|Rx for Writers|
Thursday, June 7, 2001
Moderator is Kristi Holl, web editor for this site and author of 24 books and 150+ articles. She also taught writing for children for 15 years.
Elaine is Elaine Marie Alphin, newest winner of the prestigious Edgar for YA for her controversial Counterfeit Son. Elaine is the author of 14 books for juveniles, plus Creating Characters Kids Will Love published by Writers Digest Book Club.
Names color coded in blue are viewers who had questions.
Interviews are held on Thursday nights for two hours beginning [9 CANADA/Atlantic], 8 Eastern, 7 Central, 6 Mountain, and 5 Pacific.
Moderator: Hello, everyone! I'm excited about our interview tonight. We're here with Elaine Marie Alphin who will be talking about "Writing on Controversial Subjects." Recently Elaine won the 2001 YA Edgar, a prestigious award, for her controversial book Counterfeit Son. Elaine has published 14 books, plus the popular Creating Characters Kids Will Love with Writer's Digest Books. I'm Kristi Holl, the web editor for this site. Welcome back, Elaine!
Elaine: Thanks, Kristi - It's great to be back!
Moderator: Tell us about winning the YA Edgar for Counterfeit Son and why you were so pleased that this particular book won.
Elaine: Well, it was an absolutely magical moment - you write and struggle and wonder if anyone will ever read what you've done and suddenly you're nominated for an award and stand there accepting it in a room full of really famous writers! It was especially sweet with Counterfeit Son because this was an important subject to write about and the award guarantees that more teens will read the book, and maybe it will make an important difference to them. I've already been touched by teachers telling me that they're organizing reading circles for teachers to read the book, because they feel it brings out so poignantly what adults who work with kids ought to be looking for. I feel that the award means the book will have a wider readership and a wider impact, and I couldn't be more thankful.
Moderator: That's really neat, Elaine. In writing Counterfeit Son, or any book, did you set out to write a controversial book?
Elaine: Actually, no. However, if you're going to write seriously about human nature, I think you're inevitably going to touch on things that make people uncomfortable and some of those things will result in controversy. This is even more of a concern in writing for young people, I know, because kids and teens are impressionable and adults often worry about protecting them from troubling ideas - or even from basic realities. But those realities are out there, and kids and teens are thinking about them so it seems right to me to write about them.
Moderator: But surely you knew the subject matter was going to be controversial, even if that wasn't your intention. Did that concern you as you were writing it?
Elaine: I knew that it would be disturbing, but I really wasn't thinking about it being controversial. In fact, I was really surprised when one of the first readers, a writer in my critique group, said that she couldn't believe what I was writing!
Moderator: How can you write about sexual and physical abuse, and even murder, but make it less shocking or horrifying? Is that possible?
Elaine: I suppose the important thing is to try to be dispassionate about it. I kept the narrator's voice very neutral, and stayed away from graphic details completely. Actually, though, I'm not sure it made it less horrifying that way. Hopefully it wasn't too horrifying for young readers - but I know that adults find it to be horrifying anyway. I would say that the most important thing is not to get carried away yourself as a writer by the intensity of what you're writing. The quieter you get, the more the subject matter shouts for you.
SaraJ: What do you mean by "The quieter you get, the more the subject matter shouts for you"? Why would this be true?
Elaine: Hi, SaraJ, I believe that's true because the reader invests more of himself or herself in the subject. If you overstate yourself too emphatically, the reader cowers back, and doesn't really feel the impact as fully. But if you draw the reader into a quiet, horror-filled world, where the horrors aren't monsters but realities, then the reader becomes a part of it far more completely.
Moderator: Did you research this subject or watch movies or anything to make sure the grim subject was presented accurately?
Elaine: Actually, no, I didn't. I trusted my imagination more than research. You can over-research a topic and become so absorbed in what you discover that you overburden your story. That happened with my new novel, Picture Perfect. I did so much research on the impact of emotional abuse that the story got weighed down by the psychology (as my editor so clearly pointed out to me!) We're having to cut back on that aspect of it now. For Counterfeit Son I did a lot of research on serial killing and on sailing, but not so much on Cameron's emotional state.
judyjd: How do you determine what is considered disturbing versus controversial? Do you talk to some teens? Life happens, we see it on TV all of the time!
Elaine: Hi, judyjd. Good question. I guess the lodestone I always steer by is my own inner sense of what's disturbing. But I think anyone, teen or adult, would consider it disturbing to be raised by a serial killer who beats and molests you, and to stand by, silent, as he tortures other boys, and help him bury them in the cellar. No matter how much you see on TV, it's not quite the same thing as living that along with Cameron in the book.
Moderator: How in the world do you keep from being preachy in a book like this, or keep your own strong opinions and reactions out of it?
Elaine: Well, a book is the writer's own strong opinions, isn't it? And you can't really be preachy or not preachy, one way or the other, about something as absolute as sexual and physical abuse. There really aren't two sides to abusing a child (or abusing an adult, for that matter). It's wrong. Period. So I can be emphatic about it.
judyjd: What does that mean, "overstating yourself"?
Elaine: By overstating yourself I mean flogging the reader with the point until he's numb. If you get too graphic, and make the horror the only thing in color in a black and white story, for instance, I think it loses it's impact - sort of like using too many exclamation points, or posting online in all capital letters so that you're shouting. People get the point much more effectively if you lead them to the subject and force them to face it and draw their own conclusions.
Moderator: In any controversial book, is it important to somehow present both sides of the controversy? Or, since it's fiction, do you choose the "side" you have strong feelings about and present the subject in that light?
Elaine: That depends on the subject matter, I think. For example, in writing for older readers, you can present multiple sides and put a greater burden on them to draw their own conclusions. In Simon Says, which is a YA novel coming out next year, one of the controversial aspects of it deals with teen suicide. I've given the teen who dies a very legitimate (in his own mind) reason for suicide, yet I'm also presenting (very strongly) the side that it's the wrong choice. In the end, however, the reader will have to make up his mind.
But the younger the audience, the more the author has the responsibility to present her own opinion clearly, I believe. For example, I once got into quite a disagreement with a member of my critique group who felt strongly that I was wrong in condemning one character in the book. The subject was the reactions of a fourth grade class (so this was a chapter book) to their teacher quitting in the middle of the year because he was gay and his HIV had gone into full-blown AIDS. One student led the rally to bring him back, while her best friend (who came from a religious background) agreed with her parents that he deserved what he got. The other writer was upset because the book clearly said that the best friend and her parents were wrong. She believed strongly that they were right, and wanted me to be fair to them. My position was that I was writing the book and I believed strongly that they were wrong, so the book would reflect my opinion. I had raised an opposing viewpoint deliberately to knock it down. When we write fiction, we write our most heartfelt beliefs, so I don't think we always need to be "fair" to opposing perspectives. Sorry to be so longwinded - but I feel strongly about this!
Moderator: With such disturbing subject matter, how did you pitch the book to editors?
Elaine: I focused on the character growth from Cameron's willingness to do anything in order to survive (i.e., shut his eyes to what Pop was doing to the other boys) to his realization that you must accept responsibility for those around you, even when it puts you at risk. In essence, I pitched the growth from the self-centered child to the adult who realizes he's part of a larger community. And, of course, I pitched it as a rousing adventure story. I didn't intend to downplay the controversial aspect of it - I just didn't focus on that for editors because I didn't focus on that aspect to myself.
Moderator: This is a loaded question, but what reasons did they have to turn it down?
Elaine: As many reasons as there were editors! Truly, each one had a different reason. One said it was beautifully written but it would make her ill to work on it. Another said it was publishable as written (actually it ended up getting a good workout in the revision process!) but it was too sensational for her house. Another loved it but wanted the ending changed! (It's a mystery - the ending is the culmination of the mystery with the usual twist, and I couldn't change that!) The most unexpected rejection reason was from an editor who said it was not exciting at all. In fact, his letter said it so emphatically that I think the book touched some chord in him and he decided it was easier to hate it than to really read it - because no one else has said that the ending wasn't a real roller coaster ride!
shanniebee: I'm working on a story about an over weight teen whose eating disorder stems from sexual abuse. How specific can one get with YA's on that ?
Elaine: Hi, shanniebee. That sounds like an important story to tell. I would think you can be specific, but you can do that without being graphic. I show Cameron thinking about the sexual molestation without ever getting more specific than the breathing, the weight in bed, details that are not graphic, but conjure the image clearly. I suspect you can deal with your teen in a similar manner.
Nell: Do you ever get inside the heads of your 'evil/twisted' characters? If so, how do you research that and get it psychologically accurate?
Elaine: Hi, Nell. I've not yet actually written from the perspective of evil or twisted characters, either in the first person or in a focused third person from their POV, but when I have an evil character I do get inside his head myself. I did a lot of work on Cougar, the serial killer's young accomplice, showing what brought him to this place in his life, as a counterpoint to Cameron's fear of how he himself would turn out. And in The Proving Ground I got into a character who tried to blow up a military base and kill another teen who got in his way. I think what's important is to find out how they have justified their actions and their thinking to themselves, even if you disagree with them, and try to let the readers see that so they can empathize, horrible as that seems, with the villain. Only then does he (or she) become believable, after all.
Bernadette: Hi, Elaine, congratulations on your award. What I'd like to know, when you write about controversial subjects, do you also have information at the end of the book (or somewhere) available to the reader--800 numbers or web sites they might be able to get in contact with--seeing how your book has moved many to play more active roles in these types of situations?
Elaine: Thanks, Bernadette! You know, I pitched the idea to my editor about having that sort of information for runaways or kids who were abused themselves at the end of Counterfeit Son and apparently they discussed it but decided not to. I believe their reasoning was that it would detract from the story itself and lay too much emphasis on the controversial nature of the subject matter, but I may be reading things into their reasoning there. I know that Mercedes Lackey and some of her collaborators have done some series books about abused kids and they have exactly that sort of information in the books. I thought that was a great idea, and that's why I suggested it. Perhaps another publisher would have decided differently. But who knows whether that would have helped or hurt the book.
BigSkyBoy: Isn't it true that some parents try to "protect" their children from dealing with what they anticipate or consider to be controversial or disturbing, and maybe confusing?
Elaine: Hi, BigSkyBoy, yes, you're absolutely right. Some parents do try to protect their children from being confused or disturbed or even troubled. Personally, I think that's crazy, unless they intend to wrap them in cotton wool from cradle to grave, because the world is confusing and disturbing and if we don't know how to deal with it we're doomed. : (
martys: Did you submit the completed novel, or query editors first?
Elaine: Hi, Martys, I submitted the complete novel to editors I knew and then I queried editors I didn't know with a partial synopsis (I didn't want to reveal the ending) and two sample chapters.
shanniebee: Which companies do you find to be the most open on these subjects?
Elaine: That's a good question, shanniebee - since Harcourt published it, I would have to say that I find them very open on these subjects.
Breazenda: I think there is enough violence in this world without trying to create more. I think more loving compassion would be a good place to begin the change. Don't you?
Elaine: Hi, Breazenda. I certainly agree with you that there is too much pain and violence in this world! More loving compassion would be a wonderful thing, but readers are going to encounter both violence and love, and I think it's important that they be equipped to deal with both. I think you've zeroed in on the difference between parents and children. Parents want to nurture and protect, but are in many ways helpless to do so because their children are the ones in the middle of things - and what they want is information and inspiration. Books should provide that.
CdE: Since it appears that controversy sells books, do publishing companies tend to embrace, or shy away from, controversy?
Elaine: Hi, CdE, you raise a good point, and it's one that publishing companies (or their marketing people) definitely consider. How much controversy will sell a book, and how much will blacklist it? I'm honestly not sure how they make up their minds. But I think a lot of the decision is based on the intrinsic value of the book itself. i.e. will it keep selling after the controversy is dead? Hopefully a good book will.
bernie: Counterfeit Son is given an age range of 14 and up but you wrote it in a way that I think I could let my 12 year old son read this and discuss it with him. I know about things like this first hand and think it important children know this. Since so many are getting lost at younger ages I feel it important to have books like this.
Elaine: Hi, bernie, I agree that your twelve year old son could read it. In fact, one parent told me that she would be comfortable reading it with her nine year old son. I think it is wonderful for parents to be able to openly talk about important and perilous subjects like this, and that's another reason I'm so thankful that the Edgar will bring the book more attention - and more readers - hopefully family readings.
Moderator: just a few comments here for everyone, then I'll ask more questions...
BigSkyBoy: I sure applaud writers writing about the real world so readers can get glimpses of it and grapple with issues in a context that allows and helps develop and offers time for careful consideration. Things considered abuse today, in another time period or culture, were not considered so (like children as "slave" workers.) I'm probably thinking tamer subject matter than you're dealing with.
Bernadette: But, you are right. Society seems to make something taboo when we should be able to address it and hopefully make progress for everyone concerned.
Moderator: Thanks for sharing your views, everyone. Elaine, do you think a beginning writer could sell a controversial book? Would an editor take a chance on a new writer doing this?
Elaine: I think it depends on how strong the book is. Harcourt had never published anything from me before, so in some ways I was a new writer to them. I think in some ways it's an advantage to be "new" - provided you can write a powerful book.
Moderator: How did you find the right editor? Can you elaborate a bit?
Elaine: Not to sound as if I'm praising the hand that feeds me - but I found the right editor in the pages of Children's Writer. There was an article on editors looking for adventure stories, and this particular editor was quoted as being especially interested in riveting characters and their stories so she sounded like someone worth trying. She certainly turned out to be the right person! I had already tried editors I'd worked with before and editors I'd found in market books. I should have been reading the articles in Children's Writer sooner.
Moderator: Did your editor ask you to tone it down in any way?
Elaine: No, she didn't ask me to tone it down at all. In fact, she helped me intensify some things. We added a week in the middle of the book to intensify Cameron's bonding with his new family. That sounds like a huge change, but it was amazingly easy to slide back into his mind and heart and that strengthening of his relationship with them made the choice at the end of the book much more powerful. She also asked questions that prompted me to go deeper into some of the family's troubles adjusting to him, such as his father coming in at night to watch over him as he slept. It was to keep him safe, but in Cameron's mind it was terrifying.
Moderator: Was there any concern at the publishing house over reactions to the subject matter?
Elaine: I think there was some. Apparently they discussed preparing a possible house defense but then apparently they changed their minds and that never happened. The last I heard they felt confident about it early on, which is a nice thought.
Moderator: What about legal problems when writing controversial material--are you afraid of being sued by anyone? How can an author protect him/herself?
Elaine: Well, the simple answer is that the truth is a wonderful protection. : ) However in real life it may not be enough. The publisher's lawyers were mainly concerned about being sued if I had used any real cases as the basis for my story. I had not, so they apparently relaxed a good deal at learning that. I'm worrying right now about the suicide in Simon Says - at this point, the way I've written it is a way that would work and I absolutely do not want any teen following my directions! So I'll change it to something that won't work. You don't want to give anyone instructions for their own destruction - that's a sure way to invite legal repercussions. If there are other legal pitfalls, I haven't thought of them yet.
martys: Did the success of Counterfeit Son encourage you to write the other two, or did you have them before hand?
Elaine: Hi, martys, yes and no. I had already written Simon Says, many, many years ago and I had already sent it out before Counterfeit Son actually came out and was successful, so the success may have been a factor in the publisher's accepting it, but it wasn't a factor in my writing it. I did write Picture Perfect because Counterfeit Son had been so well received, but another editor asked to see it at a different house, so it's going to have a different home.
Moderator: Were there any negative reviews of Counterfeit Son because of the subject matter?
Elaine: Not really (knock on wood - I'm sure it's not too late for someone to write one!) The only complaining I had was from one reviewer who commented something along the lines of Cameron was perhaps too well adjusted for someone who had been through everything he had endured. And I have to admit that that may well be a valid complaint. In fact, it influenced me in creating Ian, the emotionally abused character in Picture Perfect. Then my editor's complaint was that he was too beaten down and needed to become capable of doing more! I think it is a very valid complaint - because the main character needs to empower the reader. That's where over-researching and over-accuracy leads you astray. Fiction is most true to life when you trust the liberties your imagination feels justified in taking, I suspect.
shanniebee: And where did you research? Did you go to any mental health authorities on the subjects?
Elaine: That's a good suggestion, shanniebee, although it's something I haven't tried. I'm a reader - so I read quite a few books on abuse. And, as we all do, I draw on my own experiences and translate them into the framework of the story.
Moderator: Have you gotten any criticism from readers?
Elaine: Not yet. : )
Moderator: What difference in reaction do you see between kids and adults (either parents or teachers)?
Elaine: Because books are on the page instead of all encompassing (like a movie), I think readers bring their own experiences and expectations to what they read. So a kid probably has a different set of experiences than an adult has. Adults frequently tell me they're shocked at how graphic the book is, but when I ask them to show me what's graphic, they can't find it because there's nothing graphic on the page. Their personal experience has made their reading of the page graphic. Their imaginations filled in the details the text doesn't tell. Kids mostly see it as a rousing adventure, which works for me. The ones who need to get more out of it will find it there, because of the experiences they bring themselves.
Granny Janny: If you write a book about suicide, even if the attempt is a failure, wouldn't that be tantamount to telling a teen it's okay to consider suicide as a solution to your problems?
Elaine: You've hit the nail on the head, Granny Janny! That's exactly what my editor and I (and, incidentally, my husband!) are going around in circles about at this moment. Graeme does, indeed, commit suicide as a solution to his problems, and he has a valid point, that even the main character concedes. The trick will be to make it clear that the main character realizes that Graeme has not set himself free, but has actually wasted his potential, and that he made the completely wrong decision. But I've got to do it delicately so that the reader doesn't feel hammered with "this is what all right-thinking adults believe you should think" and instead feels for himself that Graeme was wrong, and the true challenge and victory lies in living. I hope I can do it well.
shanniebee: Isn't not talking about suicide kind of like the old belief that if some one says they're going to kill themselves, they probably won't? We know better than that now.
Elaine: That's an excellent point, shanniebee. Personally I feel that everything should be discussed openly and that we should all be concerned when someone threatens something that will hurt themselves or someone else. That's part of my point in my books - that both Cameron and Charles (the main character in Simon Says) realize that they're part of a larger community and are responsible for the people they care about in that community, although that responsibility takes different forms.
bernie: I think many subjects that people fear will be carried out can be written about in a manner that shows they are not to be carried out and why. It is important for all people, not just kids, to know this.
Elaine: That's exactly what I feel, bernie! If readers can explore these subjects vicariously on the page they may be able to deal with them with more confidence in real life!
Moderator: In today's publishing climate, what topics would be considered "controversial," do you think? It seems that we hardly have any "taboo" subjects anymore.
Elaine: That's a great question, actually - what is taboo? I can think of two subjects, actually. The first is guns. Just to see the word strikes fear into most editors' and parents' hearts. And the other subject is a little less predictable. I recently ran into trouble writing a Civil War ghost story (Ghost Soldier) because I came down hard against Sherman's soldiers as war criminals. (I was writing about a Confederate ghost whose family's farm had been burned and totally destroyed by Sherman's raiders.) I refused to have my Confederate ghost say that slavery was wrong. You wouldn't think that history could be controversial, but my editor was concerned that reviewers would come down hard on the book because of their Northern perspective and she may well be right. One reviewer in Publisher's Weekly skewered my first Civil War ghost story, Ghost Cadet: "In spite of several well-drawn ghost scenes, the historical side of the story falters, weighed down by the grandmother's (and the author's) need to teach a romanticized, white, Southern view of the War Between the States." Nevertheless, a Confederate teenager in 1865 would not say that Yankees were good and slavery was wrong, not for all the advances in the world!
Nell: Would a controversial subject book have a harder time getting published if you took a politically incorrect stance (e.g. a teenage pregnancy, say, with a pro-life vs. a right to choose stance), or does it depend mostly on the quality of the writing and the tale?
Elaine: Confederate rights is a pretty politically incorrect stance! And, actually, Ghost Cadet got over 25 rejections before Henry Holt published it. It made 13 state award lists and picked up the Virginia Best Book Award and an SCBWI grant. So the answer is yes, Nell - but the quality of the writing in a strong book will pay off for the publisher who is willing to take the risk. And sometimes it's a matter of finding the right publisher. I am sure that there are quite a few Christian publishers who would love a strong novel on teenage pregnancy with a pro-life stance.
bernie: Do you think subjects of alcoholism, drugs, violence and abuse of all kinds, and the abuse of neglect have been overdone? I see so much still going on in my own small community and hear my kids talk of these things. I have many ideas I would like to write about.
Elaine: You raise a good point, bernie - and it's where the teen problem novel went wrong in the 80s. If you write about subjects like alcoholism or drugs or violence or abuse for the sake of writing about a controversial subject--sure it's been way overdone! But if you write a strong novel in which these real and ongoing problems play a part, then you're not just trying to make trouble, and you're doing justice to the problem and to the basic idea you started with.
Writes4Kids: I'm interested in knowing which publishers actively look for controversial YA novels. Mine is a 'hot topic' right now and I'd like to start submitting soon. Will you share who your editor at Holt was? Marc Aronson, perhaps?
Elaine: My editor at Holt is Christy Ottaviano. And she did a fine job with my book.
bernie: Are you afraid of the books perhaps being banned or burned as many other good books have been?
Elaine: I think I'd be heartsick to have a book of mine burned, bernie. But that fear wouldn't keep me from writing it. I'd be honored to be in that company, as much as I hope it will not happen.
martys:Would you ever consider writing a book about school shootings, or is that too raw right now?
Elaine: Not too raw for me, martys. In fact, I've been doing research on the second amendment with the view to writing a novel about guns that is pro-gun, not anti.
SaraJ: Not to be rude, but in the days of school shootings, who in the world would publish a pro-gun book for kids? Or did I misunderstand you?
Elaine: You're not at all rude, SaraJ. : ) And no, you didn't misunderstand me. Why not a pro-gun book? The second amendment protects our rights to be armed and one of the things that has resonated with me about the horror of school shootings is the courage of those who have tried to stop the shooter. The gun is a two-sided weapon. It can be used responsibly or irresponsibly. That's where much of the controversy would lie, I dare say. Booklist had an article on books relating to the Bill of Rights, and their editors even commented on the dearth of books that expressed the real point of the Second Amendment to kids. I haven't plotted out the book yet, but I've got some strong feelings about it. Who would publish a pro-gun book? That's a good question - I would start with the editors who have already published me. But I wouldn't expect them to decide "This year we want to publish a pro-gun book." I would expect them to decide "We want to publish this thought-provoking book even though it's disturbing." Because if it's not well written and it's not thought-provoking, then I haven't done my job well enough to be published.
shanniebee: There is such a huge sense of responsibility when it comes to writing these stories of tough truths. How long do you research to get everything factual?
Elaine: That's a very good point, shanniebee. I do a great deal of research to be sure I've got my facts correct. But I also have a secret weapon - my husband is my technical expert, and he has yet to be wrong about any historical or technical fact. He's corrected a number of my gaffes.
CdE: I'm working on a YA novel that I suspect may be considered controversial by some. I've just recently graduated from ICL and have begun to send out some shorter works. I have two questions--how do you remain motivated to continue the novel while waiting for SOMETHING to be published? Also, I've been working on shorter works just so I don't feel bogged down in the "never-ending story." Is this a good idea, or is it better to remained focused?
Elaine: First of all, congratulations on your graduation! A friend of mine said that we writers don't celebrate each accomplishment, so be sure to celebrate this good news. I, too, mix shorter works with novels in order to stay motivated. That's a good way to feel like a "real writer" every day. And it's also a good way to build a list of credits that will help get you through the advance readers at a publisher when you send in your novel. Personally, I have to say that I don't have trouble remaining motivated to continue working on the novel because while my shorter works engage my intellect, my novels engage my heart, and I return to the novel no matter what else I have in the works. I've gotten to the point that, once I've finished the research and the plotting and I'm ready to start writing, I find I've cleared my calendar so that I can work on it pretty much uninterrupted. You may find yourself doing that in time, as well.
Writes4Kids: Which book was the most difficult for you to write, emotionally speaking?
Elaine: That's a tough question, Writes4Kids, because "difficult" implies a tough, or unpleasant, experience, and I have to say that I've loved writing all of my novels in different ways. I found myself absolutely drained after a stint on Counterfeit Son - I wrote that book in long stretches (8-10 hours) every day in sequence, once I actually sat down to write it. I would get up absolutely wrung out like a limp noodle. In contrast, Simon Says is actually more intense, but I wrote the original draft of it when I was younger (maybe I had more energy then?) and I remember that the writing stints energized me! Writing Picture Perfect was also emotionally draining, but not so much as Counterfeit Son, and I don't know whether that's because I had more experience with writing about different types of abuse, or whether it's because I didn't do as good a job and will have to rely even more on my editor to help get it into shape!
JAMES55CLINTON: Denial is part of the abuse problem. Have you ever let the readers know before the POV character admits it?
Elaine: You must be psychic, James55Clinton! That's exactly the situation in Picture Perfect. It's a long time before the main character admits what's going on, but the reader has already seen it.
bernie: How do you keep from putting in too strong a personal opinion or from being didactic in your writing?
Elaine: That's an excellent point to keep in mind, bernie - being didactic is the kiss of death! As I said earlier, I think it's impossible not to express your personal opinion. It comes out in your theme and through your characters. But because it's all about character, you have to let them find their own way to the resolution. I think as long as you do that honestly, the reader takes the journey along with them and doesn't feel preached at so much as he feels he's made a discovery.
martys: Did you ever have a villain who was too evil to have any redeeming qualities?
Elaine: Well, I think the villain in Picture Perfect doesn't really have any redeeming qualities, but he does have reasons for being the way he is. While that's not the same as redemption, I think it's honest. Pop in Counterfeit Son, however, has no redeeming qualities. I think that's one of the hallmarks of the serial killer, however. They have no sense of good or evil, right or wrong - they're morally colorblind. It's all about what they can get away with. So I didn't feel I had to give him any redeeming qualities - just the brains to survive and succeed at the only thing that gives him pleasure - killing.
Svetlana: Elaine, have you always had success with novels, or did you start out as a nonfiction writer?
Elaine: Hi Svetlana - actually, I always wanted to write fiction but I did, in fact, start out as a nonfiction writer. Today I write both fiction and nonfiction, and I enjoy both - in completely different ways! I've recently started writing biographies, and I find them especially exciting because they're a curious blend of fact and character, so I can use fiction writing skills to bring the characters to life - at least, as long as I don't mess with the facts!
SaraJ: What if the controversial subject matter involves members of your immediate or extended family? Even fictionalized, they may recognize it. Any comments or ideas?
Elaine: You raise an honest problem, SaraJ. I am opposed to hurting your immediate or extended family gratuitously. If at all possible, a writer should change things so that the real basis for the character cannot recognize himself or herself. At the same time, sometimes in the interests of being true to your story, you have to write about someone honestly. The good news is that they often won't recognize themselves even if you do! Once Faulkner was asked if it wasn't a bad thing to write something unpleasant about one's mother. He said: "The writer's only responsibility is to his art. He will be completely ruthless if he is a good one... If a writer has to rob his mother, he will not hesitate: The 'Ode on a Grecian Urn' is worth any number of old ladies." I have to say that I agree with the sentiment wholeheartedly.
Moderator: I really hate breaking this off, but I'm afraid we're out of time. What a fascinating topic this has been. I know it's given many of us confidence to take a shot at writing that "controversial" story that's been lurking in the back of our minds. Thank you again, Elaine, for coming to talk with us. And congratulations again on your award!!
Elaine: Thank you very much - I only wish we could have talked all night! And I wish you all the best of luck with your own controversial books.
Moderator: Do come back in two weeks on June 21! Barbara Kramer, award-winning biographer, will talk about "Writing Biographies of Living People." Do you know (or know of) someone who is deserving of a profile or inspirational article in a magazine or a biographical book? From idea to research to writing, doing this type of book is different than writing biographies of historical figures. Come back in two weeks and Barb will share her expertise with you on this subject! And now, good night, all!
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