An Interview


1. What made you want to become a novelist?

 As a high school teacher and a wannabe writer, I always felt I could write something worthwhile for teens. I'd been trying to write short stories for girls' magazines like Seventeen and American Girl for a long while—like four or five years—but with no success. I happened to read Judy Blume's Forever, published in 1975. It's the story of a girl who feels it's okay to enjoy sex with her boyfriend because she believes their love will last forever. But when she goes away to a summer camp as a tennis instructor, she becomes involved with one of the other instructors—proving that first love is not always forever. I liked the book, the writer's style, and the story's theme. I thought to myself I can write a book like that! So I started, but learning the craft of novel writing took a long time. That first novel, A Winning Season, still sits in my file drawer.

2. How do you feel your experiences as a high school teacher have informed your abilities as a writer of young adult novels?

During years of teaching, I read thousands of student journal entries dealing with teen angst. Students often wrote about very private matters: troubles at home with parents and siblings, troubles in their love life, feelings of doubt and lack of self-esteem. Really, I knew what was going on in their lives and what they were thinking. I also connected with hundreds of students as friends. I lived in the same neighborhood as many of my students. Some rode to school with me in the morning. I socialized with their parents. I became friends with the friends of my teenaged kids—I had six kids. In fact, I had many of my kids' friends in class. Gradually, I became sensitive to teen problems and felt I understood young people—their feelings, desires, fears, and frustrations. I didn't need to research story ideas: A classroom full of ideas sat in front of me every morning.

3. How do you feel young adult literature has changed since you were a teen? How has it remained the same?

 I didn't read YA lit when I was a kid. I'm not sure the genre existed in the 1940s and early '50sBut since I started reading YA novels in the 1970s, I've seen a big change—and all for the better, I think. Today's YA novelist has no taboos. As long as he approaches his material with restraint and with good taste, he can tackle any subject of interest to a teen. In Ellen Wittlinger's novel Sandpiper, the main character has tried to gain popularity in high school by giving guys oral sex. You wouldn't have met that character in a book in 1970s, or '80s, or possibly even '90s. Today's YA authors can also experiment with explicit dialogue, but once again with restraint and good taste. And stories no longer have to have happy endings. Read Will Weaver's Claws, for an exampleOne of the main characters, a girl the reader really likes, drowns at the end of the book.

 But YA novels are the same in that the best ones deal with characters whose lives are in a state of flux. The characters are filled with doubt, fear, wonder, and longing. They feel themselves changing, realize they are not in control, and wonder what kind of person they're going to grow into. What will their futures be? That part of teen life will never change, and I think the best teen novels explore characters who are trying to understand themselves during those troubled but exciting years.

 4. For you, what’s the most difficult thing about writing a novel?

Writing the rough draft is the most difficult part for me. In the beginning, when I first sit down to create a new story, I need to consider a great many aspects of story telling.  I need to create a story hook, establish each character's voice, ignite a conflict, provide just the right amount of background information for each character, lay out the setting, and give the reader a sense of what kind of book this going to be—horror, mystery, fantasy, romance.  And yet writing the rough draft is also an exciting time because I don't always know what's going to happen next, and lots of times I'm pleased and surprised at where the characters take me. On good days, after three or four hours of work at the computer, I might write two or three pages. On rare days, four or five pages. But I look forward to sitting at the computer every morning and facing the challenge.

 5. Who are some of your favorite authors?

When I first started reading teen books, I liked Judy Blume, Norma, Klein, Richard Peck, Robert Cormier, Norma Fox Mazer, Harry Mazer, and Paul Zindel. Lately, I've been reading Chris Crutcher, Will Weaver, Ellen Wittlinger, Kevin Brooks, and A.M. Jenkins. I also enjoy the books of Sara Zarr, Robert Lipsyte, and Jennifer Hubbard. All of these writers tell well-plotted, realistic stories filled with exciting characters struggling to make sense out of their young lives—which is exactly what I'm trying to do.

6. You you have any advice for young writers?

Despite rejections, press on! Nothing in the world will take the place of persistence. Talent—even unlimited talent—will not: The world is full of talented people who are unsuccessful. Persistence is the key to success.