I am thrilled to have had the opportunity to interview New York Times-bestselling author Lauren Oliver on her experiences as an editor, a writer, and the founder of literary incubator Paper Lantern Lit.
In October of last year, I heard Ms. Oliver speak on a panel at the Boston Book Festival. She discussed her writing honestly and humbly, and I left inspired, encouraged, and wanting to know more. I’m excited to share our conversation here, as the newest installment of this publishing-professional-turned-novelist interview series. Grab a pen, because you’re going to want to take notes.
Before you were a published author, you were an editorial assistant at a YA imprint. What did you learn there that fueled or challenged your own path to publication?
Before I worked as an editor, I was writing long and structure-less books tedious in their description and characterizations. Working for a commercial YA imprint actually taught me about story for the first time—about the need for tension and resolution, about the way that the components of narrative work.
You still work with authors as one of the founders of Paper Lantern Lit, a literary incubator. How does working with other writers’ work encourage your own writing?
I just like being immersed in the field. I have a great macro sense of the industry because working at PLL requires it, which helps, I think, to keep my antennae up. And working with creative people inspires creativity. As humans, we’re emulators and sponges: we absorb the attitudes of the people around us.
PLL develops ideas and then pairs them with talented writers to craft manuscripts. How does this method relate to the way you write? Do you always have an outline first?
I don’t. I very rarely begin with an outline, although I always do develop some kind of outline to work from or within ultimately. Otherwise I end up reverting to kind of meandering ruminations about the nature of people. Nobody wants to read that.
I was fortunate to hear you speak on a panel titled “Fiction with a Twist” at the Boston Book Festival in October 2014. There, you remarked that you’ve gotten tangled up in reactions and sales of your books, and you intend to spend time becoming a better writer. Part of that will entail becoming a student again, enrolling in graduate classes. What in particular are you looking to retrain in yourself, and how?
I just want to get better. I want to get better, and I want to be able to separate what I’m doing from my expectations of its commercial success in order to take more risks and push my boundaries.
You said at the festival that you read very broadly. Are there certain genres or titles you intend to study as part of the “retraining” process?
No, although there are books I’ve been meaning to read or re-read—Chris Adrian’s short stories, for example; Love In the Time of Cholera; Wolf Hall—so I’ll tackle those. But I’m always reading so widely and with such voraciousness, it’s not so much a question of my reading habits as it is my writing habits.
Do you have a single writing process or a different procedure for each of your audiences (middle-grade, young adult, and adult)? What did you try to figure out what works for you? Are you satisfied with your process, or do you intend to change things as you “retrain” yourself?
My writing process is the same, roughly, in that I always write my way in to the world and the characters before thinking overall about structure. I am trying to get even more granular on a sentence level, to read everything out loud in revisions, to be merciless about what I cut. And I’m trying to get smarter about research and the way I use it.
At the festival, you said you always feel you are attempting to do something you’re not quite qualified to do. Do expect that to change? What aspect of writing will always be a challenge, and what do you think you are capable of mastering, or at least improving upon?
I hope it doesn’t change, honestly. I hope I’m always stretching myself and trying to be ambitious when it comes to my work. If you’re not attempting to grow, what’s the point, really? I think that progress probably looks like punctuated equilibrium—I might “master” an element of storytelling for a period of years only to have a completely and revolutionary new feeling or response or reaction subsequently that leads me to become a neophyte again.
It was encouraging to hear you say that writing is a calling—you simply have to do it—and that you are looking to restore the joy for yourself in that. In which part of the journey of writing a novel do you find the greatest joy?
I mean, there is a joy embedded in the daily practice itself. There is joy in getting a sentence right, in getting a character right, in nailing down a detail. The joy and the difficulty are intertwined, I think.
I can’t wait to read your next novel, Vanishing Girls, due out March 10, 2015. It will be your tenth full-length book published. What did the experience of writing and publishing the other nine contribute to making this one what it is?
I think it’s obvious from the evolution of my books that over the course of my career I’ve become increasingly interested in things I tended to dismiss at the start, like detailed world-building and the way structure informs story and vice versa. I’ve tried to refine and distinguish the characters’ voices in Vanishing Girls, and that preoccupation is even more evident in my next book.
Anything else you’d like to share?
Thanks for having me!
Where can readers find you online? (Website, twitter, goodreads, facebook, tumblr, etc.)
All of the above! All of my info is on www.laurenoliverbooks.com, including information that directs you to my social media.
Thank you, Lauren!