Laurie Halse Anderson
Laurie Halse Anderson won the Margaret A. Edwards Award in 2009 for her “lasting and significant contribution to adolescent literature.” In conferring the award, the School Library Journal awards committee cited Anderson’s “gripping and exceptionally well-written novels,” calling her “iconic and classic in her storytelling and character development.”
Perhaps best known for her award-winning young adult contemporary novel SPEAK (1999), Anderson also writes historical fiction, nonfiction, and picture books. Her 2009 WINTERGIRLS, an unflinching look at eating disorders, quickly made the New York Times bestseller list.
Anderson’s body of work also shows her passion for American history. Set during the 1793 yellow fever epidemic in Philadelphia, FEVER 1793 (2000) is read in schools across the country, and CHAINS (2008), the first in a trilogy set during the Revolutionary War, quickly won a series of awards, including the Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction and the ALA Best Book for Young Adults award. Her picture books about American history have also been very well received. We at BIRTH OF A NOVEL were thrilled to catch up with Anderson and learn what’s on the horizon for the prolific author.
GRETCHEN HAERTSCH: As a highly respected young adult author, a lot of responsibility rests with you in taking on topics such as date rape (SPEAK, 1999) and anorexia (WINTERGIRLS, 2009). How do you deal with that?
LAURIE HALSE ANDERSON: The same way I deal with tough issues in my life – as a mom, an aunt, a woman who cares about kids; I tell the truth. I try to write stories that reflect reality and are structured in a way that will allow readers to learn from the characters’ journeys, if they want. But I always put the Story first and try very hard not to preach.
HAERTSCH: Your list of recently published books is amazingly diverse and prolific. It includes picture books, historical fiction, nonfiction, and both edgy and less-edgy contemporary YA. Why do you embrace this kind of diversity?
ANDERSON: I get bored very easily. I also find that writing in different genres keeps my creativity fresh.
HAERTSCH: How did you get started as a YA novel writer?
ANDERSON: Melinda Sordino, the main character in SPEAK, showed up in a nightmare that was so vivid and startling, I was compelled to write about her. I worked on the book for a year, then sent it in to the slush pile. (No agent would even look at me then, even though I’d published three picture books. Maybe they wouldn’t look at me BECAUSE I’d published three picture books!) The first publisher I sent SPEAK to turned it down. The second was interested, but not convinced. They asked me to do a revision on spec. They liked the revision and offered me a contract. The rest, as they say, is history.
HAERTSCH: Which part of writing do you most enjoy and what do you find most difficult?
ANDERSON: I love, love, love, those magical moments when I get glimpses of the characters and can hear their thoughts and words. I hate, hate, hate writing first drafts. I adore revisions and would happily revise forever. In fact, I can be a real pain in the neck when it comes time to turn in a manuscript, because I am never happy with the quality of my books. I avoid reading my stories once they are published because I can only see the flaws. But then I get to dream up a new story, so I am happy again.
HAERTSCH: What refreshes you creatively?
ANDERSON: Running, gardening, drawing, and being with my family.
HAERTSCH: How do you view the current state of the publishing industry, especially for children’s writers? How does the tough economy impact the novelist looking for her first publisher? Do you see a silver lining?
ANDERSON: The silver lining is that you can ignore all rejections you get this year. I suspect there will be plenty of books – especially first novels – that would have been published when the economy was more robust, but that will have to be rejected this year. If you are feeling very strong about your manuscript and you don’t have an agent or a one-on-one relationship with an editor (forged at an SCBWI conference, for example), you may want to keep that book home this year. Once rejected, you cannot resubmit the same book to the same publishing house. You have one shot, so you want to use it well. So perhaps a second silver lining is we all have an opportunity to make our stories extremely powerful this year.
HAERTSCH: What’s next for Laurie Halse Anderson and what can you tell us about your upcoming historical novel FORGE?
ANDERSON: FORGE has been a very exciting book to write! It is largely set during the Continental Army’s encampment at Valley Forge in the winter of 1777 – 1778. The research has been a blast and the writing has been very rich. The main character in FORGE is Curzon, Isabel’s friend from CHAINS, so I’ve been able to explore his backstory and experience the Revolution through the life of a teenage boy. And yes, Isabel is there, too. Once that is done, I’ll be working on the next YA, which I am not ready to talk about yet. I’m also working on a couple of picture books, but have no idea when they will be published. I’ve been trying to cut down on my traveling so I can stay home and write more. Life is good.