Author Interview: Lauren Wolk on Staying True to Yourself

By Stephani Martinell Eaton

Today we extend a warm welcome to Lauren Wolk. She is the author of the Newbery Honor book Wolf Hollow (Dutton, 2016), Beyond the Bright Sea (Dutton, 2017), which won the Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction, and her latest book, Echo Mountain (Dutton, 2020). She shares with us her thoughts on being an author, “success,” and being true to yourself.

What do you love most about the creative life/being an author? Why?

I’ve always envied people who weren’t afraid to be entirely themselves, regardless of company or circumstance. In comparison, I have always been a chameleon, changing my colors to suit the situation, perhaps because I’m a middle child. While I have, over the years, developed something of a spine and do know how to stand up for myself and the principles in which I believe, I still spend a great deal of time and energy trying to please all the people all the time. It’s an exhausting and, ultimately, fruitless enterprise.

So what does that have to do with being an author? The answer is simple. Writing is the only thing I do without altering or second-guessing myself. Even in my weaker moments when thoughts of audience and success (or failure) intrude and distract me, I am still convinced that I, and I alone, get to decide which words to use, in which order.

Of course I welcome the input of early readers and, especially, my editor. They have the objectivity I lack. They can shine a light on what I need to consider as I revise. And I am grateful for that illumination and guidance. But when I am writing and revising, I am absolutely the captain of my own ship, immersed in a world I’ve fashioned, on a journey with characters I’ve created, separate and apart from everything else in my life. I love the places and people and stories I’ve invented. Even when they present challenges and obstacles and heartache, they are mine. And I am theirs. Exactly as I am.

When you look back on your writing journey, what are the changes that stand out?

One big process change stands out: writing in the first person. I’d always written in the third person, perhaps because most of my favorite authors did, too, but when I sat down to write Wolf Hollow, it came out in Annabelle’s voice. As a result, the experience of writing that book was quite different from anything I’d known before. It involved an intimacy that I found compelling. From the very first sentence, I was so entirely in Annabelle’s skin that I found it easy to follow her into the story. While it had always been my practice to write without a map, I had never before felt such a sense of trust in my protagonist and her ability to lead me forward. I’ve written four novels since then, all in the first person, and it continues to feel right.

Could you tell us about your newest release?

Echo Mountain came out in 2020, right after the COVID lockdown went into effect. Not a great time to release a book, but in some ways a perfect time, since so many people have been reading while in isolation. Oddly, there’s a lot about Echo Mountain that echoes the pandemic.

It’s the story of a girl named Ellie whose family is forced by the Great Depression to leave their home in town and move into the Maine wilderness to start a new life. Ellie faces enormous challenges as a result, but she also discovers the power of wildness, abilities she never knew she had, people who enrich her life in untold ways, and resilience, too. Courage. Ingenuity. And strength. I believe that there are many people across the world who have made similar discoveries over the past year. So while Echo Mountain is historical fiction, it feels a bit like contemporary fact.

Sumner, Maine, where Lauren camps, inspired Echo Mountain

Reflecting on your personal journey (creatively, career-wise, and your writer’s heart), what bumps did you encounter and how have you managed to defy the odds to achieve continued success? 

Ironically, avoiding the idea of “success” is the best way to achieve it. When young writers ask me for tips, I tell them to pay attention to the world around them. Eavesdrop. Spy. Spend time thinking. Just thinking. Read as much as possible. Write as much as possible. Share work with others and listen to their reactions, but stay true to yourself. And don’t waste time and energy on what comes after the writing’s done: publication, fame and fortune, movie adaptations, and the like. Of course all of that after-the-fact business is lovely, but if it steers the focus away from the work itself – the right words in the right order – the results suffer.

Regardless, there are always bumps of one sort or another. My biggest bump came when I sent my first book to an editor for advice about how to find the right agent. Instead, he bought it. I thought I was so smart and lucky. At 31, I had written a book, sent it out myself to a single editor, been offered a contract. Without an agent! How cool! Actually, it was the biggest mistake of my life. It took seven years for the book to be published, and there were plenty of bumps along the way.

Then, when my editor retired soon thereafter, I learned that without a strong track record of earnings, I would need to start all over again with a new editor, a new publisher, a new everything. That was an enormous blow. And even with an agent, a subsequent novel for adults was never published. I will always love that book and will never consider it a failure, but when it didn’t find a home, I was very discouraged. It wasn’t until I put all that aside and began to write Wolf Hollow that I regained my confidence, rediscovered the joy of writing for writing’s sake, and soon found both a wonderful new agent and the “success” that had eluded me, just when I least expected it.

Cynsational Notes

Lauren Wolk is a poet, novelist, and visual artist. She is also Associate Director at the Cultural Center of Cod. In 1999, Random House published her first novel Those Who Favor Fire. Her unpublished second novel, Forgiving Billy Pilgrim, was twice nominated for the Pushcart Editor’s Book Award and won the Hackney Literary Award. Wolf Hollow, published by Dutton in 2016, won a Newbery Honor and Beyond the Bright Sea, published in 2017, won the Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction. Her new book, Echo Mountain, was released on April 21, 2020. Her poetry has been published in literary journals and anthologies. She is represented by the Larkin Galleries in Provincetown and Harwich Port.

Stephani Martinell Eaton holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts where she won the Candlewick Picture Book Award and the Marion Dane Bauer Award for middle grade fiction. She is represented by Lori Steel at Raven Quill Literary Agency