Saturday, July 9, 2011

Interview with Laura Goode

by Ceilidh and Katya

Today on The Book Lantern we are happy to welcome Laura Goode, whose debut YA novel "Sister Mischief" was featured earlier on the blog, and which comes out July 12th (a release we're all pretty hyped up about, especially those of us who have already read it!)

There’s a debate on whether authors should write what they know, or branch out and attempt to write diverse characters and settings, even at the risk of not getting it right. What’s your take on the matter?

I think it's pretty inarguable that great writers should be able to do both. Great writers take what they know and make it universal, which is the opposite of solipsism. I don't think I'll ever consider myself a great writer, but in writing Sister Mischief, I did feel that there was an equilibrium that had to be struck in combining the texture of my own experience with a proportional amount of imagination of others' experiences. There's always the risk of not getting it right, but I'd rather fail at taking that risk than stagnate in a false safety that ignores diversity.

Both Tessa and Mary Ashley are Christian, but different in expressing their belief. What role does Christianity play in your book?

It may be easy to mistake Sister Mischief for an anti-Christian novel, but I don't see it that way at all. What Tess calls "thinking Christianity" is a faith I've seen observed by some of the people I admire most, and it's a system of Christian values used to advance tolerance, understanding, and social justice. Tess's Christianity is founded on unconditional compassion and acceptance and love, and it provides her room to respect and seek to understand the Hinduism and Judaism of her closest friends, too. I think spiritual inquiry is a huge part of the adolescent experience--it certainly was a big part of my own--and so it felt important to me to include it along with the other intellectual, artistic, and sexual inquiries that the book charts.

A writer’s education: Yay or Nay?

That's a complicated question; I don't think I can answer it in a binary up-or-down. Every writer has an education. That education can take any number of forms--wanderlust, horror, school, prison, family, banality, the wrong profession, a love affair gone right or terribly wrong, wasted time, unwasted time. It's not up to me to determine what the best way is for anyone else to spend their time, encounter the world, or transmute either time or world into language. Talent and drive are fired in many cauldrons. I was unbelievably lucky--and privileged--to receive an undergraduate and graduate degree in English and writing. For me, it was a good and valuable way to spend some time. I was also 22 and had no fucking clue what else to do, because I knew I didn't want to do anything but write as much as humanly possible, so at the end of the day I'm just a writer and thus the credibility of my life choices is pretty limited. But above all, I believe that nothing but the act of writing makes you a writer. Writing itself is the only real education.

Rap and hip-hop culture plays a major role in the novel. What was the intrinsic appeal of this for you and were there any worries over issues of cultural appropriation?

I really think the language of hip-hop is one of the most important dispersions of poetic language in the last 50 years, and that's why I wanted to write about it. That and it provided a good forum to entertain my clandestine fantasies about being a gangly white girl rapper. I had, still have, huge anxiety that the way I depicted Rowie and her relationship with Esme, as well as hip-hop's role in the story, would be interpreted as culturally appropriating. It was probably my biggest worry about the book. But I think that the argument the book ultimately makes--and it's gratifying to see people largely accept this in the book's reception--is that so much of identity is performance. And also, what is adolescence if not appropriation? At that precipice we want nothing more than to live inside each others' skins. You meet someone wonderful and you try them on. It's messy and inappropriate and you have to go too far to learn where boundaries are, and to grow.

With YA being an industry known for its trends and fads, from paranormal to dystopian, what does "Sister Mischief" bring to the genre that's unique and appealing to its key demographic?

To me, YA has two purposes: to indulge fantasies and to tell the truth. Sometimes it happens simultaneously, but I think most works do one or the other. In my "No Vampires" article that you reference below, part of my argument is that too much of YA indulges, and not enough tells the truth. I wanted to portray teenagers in a truthful way, and to me, that meant allowing them to have potty mouths, and make messy mistakes, and experiment with things people tell them not to explore, and push away the people they love the most in order to see where "you" ends and "I" begins. We all feel like outsiders in high school. We all think we're the only ones suffering the way we are. The salient fact of adolescence is salving the feeling of feeling alone, and realizing that that solitude both isolates us from others and makes us unique and separate. So I guess in answer to your question, i'd say that Sister Mischief follows a long and valued tradition of truth-telling in YA--of letting young people, in all their anguish of becoming someone older, know that someone understands how hard it is to grow up.

In the aftermath of the Wall Street Journal's YA article regarding 'dark content', and the subsequent backlash, the topic of 'serious issues' and their portrayal in YA has really come to the forefront. As a debut YA author, and as one with a novel featuring LGBTQ content as well as sex and drug use, how did you approach writing these issues for a predominantly teen audience?

I like to think I approached writing them with great care. It's a huge responsibility to write something intended for young minds. As in any genre, there's a fine line between shockingly truthful and just shocking. I agreed with much of the WSJ article, though I found it stodgy: of course I think it's important for parents to be involved in what their children are reading, and of course I want young people's literature to be nourishing and not destructive. I actually don't consider Sister Mischief a particularly dark novel; my priority was much more strongly with making it a funny one. Esme knows she's gay and doesn't hate herself for it. That said, I also think gritty content is often truthful in a way that's absolutely necessary, and that includes content about issues like sexuality, self-mutilation, and drug use. Dark matter comprises a large part of the teenage years for many of us, and parents who find themselves concerned about seeing that dark matter in the books their children consume, I think, have the perfect opportunity to initiate dialogue about it with them.

As to the LGBTQ point, with the hugely public suicide of Tyler Clementi last fall, I think the country finally began to acknowledge that our queer youth are in a state of crisis, and that the responsibility of compassionate adults to reach out to them is quite literally a matter of life and death. It was my intention with the novel to establish myself as an unflinching ally of queer young people. In the end, like Brokeback Mountain and Hedwig And The Angry Inch and many other powerful works of contemporary queer art, Sister Mischief is a love story. And I think right now what queer young people need more than anything else is a rallying cry for the love they feel, an affirmation that nothing about them is wrong or disgusting, and literary heroes and heroines in whom they can see themselves reflected. If the Wall Street Journal or anyone else has a problem with that, they can kiss me.

You mentioned in this article after mentioning the "Twilight series" that writing "Sister Mischief" was really an instance of "putting my money where my mouth was: giving young people access to candid, high-quality literature..." What would you like to see more of in YA?

See above.

Provided it’s not top secret, what’s your next project?

Totally not top secret! I'm primarily working on two projects right now. One is my second novel, The Second Self, a decidedly adult noir mystery surrounding the murder of a New York City writer/bartender and the detectives who investigate it, one of whom is a man leading a top-secret double life as a Tina Turner and Diana Ross celebrity tribute artist. The other is my first feature film, Farah Goes Bang, which I'm writing in collaboration with my dear friend Meera Menon and producing independently through our new company, Prospect Place Productions. FGB follows three recent college graduates in 2004 as they go on the road to campaign for John Kerry and for one of them to lose her virginity. Stay tuned on all this and more at

Thank you, Laura. We wish you the best and we'll be waiting eagerly for "The Second Self" and "Farah Goes Bang". Sister Mischief comes out July 12, so, everyone, line up at your local bookstore or pre-order through Amazon. It's worth it, and then some!

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