MANILA, Philippines – A woman gracefully sits on a corner couch when I walk into the hotel bar. She orders a second cup of black coffee and agrees to being served another glass of Pellegrino. She is wearing a dark blue polka-dotted dress, hair up in a loose bun with bangs perfectly nestled atop her brow bones. She stands up, greets me with a smile and shakes my hand. I tell her that I have a secret. She seems intrigued. I proceed to explain that I am doing this for the first time. And by this, I mean interviewing an author.
Emily Jenkins, who goes by her pen name E. Lockhart, is a children’s/ young adult/adult book author whose works include the Ruby Oliver quartet, Fly on the Wall and The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks. This month, she stopped by Manila to promote her latest YA novel, We Were Liars, a delightfully confusing book that she highly suggests you lie about. (P.S.: You’re probably going to be an emotional wreck after reading it.)
Young STAR chats with Emily about meeting characters IRL, avoiding writing the most important part of her book, and creating a novel better than her last.
YOUNG STAR: When writing books, how do you emotionally invest in your characters?
E. LOCKHART: I try to emotionally invest in not only the central character, but in all the characters in the book. In We Were Liars, the character who is most like me is Gat, although he is very different from me on paper. He’s a teenage boy, he is of Indian-American background, he’s the son of a widow. None of those things are true of me but he has a kind of restless, intellectual quality that was very true of me as a young person where you want to tell people stuff that you read and you want them to listen and people kind of want you to shut up. Cadence’s mother is in some ways an antagonist in the story, and there’s a lot that I share with her as well. So I’m always trying to emotionally invest pieces of me in all the characters so that the villains ring true, the romantic interests ring true and nobody’s a cardboard cutout.
Have you met any real-life people who reminded you of your characters?
Well, they’re one of a kind in my head. But I did see a girl on the train one time that reminded me of my character in Fly on the Wall. She was a girl named Gretchen Koffman Yee. Her dad is Chinese-American and her mom is Jewish and they are getting a divorce. This Asian girl on the train had this very chic haircut and looked fashionably miserable. She had this very open face that I liked even though she looked sullen. I just pictured her while writing and it gave me an image of this character that already existed in my mind.
What is the best and worst criticism you’ve ever received?
I don’t read very much criticism of my own work because it is a little paralyzing as a creative person. I got a lot of feedback on the novel from fellow writers who thought very carefully about We Were Liars and I hadn’t really done that as much with my other books. One person I shared the book with was Scott Westerfeld, author of the Uglies series, and one thing that he said to me was that I avoided writing the conflagration (fire) in the climax of the book. He said, “You have to write it. Your book has been leading up to this and you just cannot skip it.” I basically tried to write the book, skipping it, and he made me go back to it. And I did.
When writing a new novel, do you always aim to make it better than your last?
It’s like yoga. I’m not a great yogi but it’s a similar kind of thing in that there’s always somewhere you can go next, a little further you can twist, and always a little deeper you can go. You’re not quite sure how you got there, and I feel like writing a novel is very much the same. Sometimes I make a lame version and I work on it again, make it a little less lame, and then one day make it a little bit good. You’re not quite sure how you got there but it was just by pushing a tiny bit more each day and I think writing is kind of like that. Then it’s like, “Look! Now somehow I’m in this pretzel shape I couldn’t get into but I am now in.”
If you had the chance to let any one person in the world read We Were Liars, who would it be and why?
Emily Brontë. There’s a lot of Wuthering Heights in my book and I didn’t really realize how much of it I was putting into We Were Liars until fairly late in the process. I found Wuthering Heights to be such a brutal, ugly, sad, weird novel. It’s like somebody put the inside of her brain onto a page. I don’t feel anybody else could write that book. It’s a very unique book. And I can’t quite say I enjoy it but I admire it hugely. I don’t think We Were Liars is complex the way that book is but I think it is in some ways a reworking of some of those themes. Emily Brontë is an interesting person so if she could come back from the dead and have a conversation then that’d be fantastic.
* * *
We Were Liars is available in all National Book Store branches.
FIVE Qs, ONE WORD with E. Lockhart
1. What’s the first thing you thought of when you woke up today?
2. Lipstick or lipgloss?
3. Describe your home.
Built in 1906.
4. Favorite place on earth?
5. If you weren’t a writer, what would you be?