March 27, 2005

Author2Author: Megan Crane & E. Lockhart, Conclusion

megancrane.jpgMegan Crane:In The Boyfriend List, one of the lessons the protagonist learns is about perspective. The world, she discovers eventually, is so much bigger than her high school and the things that happen therein. This is a lesson I certainly could have benefited from when I was in high school! It got me thinking about the kinds of teen novels I read when I actually was a teen--and as I think back, I don't think there were many. I remember Paula Danziger and Judy Blume books, but beyond that, I think I mostly read either fantasy novels (the Anne McCaffrey Pern books, for example) or the teen romances that were everywhere at the time. What sort of teen reading did you do? Do you see your book as part of a continuum? You said the field was exploding--could you talk more about that?

lockhart.jpgE. Lockhart:I read all the dirty bits of Forever. S.E. Hinton, Lois Duncan, Paul Zindel and books about ballerinas. Piers Anthony. Louisa May Alcott. Mark Twain.

Young Adult fiction, as a category, took off in the 1960s. There was a lot of federal funding for libraries at just the time baby boomers were teenagers. You suddenly had a definable youth culture: sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll. Librarians started shelving together Carlos Castaneda and J.D. Salinger and anyone else teenagers wanted to read--and soon after, publishers began doing books for that audience deliberately. Many of those I read in the early '80s were already more than a decade old. So it's a new field, comparatively--and it was chugging along but not exactly flourishing; no big money changing hands. Then (and this is just my analysis, of course), a number of things happened:

  • Harry Potter made everyone realize enormous sales were possible in children's publishing.
  • A rush of teen magazines came out: Teen Vogue, Teen People, Cosmo-Girl, etc. More venues for promoting books, and more proof that teens will spend their money on reading matter.
  • Bridget Jones's Diary, along with books like The Girls' Guide to Hunting and Fishing, made "chick lit" into a publishing category. Publishers quickly figured out teenage girls would probably respond to a "chicklet lit" of their own.
  • Possibly due to the successful repackaging of Francesca Lia Block's Weetzie Bat books, which put decade-old titles on the LA Times bestseller list--publishers realized the need for teenage books to look cool. Tempest and Push led the way with slick cover designs.
  • Barnes & Noble, et al, took the teen books section out of the kiddie area, finally realizing that no self-respecting fourteen year-old wants to browse next to snotty toddlers. Publishers also started placing books in other places where teenagers shop, like Target and Urban Outfitters.

So suddenly, there's a viable field, with viable sales figures.

Why do I write for teenagers? Reading was an incredibly powerful experience for me when I was young; the books I read before age sixteen have stuck in my memory and shaped the person I have become. High school (like grad school, actually) is a festering microcosm of anxious, slightly-out-of-control people--a wonderful setting for both comedy and social commentary. The community of writers and editors in YA is more supportive, less pretentious and generally less snarky than adult publishing, at least as I've experienced it. And the money is very good. I couldn't have afforded to write for teenagers on the advances publishers used to pay. Now, I can.

Last question: English as a Second Language has a classic and adorable "pink lady" cover. Your next book, Everyone Else's Girl, has a cover that reads to me as both more whimsical and more adult. The Boyfriend List has a deliberately modern type face and an iconic image that's meant to give the book crossover potential with adult readers--but I know my publisher also felt very strongly that there be pink on there somewhere, to indicate the genre. How have you felt about the packaging of your books, and by extension, do you have any thoughts about the packaging of books in your field--what it says to (and about) readers?

Megan Crane: Both of my books went through several covers before settling on a final one, and I was as delighted with the first one as I am now with the second. I'm especially thrilled that the new one reflects the story of Everyone Else's Girl. I know that people tend to sniff dismissively about "all the pink covers," but I like them. I think they're fun, like the books themselves. I was surprised that Everyone Else's Girl stepped away from the classic pink of English as a Second Language, actually, but I still like what they came up with. As a reader, I like to know where to find the books I want to read. Chick lit covers serve the same purpose as a designated genre section, it seems to me. As a reader, I find it annoying if I can't find the sort of genre I want easily; as an author, I definitely don't want readers annoyed!

March 25, 2005

Author2Author: Megan Crane & E. Lockhart, pt. 4

After swapping undergraduate memories, E. and Megan have moved on to their graduate school experiences and their efforts to reconcile academia and commercial fiction. Today E. tells her side of the story...

Megan Crane: Experiencing "the tragedy of higher education" first hand demystified "highbrow" literature for me. While I might appreciate a Serious Novel, it's probably not what I'm going to choose to curl up with when I have a free hour. It's not what I'm going to write, either. Not that this is good or bad, it's just the way things worked out for me. (I no longer hide my "lowbrow" novels from view, either!) The battle isn't much of a battle anymore: pink pretty much won. What about you? Let's hear your graduate school experiences, "gray" versus "pink" battles, the (as you put it) drama, angst, horror, triumph, regret.

boyfriendlist.jpgE. Lockhart: Having partied away much of my undergrad education, I deeply needed to prove that I was smart. I could get this doctoral degree, and people who knew me as a "Mug rat" (party girl) would be surprised. My older and supposedly wiser ex-boyfriend would be surprised--as would all the teachers who didn't think much of me. I would feel valid. I would feel adult.

Grad school was painful in a hundred different ways. I managed to become a decent scholar and a good researcher (I did book history) but I was never a theoretical mind, and Columbia was a hotbed of post-modern deconstructionist post-colonial whatnot. My professors were known to pat me on the head, or tell me my dress was pretty, or forget my name. Edward Said yelled at me. My favorite experience was studying for my oral exams: I spent three months reading ten hours a day. I read all of Jane Austen, all of Charlotte Brontė, and nine Dickens novels, back to back. No bad education for a novelist.

When I was mid-dissertation, I had a boyfriend whose roommate wrote a bestseller. To my own surprise, I was suddenly consumed by the desire to write a real book--that is, one designed to be read by people who were not academics. I wanted to communicate with an audience. (I wrote two books, both published under another name, while procrastinating my dissertation.)

Getting the doctorate has done two things for me. One, it got me a job. And two, although I went after it for the crap reason of wanting to prove myself--it worked; I no longer have that chip on my shoulder. I feel like a grown-up, and I take myself seriously. I don't care if anyone thinks The Boyfriend List is a silly book, or not a "real" book. It is my book. So there.

Check over the weekend if you can for one last round of discussion, and be sure to come back next week, when my Author2Author guests will be Pearl Abraham and Naama Goldstein.

March 24, 2005

Author2Author: E. Lockhart & Megan Crane, pt. 3

The conversation continues, as E. opens Megan up on the subject of their mutual backgrounds in academia before pursuing careers in commercial fiction...

E. Lockhart: Back to hegemony, blah blah blah. We both got doctorates in literature (you at the University of York, me at Columbia), and then turned to writing commercial fiction for women and girls. To use terms from the Jennifer Weiner/Meg Wolitzer discussion, we are "pink ladies" who were trained to be "gray" ones--or at least, to analyze the gray ones. In English as a Second Language, which follows your protagonist through a year in a graduate literature program, your heroine argues that literary theory is "obtuse, circuitous, impossible stuff" that poisons a grad student's love of books. "It's the tragedy of higher education!" she yells. And when she completes her masters thesis, she feels empty--but the next moment feels amazed at herself: "I did this." She decides to pursue the doctorate.

So: tell me where you stand on the benefits of your scholarly training. And then, how you moved from academia to commercial fiction. Give me the drama, the angst, the horror, the triumph, the regret.

esl.jpgMegan Crane: The truth is that I was a dreadful graduate student--like the protagonist in my book, I hated literary theory. I hated the pulling apart of books, the close reading of them. What I loved about books was getting lost in them, not locating myself by ranting about this or that scholarly theory. Obviously, with this attitude, I was never really meant to be an academic. So I think everything worked out for the best!

The "gray" and "pink" ladies have been duking it out in my brain since the seventh grade. Seventh grade was when I discovered my first romance novel and so it was also when I started to realize that there were certain books one was supposed to apologize for reading. I doubt I'm the only college grad who, because it was so important to her to be viewed as smart and interesting, hid all her paperbacks in her bedroom and proudly displayed the Riverside Shakespeare and collected works of whoever in the living room. Graduate school was in a very real sense an extension of this battle. I think I wanted to prove to myself that I could make it on the "highbrow" road, despite the fact my heart was very much on the "lowbrow" path.

I'm so conflicted about even using these terms, of course-- pink/gray or lowbrow/highbrow are just ways of dismissing a primarily female body of literature. And while I applaud when the Jennifer Weiners of this world defend commercial fiction, I know that I internalized that same snobbery a long time ago. Family members have referred to my writing career as the "frivolous" thing I was doing on the side while pursuing the (presumably) more important doctorate; at a party once, I was told that while my book might make for good beach reading the reader generally preferred "real" books. There's the sense that publishing pink doesn't count as much as publishing gray, and as much as I might rage against that idea, there's the part of me who was scolded for reading "that kind of book" in the seventh grade who kind of agrees. After all, I wrote my book when I was supposed to be working on chapters for my dissertation--it was my own, personal guilty pleasure. And everyone knows that you ought to be ashamed of your guilty pleasures, right?

March 23, 2005

Author2Author: Megan Crane & E. Lockhart, pt. 2

This week's Author2Author dialogue started yesterday when E. Lockhart and Megan Crane shared college memories. Vassar continues to play a heavy role in today's exchange, which also starts delving into some of those literary issues our authors had to deal with when working on their English Ph.D. degrees...

Megan Crane: I would say that one of my major preoccupations is with how one locates and identifies oneself, as an adult finding a place in the world and particularly as a woman doing so, and that's definitely a process that began for me at Vassar. I would also say that I've only recently begun to appreciate the ways in which participating in all that delightful melodrama set me up to write the kinds of books I write. It took me a long time to find my voice. What about you? When you say Vassar informs your writing for teenagers, is that the sort of thing you mean?

E. Lockhart: Yes, I'm talking about how the female-dominated PC party enclave that was Vassar somehow magnified and foregrounded the process of locating oneself in relation to the social order and the cultural institutions that shape identity. (I am avoiding saying "hegemony" here.) That is, there was little else to do on the Vassar campus but formulate identity in relation to the microcosm.

The Boyfriend List is all about just that subject--specifically, about someone who goes from popular kid to social leper in a small school. My next book, Fly on the Wall, is about a girl who literally gets transformed into a fly on the wall of the boys' locker room in her high school--so it's about the institutions that shape masculinity, and the process of owning one's sexuality.

March 22, 2005

Author2Author: E. Lockhart & Megan Crane, pt. 1

I first heard about E. Lockhart and her novel for teens, The Boyfriend List, when she sent me a note a few weeks back. (It turned out that I actually knew about her work for grownups, which was published under a different name, but that's a different story.) She sent me a copy of the book, which is a perfect welding of YA and chick lit sensibilities, particularly in recognizing how narrators in both genres come to terms with their insecurities through talking them out in (in this case overtly) therapeutic detail. Anyway, E. picked up on a casual line I'd written about having two romance novelists with Ph.D. degrees do one of these Author2Author dialogues--which is still totally going to happen--and she pointed out that she, too, had a doctorate in literature, then suggested she could get hold of Megan Crane, who earned her Ph.D. right around the time she sold her first novel, English as a Second Language. So here we are!

lockhart.jpgE. Lockhart: Vassar, where you and I both went (me some five years ahead), seems to breed novelists who (like both of us) write about youth and the process of growing up. Teen novelists Mariah Fredericks (The True Meaning of Cleavage) and Carolyn Mackler (Vegan Virgin Valentine) went there, as did adult novelist Thomas Beller (Seduction Theory).

When I was at Vassar in the '80s, boys were wearing skirts and pearls; people were streaking on the golf course and having cocktail parties at 4 P.M.; the "beautiful people" could still smoke in the library and "The Mug" (the campus bar) let people in underage. It was a microcosm totally separated from the town around it, a no-fraternity, open-sexuality party scene, where I would go to the library every night until eleven, then go out dancing afterwards until 1:00. In other words, it was a bunch of brainy, artistic, sexed up teenagers running wild without adult supervision--and I mean that in the nicest possible way.

My experience there (the artiness, the sexual politics, the small community, the hijinks) has hugely informed the subjects I choose to write about. What was it like when you went, later? How did you fit in? Has going there affected what you write?

megancrane.jpgMegan Crane: I don't think there was much change in Vassar between your time and mine. It was the dawn of the 1990s--everyone accented their Manhattan black with Seattle plaid, was PC to a fault in word and deed, and spent a great deal of time responding emotionally to everything from homework assignments to a change in barometric pressure. There was still smoking in the library when I arrived (which I recall from the one time I went there of my own volition--I'm very impressed that you studied there until eleven each night!)* There was a lot of running wild, drawing down the moon, and partying at nine in the morning. My memory of the place is of a sort of churning mess of intellectual adolescent angst--with so much creative energy focused on each person's individual identity issues that the air practically hummed and actual artistic projects became somewhat sidelined. A friend at the time said Vassar was like Tommy with no mirror: hear me, see me, touch me, feel me, but just make sure you pay attention to me! (And for the record, I was a Mug rat and proud of it!)

* E. says, "I only studied until eleven because nothing good was going on at the bar until then."