by Jerry Waxler
This is the second part of my interview with Marie Lamba, author of the young adult novel, “Over My Head.” In this part of the interview, I continue to seek understanding of the relationship between young adult fiction and the Coming of Age period in memoirs.
To read the first part of the interview click here
Jerry Waxler: Adult fiction is sorted on bookstore shelves by genres such as romance, mystery, and sci-fi/fantasy/horror. Are YA books separated along similar lines? Your book “Over My Head” reads to some extent like a romance. Would you or would booksellers categorize it as a YA romance?
Marie Lamba: It’s a contemporary YA or a romantic YA. There is young YA for the tween crowd and older YA for more mature audiences (think PG13-R). Then of course there is paranormal, dystopian, chick-lit, fantasy, literary, you name it.
Jerry Waxler: In Over My Head, there is an incredible amount of inter- and intrapersonal deception. Almost everyone was lying to each other, or to themselves. Girls lie in order to get guys, to save face, to override parental authority, to hurt each other, to protect each other, to brag. It was a deception fest. Naturally the lying created enormous dramatic tension. Did you accentuate this quality of human nature because of your own experience of what young life is really like, or is this just the way you felt these particular characters needed to act, or what?
Marie Lamba: Jerry, I’m sure you NEVER lied as a teen, but I might have once_ or twice? Teens try to be good, they really do, but sometimes it’s the lie that allows them to continue to be viewed that way, or to test out new identities or to fix what they may have broken, or to break what is too perfect.
The tougher the mess, the bigger the lies can be until they are so ridiculous that only the truth will do. Lies, like secrets, are also great story devices. As writers we do highlight elements in life, heightening them to make a story really shine. In real life you might have one grand humiliating moment, in a book the character can experience a virtual fest of humiliation. Now that’s a story.
Jerry Waxler: Actual people are infinitely varied, and the situations that drive us have all sorts of nuances and details. I read memoirs so I can learn about these unique aspects of real people. However, in the genre fiction that I read as a young man, such as, mysteries, thrillers, and sci/fi fantasy, the characters often have far less human individuality or depth. Where do you see your books falling on this spectrum? Do your YA books aspire to offer authentic, unique challenges of real human beings, or more formulaic characters of a genre?
Marie Lamba: I hope that my books contain characters that are nuanced and not stock. The bad guy has a soft side, the good girl does something horrible, they all have their own arcs and purposes and dreams. They say there are no original stories. But people are original. I hope that by putting my own spin on characterization that I’m creating characters that are fresh and original and that feel real.
Jerry Waxler: What sort of real-world observations do you use to help you authentically portray your characters? For example, do you keep a writer’s notebook about growing up, or interview young people, or does it pour from your imagination?
Marie Lamba: It definitely flows. Once I have a good feel for the characters, that’s all it takes for me. It helps that I’m surrounded by teens as a mom and that I’m an older girl scout troop leader. And I definitely remember my teen self vividly. No journal required for that.
Jerry Waxler: When creating your novels, what sorts of real life experience did you bring to your books? Can you offer any example of how you mined your own memory for situations, age appropriate emotions, characters and psychological tension?
Marie Lamba: It doesn’t take much for any of us to remember a time when we were heartbroken or mortified or how it felt to be in a fight with a really close friend. These are such visceral experiences that plucking those emotions to use in a story is a natural thing for most writers. In “Over My Head,” the uncle’s illness plays an important role. My brother-in-law actually had the same disease as the uncle in the book, and he passed away shortly after 9-11. The novel is dedicated to his memory, and Sang feels what I felt_helplessness and a deep desire to do something, anything, to help. So adult emotions and experiences can also be helpful in shaping the YA world.
Jerry Waxler: Have your characters ever taught you interesting lessons about yourself or about human nature? In other words, as you watch a character develop in your book, does the behavior or attitude of your fictional character help you piece together some aspect of real life?
Marie Lamba: In a way, a book is more than you are. You are creating different characters, points of view, experiencing things you never would have experienced otherwise. I think it forces me to look harder especially at the villains in our lives to find a speck of good in even the worst of us, and writing difficult scenes forces me to linger and feel things that in real life I would eagerly speed past.
Jerry Waxler: In the last 5 or 10 years more and more writers are interested in memoir writing and the trend seems to be accelerating. I wonder if fiction writers are more open to real-life experience. Years ago, when the novelist Carl Barth visited the University of Wisconsin campus, I asked him if his fiction had been influenced by his life. He snapped at me like I was insulting him. Nowadays, I have met many fiction writers who are more open to discussing the relationship between their stories and their lives. What do you think? Have you noticed any change over the years in the attitude about using real life situations in fiction?
Marie Lamba: We fiction writers do have a dilemma. We want to be free to create honest stories, and this of course includes experiences from our past, but if the veil between truth and fiction is lifted, how can we feel free to be as frank? In my work, most things are a composite of experiences put together, plus a healthy dose of make believe. Is there a trend for writers to own up to the memoir-like aspects of their fiction? Not for this writer.
The real truth is that people love to see themselves in your books. Even when they truly aren’t in there. It’s pretty fascinating.
Jerry Waxler: What are you working on next? Are you going to stay within this period or are your characters going to grow older?
Marie Lamba: My YA novel “Drawn” again deals with a 17 year old teen, but the next novel I’m currently stirring around in my brain will probably reach into the 20-30 year old adult range. And, hey, who’s growing older?
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..
Click here for an article about why Coming of Age memoirs deserves its own genre
Click here for a more detailed article that compares Coming of Age memoirs with Young Adult fiction.
To see brief descriptions and links to all the essays on Memory Writers Network, click here.
To order my step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.