Today I'm interviewing YA author Laura Wiess. She is the author of Such A Pretty Girl, one of the Cybil nominess. Her newest book, Leftovers, has just been released. You may read my review of Such A Pretty Girl here. And you may visit Laura Wiess on the web here.
What inspired you to write Such A Pretty Girl? (Or how did this novel come to be…)
Pretty Girl was born while watching a news story about yet another kid being sexually abused by an adult. The first draft came fast with Meredith, the main character, speaking loudly, clearly and in detail, desperate to tell her story. Once I had it down on paper I went back and researched pedophilia, childhood sexual abuse, Megan's Law, incest, crossover offending and more, and was lucky enough to talk with some very candid survivors of sexual abuse.
Also, director James Ronald Whitney's Just Melvin: Just Evil is a stunning documentary. Powerful, unforgettable stuff.
How long did it take to write it and see it through to the finished product? Were there any surprises along the way on your journey to publication? What do you know now that you wish you had known then? (if anything…)
The first draft was written fairly quickly but the revision took time. I wrote it with no thought to market or age bracket or anything but the story itself, so there was no limiting or censor along the way.
When Pretty Girl was finished I submitted it to Barry Goldblatt who then became my agent. We agreed this story would need just the right editor, one who really "got" Meredith, and who didn't shy away from controversial issues. Luckily, Jennifer Heddle at MTV Books was out there, and we found her.
Honestly? I can't think of anything I wish I'd known in advance because each step of this journey has taught me something and if any of those moments had come sooner, I might not have been ready to absorb and (hopefully) learn from them. I love the constant evolution of it.
Who has been your biggest supporter or mentor along the way for you on your road to publication?
I'm really bad at picking only one of anything, so it would be a toss up between Barry Goldblatt (whose belief in Pretty Girl never wavered from the moment he read it), and my husband and my family who never said, "When are you going to stop writing and get a real job?" They believed, and that support meant a lot.
In addition, my mom's always been a voracious reader, and when I was little she would take me to the library once a week where we would each fill a big bag with books, go home and start reading. Thanks to her, I discovered the whole world in books.
She also belonged to a minimum of five book clubs, so there were new books coming in every month. I can't tell you how many times I wandered out of my room and said, "I have nothing left to read," and she would point me towards the new-book bookcase. She still passes on all the ones she's read, so I'm really lucky that way.
What do you hope readers gain from reading Such A Pretty Girl?
This is a hard question to answer because each person's reading experience and interpretation of the events in the book is different. I imagine it'll be the same for Leftovers, too, because I think people will identify to different degrees with different parts of it, depending on their own life experiences.
So, an intense read but ultimately hope, maybe an eye-opener to this kind of abuse and a degree of satisfaction in the end.
Is there anything you’d like to tell kids/teens going through such emotionally turbulent times?
Anyone stuck in a situation like this – and judging from the reader emails I've received from adult women who lived through similar circumstances, this is unfortunately nowhere near as uncommon as people would like to believe – knows better than I do what they're enduring just to make it through. I'm not a professional counselor or a part of law enforcement but I'd tell them that no matter what the predator tells you it isn't your fault, and that there are safe, responsible, reliable adults out there who'll believe you and step between you and danger. There's help and professionals out there who care.
Does Meredith have a theme song by any chance? Have you given any thought to what her playlist would be?
'Heaven' by Los Lonely Boys was the only one mentioned but readers have suggested several Evanescence songs which seemed perfect. I love reader suggestions!
I found your opening lines to be very powerful, a great hook. “They promised me nine years of safety but only gave me three. Today my time has run out.” Did this come easily or did you struggle with getting the opening just right?
Those two lines have always been the beginning of Meredith's story because she was caught in the living nightmare right from the first page. And it speaks to what she sees as a major betrayal by the adult world that caught and convicted her father and knows what he is, yet goes and releases him anyway. She's not thinking of laws and probation or with adult logic; she's thinking of what happened to her, the horrendous, terrifying details and is scared to death that for some reason, it has all ceased to matter and he's free again.
Meredith felt very authentic, very real as a character. Did you struggle with any of your characters? Was it easy to bring the mom (with her denial and naivety) and dad (with his perversions) to life? Did writing it ever get to be too intense? What was the hardest scene to write?
Meredith arrived almost fully formed, a real girl stuck in a real hell with a story she wanted to tell and a voice that never wavered. Her parents were more difficult because I had to see through their eyes and spend time in their heads, and that was extremely disturbing and frustrating. Still, it was a great (if horrible) experience because the world is full of opposing POVs and different motivations, and ignoring or dismissing them doesn't mean they don't exist.
There were times though, usually while I was writing Meredith's father, that my skin actually crawled and I had to push away from the desk and get out of the room for a little bit, just to shake it off.
The other thing that got to me was researching the current 'real life' victim soul, a paralyzed girl here in the U.S. who has been laying in her bed being stared at for years (her mom converted the garage and put in a viewing window to her bed, to the best of my knowledge), while strangers from all over the country (and who knows, maybe the world) come to stare at her and (before she was windowed off) cry, touch her and beg her to cure their illnesses or save their loved ones, etc..
Imagine the burden of that, day in and day out for years just lying there unable to speak or escape, and having hundreds or thousands of strangers file past your bed or stare at you crying, pleading and begging you to absorb their pain and misery? She can't leave, she can't call for help, she can't sit up and say "Hey Mom, I'm done with this. Where are my jeans? I'm going out." The realization that some girl somewhere is actually living this way astounds me.
The hardest scene to write was the climax scene, I think, if only because I had to be in Meredith's head with the terror and the rage and desperation and the whole skin-crawling thing all over again. I was so freaked while I was writing it that when she was frantic, shaking and crying so was I, and in my mind heading toward that snap moment when, seemingly doomed and cornered, she turns and makes her last desperate stand.
The best part about that scene was that I didn't know what was going to happen or how it was going to play out until maybe the third draft. I was writing like a crazy person and suddenly, it was just…THERE. I was so amazed and excited that I called my parents (my mom had read the previous drafts), and said, "I know! I know what happens, and oh my GOD, you're not going to believe it!"
Then, after I got them all excited, I wouldn't tell them what the end was, only that I had to go and finish writing it. Terrible of me, but fun.
What was your first impression of the cover art for Such A Pretty Girl? Do you prefer the American or UK cover?
I love the covers. The first time I saw the U.S. cover I got a chill because it seemed so perfect. The U.K. cover is perfect for the market there, too. I couldn't be more pleased.
What do you love about writing? What do you find the easiest? What do you find the hardest?
I love the intriguing whisper of an idea, of a question I don't know the answer to, a character I want very badly to know, a story idea that lures me in and makes me laugh, cry, worry and cheer. I love ideas that make me furious, stories that evoke passionate responses, make me discover new ideas and opinions and ways of living outside of my own. I love offbeat characters, fringe characters, people who either choose or are thrust into lives outside of the mainstream and wrestle with all that comes with it.
I love stories that can wring me out emotionally because I care so much for the characters and want so badly for things to go well for them. For me, it's all about the characters. If I care about them, you've got me.
The easiest thing about writing is that when it's right, I get lost in it. I love it when the characters become real and take off and I get to follow them and be with them, listen to their dreams and desires and opinions, angst with them and write it all down.
The hardest part is learning not to protect them. To step back and let the story happen, no matter how bad it gets.
You write YA books, what do you love about the genre? Do you have any favorites past or present?
I love the endless possibilities, the 'firsts' and the evolution. I enjoy using kid-logic which is a lot of fun, fresh and intriguing, with way different boundaries, ins, outs and paths than experienced, adult logic.
I don't have any one favorite book. I love so many that it's impossible to list them, especially since I keep finding new ones!
Leftovers is being released in January 2008. What can you tell us about your new book?
From the back of the book:
Blair and Ardith are best friends who have committed an unforgivable act in the name of love and justice. But in order to understand what could drive two young women to such extreme measures, first you'll have to understand why.I was what-iffing about several things, including the difference between how these two girls would break if the pressure was great enough as opposed to how say, two guys might break. There are so many kids out there who become targeted by bullies and the daily torture just never ends and sometimes, ultimately and sadly, drives them to do desperate things just to try and make it stop.
You'll have to listen as they describe parents who are alternately absent and smothering, classmates who mock and shun anyone different, and young men who are allowed to hurt and dominate without consequence.
You will have to learn what it's like to be a teenage girl who locks her bedroom door at night, who has been written off by the adults around her as damaged goods. A girl who has no one to trust except the one person she's forbidden to see.
You'll have to understand what it's really like to be forgotten and abandoned in America today.
Are you ready?
I was also thinking about interpretation, how when adults say things it's almost like they assume their kids automatically value the same things they do and understand exactly what they mean by the orders or advice they give. The thing is, each person is an individual with a different set of wants or goals, secret dreams and desires, and I wanted to see what would happen when two girls with loves, hates, dreams and firsts of their own absorb the advice/values/lifestyles of their parents and then interpret them and use them to serve themselves in an entirely unintended way.
Are you excited that your novel, Such A Pretty Girl, has been nominated for a Cybil award? Does award-season (best of lists, awards, etc.) make you nervous or excited as a writer?
Oh yes, it's very exciting to be in such good company. The nominee list is impressive and it's an honor to even be on it! This is my first time with a personal stake in award season so now I'll be cheering on my friends and chewing my nails at the same time.
If you had twenty-four hours, a time machine, and a limitless supply of money, what would you want to do?
I would go back in time and take care of unfinished business with people I cared about. For example, my grandparents are all deceased and I would have liked the opportunity to speak with them as a grown woman rather than in the semi-restricted role of granddaughter. I would have liked the chance to have been a peer and talk as a friend, if you know what I mean. So many rich moments lost because I never thought to ask.
With others there were moments when I could have apologized, been kinder or more patient, should have stood up for myself but didn't, picked the wrong battle and missed the more important opportunity, didn't think to ask the questions that I would now love to have the answered, listen closer to the opposing point of view…that sort of thing.
Try and resolve – or at least gain additional insight – into what (for me) will probably always remain unresolved but still, I'd love to give it a good try.
Thanks so much for this great interview, Becky. I appreciate the time spent and it's been wonderful speaking with you!