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.


  1. This somewhat reflects to what Ellen Hopkins has been saying on Facebook today. She's used to critics saying her subject matter isn't appropriate for teens, but that criticism has been renewed since the recent release of her new book, Tricks, about teen prostitution. I, of course, am on Laurie's and Ellen's side regarding subject matter appropriate for teens. Writing about such topics is real and needed by teens.

  2. I was talking to some friends (all parents of younger kids) a while ago, defending darker teen books, and they had never even considered the idea that books are tools for teens. It surprised me, as these are open minded, thinking adults. I wonder sometimes if we writers become too shy about issue-writing.
    Thanks for the post. I'll look up Tricks.

  3. Interesting interview. With two younger kids, I haven't had to face the prospect of one of them picking up a book I thought might be too dark. I expect that when the time comes, though, I'll be happier if they're reading about questionable or dangerous behavior and testing their comfort zones that way, as opposed to actually trying those behaviors.

  4. Swati, a great interview and I just feel LHA has such a way with words and the guts to give teens what they want to read. Her books fly off our library shelves because students feel she speaks to them about their problems with teenspeak and great stories!

  5. Wonderful interview, Swati! I learn so much from Laurie in every book of hers I read and now also in every interview!

  6. Terrific interview, Swati! Love Laurie's advice at the end!