E. Lockhart in the write mood

E. Lockhart

The beach-wave hair, red-tinted lips and the conspicuous tattoo encircling the left bicep more than add character to a woman who is an accomplished book author with literary awards and recognition. Emily Jenkins, better known as E. Lockhart in young adult fiction, exudes good command in literature.

The success of her 2008’s “The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks,” both a National Book Award finalist and a Printz Honor recipient, and few more commendable awards, gained popularity among young adult readers. Her recent release, the gripping, “We Were Liars” has also made it as National Book Award finalist.

In a generation where books are overrun by gaming gadgets and reading becomes less  interesting, Emily hopes to raise the literacy rate in the youth through her books and those of her co-authors as well in the Young Adult community.

Emily has long regarded books as reliable friends that can teach and inspire. When everything around  changed, her books remained what they are—her refuge. She also revealed that she is a yoga enthusiast and a frustrated baker.

During her Philippine book tour organized by National Book Store, the Play Pool! sat with this brilliant writer as she flipped back the pages of her own story to where and how it all started.

How did you know you wanted to write?
I wanted to write beginning when I was in third grade at about the age of eight. I have had a quite unusual childhood in America. My parents were divorced when I was young. My mother and I lived in a communal household. There were fifteen or so adults in this big house with lots of bedrooms and a few other children. The adults were moving in and out. They were hippies, basically. (Laughs).

That is when I remember becoming really a reader because the books were very good friends to me. They were the same every time I opened them. My house was always changing and there were people I didn’t know that I was living with. My mom was very a loving person. It wasn’t upsetting or scary, exactly, but it was unstable and I really retreated into books. So I started writing stories. I wrote long long imitations of my favorite books.

What were these books?
In particular, Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren, and a novel called The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken. I love those books a lot. I wrote from a very young age and then when I went to high school, basically, I discovered boys and forgot about writing for quite a long while. (Laughs).

I went to graduate school for English Literature so I have a Ph.D. in Victorian novels. I guess I was not really happy in graduate school. I got a really good education but I realized I do not want to be a scholar and so I started writing fiction as a way to escape the path I was on. You get a Ph.D. in English and there’s really just one job they’d expect you to get which is a college English professor. I liked to teach but I did not want to write scholarly books for the rest of my life. I don’t want to be in that 10-year track and have to do things in a certain timeline, and I didn’t want to live in New York City which is where I was going to school. So I just started writing fiction as a way of yanking myself off that path and making a different life for myself.

Speaking of writing fiction, most of your books are children and young adult fiction. Why?
The Young Adult fiction community is really an amazing community. Partly, there’s not a lot of ego in the children’s literature community in the same way that there is in Adult fiction and Adult Literary fiction. Instead, there’s an idea that we all want the same thing which is quality books for teenagers in the schools, in the libraries, in the bookstores. We figure kids reading is good. Basically, there’s a concern for the needs around young people’s literacy, freedom of speech, library access, all that kind of stuff. It’s just a good-spirited field to work in.

Do you also feel a competition within the community?
Yes, there is competition because we’re humans! (Laughs). But I think that the success of other people’s books benefits young adult literature and young readers. So when John Green, or Gayle Forman, or Cassandra Clare, or whoever has a giant movie out or a juggernaut series, I just think that’s fantastic because that means more teenagers are turning into readers. More readers for me and it’s better for them. The atmosphere is very supportive.

Do you ever have to deal with writer’s block?
I don’t really believe in it. I make myself write. I just force myself to write something stupid if that’s all I have to say that day. I jump ahead in the book if another part seems easier to me. I rewrite all the material if I have to. Generally, I forced myself to write new stuff when I’m feeling blocked. Sometimes the new step is bad. Sometimes it’s NOT bad. Sometimes the days when I had to force it are the days when something good comes out.

What’s the inspiration for the Ruby Oliver novels?
I was trying to write books that were very real and truthful about girls and boys and friendships, but they were also funny. I was looking for ways to dramatize my own heartbreaks and friendship breakups. I kind of heightened everything so readers could identify, but also laugh at it at the same time, a little bit.

Ruby has panic attacks which I have had before when I was in high school. I wanted to put the character in a therapy situation because it was a way of getting my character to tell stories about her life that might be partially true, all the way true, not true. It was an interesting story device and that was my original interest. One piece of feedback that I got from a lot of readers is that they were very grateful to see a teenager in therapy, who has a cool character and yet has these panic attacks. This shows a mental health issue being treated and lived through—it not being an issue book but just part of her life. It’s really nice that they received it that way.

How did you come up with the names of your characters?
Oh, I just play around with them. I lot of times my characters have different names at the beginning of the book, and as I revise the book I change the names. It’s very easy to do it with word processor. For Frankie, I wanted her to have a boy’s name because she’s all about challenging the all-boys network in high school. A name that showed her family is Jewish but at the same time the non-Jewish students after school might not immediately label her as Jewish, and so the Landau served well that way. People will be sort of oblivious to her religious background but the reader will not be.

How did you decide what Frankie’s character would be like?
I originally had a plan to write about campus pranks. I wanted a character who would execute all these campus pranks and my editor was excited by that idea, but it took me awhile to figure out why would the pranks matter? Pranks don’t matter, right? Unless they matter. So I was looking into the ways how it would matter—matter to the heroine, matter to the school, matter to the people who saw them that I found the character.

Did you expect all of these awards for “The Disreputable History of  Frankie Landau-Banks?”
No! You never expect any awards. (Laughs). That book was really lucky. No, I didn’t really expect that. It was just all a fun write.

Could you also tell about the making of “We Were Liars?”
I think “We Were Liars” is a book about a couple with very universal teenage experiences. One, hearing the adults in your family argue and thinking they are wrong, they’re handling things very badly, and feeling very powerless. I think when we were very little, we feel sad or scared when our parents fight, but when you’re a teenager, you feel sad and scared but you also feel angry at the adults and begin to question their judgement and values. There might be even a time when you reject your family values and try to create your own self as an adult. I think that’s very universal. “We Were Liars” is basically heightening and dramatizing that experience.

I also think a lot of teenagers in the first love situation, when it goes bad or breaks up, there’s so much that’s new to this experience. When Cadence and Gat broke up, she really hasn’t understood why he turned cold and I think that is also a very common experience. So hearing your parents fight, the rebellion, and the confusion of first love, those are the huge topics in this book and those are pretty universal. So when those are threading through, the other stuff gets carried along on those universal experiences.

Outside of writing, what else do you do?
I’m not very interesting, I tell you! (Laughs). I do quiet things mainly. I do yoga. I have two kids and I hang out with them. I go to the theater a lot. My husband is a theater director. That takes up my day. (Laughs).

But if you weren’t a writer, what do you think  would you  be?
I think that I would like to work in a bakery. I get up very early in the morning and go bake bread or make cakes or something. I like baking things and having people enjoy them. I feel like baking and writing have that in common.

Why do you have use a pen name for children’s and YA books and your real name in adult books?
I have written five books earlier in my career  and none of them were really popular and so when I started writing for teenagers, I had book deals. The first one was “The Boyfriend List” and I just thought that I would like to give this a fresh start and not burden them with my poor sales record from my first few books. (Laughs). That turned out to be a good choice. Lockhart is my middle name.

E. Lockhart with National Book Store’s Xandra Ramos (foreground) and enthusiastic YA readers during the book-signing at NBS-SM City Cebu. (CDN PHOTO/ EDD BUENAVIAJE)

E. Lockhart with National Book Store’s Xandra Ramos (foreground) and enthusiastic YA readers during the book-signing at NBS-SM City Cebu. (CDN PHOTO/ EDD BUENAVIAJE)

Do you usually write from beginning to end in your books or start from the climax and work your way from there?
The process kind of changes from book to book. I write on a laptop. Now I outline more than I used to. I often write out of order so I jump ahead. I’m often writing scenes completely out of order and then I kind of patch them altogether and I try to make it work together! (Laughs). But the outline helps sometimes because it helps to know where I’m going. If I jump ahead and I know I’m writing up to that important scene that I’ve already written, the narrative takes a better shape.

Are you working on a book right now?
Yeah! A lot. (Laughs). I’m not allowed to talk about it! (Laughs).

Do you have a timetable to work on?
Yes. They give me advanced money and they give me a deadline ahead of time. I write a proposal, usually, at which might be anywhere from prepared drafts to thirty pages, depends on who I’m working with. This book is due in June.

Who do you share your ideas with?
I don’t share the ideas too much until the book is written. I have to write the proposal but other than that, I feel it’s better to get it on the page than to get it out in the air. Once I’m done with a couple of drafts of the book, I often share it with a writing colleague or two. With “We Were Liars,” probably eight people read it and getting any feedback. That’s because I needed people to read it, who did not know about the plot and to tell me what they suspected, what they thought was going on. That was a very useful feedback in terms of making the twists and plot effective.

How do you feel about your books after you’re done writing them?
I feel that I have to write 12 to 15 drafts or more so it’s not a clear of finishing because even when I’m done with the final edit, it’s not really the final edit. There’s going to be copy edit, and then first page proofs and second page proofs so I’m going to see it three more times before it’s finally put to bed and by that point, I’ve already started the next book. It’s pretty much like journalism, right? (Laughs).

We can’t help but notice your tattoo. What made you decide to have that?
That’s the Lady of Shalott. I’ve gone through this really beautiful edition of Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poems where all these different prolific artists made wood engravings. So there was a wood engraving of the painting that has already been made by the original artist. I took that wood engraving which is much simpler than the painting and I had that made into a tattoo. She’s The Lady of Shalott, the mirror cracks from side to side. This is her weaving; the threads are swirling all around her. Her hair is swirling all around. If you look at the painting, it’s just one of the most beautiful things you’ll ever see. This tattoo was done 15 years ago. I would have so many tattoos if I have time and energy and money to spend! (Laughs).

E Lockheart shows her tattoo. (CDN PHOTO/ EDD BUENAVIAJE)

E Lockheart shows her tattoo. (CDN PHOTO/ EDD BUENAVIAJE)

Is that the only one you have now?
Yes! But see me in the next ten years! (Laughs).

TAGS: author, books, E Lockhart, writer, Young Adult
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