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.
LIES WE TELL OURSELVES written by Robin Talley
Published by: Harlequin Teen
Release Date: September 30, 2014
Genres: Historical Fiction, YA, LGBT
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.)
Valerie Lawson: What was the inspiration for this project?
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.
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.
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You can order your own copy of Robin Talley’s book LIES WE TELL OURSELVES here:
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!
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