Looking Forward to Nightsun: An Interview

This summer (July 24-27) I'll be teaching a young adult fiction workshop at the 2014 Nightsun Writers Conference in Frostburg, Maryland.  In anticipation of that gathering, the Conference's blog will be posting interviews with the faculty members--Bruce Weigl (poetry), Marion Winik (nonfiction), Clint McCown (fiction), and Brenda Clough (science fiction, fantasy, and horror).   The registration deadline is July 18, and there's still room to sign up and join us.

In the meantime, I thought I'd share my interview here with you.  

How has working with young adults as a college professor affected your writing of young adult literature?

One thing I love about my job is how it keeps me in touch with young adults.  I teach a class on the Young Adult novel in which half of what we do is read books together.  I learn a lot about the YA audience by seeing how my students react to books like Laurie Halse Anderson's Speak, David Levithan's Every Day, John Green's The Fault in Our Stars, and Sara Zarr's How to Save a Life.  Sometimes my students will fall in utter love with a book, but even so they are willing to ask themselves hard questions about how honest the book is, how believable--the kinds of questions that are useful for me to ask about my own work as I'm revising it.

The other half of what we do is write the first four chapters of our own novels and then, at the end of the semester, outline the rest.  There’s such a range of subject matter and style in the novels my students have produced for that class, and their work provides a window into their interests and worries, into how the world of teens and college students has changed since I was their age—and how it hasn’t.

Why does that target audience appeal to you? 

I fell into writing YA fiction accidentally by writing Jane, a book I thought was for adults but that wound up being marketed to a YA audience--and what a happy accident it's been.  

Young readers are unabashedly enthusiastic about reading about about books as physical objects.  For proof, check out some of the blogs about YA literature.  There are so many of them--some by adults and some by teens--and every one I've seen has been created out of a pure and wholehearted love of YA books.  I'm a fairly unironic soul myself--when I love a book or song or movie my love is deep and geeky--so I really appreciate and relate to the enthusiasm of devoted YA readers.

Also, Young Adult books tend to foreground plot in a way literary fiction often doesn’t, and I think that explains why so many adults are reading YA these days.  There’s a basic human hunger for story, and YA feed that hunger.  As someone who began my writing career as a poet precisely because conflict makes me uncomfortable and because I didn’t think I could write a plot to save my soul, writing YA has made me face those fears head on.  It’s given me a crash course in writing plot.

A writing workshop at Nightsun
You have written two novels that are retellings of classic novels. Could you describe what it is like to rework another author's work and make it your own? Or, how do you make something that is distinctly someone else's yours?

I can only write about things that enthrall me, so novels I adore make a good starting point.  I begin by rereading a novel, even by listening to the audio book version while I fall asleep at night, so that I fully absorb the source material. I write a rough outline of the plot, and then I set the source material aside and let my imagination go to work.  My project so far has been to ask myself if the plot of a classic could work in the present day and, if so, how.  More than anything else, I try to stay true to what’s essential in the characters and to write from an understanding of and respect for the source material. 

That said, I can only make my characters come alive by finding bits of myself or people I know in them.  My own personal obsessions surface in each of my novels.  I’m a huge live music fan, and that particular passion fuels the plot of all three of my novels.  Nico Rathburn, the Mr. Rochester character in Jane is a rock star on the brink of a comeback.  Hence, the Heathcliff character in Catherine, is a hungry aspiring musician inspired by punk rock. 

And Jesse, a key character in Love, Lucy is a footloose street musician.  As for my protagonists, Jane is a painter, Catherine’s a poet, Lucy’s an actress.   I’ve always been obsessed with the arts, so my characters are too.


Your forthcoming novel – Love, Lucy – is a love story like your previous novels. However, unlike the others, it is not a retelling of a classic novel. Where did you find the inspiration to write Love, Lucy? 

Actually, Love, Lucy was inspired by E. M. Forster’s A Room With a View—both the novel and the luminous 1985 Merchant-Ivory film version.  

A scene from A Room With a View

It also takes some overt inspiration from another of my favorite films, Roman Holiday.  

But most of all, the novel was inspired by my own travels in Europe, especially my very first backpacking trip when I was 22, fresh out of college, and traveling solo.  

That trip was a really formative moment for me—a real YA moment.  It showed me I could be self-sufficient and brave when I needed to be, and it awakened a voracious hunger to see the world and learn new languages.  I’ve been meaning to write about that experience ever since, and Forster’s novel helped me find a way back into that material.

Amore, sempre amore!

How does your work as a literary critic influence the strategies you use in your own writing?

It doesn’t.  When I’m writing, I have to put that critical self on ice, at least for the first few drafts.  There’s nothing more writer’s-block-inducing than that inner critic who questions everything a writer sets on paper.  When I’m drafting a novel, I’m trying to build up an illusion for myself and my reader, and when I’m writing criticism, I’m analyzing--taking apart the illusion to see how it works.   These two urges are antithetical, at least until a strong first, second, or third draft is on the page. 

That said, when I take on a critical or editorial project, I always wind up reading more widely than I would if left to my own devices.  And reading widely—as well as deeply—can only make a writer stronger.  
Workshopping at the Nightsun Conference: feedback, fun and fellowship


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