Robin Talley – Author Interview

As I mentioned last week, a series of fortunate events led to me receiving a copy of Robin Talley’s debut novel LIES WE TELL OURSELVES. I posted a review over on The Great Noveling Adventure blog and promised an interview with the author herself this week. And here it is!

(Stay tuned after the interview for your chance to win a copy of this outstanding book.)

First, an introduction.

The Book

LIES WE TELL OURSELVES written by Robin TalleyLWTO-200x300

Published by: Harlequin Teen

Release Date: September 30, 2014

Genres: Historical Fiction, YA, LGBT

Plot Summary:

In 1959 Virginia, the lives of two girls on opposite sides of the battle for civil rights will be changed forever.

Sarah Dunbar is one of the first black students to attend the previously all-white Jefferson High School. An honors student at her old school, she is put into remedial classes, spit on and tormented daily.

Linda Hairston is the daughter of one of the town’s most vocal opponents of school integration. She has been taught all her life that the races should be kept “separate but equal.”

Forced to work together on a school project, Sarah and Linda must confront harsh truths about race, power and how they really feel about one another. (Summary from author’s website.)

The Interview

Valerie Lawson: What was the inspiration for this project?

photo by Courtney Rae Rawls via author website
photo by Courtney Rae Rawls via author website

Robin Talley: The idea for Lies We Tell Ourselves started with my parents. They were both teenagers when their schools were integrated in the 1960s. They used to tell me stories about that time when I was growing up, but I never really understood what a big deal it was until I was older and knew a little more about the Civil Rights Movement.

It struck me as a good potential setting for a novel, but I was still conscious of the fact that I didn’t know much about what school desegregation had actually been like for the black students who were on the front lines of that battle. I wanted to explore their experiences. I immersed myself in research, and not long after that, a 17-year-old closeted lesbian named Sarah Dunbar entered my mind as my protagonist for a fictional story about the integration experience.

VL: Starting with your parents’ history, what a great idea. And I love how Sarah emerged from all of the elements coming together.

I’ve always been fascinated with the Civil Rights Era and thought I understood it, but reading about school integration from a teen’s POV was so enlightening, so terrifying. I’d never really thought about their day-to-day lives. Your book did a fantastic job showing the opposing views of the times and how turbulent, yet delicate this step in the struggle really was, and how the children bore the weight of it.

Tell us about your experience writing this story from the two different perspectives, from Sarah and Linda’s POV.

RT: Both Sarah and Linda’s POVs were incredibly difficult to write. I’ve never experienced anything like what these characters go through, so I had to do a lot of deep POV exercises to try to imagine what the world looked like from their perspectives. There are also a lot of discarded drafts of Lies We Tell Ourselves from when I was learning to work with these characters and get into their heads.

Linda was much harder to write than Sarah. Sarah is very different from me, but at least her view of the world was based on rational facts. Linda has a warped view based on a dangerous, elaborate fantasy created by generations of people who spent a lifetime brainwashing her, basically. So to try to contort my brain into being able to talk in Linda’s voice ― well, let’s just say I didn’t realize exactly how big a task I was taking on when I first had the idea to make her a POV character.

 

VL: Writing a character like Linda had to be quite daunting, and yet, you nailed her voice. She wasn’t a caricature. Those POV exercises really worked! I, for one, am glad you took on that big task.

You did a massive amount of research for this book – reading memoirs, newspaper articles, watching recordings of oral histories, 50s film clips, etc. What surprised you the most about what you discovered?

RT: I can’t believe I didn’t know this before I started researching this book ― I can’t believe it isn’t taught in every school everywhere ― but there’s a public school system in Prince Edward County, Virginia, that shut down completely for five years to prevent integration. So if you were, say, ten when the schools closed, you missed out on getting a public education from age ten to age fifteen.

Kids in that time had to either go to private school somehow ― of course, this was relatively easy for the white students, since the county opened up an all-white private school paid for with taxpayer money, so it was cheap or free to attend ― or move to another school district (at their own expense), or just try to do the best they could by reading books at home or gathering together with friends to study. This period is a horrific stain on the history of my state and my entire country, and I think everyone needs to know about it.

VL: That is so crazy! The lengths the segregationists went to  – wow! I thought the school being shut down for a semester in the book was insane.

I absolutely love the complexity added to your story with Sarah and Linda’s relationship. It brought the struggle of the past – so raw and angry – right up to the present and reminded us that we are still fighting this fight of discrimination, today.

Did you have that lofty goal in mind when you started out or did this evolve throughout your writing process?

 

RT: I didn’t really have any lofty goals during the writing itself. I just thought it would be an interesting story to explore. From the initial kernel of the idea, I wondered what it would be like to be on the front lines of a very public social justice battle like school integration, while also dealing with a much more private struggle ― because in 1959, sexual orientation was not discussed out in the open. So I wanted to take on that conflict and explore what it would’ve been like for a teenager dealing with a very normal teenage issue ― sexuality ― while also dealing with something that’s much bigger than any one person, the Civil Rights Movement.

VL: You wrote such a phenomenal debut book, do you have any tips for aspiring writers?

 

RT: Read everything you can get your hands on, both fiction and nonfiction. Read books that are in the genre you want to write in, for sure, but also read newspapers and magazines, read memoirs and essay collections, read Wikipedia articles about people you know nothing about and places you’ve never imagined living. You’ve got two goals here ― to learn how other people write, and to step outside your comfort zone and learn about lives that aren’t like yours. Both are essential to writing!

VL: Totally agree! I get on my soapbox about reading all the time. I like that additional part – “learn about lives that aren’t like yours”. I haven’t heard that before. Great advice.

What was the worst job you ever had while going to school?

RT: I worked at Kmart one summer in college, in the sporting goods section. I sold guns and hunting licenses. No one ever believes me when I tell them this.

VL: Ha! That sounds dreadful. I’d have died of boredom. 

What are you currently working on?

RT: I’m editing my next book, Unbreakable (though the title may change). It’s coming out in fall 2015 from Harlequin Teen and it’s a contemporary realistic story about two college freshmen ― a so-committed-they’re-practically-married high school couple who are determined to make their relationship work despite the distance. Gretchen is starting at NYU, and she identifies as a lesbian; Toni, who’s starting at Harvard, identifies as genderqueer.

VL: Oh, wonderful! A new book!

What has been your favorite book to read/book you’ve been most excited about over the past year?

 

RT: Oh, there are so many! Can I cheat and talk about a book that’s coming out next year? The Weight of Feathers by Anna-Marie McLemore is a truly astonishing magical realism romance. It’s a Romeo and Juliet story about the son and daughter of two rival families of traveling performers, and the writing and the complex characters will take your breath away. It’s so rich with description and depth ― it’s basically an oil painting in the form of a YA novel. Look for it in 2015!

 

VL: “…it’s basically an oil painting in the form of a YA novel.” I love that description. Sold. And now, my anticipated TBR can grow some more. Will definitely keep an eye out for that one.

What would be your dream assignment/what would you most like to write about?

 

RT: I’d love to write about two teenage girls who are highly competitive athletes (think Olympic level) and are trying to balance their careers with a romance. I don’t think I could do it, though ― I’m not athletic at all so the physical stuff would just be too hard to describe accurately. I hope someone else writes that story, though!

VL: Sounds intriguing. Maybe someone out there will be inspired to write it for us.

Robin, thank you so much for joining us! Your book is amazing and I look forward to the next one, UNBREAKABLE, coming out next year.

Learn more about Robin Talley here.

Follow Robin on Twitter here.

Follow Robin on Facebook here.

Follow Robin on Tumblr here.

You can order your own copy of Robin Talley’s book LIES WE TELL OURSELVES here:

indieboundamazonbn-24h-80

The Giveaway

You can enter for a chance to win a hardback copy of LIES WE TELL OURSELVES by either visiting The Great Noveling Adventure blog post where I reviewed Robin’s book or by clicking directly on the Rafflecopter link below. Entry to the contest is open to until November 30th. Good luck!

Win hardback copy of Lies We Tell Ourselves
Enter to win hardback copy of Lies We Tell Ourselves

ENTER HERE!!!  ➤➤➤ Robin Talley Rafflecopter giveaway

CONGRATULATIONS TO RHONDA LOMAZOW!

She won the hardback copy of LIES WE TELL OURSELVES.

Getting in Touch with my Austen Peeps – A Challenging Review

Some of you may have remembered that I’ve taken up a couple of challenges this year. (I first mentioned them in this post here and this one here.) Both involve reading and reviewing books with differing themes. Not such a tough thing for a lover of reading, I admit. In the end, not so much challenging as just fun and another excuse to share some great books with you. I have two reviews for you this week – one today and one this weekend.

pride-prejudice-bicentenary-challenge-2013-x-200For the Pride & Prejudice Bicentenniary Challenge, I wasn’t ready to tackle the original text just yet. Then I stumbled on some news about a children’s author I follow on Twitter. Then I read that she not only wrote something for adults, but that it had a Jane Austen theme. Not only that, the first book in this new series was just made into a movie. And it’s all about a woman who is totally obsessed with Pride and Prejudice and that fantastic Mr. Darcy, much to the detriment of her own love life.

Perfect!

The book?

Austenland by Shannon HaleAustenlandPB150

Here’s the plot summary:

Jane Hayes is a seemingly normal young New Yorker, but she has a secret. Her obsession with Mr. Darcy, as played by Colin Firth in the BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, is ruining her love life: no real man can compare. But when a wealthy relative bequeaths her a trip to an English resort catering to Austen-crazed women, Jane’s fantasies of meeting the perfect Regency-era gentleman suddenly become realer than she ever could have imagined.

Decked out in empire-waist gowns, Jane struggles to master Regency etiquette and flirts with gardeners and gentlemen—or maybe even, she suspects, with the actors who are playing them. It’s all a game, Jane knows. And yet the longer she stays, the more her insecurities seem to fall away, and the more she wonders: Is she about to kick the Austen obsession for good, or could all her dreams actually culminate in a Mr. Darcy of her own?

And honestly, how many of us (participating in this challenge or not) can identify to some degree with a (slightly obsessive) preoccupation with Pride & Prejudice and hoping that there is a Mr. Darcy out there for us as well? Of course, I’m not saying that we would take it to Jane’s extreme, but still…

Jane is at first ecstatic to be immersed in the world of corsets and drawing rooms, but soon she finds the actors a little too spot on, feeling as if she is the fraud ruining this romantic utopia. She begins to think back on each of her failed relationships to see where they all fell short of the most perfect romance ever written. Is there really a Mr. Darcy out there for her or should she stick to her plan and get this nonsense out of her system once and for all?

Here’s a brief excerpt:

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a thirty-something woman in possession of a satisfying career and fabulous hairdo must be in want of very little, and Jane Hayes, pretty enough and clever enough, was certainly thought to have little to distress her. There was no husband, but those weren’t necessary anymore. There were boyfriends, and if they came and went in a regular stream of mutual dissatisfaction—well, that was the way of things, wasn’t it?

But Jane had a secret. By day, she bustled and luncheoned and emailed and over timed and just-in-timed, but sometimes, when she had the time to slip off her consignment store pumps and lounge on her hand-me-down sofa, she dimmed the lights, turned on her nine inch television, and acknowledged what was missing.

Sometimes, she watched Pride and Prejudice.

You know, the BBC double DVD version, starring Colin Firth as the delicious Mr. Darcy and that comely, busty English actress as the Elizabeth Bennet we had imagined all along. Jane watched and re-watched the part where Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy look at each other over the piano, and there’s that zing, and her face softens, and he smiles, his chest heaving as though he’d breathe in the sight of her, and his eyes are glistening so that you’d almost think he’d cry…Ah!

Each time, Jane’s heart banged, her skin chilled, and she clamped down on the distracting ache in her gut with a bowl of something naughty, like Cocoa Pebbles. That night she would dream of gentlemen in Abraham Lincoln hats, and then in the morning laugh at herself and toy with the idea of hauling those DVDs and all her Austen books to the second hand store.

Of course, she never did.

That pesky movie version was the culprit. Sure, Jane had first read Pride and Prejudice when she was sixteen, read it a dozen times since, and read the other Austen novels at least twice, except Northanger Abbey (of course). But it wasn’t until the BBC put a face on the story that those gentlemen in tight breeches had stepped out of her reader’s imagination and into her non-fiction hopes. Stripped of Austen’s funny, insightful, biting narrator, the movie became a pure romance. And Pride and Prejudice was the most stunning, bite-your-hand romance ever, the kind that stared straight into Jane’s soul and made her shudder.

It was embarrassing. She didn’t really want to talk about it. So let’s move on.

Hale gives a charming, if at times uncomfortable, view of what it would feel like to actually be transported to one’s own Austenland. Be careful what you wish for, here. This book may make you question how much of your concepts of romance, what you expected to find out in the world when searching for someone to be your partner in life – the deep down ones that you never told anyone – were based on unrealistic expectations and fantasies not to be found in the real world. You may ask yourself, “Is this nagging sense of my life being incomplete that I sometimes get after reading/watching P & P from some lame lack of fulfillment or just the wistful longing that great literature can evoke?”

Of course, those stories never show the perfect romantic couples dealing with whose turn it is to take out the trash or feed the screaming baby at 2 AM either, do they?

This is a great, easy read for any hardcore Austen fan to enjoy.

Learn more about Shannon Hale and her books here.

Lipstick Isn’t Love – Teaching Our Daughters to Love Themselves

Am I kissable?

The recent uproar surrounding Ashley Judd and the ugly media speculation on her changing appearance and her thoughtful response really got me thinking about a conversation I had with a close relative (who wishes to remain anonymous). It started something like this:

“I need this new lip gloss.”

“What? Why? You have tons of makeup.”

“It will give me more confidence.”

“What!?!”

“That’s what it says.”

“You’re joking.”

She was not joking.

That was the beginning of the most disturbing conversation I’ve ever had with her. Voices were raised. Tears were shed. It was very uncomfortable for both of us. When we finally got down to the heart of  the matter, she revealed that she thought of herself as some disfigured troll that couldn’t go out among normal, flawless humans without a coat of protective camouflage hiding all of her most hideous deformities, and that she actually needed this new lip gloss to feel better about herself.  The Kissaholic Lip Gloss from Victoria’s Secret did not promise to boost one’s confidence as it turns out; it only promised to “increase lip volume for a fuller, sexier, more kissable pout”, apparently something my young anonymous female relative, who has very full lips to begin with, was in desperate need of acquiring. The advertising went on to say that it was “infused with an exotic blend of aphrodisiac ingredients designed to inspire desire.” How embarrassing to have to explain to me that she wanted, needed to feel desired by someone. And how embarrassing for me to have to explain that she had been duped by a marketing campaign aimed at her vulnerable heart.

I was in shock. Did she really think that beauty was all she had to offer anyone? Had I myself influenced this young woman in any way to be so dependent on her looks for her self-esteem?

I hoped not. I knew better. I had taken some enlightening college courses in the past and I was amazed at what I learned from a paper I read on toy advertising; how we as women are subjected to not only societal expectations, but blatant marketing strategies encouraging us even as young girls in toy commercials to find satisfaction and pride in our physical appearance and care-taking skills, unlike boys who are encouraged to take pride in skills like problem-solving and risk-taking.  One of my favorite passages came from another paper I read entitled Analysis of Gender Identity Through Doll & Action Figure Politics in Art Education by Anna Wagner-Ott, an associate professor at California State University at Sacramento:

“It is from popular culture that most people weave their identities and establish their relationships with others and the environment. Mass media images saturate our lives, structuring much of what we know beyond personal experience.” (Duncum, 1997, p.70)

She wanted her paper to help other art educators to “gain insight into how cultural forms, marketing, and aesthetic productions are generating gender identities” and to help them emancipate their students from these contemporary forms of domination. Heavy stuff.

After studying these subjects, I wanted to make sure my own daughter knew that she was more than just a pretty face. I made sure I told her often that she was smart, compassionate, a talented artist, and a tough soccer player among many other things. I couldn’t help it that she heard from other people that she was also beautiful.

Then puberty hit and that struggle to find her unique identity within the crowd and “Mom you couldn’t possibly understand what I’m going through” period came along with it.  Although I do know exactly what she’s going through, there is no way she’ll believe it and there’s no way I can make it any easier for her. My compliments hailing her many fine attributes now fall on deaf ears. She’ll have to survive her own battle of self-esteem.

So how do you fight against that overwhelming tide of societal norms and let your children know it’s okay to be exactly who they are and that they are more than a beautiful face? As with Ashley Judd’s comments, I am reminded just how much other young girls – other women – help perpetuate the obsession with YOUTH and BEAUTY and devalue those who stray from this path.  How quick are we to say something snarky about someone else gaining weight or a cosmetic surgery job gone wrong? How many women hold real positions of power? What do we say about them? Do we value each other as women for traits NOT tied to appearance? Do we cheer other women on for their accomplishments or tear them down? If we want our daughters to be valued and teach them to find value in themselves, we need to lead the way. Do you agree? How do you teach your daughter to love herself for all that she is?

I leave you with a fantastic performance by slam poet Katie Makkai that I am stealing from another awesome blog. (thank you, Cassie.)

Barbies on Fire

I was once like many young girls who worshipped at the alter of Barbie. I coveted the Malibu Dream House; I longed for the Pepto pink convertible to drive around my less attractive friends. I wanted to accessorize my troubles away. And then one day something in me just stopped believing the hype that my self-worth was tied into my appearance and I couldn’t be one of those girls anymore. I don’t know why it happened, but the glitz of Barbie’s world lost its charm; all that sparkly sequins seemed tacky and life started being about swimming against the current…and it has been ever since.

I blame my father.

He always treated me like I had a brain that was useful for more than organizing sock drawers. We would have long talks about everything where my very inexperienced opinion was just as important as anyone’s. He also made me do everything that my brothers had to do; mow the lawn, cut and stack firewood, and wash the dishes. There were no gender-specific chores at our house.

And reading was encouraged.

My dad was and still is a voracious reader. Not surprisingly, I became an unstoppable reader myself. One of my fondest memories as a child was the night my dad started reading The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis to me. I was so captivated. Not only did I have my dad all to myself, but we were sharing this amazing adventure in Narnia together. If only I’d been patient enough to wait for him to read the rest of the story to me. When he couldn’t read to me the next night, I took off on my own and never looked back until I had devoured the entire series. I re-read those books more than any other throughout my childhood. I even saved up my own lawn-mowing money to buy A Companion to Narnia by Paul Ford printed in 1980 that I still have to this day.

I’m pretty sure that’s when the writing bug sunk its teeth deep into my skin and made itself at home in my soul.

Fast-forward thirty or so years later and it hasn’t let go. Now I’m deep in the process of writing my second book and enjoying (almost) every facet of it. This one may actually be worthy of publishing. We shall see. I’ve learned a few things along my continuing journey to be a children’s writer, mostly from making a slew of mistakes – but isn’t that the most memorable way to do it? This blog is my latest leap into the unknown, trying to push myself further and keep on swimming upstream. I hope you’ll join me.