This new Writer-to-Writer Interview with Nina LaCour touches on novel inspirations, writing boy narrators, tackling second novels, and so much more about her beautiful new YA novel, The Disenchantments (Dutton, 2/16/12).
I can’t tell you enough how much I admire the author I’m interviewing today. I first discovered Nina LaCour’s debut novel, the stunning Hold Still, soon after Imaginary Girls was accepted for publication by Dutton Books, and when I visited the office for my first lunch with my editor, her assistant gave me a good-size stack of books to take home with me. Hold Still by Nina LaCour was one of those books. Reading it in those fresh-faced weeks when my book deal was still new made me all the more sure that I’d chosen the right imprint and the right editor. Because oh, did I love and admire Nina LaCour’s writing.
In a wonderful reminder of the world’s connectedness, I discovered afterward that not only did we share an editor in Julie Strauss-Gabel, we shared a friend, the writer Christine Lee Zilka, which made me happier still. I was even able to meet Nina in person this past summer at the SCBWI conference in Los Angeles (she was meeting Julie at the hotel one night, and Julie knew how much I loved her writing, so I got to say hi). I made an effort not to fangirl all over Nina and embarrass myself, not helped by the fact that the theme for the gala that night was “Pajama Party.” Yes, I met an author I admire, in the company of my editor who I admire, while wearing pajamas. Sometimes life can be very surreal. Even so, I don’t think Nina held it against me.
Now, to celebrate the release week of Nina LaCour’s new novel, The Disenchantments, I’m thrilled to share this writer-to-writer interview—as well as my love and excitement for The Disenchantments. I am so passionate about this book, I blurbed it!
And YOU have a chance to win a copy of The Disenchantments—and this giveaway is INTERNATIONAL! Just fill out the entry form at the bottom of this post. And if you comment, tweet, or tell me you’re a librarian or a teacher, you get extra chances to win!
Before we dive in to the interview, I’ll leave it to the jacket copy and the book trailer to give you a peek into the story:
Colby and Bev have a long-standing pact: graduate, hit the road with Bev’s band, and then spend the year wandering around Europe. But moments after the tour kicks off, Bev makes a shocking announcement: she’s abandoning their plans—and Colby—to go her own way in the fall.
But the show must go on and The Disenchantments weave through the Pacific Northwest, playing in small towns and dingy venues, while roadie-Colby struggles to deal with Bev’s already-growing distance and the most important question of all: what’s next?
Morris Award–finalist Nina LaCour draws together the beauty and influences of music and art to brilliantly capture a group of friends on the brink of the rest of their lives.
Now… for my questions:
Nova Ren Suma (me!): I feel like I should start at the start—though maybe there’s a whole other start I don’t know about—when you came to be writing YA and publishing your first (brilliant, beautiful) award-winning novel Hold Still. I know you entered your MFA program thinking you were writing fiction for adults (which sounds oh-so-familiar, as that’s how it was for me), but your workshops there led you to realize the book you were writing was YA. So how did this come about? And once your debut was published for a YA audience, what led you to keep writing for teens?
Nina LaCour: First, Nova, let me just say how incredibly excited I am to be interviewed on your blog. I love your author interviews so much, and have secretly wanted to be featured here for a long time. So thank you!
Now, to answer your question about the start. I applied to Mills College with pages from a novel I was writing that was, and still is, definitely for an adult audience. Not because it’s too raunchy or anything—as we all know, YA can deal with mature content—but because the central characters are adults. I spent most of my first year of grad school working on that novel and on short stories, and then I decided to take a YA craft class, followed by a YA workshop, both taught by Kathryn Reiss, who is a celebrated author and an expert of YA and middle grade literature. I was so inspired by the novels we read in the class: Fat Kid Rules the World by K. L. Going and Looking for Alaska by John Green especially. I also stumbled on a novel called Brave New Girl by Louis Luna that I absolutely loved. These books were so different from the children’s literature I’d read growing up, and I found myself interested in writing about high school for the first time. I was in my early twenties, which felt like the perfect vantage point at the time: close enough to high school to remember almost everything, but far enough to have the distance I needed to really examine it. So I wrote a few scenes about a girl who recently lost her best friend to submit for workshop, and then I just kept writing. I found the experience of working on that novel joyful and natural in a way that writing my adult novel was not, so I set the adult novel aside and just kept writing. The first half of Hold Still was my graduate thesis. A year later Julie Strauss-Gabel at Penguin acquired it. I’ll always be grateful that I took those classes and read those novels.
Writing YA is still exciting; it still feels exactly right. But I also have every intention of returning to that first novel I entered grad school with. It’s continued to evolve in my imagination and I know that I’ll be able to write it much better now than I could have eight years ago. I hope that I’ll be able to write for both teens and adults for a very long time, because I still have a lot of stories about being a teenager to write, and I also have older stories itching to get out.
NRS: Let me just pause and flat-out tell you that I am absolutely, deeply in love with The Disenchantments, your new book coming out from Dutton February 16. There is something magical about this novel—how Colby, your narrator, sees his friends Bev, Meg, and Alexa, the three fascinating, exciting, and yes, beautiful girls who make up the Disenchantments, the worst all-girl band in history. And oh, especially the way he sees his best friend, Bev. Colby’s feelings for Bev fill up this novel in every line of dialogue, every paragraph and description, without ever being too in-your-face. I loved never being able to get inside her head and only seeing her as Colby does: a true mystery. I was struck by this choice in POV and so thrilled you told the story this way. Did you always plan to keep it to Colby’s perspective? And as a female author, was this your first time writing from the male POV? Was there anything different to you about writing in a male voice, or Colby’s voice in particular?
NL: Thank you so much, Nova! Have I mentioned how thrilling this little box on the back cover is to me?
I didn’t worry too much about writing in a male voice. No matter what, people will say that it isn’t masculine enough, and that’s okay with me. It’s Colby’s voice, but it’s also very much my own, and I didn’t try to fight that. Though I know there are major differences between teen boys’ and teen girls’ experiences, most of what we go through are human experiences. We all know what longing feels like, what anger feels like. We’ve all dealt with deception and secrets and forgiveness and hope and friendship and love. So I tried to get into his head and heart the best I could, and trusted that that would be enough.
A couple male friends read an early draft and their reactions to it confirmed what I knew going in—that there isn’t a single teen boy experience. The first friend wrote to tell me about empathizing with Colby because he had once felt about a girl exactly the way Colby feels about Bev. The second friend told me that I was not objectifying the girls enough, that no matter how wonderful and sensitive Colby was, he would be noticing things about their bodies. I took some of this advice, which wasn’t difficult, but I let Colby remain a romantic. I kept him respectful.
NRS: My novels often start from the tiniest bloom—a scene maybe, a character in a situation, but beyond that it’s all fuzzy and I have no worldly idea what will happen. I guess, in a way, I write to find out. So I can’t help but be curious about other writers and their ideas. Tell me, how do your novels first come to you? Is it a character, a concept, a line of dialogue, a song, a place? How did The Disenchantments begin for you—where did the idea emerge from? And did the story come to you fully formed, or did you discover it more as you wrote?
NL: Stories usually begin with a voice for me. Some character, somewhere in my head, will say something, and I’ll think, Well, that’s interesting. Usually a mood goes along with it, too. And then I go from there. I need to know certain things about a story before I get too deeply involved in writing it. At first, I’ll write a lot of scene fragments, just whatever comes to me, usually focused on characters or tone. Soon, though, the story begins to take shape. I know the skeleton of it, but I have to fill in the rest.
The first tiny hint of The Disenchantments came to me in a writing exercise in 2006. I had just graduated from my MFA program, was revising Hold Still, and was terrified about being finished with school. I hadn’t not been in school since I was five years old. So I took an informal workshop with a Mills professor on writing beautiful sentences. I had never taken a class so focused on language, and found the exercises freeing because they weren’t about story or character; they were about structure. So, one day while modeling a very long sentence, I wrote something about a girl named Bev, the lead singer of The Disenchantments and the best friend of the narrator, and how she suddenly changes after a science fair. Those of you who have read the book understand how much of the story this single sentence gave me. I set it aside for a while, but the story kept growing.
NRS: You may not remember this, but I started reading The Disenchantments on a train ride back from the Hudson Valley and while I read I was tweeting wildly about how much I loved it. I wish I could go back in time on Twitter to screen-cap my thrill over your words, but you should know, I dog-eared quite a few pages in the ARC I read… which is something I do when I love a book and savor its sentences and plan to reread it later to savor some more. You have a way of describing emotion that thrills me. What question am I trying to ask you here besides telling you how much I love your writing? Oh, yes. What advice do you have for writers about crafting a story and taking their writing to the next level?
NL: Those tweets made me so happy. Before the release of both of my books, there was this time where I held my breath. We finish copyedits and the ARCs go out and then there’s no turning back. The hush before feedback comes is brutal, so when it does, and when it’s good, it’s the greatest relief.
I am so flattered that you dog-eared pages—I do that with writing I love, too—and I’m glad that what spoke to you was the emotion, because really, that’s what art for me is all about. It’s great if art makes me think—I thrive on that. But when I look at a painting or read a book or listen to a song or watch a movie, what I’m hoping is that it will make me feel something.
For a long time I hoped to change my writing style because I wanted to write rich, lyrical sentences (like yours!). That’s why I signed up for that beautiful sentences class. I thought a lightbulb would go off and I would suddenly be writing the way I thought I should. Like I would suddenly write brilliant similes and have all of this creative imagery. But that didn’t happen, so eventually I had to accept that I write simple, straight-forward sentences and that that’s okay. Sometimes I still worry about it. I worry about my dependance on “to be.” I worry about my copious use of dialogue. About adverbs. About everything. But then I remind myself that for every writer I love who writes in a luxurious, descriptive style, there is also one I love who writes simply. That would be my advice: Pay attention to the way you write and honor it. Don’t try to write like someone you’re not.
NRS: This advice really resonates with me, as I’m struggling with a similar feeling off-screen right this very moment. Thank you for that. Back to the questions…
How does your work as a high school English teacher find its way into your writing? Do your students influence you at all—and does the act of teaching about writing or literature change how you view your own work?
NL: The best thing about teaching high school for me is that it’s so removed from my writing. When I go to work, I get to stop thinking about looming deadlines and plot gaps and Goodreads. I can just sit in a classroom with bright, funny, motivated students and talk about books that are not mine. And yes, my students influence me, but only as much as everything else in my life influences me. I enjoy teaching because it takes me out of my own head, gives me a community of people to focus on so that I’m not so focused on myself.
NRS: Place is so much a part of this novel. Colby, Bev, Meg, and Alexa head off on a road trip from San Francisco up to the Pacific Northwest on the last tour of the Disenchantments, stopping for shows along the way. Every single place is so incredibly vivid: from a basement to a field in the middle of nowhere to a grungy hotel room to “Melinda,” the borrowed VW bus out on the open road. Were any of the places in this novel places you’ve actually been? How many were invented for the story—or how much did the real world, and real settings, shape the fictional road trip that Colby and his friends take?
NL: So many of the places were snatched from real life. In Fort Bragg, I stayed in a motel just like the one I describe, with a laminated list of rules just like the list that offends Meg. That lemonade stand? I passed it on my way north. I drove for another half mile or so and then turned around to go back, and as soon as I got a better look at the wild children and their crappy lemonade and their bikes strewn across the vacant lot, I knew everything would go straight into the book. A few months later, on another trip, my wife and I visited our friends who were farming on Vashon Island. I didn’t have any idea that farming or farmers would be part of the story, but suddenly, it fit. Those are just a few examples. A lot of the places are imagined, though. Going back to Fort Bragg, The Basement, which is where The Disenchantments play their first show, appeared to me out of nowhere in a burst of inspiration. It isn’t real but when I was in that town I felt like there must have been more going on. I wondered where people hung out at night, and then I invented an answer.
NRS: There’s something I’ve struggled with after writing my first YA novel Imaginary Girls, and I keep hearing it’s pretty common: Second novel syndrome. Maybe there’s the pressure of meeting expectations, or not having met expectations; maybe it’s fear or nerves, or some unspeakable creature that haunts novelists after their first book comes out, just for fun. So I wonder, did it get to you, too? Because your second novel shows not a hint of it. It’s so full of life, so gorgeously sculpted, and distinct from your first book in the best of ways, while also staying true to your voice. Did you have any struggles to get it there? And what advice do you have for authors working on their second novels?
NL: I had a terrible case of SNS. I spent a year fretting and barely writing anything. I had the idea for the book, a few scenes, and a crushing desire to write a second book that was better than my first. It’s important to me to be always growing, so while I was so grateful that Hold Still was well received, I was afraid that I was going to disappoint people. I went from a book about a suicide and its aftermath to a book about a road trip. I mean, that’s oversimplifying things, but it’s how I felt. I knew there was a lot of substance lurking beneath the surface of The Disenchantments and that, if I did it right, I could make longing and uncertainty resonate the way Hold Still’s grief and healing did for many readers. I just didn’t know how to get there. One thing Julie said to me on the phone after she read the first draft was that it was a much more complicated novel than Hold Still, which I hadn’t thought of before and which made me feel a lot better.
My first draft was something like 46,000 words. It was a skinny little thing, but it was all I could do at the time. It was in the second draft that it came to life. I added so many pages and a major plot point. First drafts are always a little bit painful for me; I love the revising, the fleshing out, the reconsidering. What made my second draft successful was that I got out of the house, which is something I blogged about here. And then I let myself play a little. I felt very little joy in writing my first draft, but I had some of those amazing highs that come with believing in your work during the second.
I’m the kind of person who, when expecting an email, will stare at my screen until it arrives, barely able to eat or hold a conversation until it does. So my most practical piece of advice to debut writers is this: Start your second book as soon as you can. Don’t stop writing while you wait for the first one to come out. Learn to use all of the empty months, or else you’ll spend too much energy waiting for tiny slivers of information and not enough on the one thing you still have complete control over: your new work.
NRS: I am absolutely not going to give away the end of the book. No spoilers! But I want to say that I found your choices at the end of The Disenchantments—how you left the story, and where you left each of your characters—to be exactly what I wanted for them, and yet also surprise me as a reader. I didn’t predict, yet I now couldn’t imagine this book, and this road trip, ending any other way. When you came up with the idea for this story, did you know how it would end? Was there anything about this novel—or your characters—that surprised you?
NL: I know that it’s a trend, especially in film, I think, to just let a story drop off at the end. Martha Marcy May Marlene is a great example. I understand that choice, but it’s not a choice I’ll ever make. One thing that novels and films can give us, that life can’t always give us, are satisfying endings. I’m drawn to literature and film for the narrative, for the full story, complete with a resolution. I don’t care if it’s happy or sad as long as there’s something. In my first drafts of Hold Still I tried a little too hard. Julie said something along the lines of, “I feel like this story ends for fifty pages,” which was both funny and entirely true. I had to cut a lot.
What you said earlier about writing to find out? That rings true for me. Sometimes the only way to find out is through the work itself. I had no idea what Colby was going to decide to do at the end of the road trip, for example. I had a possible solution, but it didn’t feel exactly right. And then, as the story evolved, it became clear to me. I actually don’t know if I could have captured Colby’s uncertainty about the future if I had been certain of it while writing. In some ways, his panic reflected my panic—I had no idea where I was going in the story!—but I knew where the band had to go next, so I kept moving them up the coast, trusting that I would figure it out eventually.
NRS: And finally, if there were one song you could leave us with, to get readers in the mood for reading your exciting, sexy, gorgeous, and deeply authentic new novel when it comes out this week on Thursday, February 16, tell us… what would it be?
Camera Obscura easily takes a place in my top five favorite bands, and when I went on my first research road trip for The Disenchantments, I spent many hours listening to My Maudlin Career on a loop. The lyrics to this song, “Forests and Sands” suit my novel in so many ways. I mean, the first line is “I’m in a van and I’m holding your hand.” I love its wistful, bittersweet tone, and this version was filmed in San Francisco, where the book begins.
Happy Release Week, Nina, and thank you for letting me interview you! I have to say, I’m feeling very inspired by the wise writing advice you’ve shared here with everyone. Thank you so much!
The Disenchantments by Nina LaCour comes out this week, on Thursday, February 16! Find out more about the book at thedisenchantments.com and visit Nina’s website at ninalacour.com. You can also follow Nina on Twitter.
EDITED MARCH 3. WINNER OF THE GIVEAWAY ANNOUNCED…
(The original winner from Feb. 22 never replied to claim her prize—so sad!—so I just chose a new winner!) Thank you to everyone who entered the giveaway attached to this interview! One lucky person has won a copy of The Disenchantments by Nina LaCour… and that *new* lucky person is…
Congrats, Jenn! I will email you soon for your mailing address. Thanks again to everyone who entered!
And now I’ll leave you with one last peek into The Disenchantments, with this music video from the “worst band in history”:
Photos of Nina LaCour by Kristyn Stroble.