When you think of psychological thrillers in contemporary YA, the novels of Gail Giles top the list. For almost a decade her stories have tackled the darker, less observed characteristics of teenagers and constantly tested the boundaries of what can be and should be discussed in YA. By acknowledging of this darkness, Giles constantly highlights what is truly bright and meaningful in our world; she reminds us why the teenage experience is so singular and unique.
YARN: What does your writing process consist of, from the idea to publication? Do you outline, draft, revise? What is your favorite part it? Your least favorite?
GG: I get an idea and I write the first paragraph. I can’t seem to go forward until that paragraph is perfect. I rewrite that paragraph as many times as it take. (“Shattering Glass” took fifty something times.) Once I have the opening nailed I can go on. I don’t rewrite as much as I go from then on. I just want that first draft down. When the first draft is written I revise a couple of times. And then it’s off to my editor. My editor will tell you that she gets my copy in a pretty rough condition. Once I get my looooooong editor letter I revise again. The initial editor generated revision is wider in scope usually and I work in long (12 and 15 hours at a time) spurts. Once that revision is done I revise again on my own and send back. Then there are usually a few more revisions before publication but they are spot type not wide in scope as the first was.
My favorite part is the first editor generated revision. My least favorite part is slugging my way through the middle of the first draft.
YARN: Have you ever felt “stuck” in your writing? What advice can you give teens who might be struggling with writing assignments and need to get unstuck before the due date?
GG: Nothing very creative or exciting. Just sit in front of the computer and slug it out. I do the Hemingway thing of stopping in the middle of a chapter, paragraph, sentence so that I know I can pick up and finish that sentence tomorrow. Once the sentence is finished, the paragraph kinds of comes, etc. Stopping at the end of a chapter is kind of death to me.
YARN: On your website, you talk about being “paralyzed” before writing “What Happened to Cass McBride?” That sounds a lot like writer’s block, which our reader-writers struggle with all the time. Could you tell us a little more about what caused your paralysis, and how you managed to write your way out of it?
GG: I had someone toxic in my ear at the time and those words paralyzed my writing. I had to really grab myself by the metaphorical shoulder and give myself a good shake. There’s a Zen saying that about a fish that sinks deep to avoid the rushing water and I used that idea to just not let myself hear that toxic voice anymore and get back to writing.
YARN: You are known for writing page-turning YA thrillers like “Cass McBride,” but you also wrote a middle-grade book called “Breath of the Dragon,” about a young Thai girl. Was there anything different for you about the writing of these books?
GG: You’ll hate this but no, not really. I just sort of live in the book while I write, and that was just a different story to live in at the time.
YARN: Was there anything different or special for you about writing your latest novel, “Dark Song”?
GG: It was a different kind of pacing for me. I like to start out of the gate really fast and this one needed another kind of approach. A slower start to make Ames more believable. So I got impatient a few times and wanted to get to that back section where she meets the bad boy.
YARN: When we think of Gail Giles the words “psychological character study” come to mind. Why are the darker tendencies of adolescent thought and action as important as the lighter? Is it dangerous to discuss this side of the human mind in YA or just necessary? If so why?
GG: I just like to know why people that go wrong go that way. Are they born with that predelection or does something happen to twist them? What they do doesn’t interest me nearly as much as why they do them. If we know why, can we stop ourselves from acting out dark behaviors?
YARN: On your website you recall how “Shattering Glass” had problems that made you put it away for a year. What made you come back? Why was it so important for you to tell this particular story?
GG: I wrote myself into a corner and couldn’t figure a way out of a plot problem, so I stopped. I was also sick of all my characters. Finally after a year or so something happened. I don’t even remember what, but it made me realize that I was missing a key element in Lance’s character and that was my answer. I had been concentrating on plot not character. Or concentrating on major characters and ignoring minor ones. And the “on” button was pushed. The bullying element was the important element of this book for me and the whole father’s theme.
YARN: Though relatively short, at 128 pages, “Dead Girls Don’t Write Letters” incites a mountain of thought and speculation with the many possible conclusions a reader can draw from its ending. How does your experience as an educator inform your writing of books for young readers? Do you ever make brevity a goal in order to attract reluctant readers?
GG: Yes and no. I just like to be able to make a book a lean, mean fighting machine. Some of my favorite books, the ones that leave me breathless, are short. They leave me wanting more. I want people talking about what could have happened rather than–she should have stopped at……
On YA and Other Books
YARN: What books influenced you the most as a child? Is there one that altered your perception of what writing could/should be?
GG: “The Lord of the Flies”—a page turner. He has the audacity to kill off major characters. It doesn’t end well for everyone. The ending is kind of up in the air, but it’s not unfinished—it does have a conclusion. It has everything a book should. I love it.
“The Old Man and the Sea”—more contemplative. I understand why some students hate it, but it’s a jewel.
YARN: A new trend has been slowly brewing in YA. Writers are returning to their previous works, choosing a minor character they would like to explore more, and writing a new novel about him/her. Some examples include “The Piper’s Son” by Melina Marchett (Tom was a minor character in “Saving Francesca”); “Lemonade Mouth” by Mark Peter Hughes (Wen was a minor character in “i am the wallpaper”); and Sonya Sones’s forthcoming novel.) If you could choose one of your characters to write a new novel about, who would it be and why?
GG: Maybe Katie from “Playing in Traffic.” She felt so betrayed by her brother and yet her brother just watched and in fact urged a girl to kill herself. He’s going to need his little sister’s comfort. What’s going to happen with them?
YARN: If you could describe young adult literature to a person unacquainted with the genre in only one sentence, what would you say?
GG: It’s got everything adult lit has only it’s better.
YARN: In discussing “Playing in Traffic” you note that you write dark material in part to allow readers to, “Read about the road that leads to oblivion, but take another.” As a former educator and a YA author, how do you feel about the recent controversy about YA literature being too dark (“Darkness Too Visible”)?
GG: It’s a bit vapid.
Thanks, Gail! Good Luck with “Dark Song”!
About Gail in her own words: “I was BOI which mean Born on the Island. Of Galveston. Which is only important to people in Galveston. But I was born during a hurricane which is kind of a fun factoid. When I was three I moved across the big bridge to LaMarque where I finished growing up. I went East to school. East Texas. To Stephen F. Austin University where I got degrees in Speech, Drama and English. I taught school for 20 years in Angleton High School and then started moving. To Chicago and Indiana and Fairbanks, Alaska and Anchorage and then back to the great state of Texas. I have three dogs and one cat. One husband. One son and two terrific grandsons.