Laurie Halse Anderson boils down the bones

She hated books as a kid, but now Laurie Halse Anderson is a gritty voice for young readers and a strong defender of the craft.
By Julie Krug | Published: December 1, 2014


Laurie Halse Anderson

Laurie Halse Anderson

Behind the writing desk, an old pitchfork leans against the wall, white and yellow craft-store daisies hot-glued here and there, in comic contrast to the prickly metal tines. On another wall, an enormous pair of vintage wooden snowshoes rest easy, giving the space a homey, provincial feel.

YA and children’s author Laurie Halse Anderson peers into the camera on her computer, beginning another one of her “Mad Woman in the Forest” video blogs.

She gives a cheerful good morning to her virtual audience and Cassie, Anderson’s German Shepherd, explodes into barking. After shushing the dog, Anderson talks about what to do when a story idea hits.

“When an idea strikes, you take advantage of it,” says Anderson. She keeps paper and journals everywhere – in her purse, her car, the rooms in her house – so that when something comes to her, she’s ready. She illustrates how a few short simple sentences can turn into a book:

One graham cracker broken in to four pieces. Sixteen grams of dry, yellow cheese. Seven grapes, peeled.

This is the voice of 16-year-old Leah who “spoke” these words to Anderson. Those first sentences began the uncomfortable journey of writing the disturbing yet powerful story of two teenage girls who compete with eating disorders.

While her vlogs start with writing advice, they often give way to another great passion of hers: gardening.

After doling out writing advice, Anderson fans out a poker hand of seed envelopes and, with a slight New York accent, ticks off names: pumpkin, spinach, zucchini. Acorn squash (which only she will eat) and Brussels sprouts. Cucumber, kale, killer cilantro.

While planting a garden and creating stories both take time and creative energy, writing books conjures up more complex emotions. “Writing books is hard,” says Anderson. “It dredges up all of our anxieties and insecurities, and it makes us feel small and scared and lonely.” This does not change after getting published. “In fact, it gets worse.”

Anderson’s 1,500 square-foot garden is full of diversity. But when it comes to her generous crop of writing advice, it’s all about the staples – which she has enriched with just the right amount of humor and straight talk, leaving her audience of writers with plenty to feast on.

Plot

On struggling with plot, Anderson advises writers to go easy on themselves, especially when the plot doesn’t jump fully formed from your head to the page “neat and tidy.” For every book, she throws out more than 200 pages of work.

This is all part of the process. The first draft is the falling madly in love draft, she says. And with subsequent drafts, you fall out of love so you can see flaws clearly. “You revise with detachment and coolness,” says Anderson. And then you see your story the way your reader would.

Revision

Anderson says the hardest thing to teach about writing is revision. Noting that everyone has his or her own process – she lays out her characters and story using a single massive sheet of paper. “I usually have about 300 to 400 pages of chaos,” she says, by the time she’s done with a novel. In a task she calls “boiling down the bones,”Anderson goes through eight drafts during revision.

One of her favorite quotes is by mega-hit author Michael Crichton: “Books aren’t written. They’re re-written. Including your own. It’s one of the hardest things to accept, especially after the seventh rewrite hasn’t quite done it.”

Outlines and endings

Writing the endings to historical fiction novels was easy compared to the endings of other novels, says Anderson. The history acts as “scaffolding,” so these books lend themselves to outlines. Her YA novels are more fluid, and the drafts unfold in her head as she’s writing.

Her attitude about the process from start to finish is easygoing: “While it probably makes extra revision work for me, I have no interest in outlining my YAs. I love the magic of watching the characters grow, without knowing how the story ends.”

The Internet

When it comes to Internet platforms and writing websites, Anderson is blunt with her views, advising writers to replace online surfing with a writing practice.

“I don’t understand why people post details about their unpublished manuscripts online,” she says. “It’s not like editors and agents have thousands of minions combing the Internet in search of your story.”

Anderson says the best thing to do is cut the amount of time you spend on social media and reading blogs about writing and publication by 75 percent: “Use that time for writing your novel and for reading great books. That will make your chances of getting published much stronger than any Facebook post ever will.”

Fuel for writing

As a child, Anderson detested reading. And she really struggled with spelling and grammar. She thought she’d end up as a dairy farmer before ever becoming an author. “When I was growing up, nobody thought I was going to be a writer,” she says. 

Early in her career as an author, Anderson dabbled in children’s historical fiction. But it was her own experience with sexual assault as a teenager that led her write YA novels.

In 1999, her book Speak – about a high school girl who is raped, shunned by her peers and subsequently becomes mute – quickly became a best-seller.

Speak, often referred to as “gritty realism,” was a finalist for the National Book Award, and, in 2004, was made into a movie starring pre-Twilight fame actor Kristen Stewart.

Anderson’s willingness to talk about taboo subject matter, often considered controversial for young audiences, has made her a regular every year during Banned Book Week.

Fellow YA writer Chris Crutcher, of Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes, is a regularly challenged and censored author. He applauds Anderson’s willingness to tackle tough subjects so that teens can be given a voice and be heard.

“Laurie is the whole package,” says Crutcher. “Her work is literary, funny, stark and fearless. She is as graceful as she is aggressive in her fight for the First Amendment. Laurie has a huge following among teachers, librarians and, most important, readers.”

You can see her fierceness in our interview, which follows.

A Q&A with Laurie Halse Anderson

The Impossible Knife of Memory

The Impossible Knife of Memory

How did you make the transition from freelance journalist to children’s/YA author?

Slowly! It was a lot of fun to write fiction; journalism requires such a dreadful amount of sticking to the facts. But I made every mistake possible as a young writer, so my “overnight success” took more than a decade. When I finally figured out how to write a decent book, I started doing school visits, as many as 100 a year. That gave me a wonderful opportunity to hang out with kids all over the country, and it provided a stable income while I was slowly building my career. I never planned on leaving journalism, but one day I realized that I had.

Growing up, you weren’t particularly good with spelling and grammar. You said you weren’t much of a reader, either. How can writers learn to compensate for their natural handicaps in writing?

I eventually became a reader with the help of hard-working, kind-hearted teachers. When I finally broke through the puzzle of reading, I fell upon the library with a vengeance. Reading voraciously can make up for everything. (I still spend about three hours a day reading.) I know my weaknesses. Plot is still a challenge, but dialog comes easily. Character development is cake, but I sweat blood about describing setting and folding descriptions into action to move the story along. I’m a terrible speller and a bit inventive with grammar, so I have to spend extra time on those, too. But the most important skill is storytelling, and the only way to develop that is by telling and writing stories.

In Chains, you wrote about slavery; in Wintergirls, eating disorders; in The Impossible Knife of Memory, PTSD. When writing about serious subject matter, how do you keep your batteries charged? Do you need long breaks in between?

I’m not sure if I need those breaks, but I wind up being forced to take them because of the requirements of publicity, book tours and way too many conferences and schools. I suspect that if I weren’t on the road so much, I’d be able to write faster. I’m trying to cut down on the travel a bit, so keep your fingers crossed.

What advice can you give to writers who are planning to write about their traumatic life experiences? What safeguards can be used so they can write honestly but avoid becoming re-traumatized in the process?

It’s hard to give universal advice like this because everyone has his or her own ability to cope with trauma. For some, writing about it and publishing and then talking about it to thousands of strangers can be cathartic and liberating.

That might propel other people into a deep mire of depression and paralysis. Framing one’s own trauma in the life of a fictional character, making those changes necessary to protect your own heart and soul, can be a wise path if you’re not sure what kind of person you are.

Also, find a good therapist. Speak wouldn’t have been written without mine.

You took some heat over the content of Wintergirls. I’m referring to the criticism that the book might act as a blueprint for anorexia and bulimia.How do you balance devotion to your story while at the same time protecting a younger, more vulnerable audience? 

I strongly feel, as a mother, grandmother and an artist, that the best way to protect the young is to be honest with them. I try to reflect the realties of the world through the dark mirror of fiction. I write about pain and loss and redemption, grace, and love. I write about resilience so that my readers might find their own inner strength. Kids and teens deal with the realities of the world everyday. It’s the adults who don’t know how to talk to kids who freak out about this stuff.

Do you have to read your genre to write it? Which YA writers influence you?

I don’t read much in my genre because I want my work to come out of my heart. I read a lot of adult mysteries, fantasy and nonfiction.

Many of your books are written in first person POV.  What do you like about it? What’s easy and what’s hard about this voice?

When I started writing, it was the voice that came to me naturally. I’ve begun to experiment with using other points of view – I included sections told from the main character’s point of view in The Impossible Knife of Memory – and am having a lot of fun with them.

You’ve said you love research and reading nonfiction, and then take that passion and put it into your fiction work. Do you get all your research done first, and then write your story? Or do you research and write at the same time?

There are two layers of research. The first is the most extensive: understanding the world of the story, the broad sweep of history and the tiny details of the characters’ daily lives. That gives me enough of a world that I can write a horrifically rough first draft. Characters always get away from me – and the outline – at this point and walk their own paths through the story. This necessitates the need for another round of research. Then I write a decent draft and get to work on the revision process, trying to shape the story into something worth reading.

Gardening is one of your great passions. Does this passion spill over into your writing life in any way?

Gardening is a meditative experience for me, much like knitting, drawing and running. I rarely think about my books actively when I’m absorbed in these hobbies, but I always find that when I sit back down to write, my subconscious has worked out whatever snag had tangled my story and the words flow freely again.

You refer to your first drafts as “chaos.” I think back to all of the stories I started and didn’t finish back in the early days of writing, simply because I couldn’t accept the chaos as part of the process. How can writers be encouraged to sit with this uncomfortable energy, trusting it will take shape down the road?

If you are looking for perfection or an artistic expression that is free of chaos, you should give up writing. Learning to be comfortable with the chaos of early drafts is essential. You’d never expect an infant to wake up one morning fully toilet-trained, speaking in perfect English, and heading off to the bus stop. It’s equally unrealistic to expect your characters and narrative flow to sort themselves out instantly. Art takes time. Stories have their own heartbeat, and they will unfold at their own pace. All you have to do is to continue to show up and do the work. Every day.

YA as a genre has grown exponentially over the years. What advice can you give to writers trying to break into this category?

It’s the same advice I give anyone trying to break into any genre of writing: Keep your day job, live frugally and be prepared for the long haul. The worst thing writers can do to themselves and their dreams is to have unrealistic expectations about how much money they are going to make. Writing is hard. Writing under the pressure of paying the rent and feeding children is ridiculously hard.

How have your often-challenged and censored books positively affected the teens who read them?

The most common thing I hear is that my books make readers feel less alone. When they find a character struggling with the same issues, experiencing the same feelings as they are, teens who thought they were isolated know that they are not. That can be life changing and sometimes life saving.  It’s not just my books – every YA writer I know has heard this from readers. It’s one of the joys of writing for this audience. Several of my books have helped readers reach for help. They’ve spoken up and reached for help to deal with the traumas of sexual assault, bullying, eating disorders and depression.

The impact this has had on me cannot be fully expressed in words, but I consider myself a very lucky girl.

Laurie Halse Anderson File

Lives in Mexico, New York, not far from where she was born.

Is the daughter of a minister.

As a teenager and exchange student, spent a year living in Denmark on a pig farm.

Married her childhood sweetheart, whom she has known since she was 3 years old.

Alter ego: landscaper.

YA literary crush is Neil Gaiman.

Has a degree in language and linguistics from Georgetown University.

Julie Krug is a freelance writer living in Washington State.

  • Bev Murrill

    Being comfortable with the chaos of first drafts…. Wow.. that really help!

  • Sinibaldi

    Like a path
    in the pinewood.

    In the light

    of a beautiful

    morning the

    song of a fine

    bird remembers

    the youth and

    the smile of

    a feeling.

    Francesco
    Sinibaldi