This week Page Turner talks with author Laurie Halse Anderson, who’s written five YA novels, including the New York Times best-seller Speak, one of the most compelling depictions of the trauma of the interior space of a teenage sexual assault survivor. Anderson has been getting letters from teen rape and incest survivors ever since she published Speak, which was her first novel, ten years ago. Her latest,Wintergirls, covers the well-worn, adolescent terrain of eating disorders through the story of two 18-year-old girls, Lia and Cassie. Page Turner talked with Anderson about growing up feminist, what she loves about the teen audience, personal power in a consumer-driven culture, and how Wintergirls brought to light her own issues with disordered eating and body image.
Page Turner: I understand you’re a fan of Bitch. When and how did you become a Bitch reader? Laurie Halse Anderson: I’m pretty sure I saw it in the bookstore outside of Philly I used to go to. I’d say five, six years ago—and the first time I saw it, I was like, “Ooh—oh my gosh, the world has changed.” PT: Why? Because of the title? LHA: Yeah, oh yeah. I just gave a speech last weekend at the American Library Association conference, and I gave it to the Amelia Bloomer feminist taskforce, and so as part of that speech, I was talking about what it was like in 1972, because there were a lot of younger women in the audience. And in 1972, I was in sixth grade, and that was the year that Ms. magazine came on the newsstands, and I can remember seeing that one on the newsstand, too, and going, “Oh, oohh, ah,” and when I saw Bitch, I had the exact same reaction. It was exciting; it was like, “OK, there’s definitely a cultural line being crossed here, and it’s a cultural line that needs to be crossed, and I’m really excited about it.” PT: And are you a feminist? LHA: Absolutely. Proud. PT: What led you to become one? LHA: I grew up in the late sixties, early seventies, and that summer, ‘72, we lived next to a college campus—my father was a minister there—and so because of all the college students in our house, I was very aware of what was going on with the women’s movement. Even though I had a mother who was very traditional in terms of her rhetoric about what a woman’s role was, I think I always felt that I could and should be allowed to do anything, and that I could and should be paid what a man would be paid. That was my focus as a younger woman. And the year after that, Roe v. Wade was passed, and we started to have discussions about a woman’s right to her own body, and that was also really important to me. So, I can’t really think of a time when I wasn’t a feminist. A big part for me was sports; I’m a Title IX baby, and during the tennis match of the century—when Billie Jean King beat Bobby Riggs—I was just screaming at the television. It was so important to me. So, I’m kind of a junior member of the second wave. PT: You’ve said that you love writing for a teenage audience, because they’re so “open minded about art,” and it gives you permission to experiment in the text. How are they open minded about art in a way that’s different from adults? LHA: Adults are so boring, first of all. Most of them. And it’s because I think you get to a certain age and for whatever reason, life gets complicated or [it’s] biology. They’re very open to the artistic expression of their adolescence, which is why you have 60-year-olds who still really enjoy the Beach Boys. But so many close off to how art progresses. Because graphic novels have really hit in the last decade, I really felt that I had permission to play with some of the white space on the page. And you can really see this clearly in Wintergirls. I experiment with strikethroughs, which shows the internal narrative and the narrator not allowing herself to feel what she’s feeling and think what she’s feeling. There are two completely blank pages in the book, which my editor was gracious enough to allow me to do. As an artist, the last thing you want to do is repeat yourself. You want to keep pushing that boundary or else, again, you become a boring grown-up—why do that. And so there are quite a few devices [in the book], and the truth, of course, is if you use too many devices too often, your readers are just going to close the book and say, “that’s dumb,” so you have to find a balance. PT: What kind of research did you conduct while writing Wintergirls? LHA: I generally think about a project a lot and go out and ask a bunch of questions, and then I think about it a lot more. And when I can finally hear the voice of the character, that’s when I start to write. There were two kinds of research—one was going to medical doctors as well as psychiatrists who deal with this day in and day out, and asking them questions from that point of view. Although I never was classified as anorexic, I’ve definitely had my own issues with disordered eating and body image, which is actually one of the reasons I avoided the topic for a long time. I just didn’t have the strength to confront my own demons. But I finally found it, and working on the book was really a healthy thing for me. A lot of that self-loathing that Lia expresses comes from the snakes in my head. But then, of course—I think all writers do this—you start with a little bit of your own stuff, but if you’re on the right path to the story, the muse kicks in and transforms that and it becomes its own story. PT: Did the novel change how you understood your own issues with disordered eating and body image? LHA: Yes, I came out with much more compassion for myself, much more love, and, really, I’m 47 years old, and I sometimes would still worry about the size of my thighs. For the love of all that’s holy, that’s kind of a waste of time. And now the big struggle is not to regret all the hours I devoted to hating my body. Oh, god, what a waste of time. But it’s really allowed me to look at where those messages came from, to acknowledge that we have control over ourselves. I bought into those messages. What did I get out of buying into those messages, and how can I move beyond that now, just to love the way my body is? I have three daughters and a bunch of nieces and probably more on the way at some point, and I want them to love the bodies that they’re in as well. The other thing the book did for me is it really gave me new insight and compassion into the family members who love boys and girls who really struggle with clinical eating disorders. I was on the fringes, but for families that are right in the muck of it, you’ve got a kid—inpatient, outpatient—oh my goodness, I don’t know anything harder. We toss the word anorexic or bulimic around very casually in America, and they are not casual diseases. They are mental illnesses that are devastating, and they take a toll on the entire family. PT: You’ve said that you want readers of Wintergirls to come away from the novel with more sensitivity and empathy for young people grappling with eating disorders. What do you think is missing in our culture’s understanding of anorexia and its empathy for teen girls who have it? LHA: Let me back up and say one thing: I never set out to send messages. I think that’s the path to really bad writing. I set out to tell a good story, and if I’ve done my job, and I tell a good story and a reader connects with the story, that means that they’ve brought something to their understanding of the story, and they’ll come away with a richer experience or a richer understanding. Having said that, what is lacking in America that leads us to be insensitive to these issues? We are a consumer-driven culture. Capitalism has many fine qualities to it—I’m rather fond of capitalism—but there is a downside if you don’t have a firm spiritual foundation under you. The downside is that if you buy into the message that you are what you own, or you are what you look like, then you’re giving up your power. And you’re giving up your power to people who will manipulate that, and they will say, “Well, you don’t look good enough; you don’t own the right things,” because by doing so, they entice you to buy more stuff. And you can never buy enough stuff to make you feel good about yourself. The way that Speak has led to discussions about sexual assault, if I got to be Queen of the Universe, then I would like to think that Wintergirls might lead to discussions of why we give our power, the power about our body images, over to people who are hired to make us feel bad about them. PT: You’ve published the 10th anniversary edition of Speak, and in the time since it was published, you’ve received countless notes from teens sharing deep pain about surviving sexual assault. You’ve said that their letters have been “the most profound thing” that’s ever happened in your career. How so? LHA: I write for myself—I think we all do—but there’s always that very human desire to connect with another person, whether it’s a conversation on the subway or the market or whatever. And so when you can write something that’s important to you and it turns out it’s important to somebody else, and maybe as a tool that that person can use on their path—’cause a lot of the letters say, “I didn’t tell anybody I was raped until I read your book, and then I went and I told and I got help and I’m feeling stronger”—I am speechless. What an honor that is. It’s very moving. I can’t be real articulate about it. That’s why I wrote that poem. PT: What was the last great book you read? LHA: I just read a fabulous book. As a matter of fact, I gave it to my dad, and he brought it back to me this morning. It’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Díaz. Holy Jesus—that’s one of the best books I’ve read in the last five years. I’ve got to go out and get his other stuff. Next up in “YA Lit Bitch”: interviews with Francesca Lia Block, Julie Anne Peters, Justine Larbalestier, and Nancy Garden. Got a suggestion for a YA novelist to bitch with? Please leave a comment to let us know! Related: “YA Lit Bitch”: An Interview with Novelist Sara Zarr