1 1) The genre of Young Adult (YA) fiction can be defined as literature written or marketed for teenage readers. However, YA fiction is not simple reading. For example, in your fabulous book, Babe in Boyland, you deal with complex topics such as cross-dressing and authenticity, among others. In writing YA fiction, are there topics that you’ve found to be (from a marketing standpoint), “off limits?” If so, why do you think this is?
YA fiction has really exploded in the last ten years; I think this is largely because YA authors and editors have been busily exploring and pushing the boundaries of this genre. “Back in the day” (when I was a teen) YA fiction generally stayed within circumscribed, safe territory. Judy Blume was about as racy as it got back then. These days YA covers a huge range of controversial topics: teen sexuality, gender issues, drug use, suicide, cutting—just about every topic has been touched on in this YA renaissance period. I’m not saying “anything goes”—obviously authors, readers and publishers vary in terms of what they’re comfortable with—but the spectrum has expanded exponentially.
Personally, I love this expansion. I think it’s really healthy and it’s making YA fiction much more relevant to young people’s lives, hence the popularity of the genre.
That said, editors are people and they have their preferences like anyone else. For example, in Triple Shot Bettys in Love I wrote a scene where the main character goes to a party and some cool, attractive kids are out on the front porch puffing away on cigarettes. My editor felt this glamorized smoking, and we decided to take the cigs out. If smoking had been integral to the scene we would have left them in, but why casually condone it if it’s not necessary?
I find I need to be more conscious about any messages I’m sending than I used to be with my adult fiction. If it’s not 100% necessary for a character to swear, for example, I consider another word choice. We weigh the pros and cons of risky moves in YA perhaps more than in adult fiction. At the same time, I love pushing the envelope when the risk has meaning and value.
2 2) Did you intend for Babe in Boyland to be a YA book when you started writing it?
Actually, the genesis of BABE was kind of unusual. My editor at Dial had worked on a nonfiction book called Self-Made Man by Norah Vincent about a journalist (Vincent) who lives as a man for a year; we agreed a similar tale could work well for teens. So my editor's vision helped to prompt my own, and yes, we both saw it as a YA book from the start.
3 3) How has your playwriting experience influenced your writing of novels?
I integrate a tremendous amount of dialogue into all of my novels. Perhaps because of my playwriting background, dialogue feels like “home” to me. I write a descriptive section and my fingers crawl along the keyboard, but when I finally get to where the characters can talk to one another my fingers start to fly. It’s such a relief! I just love writing dialogue.
Another playwriting tendency of mine: I have to be able to see and hear my characters. I usually “cast” an actual person—either an actor or someone I know—in order to crystallize my vision. I gather images of that person and experiment with voices until I can hear them. This casting process helps the character feel more real to me, more three-dimensional.
4 4) Your deep connection to Northern California has drawn you to Mendocino College in Ukiah, where you now teach writing. So the question must be asked: have you visited the fictional Murder She Wrote house that is located in the nearby coastal town of Mendocino?
No! I haven’t. I adore Mendocino, though, and will be on a panel at the Mendocino Coast Writers Conference this summer, so I’ll have to check it out.