Monday, August 31, 2009

Interview with Laurie Halse Anderson

In May, I was lucky enough to introduce Laurie Halse Anderson before she read at the Loft in Minneapolis, MN. (See Meeting a Writing Hero.) Being the generous woman she is, she agreed to let me conduct an interview which she gave via email, in spite of a personal tragedy.

Laurie Halse Anderson has garnered accolades and awards too numerous to enumerate here, but here are some of the highlights: ALA Best Books 2008, ALA Quick Picks 2008, New York Times Best Seller List, International Teacher's Association Teacher's Choice, National Book Award Finalist, and Printz Award Finalist. And that's just for her young adult books. (She also writes historical fiction and, as she calls them, kids books) .

Anderson's work tends toward a lot of risks, both in subject matters and form, and my interview questions were focused on the courage to take such risks and the process of such a ballsy writer.

Without further ado:

Swati: Your books address big problems that teens face, including emotional abuse, rape, and most recently, eating disorders. Have you faced criticism for choosing these topics? How do you respond to it?

Laurie: The criticism mostly comes from people who feel that by talking about these problems, I am somehow encouraging more teens to dive into dangerous behaviors. I completely disagree with this. I know that the only way to reduce the incidence of dangerous behaviors, and to help heal the emotional wounds suffered by so many of our teens, is to talk about these big problems.

Swati: You had a great deal of success with Speak. How did that affect you the next time you sat down to write? How did you cope with that?

Laurie: It has taken a while to move past Speak. The only way to do it was to write a lot more books. It is healthy for writers to realize that they can only control the quality of their work, not how people are going to react to it.

Swati: Comparing Twisted to your other work, do you find writing from the point of view of a girl and a boy different? Are there challenges for each? Is it easier for you to access a girl’s voice? If so, how did you access Tyler’s voice?

Laurie: A girl's voice comes easier, but that makes uncovering a boy's voice more work and thus, more rewarding. To help discover that voice, I interviewed countless boys and men, and tried to listen to them without judging their answers. It was a lot of fun to delve into the physical, kinesthetic realities that Tyler experienced. I think a lot of boys experience life more through their bodies than many girls.

Swati: Are you influenced by what is on the market already? Chains and Octavian Nothing by M.T. Anderson – both books told from the perspectives of slaves during the revolutionary war – came out at about the same time. Did that concern you?

Laurie: It does not concern me because I avoid knowing what is on the market. M.T. Anderson and I seem to be plugged into the same wavelength, that's for sure. I think it is wonderful that we've written about the same topic. Americans deserve many stories about slavery. Every writer is going to approach it differently.

Swati: You use a variety of techniques that are unique, including blank pages and the strike out feature in Wintergirls and pseudo-playwriting format to indicate Melinda’s silence in Speak. This really helps define the voice, and also challenge your readers to read a little differently. What helps you decide to take those risks? Are these more intellectual decisions or are they organic?
Laurie: Those were all organic decisions that evolved in the heat of writing the early draft. One of the things I most love about writing for teens is that they are open-minded and embrace new narrative techniques. I love playing around with new stuff - the goal is to communicate the story effectively.

Swati: You said that your fans wanted you to write about eating disorders and that is what drew you to Wintergirls. Did that affect the way you researched and/or the way you wrote?

Laurie: It did not affect the writing. It drove the research. I did not fully understand the emotional pain of eating disorders, and it was those letters that compelled me to dig into the subject so I could understand.

Swati: **SPOILER QUESTION**: One of my favorite parts of Wintergirls is how Lia instigated the competition between herself and Cassie eventually, took responsibility for undermining her friend’s recovery. How did that come to you?

Laurie: I guess it came from my understanding that one cannot grow without taking responsibility for one's actions. I think is what keeps many people stuck in immature attitudes, because it can be very painful to acknowledge mistakes.

Swati: Can you tell me about what you’re working on now?
Laurie: I'm working on FORGE, the next historical novel, and beginning to think about my next YA.

Swati: Is there anything else you’d like to say?

Laurie: To anyone out there with the dream of writing, I'd like to say this: Write the story in your heart - the one that only you can write. Don't worry about trends or critics or what your mother is going to say. Don't think; just write.

Want more? Watch and listen to her discuss her stunning book, Wintergirls.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Meeting A Writing Hero

In May of this year, I got to meet one of my writing idols, Laurie Halse Anderson. I discovered her books years ago, when my son, who we’ll call The Possum, was only about four. We had spent so much time in bookstores over the years that The Possum had become an excellent book browser by age four. He could out do me. So, while he browsed books in at a local children’s bookstore, I wandered bored. I assumed there was nothing for me to do.

I struck up a conversation with a bookseller, Liz. Liz should have reminded me of a stereotypical librarian – small glasses, whitening hair, a passion for books – but she is not anything like the shushing, stern librarian I knew in grade school. (The librarians I meet nowadays seem to be about breaking those stereotypes). Liz is warm and has a great ability to sense what books will appeal and finds the best about every book.

When I asked Liz if she had anything for adults, she looked me over and then grabbed Speak, Laurie Halse Anderson’s debut novel. What I discovered, when I went home and read it, was that the world of young adult literature had changed from the time I read it as a child. It had become voice-y; it had become an arena for authors to push what was acceptable in literature, both in terms of content and in terms of form.

Two days later, my son and I were back at the store, only this time he had to drag me out, clutching 3 more YA books. Speak snared me. I started reading YA, and lots of it, listening to many of Liz's recommendations. And, now of course, I see it was what got me writing YA.

When I heard that I could meet Laurie Halse Anderson at a reading she gave at the Loft, I pulled every string I could think of to make sure I wouldn’t be just another face at the back of the signing line. One of the Loft’s staff, who has known me for a while, picked up my excitement instantly and suggested that I introduce Laurie instead.

When Laurie arrived and we were introduced, (“Halse, rhymes with Waltz – Halse”), I had to work hard not to gush. But I was rewarded for my self-control because I got to listen to her, not myself. I learned that Ms. Anderson is generous, freely giving me advice on my second book fears and agreeing to an interview, which will be featured on the More on Mondays blog on Monday, August 31.

She looked as I expected: she is slender and seems gentle in her tone. Then when she read to her audience (and make no mistake, it was her audience), she rejected the mic in favor of a strong voice, engaged the audience (answering all their questions, but asking a few of her own) and demonstrated a level of respect for the many students who came to see her.

Most heroes pale upon meeting. Laurie Halse Anderson did not.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Inaugural Blog

Recently, I was sitting in at Harvest Moon CafĂ© with a member of my writer’s group who was complaining about tweets that go something like this: “Swati is eating apples” or “Swati is tired.” Other tweets, he told me, are valuable, such as “I just posted a new blog.” He objects to the idea that every thought someone has needs to be expressed, that it needs to be shared, and that by writing it down, we imply that eating apples is inherently interesting.

As someone who has written those status lines on facebook and who loves reading others’ similar stati, I disagreed. I do like hearing that my cousin, who I only see once every two years, is making posole. It is the only way I have to enter her daily life. I am, like most of us, separated in physical distance to most of the people I am closest to. Twitter or facebook transform that which has disconnected us (a computer in a solitary room) into a source of connection.

Then again, I’m a writer. I love all sorts of communication. And for me, communication is connection.

In this inaugural blog, I’m questioning why should I write this and whether anyone should care if I’ve eaten apples, or even the more inherently interesting experiences like auction day for my contract (more on this later). And I remind myself that this blog is a form of connection to anyone who wishes to read. Whether it’s a blog, a short story, or even a novel, I write to connect, to reach across the distance.

So, welcome to my blog. I hope that you’ll come again to the blog, just to reach back.

I promise not to mention all my culinary delights. This blog will be focused on my writing, the life of a writer, and the process of publication. I will also be featuring interviews with authors, usually young adult authors who have had some sort of influence on me.

Coming soon: Laurie Halse Anderson, multiple award-winner, who was gracious enough to give me my inaugural interview and shortly thereafter, Julie Schumacher.