NYT Bestselling YA author E. Lockhart was in the country this weekend on her book-signing tour, and I was glad for the opportunity to meet her, because her books had been keeping me awake in the middle of the night over the past week.
E. Lockhart’s list of bestselling books include the acclaimed “We Were Liars,” the Printz Honor book (+CYBILS Best YA Novel +National Book Award nominee) “The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks,” “Fly on the Wall,” “Dramarama” and the Ruby Oliver quartet: “The Boyfriend List,” “The Boy Book,” “The Treasure Map of Boys,” and “Real Live Boyfriends.”
Set in an elite prep school, “The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks” deals with a sixteen year-old girl who uncovers a campus fraternity and decides to take control of it to prove herself. Secret societies are always fun to read, but this book is as compelling as it is candid, with an (anti)heroine who is both endearing and empowering.
I wasn’t planning on reading the Ruby Oliver series, but since I had time before the interview, I decided to give it a try. Ruby Oliver is a troubled teen who is dealing with anxiety issues after her reputation is ruined and she loses all of her friends. I very nearly stopped reading after two books because Ruby’s neuroticism was exhausting (and the people around her really weren’t helping) but I kept reading (because I wanted to find out if that ship ever sailed) and she did eventually win me over in the next couple of books. The final book, “Real Live Boyfriends” is one of the best I’ve read, and I was crying my eyes out in the last few pages well after midnight.
“We Were Liars” features the illustrious Sinclair family in the private island of Beechwood, where the ‘Liars,’ cousins Cadence, Johnny, Mirren, and family friend, Gat, spend their summers together. One fateful summer, Cadence gets into an accident and their lives are irrevocably changed. Cadence returns to Beechwood to fill in the gaps in her memory, and finds out what really happened that summer. I won’t say anything more (*spoilers*), just that I was blown away. Jarred awake at 3 am finishing this book, and unable to sleep afterwards.
I got to chat with E(mily) Lockhart before her signing on Sunday, and here’s the transcript of that interview:
Q. How did this trip to the Philippines come about?
A. National Book Store invited me, and they have obviously brought a lot of young adult authors to the Philippines. When they invited me, the email that I got said that they’ve brought Gayle Forman and Jenny Han and Kiera Cass. I knew Gayle and Jenny, and I said to them, “Have you done this Philippines trip? What’s it all about?” And they both said, “Oh my gosh, you have to go! it’s amazing. The readers there are so enthusiastic, and they come out to bookstores, and there’s an incredible reading climate and culture in the Philippines for young adult fiction!” And so I came.
The bookstore events are better here. We do have a similar culture of book bloggers, and they obviously know each other from attending cons and festivals and things like that. But the bookstore events are different just in that usually they’re smaller [back in the US]. There’s a real sense of enthusiasm. In the US I get about half the crowd, and most of them are teachers and librarians and that didn’t seem to be the case yesterday [in Cebu] — they were all under 22. And that makes for a very lively crowd. The teachers and librarians come because they’re thinking about their curriculum or their library, so it really is a different experience with young people.
Q. What inspired you to become a writer?
A. I just always loved books; there was always no question in my head that I wanted to do something related to fiction because I just loved it my whole life.
I studied to become a literary critic. I had a PhD in the Victorian novel, and I realized partway through that part of my education that I did not want to do that anymore. I finished my degree but I turned to write creatively before I even finished. I realized that what I’ve always wanted to do is write fiction and that I had been scared, or thought I couldn’t do it. That’s not true for all scholars or critics, but it was true for me.
Q. What would you consider your big break?
A. It was a series of little breaks, I would say. I had five books published and none of them was my big break. They were all books that came out that very few people read. Really, my first successful book was “The Boyfriend List,” which was my first book for teenagers — I’d been writing for other audiences before that. “The Boyfriend List” was successful and it really found an audience, and I found the community of young adult readers and teachers and librarians and bloggers and youth advocates that has become a part of my life today.
Q. What prompted the transition to YA? (I realized I have one of her earlier books for children “Toys Go Out” written under Emily Jenkins, which I couldn’t find in time for the interview, as it’s among the books I put in storage)
A. I still write for younger people. Basically someone asked me to write for teenagers, an editor who had read something I wrote for adults. She was looking for something in the vein of Meg Cabot, Ann Brashares, [and] Louise Rennison and she invited me to submit a book. And I did and she bought the book. I felt like the book was better than my other books had been, and more people read it, so it was very natural for me to just keep on writing for that audience.
Q. What was the inspiration for your books?
A. For Ruby Oliver, I started digging through my old boxes of things that I had saved from my childhood. I don’t have many of these things anymore, and I didn’t have very many then. I knew I had kept a list of all the boys I had ever kissed, in a diary that I didn’t write in very often, that I’d had for years and years. I wondered where it was and I couldn’t find it.
Then I thought, what if somebody found this list of all the boys I’d ever kissed? What kind of person makes that list? It’s kind of creepy — what were you trying to do, chalk up your achievements? it’s a pretty embarrassing thing to do. So that was where I got the idea to write the story of a girl whose boyfriend list really does get found, and ruins her reputation at school because people interpret it as much more than it really is.
Did you know which boy she would end up with when you started writing the quartet?
I didn’t know she would end up with anybody, because I didn’t know I was writing more than one book. So i wrote the first book and they invited me to write a sequel. It was a two-book deal, but I didn’t know that the second book would be a sequeluntil partway through the editing process on the first book, but then I’d already written the ending.
And then I wrote the other two books later. I had written some stuff in between and I came back to the publisher and wrote the last two books in the series. Again, I thought I was only writing the third book and then I ended up writing the fourth.
For Frankie, I started out wanting to write a book about campus pranks, and I just thought that was a fun topic. I didn’t go to boarding school, but when I was in college, we would do pranks. We would sneak around and get into buildings that we weren’t supposed to be in and go down the basement… Nothing much hapoened but we liked to get into buildings and try to go up the roof, or go out into the golfcourse in the middle of the night and having parties and things like that.
I wanted to capture some of that spirit. And the question that I had asked myself is, why would any of this matter? It’s always fun to read about a prank, but why would you care about this prank? And so it took me a while to figure out that they were political. And that instead of the spirit of community and fun with your friends this was actually a book about a loner, or somebody who was running around doing this kind of stuff on her own. So it didn’t become a book until I could figure out why these pranks would matter.
For “We Were Liars,” starting when I was very little my parents had a house on Martha’s Vineyard, which is an island off the coast of Massachussetts, about thirty miles, with little towns on it. My grandparents on my mom’s side built a pretty modest littlehouse on two acres there, and I used to go there a lot for summer vacations; it’s about a 45-minute ferry ride from Cape Cod.
There were two things: one is the idea of taking a boat over to your summer life — it’s interesting, how some people end up with a different summer life than they have, even if it’s only a couple of weeks, if you go back to the same place for vacation, or if you go to summer camp. I’d written about summer life in Drama-rama also, about some people reinventing themselves or finding a new part of themselves during summer at theater school.I wanted another way to write about that, about having a summer life that was so radically different from your home life.
When I was on that ferry boat ride, I would see these little private islands owned by individuals, and I would see a little house there. i would always wonder about them, and I ‘ve never been to a private island. The idea for that as a setting, or at least as a setting to wonder about, is something that I’d been thinking about my whole life, so this book was kind of the answer to that question.
Q. Your narrative delves deep into the (sometimes troubled) teenage psyche. Do you have a background in psychology, or did you have to consult anyone for this?
A. My mom is a psychotherapist, so for the Ruby Oliver books I did consult her. She actually gave me the idea of a treasure map. I added the boys. I called her up and I said I wanted a fun therapy homework assignment, because in every book in that series Ruby’s therapist gives her some kind of slightly creative therapy homework. It’s kind of hard to find therapy homework that’s fun, or that would be fun to read about and so the treasure map was a great contribution of my mom’s.
Most of the time I am not really researching but just imaginatively projecting myself into [the character], just trying to write from humanity.
Speaking of projecting, which of your characters is most like you?
A. Probably Ruby is the most like me. That’s a tough question because I take some part of myself and put it into all of the characters.
Ruby has the tendency to unpack social interactions, some of which she does in the footnotes, sometimes in the body of the text. Somebody says, “I’ll see you later,” and she thinks of sixteen things that that might mean and why they might say them, and that is definitely part of my character. It was fun to kind of dramatize on the page.
I’m always taking parts of myself and putting them into one of the villains… Or Gat, for example, from “We Were Liars” has a lot in common with me, even though he’s ethnically, religiously, and gender different from me. And that’s true with the difficult parents in We Were Liars, there’s some of me in that, too. The nice parts of me.
Q. We’ve had waves of fantasy and dystopia in YA and now people are saying this is the age of the contemporary novel. What are your thoughts on this?
I think fantasy and dystopia is still going strong, if you look at the bestseller series list. But for this past year the straight up NYT Bestseller List has been largely realistic fiction. It’s been Rainbow Rowell and John Green and Gayle Forman and Jenny Han and me, and you can argue whether “If I Stay” is realistic fiction, or “We Were Liars” is realistic fiction, but that’s sort of if you had to pop them in a genre, that’s where it would be.
I think readers have always had an interest in realistic fiction. It doesn’t usually make for blockbuster movies. Fantasy and dystopia make for blockbuster movies, because action movies are blockbusters. This year we were lucky enough to have several movies based on realistic fiction — that’s unusual, that’s unusual for adult fiction, too. But that drove more readers, I think, to those books, and hopefully that will sustain.
Q. Your novels are not strictly linear narratives. Can you tell me more about your process, especially in planning your novels?
With “We Were Liars,” I planned it out, and with the book that I’m working on now, I planned it out. We Were Liars has a five plot structure, so I laid it out in five acts, and I wrote in the word processing program Scrivener, that allows you that birds-eye view of the structure of the novel. I use that a lot to figure out where this scene should go, where this memory flashback sequences should go, where the fairy tales should go. And I rearranged it a lot, and tried it in different ways, which memories should come first and in which acts of the book.
With the earlier books, I just wrote in Microsoft Word and I would have to rearrange my books manually, just cutting and pasting and I was always afraid I would mistakenly delete sections of the book.
But I still had to rearrange my books. I would think that I was writing them in the right order, and then it would turn out that the whole middle three quarters of the book [needed to be rearranged]. The beginning would stay the same and the end would stay the same but I’d have to rearrange the middle and I’d have to put plot points in different order.
I thought I was writing in linear fashion but now I’ve just given up that fantasy.
I’ve been a full time writer since 2002; I teach a couple of intensives twice a year on the side. I pretty much write every week day from 9:00 in the morning. I usually write between 500 and 2000 words in a day, depending on where I am in a project, and I use this as a word count goal. At the beginning of the project it’s only about 500 words and I jack it up as I get some momentum going in a project.
And then I do extensive, extensive rewriting. Rewriting of the book takes longer than the initial first draft.
Q. Your acknowledgements mention several other writers. Is feedback on your writing a key part of your process?
A. It depends on the book. With “We Were Liars” I did get a lot of feedback, but with other books I have not gotten huge amounts of feedback. Sometimes those other writers keep me company; I write in coffeeshops a lot, and Colleagues are often sitting next to me at the coffeeshop and we often talk shop at lunch but we don’t necessarily read each other’s work. It really varies book to book. It depends on what I’m trying to do and whether I feel like I need more eyes on it or not.
Q. Who are your favorite authors?
A. It’s very hard to have single favorites. My favorite YA author is Jaclyn Moriarty, she has a new series that starts with a book called, “A Corner of White,” and she wrote “Feeling Sorry for Celia,” “The Year of Secret Assignments,” and “The Ghosts of Ashbury High.” She’s mentioned in “We Were Liars,” basically because she is my favorite YA writer.
This year I really liked “Grasshopper Jungle” by Andrew Smith a lot, and I liked “Winger” by him as well. I think he’s really fantastic and interesting. I really loved Holly Black’s Curse Worker series, I mean she’s always been good but this series is kind of a paranormal con artist- crime family thing and set in a very realistic world with magic in it, and she does that amazingly well.
Q. What are you writing now, and are we going to see you explore other genres, like maybe Victorian literature?
A. I love Victorian literature, but I don’t think I will ever write historical; I’m too lazy to research it, or I don’t have the patience.
I just finished the draft of a new book, and I’m not really allowed to say too much about it, but it is not set in high school, it is young adult, and it has a little bit of murder. It’ll come out sometime in 2016.
Q. What would you advise to aspiring writers?
A. When I was in college I took one creative writing class and it was just a disaster because the criticism was extremely aggressive and therefore not constructive. The teacher did not think very much of me, to the point that he did not even read some of my stories and told me that. And a number of people in that class seemed to me talented, and they had, at the age of 20, a lot more to offer than I did. Of all the fifteen people in that class, only one has published any fiction work. And the difference between me and those other more talented writers is that my books are finished.
So I finished my books, and I rewrote them and I rewrote them. Many of those people got stuck, or blocked, or scared, and didn’t finish their projects. So, finish your book is my advice, and rewrite it. Again. And again. And again. Writing is a craft and you can learn it; it just takes practice.
Emily signed my books, too (my hardcover Frankie is in storage, boo!)
I’m giving away a signed copy of “We Were Liars,” with the special stamp and matching bookmark, plus a book necklace like the one I gave Emily:
P.S. Almost forgot — Ratings!
Ruby Oliver quartet, 4/5 stars
The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, 4/5 stars
We Were Liars, 4.5/5 stars