Your novel, The Deep End of the Ocean, was the very first Oprah book, and you’ve penned many other books for adults. In the past few years, however, you’ve also written for teens. What inspired you to make this transition?
Many of the books we think of a part of the American canon are, if you will, young adult books — a few striking examples are To Kill A Mockingbird, Huckleberry Finn, and A Tree Grows In Brooklyn, as well as many other contemporary books (The Lovely Bones, The Catcher in the Rye, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime). That’s not an accident. With several of my young adult books (you mentioned All We Know of Heaven), I actually had the chance for that book to be published as an adult book, but I think that teen readers need to be honored with good stories because they live epic emotional lives. When we think about living life simply peeled back and unpadded, that’s often the purview of young people. My own geography may be more expansive than a sixteen-year-old’s, but my emotional topography is nowhere near as vertiginous on a given day. It’s often said that young people live in dog years; each day is an era; each month a lifetime; each year a complete universe. And the reason that adults read “teen” novels, and they do, is because that is where the big stories happen. I like stories, and lives, to quote Enid Bagnold (another “young adult” writer, who wrote National Velvet), in which “things happen.” Reflection is fine, and the revelation of character and insight is fine; but it should happen in the context of events. Moreover, I have three teenage daughters (aged thirteen, fourteen, and sixteen) and they are a tough crowd. Their response to my latest story is, sure, Mom, I’ll get back to you … but with the novels you mentioned, I snagged them!
How is writing adult fiction different than writing YA?
It’s not different. Perhaps the books, on the whole, tend to be shorter in number of pages, but every ounce of my writerly self and my skill goes into making one of those stories.
We have many published authors and aspiring writers at Persephone Magazine. Can you describe your writing process/routine?
I hear that many writers spill everything out and get a story down, and then they go back and revise bit by bit. Well, I can’t go forward until everything I’ve written is just as good as I can make it. If someone should have a different name, I can’t rest until I figure that out. I also don’t like to write as much as is possible in a given period of time. I always want to leave myself something to go back to. And so, I’ll tell myself, I’ll write up until the part where he’s with the boy and they meet the parish priest … but even though I know what comes next, I’ll save that for next time. You can’t save it too long, because it will become a stale macaroon if you do. But you can save it for a while, and it calls to you to get back to it. I don’t need to be called back to it, though, because, although my work has to come second to taking care of my family, my work also is taking care of my family in a very important way, both being healthy emotionally and economically.
You’ve recently been named Editorial Director of Merit Press, F + W’s new YA imprint. That’s exciting! What are you looking forward to most in your new position?
This new job of mine is pretty thrilling, and I have the great good fortune to be working with people who admire writing and Young Adult books, and think of them as wonderful literature in themselves, in other words, not a junior version of anything. In making Merit Press very specific — classic Young Adult, which is to say, contemporary, real-world adventures for readers aged fourteen and up, with some elements of suspense, and strong, complex characters involved in intense relationships with sometimes, perhaps, an element of magical realism — we set the stage for the kind of writing that isn’t being done, often enough, at least right now. Don’t get me wrong; I’m a huge fan of the supernatural. My great ambition in life is to write a subtle, wonderful ghost story like Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House. Others have that waterfront covered, though, and, well, the first five books that Merit Press will publish in December are just so good. I didn’t know it would be possible to be as proud of another’s work as I am of my own. It turns out to be. I told you that my daughters are a tough crowd, and they devoured these books, especially The Twisted Lit books by Kim Askew and Amy Helmes (Tempestuous and Exposure), which are too-new retellings of Shakespearean stories, and The Girl in the Wall, a real nail biter about a birthday bash for the Kardashian-rich daughter of a multi-national business owner that explodes in an act of industrial terrorism, and the only person who can save the girl is her ex-best friend, who knows where she’s hiding but is being held at gunpoint by the hostage takers.
Your books for teens are both female-driven and have gritty subject matter. For example, All We Know of Heaven is about mistaken identity among accident victims, Now You See Her (one of my favorite YA books in recent years) follows a young woman with some deep-seated mental issues. Your forthcoming What We Saw at Night is about a teenager with a fatal allergy who witnesses a grisly crime. What draws you to these subjects, and where do you get your inspiration?
First of all, I love that you liked Now You See Her. It’s one of my favorite books I’ve written and it was based almost entirely on something that happened in Madison, Wisconsin, while I lived there. I love exciting stories, and, for me, someone like Allie Kim, in What We Saw at Night, who would seem to have all the cards stacked against her, because she does have XP, a deadly sensitivity to light that may mean she won’t live very long, still just comes out swinging, determined to live her life to the absolute fullest. Stories have to have people who more or less come from behind the pack, don’t they? For me, my favorite ones do. With few exceptions, books are about the overcoming rather than the enjoying of things, which is entirely true of almost everything about adolescence, so it’s a mirror in a mirror. As for inspiration, well, my best friend suggested the part about things happened at night, because people believe that there are a different set of rules for behavior at night than there are during the day. They think that night confers some kind of cloak of invisibility — which is only true in the darkest shadows. My second eldest son told me about the skill and speed and safety of Parkour, and then explained, to my horror, that he’d actually done it. Parkour is fascinating, like all X-treme sports, like free diving or base jumping, although base jumping comes with something of a death wish, I think. All of these things, they’re about defying the rules, of discourse, of progression, gravity, time and space. And well, I see that defiance as a hallmark of being young, also.