Lisa Gort McMann is a 1990 graduate of Calvin College and author of WAKE, which made The New York Times Bestseller list for young adult literature this spring.
Lisa Gort McMann is a 1990 graduate of Calvin College and author of WAKE, which made The New York Times Bestseller list for young adult literature this spring. Lisa lives in Mesa, Ariz., with her husband and two children. She recently answered the following questions by e-mail from Lynn Rosendale, managing editor of Spark.
LR: When and how did you first become interested in writing?
LM: I was hiking in the mountains one day when I looked up and saw a bush that was on fire but it didn’t burn up ... just kidding. I remember in fourth grade my teacher, Mr. Avink, took me aside in the hallway and told me he was sending me to the Young Author’s Conference with my book, Baby May’s Birthday. I remember the absolute thrill of that moment very clearly. I decided then that I wanted to be a writer. There were other moment, too, scattered through the high school and college years. Professors Carol Winters and John Timmerman and Gary Schmidt were really helpful and encouraging. But after graduation, real life happened, and I needed a paying job. I picked up writing again as a hobby in 2002, got a few short stories published and was hooked. That’s when I seriously began to pursue writing as a career.
LR: Your audience and type of writing have both varied from short stories for adults to novels for young adults. What is your favorite type of writing and why?
LM: I like variety, I guess. Right now I am all about young adults—teens and twentysomethings—and I think I may stay in this place for a while. It feels comfortable, and I think YA literature is very important. Teens are so incredibly complex and lovely and raw and heartbreaking—and they won’t let authors get away with anything. It’s a great challenge, and I really feel like I’m in my element.
LR: How does your faith influence your writing?
LM: My faith has made me a more compassionate person, and I hope that shows in my work. Sometimes my characters are religious, and sometimes they aren’t. Sometimes they struggle with their faith, and sometimes the only faith they have is in themselves. I found it fascinating that when I toured with WAKE in the spring, one high school class had unearthed two of my short stories—“The Day of the Shoes,” which is the story that won the Power of Purpose award in 2004 and is a very hope-filled story about a pastor and a homeless woman, and "Like Waves on Rocks,” which is the story of an old man, a former pastor, whose life took a bitter turn. Since WAKE makes no mention of religion, there were many great questions from the teens about why I had chosen the subject matter in the short stories. It was a terrific discussion.
LR: Your most recent book WAKE made The New York Times bestseller list. How did you find out about this and what was your reaction?
LM: Well, I’m actually not someone who reacts colorfully to things (must be that German blood). I internalize and feel the pride or the happiness or whatever deep down, and I’m known to maintain a pretty level-headed outward appearance. But when my agent called on a Wednesday afternoon and said my editor Jen Klonsky at Simon Pulse wanted to talk to us both, I had a sinking feeling—I actually thought Jen was calling to say S & S was disappointed in sales or something (not that she ever does this! I’m just weird.) … I had no clue what she was about to tell me. And I totally, completely freaked out. It was by far the best day of my life. (My husband, Matt, said it was okay for me to say that … isn’t he great?) And the feeling just doesn’t seem to go away.
LR: How did you come up with the idea for WAKE?
LM: I had a dream that I was in my husband’s dream, watching what he was dreaming about. When I woke up, I wrote it down and it sort of consumed my thoughts for the next month. Slowly the idea for the book and its main character, Janie, developed. Once I started writing, I couldn’t stop.
LR: Why do you think this book connects with young adults so well?
LM: This is a tough question—it’s like, “Tell me how you did a great job on this.” And so that’s awkward, but here goes. I guess readers like my writing voice and style. That, and the fact that I dug up a lot of hard memories in order to get back to that deep, emotional place where young adults live. I mean, one day you don’t care about your hair and the next day, like, out of the blue, that one piece won’t go right and you’re late for school and your brother’s yelling for you to hurry up but there’s no way you’re going to be seen in this condition and you feel such tremendous rage welling up inside you over the cruelty of the world and the tragedy of it all, and you actually start bawling and slamming the hairbrush against the door … and it’s all so intense. It’s just so absolutely crucial and so incredibly impossible to win as a teen. And the very last thing they want to hear is “It’s really no big deal” or “God loves you no matter what your hair looks like.”
Teens are incredibly smart (way smarter than many adults give them credit for), and they can see right through anyone who tries to “teach” them something in a novel. Young adults want real characters in the books they read, real teens in all their aching, mortifying imperfection and angst because that’s.how.they.feel.too. And we can pretend that there’s no swearing in the high school hallways and we can pretend that high school and college students aren’t having sex or doing drugs or cutting or purging, but some of them are, and that’s what’s real, and those are the issues.
LR: Why is it important that you make that connection?
LM: If young adults read my book and love it, they will seek me out on Myspace or Facebook or my Web site, and they’ll write to me. I write back to all of them, and they are so amazed that an author is taking the time to acknowledge them. Then their stories come spilling out, and they tell me things they won’t tell their parents because it’s too weird. They want to be noticed. They want to be acknowledged, and they want adults to treat them like the smart humans that they really are, and value their feedback. And when they tell you, “The guy I like just asked my best friend out and that sucks,” they are really giving you such a huge chance to get inside their world for a minute. They need to hear, "Yeah, that does suck,” rather than, “We don’t say ‘sucks’ in this house, young lady!”
But some parents miss those chances. And some parents are absent from their kids’ lives. So teens go elsewhere for validation.
For me as an author, it’s an opportunity to connect with someone that might not have any other adult to talk to. Maybe a kind word from me can make a difference in somebody’s life—I don’t know. I hope so. Maybe I can be a good influence. Maybe I can be an encourager for somebody who doesn’t get that in her life. That’s why that connection is so important.
LR: You have two children. Have they read the book and what did they think about it?
LM: My kids are 14 and 11. My 11 year old hasn’t read it yet. It’s a bit too mature for her.
The 14 year old has read WAKE, and he liked it. In fact, something very cool happened—he said to me, “Wow, Mom. I didn’t know you could swear.” (You’re wondering why I’m proud of this, aren’t you?) But that opened up a conversation, and over time this closeness developed that wasn’t there before (I’m sure he hates it that I’m telling this to the world). It is incredible how our relationship has grown because he realized I wasn’t God and I wasn’t perfect and I actually knew what it was like to be in high school. Parents—I suggest digging up those old diaries and journals that you wrote as an angsty teenager and letting your kids read them. Kidding! I kid.
LR: What is your advice to parents who are trying to discern what may be appropriate reading material for their children?
LM: Many teen books have age recommendations printed on them. WAKE is 14+, and I think that’s accurate. My humble advice to parents who are concerned about teen books is this—you watch movies with your kids, right? Why not read with them, too, and then discuss the book?
In addition to spending some quality time with your teenager, you get the added bonus of talking about mature issues that arise in the book. It is my view that pretending all is good and right in the world is not a good way to relate to your teenager, or to get them to talk to you if they are facing any of the common issues teens face today. Ignoring issues won’t make them go away, nor will it allow you to help your child make the transition to adulthood. If you read a book before your teenager reads it you’ll know if it’s appropriate for him and you can discuss the issues—teen pregnancy, drugs, alcohol abuse, sexual orientation, relationships. Use this time to talk to your kid about these things as they relate to his life, and to share your views on them—it’s the perfect venue. Show your kid that you are accessible and that you’ll listen. Because even if this kind of junk is not happening to your teen, it’s likely happening to one of his friends.
Some folks believe that authors who write about real issues are in fact endorsing bad behavior and teens will believe that it’s okay for them to do drugs or get pregnant too because they read about it in a book. All I can say to that is give yourself some credit for teaching your child morals, and more importantly, give your teen some credit—if she’s reading books for fun, she’s not a dunderhead.
LR: What other writers inspire you?
LM: I’ve been a big fan of the late Madeleine L’Engle since I first met her when I worked at Pooh’s Corner in Breton Village during my Calvin years. She was very encouraging to me and even though I was just a college freshman, she treated me like an adult, and I will always treasure that. She managed to get me invited to the “after-book-signing dinner” which was such a highlight, and I got to sit by her.
LR: What are you reading now?
LR: What are you favorite books and why?
LM: Like more and more adults, I really love young adult literature (Harry Potter and Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series somehow gave adults permission to be seen carrying YA lit around). And though WAKE has a paranormal element to it, I find I don’t often pick books to read that are paranormal. I love historical fiction and I’m a big fan of Gary Schmidt’s Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy. There’s a pirate book coming out in February called The Dust of 100 Dogs by A.S. King—I was lucky enough to be asked to blurb it, so I read the manuscript, and I’ll tell you what that book is astoundingly great. Mature teens (15+) and adults are going to love it.
Classics I could read over and over—The Count of Monte Cristo and Little Women.
LR: What advice do you have for aspiring writers?
LM: I never know how to answer this question—I still feel like an aspiring writer half the time. The best advice I can give is to write a lot. People think authors write a novel, and it gets published. But most successful authors have what we call our “practice novels.” Those are the slaved-over, life-sucking, hundreds-of-thousands of lovingly-typed words that remain unseen by consumers and live in a particularly dusty spot under the bed. It’s rare that the first novel you write is the one that makes it (WAKE was my third). So just keep writing and don’t put all your hopes and dreams into the first one. Be ready to start on the second book as soon as the first one is done. In case, you know … agents and editors maybe aren’t detecting your subtle brilliance.
LR: What's next for you?
LM: I’m really excited for the release of WAKE’s sequel, FADE, which comes out February 10. Simon and Schuster asked me to write a third book in the WAKE series so I’ll be working on that this fall, tentatively titled GONE.
LR: Anything else you want to add?
LM: Sure! I’d love to say a quick thanks to my old roommates and Calvin buddies who have already bought WAKE and who came out to my book signings. I hope to be back in Michigan again in the spring when I’m touring with FADE.