Interview: Leslie Stella
Current Mood: artistic
Current Song: The Once and Future Podcast with Anton Strout and Christopher Golden
I recently made the acquaintance of Leslie Stella, a novelist, journalist, and former magazine editor whose newest book, Permanent Record, is her first release in the Young Adult market. This story of a bullied Iranian-American teenager has caught the eye of many a reviewer (hello, Liz at Tea Cozy and School Library Journal!) Its serious tone is a stark contrast from her previous comedic novels, which were written for adults. Many thanks to Leslie for talking to me about her books and for encouraging kids and adults alike to stop bullying and start listening.
When did the idea for Permanent Record first take hold in your mind? How long did it take to get it from brain to paper (or computer), then from first draft to final draft?
It first emerged as adult fiction about ten years ago. I wrote the book with the same setting (a Chicago private school) and many of the same characters, but from the perspective of a teacher who no longer appears in the book. Bud, the protagonist in Permanent Record, appeared in that version, but as a supporting character. That version didn’t work for a variety of reasons, so over the years and in between other projects, I rewrote it twice. Third time was the charm. I realized what I had liked about the earlier versions were not the adult characters and their arcs, but the teens. When I gave the story to Bud, it all came together.
Did you ever reinvent yourself, as a teenager or as an adult?
Not really. I’m generally the same person on the inside that I was as a kid, a direct result of that one-two punch of growing up weird and shy.
Did you feel like an outsider in high school?
I felt like an outsider in elementary school and junior high, but not high school. My high school was an all-girls school, and removing boys—and perhaps the kinds of girls who were overly focused on boys—helped tremendously in terms of me fitting in. I was not bullied to the extent Bud was, but I had my share of cruelty handed to me in junior high from girls who stalked me and made a game of ostracizing me. Crippling shyness and being known for being strange didn’t help, but on the other hand I didn't have to deal with a physical or mental issue that would call up daily sh!tstorms of abuse. But there are children who have those issues, and who do endure that kind of daily abuse. I was lucky because many of the girls in my high school classes were nerdy like me and didn’t expect a high "coolth" quotient from anyone else.
How can we help the next generation break the cycle of bullying?
Smaller class sizes and more faculty/adult supervision out of the classroom can make it more difficult for mean children to bully, but I realize our schools are overburdened as it is; advocacy on the part of parents of bullied children may be the answer. Don’t tell a bullied child to “just get over it” or “ignore it,” as my mother told me, because it makes the child feel responsible for fixing a situation that she cannot possibly fix. Certain children can stand up to bullies, but for the most part children are targeted by bullies in the first place BECAUSE they are not the type of children who feel capable of standing up for themselves. Classmates began calling my house in seventh grade, threatening me and hurling invective over the phone (my punishment because I was friends with another ostracized girl they disliked). I believe if my mother had called their mothers, it would not have happened again. But she told me to ignore it, and it kept happening. So I stopped telling her.
How can we teach tolerance in a real and effective way?
As far as teaching tolerance, it begins in the home of course, but let’s face it: there are just some fundamentally cruel children (and adults) out there. Teaching kindness by example does not always work. In other words, school bullying initiatives need to hold to account bullies and the adults responsible for them.
How did you get your publishing deal with Skyscape/Amazon Children's Publishing?
My agent had originally sold the book to Marshall Cavendish Children’s Publishers in summer of 2011. In 2012, Marshall Cavendish Children’s was acquired by Amazon Children’s Publishing—a brand-new publishing division of Amazon. We Marshall Cavendish authors just went with the flow. This year, Amazon Children’s has divided up into two imprints, Two Lions (which publishes picture books and books for young readers) and Skyscape (my publisher, which is dedicated to young adult books). Luckily, I kept my same editor from Marshall Cavendish, Robin Benjamin, so editorially speaking, it was pretty seamless. Robin and I still worked together on the manuscript just as we had begun to do before Amazon acquired the imprint.
Permanent Record is your first YA novel, and your fourth published novel. What's the publishing story behind your first novel?
My first novel, Fat Bald Jeff, was adult fiction—the story of a disaffected copyeditor who hatches a plot to bring down her employer with the help of a disgruntled tech support guy—and it was published in 2001 after a relatively quick and easy submission process. Down the road, this taught me that nothing in publishing is as easy as it might seem; that nothing is a sure thing. I had three novels published in five years to middling acclaim when I found myself in the space of one day dumped by both my publisher and my agent. Those were dark days. It took me years of writing and throwing out, writing and throwing out, hoping to hit upon the magic formula that would please a new agent and fit into whatever was hot at the moment. Surprise: it didn’t work. Finally I said, fine, I may not be published ever again, but that doesn’t mean I have to stop writing. So I wrote to please myself, and that book was Permanent Record, and that is what sold.
Do you approach writing YA differently from writing adult fiction?
My approach for YA is much different than adult fiction. I felt cynicism and bitterness creep into my writing when I wrote for the adult market. It just wasn’t for me. Writing for young adults feels right. There is an openness and honesty that comes naturally in writing for teens; life is still ahead of them, no matter what they’ve been through. I love that sense of possibility. Their emotions are not blunted by life; everything is raw.
Do you find it easy to title your books and name your characters?
Naming my characters has always been easy. I either draw from people I’ve met, or the names themselves have significance. Coming up with a title for the books is harder. In fact, my first novel was the only one I titled that was not changed by the publisher. A collaborative effort with my editors determined the other titles.
Do you have a writing routine?
Before I had children, my routine was very strict—I had to get up and start writing in my office before I interacted with humans or read the newspaper or ANYTHING—and I felt if I varied from it at all, that I “couldn’t think right” or be creative enough to get any writing done. How lovely it was to have that choice! Now, I have learned to make use of the snatched moments of time that I get, late at night, before everyone gets up, weekends, whatever it takes. I open up my laptop and launch into it; I don’t have time to be a prima donna about this or fool around. If I have to work in the library because it’s too noisy at my house on a Saturday afternoon, then that’s what I do. My brain works differently, perhaps even more efficiently, now that the demands on my time are greater.
Name your top ten favorite books.
My list is going to be all over the place here, not just YA, and not even just fiction. These are the books that have stuck with me, books that I have read many times over, that shine as examples of their authors’ craft.
- Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis (I love how he lampoons the world of academia)
- A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole (Thus began my love affair with the unlikable protagonist)
- The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier (A very realistic portrayal of human cruelty and conformity set in the microcosm of high school)
- Seabiscuit by Laura Hillenbrand (Sports writing as art form)
- The Thin Man by Dashiell Hammett (Mystery/crime/noir all bundled into razor wit)
- Division Street by Studs Terkel (Love letters to Chicago)
- Lord of the Rings trilogy by J. R. R. Tolkien (Fantasy writing as art form)
- Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling (Middle-grade fantasy for EVERYONE)
- Cape Cod by Henry David Thoreau (Perfect example of setting functioning as character in nonfiction)
- Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger (Yes, an obvious choice, but with reason: I read this at age 13, when so much is hidden about the world and about yourself too, and this book pulled back the veil for me.)