Author Interview: Libba Bray

Breakout YA author Libba Bray followed up A Great and Terrible Beauty (Delacorte, 2003, 2005)(read an excerpt), with the second in the trilogy, Rebel Angels (Delacorte, 2005)(read an excerpt). She’s from Texas, and lives in New York.

What were your earliest literary influences?

I loved, loved, loved To Kill a Mockingbird. I also remember loving Where the Red Fern Grows, the Half-Magic books, Sounder, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, as well as books by E.B. White, C.S. Lewis (you had to have initials, apparently, to be in my club…), Laura Ingalls Wilder, George Orwell, Arthur Conan Doyle (the inspiration for Gemma’s last name), Russell Hoban, Dr. Seuss. I devoured Mad Magazine. I read lots of mysteries: Nancy Drew, The Hardy Boys, The Happy Hollisters. I had a book of Buck Rogers comics from the 1930’s that I would read over and over again.

I was crazy about scary, creepy, ghost story-type stuff (you’re shocked, I know), and I read lots of Hawthorne and Poe and these grisly vampire/werewolf/Brothers Grimm comic books that were rife with blood, gore, and sexuality. I don’t think my mom realized quite how much cleavage and innuendo were in those things that I kept under my pillow. Where’s Child Protective Services when you need ’em?

As a teen, I went crazy for Catcher in the Rye, A Separate Peace, The Bell Jar, Lord of the Flies, Heart of Darkness, Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, Douglas Adams, Woody Allen, and National Lampoon. If it was irreverent and funny, I was there. And my mom was a huge influence because she introduced me to so many of the books I loved.

What are your favorite books as a reader today? What qualities in them appeal to you?

I like such a wide swath of things, everything from Y.A. to southern fiction to absurdist, satirical fiction and non-fiction, too.

I love to distraction a short story collection, Pastoralia by George Saunders. He writes like the love child of T.C. Boyle and Thomas Pynchon with a little Terry Gilliam thrown in. It’s funny and bizarre as all get out, but it’s so rooted in a deep howl of truth that you realize after a while that you’ve been gutted quietly.

If John Irving’s The Hotel New Hampshire is sitting out somewhere, open, I will sit down and start to read it and not be able to stop. I love it that much. It’s so quirky and eccentric yet incredibly moving and painful and hopeful. I feel like my soul stretches with each page, and I am a different person after I’ve read it.

I enjoy reading short stories. I really will read anything, but I want to be able to trust the author. I want to know that it has cost him or her something to write it, and that he or she is not going to hold back on me.

What inspired you to begin writing for young adults?

Um, my own arrested development?

First of all, I just fell in love with the Y.A. books I was reading. Such great stuff from people like Chris Crutcher, Rob Thomas, Nancy Werlin, Gail Giles, Patricia McCormick, E.R. Frank, Angela Johnson, Rachel Cohn, to name just a few.

I felt like a whole world opened up to me. The Y.A. books I was reading seemed to have such strong voices and such heart. No B.S., no filler. I was hooked. And I have long maintained that we never leave behind our 15-year-old selves. They come with us and lurk, waiting for a chance to speak. And when they do, it’s usually a straight-no-chaser kind of truth.

Did you face any challenges to finding success?

I have been incredibly lucky. I know that. And I know that the wheel turns.

As Tom Waits says, “It can’t be summer all the time.” My biggest challenge to success, honestly, was my own fear. The whole time I was writing A Great and Terrible Beauty, I worried that it wasn’t good enough, that it was too strange or not true enough, that I wouldn’t be able to pull it off or express myself well. I worried that it wasn’t Y.A. That it wasn’t fresh or original or interesting. That people would use its pages to line their cat litter box and even the cats would turn their noses up at my prose. (In case you haven’t guessed, I’m a big time worrier. It could be my first career with a minor in writing.)

My husband kept gently leading me back to the computer saying, “Just write.”

What encouragement helped you along the way?

My editor, Wendy Loggia, was a big cheerleader as was my husband, Barry, and a few close friends. The community of other writers as a balm cannot be overstated. They smile and nod in understanding, buy you a cookie, let you talk it out till you’ve figured out a solution to your own problem, and they hide the sharp objects.

What, if anything, do you wish you’d done differently during your apprenticeship (the time you spent before publication, growing as a writer)? Why? What did you do that was most helpful?

Hmmm, that’s a difficult question to answer, because really, whatever path you take is the path that, apparently, you need to take. I know that sounds a little Downward Dog-Kumbaya-Hug It Out-Chicken Soup Works Well as a Book Title, but it’s true.

Sometimes I berate myself for “wasting” so many years in a playwriting career that went nowhere. But what I learned about dialogue was invaluable, and that Glam Rock sense of Bowie-Meets-Sondheim theatricality is a part of my writer’s DNA, too. Working in advertising and knowing that I could let my brain spin out in any direction but I had to come back to the point was helpful. My apprenticeship at 17th Street productions, a book packager, gave me a lot of discipline and taught me that yes, yes you can write a novel in only two months because the editor says you can, and that sure got rid of any writer’s block problems. I felt like some old showgirl sitting on a bar stool with a gin and a Menthol going, “Listen pal, lemme tell you how it’s done…”

The most helpful thing I did, though, was to become a part of a community called Manhattan Writers, run by Aaron Zimmerman, and, for a time, Hilary Plattner and Maureen Leary. It’s based on Pat Schneider’s Amherst writing workshops. I jokingly call it group therapy for writers. In this method, the workshop leader gives an exercise which you are free to follow or not, and you write for a timed period and then read aloud. People comment on what’s strong. It did two really important things for me over time: 1. It helped me get past my inner critic and just dive in without overthinking it so that I could get right to the heart of the matter, and 2. I got used to hearing my own voice. I realized I actually HAD a voice and that it wasn’t the voice somebody else thought I should have. That was invaluable. 3. By helping me recognize my own voice, it also helped me learn to take risks and really go there in the writing. I realized I would not explode and the world wouldn’t stop turning on its axis if I wrote poorly or was angry or really vulnerable—if I told the truth as I saw it. What a relief.

Okay, so that’s three things, not two. Sue me.

What was your inspiration for creating this trilogy?

Oh, god. This is so embarrassing. I want to be able so say something like, (adopting that regal, authorial, hand-stroking-chin-eyes-gazing-into-the-distance pose) “Yes, you know, ever since I immersed myself in Artaud’s theatre of pain and Derrida’s theories of deconstruction, I’ve always wanted to explore…” But the dirty truth is that I really had a hankering to write a Victorian “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” Sigh. Feet of clay. (Shoes by Kenneth Cole!)

What was the timeline between spark and publication, and what were the major events along the way?

I had the first inklings of an idea in 1999. But it was really, really basic—the equivalent of a stick figure drawing in crumbly crayon. “Move along here, people, nothing to see, let’s keep moving…” I first talked to Ann Brashares about it. She had been an editor of mine at 17th Street Productions and was very encouraging and helpful. She and Ginee Seo (Ginee Seo Books) and I had a great lunch where they let me ramble on about it, and they asked me some really thought-provoking questions. It was clear that I had A LOT of work to do. I hadn’t even begun to scratch the surface. It was like turning in a paper citing only one source and going, “Okay, so that’s done. Yo, where are the chips?” and having the teacher shove it right back at you with an, “I don’t think so…” So I kept tinkering and wool-gathering for another year-and-a-half. In my head, the book went from this sort of middle-grade, scary-lite mystery series—a bit “Scooby Doo”—to a much darker, completely different book. Long story short, Ann left to write a little book you may have heard of, something about some pants that like to travel, and Ginee was changing houses and starting her own imprint. I figured that was the end of that.

But it wouldn’t let me go. I ended up taking the completely revamped idea to Wendy Loggia at Random House. I had worked with her on a Love Stories series book and loved her. She said she’d be very interested when I had something to show her. So I went home, holed up, and pumped out a synopsis and three sample chapters. She suggested that I go even deeper, darker, older. I did, because I play well with others. She bought the book and I signed the contract on September 10, 2001. I was very excited and ready to start work on the morning of September 11, 2001. I dropped my son off at preschool, went into a bodega for milk, and when I came out, the sky was black over Brooklyn. I didn’t work at all on the book for four months. And by the time I did, it had changed. I decided not to outline the book. Instead, I closed my eyes, took the plunge, and wrote.

What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, logistical) in bringing it to life?

You forgot dietary. 🙂 I don’t think I stopped eating while writing both Beauty and Rebel Angels. Honey, I’m STILL working off those pounds! I had never written an historical novel before, nor had I ever attempted fantasy. I actually didn’t know I was going to be doing fantasy till about a third of the way in. Quel surprise! I’d also never tried a trilogy before. Jeez, this is starting to sound like an episode of “Wild Kingdom” gone wrong: “I’ll watch from the safety of the plane while Jim wrestles the wild anaconda…ooh, that’s gotta hurt…” It was a daunting task, to be sure. The fantasy elements were hardest for me. I had no idea how to structure the rules of this alternate universe. I was blindly feeling my way. Thank God for The Great Franny Billingsley (her official name in my book) who read an early draft and gave me 10 PAGES of notes that were genius. She was the one who pointed out to be that I, um, actually needed to HAVE rules for the realms. I didn’t quite get it right with Beauty, in my estimation, but the learning curve was beyond steep—it was an X game.

The research was done in my usual haphazard, disorganized way. I ordered several books from Amazon on daily life in Victorian England, and those books led me to other books and other experts. (Thank you, Dr. Sally Mitchell of Temple University, Colin Gale of Royal Bethlehem Archives, Lee Kirby at the British Transport Museum, everyone at the British Library, and my man, Lee Jackson of You rock.) I constantly felt that I didn’t know enough and didn’t know what I was talking about. Who was I to even presume I could write about Victorian English school girls as I was A) a Texan-New Yorker B) a public schools grad and C) not a history major. But the fear fueled me. I did manage to scrape together enough cash to go to London for more research, though I had to live on Top Ramen after that.

Logistically and financially, I had to work my freelance jobs while I wrote—I had a contract with an ad agency for three days a week plus I had other clients—and I had a child under the age of four. I still have to balance part-time work with childrearing and novel-writing. It’s a wonder that I am not a poster girl for Prozac.

What did you learn in writing Beauty that helped you with Rebel Angels?

That if you drink four cups of coffee while you write, you will just have to pee a lot and you’ll look like you’re on crack. But besides that, I learned that if you introduce a villain, you really have to reveal that person at the end of the novel. Otherwise, people feel cheated. It’s kind of like that old adage about not introducing a gun onstage unless it’s going to go off by Act III. The book, while tipping to the next struggle, has to stand on its own. It’s a tricky dance, and I freely admit that I am still learning the steps.

I also learned that if you are willing to go there with your characters, if you are willing to make them fully human, i.e., not always likeable and sometimes downright frustrating, they will take you where you need to go. But you have to be willing to follow without flinching. I learned that it helps to know a lot of good babysitters and have the takeout numbers handy.

And I think I learned to accept my writing process for what it is: messy, a little crazy, scary, and often exhilarating.

If you could change anything about YA publishing, what would it be and why?

I would change the larger public misperceptions about Y.A. literature as somehow being “second-class” lit. Some of the most compelling, tightly written, emotionally honest, risky, taboo, glorious work I’ve read is Y.A. I think there is a feeling—one that makes me channel my inner Quentin Tarantino character as embodied by Samuel L. Jackson—that because these works are about and for a teenaged audience, they don’t matter so much. What’s up with that? It’s dismissive and wrong. It seem ironic to me that this is the case as more and more respected adult writers are also writing Y.A.

It also makes me a little batty when I hear people place such an emphasis on “message” and “issues” in Y.A. and whether we’re writing “responsibly” for our audience (as evidenced by NBC’s profile based on the Wall Street Journal piece). No one asks authors of adult books, “Hey, what lesson are you teaching people in your book?” “What moral values are you imparting?” “Do you really feel you’re writing responsibly?” Or, as I like to say, no one finishes a book they love and says, “Wow. Great theme. What a responsible book!”

We are writers writing stories. Stories about real characters and real life which is often gray and murky and complicated. We have a responsibility to the truth and to the story. ‘Nuff said.

What gives you the greatest joy in your writing life?

Writing that one true thing that expresses exactly what your soul wants to say. Hopefully, this is done beautifully with language that sings. But if I can’t have that, I’ll take the truth unadorned.

What can your readers expect from you next?

A nervous breakdown. Kidding, kidding. My editor just sent me the most hilarious email. It says she wants the manuscript for book #3 in the trilogy by December 15th. That would be the book that I have not even started yet. Yeah, I know. I laughed, too, until I felt that squeezing in my heart and my breathing became shallow. So, book #3 sometime in 2007, and then, to quote Monty Python, something completely different. I’ve written an absurdist, somewhat wacky, contemporary book called Going Bovine, which should hopefully come out in 2008.

What is the most surprising and fun thing about you?

That I am neither surprising nor fun. I am like a German Expressionist painting come to life but with better eyeliner.

Um, gee. I dunno.

I suppose it would be that I am much wackier than my books suggest and that I’m a huge music geek who could cheerfully waste time making an iPod playlist for every conceivable emotional state. It’s either that or my ability to recite an old Calgon commercial verbatim. But really, that’s too sad to go into.

Cynsational News & Links

Author of ‘Rebel Angels’ Has Her Own Dramatic Tale by Cecelia Goodnow from The Seattle Post-Intelligencer.

Author Talk: Ann Brashares from See also an interview from Book Browse and

Author Profile: Libba Bray from Features “Twenty-One Things You Don’t Know About Me” by Libba Bray.

A Chat with Park Slope Author Libba Bray by Wendy Zarganis from New York: Brooklyn.

Interview: A Conversation with Libba Bray by Clarie E. White from Writers Write.

A Reader’s Guide for A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray (Delacorte, 2003, 2005) from Random House.

Rebel Angels: reviewed by Emily Shaffer for