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?
SDL: My process has evolved over time, but currently, because I have been selling books on proposal, I have to do an outline of some sort—which I usually end up diverging from as I flesh out the book in subsequent drafts—in order to sell the book. Then I write my first draft as fast as possible. I’ve grown to be a firm believer in Anne Lamott’s (expletive) first draft, because it helps me trick my Inner Crazy Lady. I think all writers have an inner crazy person, and for me drafting quickly enables me to get the story down before mine starts telling me it’s not worth writing. The first draft is also my least favorite part of book writing besides writing a synopsis—I would rather write an entire book than write a synopsis! The first draft is like having a tooth pulled without anesthetic, so I want to get it over with as quickly as possible. But another thing I’ve found about drafting quickly is that my subconscious leaves me little gems that I hadn’t realized about the novel, which I can then tease out in revision. Revision is my favorite part of writing—It’s where the magic really happens.
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?
SDL: If I get stuck on a particular part of a novel, I’ll leave a note to myself (WRITE SCENE ABOUT BLAH BLAH HERE or INSERT DIALOGUE ABOUT XYZ HERE) and skip to another scene where I’m not stuck. The important thing is to keep writing. One year I wrote five novels in a year (4 work for hire under a pseudonym and one in my name) and when you are facing those kinds of deadlines you can’t afford to allow yourself the luxury of writer’s block, especially if you have mortgage and health insurance bills to pay! Just keep writing the bits you can write and go back and fill in the blanks later.
YARN: How do you keep your lives as a YA author and a journalist separate? Do you find headlines often strike you with stories wanting to be explored?
SDL: I have different Twitter accounts for my author and journalist lives, and if political people tweet me on my author account I don’t respond to them there—in fact sometimes if people keep trying to engage me about things related to my journalist life on my author account I’ll block them and respond on my journalist account because I really do try to keep the two streams as separate as possible.
I will cross post some things—like my library advocacy pieces or certain op eds I write about education that I think might have relevance to followers on my author account. However, it does take thought and can make life rather…well, complex.
When I do school visits and kids ask me where I get ideas, I always show them some bizarre news stories to illustrate my belief that the truth is way stranger than anything we fiction writers can make up. As Mark Twain observed: “It’s no wonder that truth is stranger than fiction. Fiction has to make sense.”
Both Want To Go Private? and Backlash were inspired by hearing about true stories which raised questions—questions I realized I had to explore by writing a novel.
YARN: Along the same lines, do you ever apply your journalist’s skills to your fiction? Like, do you have to do any investigative research for your novels?
SDL: Yes! Writing novels is the perfect career for me, because it’s a form of lifelong learning, and I’m essentially still the same geek I was in high school. One of the things I love most about being a writer is that I get to interview really interesting people about their work for research. Here’s just few of the people I’ve interviewed for book research: a FBI Supervisory Special Agent, a detective in the Special Victims Unit, an ER doctor, an EMS Chief, and a Catholic priest.
YARN: Oh man, I cried when I listened to your beautiful Story Corps interview with your son (this is Kerri asking this question, hi!). Toward the end, you tell your son how much more creative you have become because you’ve been his parent, and I wonder if that has translated into your writing?
SDL: I definitely think parenting my son has helped me creatively, because he thinks and processes differently than I do. Twenty-one years of trying to see the world through his eyes in order to understand and support him and try to be a better mom has opened my eyes in so many ways. I’m not going to pretend that there haven’t been challenges along the way—there have—but I think it’s helped me learn to write from perspectives that aren’t necessarily my own. On the other hand, the fact that I was a creative person to begin with probably helped before diagnosis. I’d come up with creative strategies just from gut instinct that it turned out were right on the money.
YARN: Though most of your novels are YA, we have to mention your middle-grade book, Confessions of a Closet Catholic. It’s one of those stories that stays with the reader through its combination of laugh-out-loud humor and terrible grief. In fact, all of your books are quite dark. Do you find the humor necessary to keep your characters (and you!) sane? Does humor work its way into all your writing?
SDL: It’s funny because after Confessions, I had the most awful case of second book blues. Both my then-editor and agent told me I couldn’t write YA, didn’t have a YA voice, etc. An indication of why I write YA is that the more they told me I couldn’t do to the more I became determined to do it, because “I’ll show them! I know I CAN do it!” My inner teen is still very much alive and well. But I’ve also dealt with some pretty difficult circumstances in my life and come out the other side, and I knew I wanted to be able to explore some of those things in my work. Because of the subject matter I knew those books would have to be YA, and that’s another reason I was determined to show the world that I had a versatile voice and I could write YA as well as middle grade.
Humor is how I deal with a lot of the difficult situations in my own life. It helps me to cope if I can find it, even if it’s dark humor. But I’m also thrilled to say I’ve got another humorous middle grade coming out next year! It’s called Charmed, I’m Sure and it’s coming in Spring 2016 from Aladdin (S & S). I had so much fun writing it.
YARN: All of your books deal with complicated modern issues, like bullying, Internet predators, bulimia, and depression, all of which you handle so gracefully. When you first started writing novels, did you say to yourself something like, “I want to tackle difficult issues in my books, to help today’s teens cope”? Or were these just the subjects you were inexorably drawn to?
SDL: Thank you for saying I handle them gracefully! When I first started writing, I’m not sure I had a plan—I was just so happy to finally have given myself permission to try the thing I’d always wanted to do after having done what everyone else expected of me for the first 38 years of my life. It was only after my first book was published, and I was being told I didn’t have a YA voice that I realized that so many of the stories inside me, the books I wished had been there when I was a teen so I didn’t feel so alone (not the Internet ones, obviously, because I’m so old there wasn’t an Internet : ) were about difficult subjects and needed to be YA. Because I have experienced many of these things myself, I can bring the raw and realistic emotions to the table—but more importantly, I can bring hope, which is so, so important when you’re a teen and you’re suffering and it’s hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel.
YARN: Without spoilers, can you tell us a little about Backlash and about the challenges teens face today, now that their lives can be so public online?
SDL: As a woman writer online, I’ve experienced some pretty horrific things—threats that made me go to the police, someone creating an account using pictures of my late father on the one year anniversary of his death, someone writing to me pretending to be the pedophile in Want To Go Private?, someone writing erotic stories using my name—it’s really vile.
I often talk to my friends from high school and middle school about how glad I am that we grew up without social media, so that we could make the mistakes we made (and trust me, I made plenty of them!) without every single thing being permanently photographed and documented. I also worry about the culture of doing things for “likes”—I taught some kids last summer who were really competitive about who was getting more likes on Instagram, and it made me unutterably sad. You see kids doing stupid things—even sociopathic things, like killing puppies with a machete—and videoing them and posting online, and you have to wonder how much of it is so they feel seen. Why can’t they feel seen and heard in more positive ways? Why do they have so little real connection in their lives?
I’m not against technology—it can be used in positive or negative ways. But with Backlash, I had questions I wanted to answer: What if you’re a teenage girl who is angry, confused and resentful, and those feelings lead you to make a bad choice? What if that choice leads to further bad choices? What if you don’t have a parent who models good behavior? What if the choices you make end up having repercussions you couldn’t have ever imagined at the time you made them; consequences that affect not just you, but your entire family?
Other Books/YA stuff:
YARN: You sometimes give writing classes to kids and teens. What surprising things have you learned from sharing your knowledge with others? What do you wish someone had taught teen you about being a writer?
SDL: People underestimate teens. It’s not really surprising to me, but I’m constantly blown away by how creative and smart my students are, and how much they long for a creative outlet. We end up having the most amazing discussions during our classes—teaching writing is also teaching critical thinking.
I wish someone had taught teen me to have the courage of my convictions—and to stick with it, rather than doing what was expected of me. But on the other hand, I can’t regret the course of my life, because it’s brought me to where I am today, and that’s a good place. Plus, the MBA in Finance comes in handy when I’m “following the money” in my journalism work!
YARN: Quick! Name five (our fave number of 2015!) underappreciated YA writers! (We love bestsellers as much as the next guy, but we also like to trumpet and discover others, like with our BFSRE.)
SDL: Jo Knowles, Nora Raleigh Baskin, Laura Ruby, Jessie Ann Foley, Gae Polisner and Isabel Quinteros.
YARN: Ooooooh—SIX! A bonus! Thank you so much, Sarah, and CONGRATS on the release of Backlash!
Sarah Darer Littman is the critically acclaimed author of Want to Go Private?; Life, After; Purge; and Confessions of a Closet Catholic, winner of the Sydney Taylor Book Award. Her next middle grade novel, Charmed, I’m Sure is coming from Aladdin (S & S) in Spring 2016. When she’s not writing novels, Sarah is an award-winning columnist for the online news site CTNewsJunkie. She teaches creative writing as an adjunct professor in the MFA program at Western Connecticut State University, and with Writopia Lab. Learn more about her other books at www.sarahdarerlittman.com and follow her on Twitter @sarahdarerlitt