Thursday, December 18, 2008

Author Interview: Laura Wiess

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Laura Wiess is the author of the critically acclaimed novel Such a Pretty Girl and Leftovers, both with MTV/Pocket Books. She lives in a very old farmhouse at the edge of the woods in south central Pennsylvania with her husband, Chet, and a splendid assortment of rescued animals. To find out more, visit

Could you describe your road to publication?

Sure. I've always been an avid reader - a trait I inherited from my mother who belonged to multiple book clubs, read to me constantly and spent at least an hour every night curled up reading for her own enjoyment - and my best subject in school was Creative Writing.

I wrote fiction for pleasure, sharing the stories with teachers, friends and family but never thought seriously about writing as a career until my late twenties when one day I asked myself if I was serious about this or just doing it for fun. And if I was serious, did I want to try and learn and see if I maybe had what it took to be published someday.

So I decided yes, I would give it my best shot and subscribed to Writer's Digest Magazine, bought Writer's Market, went to the library and took out every single book I could carry about theme, plot, characterization, writing for children, short story Writing and on and on. I wanted to learn everything about crafting fiction.

I wrote pretty much everyday. I learned how to shape and polish the work, find the appropriate market, submit, and start again. I received many rejections. Many. But every so often I would receive a word of encouragement scribbled across the front of the rejection slip and that made me dig in and try harder.

My first short story sale paid in contributor's copies but it was pure gold to me. That's all it took. Someone liked what I wrote enough to actually buy and print it. What a wonderful moment. The word bliss is not an exaggeration.

Roughly 60 short story sales later I sold a YA romance novel to HarperCollins called Downtown Boy, then a ten book series called Girl Friends for Kensington under the pseudonym Nicole Grey, then an independent YA romance for Kensington called Backstage Pass and finally three Animorphs books with K.A. Applegate at Scholastic. Most recent are SUCH A PRETTY GIRL, LEFTOVERS and my next novel HOW IT ENDS (due out in August 2009) with MTV Books/S&S.

What made you write about "society's leftovers", a category that fits for all of your characters - Meredith, Ardith and Blair? What were the challenges that came with it?

Maybe it sounds odd but I don't necessarily see any of the girls in that light; I see them as kids whose worlds are shaped by whatever influences the adults in their lives surround them with or see fit to display. (Meredith's father is a convicted pedophile and her mother refuses to acknowledge the damage he's done to her daughter because she loves him, so she lets him back in. Ardith's parents party and indulge in their addictions right in front of her. Blair's parents trade family time to chase status and wealth.)

In that way they're not leftovers at all, seeing as how all of our families play such a large part in shaping not only how we look at the world and what we grow up thinking is normal/abnormal but also what we have the power to change and what we don't.

Each character is an individual to me, a person in her own right who has a much bigger story behind her than any of us can see from the outside. That always fascinates me too: There's the outside layer we display to the world, and then there are the inside layers, and all the whys behind who we are and what we do.

I love exploring the whys.

When you were researching for your books, did you come across anything that shocked you? If so, could you share?

The most shocking moments came during researching SUCH A PRETTY GIRL, watching a documentary called JUST MELVIN, JUST EVIL (if you ever get to watch it, do. Amazing.) and speaking with incest survivors, as this last research put to rest - once and for all for me, anyway - the notion that no mother (and/or father) would stay with a person who molested their children once he or she knew about it.

I discovered that they have, and they do. Even though the incest occurred and the survivors told trusted adults about it, oftentimes the crime was swept under the rug and the kids were supposed to continue living with their molesters and acting as though nothing had ever happened.


How has the reader response been for your novels? They're quite heavy, so assume it's a personal type of communication your readers have with you.

The reader response has been amazing, heartfelt, distressing, inspiring and humbling. And you're right; the majority of the emails contain personal, private stories of past sexual abuse including parents or other relatives who turned away and pretended not to see even when the truth was told, and then the aftermath. Many readers have identified with Meredith's spirit and her desperate struggle to make it through.

I answer email in date order and although I've fallen behind, I've kept every note received and am trying to answer them as soon as possible.

In Leftovers, you use second person in a good chunk of the book. Why did you make this choice?

This was how Ardith and Blair presented themselves and their story. I think second person also provided them a safe distance from what happened, and helped convey the downward spiral they're powerless to stop.

Both Leftovers and Such A Pretty Girl feature teenage girls who have to make extraordinary decisions in the face of an extreme situation. When you were crafting this book, did the situations come to you first, or did the characters?

For PRETTY GIRL, I was listening to a news show about a sexual predator being released from prison early and going home, and I was wondering, Home to who? Did he still have a wife and a family? Who would stay in a relationship with a pedophile...and would he have children of his own?

The more I mulled, the more questions I had and the more infuriated I got at the thought of what this homecoming might do to this fictional guy's kids, perhaps his daughter, and after quite a bit more of this - including a rant about how the language used to describe sexual predation in no way captures the absolute horror of the crime, I heard a voice say, Well, if the phrase 'child molester' doesn't freak you out anymore, then maybe the details of what happened will. I won't mince words, if you won't turn away. Don't you dare, because I can't.

And that was the moment Meredith was born. What happened in the story after that was pretty much character-driven.

Ardith and Blair also drove LEFTOVERS. They were best friends, they had high hopes but neither girl had the kind of family back-up she most needed so they turned to each other for support and a safe place.

I started to think about anger and frustration, and what it would take - if it was during the course of their normal, every day lives -- to break them. We've heard about boys feeling like outcasts, feeling angry and powerless and blasting those feelings outward at everyone around them but how would this breakdown happen for these two girls? Would they destroy themselves? How would their anger manifest?

Ardith, Blair and LEFTOVERS became the answer to that question.

Did you set out to write about the characters per se, or about their choices?

I begin with a question or an issue I feel passionate about. I let it sit and simmer and I start asking why, and wondering what the answer is. Characters are born in response to this wondering and once they're real to me I usually follow along after them typing whatever happens. Sounds strange but it's true.

Do you condone what Ardith and Blair do in Leftovers?

Ah, this is interesting. At the end they do everything the adults in their worlds tell them to do and follow their parents' directions, even going so far as to warn the innocent victim ahead of time. Was it their fault the victim didn't heed their warning and fell as prey? Was it their fault for following directions?

I don't know. When I look at these girls and their lives I see a thousand shades of gray and very few absolutes.

The moral dilemma still intrigues me.

Do you think it's possible to judge characters who act under extenuating circumstances?

I think people will always judge. I also believe these same shades of gray between absolute right and absolute wrong matter, the why of it matters, even though it's still very difficult to ever really know why someone does something. Even with having all the details, the stories are fed through our own life filters so in the end it's still all about individual translation.

Your books are heartbreaking tales of girls made powerless by their circumstances, and also often by the men around them. My question is, how common would you say this bleak scenario is? And what can be done to stop it?

I would think most people feel powerless at some point in their lives and to some degree, especially kids who are subject to everyone bigger and older's rules. Sometimes the key is to remember that It's just for now, it's not forever but sometimes that's hard to remember when the bad consistently outweighs the good.

As for the behavior of the guys around the girls - and I'm just talking about Meredith, Ardith and Blair, here - I think the romantic attachments are part free will, part learning the ropes and coming up (for example, dating and learning what kinds of behavior you decide to accept or reject in prospective partners) and in the case of family, part nature and nurture.

There's a scene in LEFTOVERS where according to Blair, Ardith rewards her boyfriend Gary for bad behavior. Gary is mad about something he really has no right to be angry about and treats Ardith pretty badly. Instead of calling him to account on it, Ardith has grown up in a house where the woman defers to the man and has the role of making nice, so instead of saying don't do it again or we're finished and following through on it, she swallows her humiliation and smoothes it over.

This comes with a price.

I don't know of only one thing that can be done to stop it as each person has his or her moment of powerlessness for different reasons.

You've got a new book in the works! What can you tell us about that?

Yes, HOW IT ENDS with MTV Books and it's due out in August 2009. It's a love story, dark, intense and the path of discovering true love is twisted because one of the questions I had writing this was Is anybody ever really who they seem to be or is it just that we so want to believe them?

Now, last question: Does writing YA rock or what?

More than anything and thank you, Stephanie, for inviting me in and asking such great questions. It's been a real pleasure!

Steph: Laura is the only one who gets away with calling me Stephanie. I'm just saying. And thank you, Laura!
Girl Week is a week-long event here on the blog celebrating strong YA heroines and feminism. Find out more about it here.

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Anonymous said...

Ooh, cool. I've heard of her before but never read any of her books. This interview has definitely made me want to, though!

Unknown said...

Steph, you ask incredibly intelligent questions! You completely amaze me! Plus this interview ROCKS!

I'm just blown away!

Hey, I'm a Laura, can I call you you know what? :)

Anonymous said...

Sounds intense. I would love to read your books to learn more about the realities of these abuses.
Great interview!

Amee said...

It makes no sense how anyone could research and write these types of books. I generally don't read them because they're too much to stomach. I can't imagine writing and researching one. I would think it would cause permanent nightmares.

Alessandra said...

I love Laura Wiess. This interview rocks!

Khy said...

I needs to get me one of her books. I'm now on a mission.

jocelyn said...

Amazing interview, both of you.

Sarah Woodard said...

Great interview. I love her books and it is great to see how Laura became an author.

Anonymous said...

Uh oh. Thank you, Steph. I appreciate the free pass! (But I still won't do it again. ;) I really enjoyed the interview and sincerely thank everyone for their kind words.

And if I may, a follow-up on Why write books about subjects this dark? It's a great question/comment and I'd love to address it.

Meredith (Such a Pretty Girl) showed up at the door in my mind with a story to tell in response to my original mulling question about when a convicted pedophile is released and goes home...home to who? What if he has kids?

She was my answer. She arrived terrified and asked me to listen and not turn away, so I did.

Writing Pretty Girl and putting myself in Meredith's life wasn't easy. There were times when my skin was crawling so bad I had to push away from the desk and get out of the room until it stopped. But I went back because her character was waiting for me and even though it was rough, just imagining her story was still nowhere near as bad as having to live it every single day in real life like so many kids do.

Did it give me nightmares? Sure. It's a nightmare situation. It also brought anguish, fury, knowledge and compassion, and a lot of heartbreakingly brave letters from women who survived childhood sexual abuse in real life and identified so strongly with Meredith. That was humbling.

So Meredith wasn't alone in her struggle to make it through and it might sound strange but I think that's a large part of why I write what I do. So these girls -- or at least these characters that show up -- are not left out there silenced, ignored and alone.

Probably more than you ever wanted to know, but I do love a good question!

Thanks again, you guys. It's been a real pleasure.

Stephanie Kuehnert said...

Laura Wiess is one of my biggest writing heroes. Seriously I can't say how much I admire this woman for telling the stories that are so hard to tell and doing it so beautifully. Thanks for writing the books you write, Laura. And thank you Steph, for providing this very insightful interview!

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Hey! For some reason, this embedded comment form makes most people click twice before the comment is processed and published. It's not you - it's just that it's a new Blogger feature with kinks and all that. (But I adore it and don't wanna get rid of it!) I removed Captcha to make the process easier. You don't have to rewrite the comments twice; just click on SUBMIT twice and it should work. If not, email me. Thanks! -Steph