by Jerry Waxler
I am fascinated by Coming of Age memoirs because they provide a window into the many emotional challenges that people undergo on their journey to becoming adults. Recently, I realized that Young Adult fiction is about that same period of life. To learn more about the way Young Adult fiction handles that period of human development, I read the novel “Over My Head” by Marie Lamba in which a 16-year-old girl falls in love with a college boy. Is it real love? To find out, she must process her own feelings as well as advice and opinions from friends and parents.
When I started reading, I was afraid I had entered a girl-zone where I didn’t belong. The more I read, the more engaged I became, appreciating my privileged front-row seat, where I watched the emotional and social challenges of a girl trying to make the leap to adulthood. “Over My Head” zooms into one particular aspect of Coming of Age: that awkward period when humans first steer through the outrageously intricate connection between romance and sex. The hero of the novel must learn those lessons under the spell of emotions so compelling they have an almost mystical power.
I have spent the last five years infatuated with the way memoirs allow us to see each other through the medium of a story. Memoir authors go deep inside themselves and then bring that intimate detail out into social awareness. Marie Lamba reminds me that the real people who write fiction also share their insights into the human condition. After reading the book, I asked the author her opinions about the relationship between real life and fictional characters.
Jerry Waxler: In “Over My Head” your character was 16-year-old character had to sort out romantic feelings from sexual ones. Some people advised her that the boy might be using her while others urged her to jump in. Her challenges represent the dilemma teens face in real life. When composing your novel, how conscious were you about representing these real-life Coming of Age challenges?
Marie Lamba: Hi Jerry. Thanks so much for speaking with me about this. I think when you write for the young adult market, it’s almost always a coming of age story. This is a time when we search for who we are as individuals. The conflict of trying to make big decisions based not on the thoughts of our peers or our family, but on our own feelings and beliefs is key. This forces us to examine who we really are. When I write about these sorts of things, it’s just natural for me. I don’t consciously plot out a coming of age structure, it just evolves from the characters and the plot.
Jerry Waxler: (laughing) Wow, I think you ought to be teaching a course in developmental psychology… In most Coming of Age memoirs, one of the protagonist’s tasks is to understand the relationship with adults, especially parents. We have to grow toward adulthood and yet at the same time, push adults away. I thought you did a great job in Over My Head portraying this dilemma.
When you were writing Over My Head, or when you read other Young Adult novels, how do you like to see the relationship between the young characters and their authority figures? How does the relationship of your fictional characters with their adults relate to your own observations of these relationships in the real world?
Marie Lamba: Family, whether absent or all-too-present, looms large in everyone’s lives. Intrinsically, children want to please their parents, even terrible parents, sadly. But there comes that moment when the point of view of even the very best parent seems so foreign for that child. That is when the child does take that giant step away from the parent and sees that maybe she’s on her own. Pleasing your parents or listening to them isn’t always what’s right. That can be quite a revelation.
In YA fiction, the main character needs to have some independence, or needs to be fighting for independence, or the story just isn’t dynamic to me.
Jerry Waxler: The audience of YA is supposed to be 14 to 21. That’s a big range, considering the difference in reading level, emotional and life experience. So when you write, what is the age of the audience you visualize?
Marie Lamba: These days, the YA audience stretches straight up into adulthood. It’s not unusual for me to hear from adults that they related to my novels and that it took them back to their own teen years. And I also hear from readers who are much younger than I’d expect saying that they really related to the characters in my books. I guess I don’t really think about the audience, though. I think about the characters and strive to create as authentic a voice for the ages they are. For OVER MY HEAD, Sang was 16 going on 17, so that’s where my focus in voice and tone went.
Jerry Waxler: In adult life, a few years difference in age rarely makes much difference. But in a teenager’s life, each year brings them closer to adult empowerment. When will I be able to drive? When will I be able to earn freedom from my parents? When will I be old enough to earn the optimum romantic partner?
You bring out these tensions powerfully in “Over My Head” with the romance between a 16-year-old girl and 20-year-old boy. The age difference creates a big power imbalance. What interest brought you to the story of a 16-year old hero and her 20 year old love interest? How does age-related envy and power imbalance play out in your favorite YA stories?
Marie Lamba: There are all sorts of imbalances in relationships in novels, but age is a biggie. The younger character finds herself wondering if she’s mature enough, envying the freedoms of the older character, perhaps even glorifying what is mundane to an older person. In OVER MY HEAD, the age difference isn’t exactly 4 years. Sang is almost 17 and Cameron is just 20, but with him in college it is a great divide indeed. He has a separate life from his summertime world, and this raises a lot of red flags about who he really is.
In my previous novel, WHAT I MEANT… all the teens were around the same age. The adults had tremendous power and one especially diabolical aunt used this to set the heroine up to take the blame on numerous occasions. With OVER MY HEAD, Sang is 2 years older, and ready for true independence. I selected an older love interest to up the stakes and to really force Sang to be at odds with her youthful self and her family.
A favorite YA of mine, IT’S NOT SUMMER WITHOUT YOU by Jenny Han also involves a girl smitten by an older boy. The separation forced by him going off to college, coupled with the death of his mom, create huge rifts between the two, and the heroine wonders if he’s changed, or if he was ever who she thought he was. And perhaps she didn’t know her own heart either.
Jerry Waxler: I felt your novel “Over My Head” had especially good control over the passage of time. I wondered if part of that authorial control is related to the age of your characters. Since we all went through the school system during those years, your school-year markers remind us of our own coming of age. (Harry Potter capitalizes on this structure too, making each book correspond with a school year.) In addition, an illness in the family creates additional time pressure, and then toward the end, we hear the drumbeat of the approaching school year. Do you pay special attention to the suspense around the passage of time? Do you have any set rules about how to keep the reader moving through time?
Marie Lamba: I’ve learned through writing a number of novels to always keep a fictional calendar for my stories. Weekends make a difference. So do holidays. So does the weather, the phases of the moon, stuff like that. With my manuscript DRAWN, which has a time travel element, this was especially critical. I had to track the present day time as well as the critical events of the 1460s.
I always know the big climactic event of the book before I write, and having a count-down to this helps me plot the pacing and keep the tension going. An author (now I can’t remember who) once said that the things that keep story engine going are a secret or a ticking time bomb, preferably both. I always try to go for both.
Jerry Waxler: Sometimes YA books jump over into an adult readership. For example, Harry Potter obviously made the leap to a cross-generational readership. And sometimes adult books are picked up by young people. J.D. Salinger apparently wrote “Catcher in the Rye” for an adult audience, and then young people realized that the subject matter was about them, and they took it for themselves. So when you write about your young people, what sort of attention are you paying to the possible interest adults might have in reading your books?
Marie Lamba: With YA books, parents are often the ones who okay or nix the purchase, whether at a bookstore or online or at the library/school level. Because of this, we YA authors are actually really conscious about the level of profanity and sex we put in a novel. Win over the teens, lose the parents? It’s a delicate balance. I strive for authenticity, and then I assess how critical a curse word is or a sexual thought. If it truly is critical to the story, in it goes.
As for appealing to adults as readers, I believe that any well-told authentic story will speak to us all.
Interview to be continued
Marie Lamba’s novel “Over My Head” was described by New York Times best-selling author Jonathan Maberry as “a funny, touching, and at times heart-breaking young adult novel about the search for love.” She is also author of the young adult novel “What I Meant…” (Random House), which was dubbed “an impressive debut” by Publisher’s Weekly..
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Click here for a more detailed article that compares Coming of Age memoirs with Young Adult fiction.
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