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Author Interview: Nina LaCour

Today we have an interview with Nina LaCour, author of the YA novel Hold Still, which is a fantastic book (I read it last week).

Writerland: When did you first know you wanted to be a writer?

NL: I’ve always been in love with stories—listening to people tell them, reading them, writing them. My mother has all of these stories that I dictated to her before I knew how to write. They make very little sense, but they show dedication. So even though I’ve been telling stories almost all my life, I think it was in high school that I started being serious about writing. I wrote a poem about a painful experience I had with a childhood friend and then revised it to the point where it wasn’t the angst-ridden spilling of emotions that most of my poems were in high school, and was actually a restrained and carefully crafted piece. That marked a shift for me. What I had been doing for entertainment or catharsis developed into an earnest exploration of craft. But, of course, I didn’t think of it that way then. I was just doing something I loved.

Writerland: Do you still write poetry?

NL: It’s been years since I’ve written a poem. Once I started writing short stories, the poems got scarcer, and now that I write novels, I’m afraid I may have abandoned poetry altogether.

Writerland: When did you beginning writing YA fiction? Did you know you wanted to be a YA writer?

NL: I kind of stumbled into it. I started grad school at Mills (with you!) with around eighty pages of a novel for adults. I was really excited about where it was going. And then I had my first graduate novel workshop and I got crushed. The workshop comprised all second-year students except for me and one other new student. I was really young, 21-years-old, and coming from a program where I had been treated as one of the strong writers. And then suddenly I was in this room with people actually laughing at what I’d written. I went into a bathroom stall and sobbed during the break. It was humiliating. I hadn’t learned to differentiate between the work I’d produced and what I might be capable of writing.

So I suffered through the next workshop, which went a little better, and then put that novel aside. I wrote short stories, also for adults, after that, and then I enrolled in the YA craft class. At that point, I was deciding between writing a collection of short stories for my thesis or writing a novel. And as soon as I started writing my YA novel, I knew that’s what I would focus on. The teen voice, the exploration of high school, of what it means to be on that threshold to adulthood. . . after trying to inhabit the lives of much older people when I was barely of legal drinking age, writing about things I knew and had experienced felt really good. So I kept writing.

Writerland: Hold Still chronicles the life of a teen girl in the aftermath of the suicide of her best friend. What inspired you to write it, and how did you learn to write so well about the anger, sadness, and guilt that accompanies the loss of a loved one?

NL: A few experiences converged to inspire Hold Still. When I thought about my life in high school, I found myself returning to lingering questions and sadness over one of my classmates who took his life in our freshman year. I knew from the beginning that I wasn’t going to write a book in which all of these answers about suicide emerge, because I don’t believe many people who lose someone in this way ever get that kind of closure. But I was interested in exploring the healing process, in looking at what happens when a life is unexpectedly shattered and the survivor has to find a way to move on. I was really shy in high school and I could so clearly remember that sense of feeling out of place in an intensely social environment. When my best friend was out sick, I remember feeling lost and self-conscious because I didn’t know where to sit at lunch. So Caitlin, my narrator and protagonist, has many of those feelings as she starts the school year without her best friend. One of my greatest sources of inspiration was, at the time of writing the first chapters, when my mother invited me into the high school photography class that she taught to look at her students’ work. There was a series of images that a girl had taken of her friend who had been cutting herself. The images focused on the scars. I found this deeply moving–that one girl would be brave enough to reveal what she had been doing for to her friend and the camera, and that the photographer would be strong enough to not only confront her friend’s actions but also to turn something painful into art. Those girls, though I never met them, influenced me so much.

In terms of accessing the emotions, I just tried to immerse myself in my character. I spent a lot of time in Caitlin’s head, in her room, in her car . . . I listened to sad or angry music. I just made myself go there and discover what I would feel. It wasn’t always a pleasurable thing to write a book about grief, but then, when Caitlin does find her way and begin to feel alive and excited about life, that emergence was pretty exciting for me, too. I’m glad you felt that the emotions came through. I’m glad it worked.

Writerland: After having earned your MFA, would you advise other writers to pursue an MFA?

NL: Part of the reason I pursued an MFA is that I knew I wanted to teach. But, of course, I also wanted to study and become a better writer. I had some brilliant professors and classmates who taught me so much. And I’m a school person. I’m happiest in that environment. But would I recommend it? I don’t know. There are gifted teachers who work outside the structure of MFA programs, and writing groups and workshops and seminars. The most valuable part of the program for me was that I produced so many pages. I wrote constantly and by the sheer act of writing and failing and writing more, learned so much. Being a student gave me license to devote myself to my work, so I would recommend it for that reason. But then I graduated, and I had a couple tough years when I realized that private school teaching jobs were scarce and that even after selling a novel I would need to work full time to pay back my school loans. If you’re really fortunate and money isn’t an issue, then yes, definitely go. But if you’re like most of us, it’s worth considering that in exchange for all the time you have to write during those two years, you might have less time and freedom afterwards. Still, would I do it again knowing what I now do? Yes. So maybe that’s the answer.

Writerland: You’ve recently begun a partnership with YA author Kristen Tracy called WriteTeen. Your blog says that your classes “range from investigations of craft to the practical, nuts-and-bolts information about approaching the publishing industry that we wish we’d had when we were trying to find our places in the publishing world.” What are a couple of things you wish you’d known about the publishing world when you started out?

NL: When I finished Hold Still I felt like I was setting out on a road trip without a map or even a clear destination—which could have been fun except that I really wanted to get somewhere as quickly as I could. I ended up making some mistakes, mostly around my agent search. An agent who had found me through Zoetrope: All Story’s fiction contest expressed early and enthusiastic interest in my work, and instead of keeping my options open I placed all of my hopes on her. Ultimately she just never got back to me when I sent her the second half of my novel which she had told me she was dying to read. It took me half a year to realize that I should move on, and when I finally did, everything happened quickly. I followed the traditional path and wrote a query letter. I got a dream agent and the editor I always wanted to work with. So it all worked out, but I wish that I’d had someone tell me about the rules and etiquette surrounding the agent search and how to identify someone who would be a good fit for me and my work. My lack of information made me feel pretty desperate during those months of waiting. It’s so important to be informed.

Writerland: Amanda Hocking, who is famous for becoming a millionaire self-publishing paranormal romance novels, recently accepted an offer from St. Martin’s Press because “The amount of time and energy I put into marketing is exhausting. I am continuously overwhelmed by the amount of work I have to do that isn’t writing a book.” Have you felt the pressure to self-promote? How have you balanced marketing your book with your writing and your day job?

NL: What Amanda Hocking achieved is amazing, and it’s such a good example of what social media can do for artists and writers. I’m a pretty low-key author when it comes to self-promotion, though. It’s hard to find time and I’m not good at approaching people and talking about myself. I did do something early on: I made a book trailer. I didn’t know anything about book trailers before, but they’re popular in the YA world and gaining popularity in other genres as well. I was motivated to work on a trailer because I love projects and films, and it was something I could do from behind the scenes. It was a group effort, and I’ll be eternally grateful to the people I love for working so hard on it, and to Tegan and Sara who let us use their song.

Writerland: What is the most common problem you see in the writing of beginning YA novelists?

NL: Like writers of adult novels, some YA writers are better at certain elements of fiction and weaker in others, so problems vary from person to person. But in our classes Kristen and I always look for a clear teen perspective and teen situations, and if those are missing, we know exactly what the writer should address first. When I read YA, and when I write it, I seek out the experiences that are so formative and exhilarating and terrifying for teenagers, those moments that people return to when remembering the big events of their lives. For me, that’s what makes YA literature so immediate and captivating.

Writerland: With the advent of ebooks and with self-publishing gaining popularity, how do you feel about the future of publishing?

NL: I feel good about it. I mean, publishing is undoubtedly going to change, but the world is changing, and that’s okay. I think that in time fewer books will be printed on paper and more will be available only as ebooks, and that this will be a good thing for many writers who self-publish and a good thing for the environment. And for people like me, who love to collect books and turn pages, I’m sure that we’ll still have the option to buy many books in paper form. Wherever publishing goes, as both a reader and a writer, I’ll go with it.

* * *
Nina LaCour grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area. She has tutored and taught in various places, from a juvenile hall to Mills College, where she received an MFA in Creative Writing in 2006. She currently teaches English at an independent high school and is the co-founder of WriteTeen, a series of YA writing classes.

Hold Still, Nina’s first novel, was published by Dutton Children’s Books in 2009. Hold Still is a William C. Morris Honor book, a Junior Library Guild selection, an ALA Best Book for Young Adults, and a Chicago Public Library’s Best of the Best Books of 2009. Nina won the 2009 Northern California Book Award for Children’s Literature and was featured in Publishers Weekly as a Flying Starts Author.

Nina is working on her second YA novel, The Disenchantments, which
will be published in 2012 by Dutton Books. She lives in Oakland, California with her wife, photographer Kristyn Stroble.

*If you’re in the Bay Area, Nina and Kristen still have room in their upcoming workshops at the San Francisco Writers’ Grotto.

24 comments to Author Interview: Nina LaCour

  • sarahwedgbrow

    I loved HOLD STILL, and I must admit that every interview I have read with Nina has been just too cool. Meghan, you asked some really good questions (note to self). While HOLD STILL has won all sorts of awards, I heard about it through another writer friend who is writing a book with a similar theme. So glad we found it, and just goes to show how important word of mouth really is. That's the best marketing. xx

  • Kristan

    Well, haha, I learned about HOLD STILL from Sarah, so I don't know that I'm much help in that department… But the book was also on a stand at our local B&N for YA "Serious Stuff" books.

    Anyway, we all LOOOOOVED the book. I was so impressed by the subtlety and believability. The writing was lovely and nuanced.

    Thanks to both of you for this great interview!

    • Nina is off jet-setting to Paris this week, or I'm sure she'd love to read your comments!

    • Nina LaCour

      Hello from Paris! I'm so glad that you loved my book, Kristan! What nice compliments. And it's so exciting that it was on a B&N stand, too. Thanks for sharing that!

  • I enjoyed reading about Nina's new novel. There are lots of new YA titles with socially relevant issues that adults are reading. I wondered what marketing strategies Nina used to pull readers to her book. Young teens are a tough market to sell and the adult readers of YA fiction are generally too embarassed to go browsing in the teen books. Is it all about the six degrees of separation in social media?

  • Jill, I think this is a great question for Nina to answer. My question is – do adults who aren't YA writers read teen novels much at all (unless it's a book like The Book Thief, that everyone read)? I asked a B&N clerk who looked about 28 if he had read The Hunger Games, and he kind of turned his nose up and said he was a little too old for that. (Meanwhile I had already bought it on my iPad but still haven't gotten around to reading it.)

  • m++

    Wow Nina and Meghan, this was a fascinating interview. It flowed very nicely and kept my interest up throughout. That novel workshop experience sounded horrible! I'm so sorry you went through that. I suppose the silver lining is finding a path you have been comfortable and successful in, but I never knew those Mills workshops could turn so dark so quickly…

    I saw your book trailer, and loved it. I didn't know you got the music from Tegan and Sara. That's great! Do you know them or at least meet them as a result, or was it all setup through your publisher?

    The thing that I like about the trend towards ebooks, is that over time it will soon reach a point where your entire book collection is available in the cloud. It'll save a lot of shelf space, ultimately be more convenient, and be good for the environment as you said.

    All the best with your current and future books, Nina!

    • Nina LaCour

      I'm so glad you enjoyed the interview! The workshop experience definitely stung, but it was good for me. Putting what you write out there is important and so is knowing that some people will respond well to it and, for some people, it just won't be their thing. I've gotten a lot tougher over the years. (And, for the record, Mills workshops are usually very supportive; I wholeheartedly recommend them.)

      As for the book trailer, it was something a group of us did on our own–the publisher wasn't involved. My friend Amanda wrote to T&S's manager and got the go-ahead. So generous. Thanks for reading and for the good wishes!

      • meghancward

        Nina, when you say you "did your book trailer on your own," do you mean you didn't hire a book trailer company to produce it? People you know acted in it and shot the video? I think a guest post on making your own book trailer is in order here!

  • Nina, what I find interesting is where books get shelved. I do remember seeing The Book Thief in the YA section at B&N, but I bet it was shelved elsewhere, too. For a while, St. Martin's Press was promoting their new "New Adult" category (this was at the end of 2009, and I don't know what has become of it since then) as a term that covered books too old for YA and too young for adult (ie early 20-somethings). I wonder if that will ever take off.

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