INTERVIEW: Laurie Halse Anderson, Author of Speak, Gives Voice to the Voiceless


Laurie Halse Anderson is the New York Times-bestselling author who writes for kids of all ages. Known for tackling tough subjects with humor and sensitivity, her work has earned numerous national and state awards, as well as international recognition. Two of her books, Speak and Chains, were National Book Award finalists. Laurie was honored with the 2009 Margaret A. Edwards Award given by YALSA division of the American Library Association for her “significant and lasting contribution to young adult literature…”. Mother of four and wife of one, Laurie lives in Northern New York, where she likes to watch the snow fall as she writes.

The Poetry Question had a chance to interview Laurie Halse Anderson on her book Speak. The full interview can be found below.

TPQ: Set the scene for us. Where do you write, and what does it look like?

LHA: Over the years I have written everywhere and anywhere. In one house, I actually wrote in a closet. My desk was a shutter that I had picked out of the trash. I set it across two boxes. At other times (and in other houses and apartments) I wrote in the spare bedroom, in the basement, in the attic, and for one memorable year, on the left-hand couch cushion. When my kids were active in sports, I wrote in the car or in the stands while they were at practice.

Now I am the luckiest writer in the world. My husband (a carpenter) built me a writing cottage about 50 yards from our house. I made a video of it.

TPQ: You published two children’s books prior to Speak. Had you already started writing that book before the children’s books, and if not, what made you jump to young adult fiction?

LHA: I started trying to write picture books in 1992. Shortly after that, I tried my hand at novels. I made the “jump” because I have a short attention span and I like messing around with different forms of storytelling.

I wrote a few spectacularly awful novels, but enjoyed the process. I started work on FEVER 1793 (the early drafts of that book were dreadful) in 1993. In 1996, I put it aside because I couldn’t figure out how to make it any better. That’s when I wrote SPEAK. After SPEAK I went back to FEVER and figured out what I needed to do.

TPQ: You don’t hold anything back on the jacket of Speak; in fact, you give away the rape of Melinda, and it almost feels like it could have been an early note to yourself about the storyline, or a “fair warning” to all who are about to read the book. Why did you make the decision to essentially hide nothing from the reader prior to opening to the first page?

LHA: I didn’t make that decision. Anything you see on a jacket is a decision of the marketing department. But I’m not unhappy with it. SPEAK is not a book about rape. It’s a book about finding the courage to speak up about something hard.

TPQ: In my teaching of Speak, I compare Melinda’s character to Anne Frank, in the way that she’s essentially trapped in this insanely small space, just hoping that no one ever finds her to take her away, or let her run free – as both Melinda and Anne are equally afraid of both. What do you feel is the trap that holds her in that place? Why is her character so stuck in purgatory.

LHA: What a wonderful comparison!

Melinda has been traumatized. Her parents’ marriage is falling apart. School is a place of torment, not sanctuary, Yet she stays trapped in that purgatory because she is getting by. To break out of it she has to break her silence, and she has no clue, no model, for how her world might change if she speaks up. What if it gets worse?

It is only the passage of some time, and the strengthening of her sense of self, abetted by working on art, the support of her art teacher, and her friendship with David, that gives her the courage to take the risk and escape the trap.

TPQ: I’ve always been intrigued with how Speak makes such an impact on girls and boys. Why do you feel that boys – even the most masculine – feel so heavily for Melinda?

LHA: Because everyone struggles to find the courage to speak up. Everyone feels clanless and alienated at one point or another.

TPQ: I have a very difficult time showing the movie because I don’t feel it holds true to the book. I feel as if entire storylines were removed, and it takes a very different direction. Why were those choices made, and how do you feel about the movie version?

LHA: I had no control over the movie, but I mostly like it. To film the entire book would have resulted in a movie that took 8 hours or more to watch. I hate the change made to the ending, however. That was dictated by the suits at Showtime. They wanted Melinda to speak to her mother about the rape because they thought that would make the movie more “family friendly.” The director pushed hard to keep the ending in the book, but the suits threatened to cancel the project if she refused to go along with her idea.

TPQ: You seem to have quite the passion for historical novels. Do you prefer one form of novel to the other? Did you have to convince your publishing company to take a chance on the historical novels after the success of your YA writing?

LHA: I enjoy both forms; they stretch my imagination and craft in different directions. My publishing company refused to publish both kinds of books. That is why I publish with two different companies.

TPQ: Why have we entered a generation of so many reluctant readers, and what do we do to change that?

LHA: We’ve done a decent job getting elementary school kids to love books and reading. We start to lose them in middle school when we force them to read books that no longer connect with them emotionally. We finish off the job in high school by handing them books written generations ago by rich, dead white guys for their peers, NOT for today’s teens. (Many of the books of the canon, by the way, are still those books selected by the first committees assembled to establish the original high school English curriculum…. shortly after the Civil War.)

We now have a robust body of literature that is written for middle school and high school students that can be the bridge from childhood to adult and create life-long readers: YA literature. When we embrace it, we’ll finally foster national literacy and a generation of engaged readers.

TPQ: Since we are The Poetry Question, we have to ask: What is Poetry?

LHA: Words written to the tune sung by the human heart.

TPQ: If you could have a drink and conversation with any artist, author, or musician, who would it be, what would you talk about, and what would be your drink?

I would like to have tea with Neil Gaiman and discuss how he maintains his creative energy in the face of all the other demands on his time. (If you can arrange this, I would be forever grateful!)

Thanks for these wonderful questions!


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