An editor tossed a copy of a book called “Wintergirls” in front of me a month or two ago and asked if I wanted to interview the author when she dropped by Decatur Library. I said OK. I didn’t know anything about author Laurie Halse Anderson when I saw the book and later learned a bunch, including that she wrote a book that was adapted into a movie I’ve been meaning to see.
The book is “Speak,” for which she was nominated for a National Book Award in 1999. The book was turned into a Lifetime movie starring Kristen Stewart, who I think is very good.
So when I read the synopsis for “Wintergirls,” I was intrigued. I eventually realized Anderson is an author of young adult fiction, but if you read “Wintergirls,” you won’t really get why it’s classified as “young adult.” It’s a very dark, very depressing and frank examination of a female high school student with deadly anorexia dealing with the death of a friend who was bulimic. Anderson sugarcoats nothing, and the book ranges from sad to shocking and devastating. Once I finished the book, I was pretty eager to talk to her, particularly about her station as a “young adult” author, which I don’t really understand.
The following interview only briefly touches on movies, but since she’s sort of tangentially connected to the film world, I figured it might be relevant.
Did you ever experience food or body image issues that helped you understand what your protagonist, Lia, is going through?
I came close. Thankfully, I didn’t tip over into the danger zone. And from what the experts told me, the difference between me and somebody who really gets into a very dangerous place is brain chemistry. The phrase they use is, “Genetics load the gun, and environment pulls the trigger.” And for that I’m grateful. In terms of writing the book, the biggest thing I came away with was such compassion and love for the families going through this. I don’t know of anything harder to watch your child go through. If your child is addicted to coke or alcohol, first of all, our culture will say, “That’s a bad thing. Don’t do that.” And you can live your life without coke or alcohol, but your child needs to eat. Several times a day. And the culture is sending such messages to our kids about what your body is supposed to look like, and it’s so confusing. So, if you’re vulnerable person, and you have a genetic predisposition, I think that’s hell. I really do. So, the parts where she’s talking about self-loathing and what I call the “snakes in her head,” unfortunately, that comes a lot from me. But it also comes from talking to girls who are mostly in recovery. I didn’t want to talk to girls who were in the throes of the disease.
Because they didn’t have perspective on their issues?
Well, I thought it would be an ethical thing. I felt like that would be exploiting them when they were vulnerable. It’s like depression: Do you recover from depression or do you find a way to work with it and manage it and have some bad times?
Tell me more about your personal experience.
I think my mom could have been classified as anorexic. My mom was 6 feet tall and around 130 pounds for most of her life. And I’m built differently than my mom. I’m tall but with more of an athletic body. When I was 11, my mom would grab under my chin, and she would grab at my waist, and my parents took to calling me “Baby Hippo.” They would always say it with a smile on their face. It was so bizarre because I felt I was getting different messages. I was such a confused kid. When I was a teenager, I never looked back and that and saw what an awful thing that was to say until I was an adult. I was just thinking, “Oh, well, I’m fat. I’m ugly.” I’m sure that if my parents knew that what they were saying would have that affect, they never would have said those things to me. They came from a different era. My mom came from a time when a woman’s value was totally hinged on her appearance. I call them “the snakes in my head.” That’s when the snakes got in my head.
You invented the word “Wintergirls” for the title. Why?
That’s the great thing about writing fiction: You can make words up. For me it was two things. I leaned a little bit on the myth of Persephone in this book. And when Persephone is stolen into Hell by Hades, her mother, who is the goddess of fertility, scours the Earth for months looking for her daughter, which I also think is very symbolic of a family struggle when their kid gets lost in this stuff. While Demeter is busy looking for her kid, she doesn’t let the crops grow, so the world falls into winter because everything is frozen. So, I see people with eating disorders – the really severe ones like this girl and her friend – as being frozen. They’re stuck between the two worlds. Thank goodness they aren’t dead, but they’re not really living. The eating disorder is controlling them. And until they can really find the motivation inside themselves to reach for recovery and are at the same time supported by people around them trying to help them to recovery, they stay there. Eating disorders are not about food. Eating disorders are a mental illness and need to be treated with a lot of care.
I haven’t read your other books, and I had, perhaps, a poor impression of what young adult literature is. This is a dark, dark book, and I was expecting the tone to be lighter, and I figured the issues would be handled more delicately, maybe less realistically or frankly. If you were writing this book for an adult audience would you write it differently? Do you think the “young adult” label is reductive?
I think it is. 1999, which is the year “Speak” came out, was an incredible year for young adult fiction. That was also the year that the American Library Association began what was called the [Michael L.] Printz Award, which is basically the Newberry Award for teen books. And that was a reflection of the fact that this field of teen literature was just exploding. Also, right around that time, Barnes & Noble made a separate section in their stores for teen books. They moved it out of the kids section. And within the last decade within the field of library science, we’ve had a real flourishing of special library positions for teen librarians because there has been a real recognition teenagers, you know, they really don’t want little kid books. The books that you were probably thinking of as teen books are now thought of as “tween” books – books aimed at kids kind of the 10-12, 13 range. There are plenty of people who don’t write books as dark as mine. We have a lot of kids in America who are struggling, obviously, and I think they’re searching for stories that might help them find a way to hope. Would I have written in differently if I would have written it for grown-ups? I’m not really fond of grown-ups, so I don’t even know how I would begin to approach that. You could totally publish “Wintergirls” under an adult imprint. I didn’t dumb anything down. I write picture books for little kids. I also write historical fiction, but I’m probably best-known for these kinds of books, and maybe that’s indicative of the way myself and a lot of authors looks at the audience. We have a lot of respect for them, and we care about them more than we care about adults. If I had written that book for an adult audience I might have considered multiple viewpoints because it would have been interesting for an older person to have a little bit more backstory about the parents.
Now that you have quite a few novels under your belt, were there any new challenges you wanted to place before yourself when you started?
I worked with a different editor on this book than I worked on my other novels, and we had a meeting before I started, and she said, “What do you want to do with this?” And I said, “I need for myself to bump it up a level because I get bored. I’m not going to become that author who keeps cranking books out, and then you go, “Ewwww.” You can see the stylistic stuff that I play with in this book, which I feel that when you’re writing for teenagers you have more permission or leeway to experiment with that kind of stuff. The strike-throughs and the fonts and the two blank pages. I think I would have gotten a lot more resistance from those things in a book I was writing for adults. Teenagers are like, “Oh, that’s so cool. I didn’t think about it that way,” because they’re really open to different kinds of art. Another thing: In my teen novels, I never do a plot outline. I just go in search of the character and follow the concern that’s leading me into the story, and at some point the character starts to whisper. When the character starts to whisper, I start to write, and I just let it come out, and it’s really my first draft. It’s just such a mess, but I’m really good at revision. But nobody sees that first draft. That’s when I can finally begin to understand the character, and then I go through and try to structure a plot around some of the stuff that came up. In the research, I just found myself reading a lot of poetry. I haven’t been drawn to a lot of poetry as a reader, but I was. Maybe that universe that gives us stories is smarter than any of us because when I sat down to do that first draft writing, a lot of stuff that came out was much more poetic than my earlier work, and I think there was a direct influence there. So, that was kind of a goal too. I was also struggling to show the internal tension of this incredibly unreliable first-person narrator. I had to show that she’s in denial, and I also had to show at the same time that she doesn’t know she’s in denial. The strike-throughs I have to say I didn’t make up. I stole it from a blog entry I saw about three years ago. I saw it and I was like, “Awww, I’m using that.”
There seemed to be an underlying anger or frustration with modern icons in this book: the career woman obsessed with her job, the mother and father leaving the children to rush to their computers, families watching television, distracted by various kinds of media. How seriously do you think those issues play a role in what’s harming Lia and girls like her?
I think that’s a political subtext that’s in every one of my novels. There are things that we do really well in this country, and there are other things that we need to work on. If there’s anything good that’s going to come out of this economic downturn, I’m kind of hoping that it gives families more time to spend face to face, I think, for the best possible motives, especially people with privilege like this family.
That seemed like a deliberate authorial choice in the book – to make the parents exceptionally successful and wealthy.
What you often hear from people who don’t understand eating disorders, and they tend to say when they look at a person with an eating disorder, and they look at that person’s life, people say, “What’s wrong with her? She had everything.” And by many people’s standards in America that means you’ve got two parents in the house, and they’ve got a lot of money. And on the surface that does seem to be everything. That seems to drive a lot of people in our culture. But I know from my experience as a kid and as a mom and as a member of a community watching a lot of families, what kids really need more than anything from us is a lot of time. And parents think, “Oh, my teenagers don’t want it.” No, they’re dying for their parents – not to be yelling at them, not to be criticizing them or picking at their clothes or whatever. But to turn the damn television off, take the television out of the kids’ rooms and sit down and, you know, when’s the last time a teenager got to play Monopoly with their parents? Go for a walk. I know families that do those kinds of things. I know more families where as they grow older they spread apart, and that makes for lonely and confused kids.
“Speak,” your most popular book, was turned into a movie starring Kristen Stewart. Does “Wintergirls” have a future on the silver screen?
There’s an option on my book, “Twisted.” And my agent’s been contacted about an option on my historical novel that came out last year, “Chains.” But these options are taken out frequently on books. In children’s literature, on an option, generally the author will get about $1,000 for an option, and that gives the filmmaker a year or two to put a deal together, and then the option expires.
Anything you want to add?
The bright spot in Lia’s life is her stepsister. That came straight from the doctors who advised me about the book. I asked what helps these kids get better? And the doctors said it’s usually a younger sibling or somebody they babysit for because it’s hard to start loving yourself when you’ve stopped loving yourself. It’s hard to do anything positive for yourself. It’s an issue that all addicts face. But it’s easier to do something for someone you love. There’s a nonjudgmental, non-critical relationship with a younger kid, and that’s often where smart families and smart professionals can chip at the ice a little bit because it’s thinner there and help the person who’s struggling. That’s part of what pulls Lia through the end too.