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Lisa Graff Talks with Roger

Lisa Graff Talks with Roger

Talks with Roger is a sponsored supplement to our free monthly e-newsletter, Notes from the Horn Book. To receive Notes, sign up here.

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LisaGraff_200wIn Lost in the Sun, a companion to Umbrella Summer, Lisa Graff explores the consequences of one boy’s death on the other boy who inadvertently caused it. How do you get over that? And how, I also wanted to know, does having once been a children’s book editor (Graff worked at Farrar, Straus and Giroux) affect the way one goes about writing for children?

Roger Sutton: Let’s dive in because I have a lot of questions about Lost in the Sun. It seems like such a risk to use an unreliable — well, is unreliable the right word? Unsympathetic, maybe — narrator. How did it occur to you to do that?

Lisa Graff: I’m not sure it was a conscious decision. Though now that you say that, I’m remembering that my graduate thesis at The New School was on unlikable protagonists in middle-grade literature, so obviously it’s something that’s interesting to me. A couple of my narrators have been unlikable. I’m fascinated by kid characters, especially, but by all characters who seem on the surface to be people we wouldn’t want to spend time with. How they got that way, what they’re thinking, and what’s going on behind them.

RS: How do you, as a writer, keep a reader invested in that person? I thought, “This guy Trent is so screwed up.” But I fell for him.

LG: It’s funny, because with all of my characters that are “unlikable,” I really love them. They’re usually my favorites, and it doesn’t occur to me at first that the reader might not love them. It’s a matter of finding what makes them do the things they do — the bad decisions — and what makes them tick. We can connect with whatever the emotions are, if not necessarily the actions themselves.

RS: One thing you do early on in the book is let us know why Trent is acting the way he is. So we don’t just think he’s an asshole.

LG: He still is, a little bit. But you know why.

RS: Right. Here we have this protagonist who’s been involved in something terrible. He really didn’t do anything wrong, but you can see why he feels like he did, and now he has to learn to come to terms with it. How do you stop that from turning into a problem novel? Or is it a problem novel? What do you think of that term?

LG: It makes me cringe, even though every book deals with issues and problems. If they didn’t, they’d be boring. But the term is kind of horrific.

RS: It has a lot of bad history.

LG: My early drafts were definitely problem novels. When I write my first several drafts, everything is really big and broad and cheesy, and there are huge moments and huge emotions. I usually overwrite so much at the beginning. My first draft of this novel was probably five hundred pages. It was enormous. And a mess.

RS: Multiple victims. Crawling on the ice.

graff_lost in the sunLG: And then I go through and pick up the moments that really feel truthful. Those tend to be the quiet moments. They’re the ones that if I were to outline — which I don’t often do but, but if I were to — probably wouldn’t even make it in the outline, because they’re not big events. But they’re the ones that really matter. I keep those, and I throw everything else out.

RS: That makes me wonder about outlining as a technique for putting a novel together. I wonder if people miss things, because they’ve got this list, dammit, and they’re going to stick to it. I guess it’s different for everybody.

LG: I think so. I’m not an outliner, because when I do — after I’ve spent all that time and hated every moment of it — I realize that my outlines are all about things that the characters understand and emotions they’re having. There’s no actual plot in the entire outline, and it doesn’t work.

RS: Oh, plot. Plot.

LG: My books are not particularly plot-y. That’s not the way I think. The plot is very secondary to me. I just can’t outline.

RS: But you do have things happen to your characters. I’ve read some books where it feels like the plot is just an excuse to move the characters from place to place so they can have another conversation.

LG: It’s all in the rewriting, the revision. Where can I put these characters, and what would best show us what’s happening to them?

RS: What has your previous career as a children’s book editor done for you as a novelist?

LG: That’s a great question. I sold my first two novels just about three months after I started at FSG, so I was really learning how to be an editor at the same time as I was learning how to be a writer. It was wonderful, though very difficult. Being an editor has probably helped me to just take my time. At first it was hard, because I was working with all these wonderful writers and wonderful books, and I would try to edit myself too much. But after a while of seeing the process so many amazing writers go through — how some projects start not as amazing as they end, and the very different ways that people go through drafting and writing books — I realized that it was okay to start from a really terrible place. What was important and necessary was to just work through the process the way you need to do it. So counter to what you might expect, being an editor has actually helped me take my time more.

RS: Do you feel like you’re nicer to yourself as an author, maybe?

LG: At the beginning of a book, yes. Then I’m brutal and cruel in the middle, which is also very important. There’s no greater satisfaction to me than slashing out entire pages of a draft. I get a sick pleasure out of it.

RS: Just sort of lacerating yourself with self-hatred — is that what you’re doing?

LG: I want the book to be as concise as possible, and since I know I’m someone who overwrites in drafts, I know that the cutting stage is part of my process. Often I’ll make myself some word count — I have to cut twenty-five words on every page in a draft, say. That’s actually fun for me, because I see what’s crucial to the story. Sometimes passages or paragraphs or even whole pages that were my favorite things to write can be unimportant to the story.

RS: That’s something I had to learn as an editor as well. Sometimes design dictates you can only use so many words and no more, and it becomes like a puzzle. How am I going to get all the words into the allotted space?

LG: Love that.

RS: It is kind of fun. And how far will you go with this before you share a manuscript with your editor?

LG: It depends on the project. Jill Santopolo has edited all my middle-grade books, and I like to show her my projects when I know they need work but I don’t know what else to do to them. That’s my ideal situation, though it doesn’t always happen that way because of time constraints. There have been a couple of times, too, when I’ve hit a spot where I have no idea what I’m doing, and it’s just a mess. I’ll show it to Jill, and she’s amazing because she can see through all that, and she’ll point me in a direction and say, “Okay, this is your story,” or “This is your main character,” and I can go back to square one with that little piece.

RS: Do you feel like it’s done when it’s done? I know writers who are never satisfied, even when the thing is published.

LG: When I was working on my first published book, The Thing About Georgie, I remember having this moment when I realized that I could just revise this thing until the end of time, and it would become a different book. There was something kind of wonderful and scary about that. But there does come a moment when it feels like it’s the story that I was trying to write, even if it’s not perfect in every regard. That’s the point where I want to stop. Usually what happens is after that draft where I think I’m done, and I go out for a nice dinner to celebrate, two days later Jill emails me another revision letter. This has happened with every single one of my books. She says, “Okay, just one more draft.” And then after that one I’m really done. She’s always right.

RS: Let’s talk about the end of this book. I loved it. But I noticed that even the Horn Book review has some questions about the ending. I don’t want to give anything away, because it is a great surprise of an ending, so let’s talk around it a little bit. What kinds of reactions have you had from readers?

LG: You mean the very, very end, right?

RS: The very, very end.

LG: There have been some people who were surprised and upset, but most of the responses are positive. I think most people felt it was the best, natural ending to the story. For me there was never a question. It seemed like the truest way to tell these characters’ stories. I’m trying to find the best way to talk around it.

RS: I know.

LG: I think it speaks to one of the central themes of the story, which is that it’s not the events in our lives that are important so much as how we respond to them. That’s what I really wanted to get across.

RS: That’s the theme of your novel all the way through. The big central propelling event of the story happens before the first page.

LG: Absolutely. In essence, it could have been anything that happened. It’s the way that Trent reacts. It’s not that event per se that shapes him, it’s what it did to him.

RS: Right. Had he been someone else, it would have been a completely different story. Because it’s about what happens to that character, not what happens to a person, when a tragedy like that occurs.

LG: Exactly. The idea for this book came from a book I wrote several years ago, Umbrella Summer, which is about a character, Annie, dealing with the tragedy of her brother dying. It occurred to me at the time that someone had to have hit the hockey puck that struck her brother. There was nowhere in the book to address it, so I just ignored that side of things. But the idea sat in my head, and it wasn’t until maybe five or six years later that I decided I wanted to write a book about the boy who’d hit the hockey puck. And then it wasn’t until the book was finished that I figured out why I wanted to focus on Trent’s character, who I hadn’t realized at the time was based on someone I had known, whom I was very close to. That was my jumping-off point.

RS: There’s this new book by Sophie Kinsella — she writes those Shopaholic novels. But she’s written her first YA, Finding Audrey. It’s about a girl who has become intensely agoraphobic. She even wears sunglasses so she doesn’t have to look at anybody. All we know is that something happened at school between her and this clique of girls, but we never learn what it is.

LG: Oh, interesting.

RS: Similarly, she’s dealing with the fallout and recovery from this event. The actual whatever happened happened before the book began. We never find out what that was, and it becomes all the more powerful because you don’t know. That’s kind of how I feel about what we’re trying not to discuss.

LG: I always feel funny about that, when kids ask me what happens to these characters after the book ends. I’m like, “Whatever you want. It’s fiction. It’s not real.” But yes, I do feel like I know what happened.

RS: I got so mad when J. K. Rowling told everyone that Dumbledore was gay. Not because I care that Dumbledore is gay. Be as gay as you want, Dumbledore. But it’s like she took that power that you’re talking about away from readers. She didn’t write that he was gay.

LG: I had that same reaction. It’s not on the page, so it’s not true. I feel like once you write a book it belongs to the reader. It doesn’t belong to you anymore, so it doesn’t matter what you think, or what your backstory is for those characters. It’s everyone else’s.

RS: You have done your part. And the reader has a job too. And if you don’t give readers the room to do that job, I suspect they’re not going to get invested in your story.

LG: It’s interesting to read people’s interpretations of my books, because there are times when I think, “That’s absolutely not why the character did that.” But that’s just my interpretation. Readers can think whatever they want. They have that freedom, and it’s great.

RS: But it must drive you crazy when people do actually misread what you have put on the page.

LG: Yeah, that’s annoying. It says it right there! But I remember being in a grad school workshop, and someone was giving me notes. I cut in, which we were never supposed to do; we were supposed to just remain silent while they gave us their comments. But I cut in and said, “That’s not what I meant.” My thesis adviser said, “Lisa, you can’t sit over everyone’s bed while they read your novel and tell them what you meant.” Which is really true.

RS: And kind of creepy.

LG: So I try to remember that.

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