What was it inspired you to write your first book?
I wrote Speak when my oldest daughter went to middle school. It helped me break the twenty-five years of silence I’d maintained after my sexual assault. It has become a book that all families can use to talk to their kids about harsh realities of life, and the legal and moral rules that govern consent and sexual intimacy. It’s amazing what can happen when you find your voice.
How did you come to write in your primary genre? if you do work in more than one genre, which is your favorite and why?
I write contemporary YA fiction for teens (and former teens) and historical thrillers set during American history. But I can’t play favorites—I love both genres! In my YA novels I get to explore the resilience that teens learn in the face of trauma and other challenges. Plus, teenagers are very funny and wield sarcasm like a dagger; writing those characters is a blast. But in my heart of hearts, I am a big American history nerd. I adore researching in archives and unearthing facts and perspectives that have been overlooked for centuries. Bringing history to life is my superpower!
At what time of day and where do you prefer to write? What sort of schedule do you try to keep when you’re working on a book?
Nothing makes me happier than waking up a few hours before dawn and scribbling while the rest of the world sleeps. That’s how my mornings at home begin. After lunch I’ll work on email, publicity, and research. I go for a walk or a run in the late afternoon and enjoy family time in the evening. On deadline, however, all rules get thrown out—I just write every hour that I’m awake. It’s a bit more challenging when I’m on the road. Then I try to sneak in at least half an hour of writing wherever I can, regardless of the time. I’ve gotten pretty good at writing on planes and trains.
What do you love most, or find most difficult, about the writing process?
I love solving the problems of character and plot. I adore dipping into the flow of language and weaving the narrative together so that it brings the story to life in a reader’s heart. Revision is one of my favorite things in the world because making my story stronger makes me feel good. But I have to admit—I cringe at the thought of writing a first draft. That’s when all my demons slither out and whisper nasty things to me.
What book that you’ve read recently would you enthusiastically recommend?
The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher, by Hilary Mantel, The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead, and The Hate U Give, by Angie Thomas.
Is there a book, or are there books, that continue to inspire you, and what about it (or them) keeps this attraction or affection alive?
Ulysses, by James Joyce. It is teaching me how to sing on the page. I don’t understand it all yet and I’m not sure I ever will, but I keep returning to it and learning new notes.
What is the title of your most recent book, and how would you describe it?
Ashes is the final book in my Seeds of America trilogy, which looks at the American Revolution through the experiences of children held in slavery. I always feel awkward describing my work, so I’ll let School Library Journal do it; “A rich cast of characters, nonstop adventures, lively dialogue, vivid battlefield descriptions, budding romance, and an informative appendix are hallmarks of this excellent novel and this compelling, must-have historical fiction series.”
Why do you choose to write about dark subjects?
I write about the things that teenagers have to deal with every day. Many of them have to cope with hard things, sadly. When they read books about similar experiences, they feel less alone. Those kids who are lucky enough to have wonderful, trauma-free lives can learn what it’s like to not be so lucky from my books. That helps them develop empathy and compassion. Adolescence is the transition from the innocence of childhood to the dark realities of adult life. I try to write books that are grounded in truth, so they will prepared for the world.
In the afterword of “Speak,” you wrote that you remember how it was to feel like Melinda. Do you remember how it was to feel like Lia?
Yes. I never developed a clinical eating disorder, but for decades I had a very confused image of myself, and I put way too much emphasis on how I looked. I remember the self-hatred and the terrible thoughts. Writing Wintergirls was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, but it was one of the healthiest, too. I have finally made peace with my body, and that has allowed the real me—my spirit, my intellect, and my heart—to soar.
How Did You Study/Research Eating Disorders?
I had some experience with the feelings, but I knew I needed to learn more. I worked with psychiatrists and other doctors who specialize in the treatment of eating disorders. I also talked to women and men who had been in recovery for a very long time. I felt that it would have been immoral to interview anyone who was actively dealing with an eating disorder—I needed to respect their strong need for privacy so they could focus on their recovery.
What Would You Say to a Teenager Who Looks in the Mirror and Hates Her Body?
The marketers of the global consumer culture spend obscene amounts of money every year to make people feel bad about the way they look. If they can make us feel bad about our bodies by showing Photoshopped images of models who are on the brink of starvation, then they can sell us whatever they want. This is even more dramatic in the minds of teenagers, whose bodies are changing radically and whose brains are still developing.
If I had the chance to talk to a teenager who hates her body, I would say, “I understand that feeling. It’s a terrible one, isn’t it?” and then I would ask her about what makes her joyful and what she is afraid of. Eating disorders are mental illnesses that need to be taken seriously and treated by professionals. But for those people who still only coping with confusion about their body image, it is very helpful to have people who will listen to the things they are struggling with.
Millions Have Read the Book. Do you Think it Influenced Their Body Image?
I know that Wintergirls has opened the door to many important conversations. I’ve heard from teen readers who handed the book to their mother and asked to be taken to a doctor because the book helped them understand how dangerous eating disorders are. I’ve heard from parents who said that the book helped them understand what their daughter was feeling for the first time. And I’ve heard from countless readers who said the book finally helped them understand that anorexia is not cool and starving is not beautiful – readers who have decided never to become wintergirls.
What Do You Want Parents to Learn From Your Books?
That their children desperately need them to listen, to be present and involved in a loving, constructive way, and to create a home environment of trust and communication. Our teenagers have to deal with much harsher realities than many of us did as teens. Home should be a safe place with no judgement or fear. They need that so they can finishing growing up and become the strong women and men we dream of them becoming.