1. Do not give up piano lessons to play basketball. That is the second dumbest idea you will ever have. (The first dumbest will involve dropping acid and going to see Aliens, which is a Category Five mistake.)
Check out previous interviews in the One Thing Leads to Another series here.
I was going to tell you about the time I was reading Libba Bray’s Rebel Angels in a hotel in Belgravia, London, and how we were spending the next day at the Imperial War Museum (housed in the central portion of what was formerly Bethlem Royal Hospital, or “Bedlam”) and how it was all atmospheric and creepy and whatnot (which it totally was) and I was going to tell you about how I dog-eared and sticky-noted The Sweet Far Thing until there were no sticky notes left to stick because I thought (think) it was brilliant and wanted to see if I could connect all the luminous dots and figure out how she’d made it all work. And I was going to tell you how I spent the night before the ACTs at a New Order concert, which, now that I think about it will make a lot more sense once you read on.
But instead I am going to just point you directly to the interview below because it is EPIC. I mean, this is not run of the mill epic, it is Libba Bray level EPIC, which means playlists, life lessons, the influence of PBS, aspirations to royalty, Holden Caufield, Gilda Radner, existential crises, blood, make-up, exceptional teachers, music, boys, theater, George Saunders, thoughtful advice, pathological honesty, and–in what is certainly the most epic author-to-author question ever featured in this series–Chris Pratt. Just go, now. (You might want something to drink, and a snack, fair warning.)
Thank you, Libba, for this jaw-dropping and utterly exceptional interview, and for your willingness to come face to face with the monster time and time again.
Always Something There to Remind Me
Please describe your teenage self.
Actually, I feel like that sentence could be the description.
I was a girl of extremes, which I don’t think is terribly uncommon for the teen years: Goofy. Hopeful. Sardonic. Weird. Insecure. Certain I was a freak who would never have a boyfriend. Sometimes melancholy and lonely. An introvert who fronted like an extrovert. Well-intentioned if a bit “high-spirited,” as my high school principal described me that time I got sent home from the Latin trip. A class clown type who was terrified that someone might see how truly vulnerable I was while also wishing someone would see how truly vulnerable I was, preferably a wisecracking, music-playing boy who also read Salinger. I was in love with theater, music, literature, art, fashion, and film. I wanted grand adventures. I wanted to make the world a better, fairer place. I wanted my life to have meaning. And I desperately wanted out of Denton, Texas.
What did you want to be when you grew up? Why?
My first ambition at the age of five was to be Queen of England. After all, we were both named Elizabeth. It seemed logical that I’d step in next. I was rather put out when my mother explained how the succession of kings and queens worked and that it had nothing at all to do with first names. After that, I remember wanting to be a veterinarian. I was the kid who read ALL of the animal stories: Charlotte’s Web, The Wind in the Willows, My Friend Flicka. Black Beauty. Winnie-the-Pooh. Also, James Herriot’s All Creatures Great and Small had been on PBS. PBS is to be blamed for many of my life choices. I spent a lot of time on our back porch, immersed in drawing—charcoals and watercolors, graduating to oils—but stopped once we moved from Corpus Christi to Denton.
After abandoning veterinary science, art, and the monarchy as careers, I cycled through all sorts of ambitions—actress, filmmaker, sketch comedy performer (I adored Gilda Radner; she was everything I wanted to be), athletic trainer, fashion designer, elementary school teacher, psychiatrist, makeup artist, Peace Corps worker—and pretty much figured I’d work in the arts in some capacity. Interestingly, fiction writer wasn’t on that list at all.
What were your high school years like?
I lived in Denton, Texas, which is a small town north of Dallas and Fort Worth on the road to Oklahoma. It was a rather conservative, deeply religious community, a “Friday Night Lights” town of football games, drill team, 4H Club, and Baptist revivals. It’s also the home of two universities—Texas Women’s University and University of North Texas, which has a killer music school. So it was an interesting mix of old-school Texas and counterculture college students. There was only one high school. (So we wouldn’t lose our 5A football status.) I was aware that I was an odd bird in that environment, but there were actually quite a few odd birds, and, for some reason, I managed to move between social groups fairly easily. I remember our class as being fairly accepting of oddness. Perhaps that’s looking backward through a hazy lens, but with a few exceptions, there was a surprising lack of meanness. I do remember that there was an awful lot of conformity and fear of appearing “different” for many of my classmates, much of it influenced by religious doctrine and southern behavioral strictures. There were boys I knew to be gay who, nevertheless, steadfastly kept up the appearance of being straight out of fear.
It was the early 1980s. Punk and New Wave had hit, and for those of us who were artsy-weird, the burgeoning world of music video on brand-spanking-new MTV was a window into a world we wanted to live in. I can still remember seeing the very first video, The Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star,” and then Mike Nesmith’s (of Monkees fame) “Elephant Parts,” and being hooked. I remember thinking, I want to make weird, abstract, darkly funny videos like this. Going to concerts was a big deal. Spring of my junior year, a few of us road-tripped down to Austin to see The Cars play, and the night before my SAT, we drove into Dallas to see The Police, as one does before a major, life-defining test. (It wasn’t such a life-defining test then.) Trolling record stores like Sound Warehouse for the latest vinyl was another great pastime. Music was identity. It was declaration. It was everything.
My home away from home was definitely the Firehouse Theater, the local community theater, which was housed on top of an active firehouse. If the firefighters got a call in the middle of a show, you had to hold in place while the sirens wailed and then resume, which seems hilarious now that I think about it. I loved everything about that place, especially the people who were a very wild cast of characters. Community theater was the place where I learned not only about acting but also about costume and makeup and set building/set striking and teamwork. It was a family for sure.
I ran cross-country and track. I was in Latin club and National Honor Society. (Nerd alert!) I spent a lot of Saturday nights at the midnight showing of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. I was, for one year, a Texas high school cheerleader. And STILL I could not get a date. Once, my friends and I dressed as the members of KISS and walked around our neighborhood for no reason I can fathom except that we were bored and had a drawer full of makeup. When we as a nation are testing the shit out of kids and assigning staggering amounts of homework and forcing them into those high scores-winner-take-all-this-is-all-about-your-future-earning-potential cattle pens, we never take into account how valuable boredom is. How lying fallow allows for thought and creativity and connection. I’m glad I had that.
When I was fourteen, my father came out to the family. It was understood that we couldn’t talk about it outside the house as my father worked in the church and would lose his job if his sexual orientation were known. By the time I was sixteen, my dad had a partner, John, and they lived in Dallas. My best friend (I refused to comply completely with the secret edict) and I would drive to their condo and swim in the pool and eat yogurt raisins and fart at the table, and, bless them, Dad and John were saints of patience. Sometimes, my dad and I would go to Oak Lawn, which was known on the DL as the gay part of Dallas, and we’d sit at a table and decide which waiters were his and which were mine. Of course, they really were all his. So, in essence, I lived a double life, and one of those was in the closet by association. But I loved being part of the gay underground, loved going to the clubs and galleries of Oak Lawn and to hear the Turtle Creek Men’s Chorale (read: Gay Men’s Chorus) and to parties with my father’s friends, where I felt adored and indulged. Fortunately for me, my parents remained close. The first Thanksgiving my father and John were together, my mother invited them over for dinner, and there we were, a very Neil Simon-meets-Paul Rudnick-meets-Soap sort of family.
I struggled mightily with religious questions. Church was a very active part of my life. But the intolerance I began to see, which was heavily tied to the burden of keeping my father’s true self a secret, along with my budding feminism, wore away at my belief. I tried to salvage my faith by joining the Episcopalian church, which had an active youth group. For a while, I was quite devout. I wanted so much to be “good,” whatever “good” was, but it seemed just outside my grasp. I was way too human. Eventually, those disquieting questions I’d pushed back into the far reaches of my soul came bubbling up again, and I left the church. This has been a lifelong struggle, by the way. All those metaphysical questions are still with me: Why are we here? Is there a God? If so, why do such terrible things happen? If the people doing these terrible things in the name of religion are the face of religion, fuck it. I want no part. But then I’ll be lying on my back in the middle of a lake watching clouds shift into new shapes, and I will be taken by such a feeling of love and hope and connection to all life, I will feel so vast and small and completely human that I think, surely, surely there must be something more? That’s why I loved Craig Thompson’s nuanced Blankets. It treats the topic of religious questioning with such grace and forgiveness.
I had this one friend, Jeannie, and all of my wildest teenage stories start with, “Well, you see, I was with Jeannie and…” My mother’s still living, so I won’t go into all of them, but let’s just say they are the sorts of stories that involved parties and rock ‘n’ roll and incredibly precarious situations I am damned lucky to have gotten out of unharmed. Jeannie was a force of nature—beautiful, sexual, a total Penny Lane character. I was the sarcastic, less attractive, voice-of-reason sidekick, ill at ease trussed up in Jeannie’s sexier clothes and makeup, who spent a lot of time saying, “I don’t think we should get in the car with those guys/talk our way into this party/make fake I.D.s/steal your mother’s car/ingest this particular drug.” I always lost. And I was always hopeful some guy would look at me first. I lost there, too.
Up until my senior year, when my restlessness caught up to me for good, I actually liked school. I liked the structure of it because I, myself, had (have) such a chaotic, unstructured, run-wild mind. School was like swaddling; it held me in so that my thoughts could go all Fourth of July. This was before the damned testing and annotated reading. If I were coming up today, I’d be lost. I would absolutely hate school. But I was fortunate enough to come up when testing was minimal and emphasis was placed on discussion, analysis, reading and writing—all of it led by some wonderful, creative, passionate teachers who helped to shape my life. My favorite of those teachers was the late, great Willa Mae Burlage, who was my AP English teacher for 10th and 12th grade. She was about five-feet-nothing, ninety-nine pounds sopping wet, and FIERCE. Her name was whispered in the halls of Denton High School like Keyser Soze—Mrs. Burlage was the Texas you did not mess with. She had the wickedest sense of humor, though—dry as West Texas road. I revered her. She introduced me to William Shakespeare, Thomas Hardy, Charles Dickens, the Bronte sisters, Albert Camus, Joseph Conrad, Richard Wright, Edith Wharton, and Victor Hugo, to name but a few.
Once, in class, she asked how many of us believed in fate. All of the hands went up except for mine. She fixed her gaze on me: “Libba, you don’t believe in fate?” Remember, this was ultra-religious North Texas. “No, I don’t,” I said. “I don’t believe we have no choice over our lives and there’s some great plan.” Well, it seemed like it was quiet for about an hour, though it was most likely about five seconds, and then she said in her imperious, Maggie Smith tone, “I don’t believe in fate, either. Now. Please turn in your books to page…” After class, she had me come up to her desk. “I think you might be an existentialist,” she said. She told me to go to the public library and check out Jean-Paul Sartre, so I did. Then she told me to go to the public library and check out a book called The Catcher in the Rye, which became my favorite book in high school. At the time, I connected deeply with Holden. And that person I was looking for—the one to figure out who I really was? Turns out it wasn’t a boy after all. Turns out it was my high school English teacher, Willa Mae Burlage.
If you are a teacher reading this, please know that the work you do matters tremendously. Sometimes, the seeds you plant don’t sprout until much later (because some of us are late bloomers), but they do take.
What were some of your passions during that time?
I wanted to do everything. That was the trouble. It’s still my trouble! Running was a huge passion. I would run for miles out country roads, past the chicken farm and the parks. I’d run anywhere from six to ten miles daily. I loved—still love—the meditative quality of it.
As mentioned above, I was really, really into music. My older brother was a musician who also worked in a record store in Waco. He’d send me all of these LPs—British imports, Texas blues, funk, New Wave and punk, and more experimental fare like King Crimson, Frank Zappa, Stanley Clarke, and Brian Eno. We had these long-distance phone calls late into the night about music: Was Trevor Horn as important a producer as Phil Spector had been in terms of that “wall of sound”? Was Jeff Beck’s guitar work on “’Cause We’ve Ended As Lovers” better than Jimmy Page’s on “The Song Remains the Same”? And so on. He was the first person to call and tell me that John Lennon had been killed.
My junior year, I worked after school at the local independent bookstore, Little Professor Books, near the NTSU campus. I was allowed to take home books and magazines that had their covers ripped off. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Madness was a big seller for some reason, and I read that. But I didn’t love it as much as Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and The Thorn Birds. I also fell in love with Tom Robbins and Woody Allen in high school. (Though I can’t really bring myself to watch Allen movies now.)
There were only three movie theaters in town, and Star Wars played at one of them for well over a year. So I was a pretty big Star Wars fan. Same with Raiders of the Lost Ark. I must’ve seen Fame about fifteen times, and I practiced the lunchroom dance in my room. Actually, I danced to musicals in my room waaay more than I’d care to admit: West Side Story. A Chorus Line. Gypsy. Sweet Charity. Big Bob Fosse fan. Again, theater was pretty much my life, and I counted the Tony Awards as my High Holy Day every year. I loved horror, and watched a lot of Hammer Horror films as well as Kolchak: The Night Stalker. I never missed Saturday Night Live, and I kind of worshipped Gilda Radner, John Belushi, and Bill Murray. Monty Python’s Flying Circus was my world. I must’ve seen Monty Python and the Holy Grail a hundred times. My brother and I were always quoting Python.
When I wasn’t going, “A-5,6,7,8!” and jumping off the end of my bed (with a few painful results), I was playing air guitar to Blondie, The Pretenders, The Police, Kate Bush, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, The B-52s, The Who, and countless other bands. The ritual of cleaning an LP and dropping the needle, the pop and hiss, was magic.
I had a core group of friends. Among these, Eleanor was my best friend. We were practically joined at the hip. At age fifteen, Eleanor’s mother blew out of town with a guy she’d been having an affair with, abandoning her. Eleanor and I were both deeply unsure about ourselves and very out of place in small-town Texas, and I think we found solace in each other’s gallows humor, grand ambitions, and love of glam rock. She was the angriest person I knew, and I was terrified of my own anger, so we fit together well. We have remained life-long friends. We are family.
Would you be willing to share a difficult teen experience or challenge that you feel shaped the adult you became?
My most difficult teen experience was my car accident at age eighteen, three weeks after my high school graduation. I had driven my father to the airport one morning, and on the way back, it started raining. I hit a slick spot, spun out of control, and wrapped my car around a light pole. I demolished my nose, the entire left side of my face, broke my jaw and teeth and right cheekbone, broke bones in both legs, and gouged out my left eye. I spent two weeks in Presbyterian Hospital in Dallas where they started the first of many surgeries to put me back together. At the end of that summer, I was fitted with my first prosthesis and I moved into the dorm at North Texas State University.
It’s no secret that beauty is prized in women and, I’d argue, it’s prized in Texas women especially so. As a teen, I’d never really felt that I was all that pretty—I was more likely to reach for a joke than to rely on my physicality—but now I was disfigured, and the response to my appearance was shocking to me. I was either invisible or mocked and scorned. One man who’d been a customer at the bookstore said, “Part of your face is as beautiful as it ever was. But the rest of you is like Frankenstein.” Yeah, thanks for that, dude. I felt ugly and unwanted. So much of being a teen is feeling that everything is possible. But suddenly, I was aware of my own mortality, of my fragility, and that there was no “do-over” button for this. It was permanent. My life had changed, and I was going to have to learn to live changed.
I was suicidally depressed. I didn’t leave my dorm room for weeks. Other times, I partied very hard to blot out the pain. I think the nadir was a party at which I did all the drugs and drink then got up on the bar to dance, neglecting to notice the metal ceiling fan in motion. It sliced two deep cuts through my head, narrowly missing my one good eye. A friend convinced me that, yes, I did need to go to the ER, and no, I could not just stay at the party, gushing blood, with a towel pressed to my forehead while drinking White Russians. At the hospital, the attending physician said, “Honey, there’s good news and bad news: The bad news is that you’re gonna need about twenty-five stitches in your forehead, and you’re higher than a kite so I can’t give you anything. The good news is, I don’t think you’re gonna feel it when I sew you up.” He was right.
In the cold, sober light of morning, covered in dried blood and my head pounding, I went home to my mother, who stared at me, a hand pressed to her mouth in horror. I said, “Mom, you’ve gotta get me out of here before I kill myself. I want to go to Austin, to U.T. Please help me.” She and my father flew into action, and in the fall, I moved into a dorm at U.T., which was the start of better days. As hard as it was to be me at that time, I cannot imagine how difficult, how painful it must have been to be my parents.
What about a positive experience or accomplishment that had an impact on your adult self?
It sounds very Pollyanna to say, but in many ways, that same experience had a very positive effect on my life. It fostered in me a great deal of empathy and compassion. It taught me never to judge by appearances. In many ways, it showed me what I was made of; it showed me that I had a resilience I have come to appreciate over the years. It was also how I began to write. Everything I felt that I couldn’t say aloud, all of those hard feelings needed some place to go. I wrote them all down in my journal. It helped me find my voice. It was how I kept myself tethered to life. Quite simply, it saved my life. And eventually, I came to enjoy the writing for its own sake.
Sometimes, our worst moments are our beginnings. Sorry for the very Hallmark-card of that sentiment, but it’s true.
What advice, if any, would you give your teen self? Would your teen self have listened?
I’m pretty sure my teen self wouldn’t have listened to a damn word I said. But here’s what I would’ve TRIED to say:
1. Do not give up piano lessons to play basketball. That is the second dumbest idea you will ever have. (The first dumbest will involve dropping acid and going to see Aliens, which is a Category Five mistake.)
2. Wear sunscreen. Also, seatbelts.
3. Sometimes, like a gunslinger with a quick finger, you will want to reach for that sharp retort when you’re hurt. Don’t. It’s harder but much better to reach for forgiveness, to aikido that shit away. Practice kindness. And you, my friend, will need to practice A LOT.
5. Don’t dismiss yourself so readily. There’s a whole world ready to do that. Go after what you want and stop telling yourself that you’re not good enough/smart enough to try. You’re not good enough yet. But that’s what throwing yourself into it is all about. Value the apprenticeship.
6. When a boy hands you his heart, be gentle. He’s as scared as you are. Don’t assume he couldn’t possibly love you simply because you feel you are unlovable.
Looking back, I realize I’ve been the recipient of much kind advice over the years. I’d say the best of it was always about learning to value myself/take my work seriously while also looking out for other people—to share the planet. I remember my mother saying to me once that “all ethics are situational if you are a thinking person,” which was a reminder to me that I had to do the work and not rely on other people to do it for me. She also told me to wash regularly. My mom gave a lot of good advice. ;-)
Do you have any regrets about your teen years? Anything left undone or anything that might have been better left undone?
I’m always slightly amused by people who say their biggest regrets are that they didn’t do something. I want to offer them some of the crazy-ass things I did do, because I’ve got enough regrets there that I could probably sell them off the back of a truck.
I am drawn to that wonderful commencement speech given by George Saunders, whom I admire greatly. He talks about his failures of kindness. I’d agree that those are the regrets I have most often; I regret the times when I should have been more compassionate, when I should have listened for what was being said underneath the sarcasm or bluster or conformist-speak. And I really wish I’d been much, much kinder to my poor mother.
What, if anything, do you miss most about that time?
Honestly, I’m pretty happy not to be a teenager. It’s hard going. I have so much respect for teens navigating the minefields of those years. But probably what I loved most about that time was the newness of everything, how wonderful it is to be discovering yourself and the world around you constantly. It’s very fresh and thrilling. And everything seems possible.
Also, I miss my teenage metabolism.
Every Day I Write the Book
You’ve described the Gemma Doyle trilogy as a “Victorian Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” and like Buffy showrunner Joss Whedon you have a talent for tackling tough issues, using fantasy, satire, surrealism, and historical distance to offer new perspective and insight. You once asked author Jo Knowles what drives her “to write about these difficult issues,” and I’d like to ask you the same question (hoping you don’t put your head through a window.) What issues trouble you most? What does it cost you to explore them? How do you (as you aspired to some years ago in Publisher’s Weekly) find the true “heart of [the] novel, that painful truth” you want to find but are “afraid to uncover” and what happens when you do?
Well, gosh. Thanks.
Honestly, I’m still trying to figure myself out, to make sense of the world and my place in it. I’m asking myself all of those questions about what it is to be human, why do we do the things we do, especially when those things often bring us such unhappiness. I’m drawn to close the distance between myself and other people, to bridge the miles of existential loneliness, if just for a few pages. I’m driven to explore and examine social ills and personal issues. I want to feel that I am a different person after the writing of a book, that I have come face-to-face with some monster inside of me that needed to be drawn into the light. The only way out is through.
“I’m a stone-cold music freak. A music nerd. A musicaholic,” you’ve said, confessing that you could “cheerfully waste time making an iPod playlist for every conceivable emotional state.” In fact, you talk about playlists kind of a lot, including making lists of playlists that you might want to make: “Happy songs playlist. Slightly melancholy with a twist of lime playlist. Beyond melancholy through sad and right into morose self-pity with delusions of grand opera playlist…” Will you make a playlist for us?
This is the best writing-avoidance exercise ever. THANK YOU, YALSA HUB!
Well, since we are talking about my teen years, I’ll submit a Playlist of Songs I Loved as a Teenager:
1. Message of Love/The Pretenders
2. Sheena Is a Punk Rocker/The Ramones
3. Once In a Lifetime/The Talking Heads
4. The entirety of Quadrophenia/The Who
5. The Ballad of Teenage Violence/Cheap Trick
6. Sweet Transvestite/The Rocky Horror Picture Show
7. Nothing/A Chorus Line
9. Last Dance/Donna Summer
10. Shock the Monkey/Peter Gabriel
11. Aja/Steely Dan
12. Wuthering Heights/Kate Bush
13. So Lonely/The Police
14. Fame/David Bowie
15. Hot Lunch/Fame soundtrack
16. Cruel To Be Kind/Nick Lowe
17. Shake Your Body (Down to the Ground)/Michael Jackson
18. Rapper’s Delight/Sugarhill Gang
19. She’s So Modern/Boomtown Rats
20. The entirety of London Calling/The Clash
21. The Last Chance Texaco/Rickie Lee Jones
23. Pretty in Pink/The Psychedelic Furs
24. Beauty Queen/Roxy Music
25. We Got the Beat/The Go-Gos
26. Rock Lobster/The B-52s
27. Genius of Love/The Tom-Tom Club
28. The entirety of Parallel Lines/Blondie
29. Tie Your Mother Down/Queen
30. Kashmir/Led Zeppelin
31. Super Freak/Rick James
32. Pump It Up/Elvis Costello
33. The Diary of Horace Wimp/ELO
34. Ol ‘55/Tom Waits
35. Side B of Divine Madness/Bette Midler
36. School Days/Stanley Clarke
37. Beat Surrender/The Jam
38. No Woman, No Cry/Bob Marley
39. Guyana Punch/The Judys
40. I Might Like You Better If We Slept Together/Romeo Void
41. That Sudden Stop/Lou Ann Barton
42. Let’s Go to Bed/The Cure
43. Romeo & Juliet/The Dire Straits
“The bigness of this novel is so huge, so mammoth, sometimes I have to lie down and put a cool cloth on my head and not have anyone talk to me,” you said, explaining your Printz Award-winning novel Going Bovine. I find this bigness, this expansiveness, to be awesome, and true of all your books, in a really spectacular, everything-including-the-kitchen-sink, the-more-the-merrier kind of way. The Diviners, for example, you describe as “a big Cobb salad of a series,” where you threw together everything you’re interested in, and I think the Gemma Doyle books could quite fairly be described the same way, only gothier. So I’m wondering, what do you leave out? How do you decide which ideas, plotlines, characters, or details to leave in? Have you ever left something out–or in–that you regret?
“So I’m wondering, what do you leave out?” I like to think you’re asking this in a whimpering voice, with a whiff of fear coming off of you. ;-)
I tend to think & write orchestrally. I often wish that I had a more streamlined, linear brain, but I do not. I have to work with what I have. So as I write in this chaotic, symphonic, disjointed way, certain ideas, patterns, and themes emerge. I’m constantly sifting and scanning. That’s why revision is so important. What I *think* the story’s about at first is rarely what it’s about in the end. That first draft is often a false one filled with wrong ideas and emotional defenses. Revising countless times allows me to break through and find the beating heart. My editors, (Wendy Loggia for The GDT, Going Bovine; David Levithan for Beauty Queens; Alvina Ling for The Diviners and Lair of Dreams); my agent, Barry Goldblatt, and some close writer pals often help me to clarify what needs to go or what I feel strongly about keeping. I’m grateful for the dialogue and collaborative nature of the editorial process.
Most of the time, when something doesn’t make the final cut, it’s for a good reason. The talking penis scene in Going Bovine springs to mind. (Sorry. No pun intended.) Ditto the extra narrator in Beauty Queens who was renditioned halfway through the novel. For The Diviners, there was a Gatsbyesque party scene at a house on Long Island that I labored over for weeks. It was a very big, very ornate scene. Alvina said, “Libba, this is a beautiful, but it stops the action dead.” I tried to save it, but in the end, she was absolutely right. It had to go. If there’s anything I learned from my years in advertising, it’s that there are always other ways to approach something creatively, and if you keep at it, you’ll find the right way in.
You’ve explored the idea that silence can be corrosive, both in your books and on your blog, and you’ve spoken quite a bit about the toll keeping secrets has had on you in real life. “It fostered in me a sense of speaking out against injustice, of speaking your truth,” you write, and you have spoken out, about depression, about the impact of AIDS, about marriage equality. One other thing you talk about often and honestly, in a way not many authors do, is fear, especially fear of failure, especially as it relates to writing. “It is my fault. I am a fraud. Real writers don’t struggle this much,” you wrote in one epic blog post, detailing your battle with the “what if I’m just not good enough/smart enough/fast enough/clever enough?” brand of despair. What compels you to share your struggle with readers (which I bet a million aspiring writers appreciate immensely)? Does it help? Do you have any advice for us–aspiring writers, readers, fallible humans alike—on how to keep swimming in the face of existential crisis?
Once, when I was about nine, a neighbor said to my mother, “I worry about your daughter. She’s pathologically honest.” I can only say that I recall always being this way, of blurting out the uncomfortable, awkward-making thing. It’s ironic given that I was trained as a proper southern girl to be always smiling and evasive. And, of course, I grew up thinking that I needed to protect other people—from truth, from my real emotions, from anything they might not want to hear. That secret-keeping is also part of my makeup, and it’s often the source of an internal war. My beloved Gayle Forman, a lady who is not afraid of being honest, will tell me, “I want you to be real Libba, not good southern Libba.” Usually, this means she wants me to go ahead and curse.
Everyone has a personal comfort setting. I know some very private people who would rather die than talk about certain issues publically. I respect that. For me, I feel safer just saying the thing. It might take me a while to say it, and I will angst about it (that internal war). But ultimately, I just have to do it. Everybody has their fears and doubts. Everybody has a story. So often, the emotions that live deep down inside us, the things we are afraid to name for fear that they will separate us from the rest of the world are the very things that, once said, end up connecting us to other humans in a meaningful way. I often think it’s the silence that keeps us feeling isolated and afraid. But of course, your mileage may vary.
Just Can’t Get Enough
Question from Patrick Ness: Chris Pratt and I would like to invite you on a double date. You can pick anyone in the world, from history, fiction, anywhere to come with us. They’ll have to talk to you, because I expect I’ll be busy with Chris, but who would you bring? Who, from every possibility available, would you want to go to first base with after a dinner of mozzarella sticks and a horror film with me and my eternal husband Chris Pratt?
Oh, Patrick. Why do you always get to walk off into the sunset with Chris Pratt in these scenarios, you naughty little minx? Is it your ex-pat-ness? (That’s ex-pat American, not ex-Patrickness, which could also be read ex-Patrick-Ness. I’m talking in riddles. Do you see what you do to me, Patrick?) Tell me: When the two of you are alone, you and Mr. Guardian of the Galaxy, do you whisper in his ear, “I’ll be your Crane Wife if you’ll be my Chaos Walking?” I am under no illusions that we’ll all make it to ROSEMARY’S TRIPLETS together, our bellies full of mozzarella sticks. I know you, Ness—you’ll be off sucking face with Pratt, en-Raptor-ed by his tales of a Jurassic World. And then I’ll come home, alone, to the imaginary flat I share with you and see the sock on the door, and I’ll trudge off to an all-night diner to write. You and your hunky faux-husband owe me brunch, Mr. Ness. And I believe you and I had a very firm discussion about the rules of brunch whilst in Australia. See that you abide by them. (Hint: Earlier than noon.)
It’s good to be you, Patrick. The Rest of Us Just Live Here. Le sigh.
The mind boggles at the idea of all of those fascinating people with whom I might dine while waiting out the Pratt-Ness romance. But given everything that has happened in America in the past few years—Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, Michael Brown, Ferguson, and on and on, everything that is STILL happening—and not so incidentally, I’m writing this answer on the tenth anniversary of Katrina—and given that we are gearing up for another election cycle during which it seems that no horrible racist stone is left unhurled, I’d want to spend that time with Malcolm X. I’d really like to hear what he would have to say about 2015 America. Would he be thrilled about an Obama presidency or disheartened at the obstructionist state of our politics? Would he feel that, with the grassroots organizing and visibility afforded by social media, the revolution was finally being televised? Or would he look at Donald Trump’s poll numbers and go, “Same as it ever was”? And, during my evening with Malcolm X, what would I learn about myself? It would, I’m sure, be life- and soul-changing. ∗
Libba has contributed a question for the next author in the series, writer and comic artist Noelle Stevenson. Watch for an interview with her coming soon!
Libba Bray is the New York Times bestselling author of The Gemma Doyle trilogy (A Great and Terrible Beauty, Rebel Angels, The Sweet Far Thing); the Michael L. Printz Award-winning Going Bovine; Beauty Queens, an L.A. Times Book Prize finalist; and The Diviners series (The Diviners and Lair of Dreams.) She is originally from Texas but makes her home in Brooklyn, NY, with her husband, son, and two sociopathic cats.
–Julie Bartel, currently reading A.S. King’s I Crawl Through It and Democracy by Papadatos, Kawa, and Donna