They say that just before you die your whole life flashes before your eyes, but that's not how it happened for me...The thing is, you don't get to know. It's not like you wake up with a bad feeling in your stomach. You don't see shadows where there shouldn't be any. You don't remember to tell your parents that you love them or--in my case--remember to say goodbye to them at all.
If you're like me, you wake up seven minutes and forty-seven seconds before your best friend is supposed to be picking you up. You're too busy worrying about how many roses you're going to get on Cupid Day to do anything more than throw on your clothes, brush your teeth, and pray to God you left your makeup in the bottom of your messenger bag so you can do it in the car.
If you're like me, your last day starts like this...
Hey Lauren, welcome! Tell us a little about yourself as a writer. Do you outline, or wing it? Do you write daily, or in snatches?
Hi! Hmmm…Yes, I definitely write every day. That’s my biggest writing “tenet,” I guess you could say, and it was drilled into me by my father, as well as by a lot of other writers I respect. I think one of the most difficult aspects to being a writer—or to doing any kind of creative endeavor that requires self-regulation—is just overcoming the daily resistance to sitting down and actually getting to it. The only way to surmount this innate human tendency towards laziness is daily practice. (Actually, I’m not sure if other people have an innate tendency towards laziness—but I sure do!)
It’s funny, I never used to outline…but then again, I never used to get my books sold and published, either, largely because they lacked a little something called “plot.” (Apparently this is important?) Outlining—and plotting—does not come easily for me, but I’ve found it’s a critical part of my process now. Typically at the start of a book, I’ll write a few chapters just to kind of get into it, and then take a step back and begin laboriously plotting the remainder of the book. This is the hardest part—after that, I’ve found the writing comes relatively easily.
When – and why – did you begin writing?
Oh, lordy. I don’t really ever remember not writing. My father is a writer and has published more than twenty books; my mother writes short stories and edits a literary journal. Both of them are literature professors. At the dinner table we used to discuss Emily Dickinson poems and the Great American Novel and stuff like that. Our house was full—I mean, packed—with books (as in, thousands of them). Writing, reading—it’s all in my DNA.
I think that answers the “why,” too. From my very earliest childhood I thought of books—reading them and writing them—as a tool or a mechanism for understanding the world. Stories became an integral part of the way I process experiences and people. I think that’s true of everyone to a certain degree, but in my case, it’s slightly more pronounced. My brain is just built out of narrative, I think.
That sounds like an awesome childhood. Lucky!
Tell us a little bit about your publishing journey. What’s it been like? Ups, downs?
Publishing Before I Fall has been a little bit of a fairy-tale, to be honest. Around January of 2008 I began hearing the voice of the main character, Samantha, piping up in my ear. I wrote the prologue and the first section—the first of seven days over which the book takes place—in a relatively short burst. I really felt I understood Samantha and knew what she needed to say, however unsympathetic I was (and everyone will be) to her character at the beginning of the novel.
I only submitted the project to one agent: the extraordinary Stephen Barbara, whom I had known from my affiliation with the publishing industry (at the time, I was working as an editorial assistant at Penguin). People urged me to submit more broadly, and show my book to older agents, but Stephen was the one I wanted! I respected his intelligence and admired his unparalleled work ethic—he works 24/7 for his authors, which I of course appreciate greatly. Plus, we went to the same college, so there was some University of Chicago pride there too. He very nicely agreed to represent me, and when he submitted it to publishers, we were thrilled to find it was received positively. And I couldn’t be happier to be at Harper. Seriously. I contemplate getting a “Property of Harper” tattoo all the time. (My friends have so far talked me out of this idea.)
But before people start throwing darts at me, I have known my fair share of rejections for other projects. My first adult novel was submitted to, and rejected by, fifteen publishers when I was in my early twenties; many of them cited lack of plot (um, see question #1). My second novel, which I worked on for roughly two and a half years, is still a gigantic mess and probably unsalvageable. Thankfully, since it started off as about eight hundred pages, I can always burn the manuscript for heat should I get cold.
I read somewhere that Before I Fall was inspired by your fantasy of the perfect day, planned moment by moment. Which is pretty cool, I think. When did you start doing this?
It has been a habit of mine for a long time. Actually, I think I first became obsessed with walking back through particular moments of my life when I was nine years old, and my parents moved the whole family to France for the year. I was lonely; I didn’t speak the language; I found Paris weird at first. I had a tiny little sofa bed crammed up on the landing of the second floor. I missed my house, my home, my bed, my friends. (This was before the days of Internet and email, so I couldn’t easily be in touch with my besties from home.) I used to lie in bed and imagine, is as much detail as possible, that I was walking through my house in New York. I pretended—or believed—that if I imagined being there in sufficient detail, when I opened my eyes, I would really be there. (I told you—I’ve always had trouble differentiating the fictional from the real!)
Later, this fantasy assumed a slightly different form. In high school, when I couldn’t sleep, I would try to walk myself back through a day or a moment that made me perfectly happy. It was kind of like a relaxation technique. I always imagined walking up to my house in summertime, knowing that my family and friends were waiting for me out on the deck overlooking the backyard. And again, it only worked when I rigorously focused on the details: the feel of the flagstone under my bare feet, the smell of the charcoal grill, the distant sound of lawnmowers.
What was your process writing Before I Fall? What did you have trouble with, and what inspired you?
Honestly, of all the books and stories I’ve ever tried to write, Before I Fall was probably the easiest. It just felt right. It was easy for me to follow these characters into their world.
That said, the book is kind of a repeat of the same day seven times: the main character’s choices affect the action of the story, and the outcome of the day, in ways both minor and major. But because of the repetition there were a lot of continuity issues it was difficult for me to keep track of: things I wanted to be the same each day, and things I wanted to shift in some way. It required a lot of note-taking and jumping back and forth in the manuscript.
Additionally, in some ways it was hard to make Samantha as mean as she is at the start of the book. She’s my main character and I need for people to want to read her story; at the same time, her story is one of personal growth, of development, of progressing from a selfish and self-involved person to one with a great capacity for generosity and kindness. So she kind of needed to start off at a low point, character-wise. But that was hard.
Name one character you like particularly, and why.
Well, I mean, I have a major crush on Kent (a character purely of my own invention, unfortunately—if he reminds you of anyone in real life, please let me know…and give me that person’s cell phone number). Kent is kind, attentive, quirky, and funny, but he’s not a push-over or a spineless sycophant. He stands up for the things (and people) he believes in, and he doesn’t care what other people think of him. Major, major turn-ons! (Is that weird to say if my character is in high school…?)
There’s a trend in YA literature—and actually, adult literature as well—that celebrates bad boy a$$holes who treat the leading ladies like crap until suddenly, at the very end, they experience a remarkable change of heart and show up to confess their undying devotion. I hate this. Not all nice boys are boring, and a$$holes don’t make good boyfriends. I wanted to create a love interest who really knew and understood Samantha—even before she understood herself—and also saw the best in her. I wanted him to make her want to better herself. The best relationships do that, I think.
Yeah, I know the trend you're talking about. I like how you noticed that trend and decided to do something fresh with it. Honestly, I'd choose mature and devoted over the bad-boy any day. Go Kent, go!
Here on Headdesk, I have a minor obsession with the rules of writing. Is there any particular rule you write by?
I love this question—I even blogged about it! But seriously, my single rule of writing is: Write every day. No excuses. No exceptions. If you have to chain yourself to your desk, do that. Joseph Conrad used to have his wife lock him in his study; for the first hour of his work day, he would scream and cry and beg to be released. She always knew he had finally begun to work when the screams faded away. (Or so the story goes.)
That’s a little extreme, but seriously, motivation is a big problem for writers. The only way to get better is to practice, practice, practice.
As my former professor at NYU, the celebrated novelist E.L. Doctorow said: “Thinking about writing is not writing. Talking about writing is not writing. Reading about writing is not writing. Only writing is writing.”
If you knew a teenager who aspired to be a novelist, what would you say to them?
Read as much as you can. Pay attention to other people when they speak; it will teach you about character. Keep your eyes open to the world as you walk through it; it will teach you about beauty. And keep at it!
How have you grown as a writer, and how do you hope to see yourself grow in the future?
I’ve definitely gotten better at plotting, as I mentioned above, though it’s still a major issue for me (I am trying to plot out my third novel right now and it is an arduous and aggravating process). I think I’m better at recognizing my strengths and weaknesses as a writer; that has been a big step forward for me.
How would I like to grow as a writer in the future? Sheesh. In almost every single way. Seriously. I am terrified of getting stuck in a rut, or of writing the same kinds of books over and over again because it’s comfortable (or even lucrative) for me. I want to always push myself to write different kinds of books and tackle new subjects. Someday, I’d love to write a children’s chapter book. I’d love to write a mystery someday (I used to inhale Agatha Christie novels). I’d love to write a sweeping adventure epic. I’d like to try my hand at a screenplay at some point, just for fun.
But honestly, as long as I can write at all, I feel very happy and very blessed.
You know what, I love that answer. Sounds like my personal writing dream. With all that in mind, what’s next for Lauren Oliver?
I’m going to Disney World! (Sorry—bad joke—couldn’t help it.) No, let’s see: I have a second book coming out with HarperTeen in Spring 2011, called DELIRIUM. I won’t say very much about it, but I will say that it’s kind of a dystopian Romeo and Juliet story and I’m really, really excited about it. It’s very different from Before I Fall, but hopefully people will appreciate the new direction! And I’ve just started very tentatively working on my third book, but it’s in early stages yet and I can’t really talk about it…largely, because I have only the haziest idea about its premise.