Interview: YA Author Nancy Werlin

Nancy WerlinNancy Werlin is one of the most exciting young adult novelists writing today. Her debut novel, ARE YOU ALONE ON PURPOSE? (Fawcett, 1995), was followed by two suspense thrillers, THE KILLER’S COUSIN (Delacorte, 1998), which won the Edgar Award, and LOCKED INSIDE (Delacorte, 2000), which was an Edgar finalist. This interview took place via email in 2001.

What were you like as a teenager?

I was very moody and very independent. Although I did well in school without needing to study very much, I didn’t like school. I always had the sense that I was biding my time until I could get out of there. I felt misplaced as a teenager; I wanted to be an adult. I felt I was an adult, stuck in a teenager’s body and with a teenager’s life.

I had two or three really good friends in school; in fact, they are my friends to this day. But beyond that, I wasn’t very interested in the high school community. I don’t think I belonged to a single club or activity. No, wait. I’m lying—I was in the French club, but all that really happened was that there was a giant banquet at the end of the year. I read a lot.

But also, in my town, most kids worked 15-20 hours a week—even the kids who didn’t strictly need to work. (I did need to work.) I scooped ice cream and made sundaes at Binky’s Ice Cream; then I was a salesclerk in the men’s department at Sears. (I could simply glance at any man and tell you his dress shirt size.) Summers, I also worked full-time through a temporary agency; my proudest achievement was balancing the snarled annual budget of the facilities department (located in the steamy bowels of the basement) of a local hospital.

My parents had a very laissez faire style of parenting. Because of my jobs, I had my own money and car (never mind that it broke down a lot). I set my own schedule and priorities and made my own decisions. If I wanted to go to New York for a week to visit a friend, I told my parents that I was going, gave them the phone number, and they said, “have a good time.” When I won a summer scholarship, I said, “Off to Baltimore, see you in six weeks.” And more prosaically, if I didn’t feel like going to school any particular day, I’d write my own excuse note, and give it to my mother to sign.

Looking back, I see that this situation might well have resulted in a great big giant mess—but it didn’t. Everybody was honorable and respectful.

In many ways I find it hilarious that I was so desperate not to be a teenager, and yet, as a writer, I am mired forever in, and fascinated by, the teenage years. But I do notice that my characters all tend to feel as impatient and as misplaced—in their different ways—as I did in mine.

What sorts of books did you enjoy as a girl? What books are your favorites today?

I remember in particular Zilpha Keatley Snyder’s THE VELVET ROOM; Joan Aiken’s WOLVES OF WILLOUGHBY CHASE; Doris Gates’s BLUE WILLOW (which I read over and over); Elizabeth George Speare’s THE WITCH OF BLACKBIRD POND. Andersen’s fairy tales—I preferred the more morbid ones, like “The Girl Who Trod on a Loaf.” In fourth grade, I had all the Nancy Drew books. A little later, I remember reading Richard Peck, and Paul Zindel, and of course S.E. Hinton—I adored THE OUTSIDERS. In seventh grade, I read everything Georgette Heyer ever wrote.

By high school I had moved on to adult books. I discovered English Novelists—Dickens, Thackeray, Dreiser, Austen, the Brontes, Wilkie Collins, Hardy—and the 19th century Russians—Dostoevsky, Tolstoy—and pretty much buried myself in them. I also remember being riveted by THE SUN ALSO RISES, though it was and remains the only Hemingway I can stomach. Oh, and I went through an intense Faulkner phase.

But I was also reading a lot of books that had only so-called “entertainment value.” I can’t remember them now, but I’m sure I was going through lots more nameless mysteries, science fiction, and romances, than I was “good books.” I would read anything except horror.

Today, my two favorite writers are Dorothy Dunnett and Lois McMaster Bujold—I buy their books immediately upon publication, in hardcover. And I read lots and lots of YA, of course. Just last week I read FEELING SORRY FOR CELIA by Jaclyn Moriarty, which I thought was fabulous.

I can’t overstate how much of a reader I was as a girl and teenager. I read all the time; more than a dozen books a week. I didn’t write much then, but I knew from a very young age that I wanted to try.

What inspired you to begin writing for teens? Could you tell us about your own path to publication? Can you tell us a bit about the story behind the story of ARE YOU ALONE ON PURPOSE? How did the novel change during its various drafts? What did you learn from it?

I’ll answer all these questions together, I think, as they’re all intertwined for me.

I spent over two years writing the first draft of my first novel, ARE YOU ALONE ON PURPOSE?. The novel (now) is told in alternating chapters from the viewpoints of two teenagers. Alison Shandling and Harry Roth cope with changing circumstances in their own lives as they journey from being bitter enemies into mutual understanding and, eventually, love. It’s a story about the pain, passion, and (as you can tell from the title) isolation of adolescence and of maturation.

These topics have since become such recurrent emotional themes in my fiction that it’s hard for me to remember that this novel was ever about anything else, or that I ever didn’t realize that I ought to write for and about teens.

But initially, ARE YOU ALONE . . .? was an adult novel, in which Allison’s mother, Harry’s father, and Allison’s autistic twin brother also took turns telling what was happening to them. And although I was prepared to revise, I thought revision would be about making small changes that would polish something that was pretty good into something that was close to perfect. I didn’t understand that revision—at least for me—is always about a massive transformation from my original intention into what the book itself needs to be. Not only did I not know what to do; I didn’t even know that I didn’t know.

But I knew someone who did know. I was acquainted with a children’s book author, Athena Lord (she was the mother of a college friend), and she generously read my manuscript. I was extraordinarily lucky here; it’s almost impossible to describe how lucky. Athena gave me sold, big-picture, structural advice. She said: “Nancy, the teenagers in your novel are more compelling than the other characters. If you get rid of the adults, then you will have a powerful young adult novel.”

I was startled, but because I trusted and respected Athena, I then sent the novel—as yet unrevised, but just to see what they said—to three children’s book editors. After a few months, Lauri Hornik, then at Houghton Mifflin, wrote back. (She is my editor to this day.) She also said: “Get rid of the parents,” and added: “If you do, I’d like to see the revision.”

At this point, then (I’m skipping all the ripping out of hair and rending of garments and moaning and wailing because I had not immediately been declared a genius, etc.), I decided that I wanted at least to try the massive revision, even though I still wasn’t sure if it was the right thing to do. However, that first draft—good or bad or mixed—felt to me like it was written in stone. I simply didn’t know where to begin.

But I was lucky enough, again, to be able to go back to Athena Lord. I said that I was now prepared to try getting rid of the parents . . . but the thought of making big changes—of ripping out entire chapters and replacing them with others—terrified me. And Athena—bless her generous heart—invited me for a writer’s revision weekend. She sat me down next to her at her dining room table and we went through my manuscript page by page. She showed me how to take a scene written from one point of view and rewrite it from another. And she taught me that when a scene wasn’t necessary—when it did not advance the plot or the reader’s understanding of the characters (and preferably, by the way, it ought to do both at once), then that scene (or that paragraph, or that sentence, or that WORD), ought to be ruthlessly cut.

A miracle happened about a chapter or two into the revision: suddenly I knew, with every instinct in me, that this was the right thing to do. That I was finally making headway in turning the book into what it needed to be. And, of course, this was the draft that Lauri Hornik bought, several months later.

So—to answer the last question—I learned many things from the process of writing ARE YOU ALONE ON PURPOSE?. I learned to stay with the initial vision for years, until I had a complete manuscript. I learned to then have a trusted, professional friend read my work. I learned to listen to critiques. I learned that perhaps I should be writing for teenagers. And I learned about revision. I learned that the dictionary definition (“To read over carefully and correct, improve, or update where necessary”) is wrong: it describes proofreading, not revision.

How is it different now working on a novel than it was in the beginning?

It’s become harder for me, as with experience I’ve become more conscious of all the intricacies involved, and I can no longer as easily (or at all) deceive myself that I’ll get it right the first time.

But at the same time, greater experience has taught me to have more trust in myself. I’m calmer, knowing that I’ve done it before, so surely I can do this again. I hope.

What appeals to you about writing suspense novels?

I think suspense is the perfect form for YA novels. Think about it. The world of even the so-called “normal,” well-cared-for teenager often feels as if it’s filled with deadly peril (and sometimes it really is). I needn’t enumerate the full list of ordinary horrors that teens live with; the daily gray misery of the school outcast, social pressures to conform, academic stress. And let’s not forget that the kid in the next seat might at any moment pull out a gun and start shooting. And, of course, many teenagers deal with serious personal terrors—abuse, poverty, injustice, powerlessness.

So, what I am trying to do, I think, is use the external and very dramatic threats involved in a suspense plot—murderers, kidnappers, drug dealers, whatever—as metaphors for the very real terrors of actual adolescent life.

But it’s equally important to say that I love mystery/suspense because this form simply doesn’t let me, as a writer, get away with wallowing in description, or emotion, or angst. You can’t just write a book that’s all voice or “talking head.” The pages have to turn; the mystery needs to unfold; the suspense needs to be taut. The form forces discipline; it demands that there be a minimum of self-indulgence. It demands that things happen.

How has winning the Edgar Award for THE KILLER’S COUSIN affected you as a writer? As a business person?

Winning the Edgar award for ThE KILLER’S COUSIN and having LOCKED INSIDE be nominated were lovely experiences. I think the glow will never fade. There has been a wonderful effect on my self-confidence, too, in writing the next books.

In terms of business, well, the Edgar is a genre award, given by other mystery and suspense writers, and isn’t much known in children’s book publishing—especially compared to big commercial awards like the Newbery and Caldecott. Nobody expects an Edgar winner to necessarily sell hundreds of thousands of copies, and Edgar books generally don’t. I still have my day job!

But honestly, while selling hundreds of thousands of copies would be great, it would also mean lots of pressure and perhaps less freedom in future books. There’s quite a bit to be said for having the validation of the award without the pressure.

LOCKED INSIDE is so far my favorite of your books. Could you share any of the comments you’ve received about it from teen readers? How about grown-ups?

My favorite teen reader comment was from a 15 year-old girl who had previously read THE KILLER’S COUSIN.

She told me that when she got to the point in LOCKED INSIDE where she had enough information to figure out who The Elf was (this is something that is only important to those readers to whom it is important, if that makes any sense), she got so excited she had to put the book down, go outside, and run around the house three times.

I’d meant to place clues that worked on different levels for different readers with different information, and it was wonderful to find out that the book had worked on this most intricate level.

I’ve heard from several teen readers that they identify strongly with Marnie’s sense of isolation, her computer obsession, and her self-absorbed, self-destructive impulses. Interestingly, these characteristics that draw the teenager readers in disturb and put off some (not all) adult readers. A couple of adults have even told me they dislike Marnie and want to slap her. Fascinating—she somehow threatens and disturbs and frustrates some adult readers just as she does many of the adults around her in the novel.

However, and hilariously, what I hear the most: many readers, adult and teen, write to tell me they are in love with The Elf. This makes me grin broadly—because beneath the posing, he’s such a wholesome, reliable character! It amused and pleased me to set up a nerdy good-guy as a big heartthrob—and I’m thrilled to have it work. I love to think of teen girls, in particular, modeling their boyfriend wishes on an idiosyncratic kid like The Elf. They couldn’t pick better. (Let me point out that The Elf is very different from the moody, nasty, bitter—but to me, equally compelling—Harry Roth in ARE YOU ALONE ON PURPOSE? But girls would do far better to admire The Elfs of the world than the Harry’s.)

What can you tell us about your upcoming release BLACK MIRROR?

BLACK MIRROR is a suspense thriller starring artistic, isolated sixteen-year-old Frances Leventhal, who is enmeshed in despair and self-condemnation following her brother’s puzzling suicide. When she decides that his death is a wake up call for her to change, her decision leads her directly into danger—and self-knowledge. There’s more, including an excerpt, on my web site,, under “Black Mirror.” And I think the web site will have a longer excerpt around the time of the book’s release.

Have you ever considered writing for an audience younger than young adults, say middle grade readers? Why or why not?

I have just completed a middle-grade mystery serial for The Boston Globe (my local newspaper), that will run for six weeks beginning at the end of September, 2001. It’s called “Sister, Sister,” (and will be available online as well as in the newspaper).

This was my first real attempt to write for this age group, and I appreciated the stretch. I don’t know, however, if I’ll do more for middle-grade readers; I love YA so much, and I am not a rapid writer. Some authors for children are capable of doing it all, but I think I am not one.

For you, what is the hardest part of being an author?

I struggle with fear every time I sit down to write—fear that I won’t be able to do it again. In fact—and at the risk of sounding quite demented—I will confess that I have personified the fear, which makes it easier to handle. I have invented a character that I call “Fearnando.”

Fearnando is rather like a Sesame Street muppet—blue and furry, with big googley eyes. He is capable of shrinking and growing, like Alice in Wonderland. When he’s small, he might sit on the edge of my desk, kicking his feet and peering over my shoulder and carping, “Whatcha doin’? Whatcha’ doin’?” When he’s large, he fills the room and hulks everywhere, breathing heavily.

Sometimes I can sternly tell him to shrink down and go over and sit in the corner and color, or something. But he never leaves the room.

What do you love about it?

I love the fact that when I am done—and even during the process, actually—I have wrested something out of nothing. Words are taken from the air and put down and ordered and eventually lo! there’s a story, or the making of one. It’s nothing short of miraculous.

Where do you work now? How is the space conducive to triggering your imagination?

I set up an office for myself three years ago, when I moved into my current home. (It’s actually the other bedroom.) It’s a large lovely room, with bookshelves and a bay window where my desk sits.

If I crane my neck to the right as I look out the window, I have a view of downtown Boston. On another wall, I have 2-inch ledges up where I have a changing display of friends’ books, which I find inspirational.

However, the interesting thing to me is that previously I couldn’t write in a separate room that was intended to be “my office.” I had the space in my old apartment, but it was too intimidating; I would close the door of the office and never go in. When I instead put a small desk in the corner of my living room, I was much happier and far more productive. At the little living room desk, I wrote ARE YOU ALONE and KILLER’S COUSIN.

But now I’ve written BLACK MIRROR and LOCKED INSIDE in an actual office of my own.

What does this mean for the imagination, for creativity? For me, the lesson was that I needed different things at different times. (I wasted a whole year trying to work—rather, not working at all—in the “office” in my old apartment.)

One thing that stays constant: I like to have my desk next to a window so that I can stare outside.

What advice do you have for aspiring young authors (children and teens)?

I suppose my advice is simple: to both read and write as much as you can. And maybe one more thing—to understand that becoming a writer is a lifetime’s work. Many writers don’t publish until thirty, forty, fifty. That doesn’t negate the time you spend writing before that—or the time you spend doing other things, which is incredibly important as well. So don’t despair if you haven’t published a novel by, say, 25. You have time.

How about for grown-ups seeking to break into publishing?

I don’t think I have different advice for grown-ups as opposed to children, except that of course adults don’t have the kind of time that children and teenagers do. For adults, it’s important to make sure you are actually devoting the time and energy to writing and revising that the discipline demands.

I also like to tell adults who are interested in children’s books that they should join the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). Information is available at