Today, we’re thrilled to welcome Meg Eden Kuykatt, author of the MG novel in verse, Good Different. Praised by Laura Shovan as “a powerful addition to literature about the autism experience,” as well as “funny, insightful, and poetic,” the novel–Meg’s MG debut!–is out now from Scholastic.
Summary of Good Different
Selah knows her rules for being normal.
She always, always sticks to them. This means keeping her feelings locked tightly inside, despite the way they build up inside her as each school day goes on, so that she has to run to the bathroom and hide in the stall until she can calm down. So that she has to tear off her normal-person mask the second she gets home from school, and listen to her favorite pop song on repeat, trying to recharge. Selah feels like a dragon stuck in a world of humans, but she knows how to hide it.
Until the day she explodes and hits a fellow student.
Selah’s friends pull away from her, her school threatens expulsion, and her comfortable, familiar world starts to crumble.
But as Selah starts to figure out more about who she is, she comes to understand that different doesn’t mean damaged. Can she get her school to understand that, too, before it’s too late?
Interview with Meg Eden Kykatt
MR: Welcome to the Mixed-Up Files, Meg! It’s great to have you here.
MEK: Thanks so much for having me!
MR: Could you please share your inspiration behind Good Different? Also, what made you choose the novel-in-verse form for this particular novel?
MEK: Selah’s poems came out in the worst of COVID lockdowns, when my autism and anxiety had no more places to hide. I felt so overwhelmed, attacked and scared, and as I wrote, I dug up an old memory of a classmate braiding my hair without my consent. But then the speaker was no longer me but this other girl, Selah. And Selah took action. She hit her classmate! I was in shock, but then also I knew I needed to write a novel to figure out why she hit her classmate and what would happen from there.
We come to poetry when prose is inadequate, when the content can only be in verse. I heard this quote for musical theater—I think it’s from Bob Fosse—how the characters sing when the emotion’s too strong for spoken word. They dance when the emotion’s too strong for music. Poetry’s like that. The emotion has to be so strong that it comes out in poetry. And writing about discovering my neurodivergence in a neurotypical world, all the exhaustion and overstimulation and confusion of not being able to keep up, the feelings were too big for prose. They just made sense in poetry.
Rules for Being “Normal”
MR: Selah, the main character of your novel, knows she’s different and follows certain rules for being “normal.” Was this something you had to do as a child? If so, how did it affect you?
MEK: Yes, absolutely! But I don’t think I consciously realized it until adulthood. I think home was so restorative and safe as a child that I put up with the challenges of the public sphere without even realizing the toll it was taking on me. Only in college did I hit a melting point of trying to just “put up” with everything around me. Shortly after, I began to wonder if I might be autistic. So, to be honest, I’m not sure how to answer how it affected me as a child—at least not yet. There’s probably things I still need to explore and unpack.
Poetry in the Spotlight
MR: Selah takes great comfort in poetry. What is it about poetry that appeals to Selah—and, by extension, to you?
MEK: Poetry is about big feelings. It’s also about the little moments and details that often go overlooked. Like Pablo Neruda’s “Odes to Common Things”—in poetry, even the small things can be in the spotlight. As an autistic person, I really resonate with the possibilities of poetry, and the space for those big feelings over things the neurotypical world will often call “small.” I also think in little episodes—less in plot, more in the details and surprises of the everyday—which makes me keep coming back to poetry. It’s also less daunting than setting out to write a whole novel!
Dealing with a Diagnosis
MR: Unlike Selah, who was diagnosed with autism as a middle schooler, you were diagnosed as an adult. Can you tell us about this experience? Also, did your diagnosis in any way change how you viewed yourself—or how others viewed you?
MEK: I always knew I was different, but in college, I realized I wasn’t just a fun quirky different, but that my differences made it difficult for me to keep up with others. I burned out on summer mission trips and had a meltdown at my roommate who kept her light on all night. I didn’t understand why the summer schedules were so relentlessly long with no breaks, or why my roommate would leave a light on at night. It seemed rude and obvious to me that you just don’t do things like that.
That’s when I realized people are different, and that just because something’s obvious to me doesn’t mean it is to someone else; that just because it bothers me doesn’t mean it bothers everyone. As a kid, I just ignored or put up with the things I didn’t like, but in college I hit a roadblock; I couldn’t just put up with things that I used to. When I tried, I exploded and burned out. This wasn’t an effective system for dealing with conflict, but I didn’t have the tools to deal with conflict. So I hit a real crisis.
And then, a breakthrough…
In college, I read a book with an autistic-coded protagonist, and though that book is controversial—and I’d probably go back and find all sorts of things that I find problematic about it—it was a gateway for me. I cried, realizing that I hadn’t felt so represented before on the page that way; that I understood this protagonist. I began to learn more about autism, and really connected—but it took me years to go from “I relate to autistic kids—maybe I can help them” to “I relate to autistic kids because I am autistic too.”
Finally during the pandemic, I sought a formal diagnosis. I think for a while I didn’t feel like I needed it, but a combo of starting to write about my autism and the exhaustion of the pandemic made me realize that a formal confirmation of what I’m dealing with would be incredibly helpful.
The diagnosis is a huge relief to me! It changed how I view myself in that it gave me permission to be kinder to myself. In college and my twenties, I wondered if I couldn’t keep up with “normal” because I was lazy or weak, that I wasn’t trying hard enough to be an “adult.” I pushed myself to burn out over and over again. But now I realize I am just wired differently and have a spiky skill set. While I don’t always do well with a traditional full-time job, I excel at self-employment: teaching online and at conferences, and writing. I’m very intrinsically motivated and do well working from home, where if needed, I can work from bed with a hot pack. Instead of shaming myself for what I can’t do, I can now see where I excel, and look for ways to capitalize on what I do well. I now have language to explain what’s going on to not just others but myself. I used to get overstimulated and have a complete panicked meltdown—why was I panicking? Where was it coming from? Now I understand what’s going on, and that helps calm me down.
Most people have been really kind when I explain that I’m autistic. Many people are surprised. I don’t know if it’s necessarily changed how people view me (I’d be curious to know if that’s the case!). But it’s been freeing for me to have that language when I’m struggling. It’s a shorthand that helps people get that I might need more help than it seems on the surface.
Restorative Power of Gaming
MR: Rumor has it that you’re a huge fan of video games. You also write extensively on gaming. What is it about video games that captures your imagination?
MEK: Video games are about play, possibilities and control. When you feel like you have no control, or things are happening at a pace that’s overwhelming, games give you a space to slow down, or try things until you get the outcome you want. As someone with an anxiety disorder, I often overthink what I’ve said and ruminate and wonder what it would’ve been like if I did something else. Games allow me to play through those possibilities and provide relief and satisfaction. I often go to games when I’m really stressed or burned out, and they’re restorative. They also give space for other parts of my brain to work and get ideas on new stories.
Anne of Green Gables: Pokémon Fan
MR: While we’re on the subject of video games, you’ve famously said that Anne of Green Gables would have been a Pokémon [fan] had she been a kid in the early 2000s. Please elaborate.
MEK: Ha! This is maybe more of a wish than a founded theory! Anne was my best friend in fifth grade, when everything was changing and I felt so alone. That’s also when I really fell into my special interest of Pokemon. I always felt a kinship with Anne, who found joy in her imagination, strong emotions and differences. I think fifth-grade me wanted Anne to love the things I love, so that I could connect with her more deeply. But the companionship and magic of Pokemon… I think Anne might resonate with those ideas 🙂
Path to Publication
MR: You wrote your first novel, a YA, in tenth grade and signed with an agent the following year. Your first book was published when you were 26. Can you tell us about your path to publication, especially at such a young age? It’s deeply impressive.
MEK: Oof, we could be here all day if I talk too much about my path! I think it’s kind that you call it impressive, Melissa. It’s felt so embarrassing to me, that it’s taken me so long when there are people for whom it all happens so fast.
In high school I was so full of myself, thinking, “Oh, now I’m going to be a career writer, and it’s all going to be easy from this point forward.” I hate to break it to folks, but it doesn’t usually work out like that! I know writers who say things like: “It took TWO WHOLE YEARS from the first idea of this book until it was published,” and if I’m honest, I really struggle with this. I’m so jealous of those folks, but also I’m reminded that that is very much not the norm.
My path has been lots of encouragement but also lots of bumps. I got an agent, as you said, in high school. We almost sold that book when I was in college. Then silence. My agent wasn’t really engaging with my other projects, so we parted ways and I went the small-press route. I think this was the right fit for the specific project; Post-High School Reality Quest is a weird book and I knew it wouldn’t have been picked up by a big press. That said, I think I should’ve tried to get an agent again to have an advocate, even for the small-press experience (my editor agrees).
Enter Pitch Wars…
I went through an MFA program in poetry, published individual pieces and small chapbooks of poems, tried to get another agent, and had quite a bit of silence–until 2020 when I got into Pitch Wars! From Pitch Wars I got a lot of agent interest, and we quickly sold my book to Scholastic. That gave me a lot of time for my craft to get stronger; for me to collect ideas, and learn how to focus a plot.
I’ve gotten a lot of humble pie on my journey—and I’d suspect there’s much more on the menu for the future. I thought I was an amazing writer, that I had “earned” a career with my hard work. Nope! There is ALWAYS more to learn, and you never “earn” anything, even if you give it your all. Writing is an incredibly unfair profession in that way. I still have so much to learn, and humility is still NOT my strong point. But I’m learning to always have my eyes open, and to be grateful for whatever I have because I do not deserve it. All I have is because of God’s grace, not because of me.
The Waiting Game
I’m also still learning to wait. There is still waiting! Even when you get a publishing deal! Even when your press expresses interest in more proposals! I have several manuscripts I’d love to have out in the world, including a rewrite of that first book you mentioned, but they are in the waiting room. For now. I refuse to believe in manuscripts being locked in a drawer for good. I love these stories and I believe so fiercely in them. They will find homes in the right time, I’m sure.
MR: Speaking of Pitch Wars, I noticed that your bio leads with the fact that you were a 2020 Pitch Wars mentee. What influence did Pitch Wars have on your journey to be a published writer?
MEK: HUGE. I might still be in the query trenches, slowly dying if it wasn’t for Pitch Wars. I’m so beyond grateful to Eric Bell for seeing Selah and choosing me. I had the story, but Pitch Wars gave it lots of eyes that weren’t seeing it yet. And of course, working with Eric made the manuscript so much tighter, and shine so much more.
Switching it Up
MR: In addition to MG, you also write poetry and YA. Is it tricky to switch from one genre to another?
MEK: It’s getting easier. I think I’m learning what each form and medium brings to the table. Each of them has tools that are best for certain content or material, and I go to whichever one will help me convey what I’m trying to convey. It’s not too hard to switch between them, I don’t think, but sometimes it takes a few tries to find the right medium. Many of my old YA drafts are now becoming middle grade, because I’m realizing that age range and the tools of that form are going to help me create the experience I want more than YA.
Write What You Know
MR: As a college-level creative writing instructor, what’s your go-to advice for writers? Also, are you a proponent of the common wisdom of “Write what you know”?
MEK: Yes! I actually just wrote a five-minute memoir for Writer’s Digest on writing what you know (Jan/Feb 2023 issue). I ran away from that advice for so long. First, I didn’t know what I knew, but second, I think I thought my life was boring, but also I love to learn, so writing outside of my experience let me explore so much. I think writing outside your experience can be a helpful personal exercise for empathy building but is rarely a good idea to publish. Writing what we know isn’t constricting; it’s an opening up of the gates! I’m learning how freeing it is to write what I know.
My go-to advice is to persist, read, and always be willing to learn. Try new things. Take courses in writing that you’ve never tried. Maybe that means taking some poetry courses or a workshop on Op-Eds—or maybe even a completely different art, like assemblage! Whatever we learn will give us tools in our toolbox. Also, a spirit of humility–and doing this because you love it. All these things will aid you in the long run. A writing career is not a sprint; it’s a marathon. (For more thoughts from Meg on the writing process/journey, click here.)
MR: What does your writing routine look like, Meg? Do you have any particular rituals?
MEK: I have playlists for each project. Usually video game soundtracks. The first track has conditioned me to fall into that world, to tell me: It’s go time! The last track usually tells me to take a break.
MR: What are you working on now, Meg? Can you give Mixed-Up Files readers a sneak peek?
MEK: I am in the middle of a few projects. I’m waiting for feedback on a possible middle grade project, and am taking a little bit of a breather to play with new ideas until I hear more. I’m also editing a YA manuscript that has taken me at least 20 drafts at this point, but I think (hope) we’re starting to go in the right direction…
MR: And finally, no MUF interview is complete without a lightning round, so…
Preferred writing snack?
Coffee or tea?
Favorite video game?
Zombie apocalypse: Yea or nay?
Favorite place on earth?
If you were stranded on a desert island with only three things, what would they be?
A Bible would be in there. Probably something to write with, and something to make music with.
MR: Thank you for chatting with us, Meg. It a pleasure, and I’m sure MUF readers will agree!
A 2020 Pitch Wars mentee, Meg received her MFA in creative writing from the University of Maryland College Park. She teaches college-level creative writing courses and is the author of the YA novel Post-High School Reality Quest (2017) as well as five poetry chapbooks and a poetry collection, Drowning in the Floating World (2020). She is also a participating author with the PEN/Faulkner Writers in Schools program. Her debut MG novel, Good Different, a JLG Gold Standard Selection, is out from Scholastic now.
In addition to being a writer, Meg has worked as an advertising manager, eBay seller, research assistant in linguistics and neuroscience, and publishing and marketing contact for a small press. She is the webinar coordinator for the SCBWI MD/DE/WV region, and runs the Magfest MAGES Library blog, which posts accessible academic articles about video games.
Meg is neurodivergent (autistic and anxiety disorder), an extroverted-introvert, and a complete nerd for all things Pokémon and Fire Emblem. She lives with her husband and two cats, Chaos Theory (CT) and Hazel, also known as “Floaf” (the fluffy loaf). Learn more about Meg on her website and follow her on Twitter and Instagram. (And if you missed Meg’s cover reveal for Good Different, click here for an encore!)