A Conversation with Authors Laura and Tom McNeal
We’re so happy to welcome a husband and wife writing duo to our blog today. Laura and Tom McNeal have written exciting and critically acclaimed novels for teens together, including Crooked, The Decoding of Lana Morris, Zipped and Crushed, and have also written separately. Laura wrote National Book Award finalist Dark Water last year, and Tom recently published To Be Sung Underwater for adults, which is just out in paperback and was chosen for the Indie Next List. We think the McNeals’ books are the perfect summer reads for teens or adults, and we love the clever responses they sent us for this piece. You won’t want to miss their repartee, or their sweet answer to the question of which book was their favorite to write. Enjoy!
What books made the strongest impression on you as children?
Tom: Strangely the first titles that come to mind feature sweet old women. One was The Little Old Woman Who Loved Noise and the other was The Story of Babar. I liked the elderly woman who fitted him out with all those grand, oversized clothes.
What were your favorite genres to read as teenagers?
Laura: Immortal Heartbreaking Confessions, the premiere example of which is A Separate Peace. Poetry. Books With Weird Titles. The same impulse that led me to read The Pistachio Prescription in middle school leads me to read Old Filth and The Lady Who Liked Clean Restrooms now.
Tom: I read a lot, and completely indiscriminately (for example, my father read all the Perry Mason books, so I did, too, and was more than a little smitten with Della Street). Then, in 9th grade, I happened onto Great Expectations, which sent me off in a more rewarding direction.
What is one thing about you that would surprise your readers?
Laura: I used to sew my own pants.
Tom: I attended Boalt School of Law at UC Berkeley for one day. That’s how long it took me to see that I didn’t actually want a career in public speaking.
As authors, how do you feel about the role social media plays in your writing life?
Laura: I miss the days when it was rude to ask someone to like you. But the fact that Tom can’t remember his Facebook password plus the fact that I’m an administrator of his official author page gives me an insane amount of power over him. I like to tell him that I posted on his behalf. Then I wait a few minutes and go, “I think people will like those pictures of you in the shower.”
Tom: There you have it. I’ve been outed as a Facebookaphobe.
Are you working on any new books together?
Laura: We’re not. But that’s because we’re currently busy with books we started writing by ourselves when the other person was too busy with his last project. I do miss having someone write half of the book for me, though. Maybe that’s why I’m writing a book in which the narrator, a boy, is constantly interrupted by his co-narrator, a girl. The girl writes her comments in all caps. SHE TALKS LIKE THIS ALL THE TIME! It’s probably how I sound to Tom around the house: THE WOMAN IS TALKING IN ALL CAPS AGAIN.
Tom: Actually it’s more like ALL CAPS, BOLDFACE & ITALICS.
Laura: BUT IN A GOOD WAY!
Laura: You get the idea.
Do you plan to continue writing for young adults and adults? Do you prefer one to the other and why?
Laura: Whether I’m writing for young adults or adults, I’m trying to tell the truth in a way that will give people—smart, good, compassionate, well-read people—the kind of pleasure I get when I read.
Tom: I don’t prefer one to the other. In either case, the immersion is total, the progress is fitful, and, in the end, I’m sorry to part company with my characters.
Do you have a favorite of the books you’ve worked on together? If so, why?
Laura: Crooked. Because we wrote it before we ever thought about the age of our readers or the supremacy of fantasy novels in the marketplace or whether it would be reviewed well. We were just telling a story to each other, and the young fictional me was falling in love with the young fictional Tom.
Tom: I’d second that. There was something about writing one section and then, a few weeks later, reading the next section as Laura finished it. Because Crooked was the first one, it seemed the most spontaneous, but the truth is, I felt much the same way about Zipped, Crushed, and The Decoding of Lana Morris, too, because there was always the same interplay between the male and female leads as they tried to find their way in the world.
What have your favorite event experiences been so far?
Laura: The first book that Tom and I wrote together was a picture book about dogs, and we used to do readings of it with our old black Lab, Willy. Tom and I reminisce about that a lot when we do readings, which for both of us are about as relaxing as bungee-jumping over an active volcano. A dog is very soothing to have at a book event, and I think we should try to work our dachshund into the next novel for that very reason. Meanwhile, I’m planning to knit him a coat that says “Service Animal.”
Tom: Yeah, taking Willy along was something. The kids loved it, but even more than that, Willy loved it. The old dog thought he was a rock star. His grin was ear to ear.
Do you ever experience writer’s block?
Laura: Yes. Right now. Three or four times a week. Writing is a constant struggle to believe that I can write a story that will give hope and pleasure without lying. I don’t believe in fiction as an escape. I believe in it as a tool for catharsis–the purging of strong emotion through art.
Tom: Not so much. I just keep slogging ahead with the idea (often delusional) that maybe tomorrow, when I come back to it, there will be something there worth saving.
What is one piece of advice you would like to give to aspiring authors?
Laura: Read the best, most respected, and challenging books you can find. It will strengthen your resolve and raise the bar and also keep you off Pinterest for several hours. It will make you eminently dateable.
Tom: It’s true! It did make Laura eminently dateable. My advice would be to read everything once, and read the books you truly love twice, to see how the author did it. I would also advise a Plan B career path that will leave you time to write and still pay the rent. And did I mention the importance of revision? Laura and I used to talk about passing out erasers that said, Revise and Conquer. And yes, in case you’re counting, that’s three pieces of advice, not one.
Is there anything that you would like to say to your readers and fans?
Laura: Be like that little girl in Corduroy.
Tom: Or the little old woman who bought Babar that terrific green suit.