Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Interview with Anna Godbersen, Author of The Luxe Series

Got It Goin On is pleased to welcome Anna Godbersen, author of the totally addictive series The Luxe from Harper Teen.

Q: Tell us a little about yourself, what is your background and how long have you been writing before you were published?

I was born in Berkeley, California and moved to New York to attend Barnard College, where I took some creative writing courses and wrote a story collection for my senior thesis. After college, I tried to write a “serious” novel, whatever that means, and worked as a bartender and in the literary department at Esquire. I also ghostwrote young adult novels, which was how I began thinking about The Luxe…

Q: Tell us about when you got “the call”?

I was in California, in Big Sur, staying at a place with very little cell phone reception. So I was at a payphone in the woods when I heard that my book had sold. As a writer, you probably obsessively imagine all kinds of scenarios for every hypothetical event that may occur in your life, so of course I’d contemplated getting the news that I was going to be a published author and how that would feel. But when it came it was still quite a surprise and very thrilling.

Q: Your first release The Luxe and the sequel Rumors from Harper Teen is set in late 19th Century New York. How did you come up with the idea? Is there a particular reason you chose the year 1899?

I was kicking around ideas for a YA series with the editor I’ d worked with as a ghostwriter, and the gilded age just seemed like such a glamorous setting. I picked 1899 in part because of the dramatic possibilities—close of a century! New Years! etc.—but also because it was the end of an era, and I wanted to be able to play up the clash of the newer, less-scandal averse members of society with the more old fashioned ones. I think it makes it so much richer that the strict rules my characters struggle with are—unbeknownst to them—soon to be things of the past.

Q. I am an unabashed history geek so I loved reading these books. Tell us about your research. Any behind the scenes stories that you’d like to share?

I started out reading general histories of the time, and then I began to look into their primary sources—the gossip magazines and etiquette books and memoirs that were available in places like the New-York Historical Society and the New York Public Library. I just followed stories and images that interested me and I used them to form this fictional world for my characters. There are plenty of scandals from that era, but most of them have been pretty well documented. I’m reading American Eve by Paula Uruburu right now, about the murder of a society architect by his former teenage lover’s new husband. It’s quite sad and fascinating.

Q. In what ways do you think life was different 100 years ago? In what ways do you think it is the same?

I was actually surprised, language and idea-wise how similar the culture was to now. There are tremendous differences obviously, but they were less pronounced then I expected, in part because I think we imagine the 19th Century as a monolith and forget how radically the country changed after the civil war, and especially in the decades leading up to the dawn of the twentieth century. I think that the greatest difference— at least for my characters, who are very privileged and not subject to the terrible life expectancy and other insecurities of the urban poor at that time—is the roll of young women. Elizabeth, for instance, is a perfectionist who would be playing field hockey, running her school paper, and volunteering for a literacy program if she lived today. In her own time, she is only able to be an overachiever in decorum and dress, so that is what she tries to do, with tragic results.

Q. What modern convenience unavailable in 1899 are you grateful to have today? Do you think you would have enjoyed living in 1899?
I am the happy beneficiary of a lot of modern dentistry, and I wouldn’t give that up for all the ball gowns in the world. I am curious about many past eras, especially from a fictional perspective—the assumptions and problems of characters a hundred years ago are so fascinatingly different from our own. But I don’t think I would have wanted to actually live then—I would not have fit very neatly into the Victorian idea of womanhood, and I like wearing pants and having a glass of wine in mixed company way too much.

Q. What do you think the differences are in the life of a teenager in 1899 compared to today?

This is really an interesting question to me, because there’s this notion that a teenage consciousness didn’t really exist before the 1950s. And in some ways, that’s true—the possibility of a leisurely lifestyle for people who may not emotionally be adults but who are physically pretty darn close, not to mention a whole consumer culture aimed at defining who they are, is definitely a more recent development. But it also goes against the logic of what it is to be human not to imagine that many of the themes of teenage life today would have been the same then: experiencing love and loss for the first time; discovering what it is to be an individual in the face of peer pressure; becoming one’s self outside of the family. And I think those underlying issues connect my experiences and my readers’ experiences to those of my characters.

Q: What are some of the challenges and rewards of writing for the YA market?

The rewards far outweigh the difficulties, namely that the readers are so great and so enthusiastic and invested in characters they care about. There is very little ironic distance there. And also, as I said above, I think the themes of teenage life are especially rich: rebellion and conformity, family and individuality, innocence and looming adulthood. I do sometimes find myself having to hold back because I want the pacing of these books to hold teen attention spans, or I struggle with what parents will think is appropriate versus what seems dramatically true, or I worry that soemthing might be over the heads of young readers. But challenges are always good for a writer, and having to think about how to achieve clarity and hold the interest of a particular audience can be really important.

Q: What do you think is the most effective way for a writer to promote his/her books?

There are probably as many ways as there are kinds of writers, although I’ve found for myself that being available through a Myspace page is really satisfying and immediate. It’s really lovely to hear from people, and exciting to know that someone out there is anticipating words I haven’t even written yet. Readers seem to really like having that kind of connection with a writer, too. I suppose it’s also really helpfully to get your publishing company to put a lot of money behind your book.

Q. What/Who do you like to read?

My favorite writer is Joan Didion—she is such a unique observer of the self, but is still is so courageous in using her writing to address the wide world. I also love the dry Brits—Evelyn Waugh and Kingsley Amis et al. And I am always interested in what a really great writer can do with the historical fiction genre, like Steven Millhauser’s brilliant Martin Dressler.

Q. What is your writing process? Do you plot extensively first or do you tend to “fly in the mist?” Has your process changed over time? Do you write multiple drafts or clean up as you go?

I do plot extensively first. In writing a scene, I sometimes find wonderful things come from figuring it out as I go along, but for the most part the books I’ve done have been on such a tight schedule that I can’t risk going down the wrong path for too long. I also find that having clear ideas about the emotional tone and associations I want in any given scene really help me to focus and have good ideas.

I do multiple drafts with my editor, though not for myself alone, mostly because of the time constraint. I do go back, though, after writing each chapter and clean up. I find that the my imagination is still more open to changes then—once any episode has been left for too long, it becomes almost like something somebody else wrote, and then it is more difficult to imagine how events might play out or dialogue might be said differently.

Q.) Both The Luxe and Rumors are written from multiple points of view. How hard is it for you to keep track of the different voices of each character?

I have been sitting with these characters for a while, so in my mind it’s always very clear now. I do think it took me some false starts to get there, when it was all a little fuzzier. But it is definitely a writing challenge, and I do worry on days when maybe my brain isn’t working to full capacity that the voices blur a little. But it’s also a really useful device for this kind of story, in which fa├žade and perception are so important but also so fickle, to be able to let your readers see from some disparate sets of eyes.

Q.) I was very struck by Lina, Elizabeth's former maid. Her love for Will leads her to betray Elizabeth, but yet at the same time you feel sympathy for her.

Oh thank you for saying so! I hear so often from readers that they hate Lina, and she is very dear to my heart. For me, she is the most relatable character—she is the girl who hasn’t yet grown into herself or her looks, who desperately wants her life to be beautiful but has no idea how to achieve that. She wasn’t born with much, but she is determined to take the rocky road to making it better. And really, there are more Linas out there then there are Elizabeths.

Q) In both books, people are not always what they seem, and friendships seem to shift and change.

Yes—I think this is both true to the period and to teenage life. The Gilded Age, with its obsession with outward displays of wealth and success, with its Victorian rules and elaborate codes of behavior, was necessarily a time of glittering surfaces and audacious hypocrites. And teenage life is like that, too. No one quite knows who they are, but they are trying on all these elaborate personas, all these rigid ways of being, and they can’t help but draw competitive comparisons and lie a bit in the process. The true self, in both scenarios, is elusive but persistent.

Q: Do you have any advice for aspiring novelists?

Always be reading, and don’t be afraid to unpack even the most exalted novelist’s work. I learn all kinds of things by wondering about the choices and mechanics of writers who are far more talented than I am, and I find that thinking critically about pretty much any kind of literature makes me want to get back to my own computer and start forming the hazy observations in my mind into solid sentences.

Q. What are you planning to work on next?

Right now I’m finishing up the third Luxe book, and then it’s on to the fourth. After that I’d like to do another series for teens—it will be historical, but I’d otherwise like to shake up the formula I’ve been working with for nearly three years now. And I’d also like to try to write a stand-alone novel with a beginning, a middle, and an end that’s about grownups and for grownups. But we shall see!

Thanks Anna! You can purchase The Luxe series from Barnes and Noble Amazon or Powells. And stayed tuned for the third book in the series coming in 2009!

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