One Thing Leads to Another: An Interview with E. Lockhart
Check out previous interviews in the One Thing Leads to Another series here.
It would be easy for me to jot down a list of my earliest and most formative books, books that resonated in some deep way, that seeped into my subconscious and became part of what I think of as me in my earliest incarnation–books I read (or had read to me) when I was four, five, six years old. My list would include things like the Green Knowe series by L.M. Boston, the Oz books, Edward Eager and E. Nesbit–you get the idea. My 5 1/2 year old daughter Nora loves many of my favorite books already, which is wonderful in a whole new way, and sharing my special books with her is one of the best things ever. But you know what was even better? Watching her discover a new special series of her own and I have the amazing E. Lockhart, who also writes under the name Emily Jenkins, to thank for that.
The Toys Go Out books weren’t around when I was a kid, so reading them was new for both of us. Nora was enthralled. She requested her own Stingray and Lumpy, and after an angst-filled week of agonizing over whether the other kids would understand, she took them in a little backpack to her very first show-and-tell. She had rehearsed exactly what she wanted to say, including telling them about her favorite chapter, “Chapter Four: The Terrifying Bigness of the Washing Machine,” and it all went perfectly; her love and excitement was glorious. We read Toy Dance Party and then Toys Come Home, the final book in the series.
I don’t think I can convey what it was like, reading that last chapter aloud, watching the words sink slowly into her psyche and become part of her in a way that was totally her. She got it and it mattered to her and it was brilliant and made me want to laugh and cry at the same time. Sometimes when she echoes the words or sentiment of that last chapter I know she means to quote the book; sometimes the words pour out and they just come from her, because they’re her words now too. There’s a thoughtful and generous piece of her personality that is pretty much a direct result of Stingray and Lumpy and the wisdom of Plastic. I mean, just a couple weeks ago I overheard her explain to a teacher that it was important to help a sad friend because “we are here for each other. That’s the whole point.” Can you even?
Someday I’ll introduce her to Roo and Gretchen and Cady and especially Frankie and we’ll share that too, and I can’t wait. But until then, I’m taking this opportunity to say thank you, Emily, for giving me that moment, and for giving Nora those ideas. If you need us, we’ll be in the linen closet, with our friends.
Always Something There to Remind Me
Please describe your teenage self.
I was voted worst driver in my senior class. My American literature teacher got angry at me for writing our Thoreau essay as a parody. I wore blue mascara. I was terrifically ambitious and had no idea what to do with that ambition.
What did you want to be when you grew up? Why?
I wanted to be an actress but by senior year of high school I realized I didn’t really have it in me to be a good one. I wrote about this realization in Dramarama.
What were some of your passions during that time?
Boys. I was really interested in boys.
What were your high school years like?
I went to an arts high school in Seattle where I was miserable. Then I went to prep school and was happy. The one school was dingy and competitive and socially toxic, whereas the other was bright and outdoorsy and charity-minded. At neither school did my teachers single me out. Teachers have never much liked me. An adult who influenced my life was my boyfriend’s mother. (I know, I told you boys were my primary interest – and it’s true — but by senior year I had settled down for a bit.) This woman was a strong character, and she liked me. She used to lounge on her deck in a bikini and drink wine with dinner. Sometimes she’d yell about stuff and she always had cookies in the cookie jar. But she was also a well-known judge, so fierce on the bench people called her “the dragon lady.” She appeared completely unafraid of being disliked, and in that way was a really fantastic role model.
Would you be willing to share a difficult teen experience or challenge that you feel shaped the adult you became?
I grew up with a single mother, and she had just finished grad school when I started on scholarship at the prep school. I felt embarrassed to bring my new rich friends home to our little place. Their houses were palatial, to my eye. When I finally did bring people home, though, I realized they didn’t care one bit how big or small my kitchen was, or whether we had a yard. They came over to my house because they were my friends. To good people, appearances don’t matter. And yet, class differences will still be interesting to me, probably forever.
What about a positive experience or accomplishment that had an impact on your adult self?
I went to Planned Parenthood and got protection before I had sex. I am very thankful that I did. I am sure it changed the course of my life.
What advice, if any, would you give your teen self? Would your teen self have listened?
The playwright Michael Weller told me not to go to acting school but to study a subject other than drama in college if I wanted to act: religion or philosophy or history or something else that would deepen my understanding and cultural literacy. I am very glad I listened to him.
Do you have any regrets about your teen years? Anything left undone or anything that might have been better left undone?
I regret a number of instances where I was unkind or oblivious to people’s pain. But I learned from those times, from the consequences of those actions, so perhaps I do not really regret them.
What, if anything, do you miss most about that time?
I am very glad to be an adult. Sometimes I rage against my aging, aching body, but I wouldn’t trade it for the inexperienced, transitioning adolescent one I had back then. In part, We Were Liars is about a girl who suffers chronic migraine pain, and I meant that pain to operate as a metaphor for how intense it is for teenagers to be trapped in a quickly changing body that does not always serve them well. I had a comparatively easy life as a young person, but being a teenager is a difficult and raw time, no matter what.
Every Day I Write the Book
You earned a doctorate in English literature (focusing on the 19th century British novel and the history of British book illustration) and have discussed your qualified respect for the literary canon. What influence does the canon have on your own work? I’m also intrigued by what you’ve said about the ways in which fandom reinterprets classic literature and the brief discussion on your site about how “popular literature and entertainment often become canonized over time.” Could you talk a bit about the connections between YA literature, fandom, and classic literature, and about the shifting line “between highbrow and lowbrow entertainment?”
Much literature that is solidly canonized now was popular culture in its day. In the 18th and even 19th century, the novel itself was a lowbrow form, suitable only for silly women. Educated readers wanted knowledge and logic. They consumed history and science, read things in Latin, whatever. Now, we study the novel and its history at our most elite institutions. Dickens was a super-popular writer of sentimental and sometimes sensationalist fiction. Now we think of him as educational and important for all educated people to know about. There are lots of reasons texts get canonized. Political and didactic and practical and institutional reasons. The canonization of 20th- and 21st century books is happening right now, as teachers in middle schools, high schools and colleges choose books to teach in classes. Forms that seem lowbrow to higher-education institutions now may seem highbrow to later generations, following the same trajectory as the novel. It is happening with film, already. We will probably see the canonization of graphic novels, YA novels, children’s books, and comic books, among other forms.
“I think teen readers adore structural and stylistic experimentation… [and] have a blast reading stylized voices and narratives that experiment beyond traditional structures,” you said in a recent interview, adding that you see your most recent book, We Were Liars, as “part of a continuum of YA novels that play with perception and expectations while doing something structurally or narratively unusual.” You’ve experimented with structure and viewpoint in other novels as well and have hinted that your next book will be told backwards. I’m wondering what inspires you to take a nontraditional approach to style or narrative structure? How do storytelling and structure influence each other in your work and at what point in your writing process are you able to identify the structure that feels right?
I am influenced by post-modern novels and by the internet and by comic books and movies and plays and stand-up comics and musical theater lyrics — but I am probably most influenced by techniques used by 19th-century novelists like Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë — which are still used by many writers today. As a reader, I like a strong narrative through-line and a bit of mystery and a protagonist to care about, and I work hard to put those in my books. The storytelling is first and foremost. The rest is glitter and frosting and pop music and fringe.
You have a reputation for writing strong female characters but there are elements of simplification and containment about the phrase “strong female characters” that don’t do justice to Cady, Frankie, Gretchen, Sayde, or Roo; for example, in describing Frankie you’ve said that while there’s “much to admire in her…I also think she’s a problematic person, not a role model so much as a character whose internal and external conflicts remain unresolved.” Could you talk about the difference between “strong female characters” and complicated, compelling characters, and about how young women shouldn’t “be required to be likable, in fiction or in real life”?
All my central characters are struggling with outside forces that oppress or limit them in some way. That is very much true of Demi in Dramarama and Gat in We Were Liars and Titus in Fly on the Wall — all boys. I write girls more often because I was a girl. I write about feminist issues because equality of all kinds is important to me, a driving force behind my fiction. As for being likable: lots of people don’t like me. I’m not that nice. But lots of people wouldn’t like me even if I tried all day every day to do nothing but get them to like me. So — WHATEVER. Like Cadence in We Were Liars, I do not suffer fools. I try to be a good storyteller, a humanitarian, a thoughtful human, a good mother, and responsible to my commitments, because those things matter to me more than other people’s opinions. So you see that attitude in my fiction, too.
You actually explore all kinds of social issues in unique ways, ranging from bullying in The Boyfriend List to the privilege enjoyed by the moneyed Sinclairs in We Were Liars to the LGBT themes in Dramarama and Fly on the Wall. I was going to ask you to talk about this, but then I came across your answer to the following question: what advice would you give yourself if you could go back in time to the beginning of your writing career? You said, “I would ask, What are you angry about? And tell myself to write about that.” Maybe those two topics—social issues and personal advice—overlap, and maybe they don’t; either way I’d love for you to elaborate. What makes you angry?
I am angry about both rational and irrational things, large and small. Rational: social injustice, child abuse, rude behavior, passive aggression, white-washed book jackets. Irrational: winters are long, cake is fattening, things like that. I think what I meant in the quotes you cite is that in writing fiction I look for some driving and powerful emotion – not a stagnant malaise or mild ambition. Then, very often, I play that emotion for comedy.
Just Can’t Get Enough
Question from Marcus Sedgwick: It’s (almost) impossible for a writer to get asked a question that they haven’t been asked before, even when the person doing the asking is, himself, a writer. So forgive me if you’ve been asked this a million times before. I’ve been thinking a lot about first and last sentences. Many authors tell me they go back and change the openings of their books endlessly until they’re happy, but my first lines never change. Ever. I like to make sure I get the tone of the book right from the outset. My last lines sometimes change, but first ones, never. What do you think about that process and how do you work these things?
I am impressed by your writing process, Mr. Sedgwick. I am a tinkerer and start my books in a muddle and often begin writing somewhere near the middle or even the end. A lot of rearranging goes on, and then when I have the story in place, I go through and work on the first and last lines of chapters and subsections. Very often this means cutting, or bringing a line in from a different part of a scene to allow it to shine at the start or the end.
Emily has contributed a question for the next author in the series, Stephanie Kuehn. Watch for an interview with her coming soon!
E. Lockhart is the author of We Were Liars, Fly on the Wall, Dramarama, The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks and the Ruby Oliver quartet: The Boyfriend List, The Boy Book, The Treasure Map of Boys, and Real Live Boyfriends. How to Be Bad was co-written with Lauren Myracle and Sarah Mlynowski. Disreputable History was a Printz Award honor book, a finalist for the National Book Award, and recipient of the Cybils Award for best young adult novel. We Were Liars is a New York Times bestseller. Lockhart has a doctorate in English literature from Columbia University and currently teach creative writing at Hamline University’s low-residency MFA program in Writing for Children. You can find E. Lockhart at her website and blog, on Pinterest and Tumblr, or follow her on Twitter.
–Julie Bartel, currently reading The Glass Sentence by S. E. Grove