Frequently Asked Questions
Here are answers to questions frequently asked by readers and by students doing book reports.
Please tell me about your background, where you grew up, how you became a writer.
I was brought up in Central Pennsylvania in a very strict Catholic home. My family didn’t encourage a career as a writer, in part, because they were worried about my ability to make a steady living. Instead, my parents suggested that I become a nurse or work in state government. I did start out in state government – but within a few months after I started a job in the governor’s office, the Three Mile Island nuclear accident happened, just 10 miles away. Reporters from all over the world descended on our town and I knew then that I wanted to go into journalism.
I studied journalism at Columbia and later took a job at a mid-sized newspaper. Having a daily deadline was a great cure for writers block; you learn to write under deadline pressure and you learn to accept revisions from an editor. Later I was lucky enough to get a job reviewing children’s books and movies – and soon realized that, not only were there a lot of bad movies out there – but that I wanted to write my own stories, not review stories written by other people.
What made you decide to become a writer?
I’ve been writing since I was a kid starting with truly terrible plays I put on starring my little sisters in costumes pulled from the dress-up bin. Later, as a skinny fourth grader, I carried my father’s old briefcase back and forth to school full of plays and stories I’d inflict on my friends and teachers. When I left college, I worked as a newspaper journalist. I occasionally write magazine stories, but now I mainly concentrate on fiction.
I write to figure out who I am and how I feel about things. I also write to give voice to experiences that might not otherwise be spoken about.
What challenges did you have growing up and how did you overcome them?
There was a lot of anger in my home growing up. And so I retreated into an attic space over our garage – one time I hid there for an entire school day. I also spent a lot of that time writing (really bad) stories in an old copybook. Having a physical and an imaginary space where I could escape saved me and instilled in me a love of stories – stories that can distract you from your real life troubles, lead the way toward solutions and eventually allow you to transcend them.
What advice do you have for aspiring writers?
Read as much and as widely as you can. And make it a habit to unplug for an hour or so every day. No phone, no iPod, no texting, no TV, no Facebook. It will be very uncomfortable at first. But in that quiet, it will be amazing what your imagination comes up with.
Think about it: when you’re listening to music or watching TV you’re being fed the products of someone else’s imagination. That very powerful input can crowd out what YOU might create.
What inspires you to write?
I get ideas everywhere, often from real life incidents in the newspaper or from the lives and stories of my friends. I also pester my kids and their friends for ideas. Sometimes, ideas just come to me in the form of images. I then write into that image to see if there’s a story behind it.
Your books are about tough topics. Why do you write about such topics – and do you worry that your books might not be appropriate for some teenagers?
My son teases me about the books I write. He says, “Where do you come up with the ideas for your books, Mom? What do you do, google the word ‘sad’?”
But seriously, I’m simply drawn to these topics – things I can consider substantive. If I’m going to spend three years working on a book I want it to really be about something important. I want to bring attention to issues people might not otherwise know about and I want to change attitudes.
But my books aren’t for everybody. I don’t expect everyone to like what I write – all reading is a matter of taste. But I do take great care with the language I use to depict some of these difficult situations. The idea of a child being sold into sexual slavery is brutal enough; I don’t want to also brutalize the reader with the language I use. You’ll notice that I don’t use graphic language; I try to use language appropriate to the narrator – and if your narrator is a naïve 13-year-old girl she isn’t going to use graphic language. She’s going to speak with bewilderment, fear, and a sense of betrayal – which, in the end, is more powerful than graphic language.
What do you hope readers will get from your books?
When I read, I consciously or unconsciously look for aspects of my own life in the story. I’m probably looking for answers in the books I read, if not answers, at least to find someone who’s struggling with the same questions I am. I’ve always taken great comfort knowing there’s an author or a character out there trying to make sense of some of the same things I am. My hope is that people who are coping with any of the difficult issues facing teenagers will see the struggles of the characters — Callie, the girls at Sea Pines, Toby, Jake, their parents — with compassion. Then I hope they’ll see their own lives in a new light, with more understanding and hope for themselves.
What is your life like now?
Not very glamorous. I often work at home in my sweatpants with a very nosy cat who walks across the keyboard. I live in New York; I have two grown children who love to make fun of me when they get together – but who I think are secretly very proud of my work.
Who is your favorite author and why?
My favorite author is probably Tobias Wolff, author of This Boy’s Life. I also love Carson McCullers, author of Member of the Wedding.
More interviews can be found below and under the Books tab: