Scott Simon Draws The Mystery Of 'Sunnyside Plaza' From His Own Past

Jan 20, 2020
Originally published on January 20, 2020 4:26 am

When NPR host Scott Simon was in his late teens, he took a job in an assisted living facility in Chicago, working with people who had developmental disabilities.

"It was more formative in my life, I think, than most any war I've covered, any political campaign I've covered, any reportorial experience I've had," Simon says. "It really opened my eyes into seeing the world differently."

Simon has wanted to tell this story for years, and so he drew on the experiences he had back then to write a new mystery for young readers called Sunnyside Plaza.

Simon says he purposefully did not use specific terms to describe the people who live at Sunnyside Plaza. "I want readers to see them as people, not put a label on them at any point in the book ... " Simon explains. "I don't want to get tied up in a language issue."

This is Simon's ninth book and is the first that he has written for younger readers. "I have children," he says. "I wanted to finally write a book that they would have a chance of reading past their names in the acknowledgments."

He also liked the challenge of writing fiction, especially for readers who might carry this story with them for the rest of their lives. "I think it's very important that young readers be able to read books in which they can see people who are like them," he explains. "I think it's also important for young readers to be able to read books in which they meet people who are nothing like them — or they think are nothing like them."


Interview Highlights

On his 19-year-old narrator, Sally Miyake

She is absolutely a reflection of some people I actually knew [in Chicago] ... who were in their late teens. I wanted somebody who was in that community, who was known by everybody, yet was a fairly recent arrival, hadn't been there for many years — somebody, in a sense, who was still trying to carve out and define her identity in this community of people.

On the mystery in the book

I wanted to put a mystery at the heart of the book, and I wanted to put the people who lived in the community at the heart of trying to figure out that mystery. ... I wanted to create a circumstance where readers could appreciate that the people who live in this home have great skills, have great ingenuity, have great enterprise, and can often figure out things and add things together in a way they're not given credit for. ... I thought it was very important that the people who live in this community actually drive the narrative and they're the ones who are responsible for figuring out what's been going on.

On the unkind or ignorant things people say

I used to think that the people in the home didn't understand it or didn't hear it. What I came to know as I knew them is: Of course they heard it. And of course they kind of knew it's something that people shouldn't say. But what are they going to do? They look past it. They had a largeness of heart and a largeness of spirit that, you know, I admire it to this day. ...

[In the book,] not everybody they run into misunderstands them. A lot of the people ... they may not understand them, but they are kind and courteous and their hearts are open. And I think one of the things I learned is that for a lot of the people in this circumstance, they approach people very genuinely. They approach people very directly. ... I think the best people — and that includes a lot of people — understand that somebody is reaching out to them directly and they appreciate it, and they could recognize the quality of their character.

On the passage of time

Chronology was different in this kind of community. ... It's day after day. It's the moment. Because in many ways, they're not looking at something over the horizon. And many of them aren't even looking at something that's years behind them. They really do concentrate on what's in front of them and the people in front of them.

On a conversation he remembers having with a man named Tony, as he was helping him get ready for bed

He said to me, "I'm different. Right?" And I said, "We're all different, Tony." And he said, "But like, I'm really different, right? And people notice that." And I said, "Everybody's different. People, might notice you're different, but for no particular reason." And he just smiled and he said, "I'm glad I'm different." ... I thought it was the most wonderful thing I'd ever heard — still is.

Lisa Weiner and Reena Advani produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

NOEL KING, HOST:

When NPR host Scott Simon was in his late teens, he had a job in an assisted-living facility in Chicago. He worked with people with developmental disabilities. He used that experience and those memories for his latest book. It's a mystery for young readers called "Sunnyside Plaza." The main characters live in a group home. Most of them have no family or visitors, and they know they're different, but they're mostly not sad about that. I asked Scott why he didn't use a specific term to describe the people at Sunnyside.

SCOTT SIMON, BYLINE: Because I want readers to see them as people, not to put a label on them at any point in the book. I also think that people who are developmentally disabled are differently abled, if I might put it that way. But the fact is, first day that I came into that home - and it was just a job, I was a case aide - there was a group of people sitting at a table, and they were finger painting and making paper plate clocks. And, you know, when you see children doing that, your instinctive reaction is to say, oh, look at that, another Picasso, look at that, another Monet. When you see 50 or 60-year-old people doing this, I'm afraid my initial reaction was to pity the people there. But within two or three days, I discovered how useless that is and how it doesn't see the people for what they really are - people who have joy, people who have amazing ingenuity just to get through the day, people with great spirit, people who see past the superficial differences we often see in each other. And, you know, once I began to understand that, it opened my eyes - it taught something to me.

KING: People like Sally Miyake, or Sal Gal, your protagonist - 19 years old, so younger than many of the people at Sunnyside Plaza but with a lot going on in her mind. Tell us about her.

SIMON: I settled on Sally - she is absolutely a reflection of some people I actually knew in the approved home who were in their late teens. I wanted somebody who was in that community who had - was known by everybody yet was a fairly recent arrival, hadn't been there for many years, and somebody, in a sense, who was still trying to carve out and define her identity in this community of people. And since she was based on actual people that I knew, this happened to be the age category into which she fell. But, you know, one of the many discoveries I made is chronology was different in this kind of community.

KING: How so?

SIMON: They tend not to see people as old and young. They tend to see them as people. I mean, they know that, but they have a - I think, in many ways, the people in the community like that just have a different sense of personal time. It's day after day. It's the moment. Because in many ways, they're not looking at something over the horizon, and many of them aren't even looking at something that's years behind them. They really do concentrate on what's in front of them and the people in front of them.

KING: There is a mystery at the center of this book. And I don't want to spoil anything for anyone, because it is a good mystery.

SIMON: Thank you.

KING: And you had me going until, like, the last five pages.

SIMON: Good. Good. Thank you.

KING: Tell me a little bit about what the tension is here. What's the mystery?

SIMON: Well, the tension is, in the first few pages of the book, somebody doesn't come to breakfast. Let me just put it that way. And the people who live in the home know that they're not there, and they're given the reason for it, but over the next few weeks, there seem to be a number of circumstances that add up. I wanted to put a mystery at the heart of the book, and I wanted to put the people who lived in the community at the heart of trying to figure out that mystery because, after all, they're the ones who live with it. They're the ones who it affects the most directly. And I wanted to create a circumstance where people could - readers could appreciate that the people who live in this home have great skills, have great ingenuity, have great enterprise and can often figure out things and add things together in a way they're not given credit for. You know, and particularly, I think, in a case like this, I didn't want to - I like the two police officers, detectives that we have that become involved in the mystery...

KING: Yes. So do I.

SIMON: I like the people who work in the home. But I didn't want to create some kind of particularly adolescent savior character who comes in and figures everything out. I thought it was very important that the people who live in this community actually drive the narrative and they're the ones who are responsible for figuring out what's been going on.

KING: Toward the end of the book, Sal Gal gives a beautiful speech in which she explains and expresses that she understands she's different. That doesn't make her worse than anyone else...

SIMON: She says, I'm glad I'm different.

KING: I teared up...

SIMON: Yeah, I did too.

KING: She says, I'm glad I - yeah.

SIMON: She says, I'm glad I'm different.

KING: Was that the kind of thing - when you were working at the group home as a young man, was that the kind of - did anyone ever express something like that?

SIMON: Yes. I'm thinking of two people in - particularly. And they said it more or less those words - I'm glad I'm different. And the one instance I remember in particular, putting a guy named Tony (ph) to bed, and he said to me, I'm different, right? And I said, we're all different, Tony. And he said, but, like, I'm really different, right? People notice that. And I said, everybody's different, people, you know, might notice you're different but for no particular reason. And he said - just smiled, and he said, I'm glad I'm different. And I thought it was the most wonderful thing I'd ever heard. Still is. And I have children.

(LAUGHTER)

KING: You were about 19 when you were working in the home?

SIMON: I was 19.

KING: 19. You've written nine books now.

SIMON: Yeah.

KING: And this is the first one, if I'm - if I've got it right, this is the first one for young readers?

SIMON: Yep. Absolutely, yeah.

KING: Why this age group? Why now?

SIMON: Well, for one thing, I have children. I wanted to finally write a book that they would have a chance of reading past their names in the acknowledgements. I also liked the challenge, I don't mind saying. I liked the idea of creating a novel that would invite youngsters, young readers, to have empathy and to reach - look, I think it's very important, and I say this as the father of two youngsters who are Asian, I think it's very important that young readers be able to read books in which they can see people who are like them. I think it's also important for young readers to be able to read books in which they meet people who are nothing like them, but they discover that, actually, there are a lot of human bonds and connections between them and the people they're reading about. And I just thought if I could write a book like that, maybe it has a chance of being written and staying with young readers for their lives.

KING: Scott Simon, thank you so much for being with us.

SIMON: My pleasure.

KING: Scott Simon is the host of NPR's Weekend Edition, and his new book is called "Sunnyside Plaza."

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