ELIZABETH LABAN - INTERVIEW
I have always loved young adult books, and really wanted to write one. When I was in high school, I wrote a tragedy paper about Greek and Shakespearean tragedy that always stuck with me. A few years ago, my agent Uwe Stender suggested I read Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werter. I loved the story, and especially the structure of the story. I started playing around with ways to modernize and retell it. Being one of the classic tragedies, it sparked my memory of the paper I wrote in high school, which, in turn, brought back that whole world for me. It all started coming together in my mind and The Tragedy Paper was born.
2. Are any of the characters based on people you know?
Mr. Simon is most definitely based on my high school English teacher Mr. Arthur Naething. He is the one who assigned me the Tragedy Paper. At the time, I had no idea that the impact that assignment would have on me would be so huge. The way I remember it, Mr. Naething really
was obsessed with words like magnitude and hubris. He really did dismiss us each day by saying, “Go forth and spread beauty and light.” There are some differences, of course, between Mr. Simon and Mr. Naething. Mr. Simon is a much younger man than Mr. Naething was when he taught me. Also, Mr. Simon is harsher in some ways. When he keeps the late students out of the room, for example, that is all him. Mr. Naething never did anything like that. As for the other characters in The Tragedy Paper, they are completely made up.
3. Do you have a writing ritual?
I really don’t have a writing ritual. I am not one of those authors who writes for a certain amount of time each day. I write whenever I can. Sometimes that means I have hours, sometimes only minutes. Also, I can go days without writing. I do usually write at the same place in my house though – at the dining room table.
4. What is your most embarrassing moment as a Writer?
My theory about “most embarrassing moment” questions is that nobody ever really tells the truth since it would be too embarrassing. If you asked me my most embarrassing moment as a teenager, I would have to make one up. But I will tell you this. At one point a few months after my book was published, my editor wrote to tell me that a very well-known author’s agent had read my book and liked it a lot. The author she represents is one of my absolute favorites, so I saw her name and didn’t read the rest of the email carefully. I thought my editor was telling me the author had read it and liked it a lot. I went crazy! I wrote back an over-the-top email to my editor, telling her this was a dream come true, it was more than I ever could have hoped for, and asking if I could tweet about it. I few minutes later, I got another email asking if I had misunderstood what she had said. That’s when I went back and read the first email more carefully. I was so embarrassed! Don’t get me wrong, I was thrilled that the agent liked it. But it would have been an even greater thrill if the author had read it, too. Most important, I wish I had just calmed down for a minute before reacting.
5. When did you know you wanted to write?
I can honestly say that I have always wanted to be a writer – at least since I could hold a pen or pencil (or crayon). As a kid, I was constantly composing stories and poems. I focused on writing in college, and then went to journalism school. I have said this before, but it was reading S. E. Hinton’s books that really gave me the writing bug. I remember being in middle school and finishing That Was Then, This Is Now and thinking that more than anything I wanted to one day create a world that touched people the way I was touched by that book. Having said that, I should point out that it was thirty years later that The Tragedy Paper was published!
6. Who is your favourite author and what is your favourite book?
This is a hard question – and I will say it is constantly changing. There is no way I can name just one favorite author and one favorite book. This month, for example, I bought two new books by favorite authors just because they wrote them – Liane Moriarty and Curtis Sittenfeld. I loved What Alice Forgot by Moriarty and it is at the top of my list of favorite books. I loved David Payne’s Early From The Dance. I will also add Scott Spencer’s Waking The Dead, Sittenfeld’s American Wife, Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres, John Green’s Looking For Alaska, Jennifer Weiner’s Good In Bed, William Goldman’s The Princess Bride and Jane Schwartz’s Ruffian: Burning From The Start.
7. What is the book you wish you had written?
This is a tough one. Can I say John Green’s The Fault in our Stars? Doesn’t everyone wish they had written that book? Or Wonder, by R.J. Palacio. That is one of those books that you read and then find yourself thinking about at different times. It gets inside you and never leaves – which is a really good thing because it is such an amazing story.
8. How does it feel to see your book in bookshops?
I love it! I hope I will never, ever get tired of it or used to it. Tonight, for example, my family and I are traveling and we went into a Barnes & Noble near our hotel. They had a stack of my books, and it was a thrill to see where they were displayed, and then introduce myself to one of the booksellers there.
9. Can you give us any info of what you're working on next / what your next project is?
Yes! I am working on another young adult book, not at all connected to The Tragedy Paper. This time the main character is a girl. I would say its biggest defining characteristic is that it’s a mystery.
10. And finally a fun question! If you could have dinner with any three people, dead or alive, who would they be and why?
Again, my answers would change depending on what’s going on with me or what I’ve been reading or watching. I would say Barrack Obama is at the top – I would love to sit down and talk to him, maybe meet his family. Next I would say an actor who worked on Friday Night Lights – we just binge watched the entire series, finishing last night, and it is all we can talk about! I would invite Kyle Chandler or Zach Gilford over for dinner and make some BBQ, ask them what it was like to work on such an amazing show. And finally, I would have to say S.E. Hinton because she had such a huge impact on me with her books. I see her on Twitter, and love reading what she has to say. But it would be pretty cool to sit down with her and get to know her a little.