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The idea for Stop Pretending came while I was taking a poetry class at UCLA, taught by Myra Cohn Livingston. I’d only been writing funny poems, but then one day Myra asked us to write a poem using dactyl and trochee rhythms, which are really somber rhythms. When I sat down to do the assignment, something very unexpected happened—out popped a poem about how sad and scary it was to have to visit my older sister in the mental hospital on my thirteenth birthday. I was hesitant to share the poem with my teacher, because it was so personal. But when Myra read it, she suggested I write more poems about my sister, and that’s how Stop Pretending, my first novel in verse, was born.
How did you get the idea to write What My Mother Doesn’t Know?
What inspired you to write What My Girlfriend Doesn’t Know?
How did you get the idea to write One of Those Hideous Books Where the Mother Dies?
What inspired you to write To Be Perfectly Honest?
When I sat down to begin writing the book, all I knew was that I wanted to explore the theme of dishonesty—the effect that lies have on the people who are told them, and the effect that lies have on the people who tell them. I decided that Colette, a minor character from my novel, One of Those Hideous Books Where the Mother Dies, would be the perfect unreliable narrator for my new story. Colette hadn’t told any lies in that book (at least not any that I was aware of), but I knew that she’d be the sort of girl who’d have an excellent reason to lie a lot. Because her mother is Marissa Shawn, an Oscar winning movie actress who, as Colette explains:
is more talented,
That’s why I’m always making stuff up—
Because the problem with being
Why did you decide to write The Hunchback of Neiman Marcus, your first book for adults?
I fought this wicked urge for awhile, but eventually I gave in and let myself write my first book for adults. It began as a sort of memoir in poems, but I soon realized that the tale I wanted to tell was not just my own story, but every woman’s story.
What inspired you to write Saving Red?
I had no control whatsoever over my real life. My first book, Stop Pretending, was based on what happened at that time—when my older sister had a nervous breakdown on Christmas Eve and had to be hospitalized. She was diagnosed as manic-depressive, which would be called bipolar today, and had to stay in the hospital for a few months while the doctors got her illness under control with medication and talk therapy.
But even after my sister was released from the hospital, I continued to worry about her. I feared that she might get sick again, lose touch with reality, and wander away from home into the unforgiving streets of the city, never to be found again. Which is one of the reasons why I’ve always felt so moved and troubled whenever I see a homeless person trudging down a sidewalk dressed in rags.
One day when I saw this woman, I suddenly remembered the old pair of walking shoes stashed in my closet, the long denim skirt a friend had given me that was too big in the waist, and the T-shirt and jacket I’d been planning to donate. My heart began to race. I pictured the homeless woman wearing these things—she’d be so much warmer during the approaching winter…
I hurried home and gathered the clothes into a bag, imagining the startled look of gratitude that would light up the woman’s face when I presented them to her. Then I hopped back into the car and drove down Montana Avenue until I found her, scrubbing a trash can in front of a coffee shop. I parked, strode up to her, and offered her the bag. She peered into it briefly, with mild interest, then pulled back and murmured, “No thanks. I better not.”Of course, I didn’t know it then, but that was the instant that Red was born.
What is the best part about being an author?
Why do you write your novels in poetry?
With the rest of my novels in verse, it never even crossed my mind to try writing them in another form. I guess I’m a poet first, and a storyteller second. Poetry is such a good way to get to the center and truth of things. It’s the only way I can say what I really need to say. I love searching for the words, not just any words, but the exact right words, to describe a certain feeling or a moment in time. Besides, the idea of writing a novel in regular prose scares me! Maybe someday, though ...
People often talk about having an inner child, but I have an inner teen. And she’s right there with me, whispering in my ear, whenever I sit down to write. In fact, she’d probably argue that she was the one who wrote my books, without any help from me at all. And you might even believe her. She can be very persuasive. Last week she almost had me convinced I should get my bellybutton pierced. Which is not a good look for someone my age.
It’s easy for me to get in touch with my inner teen because I’ve been keeping diaries and journals since I was old enough not to be chosen as a cheerleader. I have boxes and boxes of them stored away in my closet. And sometimes, when I’m trying to remember what things were like in the bad old days, I leaf through them. And it’s all right there—every miserable moment.
No. It was shockingly simple! Right after I finished writing Stop Pretending, I went to the annual conference of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, which is an absolutely wonderful organization to join, if you want to write for kids or teens. On the last day of the conference, I met a fabulous agent named Steven Malk. He read my manuscript, flipped for it, and in less than a week he had a bidding war going between two different publishing houses!
I have a lot of writer friends, so I know that it doesn’t usually happen that easily. I was just phenomenally lucky.
Where do you write your books?
What are you working on now?
What is a typical writing day like for you?
In the morning, I take a four-mile bicycle ride to my secret office. I ride and I think and I ride and I think, and while I’m doing all this riding and thinking I try to look at everything around me through my character’s eyes. After awhile it becomes like a meditation, and then, if I’m lucky, an idea for a poem begins to flow. When I arrive at my secret office, I park and lock my bike, fire up my computer and type in that idea.
I know that once I fling that pitiful rough draft onto the page, no matter how atrocious it is, I’ll be able to turn it into something good.
Unless I get sidetracked by the internet. Unfortunately there’s free wifi where I work. But fortunately, Lisa Yee told me about Freedom—this ridiculously inexpensive software (a mere $10!) that blocks the internet from your computer for as many minutes as you ask it to. I usually ask it for 90 minutes, and by the time those 90 minutes are over, I’ve made terrific progress on my manuscript. Seriously. You should buy Freedom, too. It’ll change your life. Or, you could just exercise a modicum of self-control and save yourself the 10 bucks.
When I finish writing, I have a picnic lunch, then I ride my bike home, listening to an audio book. Then, I while away the rest of the day, until it’s time to reload my brain and let my unconscious mind get back to work, as I drift into dreamland.
Do you have any children?
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