Maya Lubarsky, Stoneman Douglas
12:14 PM AKST, November 21, 2012
History takes center stage in Libba Bray’s new novel, which she shared at the Miami Book Fair this year.
Teenlink: How long has the idea for The Diviners been brewing in your mind and how did it get there?
Libba Bray: Oh, gosh, you know, I started thinking about it four years ago. I tend to sit there and jot down lots of notes and think about things. About four years ago, I first started thinking about writing something supernatural set in the 1920s and jotting down all my notes and everything, and then I started doing the preliminary research, reading up on the period, the literature from the time, and that sort of thing. I guess about four years ago is the answer.
Why did you decide to place your book in the 1920s?
LB: I think part of it is that I was interested in the time period. I always think that you should write about what you are interested in, certainly makes it much more fun. I remembered when I was in high school reading ‘The Great Gatsby’ and it was one of those required readings that I really enjoyed, and because I think that the 1920’s is just so dramatic. There is something about that period. … It’s like it came out of the central casting of history. You think about the slang, and the bootleggers, and the fashion and the fact that women had just got the right to vote, and the flappers and the Harlem Renaissance, and New York in that time period was just so vibrant. I thought that is an incredible set to play with. It was such an inherently theatrical time period. And then, of course, it builds in drama because you sit there and you know as you look at all the stuff of the 1920s that it’s leading up to a huge fall.
You used such amazing language, that one would think you were there in the 1920s. How did you get that?
LB: Research certainly helped. I researched slang of the time, but I also read a lot of literature from the time period, things written in the 1920s. I looked at a lot of newspaper stories since tabloid journalism was so huge in this time, such as the ‘Daily News,’ and the way the newspaper articles are written is sort of David Runyan, like ‘Guys and Dolls.’ It has that sort of hip quality to it. There was a gossip columnist for the ‘New Yorker,’ and she wrote under the name “Lipstick,” and her real name was Louis Long, and she was basically the party girl of her day. She was paid to go out and enjoy the nightlife, and then write about it. I read her columns, too. I was getting a lot of different perspectives. Another thing that really helps is that I come from a theatre background, so I am kind of trained in dialogue, in character, and to pay attention to the way people say things. I found an online flapper dictionary, published in 1922, and it explained a lot of slang. Some of the slang is explained with other slang, which makes it really funny: ‘Well, thank you for that, that is SO not helpful.’ But, the slang is fantastic.
You brought in so many different cultures, religions and different aspects of history. Why did you decide in your novel to base it on fact more than just basing it in a fictional 1920s.
LB: I think there is a fair amount of fiction as well, obviously. When you are dealing with things like the supernatural, and things that aren’t grounded anyways, it really helps to be able to take your world and make it feel as realistic as possible, so that lends some willing suspension of disbelief to the more magical aspects of what you are writing about. I happen to just find all that stuff fascinating. I really wanted to write about America, and I really wanted to write about class and race and sort of the American myths of what we believe about ourselves. We tend to have a collective amnesia of the more unpleasant aspects of our history. I wanted to talk about those as well. There was a lot that I wanted to discuss aside from monsters and follies and fun flapper fashion. There were actual things going on that I wanted to discuss. I think it’s interesting when we talk about monsters and ghosts, and it’s really sometimes the monstrous things that human beings are capable of that are really the scary things.
It was very different from your other novels. How was it writing about something so different?
LB: Well, in a way I would argue that it is not as different as it may seem. I think that in “Gemma Doyle” we are dealing with aspects of feminism and there is class and race in that as well, and in “Beauty Queens” it is quite subversive and I am dealing with consumer culture and class and race and gender stereotypes. They can get quite political, and I think, if anything, one of the trends that tend to trace throughout my work is political. It’s just a different way of coming at sort of the same sort of theme that I want to explore. I don’t want to write the same book all the time, but there are a lot of things that I am interested in, and it is coming at a different angle. In “Gemma Doyle,” there is so much about power and how threatening that is to the world at large, and in “Beauty Queens” there is a lot about image and we are constantly bombarded with image in all aspects of culture, and if it is possible to get out of that and create authentic selves. In “Diviners,” it is very much about concerns with the American mentality.
Was it hard to balance the romance, plot and mystique in “The Diviners”?
LB: I felt like my head was about to explode. I’m like, “Why am I doing this again? I can’t do this! I need a snack.” There are so many threads. I am not the most organized person, so it is funny when I sit there and think, “Why do I write these big, folly, wooly books that have all these things going on? Why couldn’t I just write a straight love story and be done with it?” But, apparently that is what I am interested in. I sweat blood over every single book and every plot line.
How does the response from your fans feel?
I always say that when you write a book, when you finish and it goes out into the world, then it belongs to the reader and you’re giving it out. Whatever anyone has to say about it is legit. Whatever the reading experience is, it is. It’s been very lovely, because I have gotten a lot of positive response; apparently there are a lot of people who are also interested in the things that I am interested in I am. So that’s nice. It was lovely to go on tour, which I hadn’t done in many years, and I just got back, and it felt so great to be in a bookstore or in a library and to be able to sit with people. Sometimes people come up and tell you personal stories about what the book means to them. I always get kind of misty. I have to tell myself ‘Don’t cry’ and it’s always so meaningful. There are book and things that have meant a lot to me. I was just telling someone how I went to see Pete Townshend and I love him. So here I am going through the line to talk to him for about 1.5 seconds and the whole time I am practicing what I am going to say, I better say this fast, and my heart is beating so fast. To have someone come up to say, I am so nervous to meet you, I say don’t be nervous. I have had that moment. It is very nice to have people tell me how much they enjoyed it and to tell me that they were very scared by it. Hooray, if you are scared, I have done my job. If you cannot sleep, I am sorry.
Which part of researching ‘The Diviners’ was the most interesting to you? And were there any facts, or symbols, or themes that you would have liked to include but they just couldn’t make it.
LB: Oh man, there is always so much that ends up on the cutting room floor. I did include some of the things that I found fascinating, but maybe not to the extent that I would have like to include them, but hopefully I will include them in the next book. The thing that was most chilling to me was to read about the Eugenics project. This was the scariest thing and it’s complete fact. It started around 1912, and 1916 ‘The Passing of the Great Race’ was published and it’s actually referenced in ‘The Great Gatsby,’ by Buchanan, that jerk, that racist jerk. And it talks about it like it’s science, because it was a pseudoscience, and the whole idea that you could apply livestock breeding techniques to human beings, and the whole idea of superior breeding, and so you wanted to select the best. What caused superior beings, well, Nordic traits, of course, white people stock. It was absolutely a reaction to the waves of immigration coming through the U.S., because that was a heavy time of immigration. It was almost a phobia, with all this racism coming up, and there were laws that were passed. The Immigration Act of 1924. I would have liked to include more about the Chinese exclusion act, which was horrible.
Could we expect to see that in a sequel?
LB: Yes, well … book two is set in Chinatown. It is supposed to be published in spring of 2014. We work so far ahead in publishing. It’s working on not just the story, but the research aspects that take a lot of time. There were some really fun parties that I researched, but I am trying to get that into book two.
What would be your favorite scene from the novel, or the hardest one to write?
LB: Interestingly, my favorite scene got cut from the novel. There was a scene I wrote where I wanted to have a Gatsby-like scene, where they go out to a party on Long Island. So I wrote this whole big scene, and Sam had stolen a car, and he was taking them out to this party, Evie, Sam, Maybel, Henry and Theta. There was this whole scene, where they are at this party, and it’s this sort of drunken rich bash, that shows the decadence of that part of society, but while they were there, Evie and Sam go out on a row boat, onto Long Island sound, and that is where Sam tells her about Project Buffalo. I included some of that dialogue later on in the actual ‘Diviners,’ so I transported that scene. They have this whole bantering conversation that turns serious, the Evie does something stupid and stands up in the boat and they get dumped into the water. This sort of romantic moment as he holds onto her as they swim to the side and then there is a scene where Evie goes upstairs to dry off, and it is kind of a heartfelt moment when she is in this baby’s room and she is thinking about James. But, you know, my editor said, this kind of stops the action dead, and she was absolutely right. It didn’t fit the flow. Maybe I’ll be able to work that into some other book … I’ll see. My favorite scene that stayed in the book would probably be … I really had fun writing the Hotsy-Totsy raid. That was a lot of fun to write. I also really enjoyed writing both Theta’s back story and Jericho’s back story, toward the end, where he is talking to her after the big reveal.
That was a big step away from the rest of the novel. How did you think about getting that involved in there, the whole machine man?
LB: That was one of the first thing I thought about, four years ago when I was jotting down my notes. It’s always interesting to see the roots that a novel takes, because it always ends up being nothing like you thought. You have your basic DNA, but at least for me, it ends up being a far different novel than I planned to write. Part of me was inspired by the film Metropolis, a commentary on industrialization, and they have this robot woman. I thought about man and machine, and I was researching the Eugenics thing and that thought came into my mind and it wouldn’t leave my mind, so I thought there was something there and I should go with it.
Which character do you relate to most in the novel, and why?
LB: This is always such a tough questions, because I think there are aspects of every character that you can relate to when you’re writing a book, and sometimes those things are surprising. I think I relate a lot to Memphis because he wants to be a writer, and because he also looks out for other people, and there is a desire to look out for other people. He feels very compassionate; he cares for his brother, is concerned about him, and cares about Theta. He cares a lot about doing the right thing and worries about whether he’s doing the right thing. As a teenager, I did worry, I would waver between my Evie and my Memphis side … that sort of fun-loving free spirit and the ‘Gosh, I hope I am doing the right thing and that I am not screwing this up.’ I can certainly relate to Evie’s sarcasm and her free spirit. … I borrowed a little from a friend of mine when I was growing up. She was delightful, but as her mother once said, you guys have the perfect relationship. She gets you into things, and Libba, you figure out how to get out. It was a lot of, ‘I know this party,’ and I was like, ‘Oh, this is how I am going to die.’ All of the crazy situations that I can think of from my teenage years involve this friend of mine saying, ‘I know this party’, or ‘I have this great idea,’ and every single time, in my mind, a part of me says ‘Don’t do this, it will end in tears’ and another part going, ‘But that sounds fun.’ She was really bold.
What tip would you give to any striving young adult writer?
LB: The first thing, which sounds so obvious, but you would be amazed how many people don’t actually take this to heart, is to read. You have to read everything, escpecially the genre you are writing for. I think you should read everything because it shows you what is possible. Sometimes it is easy to get locked in your own head, and when you read other writers, you become aware of what you can do. The first time I read ‘Watchmen’ by Allen Moore, it was amazing to know you could jump around, jump out of time, insert an entire other story inside of it. Or when I read great language. I always talk about when I read ‘Motherless Brooklyn’ by Jonathan Lethem and he described the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel, which is a tunnel I have taken many times, and believe me, it is a prosaic tunnel, as “that great tiled stained artery, connect the heart of the city with the outer burrow.” It was like, ‘WOW, way to be creative, way to think of language in a new way.’ It remind you of what is possible. … I forgot that this word is out there, it’s a beautiful word. The other thing I would say is to take risks. Every story is a human story, it needs to have a beating heart, and that involves being really honest about what it means to be human. We all feel like we are wearing the wrong underwear and none of us got the manual, but we don’t know that, that everyone thinks that’ too, and so we kind of carry on, like ‘Yeah, I’m fine, I was thinking the same thing’ instead of, ‘Oh my god, I have no idea what I am doing and I am flying by the seat of my pants, and I am pretty sure that this is all going to end in tears.’ Even though all of those things that we kind of guard against and protect ourselves from in our everyday lives are the very sorts of armaments that we have to take off in order to write honestly, take risks and put the marrow on the page. If you read everythin,g it will show you what is possible, and you need to read to know how to write. Be honest, take risks and write what feels true. Keeps questioning. Jennifer Jacobson says that when she wants to write, she asks herself three times, is it true yet? I love when she told me that story, and I have always remembered it, because now I ask myself that. Is it true yet? Just keep digging until it is, then wait, and ask yourself again. Read everything and be honest.
Did you ever feel that your work was AMAZING or OMG THIS SUCKS, and if the latter, how did you overcome this feeling?
LB: It’s brutal. I will tell you that I have not met a writer yet who doesn’t sit around and go, ‘I might be writing the worst piece of crap ever.’ It’s such a vulnerable thing to write, so how could you not have this feeling? I doubt myself all the time and I think that, that is also another piece of advice. It’s great to have a community. I am lucky to have a community of YA writers that are so supportive. Many of us live here in New York, and sometimes we will get together to write. It’s nice to know that when I hate my work, the cats wouldn’t even poo on it, then I can have a reality check. I can send it to a friend and ask them to read it, and they will tell me, ‘You’re crazy, it’s fine,’ or ‘You seem to go off here,’ or ‘I had questions about XYZ.’ Holly Black I will often talk to. You can help each other and offer support and critique when it is needed. One of the hardest things about writing is that you have to push through the doubt. Part of that doubt is unconscious things we do to keep ourselves from the honest part, and when you do get into that really honest part, then there is that sense of ‘I got there.’ It’s awful. Revision is everything. I firmly believe that even though it feels awful, you do finally push through and realize the problem, and write something that you are happy with. Now, I have managed to say what I needed to say, I just couldn’t get there before.
What are you reading right now?
LB: I am getting ready to read ‘Etiquette and Espionage’ by Gail Carringer because I am about to meet her in Las Vegas to be on a panel together, so I wanted to read it. I would love to read ‘Cloud Atlas’ because so many people I respect say that the book is mind-blowing. I also really want to read the follow-up to Justin Cronin’s ‘The Passage,’ because I read ‘The Passage’ earlier this year, so ‘The Twelve’ just came out this fall and I really want to read that. When I am heavy-duty writing, I say I binge and purge. I can’t read anything that is similar to what I am writing, and then I read so much nonfiction and research, so it takes up a lot of my reading time. When I turn something in, I will read books like I am eating a sleeve of Oreo cookies. Along with ‘Code Name Verity’ – every person raves about it, so I am looking forward to it. The other one is ‘Ask the Passengers.’ She is lovely. There is so much good stuff out there.
Which movie, book, or author has influenced you the most in your life or your writing?
LB: There are a lot of people I would put on that list. Certainly Steven Sondheim would be at the top. I am a big Sondheim fan. My first love was playwriting, I wanted to be a play writer, and I feel like Sondheim always manages to capture that bittersweet aspects of being alive and he does it with music. There are so many. I would put Josh Twigden and George Saunders. I love George Saunders. I am very much an absurdist, so I would put ‘Monty Python’ on that list. It is my favorite show of all times. I was introduced to it when I was about 11, in I believe sixth grade, and it completely shaped my world, which may be a frightening thing. Mine are kind of all over the place.