Author Feature: Laura Ruby

Laura Ruby is the author of the children’s novel Lily’s Ghosts (HarperCollins, 2003)(excerpt), the children’s fantasy The Wall and the Wing (HarperCollins, spring 2006)(excerpt), and the young adult novel Good Girls (HarperCollins, fall 2006). She also looks forward to a collection of short stories for adults, I’m Not Julia Roberts (Warner Books, January 2007). She is originally from surburban New Jersey and now makes her home with her family in Chicago.

We last talked shortly after the release of Lily’s Ghosts (HarperCollins, 2003)(author interview), which is now available in paperback (HarperTrophy, 2005). The debut novel earned an Edgar Award nomination from the Mystery Writers of America and received a Parent’s Choice 2003 Silver Honor for Fiction (among other honors).

Congratulations on your recent bounty of success! You have a new middle grade fantasy out this spring, The Wall and the Wing (HarperCollins, 2006). What was your initial inspiration for writing this story?

When I was younger, I used to ask people lots of nosy questions like: “If everyone in the world was either a jerk or a creep, which one are you?” and “If you had to choose between riding a Ferris Wheel for two years straight or having a thumb 21 inches long for the rest of your life, which one would you pick?” My favorite was a question that everyone has considered at one time or another and everyone seems to have a strong opinion about: “Would you rather have the power of invisibility or the power to fly?” It always seemed to me to be a question that separated the introverts from extroverts.

Anyway, I was having some trouble trying to find the right project after my first middle-grade novel, Lily’s Ghosts, and was feeling pretty restless. I decided to go ask the experts some questions, the experts in this case being my younger stepdaughter, 12 at the time, and her friends. This time, I didn’t ask them any of my standard questions. This time, I asked: if you could have any superpower you wanted, which one would you want? Seems that I can’t get away from my own questions. Three of them said they’d like to be able to fly, but one little girl said she’d like to be able to turn herself invisible. I thought it would be cool to write a story set in a city where nearly everyone could fly except one girl, who could turn herself invisible.

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

I wrote about 25 pages of the book and a synopsis and showed it to my agent. She loved the idea and gave it to my editor at HarperCollins. At the time, my editor was considering two other projects of mine, neither of which seemed to be exciting anyone (including me!) But this one, she loved. She bought The Wall and the Wing and a sequel based on those 25 pages. Once the deal was done, I wrote the first draft in about three or four months, with many many more months of revisions afterward.

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

There were a lot of challenges in writing this book, most of them psychological. Everything about this situation was new to me. I had a brand new agent. I’d never sold a novel on proposal before and wasn’t sure I could deliver the kind of book my editor wanted. I’d just quit my fulltime job and so was home every day, trying to learn how to best use my time, trying to stay organized and generally trying to justify my own existence.

Also, I was ambitious about this book. I didn’t want to do some Harry Potter retread (as much as I like HP!). I wanted to write a distinctly American fantasy with American preoccupations–including the not-so-savory ones like the obsessions we have with wealth, fame and beauty. That’s why I wanted to set it in New York City, the quintessential American city, the capital of capitalism. I did a bunch of research on the history of New York–I read The Gangs of New York: An Informal History of the Underworld [by Herbert Asbury (Thunder’s Mouth Press, 2001)], Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898 [by Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace (Oxford University Press, 2000)], and some of the satire of Washington Irving (who was born in NYC). I’m originally from the East Coast, so I made a number of visits back to NYC, soaking up the ambience and the fascinating chaos. This was the best part of the “writing” of the novel, I’d say. Going to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Central Park Zoo, Chinatown, Little Italy, The American Museum of Natural History, South Street Seaport, etc., all for “research.” That was fun.

I was pleased to read that Laika Entertainment (formerly Vinton Studios) had optioned the novel. Can you tell us more about this?

Laika, an animation company that has done a lot of award-winning commercial work, was apparently looking to get into feature films. They optioned Neil Gaiman‘s Coraline (HarperCollins, 2002)(excerpt), which is now currently in production, but wanted some new material. The new literary scout went to my editor, Clare Hutton at Harper, who had worked with Neil and asked if she had anything else that she might recommend. Clare gave Laika my book. They seemed to really enjoy it and they optioned if for two years. Right now the project is in development, with Henry Selick (“The Nightmare Before Christmas” and “James and the Giant Peach”) slated to direct.

What do you love about children’s fantasy literature?

Oh, wow, what’s not to love? The very best fantasy novels have everything–magic, mystery, monsters, adventure. In children’s books, and children’s fantasy in particular, the heroes are just a little more heroic, the villains a bit more villainous, and the adventures just a little more adventurous.

More than that, fantasy can take very real feelings, events, and situations that happen in the real lives of children and teens and make them concrete, as the writer Franny Billingsley (author interview) has pointed out in her talks on craft. For example, the search for identity that adolescents wrestle with becomes the story of a boy wizard gradually learning about his past (as in Harry Potter), or the tale of a girl who must choose between life as a human or a selkie (as in Franny’s The Folk Keeper (Atheneum, 1999)). For me, that is the true magic of fantasy.

What advice do you have for children’s fantasy writers?

I think the key is to be as original and as inventive as possible. Explore regions or time periods that no one has thought to explore before. Consider mixing genres in the way that Libba Bray (author interview) recently mixed a Victorian period novel with fantasy elements.

What are your favorites of the recently published fantasy titles for children and why?

Some recent favorites include Shannon Hale‘s The Goose Girl (Bloomsbury, 2003)(excerpt), which I absolutely adored. I thought The Bartimaeus Trilogy by Jonathan Stroud was smart, funny and remarkably complex and inventive. Garth Nix‘s Abhorsen Trilogy, with its blend of fantasy and horror, is something I think I would have loved as a kid. Philip Pullman‘s His Dark Materials hooked me from the first line. My friend Anne Ursu just published a book called The Shadow Thieves (Atheneum, 2006)(excerpt), the first in a trilogy, which is an amazingly funny, Greek-myth inspired adventure. I love Libba Bray’s work. And of course Neil Gaiman’s.

I look forward to your YA debut this fall with Good Girls (HarperCollins, September 2006). What was the initial inspiration behind that story?

It was weird. I was again between novels, trying to think of what I might work on next. I had this sci-fi-ish inspired idea that I was really excited about, but then I started noticing something. That sex was everywhere. Okay, I knew it was everywhere, but all of a sudden it seemed, literally, EVERYWHERE. I’m addicted to cop shows, and I couldn’t watch one without hearing/seeing some lurid sex crime described in unnecessarily graphic detail. Song lyrics and music videos really started to bug me. MTV had a show about plastic surgery that usually featured confused young women who wanted lipo and breast implants to a) please sullen ex-boyfriends, b) pose in “Playboy” or c) become strippers. And don’t get me started on Paris Hilton and Maxim and the ads for “Girls Gone Wild” videos. Even the spam I was getting got more and more ridiculous. (No, Rosilly D. Matriculating, I really don’t want to increase my sperm volume, thanks).

Honestly, it felt like an onslaught and I just didn’t get it. Why did all these young (and not so young) women seemed to think that objectifying themselves the most public way possible was somehow the road to liberation and/or the only way to relate to men? And with all the technology available–digital cameras, the Internet, etc.–I thought it was only a matter of time when teens would start imitating what they were seeing. That they would start taking their own porn photos and videos and pasting them on the Internet. I wondered what would happen if a compromising photo of a nice, normal teenaged girl was sent via email accounts and camera phones. How would everyone react? And what would a “good” girl do?

I tried playing with the idea for a bit, but it wasn’t working for me and I set it aside. A couple of months later, my stepdaughter came home from school upset. Some kid was spreading rumors about her, and she didn’t know how to handle it. All of a sudden, I was furious. Not because things had changed so much since I was a teen, but because they had changed so little.

Yet, though rumors were just as horrifying as they had been when I was young, technology had made their dissemination both instantaneous and exponential. And since people could hide behind screen names, the rumors were more vicious than ever. Both my stepdaughters, their friends, and the teen daughters of some of my own friends told me that almost every girl they knew had endured the stigma of some sort of rumor–usually sexual–spread by both boys and girls. People posted awful comments on each other’s blogs. They texted and instant-messaged one another. Everyone talked about everyone. Tooling around on Myspace, LiveJournal, and a bunch of other websites confirmed this.

What were the challenges in writing the novel?

I wrote this novel in secret; neither my agent nor my editor knew what I was working on. But being totally incensed worked for me, I guess, because I didn’t feel challenged writing the book at all. Even though this book is not about me or about either of my stepkids–thank goodness!–I sat down and wrote the whole thing in a crazed frenzy in just a few months.

I have always been a cranky old feminist, even when I was just kid myself. I think that this book is a culmination of things I have been thinking about for more than 25 years and that’s why it wasn’t difficult to get down on paper.

The challenges, I knew, would come later. Because I chose to be as honest as I could about sexual intimacy, I understood that I might end up making some people uncomfortable. That said, I believe that Good Girls is about much more than sex. It’s about friendship, responsibility, faith, self-respect, and love. It’s also pretty funny in places.

Why is it important to you?

Because I think we have done our teens–and ourselves–a serious disservice when it comes to sex. Sex is, as I said, everywhere in our culture, but it isn’t sexuality in context. It’s sex buried in violence and pornography, and objectification masquerading as liberation.

We have completely bought into the notion that girls have no real desires of their own and that boys can’t possibly control theirs, myths that have been around since the dawn of time. And then we seem to be completely shocked when we learn, as we did in a recent sex study done by the CDC, that about 20% of teens have oral sex by the time they’re freshman and half have had intercourse by the time they’re juniors. Well, if the boys’ desires are so very overwhelming and they can’t be held responsible for anything they do, and if girls feel as if they have to have sex because the boys want it so much, why are we so surprised that this is going on?

I also wanted to explore the concept of the hook-up. Hooking up is something else that has been around since forever, but I don’t think the concept has been quite so celebrated or embraced by adults since the late 60s and early 70s. If adults act as if the ideas of romance or long-term relationships are quaint, then why would we assume teens would act differently?

There is resistance from censors and some parents to books that touch on teen sexuality. What do you think is behind these attitudes?

I can’t say how much I sympathize with these attitudes. It’s difficult to imagine that sweet child who played dress up in the family room or tag in the yard becoming a sexual being. And that sexual awakening always comes faster than most parents are comfortable with. I read somewhere that by the time parents think their children are ready for “the sex talk,” the children have actually needed that talk for a year and a half.

I also think that some people believe that their teens won’t be aware of sex and thus won’t have sex if they are simply not told about it. But I don’t agree. “Just say no” might work with alcohol, cigarettes or drugs because a person really can opt out of these things. But, as the writer Ariel Levy said, “a teen can’t opt out of his/her own sexuality.” If we want teens to learn to be sexually responsible–whether we define “responsibility” as abstinence or as something else–I believe that we need to be truthful about what sex really is. It’s not a video game. It’s not porn. It’s communication between people.

Do you feel that such negativity is evenly placed on thematic treatments that focus on girls versus boys? Why or why not?

Once again, I think that our culture operates on the assumptions that boys have no feelings and girls have no desire. Therefore, books that depict girls experiencing desire are particularly scary. I think that some people believe if we acknowledge that girls have desires too then the teen world will become one big sexual free-for-all. But I think educating girls about their own desires gives them the power and the knowledge to make decisions that are right for them. And that includes the power to say “no.”

I also think that it’s about time we start talking to boys about sexual responsibility. And boys do have feelings (as numerous Emo bands demonstrate). But maybe this is a topic for another novel.

What advice do you give to authors who’re writing about themes that may make some grown-ups uncomfortable or unhappy?

I don’t think there’s a book in the universe that’s going to make everyone happy or that will be right for every person and writers need to be aware of this. I do hope that grown-ups understand my intentions, but my real concern is that this book speaks to teens. And when I say “speaks to teens,” I’m not necessarily implying that all teens will recognize themselves in my book. Some won’t. But teens read for all sorts of reasons: to identify with a character or situation, to see the world in a new way, to escape from their own realities, or to quietly, privately, safely reflect upon an issue that they have yet to confront in real life.

I think that too many adults think that reading is prescriptive for teens–meaning teens read novels to learn how to have sex or do drugs or be disrespectful to their parents.

The recent brouhaha over Gossip Girl [series by Cecily von Ziegesar (Little Brown, 2002-)] is a case in point. I’ve just read one myself and found it to be a plotless, sort of satiric bit of fluff fantasy about snotty rich people. I don’t believe that teens are reading Gossip Girl books because they want to be these characters as much as they’re reading Gossip Girl books because they are grateful they’re not these characters, to see the snotballs get their comeuppance.

Of course parents should have a clue about what their kids are reading and seeing, but I think we should and can trust teen readers a little more. And I think we should ask teens what they think a LOT more.

What are your favorite recent YA reads and why?

Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson (FSG, 1999) is just amazing. That she managed to make such a tragic situation so blisteringly funny and true…I’m in awe. I thought Saving Francesca by Melina Marchetta (Knopf, 2004)(excerpt) was also wonderful. The tender, perceptive depiction of boys in that novel is worth the price alone. Looking for Alaska by John Green (Dutton, 2005) is another book that stuck with me. Also, David Klass’s You Don’t Know Me (FSG, 2001), which uses second person to brilliant effect in the first chapter. Tanya Lee Stone‘s brand new book, A Bad Boy Can Be Good For a Girl (Wendy Lamb/Random House, 2006)(author interview), is a lovely verse novel. Gail GilesShattering Glass (Roaring Brook, 2002)(author interview). An older favorite remains Rob Thomas’s Rats Saw God (Simon & Schuster, 1996), which I still reread every once in a while.

Though the focus of Cynsations is children’s and young adult literature, I’m also looking forward to your first release for adults, I’m Not Julia Roberts (Warner Books, 2007)(title updated). You do look a lot like her. Seriously, could you tell us just a bit about this title to come?

Ha! I wish I looked like her. The book is a series of connected short stories about blended families–stepparents, stepkids, ex-wives and husbands. Being both a stepdaughter and a stepmom, I’ve got lots of experience in this area.

The title of the book comes from a short story in which a first wife and a second wife meet for coffee to discuss “parenting” issues. In that story, I poke a bit of fun at the movie “Stepmom.” (I don’t make fun of Julia though, so if one of Julia’s people is reading this, um, love that Julia!!)

You write for different audiences–middle grade, YA, and adult. What are the particular considerations in approaching each? In what way do their challenges and appeal vary? As someone who writes for adults, are you ever asked why you write for children? (This is my theory since people are always asking me why I don’t write for adults). What do you say to them?

I’m sitting here laughing because my two published books are for kids and I have been asked when I’m going to write for adults. When I say, “I have and I do,” people give me this blank quizzical look, as if to say, “So what are you fooling around with all that kids’ stuff for?” Hate. That.

But the reason I write for kids is because it’s fun. Simple as that. Kids and teens are the most passionate readers there are; I know, because I was one of those passionate readers. And I’ll never apologize for writing for kids or teens and I can’t imagine I’ll ever stop. (But writing for kids or teens isn’t any easier than writing for anyone else, another thing I’ve heard from people who should know better).

But I’ve found that each story dictates the age group for which it’s written. For example, I could have written Good Girls as an adult novel with a narrator looking back on her high school experiences, but I had no interest in speaking directly to adults about this subject. The story demanded that I tell it for older teen girls. So that’s what I did. On the other hand, my short stories about stepmoms demanded I speak to adults, because, frankly, kids could not care less about the stresses their divorced parents feel because they are feeling their own terrible stresses (and I know this because I was one of those kids!). So, to explore the weird, complex world of stepfamilies, I chose to use an adult point-of-view. It just seemed to make sense.

I think that I write for all these age groups simply because I enjoy examining situations from numerous perspectives. Of course, it drives my agent and publishers mad. But to quote Kingsley Amis, “if you can’t annoy somebody, there is little point in writing.”

I love your website, especially the kitty! It’s somehow swank, sophisticated and kid/teen friendly, all at the same time. Who was the designer, and what were your goals with the intended audience, etc.? Why did you go with the look you did?

Thanks! I have a penchant for that retro, swanky look (plus, I just love the word “swanky,” don’t you? Say it with me: swan-kee. Fun.) My fabulous designer, Jonathan Van Geison at Fictional Company is currently revising the website into three distinct sections: books for all ages, books for teens, and books for adults. Each section will retain the same sort of retro look, but we’ll probably change the color palette a bit.

You’re one of the many author-bloggers (Brain Lint: Laura Ruby’s Blog). What can readers expect from your blog? What purpose does it fill in your writing life? What blogs do you read?

I just started blogging last August, and I’m still finding it to be a bit strange. I’m so used to writing fiction that I find it amazing that anyone might be interested in what I had for lunch or what I was thinking about the latest episode of “Veronica Mars” or why I’d read my horoscope if I don’t believe in astrology. It’s so random. And sort of stupid in a fun way. I guess I hope that readers get to know me a little better through the blog.

As for blogs that I read, why Cynthia, I read yours!

I also read Avenging Sybil, Bookslut, The Goddess of YA Literature, E. Lockhart’s blog (The Boyfriend List), Laurie Halse Anderson’s blog (Mad Woman in the Forest), Jennifer Weiner’s blog (Snark Spot), Ms. Snark’s blog, Literaticat’s blog (Monkeys and Mishegas), and Libba Bray’s blog, among many, many others.

As a rising, no, make that shooting star, what advice do you have for writers who’re career building?

Oh, geez. I’m probably the last person in the world who should be asked that question. Everything that I’ve done so far I’ve seemed to sort of stumble into. The only real advice I have is to write what you’re truly passionate about, the kind of book you’d really want to read. If you’re not “feeling it” while you’re writing it, then nobody’s going to feel anything when they read it.

What do you do when you’re not writing?

I read everyone else’s books. I chase my cats around. I talk to squirrels. I pester my husband. And I troll for new tunes for my iPod. What else is there?

What can your fans expect next?

Anything? Everything? Well, the sequel to The Wall and the Wing, called The Chaos King, will be out in the summer of 2007. And readers should probably expect to see some more realistic YA from me, though I’m waiting to hear from my editor about which project might be next. An adult novel, too.

Anything you’d like to add?

Yes. Thank you, Cynthia, for being the champion of children’s and YA lit that you are!

Cynsational Notes

In this candid, thoughtful interview, Laura offers her insights into the role of fantasy literature and into sexuality–especially as related to gender–as a thematic focus in young adult fiction. Please consider yourselves encouraged to continue this conversation online and off.

Good Girls by Laura Ruby (HarperCollins, fall 2006). From the promotional copy: “Audrey Porter is a “good girl”–a good student, a great daughter, a fab friend. She’s also the last person anyone expects to be hanging out with Luke DeSalvio, the hottest guy at Audrey’s school. But Luke is a liar, a player, a dream, and Audrey knows it. She dumps him at her friend’s Halloween party with no intention of looking back. But everyone else is looking–looking at a mysterious photograph that has popped up on their cell phones and computers. And Audrey’s about to find out that life is never what you pictured it to be.” Cyn Note: I had the honor of reading Good Girls in manuscript and was absolutley wowed. Check back after I’ve read the ARC for my formal recommendation. In the meantime, see the jacket copy and blurbs from Libba Bray (author interview) and Michael Cart. Keep your eyes open for the ARC at teacher, librarian, and bookseller conferences. It’s coming soon!

Fans of Good Girls might also enjoy A Bad Boy Can Be Good for a Girl by Tanya Lee Stone (Wendy Lamb/Random House, 2006)(author interview)(PDF excerpt).

The Wall and The Wing by Laura Ruby (HarperCollins, 2006) is a wonderfully and ironically zany novel by the author of Lily’s Ghosts (HarperCollins, 2003)(author interview). In an alternate New York City, Gurl is the only one who can’t fly. What she can do, though, is become invisible, a talent which allows her to escape nightly from the Hope House for the Homeless…until she’s caught by the House matron, who blackmails Gurl into stealing for her so she can maintain her extravagant lifestyle (that includes expensive plastic surgery, caviar, and other luxuries). There are a lot of twists and turns, and a lot of quirky characters, including fellow orphan Bug, gangster Sweetcheeks Grabowski, creepy mechanical monkeys, a cat who makes effective use of indoor plumbing, and a mysterious professor. It’s enormously fun getting to the bottom of who’s doing what to whom and why. Ages 9-up. Recommendation by Greg Leitich Smith.

See also a Author Talk with Laura Ruby (September 2005) and learn more about her speaking events from SCBWI Illinois.

See more author/illustrator interviews, recommended young adult books, and recommended fantasy novels.