For the last ten years, my only jobs have been writing, teaching, and speaking.
Before 2005, I was (at various times) a newspaper reporter, freelance journalist, ghost writer, worked in a bookstore, worked at a tire company warehouse, cleaned banks, milked cows and shoveled cow manure (excellent writing preparation), lived and worked on a pig farm, was a lifeguard, worked in a couple of clothing stores, was a secretary (briefly), and for a couple of months that I should turn into a screenplay, I was the worst stockbroker in America.
There is a dairy farm down the road from me. If this writing thing doesn’t work out, the farmers have promised me a job milking their cows.
Hearing from readers who were struggling with eating disorders made me want to write about their battle. Eating disorders have the highest fatality rate of any mental illness. I wanted to tell a story that would show people how devastating they are.
Which is the one book that has influenced you more than any other, in terms of who you are, how you live and what you think?
Wow – what an amazing question! I think Little House on the Prairie, by Laura Ingalls Wilder. There are a number of flaws in it, notably Wilder’s profound racism towards Native Americans and African Americans. I’m embarrassed to say that I didn’t notice these things when I was nine years old. Back then, it was just a fascinating book that sparked my interest in American history.
Re-reading it as an adult, I saw the ugly, casual racism for what it was. That helped me reexamine everything I thought I knew about American history. I started reading books and studying the work of historians who wrote about the development of the United States as seen from the perspective of people of color.
All of this helped lead me to write my trilogy about the American Revolution: CHAINS, FORGE and ASHES (this last installment is almost done.)
I am proud to be an American. I’m even prouder to be an American who is trying to help my countrymen understand our history so that we might truly fulfill the promise of the Declaration of Independence; that this will one day (soon!) become a land where everyone is treated equally.
I’m curious to know how people reacted when they first read Speak, given there was no precedent to it in modern YA. Because you set the precedent.
Nobody made much of a big deal about it when it came out, other than it was a National Book Award finalist. No publicity, no advertising, no book tour.
The first group of teachers and librarians who read it started to share it with teen readers and were stunned by the feedback they got. Kids who hated reading finished it in one night and asked for another book like it. Incredible powerful conversations grew out of the book and within a few years it started to be placed in curriculum.
The censorship controversies that arose really helped frame the national discussion; what do we want our kids to be reading and why? I’m incredibly proud to have written a story that has played a part in giving our kids an entire world of literature that they love.
What inspired you to write The Impossible Knife of Memory?
The book reflects a bit of what I went through with my father. He was a WWII vet with PTSD whose alcoholism was a disruptive force in our family for a long time. I loved him dearly and more than anything, wanted him to get help.
Most of the book is fiction, of course, but the emotional core comes from that relationship.
You talk about coming from a dysfunctional family; did you ever reconcile with them?
Yes. My dad started working again when I was in community college, and he moderated his drinking a bit. Things remained cordial, but we didn’t see each other very often, once or twice a year. We had a superficial relationship, at best, though they loved their grandchildren.
Ten years ago it became clear that my parents (elderly by then) were no longer capable of taking care of themselves. My husband and I moved them back from Florida, where they had retired, to our little village in Northern NY, about two miles from our house. We spent a lot of time caring for first my mom, who died in 2009, then my father, who died earlier this year. We saw them pretty much every day, took them to doctors, grocery store, cooked, cleaned, etc.
Instead of being burdensome, those last years together were an incredible blessing. We had all survived the horrible years, we had all matured. We were able to forgive the sad choices and enjoy the time we had left.
My parents, like a lot of parents, were overwhelmed by life when I was a teenager. They self-medicated and crawled into their shells instead of dealing with it. While I was really angry about that for years, I finally let go of my anger. I certainly made my own parenting mistakes (though I tried not to repeat theirs!).
I was fortunate enough to be able to hold them both as they died.
(Before you cue up the violins…. my sister remained estranged from our parents. Everyone has to find their own path and comfort.)
Thank you for asking this question. It’s something I think I want to talk about more often.
To live in a country like the USA which recognizes the freedom of expression means that things will be written and created which you will not agree with, things that you may find offensive or dangerous. Or that you think are simply not well-written or performed.
You have the choice – for yourself or your family, if you are a parent – to not watch, or listen to, or read, or look at these things that you do not like. It is not the government’s job to make those decisions for you. It is also not your job to make decisions for other people about what they should be reading or watching, although you certainly have the right and ability to let the world know your opinion.
Most censorship arises because adults do not agree about the age at which teens should be allowed to read about and discuss sex. It is rare in America to see censorship efforts that target violence. It’s usually about the sex.
I totally understand this. I also know that there is an ENORMOUS amount of trauma, depression, and damaged souls in this country because teens lacked honest information about sexuality, sexual situations, and how to navigate the social minefields that begin in middle school. Our kids suffer because the adults won’t talk to them about sex. Our kids suffer because the adults in their lives never themselves had adults who would talk about these things, either.
This is changing, thank goodness. Slowly.
Again, most of my experience comes from seeing parents demanding that books not be taught in schools, or shelved in libraries. I call BS on that. Parents get to choose for their children, bottom line. Schools have highly trained educators whose job it is to choose books that suit the needs of their students. In every school I know of, parents are allowed to request that their child read a different book, if there is a title that the parents cannot deal with. That’s fair. What it not fair is for any one parent to dictate curriculum or purchasing decision based on their opinion.
Your book Speak is constantly on the banned books lists at schools. What would you say to those parents that are pushing for Speak to be banned?
I would ask them why they are afraid to talk to their kids about sexual violence.
Every two minutes, someone in America is sexually assaulted. About 17% of American women and 3% American men have been sexually assaulted. 7% of girls in grades 5-8 and 12% of girls in grades 9-12 said they had been sexually abused. And juvenile victims know their assailant in 93% of cases.
Parents must face up to their responsibilities to prepare their children about the dangers of the world. They must get over their own squeamishness about discussing human sexuality in order to do so. If more boys were taught by their parents what sexual consent is, and that it is required – ALWAYS – we’d have less sexual violence.
If girls and women felt safer to speak up after a sexual assault, and the judicial system was prepared to consistently prosecute and punish rapists, then we’d begin to see those horrible numbers go down. (Lots more very good Statistics can be found here: https://www.rainn.org/statistics)
Some parents cringe at the idea of talking to their kids about these things. I have no patience for that. Who they want to be educating (and miseducating their kids about these things? Music videos? Internet porn? Locker room BS?
It’s hard to be a parent. It’s a whole lot harder to be the parent of a kid who has been sexually assaulted, or who is in jail after being found guilty of sexual assault. SPEAK opens the doors to some of the most important conversations a family will ever have.
Why haven’t you written any books with LGBT characters? I love your books and feel they are realistic portrayals of teenagers, but LGBT people are also part of this reality.
Thank you for asking this!! You are one hundred percent correct about the reality of LGBT people. I have been learning about the lives of LGBT teens and trying to be a good ally to them forever. As soon as the right story about an LGBT character (or characters) pops up in my head, I’ll write it!!
But it has to be the Right Story. Trying to force an issue, i.e. “Let’s Write About Teh Gay,” never works. If you ever read a truly disrespectful, cringe-worthy book, it probably started in that mind-set. The best stories come out of a deep, organic place. I don’t know how it works for other writers, but I’ve learned to be patient with the process.
While you are waiting for me, I hope you are reading books like the ones you can find listed in this tumblr post by the wonderful Nita Tyndall.
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.