Ellen Wittlinger is an author of Young Adult (YA) novels, including Razzle, Zigzag, The Long Night of Leo and Bree, Blind Faith, and Parrotfish. She is probably best known, however, for her novel Hard Love, which won the Printz Honor Award for excellence in Young Adult literature in 2000.
Hard Love, published in 1999, is narrated by an alienated (and alienating) teenager named John who falls for his lesbian friend, Marisol. In July 2008, Mrs. Wittlinger returned to these characters with the publication of Love and Lies: Marisol's Story, a brand-new story told from Marisol's perspective.
The following the second half of my blog interview with Mrs. Wittlinger:
Mark Dursin: You once said that a novel can’t be about just one idea; instead, a writer needs to explore several different “strands” and then somehow weave those strands together. Could you talk more about that? How do you come up with the “strands” for your novels?
Ellen Wittlinger: The strands develop as the story goes along. A book about a boy who falls in love with a lesbian girl might be interesting, but if you add in that both of them are writers who are putting their thoughts down in zines, there's another dimension to the story. If their surroundings are of interest too--she as a city kid, he as suburban, and both of them discovering the joys and beauties of Cape Cod--there's more richness. If the girl is overprotected by her mother and the boy is not even touched by his mother, you've set up an interesting dynamic which can work through their characters throughout the story. In other words, you set up situations which will make the work deeper. I hope that makes sense.
MD: You have a knack, I think, for writing endings that readers don’t expect (Gio doesn’t get the girl in Hard Love, Kenyon moves away in Razzle, and I won’t spoil the ending of Love and Lies). Still, the endings are still appropriate and satisfying to the characters. How do you decide the best—not necessarily the most obvious or easiest—ending for a book?
EW: It has to satisfy me. My endings sometimes frustrate my readers and they write to ask me what happens next. But I prefer the more realistic endings. Movies tend to tie things up in a bow at the end, but that's not how real life works. I think it helps the characters to live on in the readers' minds if you aren't sure just what will happen to them next. That's the way I like books to end, so that's the way I end mine!
MD: Do you have the ending in mind as you write?
EW: Again, it depends on the book. Sometimes the ending is inherent in the beginning and sometimes not. I would say usually I have a vague idea where I'm going, but I don't know exactly how I'm going to get there. Which makes the writing more fun for me. When I'm just working toward an ending I've already decided on, it's not as magical.
MD: What are the nuts-and-bolts of your writing process? When and where do you do your writing? Do you write everything on computer? Do you save drafts?
EW: Now that my kids are grown and gone I have a much more lax schedule. The Internet has also played a role in eating up a chunk of time that I used to use to write. These days I usually spend the morning doing email, business and promotion stuff, until a late lunch. Afternoons are for writing, and if I'm working well I'll sometimes go back and work again after dinner, but not usually. I make notes in longhand and sometimes write a poem or other short piece in longhand, but all the novels are written on the computer. I do save drafts, at least for awhile. In fact, I use up way too many trees because I like to print everything out and see it as I'm revising. I revise in longhand before going back to the computer.
MD: A growing number of English teachers feel that we should replace the “classics” with Young Adult books (which kids tend to prefer), but seemingly just as many feel that the classics are foundational and should never be removed from the curriculum. Where do you stand on this?
EW: I think there's a place for the classics in high school, but I'd certainly like to see YA books brought into the classroom as well. There are so many wonderful, well-written YA books now which speak directly to the teen experience, and not every kid will find these on his/her own. It seems to me that acquainting them with YA novels might very well spark an interest in reading in teens who are bored silly by Silas Marner or Great Expectations.
MD: Do you think academics, as a general rule, have a snobby attitude against Young Adult literature?
EW: Oh, sure. Hey, teachers aren't paid much--they should at least be able to feel a little bit superior. And adult writers certainly feel that way about YA writers. I try to let it roll off my back, but sometimes it's maddening.
MD: You may be one of the most “fan-friendly” authors I’ve ever known. You respond personally to e-mails (that's how I came to know you); you have a Facebook page; and now you're doling this blog interview. Do you think that kind of accessibility is unusual?
EW: Not anymore. I think it's become incumbent on us to reach out to our fans. It was my publicist who suggested I get MySpace and Facebook pages, and it was a good idea. But even in the past there were always authors who responded to fan mail diligently. And if I got more of it, I probably wouldn't be able to. It does eat up writing time.
MD: What kinds of books do you like to read? What are you reading now?
EW: I just finished reading Mark Doty’s Firebird: A Memoir, for my adult book group. I do read a lot of YAs, though. I've been reading graphic novels lately (Bone, Vampire Loves, etc.) in preparation for writing one. I loved Alison Bechdel's Fun Home. And I'm looking forward to digging into the new John Green novel, Paper Towns, and M.T. Anderson's second volume of Octavian Nothing. Oh, I recently read and loved E. Lockhart's The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau Banks, too. And I like to read books about writing-- for example, Take Joy by Jane Yolen which I've also been dipping into lately.
MD: A few years ago I had a student who said Hard Love was the only book he ever actually read in high school—I mean, cover to cover. And he liked it so much that he went out to the local library and got out another one of your books, Razzle. (His mother was entirely amazed by this behavior.) And I have a bunch of stories like that, about reluctant readers who really gravitated toward Hard Love. Why do you think that is? What is it about that book that captivates people?
EW: I've had letters and emails from kids telling me this too, but to be fair, I know many other YA authors who get similar letters. This is obviously why we need lots of different kinds of books available for this age group. They aren't all going to like the same thing. The miracle is when you get the right book to the right kid at the right time.
As far as Hard Love goes, I suspect what draws kids in is (1) the zines which make the book look different and maybe make it easier to get involved, and (2) the straightforwardness of the two main characters: Marisol, who is a truth-teller, even if it hurts; and John, who's just beginning to understand the truth about himself. Truth is very important to teens, and they often believe that they're the only ones telling it.
MD: I remember you told a story about how your husband was describing to someone the kinds of books you write, and he said, “She writes about how art can save you.” Do you think that’s a fair assessment of your body of work? And how can art “save” a person?
EW: I think it's a very apt assessment, although maybe not the last word on the subject. I think many people are "saved" by art when the world doesn't seem kind to them otherwise. An artist can be herself, no matter how odd the rest of the world finds her. The art itself gives you the self-esteem you might not find anywhere else. Art is a safe place.
MD: How has Hard Love "saved" you, as the author? Or, at the very least, how has it changed your career?
EW: Hard Love has definitely set me on the right path as an author. Winning the Printz Honor has kept the book in print and more and more teenagers seem to find it all the time which is very rewarding. It's helped me find an audience for all my books, and it's allowed me to write fulltime. I owe a lot to that little book!