well as other publications, and is the reviews editor at Literary Mama. She loves stories that celebrate the grit and beauty in all kids. She and her family live in Nashville, Tennessee. Connect with her at Jamie-Sumner.com

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