I recently had the pleasure of interviewing author Elizabeth (Libby) Mosier on behalf of the Delaware Literary Connection. Because the interview is long, I am posting in two parts. Today, the Q&A delves into Libby’s background, writing about the paranormal, and some thoughts about the young adult market/genre. Tomorrow, there will be more on writing habits and outreach in the Philadelphia area.
About the author:
Elizabeth Mosier is the author of the novel, My Life as a Girl (Random House) and numerous short stories and essays that have appeared in literary and commercial magazines including Seventeen, Cimarron Review, Child, the Philadelphia Inquirer and Poets and Writers. A graduate of Bryn Mawr College and the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College, she has taught fiction and nonfiction writing to audiences from elementary school to adult, in a variety of settings including Bryn Mawr, the Bennington College July Program and at area elementary and middle schools as part of the Young Writers Day program.
Libby led a YA Workshop at the DLC’s 2009 Writer’s Conference at Wesley College in Dover and will be conducting another in February, 2010. She is currently working on a Young Adult novel with a paranormal twist. She blogs about writing, teaching and life at her website.
Ramona Long (RL): Your first novel, My Life as a Girl, featured a college age protagonist who grew up in Arizona (as you did) and attended Bryn Mawr (as you did.) You discuss on your website those similarities, so we’ll and move on to the novel you are currently revising. It’s called Ghost Signs, and my razor-sharp journalistic skills lead me to ask if you are delving into the paranormal with this story?
Elizabeth Mosier (EM): Very perceptive, Ramona – even psychic! Seriously, I’ve always been fascinated by ghost stories, which I think of as one way we make sense of death. What –and where– is the soul? Is there life after death? Ghosts seem to offer answers – and the “mediums” who communicate with spirits appear to be conduits to otherwise imperceptible truth. But are such powers really paranormal? What if the medium (in Ghost Signs, 17-year-old Cassie Schulz) is faking? To pursue these questions, I researched fraudulent mediums and created a skeptical narrator (Cassie’s 15-year-old brother Jack). The fun in writing fiction is that I don’t have to prove or disprove the existence of a spirit world. Instead, I’m free to tell the story through the lens of adolescent psychology, and to suggest a connection between psychics and artists, in terms of the way they “see.”
The Schulzes are, in Jack’s words, “the neighborhood Bohemians” — Mr. Schulz restores houses and Mrs. Schulz paints murals. In this unconventional family, the present resonates with the past, the dead communicate with the living, and coming of age means finding your artistic voice and vision. Cassie finds hers through poetry, and Jack by photographing the faded images that often reappear on old buildings after renovation or heavy rain – the “ghost signs” of the book’s title. Even in a “normal” town like Wayne, Pennsylvania, secrets are revealed everywhere you look.
RL: YA seems to be a fluid, ever-changing genre. Over the past few decades, it has splintered from the broad “teen reader” category to include Tween, Teen, Young Adult, and now New Adult. What do you think this says about this general age of readers and the authors who want to write for them?
EM: The YA category is a marketing invention, and the current segmentation of the category into Tween/Teen/Young Adult/New Adult is less a reflection of reader preference than of bookselling strategy. Though the publishers’ decision to target a particular reader determines to some extent the content, cover and media interest in a book, I advise my students to focus on what they can control: that is, writing the best book they can write for the audience they envision. For young adult writers, this means attempting to render an adolescent sensibility – authenticity, immediacy, heightened sensitivity and emotion, narcissism (!) — through technical choices that will shape the reader’s perception of the story as “true.” For assistance, I go to Sylvia Plath, whose ironic tone in The Bell Jar signals truth telling; to Laurie Halse Anderson, whose present-tense narration in Speak keeps the reader riveted; to Beth Kephart, whose lyrical prose in Undercover perfectly captures the time in young adulthood when we awake to the world. Better to learn about writing from the masters than to try to anticipate the next marketing trend.
RL: Is there anything about the current state of YA literature that disturbs or dismays you? Anything that you find particularly encouraging or exciting?
EM: I’m encouraged by the relative health of children’s book publishing in this economy, and excited about the variety of YA fiction being published today. But on a deeper level, the level at which I am the parent of two teenage girls, I worry about the proliferation of series fiction inspired by The Clique and Gossip Girl. The world these books depict – in which adults are cardboard credit-card holders and girls solve their problems by shopping — is not only cynical, but also false. Why not dispense with the parents altogether, cut these alienated girls loose from the tether of their parents’ social and financial aspirations, and send them on a real adventure, where they might learn something about themselves and how to live?
RL: You have joined the blogosphere. Why do you think writers are so drawn to blogging? Do you have any particular theme or focus in your blog posts?
EM: I think writers are drawn to blogging because we’re hard-wired for narrative and newly enabled by technology. Though blogging can be a way of avoiding writing — the literary equivalent of hanging out in a café talking about your novel instead of writing it — for me, it’s a way to keep writing something, even when I’m mired in an unwieldy novel revision. I find that having a blog makes me alert to the world as I gather material; my blog is a place to put the pieces that aren’t quite stories, aren’t quite essays, that don’t belong in my novel — but which I have selected and shaped in the same careful way. Several of my posts are about my volunteer work at the Living History Archaeology Laboratory in Philadelphia. As I write about the lab, I am working out an idea that might, eventually, find longer memoir form. In the meantime, I’ve come to think of writers as archaeologists — digging, processing, and repairing the glittering and inscrutable relics to find meaning in experience.
RL: One post (“My Mother’s List”) tells a personal, touching story about a book list your mother gave you shortly before you left home for Bryn Mawr. It was a list of books she thought you should have read by that point in your life. The post describes how you found her list later, filed in your “Resume” file. Now that you are a mother, if you had a daughter leaving for college and wanted to recommend a couple of titles she should have read at this point in her life, what would they be? And why?
EM: I’m glad you asked. I’ve been composing this list all my life – but as a writer and teacher, I approach the task differently from my mother. In the classroom, I try to lead my students to great literature, but also to guide each student’s unique exploration of her writing’s content and style. Though I always assign touchstone texts that model technical excellence, the most meaningful exercise I give students is to ask them to prepare (and annotate) a list of the books that have most influenced what they read and write – in essence, who they are. My “personal syllabus” includes: I Can Fly by Ruth Krauss (illustrated by Mary Blair), a picture book that was my first introduction to simile; Nibble Nibble Mousekin by Joan Walsh Auglund, a version of the Hansel and Gretel tale that demonstrated irony with eerie illustrations that mismatched the sweet-sounding text; Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White, which promised that a perfectly chosen word could save somebody’s life; The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain and Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery, both of which taught me that well-drawn characters could seem so real they’d live outside the page.
As for my daughters, I’ve tried to help them make their own lists by reading alongside them in two separate mother-daughter book groups begun when each girl was in third grade. There, we mothers introduce our daughters to books with resourceful heroines — classic and contemporary tales that we believe will save their lives: Charlotte’s Web and Anne of Green Gables, of course, but also A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith, A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle, Chasing Vermeer by Blue Balliet, Because of Winn-Dixie by Kate DiCamillo, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg, Kiki Strike: Inside the Shadow City by Kirsten Miller, The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman, A Year Down Yonder by Richard Peck, I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith. I was surprised and delighted when my younger daughter’s group – 8th graders now — chose to discuss My Life As a Girl by Elizabeth Mosier for our January, 2010 meeting.
Part 2 comes tomorrow. Stay tuned!
For information about the Delaware Literary Connection, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.