Visiting Author Laurie Halse Anderson
A LIGHT IN THE DARK
Laurie Halse Anderson (Muscat Daily)
February 05, 2014
The books seem, almost, to stir in place when Laurie Halse Anderson runs her hands over them.
It’s been mere days since they met, but already there is the quiet of familiarity. Amid the hushed whispers of The American International School Muscat (TAISM) library, the closing of their private conversation hangs in the air.
“There are books that really speak to you,” said Laurie, a best-selling American author of young adult and children’s literature, as if to explain. “Growing up, the school library was always that safe place. I had books - by Tolkien, Heinlein and Asimov - I would read till the covers fell off.”
Today, her own books are required reading in school curricula the world over.
TAISM’s library houses 26 (including audiobooks and ebooks) in its collection. Widely loved, and occasionally controversial, her mature works in the ‘problem novel’ genre of very real adolescent issues and dark worries have spoken true to generations of young people, troubled and otherwise, and prompted a rethink of the teen read.
The call-to-arms began with an unflinchingly honest, powerful novel named, fittingly, Speak in 1999. An intensely personal story about the withdrawal and self-empowerment of Melinda Sordino, a high school rape victim, Speak, a National Book Award finalist, held up a mirror to the real-life vulnerabilities of the young reader - moving beyond the niche’s traditional emphasis on high fantasy and coming-of-age stories. A transition so many in her audience voice(d) thanks for.
It was a chorus that got louder in the hysteria surrounding the Twilight franchise, when it emerged that Kristen ‘Bella’ Stewart had essayed Melinda in the Speak movie. “Speak was kind of her audition for Twilight,” Laurie said, stressing that, 15 years on, people still access Speak’s message on the strength of its intended medium.
“From my experience, I know that books can save your life if you get stuck in those places. Books are the place you go to for guidance, for light.”
“If you’re feeling alone, and you find a character you can identify with or whose struggle represents your own, that can really give you the hope you need to get through what can be some hard years.”
Laurie’s own teenage demons have been public long enough to forego clumsy addressing here. She would say only that they were a “very painful” contrast to a “lovely childhood” - mostly because of her family’s struggles. In particular, her World War II veteran father’s difficulty to cope.
“I got through it as you do. I had a lot of good people around me. But watching my children get to that same age, I think, somewhere inside me, I had to process it. I had to work out what had hurt back then. That’s where Melinda’s story came from.”
She came as all great characters do. Of their own power, from deep within the unconscious.
“I had a bad dream one night and Melinda’s voice was in my head, crying. Looking back at that moment, I think what happened is that watching my oldest daughter get to middle school brought back a lot of the difficult things that I and my family went through when I was her age.
“It was a little bit from my personal experience, but Melinda’s very much her own character.” If one attuned to her creator’s “emotional truth”. It is this connection, “disguised as fiction”, that Laurie’s readers refer to when they tell her of the parallels between Melinda’s trials and their own. “When your heart connects with the character’s heart, you’re also connecting with the author. I think because of the struggles I went through in high school, I’m very sensitive to kids who are caught in that darkness. Too often, at least in American culture, those kids don’t have the support they need.”
But, she stresses, “the world is a scary place” even for teenagers with “great lives”. “I hear both from readers who identify with my characters and from those who are grateful that my characters have taught them something they didn’t know before.”
“I think we give teenagers the wrong impression sometimes that overnight they are supposed to know who they are going to be. That they are supposed to turn into this adult. That’s why some of them are so stressed. What I try to do is reassure them that they are going to be fine.”
In this manner, she said, authors for young adults feel like “aunties” or “uncles”, “loving, trustworthy adults trying to help kids reach for light and make healthy choices and ask for help”.
It’s a responsibility she takes on gladly and fulfills sincerely. “My books deal with ordinary kids who have made mistakes or been put into painful situations. It’s really important to convey the message that you need to speak up because bad things do happen to good people.”
Beyond speaking through her characters though, Laurie travels around the world, helping where she can as also spread the good word about reading. It’s what has brought her here to Oman, where she has spent the week engaging with TAISM middle- and high-schoolers.
High-schoolers are the same the world over, she’s learned. “The questions I get here are pretty much the ones I get everywhere.” How did you go from being that lonely, sad teenager to happy, well-adjusted adult?
Her responses vary in “bluntness”.“As an author, it’s my responsibility to tell the truth as I see it. But when you are a guest in another’s home or country, you have to be respectful. Here, I try to keep in mind that the children I’m speaking to are coming from many different traditions and backgrounds.”
To the critics who call for her works to be banned or decry their ‘immoral’ graphic bleakness, she is less diplomatic. “We have this fantasy as adults and parents that we are going to protect our kids. We can’t. The best we can do is prepare them.”
She does make one concession though, as a rule. There’ always light and resolution at the end of her novels.
“I could never imagine writing a book that didn’t end on a positive note. That’d be immoral.”