Coming Soon…

I’ve been at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference all week, and the last few days here will be a nonstop flurry of activity, so I’m going to post the rest of the outtakes when I get home. (And I’ll recap the conference, which has been amazing, as well.) So check back to read some great quotes from Peter Cameron, Justine Larbalestier, Francine Prose, Stephen Chbosky, and others, and some quotes from Barnes & Noble representatives about why they only shelve crossover books in one place.

I just found out I’m going to be on The Brian Lehrer Show on WNYC on Monday, July 28th, at 10:40am EST, talking about the Times essay and books for teens. This is all very exciting, since in my regular life NOTHING ever happens. Getting a dishwasher was the most momentous thing to happen to me in months. So all this activity is very new (and temporary…soon things will be calm again, and I look forward to getting back to my usual writing routine, and to my daughter, who I miss more than words can say.)

NYTBR essay outtakes, Volume 2: Markus Zusak Interview

I was thrilled to interview Markus Zusak, author of The Book Thief, a novel I loved. In this interview he mentions To Kill A Mockingbird and The Catcher in the Rye, two classic novels which were originally published for adults, but are hugely popular among teens. Interestingly, several executives at major publishers told me that without a doubt, To Kill A Mockingbird and The Catcher in the Rye would be published as YA today.

The Book Thief was published as adult in Australia and as young adult in America—how did this come about? Were you surprised at all by its different designations?

It was a result of Australian publishing being (understandably) so much smaller. I submitted The Book Thief to my editor and young adult publisher, who literally walked across the hall to the adult division. I retained the same editor but it was decided within Pan Macmillan that this book would be on the literary fiction list. It was that simple. By comparison, in America, where publishing groups are so much bigger, the decision is more complicated. The adult and children’s divisions of publishing houses don’t seem to be down the corridor, they’re in different buildings, and the publishers don’t seem to know each other very well. I think that’s the main reason I had a novel categorized for adults in Australia and for young adults in America. It wasn’t so much strategic as following common sense. It didn’t surprise me at all that this had happened. I knew The Book Thief wasn’t typical young adult literature (and therefore might have an adult audience), but I also realized it might be suitable for the older percentage of the young adult audience. Of course, these are all thoughts that have come to me well after publication, and they were decisions made by the publishers at the time. I think it’s usually best to stick with the idea that it’s my job to write the book and the publisher’s job to sell it.

How would you define the difference between adult and YA literature?

I’m actually more interested in the difference between young adult literature and young adult films and music. Adults watch films and listen to music that would be considered YA, but there is a resistance to reading YA books. In Australia, one example that always comes to mind is a film called The Year My Voice Broke (1987). Adults were more than willing to watch this film about an adolescent boy and the travails of his life in a small town. Had it been a book, I’m sure it would have been for young adults, and I’m certain its adult audience wouldn’t have been as widespread.

There is often a stigma that adult readers have against literature for children and young adults. Have you encountered this stigma yourself? If so, are there any examples that you can give?

The amount of times I’ve heard a YA writer call themselves ‘just’ a young adult writer is well into double figures. It’s as if it’s easier to write a YA book, which it isn’t. It’s a tough audience, and a discerning one, and it’s such an important period in a person’s life…I decided I wanted to be a writer when I was a teenager. Like millions of other kids, I had read S.E. Hinton’s novels. I can’t imagine S.E. Hinton being just a young adult writer. The thought of that is laughable. Possibly the best example I can give of the stigma attached to young adult literature comes when someone tells me that his or her favorite book is To Kill a Mockingbird or The Catcher in the Rye. I’ve often wondered how those books would be published today. There would be strong grounds for them to be YA. When you tell a serious adult reader that their favorite book might be a young adult novel, some of them look a little uncomfortable. That being said, there is still another side. Those books transcend categories now because they are loved books. It would just be interesting to see how they would be published today.

Also, when I was interviewed on Good Morning America for The Book Thief, I was originally told that there would be a discussion as to why this was a young adult book. That never happened. The term ‘young adult’ was never mentioned, and apparently, within the next twelve hours the book’s sales increased considerably. I’d be interested to see what might have happened had we discussed it as a YA novel, but I guess I’ll never know.

Do the responses from teen readers differ at all from adult readers’ responses? If you’ve had any responses that have particularly affected you, can you share what they wrote to you?

The responses have mostly been similar, which actually brings me to the realization that young adult readers are looking for the same things in stories as adults. They ask questions about characters and language. They want to be moved by a book and believe it while they’re inside it. Often, it’s the teenagers who will pour their hearts out and give you a deluge of thoughts and emotions.

Do you think part of The Book Thief’s success was that it appeals to such a broad audience of both teens and adults?

The Book Thief‘s success is still a mystery to me. I actually thought it wouldn’t get an audience at all. I thought, A 580 page book set in Nazi Germany, narrated by death…Who wants to read that? Maybe its success is in the very thing that people warn authors against – to risk being trapped in a kind of wasteland between YA and adult fiction. Maybe it’s actually a good place to be. If people are arguing over the right category for the book, they are at least discussing it. It might even lead to a discussion about whether the book is simply a good book, and that’s a positive thing too. After all, when someone loves a book, they never say that they loved that Young Adult Sci-Fi Comedy or that Adult Crime Thriller. They just say ‘I loved that book,’ and that, really, is my goal as a writer.

Did your American publisher actively try to find adult readers? In the UK, Meg Rosoff’s How I Live Now was assigned both adult and YA publicists and sales teams—was this done for The Book Thief also? In America, do you think it found as many adult readers as young adult ones?

Knopf has definitely made an effort to attract adult readers, from book club notes to advertising in newspapers. I actually believe that more adults than teenagers have read the book in America, mainly because when its big break came, it was treated as if it were a book for adults. In the UK there is a YA and adult edition. As far as sales go, the adult edition is much more successful, but that was expected.

Some Clarifications

I seem to have had a few toes eaten by lit bloggers since my essay’s been published. They’ve misinterpreted a few things, and several people seem to have mistaken my “surprise” and “confusion” at my novel selling as YA for hand-wringing disappointment. I wasn’t filled with hand-wringing disappointment. In reality, having a book that I labored on for 8 years finally find a publisher didn’t leave me and my loved ones sulking in my apartment. Let me assure you, there was champagne, there was complete and absolute relief and joy, and the thanking of various deities. I thought I should clarify a few other things about the essay too:

The article is only 1400 words, so a lot of information had to be left out, due to space limitations. I’m also the author of a YA series called Missing Persons, so this essay really is about this particular book, Cures for Heartbreak. I wrote Cures for Heartbreak as short stories originally, and many were published in magazines for adults. My surprise at it selling as YA was that as a writer, if I had intended for this book to be YA, I would’ve approached the material differently during the many years I was writing it. It has a lot of bad language and sex, and a reflective tone that I assumed would disqualify it from consideration as YA.

Some clarification on my agent’s “bad news” comment, as well: it was also in reference to the rejections it received from adult houses, and for the editor in chief not supporting the adult editors who wanted to make offers. My agent represents some amazing YA authors, so obviously she’s not ashamed of the genre. She was surprised as well that publishers viewed it differently than we did. It’s a strange business.

One thing I have to say here is that I’m a bit surprised (ok, not totally surprised, just a little new at this, since I’ve never published such a widely-read essay before) at the way in which people feel free to fling vitriol. One blogger commented “I wanted to punch the author.” Um, what?! I’m a very petite person–one might say completely unthreatening– and hearing that a strange man would like to punch me (even if it is metaphorically) and for him to admit it in a public forum…let’s just say it’s rather ungentlemanly, to say the least, and perhaps downright creepy. Anyway, I commented back and he apologized, which I accepted. Still, I think this disrespectful tone people take is really, well…disrespectful. I think if you wouldn’t say it in person, then don’t say it at all. (About the punching, my husband emailed him too and said, if he’s still interested in fisticuffs, he’d be happy to oblige. My husband is really big, people! You don’t want to mess with him!)

Anyway. As my friend Mike’s ten-year-old daughter says, “Whatev.”

Coming tomorrow: an interview with Markus Zusak!

NYTBR essay outtakes, Volume 1: Mark Haddon Interview

Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time was published in two simultaneous editions in Britian, one for adults and one for young adults. In America, it was almost published as YA–when the book was at auction here, a YA publisher bid on it, but did not win; it was published only as adult. I think it’s a truly wonderful book that defies categorization–when I finished reading it for the first time, I opened the cover and started over again at the beginning. I interviewed Mark Haddon over email.

You’ve said that when your agent first mentioned selling Curious Incident as either an adult or a YA title, you thought, “Maybe I’m about to slip back inside the ghetto again.” Could you talk a little about the “ghetto” that children’s writers are often put in?

I don’t think readers have ever been too fussed about the distinction between writing for kids and writing for adults. Indeed, quite a lot of us happen to be parents and feel sad when our kids don’t want us to read to them anymore. Plus there have always been plenty of writers happily straddling the divide. Most of the fantasy genre, for example, special forces thrillers, the frothier end of chick-lit, most of which are usually ignored in discussions of ‘crossing over’. Nevertheless… for a long time it was possible for an established author to write a children’s book and everyone think it rather charming. But an established children’s writer trying their hand at a novel was considered gross presumption. As my previous agent once said to me, ‘Stick to what you’re good at’. Underlying all of this was the idea that children’s books are easier to write. They aren’t. As a number of adult novelists have proved (no names, no pack drill) they aren’t.

There is often a stigma that adult readers have against literature for children and young adults. Have you encountered this stigma yourself? If so, are there any examples that you can give?

I haven’t experienced any of this stigma in recent years. Partly, I think because Curious was seen by most people as an adult novel which was also sold to young readers, as opposed to a YA novel also marketed to adults. I suspect the word ‘cunt’ helped in this respect. As did winning the Whitbread Book of the Year Award via the novel section rather than via the children’s book section. In the years before Curious, however, I remember a number of people looking down their noses at me when I explained what I did for a living, as if I painted watercolours of cats or performed as a clown at parties. I remember going to some official dinner many years ago and the man sitting next to me swivelling instantly through 180° when I mentioned the words, ‘children’s books’. Oddly he now lives a few streets away and every time I see his weary, hang-dog face it lifts my shallow heart.

Do you plan to write for children or young adults again? Why or why not?

I’ve got no plans to write for kids or young adults. Partly because I’ve written 14 books for kids, which seems like enough. And partly… much of the joy in writing, for me, lies in trying to recreate for other readers the experience I myself get from reading a really good book. I’m trying to get inside the mystery that powers Middlemarch, or Mrs Dalloway, or Raymond Carver’s short stories. That’s never going to happen if I write for children. However challenging writing for children might be I’m writing for someone who is not me. Of course, I could change my mind next week…

New York Times Book Review Essay

My essay is in the New York Times Book Review!

I’m really excited about this essay. I had a great time doing all the interviews—I interviewed over 25 authors, librarians, publishers, editors, and booksellers about the current state of YA literature, and the fine line between YA and adult lit, and I learned so much about the YA genre and the publishing industry. Over the next few weeks, I’m going to be posting excerpts of the interviews that couldn’t be included in the essay (it’s only 1400 words, so many of the great quotes got cut.) So check back if you want to hear more from Mark Haddon, Markus Zusak, Justine Larbalestier, and others on this subject.

One funny thing about these interviews: in Brooklyn, we lived in a small apartment where the only door was the bathroom door. Since it was the only room that had any privacy and quiet, I did most of the interviews for this essay in the bathroom, on the phone. (My sister told her friends that I did the interviews in the bathroom, and they thought she meant in person. “Your sister interviewed Sherman Alexie and James Patterson in her bathroom?” one friend asked.)

Um, no. Though I kind of like the idea of sitting in my bathtub, interviewing Sherman Alexie. Or maybe he would be the one in the bathtub? Either way, it’s a nice thing to imagine. (Though perhaps not exactly complying with proper journalistic ethics.)

Now that we’re in Austin, I have my own office, and I don’t have to conduct interviews in the bathroom. We have a really nice bathtub though, so maybe I’ll call some writer up and interview them there, for old time’s sake.

Writers’ Conference Frenzy

I meant to write a long, profound post about the value of writers’ conferences, but I’ve been busy with deadlines and packing and preparing to leave to go to the Sewanee Writers’ Conference in Tennessee. I keep flipping through my photo album from the last time I was at Sewanee, in 2001. I received a scholarship (I think I applied about four times before I got one…I imagine the admissions committee finally said: Please give this girl a scholarship already so we can stop reading her stories every year.)

Before I arrived at Sewanee, I’d imagined it as sort of a Fresh Air Fund for sad urban writers stuck in tiny apartments. But it took only one night for me to realize that this place was pure magic. At the first dinner I sat with another writer and we immediately had a flash of friendship-love—I think that when meeting new people, you always know within seconds whether you’re going to be good friends. She became one of my best friends, someone I talk to almost every day, who I’ve traveled with and who I can’t imagine not being a part of my life.

Anyway. I digress. I have to finish packing, and I have to figure out how to cram five pairs of shoes into my suitcase.

Tender Hooks

My husband went out of town so my daughter and I had some girl time this weekend. Girl time consists of: lounging on the couch watching I Love Lucy, eating chocolate chip cookies, reading a hundred board books, trying on shoes, watching Tina Fey impersonate a pirate on Sesame Street (she had an oddly posh British accent for a pirate, but that’s okay…Tina Fey is my idol and can do no wrong), and practicing our Rockette kicks.

And I read Beth Ann Fennelly’s Tender Hooks for the second time. A friend recommended her to me recently, and I love this book. They’re poems about new motherhood, and it portrays all the complexities without any saccharine sentimentality. One of my favorite poems is a sonnet called “Interpreting the Foreign Queen.” This is how it ends:

He swears I shouldn’t toss her, not so high.
She gives a shriek—pure terror, pure delight?
We read our own emotions in her eyes.
If only she could speak to say who’s right—
to say I am. For him, I put her down.
Just two more days till he goes out of town.

The whole poem, and several others from Tender Hooks, can be read here.

How to Cure a Fear of Flying

Have a baby. Not while flying, because that would be messy and uncomfortable and generally unwise. But after you have said baby, one of the seldom-mentioned benefits of baby-having is that when you finally have the opportunity to travel on your own, you’re SO DAMN HAPPY to have a moment alone to read, to write, to just think without the constant unrelenting business of diapering, bottle-washing, stain-removing, et cetera, that you DON’T EVEN NOTICE when your plane has left the ground.

Seriously. It’s amazing.

The Sexiest Pizzaman Alive

That last post was a bit sad, according to my sister. “Why are you always writing about death?” she asked me. “Can’t you write about puppies and rainbows and bubblegum?”

Okay. I’m trying. Today I’m going to write about pizza.

Our last night in Brooklyn, before we moved to Texas, we went to Lucali’s for dinner. It’s the best pizza in New York, and listen people, I should know. I’m a native New Yorker. I’ve eaten a lot of pizza in my life. In fact if they made a special food pyramid just for New York City, the entire bottom layer would be one massive slice of pizza. I’ve eaten at too many pizza places to count throughout Queens, the Bronx, and Manhattan (and I’ve eaten pizza in Staten Island too, but the schlep on the ferry is a bit of a hindrance.) And I’ve tried the “Best” places many times—Patsy’s, Grimaldi’s, Totonno’s, John’s on Bleecker Street (I will always have a soft spot for John’s, since we went there all the time when I was a kid), DiFara, and Lombardi’s.

Lucali’s is the best, hands-down. All they serve are pizza and calzones and nothing else. They don’t need to serve anything else, since there is often an hour wait to get in. But we were lucky on our last night—they had an open table and seated us right away, right in front of the marble table piled with mounds of gleaming white fresh mozzarella and leafy basil and tomatoes, just a few feet away from Mr. Lucali himself, who makes every pie, facing the room. (His real name is Mark, but I can’t seem to call the Zeus of Pizza such a mortal name.) He is also, I must disclose, kind of gorgeous. He looks like Keanu Reeves crossed with Al Pacino and a little Johnny Depp thrown in. My husband patiently let me stare at him throughout our meal. “Do I have to put on a tight white t-shirt and a white apron and toss dough into the air to get your attention?” he asked.

Um, yes. Yes! Please please please!

The pizza was mind-bogglingly delicious as always (get the extra basil and extra garlic on top, and pepperoni too), and I ate four slices, as much as I could, since I knew this would be my last meal there for a long time.

And then, before I left, as I gazed yearningly at the fresh mozzarella on the marble table, he spoke to me. Yes, Mr. Lucali himself SPOKE TO ME. He said, “Hi.” I tried not to faint. When I regained my composure I told him we were moving to Texas and it was our last night in New York, and how was I ever going to live without his pizza?

He was very gracious and said in his thick Brooklyn accent: “Bianco’s. They got the best pizza in the whole country. Bianco’s in Arizona. Is that near Texas?”

“I don’t think so,” I said.

I’d like to get myself to Bianco’s one of these days and try it. But I’m not entirely convinced it will be that good. My heart will always belong to Lucali’s.

Vita Nova

Right now I’m working on a new novel about a food writer and a poet. So I’m going to post about poetry a lot as well. I was just unpacking my books—my husband, daughter and I moved from Brooklyn, New York to Austin, Texas a few weeks ago—and as I unpacked Vita Nova by Louise Gluck, I had to curl up in a chair and re-read it. I heard Louise Gluck read from this book ten years ago, just a week after my father died, as I was simultaneously breaking up with a boyfriend, and as she read each poem every line seemed steeped in grief. But a beautiful kind of grief, if that’s possible…a sort of ancient and unavoidable and inevitable grief. It was a magical reading for me, the poems and her quiet, strong voice, the reverent silence of the audience, and my own bottomless heartache—so numb and new and unfathomable that it wasn’t yet real—and when she read the poem “Orfeo” I found myself crying. There’s a line at the end of the poem: “There is no music like this without real grief”, and that line kept repeating in my head in those months after I lost my father. Here’s how “Orfeo” begins:

I have lost my Eurydice,
I have lost my lover,
and suddenly I am speaking French
and it seems to me I have never been in better voice;
it seems these songs
are songs of a high order.

And it seems one is somehow expected to apologize
for being an artist,
as though it were not entirely human to notice these fine points.

The entire poem can be read here.

Vita Nova is the last poem in the book, and these are the last lines of it, which I also repeated to myself often in those months after my father died:

Life is very weird, no matter how it ends,
very filled with dreams. Never
will I forget your face, your frantic human eyes
swollen with tears.
I thought my life was over and my heart was broken.
Then I moved to Cambridge.

Read “Vita Nova” here.