Welcome to the final interview in YALSA’s series of interviews with the authors who are on the 2010 Morris Award Shortlist. Today we have Nina LaCour, author of Hold Still. Don’t forget to tune in on Monday, January 18 to the Youth Media Awards to find out who wins the 2010 Morris Award!
The Morris Award Committee on Hold Still: “After Caitlin’s best friend Ingrid commits suicide, Caitlin has a hard time making sense of the loss. She finds Ingrid’s journal and slowly allows herself to read it and learn about why Ingrid felt the need to end her life. Caitlin also grapples with allowing herself to find another friend, to let in a boyfriend, and to understand why her favorite teacher is ignoring her. It is the haunting story of dealing with loss, moving on, and finding peace and hope.”
YALSA Blog: Congratulations on Hold Still being on the Morris Award shortlist! Where were you when you found out you’d been shortlisted for the Morris Award? And who was the first person you told?
Nina LaCour: Thank you so much! It’s such an honor to be recognized with these five incredible authors. I was in my apartment when I got the call from Penguin. I was completely shocked and so excited. The first person I called was my wife, Kristyn, who was on her way home from work and sounded even more excited than I felt, if that’s even possible. Later that night I went to a pub for trivia night with Kristyn and my cousin and a couple friends, and the only answer I knew the whole night was the title of a 90s hip-hop song, but I didn’t mind because I was so elated over being shortlisted.
YALSA Blog: Caitlin’s recovery from the loss of Ingrid takes a long time. I hesitate to even say “recovery”; instead, it’s her adjustment to life without Ingrid. It’s not quick, it’s not simple, it’s not easy. Did you do a lot of research into grief, and recovering from loss?
Nina LaCour: I did some research into grief and recovery, yes. But I didn’t really find what I was looking for. I’m sure that some of it nestled in my brain somewhere, but in the end what I relied on more than the collection of statistics and psychological studies was just a lot of thinking. It was the worst kind of daydreaming; I was always wondering how I would feel if I had lost my best friend.
YALSA Blog: A tree house!?! I was surprised at Caitlin’s decision to make a tree house and how big and elaborate it ended up being. Why a tree house? And do you have one?
Nina LaCour: I wish! I grew up in apartments. I’ve never even had a backyard.
What happened is that a woman I knew in grad school had a coffee table book about tree houses. One evening I started looking through the book and was immediately captivated. Then, a year or so later, when I was searching for a way for Caitlin to channel her grief in an active way, I remembered them. The last thing I wanted was to write a book about a girl who sits around and cries. Caitlin does a bit of that, but I wanted her to create something, to move around, and the more I thought about it, the more fitting it seemed to have her create a structure that was all her own and that she could ultimately share with others once she was ready to let people in again.
YALSA Blog: When I was a teenager, the movies of the week that depicted teen suicide seemed to always follow a strict outline: no one knows the teen had problems, an important item was given away by the teen before the suicide, and the teen was reading Sylvia Plath. Ingrid’s depression and mental health issues are portrayed in a much more complex manner. What type of research did you do into teen depression and teen mental health issues?
Nina LaCour: Well, besides the Sylvia Plath reading, I wouldn’t say that mine is too dissimilar to what you’ve described! Caitlin knows that Ingrid is troubled; she just doesn’t know quite how troubled she is. And Ingrid does give away her journal, though it takes a while for Caitlin to discover it. But I’m very glad to know that it came across as more complex than that.
My favorite kind of research is the kind I can do while talking to people. I sent out an email to friends and grad school colleagues, asking if any of them had stories to share about cutting, depression, or suicide. I was touched by how many of them replied and told me their stories. I learned so much from them.
YALSA Blog: By reading Ingrid’s journal, Caitlin learns more about her friend and herself. Ingrid’s journal includes artwork – and so does Hold Still. There are a couple pictures that Ingrid drew, the endpapers have Ingrid’s doodles and notes, there is even a bird (but without the wite-out) on the front book cover. Did you always think that Ingrid’s art would be part of the book? What type of process was involved in this design aspect of Hold Still?
Nina LaCour: Even before I had an agent, my friend Mia Nolting and I were planning the artwork for the book. Mia and I have been friends since I was nineteen and she was eighteen, and when we were in college we sent letters to one another. I love Mia’s handwriting and her drawings, and I always hoped that she could hand-letter Ingrid’s journal entries.
When I included a sample drawing and handwritten entry in my manuscript, my editor, Julie Strauss-Gabel, was immediately for it. Fortunately, the art director agreed. Mia ended up doing so much work on the book, from the drawings on the cover to the journal entries to the title page to the concept of the debossed bird. I love what she did. I want to have Mia’s handwriting in all of my books now!
YALA Blog: The Morris Award is for a “first time author writing for teens.” Why do you write for teens?
Nina LaCour: I think that as a society we’re fascinated by the teenage years, and I’m no different. It’s an incredible thing to return to all of these experiences—first love, first heartbreak, the power of self-expression, the identity questions, the intense friendships, the consuming conflicts—in my writing. I mean, what could be better? I get to immerse myself in the exhilarating, brutal world of high school where everything is exciting and new, and then I can step back into my twenties where I have no curfew and I feel much safer.
YALSA Blog: One thing I’ve heard authors say is that in revising and editing, they have to “kill their darlings,” that is, remove parts of the book they really love but that just don’t work or belong in the final book. Is there any particular scene or character you had to “kill” from Hold Still?
Nina LaCour: I cut many pages of Hold Still. I knew as I was writing that it was not the most plot-heavy novel. I was terrified that it would be boring, so I added a few subplots. My editor and I talked a lot about pacing, and as soon as I started cutting out scenes I began a love affair with my delete key. What was once close to 300 pages became under 250, and I felt happier and happier the slimmer it got. Of course, it hurt sometimes to cut scenes or sentences that I liked, but it did so much good for the book as a whole, and by now I have trouble remembering everything that was once there—a sure sign that what I cut was not meant to make it out alive.
YALSA Blog: What are you working on now?
Nina LaCour: I’m working on two novels, one for teenagers and one for adults, though the adult novel is on hold right now—I have a deadline to meet!
My next YA novel will be published in 2011 by Dutton. It’s narrated by an 18-year-old boy named Colby who is on tour with an all-girl punk band. The novel takes place over a week, and it involves cheap motels, bad music, diners, a mysterious tattoo, thwarted plans, a VW bus, and unrequited love. It’s about friendship and love and the pains of growing up.
YALSA Blog: What three books do you think are must-reads for teens?
Nina LaCour: Oh, no! Unlike L.K. Madigan, I can’t channel Blake to answer this one for me!
One thing I’ve learned from teaching high school English is that teenagers, just like adults, react to books in tremendously different ways. So instead of recommending three books, I’m going to tell you what my top three books were when I was a teenager: Out of the Girls’ Room and Into the Night by Thisbe Nissen, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape by Peter Hedges, and What We Talk About When We Talk About Love by Raymond Carver. I read all three of these books so much that they fell out of their bindings, which is about as good an endorsement as a book can get.
YALSA Blog: Thank you!