Interview with Laurie Halse Anderson

January, 2014
Laurie Halse Anderson As the questions poured in from Goodreads members for Laurie Halse Anderson, one thing was very clear: Her books move you. They make you think, they make you cry, they tap into issues and anxieties that you might not be ready to talk about with anyone else. Laurie's first Young Adult book, Speak, is a best seller about a girl who stops talking after she is raped at a party. In the decade since, the former journalist has written about eating disorders in Wintergirls and told more high school stories in books like Catalyst and Twisted. In her Seeds of America series she steps out of a contemporary setting and instead writes from the perspective of an enslaved teenager in the Revolutionary War era.

Her latest book, The Impossible Knife of Memory, brings us into the chaotic life of Hayley Kincaid, a high schooler whose father is suffering from PTSD—a situation familiar to Laurie from her own childhood. Read on as she answers your questions about her difficult past, writing from different POVs, and inspirational women like Maya Angelou.

Karri: As someone who has struggled with depression and anxiety, I was wondering how you write it from a teenager's point of view so well. Have you struggled with these kinds of problems before?

Writing about anxiety and depression comes naturally to me because I've dealt with both for most of my life. I was a shy, happy little girl, but things became complicated and sad when I was in middle school. That was when my father's PTSD grabbed him by the throat. My family's life changed dramatically—we moved a lot, were broke, and worst of all, my parents couldn't or wouldn't talk about what was going on. Those years of feeling confused and alone have a lot to do with the kind of books I write today.

Emily: Your book Wintergirls is one of the most powerful stories about teenage mental illness I've ever read. Was it hard or scary to go so deep inside the head of a suffering anorexic?

It was hard and scary to go in the head of an anorexic. Eating disorders are the worst kind of addiction. Our culture sends plenty of signals to teens that cocaine and heroin are dangerous. But everywhere you look, you see distorted images and ridiculous stories designed to make people feel bad about the way they look. Corporations want to create body anxiety so they can more easily sell their products. Getting into the mind-set of an anorexic young woman was a painful experience. I made a point of getting outside for plenty of walks and filling my nonwriting time with healthy and happy activities.

Heather: In your book Speak, you did such a good job of portraying a person who is able to distance herself completely. Was there a time when you felt alone like Melinda? How did you handle it?

A few weeks before ninth grade started, I was raped. Because my family was already struggling with a lot, I didn't tell my parents. I became isolated and very depressed. Reading kept me going; I think I read every book in my school library. Joining the swim and track teams helped, too; I think it was a combination of having fun while working out and meeting friends. But what really helped me was the decision to go into counseling and talk to a therapist. I didn't do that until I had kids of my own. Working with the therapist changed my life. I wish I had done it earlier.

Cassie asks, "You've said about Speak that you have a lot of young men ask you why Melinda is so upset at being raped. How do you answer?" And, expanding on that question, Katie Hofer asks, "What advice would you give girls today who have to hear boys joke about rape in school?"

We have a lot of educating to do. Some boys don't understand the emotional aftermath of rape because no one has ever talked to them about it. That's where Speak comes in handy. When I hear people making rape jokes, I ask them, kindly and sincerely, why they think it's funny. A simple question, right? When someone is forced to explain the joke, it sometimes gets through that there is nothing funny about rape. The more empowered victims feel to speak up, the more pressure we can exert to shift from the blame-the-survivor mind-set to the blame-the-attacker approach, we'll continue to make progress.

The manuscript of The Impossible Knife of Memory, in progress!
Ginny: As a rule, I am never overly emotional, but your book Speak was so amazing. I believe that it was the first time a book has ever made me cry and really question my approach to life. I want to write like that, so what would be the most important thing for a writer to keep in mind when creating a piece that is as emotional and deep as your book?

The trick is to create characters that you care about and to put them in situations that have high emotional stakes.

Talia: I loved your male lead in Twisted just as much as your female leads in Speak and Wintergirls. How do you as an author differentiate between a male and female voice? Was there anything about writing a male character that was particularly difficult?

You must approach writing outside your gender identity, cultural background, and personal experience with a lot of humility, respect, and an open mind. Make sure you spend time with people who are similar to your characters. Ask a lot of questions. Work to understand your own biases and drop your preconceived notions. Writers can write about anyone, but they have a responsibility to do their homework. Writing from a guy's POV wasn't hard, but it took more time and care than writing from a woman's POV.

Christine Gray asks, "While writing Chains were you inspired by the poetry of Maya Angelou, specifically I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings? The many beautiful bird references immediately made me think of Angelou's poem." Also, a LOT of readers want to know when you'll be releasing Ashes!

I adore the work of Dr. Maya Angelou. Her important book, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, has been censored a lot, and I thought that including it in the story might help add another dimension to Speak.

I'm really sorry Ashes is behind schedule. I lost two years of my life to an undiagnosed chronic illness that made reading and writing very difficult. I'm happy to report that the docs finally figured out what was wrong and that I'm working on Ashes right now. As soon as I know the publication date, I'll be shouting it from the rooftops. Thanks for your patience!

Laurie's writing cabin in the woods of Upstate New York.
Holli: Which famous woman do you find the most inspiring?

Harriet Tubman and Queen Elizabeth I.

Richie Partington: What are a few of your favorite rock songs that you memorized in high school?

"A long, long time ago, I can still remember how that music used to make me smile." "American Pie" by Don McLean, "Hotel California" by the Eagles, and "Landslide" by Fleetwood Mac.

Britta: What are some books that have influenced you the most?

The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis opened my eyes to the way one can use humor in tragic stories. Little Women showed me how satisfying it can be to write about family life. And Ulysses, by James Joyce, while it is a difficult read, gave me permission to play with language.


Comments (showing 1-7 of 7) (7 new)

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message 1: by Lee (new)

Lee Tyler Oh, Laurie, it sounds like you and I have been living parallel lives on all points. Though my writing has taken longer due to lupus sle/severe r.a., I sympathize with the frustration of wanting to write and not being able to.

I love the shot of your writing desk. (A favorite of mine is how authors write; Hemingway and his typewriter in the shelving, Flannory O'Coonner standing up and I believe Virginia Woolf sometimes wrote standing up.) I am overjoyed to see that someone else also writes in spits and starts all over the page. It's a compilation process for me ;p. I look forward to reading your books and thank you for all of your novels that have helped teenagers in difficult situations.
Best to you,
Lee J. Tyler


message 2: by Jacci (new)

Jacci Thank you for sharing your process! JT


message 3: by Seabreeze (new)

Seabreeze Am published in 'small' newspapers, kids'magazines etc. but not a novel. Have worked on his.fict. novel for a long...time, with help of critique group. Any tips on knowing..when it is time to Stop! send it out!


message 4: by Jean (new)

Jean I love the combination of Harriet Tubman and Queen Elizabeth I! I am going to have your many fans in my classes do a venn diagram.


message 5: by Daryl (new)

Daryl So many things I learned from this brief interview. Speak is spectacular. I will always love that book. I didn't know her better before this interview. So, thank you. Thank you for speaking up.


message 6: by Seabreeze (new)

Seabreeze Coming back to this so personal and honest interview, i am helped so much by your answers to how you handled the stress in your life and how you create such deep characters.
Thank you.


message 7: by Jean (new)

Jean Bell NayHoh,


I love all the posts, I really enjoyed.
I would like more information about this, because it is very nice., Thanks for sharing.


Just in order to "feel" both, I was thinking of developing a simple Android App with python on Win 10 env.
I'm actually not even sure this task is reasonable.


I tried Android Studio with Python plug-in
.
I am also trying VS with python and android extensions, although this doesn't make sense to me.



I look forward to see your next updates.


Many Thanks,
Ajeeth


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