Friday, August 8, 2008

An Interview with Ellen Wittlinger, Part I

Three summers ago, I read for the first time Ellen Wittlinger’s young adult novel Hard Love, which recounts a few months in the life of a teenage boy named John who falls in love with his lesbian friend.

To be honest, before reading this book, I never really got much out of Young Adult (or YA) Lit; the topics and characters just didn’t interest me that much. But I enjoyed reading
Hard Love so much that I looked the author up on the Internet and shot off an e-mail that said “You redeemed Young Adult Lit for me!”

Later that day, Ellen wrote back. We’ve maintained a correspondence to this day.

That’s not the only reason why Ellen Wittlinger is my favorite young adult novelist, of course: there’s also her writing voice, her engaging characters, her ability to reach even the most reluctant of readers. I’ve seen it myself, time and time again, with some of my own students: proud non-readers who end up really liking
Hard Love. Just as she redeemed YA Lit for me, she redeems reading for these students.

Even if you’re not a teenager, even if you’re not much of a reader in general, I encourage you to read some of her books, which include
Razzle, Sandpiper, The Long Night of Leo and Bree, Blind Faith, Parrotfish, and, of course, Hard Love (for which she won the Printz Award for excellence in young adult literature).

Ellen’s most recent book, a follow-up to
Hard Love called Love and Lies: Marisol’s Story, was published in July 2008. While Hard Love is narrated from the point of view of John (who also goes by the pseudonym Giovanni), Ellen tells Love and Lies from the point of view of John’s former love interest, Marisol Guzman.

Recently, Ellen agreed to do a blog interview with me, which I will publish in two parts. In Part I, below, we mainly discuss her newest book,
Love and Lies; Part II broadens the conversation to include her career and her writing process.

Mark Dursin: Love and Lies is a follow-up to Hard Love, but I notice that the word "sequel" is not used in any of the promotional descriptions. On the cover, for example, Love and Lies is called a "companion" to Hard Love. Any reason? Does "sequel" have connotations you wanted to avoid?

Ellen Wittlinger: Calling the second book a "companion novel" was my editor's choice. He felt that "sequel" would lead the reader to believe that both books are from the same point of view, and they aren't. In fact, John/Gio has a much smaller role in the new book, while Marisol becomes the protagonist and takes center stage. I do, however, sometimes refer to L&L as a sequel just because people know what the word means and might be unsure about "companion."

MD: When you finished Hard Love, nine years ago now, did you ever have a sense that you wanted to return to these characters? Did you push to write this new book? Or did your fans lead you to it, or maybe your publisher?

EW: I didn't think I would ever write a sequel to any of my books because I always thought I'd finished the story I had to tell about the characters. For years, kids asked for a sequel to Hard Love, but I didn't even think that was possible because Marisol was headed to college and YA novels don't traditionally take place in college. But then, at some point, I started to think I would like to go back to those characters, especially Marisol. I always really enjoyed that character and I knew there was a lot more to explore with her, and finally it occurred to me that, duh, she could just defer college for a year.

MD: While nine years have passed in "our" time between Hard Love and Love and Lies, only four months have passed for the characters. Two questions about time: (a) Was it tough for you to get back into these characters after such a long lay-off? and (b) What's the relationship between "their" time and "our" time? When does these two books "happen"?

EW: Yes, it was initially difficult to get back into the characters. I was so afraid I would get them wrong and my fans would be upset that they didn't recognize the people they'd come to know in Hard Love. It just took a little bit of writing and rewriting (and re-reading Hard Love) to get back into their heads again.

As for your time questions, well, I think I fudged it a bit. The original book came out in 1999, and that's when kids were big into doing zines. By 2007 zines had faded into the background a bit, so I didn't mention too much about them in Love & Lies. Instead I have Marisol and John both taking a novel-writing class. I'm trying to get away with convincing you that these two books really do happen four months apart.

MD: Many of the changes that have happened in those nine years, it seems to me, involve technology. For example, back in the late 90s, zines were "the thing." Now, zines have been largely replaced by blogs. Do you think blogs are basically "zines on a screen"? And if Marisol were alive in 2008, would she be a blogger? (See, I snuck in another two-part question.)

EW: For the most part, yes, I do think blogs are "zines on a screen," and I do think Marisol would be a blogger now. But what I miss about online blogging is the tactile sense of physically putting your own book together, getting the type, pictures, etc. and making up the pages, then copying them, stapling them, handing them to someone. But that may just be my age. I'm not ready to give up books for the Kindle yet either. I suspect teens would not see any difference between making their blog page and making a zine.

MD: Love and Lies is narrated by Marisol, whom I've always found a polarizing character. From my experience teaching Hard Love, many students think she leads Gio on; they feel for him, but at Marisol's expense. Do you agree with that reading? And was there any conscious attempt this time around to make her more sympathetic?

EW: Well, I do know that some students, particularly boys, feel that Marisol leads Gio on. I didn't feel that was true when I was writing the book, though, and I'm always surprised by that idea. She does tell him right up front that she's lesbian and he shouldn't expect her to change. And she reiterates that throughout the book.

I think teens have read and seen so many happy-ending stories that some of them just expected these two would end up together no matter how unlikely that scenario was, and when it didn't happen, they were upset with the character (instead of me!). I don't like to tie up my books with pretty ribbons at the end. I like them to be hopeful, but not unrealistically happy.

As for me making a conscious attempt to make Marisol more sympathetic--it wasn't so much that I wanted her to be sympathetic as that I wanted her to understand what a hurtful love could feel like. Marisol is so confident, so sure of herself--to the point of cockiness--I thought that she needed a little wake-up call in order to grow and change.

MD: Hard Love has just one ill-fated kissing scene, but Love and Lies contains some legitimate sex. Granted, you don't include long descriptions of, let's say, "sexual congress," but on the other hand, there's a tad more than just the implication of sex in Love and Lies. Why did you decide to go "there" in this book?

EW: You go where the book takes you. Marisol is 18 and she's looking for an adult kind of love. In the first book, there was no reason for more than a kiss, but in L&L, Marisol no longer lives at home, and she's involved with an older woman; it would be unrealistic for it not to move into the bedroom. I never write about sex without weighing and measuring each word because I know many other people will do the same. I put it in when it has to be there.

MD: I suppose I should ask about Marisol's lesbianism. I never found it problematic, and I never had any students or parents complain, but I sense it could be a problem for some readers. (After all, the people who want to ban To Kill a Mockingbird and Huck Finn may not exactly warm up to a book about a young lesbian exploring her awakening sexuality.) Have you ever received any negative feedback to the character of Marisol?

EW: Hard Love was never, to my knowledge, publicly challenged. That doesn't mean, of course, that the book wasn't silently censored in other ways, removed from shelves, not purchased to begin with, etc. And I have several times been dis-invited to speak at schools when people realized that I had written books with gay and lesbian characters.

My bottom line on this topic is that I will talk about whatever books the students have read for my visit, but if a student has a question about another of my books, even (or especially) one with gay characters, I'm going to answer those questions too. This just makes some people very uncomfortable. Who knows, maybe Love & Lies will be my second book to be challenged! (The first was Sandpiper, which has been challenged several times for dealing with oral sex.)

MD: Hard Love has many recurring themes-- for example, the theme of "touch" (in the physical sense-- John's mother won't touch him-- and in the emotional sense). Any themes you want readers of Love and Lies to watch for?

EW: You know, I never write a book with the idea of "theme" in mind. I'm always a little surprised when people point out to me what my themes are. I think most authors would say the same. Theme is your job.

MD: Well, does that mean you don’t necessarily have an intention in your writing? Do elements like symbols or themes just “happen” as part of your creative process, rather than you writing toward them?

EW: It depends on the book. In a book like Parrotfish, of course I have an intention: to make the transgender character understandable and relatable. But I would say theme is never the first thing I'm thinking about. I always begin with character and then figure out/discover what those characters have to say, who they'll be, how they'll impact each other. I'm not thinking about theme or symbolism in the first draft, for sure.

As I go back and see what's happening in the book, what direction it's taking, then yes, I might enhance something to play on what's already there. That's the tinkering part of revision, and it's a fun part of the process.

MD: One more question about authorial intention: the knock against English teachers is that we over-analyze things, or we apply meaning to aspects of a text that the author may not have intended. Thoughts on this?

EW: Well, I think it depends how this is done. I don't necessarily think the author is the final authority on a book; I'm often surprised at what someone has taken from one of my books. A book is a sort of conversation between the writer and the reader. You take from a book what you need to take, so having someone point out what you might take from it--I don't have a problem with that. I think that sometimes kids get turned off to English because they feel that a teacher has sucked the life out of a book by analyzing it to death, but I think that if a teacher really loves and respects the book himself, this isn't going to happen.

MD: Judy Blume wrote five books about Fudge and his friends and family, and I don’t even know how many books Beverly Cleary wrote about Henry Huggins and Ramona Quimby. Any chance you might write another book about Gio, Marisol, et al? Are there more stories to tell?

EW: Well, who knows? The ending to L&L is fairly ambiguous. There could be another story to tell about these characters. It probably depends on how well this book sells and whether my publisher is interested in doing a third book.

(Stay tuned for Part II of this interview with author Ellen Wittlinger.)

1 comment:

Reading Fool said...

Great interview! I liked the insights into Marisol's character and how your students reacted to her. She certainly is a complex person. I'm really glad you asked about authorial intent, too, because I've always wanted to hear what an author has to say on the subject. (I was one of the students who always thought that the author probably just wrote the story and wasn't really looking to push the symbolism!) Anyhow, I'm adding the link from my blog to this interview, and I can't wait to read part two!