Q&A with Elizabeth LaBan Author of The Tragedy Paper
One of the best parts of being a publisher’s rep is that we get to “discover” authors and their books. A breakout favorite from the Spring list for us is The Tragedy Paper, a contemporary story set at a private school, with romance (and un-, or partially-requited love), intrigue, a teacher who assigns a challenging senior paper, and secrets, so many secrets! Think Thirteen Reasons Why meets Looking for Alaska, with a nod to the classic Ethan Frome.
Today we are joined by author Elizabeth LaBan who answers our questions about her novel, the inspiration for this story, advice for young authors and what she’s working on now.
What inspired you to write The Tragedy Paper?
I loved young adult books when I was a teenager. In fact, I wrote in my acknowledgments that reading S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders and That Was Then, This Is Now truly changed my life and made me want to be a writer. For thirty years I thought about creating a world in the same way she did. And then a number of things came together at once: my agent encouraged me to try my hand at a young adult book; I read, also at my agent’s suggestion, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther; and I started to think about how that famous tale could be modernized. It was about that time that the world of the Irving School started to spring to life in my head. Before I knew it, Tim was traveling to New York during that snowstorm, and Duncan was beginning his senior year.
Did you have a “tragedy paper” as a high school senior? How did this help shape your story?
I did write a tragedy paper when I was a senior in high school, and it had a huge impact on me. If my memory is correct, it was really the first time I truly enjoyed and embraced a school assignment. I actually (and I found this to be surprising) looked forward to working on the paper. For years after, I believed it set me up for my career as a journalist because I realized that I loved researching information and then attempting to make sense of it. When I started writing the book, the idea of that tragedy paper – or a similar one – seemed like a great backdrop for the story that was coming together in my imagination. I still have the paper I wrote (it was typed on a typewriter!), and I referred to it many times while I was writing the book.
When you read The Tragedy Paper you can see the “love for the literary” on each page. Are there any specific classics that helped inform or inspire this story?
Thank you for saying that. The classic that most inspired the book is not mentioned at all and that is The Sorrows of Young Werther. I read a translation of it just before I started piecing together the book, and I had the structure of that story in my mind the whole time I was writing. The characters are much younger in my book, of course, and the story is not exactly the same, but I kept going back to that original text if I had a question of how one thing or another should go. I also love so many Shakespeare plays, and had them in mind while I was writing. There is also one scene when Daisy is at a bookstore reading Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres. That is one of my favorite books of all time and I love the connection between that and Shakespeare’s King Lear. And if you look really closely you will find a few very intentional nods to S. E. Hinton’s books.
How did deciding to write Tim as an albino character help shape his character and the story? Do you think any other “difference” would have been as affective?
I wanted Tim to have an affliction of some sort that he dealt with every day, but not something that made it hard for him to live his daily life. I also liked the idea that his issue was something you could see the minute you were face to face with him. I think most teenagers feel so exposed, even if they don’t have something that necessarily makes them stand out, and Tim’s being an albino just highlights that feeling even more. I’m sure I could have come up with another “difference,” but as Tim came to life in my head, this one really stuck. I didn’t want to make him disfigured or have a big scar, because that wasn’t what this is about for me. Even though Tim struggles with how he looks, who is to say he isn’t very handsome in his own way?
What book made the strongest impression on you as a child?
If I had to choose one I would have to say S.E. Hinton’s That Was Then, This Is Now. I read it when I was in 7th or 8th grade, and I remember just being blown away by the connections the characters had. I loved to read ever since I was much younger than that, but it was the first book that when I finished it I actually missed the people in it. That was a crazy feeling to have for the first time.
What is one thing about you that would surprise your readers?
I am married to a restaurant critic.
Do you use social media? If yes, how do you feel about the role social media plays in your writing life?
I do use social media. I have been on Facebook for years, and now I am really growing to love Twitter. There is no question that it connects me to other authors as well as potential readers. In addition, sometimes I come across something that gives me a good idea for a next scene!
Do you have a favorite place to write?
I always write on my laptop at my dining room table in my rowhome in Center City Philadelphia. I feel very connected to everything going on in the house, and I can look out the front window and see the tops of people’s heads as they walk by and hear people out on the block. In fact, that is where I am sitting right now!
Do you have favorite music to listen to when you write?
I don’t listen to music when I write, I prefer quiet. Though I do listen to music when I do the dishes or cook – I love to listen to musicals like Rent, In the Heights and Wicked.
Do you plan to continue writing for children, or do you think you might write for adults at some point?
The next book I’m planning to write is another young adult novel. Interestingly enough, The Tragedy Paper is not my first novel, though it is my first young adult novel. I have written three women’s fiction novels and, the truth is, I do have another one brewing in the back of my mind. Someday I’ll get to that, but for right now I love this genre, and I’m so glad to be a part of it.
What is one piece of advice you would like to give to aspiring authors?
I have said this before and I really mean it – don’t ever give up. You might be lucky enough to hit it with your first novel, or maybe your second or, as in my case, your fourth. If I had given up after my first, I never would have gotten to this amazing point. If you want to write, just keep going. Enjoy the process – there really is nothing like writing a scene that just comes together – and put yourself out there when you’re ready.
What was your favorite chapter, or part, to write and why?
If I had to choose, and it is a hard one, I would say I most loved writing the chapters when Tim and Vanessa meet at the airport and then go to the hotel room together. I immediately liked their connection, and the way they talked to each other. And then when I went back to edit the book at different times, and I knew the characters better, it was so much fun to just “know” what they would do and say. It is a small part, but I really like how Tim tells Vanessa to be careful about warming up her feet and his use of the word “tepid.”
What are you working on now?
Right now I am working on a second young adult novel. This time the main character is a girl, which is nice, though I have to say I loved writing from boys’ points of view. I am well into the next book and it is really starting to take shape. I don’t want to give too much away but this one also has a school assignment that is key to the plot.
Is there anything that you would like to say to your readers and fans?
The book isn’t quite out yet, but there are people who have gotten the book through NetGalley and other sources and it has been a thrill to know people are taking the time to read the book, and often saying very positive things about it. I guess I would just like to say thank you. I’ve been writing books for so long with the dream that they will be read by more people than my family, my agent and the editors who said thanks but no thanks. And now I’ll have that chance with this book! I will be so grateful to anyone who picks up this book and spends time in the world of The Tragedy Paper.
Many Thanks to Elizabeth LaBan for joining us on RAoReading today! The Tragedy Paper will be available at your favorite bookstore or library tomorrow, January 8th, don’t miss it.
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