Nancy Werlin is the an National Book Award Finalist & Edgar Award Winning author of seven books for young adults. This list includes Impossible and The Rules Of Survival. You can find out more about her on her website.
What gave you the idea for Impossible? Did you always intend for it to have a curse in it?
Impossible, like all of my books, doesn't stem from just a single idea, but from several ideas and questions that came together in my mind over time -- a lot of time, in this case (over ten years). The very first idea came from listening to the song Scarborough Fair, the Simon & Garfunkel version. You can read the full story on my web site, here:
http://nancywerlin.com/impossible.htm#aboutwriting And you’ll see that the idea that the song was itself a curse didn’t come to me for quite a while, even though I needed it before I could proceed from thinking about the novel to actually sitting down to write it. Until I knew about the curse, in fact, I didn’t have enough knowledge about the book to write even the first sentence.
Are you similar to Lucy, the main character, in any ways?
Yes. I am practical-minded, like Lucy, and resistant to things that are not logical or sensible. I have also been lucky, like Lucy, in my parents, who always believed in me and fought for me when I needed them to (although unlike Lucy, I wasn’t always smart enough to realize when I needed help and to ask for it). Finally, like Lucy, I’ve had and have some fantastic friends in my life.
How did Impossible change from first draft to final copy?
The entire last third of my first draft needed to be thrown out and rewritten. I did not know how Lucy would solve the last two tasks, so I tried to write the novel so that she wouldn’t have to do it. This failed miserably and created a story that was unsatisfying for the reader (and for me). Sarah Hebert’s role changed considerably from first to last draft, also. My original draft began with what is now Chapter 2 of the novel – the beginning of the final novel came later on. And I rewrote and rewrote and rewrote the Bay of Fundy scene and the childbirth scene, trying to make them “right.” I can’t even remember all the changes I made.But this is not unusual for me. As I don’t outline in advance, and instead figure out each novel while I write it, I always have to go through multiple drafts and they are always very different from my first attempt.
Impossible had a rather happy ending which I was semi surprised to see. What made you want to give Lucy that?
Now this is something that I did know from the very beginning: there would be a happy ending, a nearly fairy-tale ending. As a reader, I am aware that with some books, you just want a happy ending; the book itself demands it; your heart demands it. So my vision of this book was always that Lucy would defeat evil; she would find true love; all would be well for her, and the book would end with her surrounded by family and friends, strong in herself, strong in her family. She’d have her newborn baby daughter in her arms and her future would be bright and sane. My heart demanded it for this book.However, I did not end the book with the exact scene I originally envisioned. I had done the math on the ages of Lucy’s mother (36), grandmother (54), and great-grandmother (72), and so I knew it was feasible that they could all still be alive. Even her great-great grandmother (90) could be! And I thought I wanted all of them to show up on the Markowitzes’ doorstep in that final chapter – six generations of Scarborough Girls together, including the baby. Plus Lucy’s foster mother Soledad, and Lucy’s new mother-in-law, and heck, even Gray’s mother – women, women, women, all strong and loving and fearless! When it came to the time to write that scene, however, I couldn’t do it. Even for a fairy tale, it was just too over the top. It still makes me smile to remember it, though. I might write it one day for my own pleasure … right after the end of the current novel, the doorbell rings again … I think all those women are alive and well. I think Lucy saved all of them, as she did Miranda. I even wonder if Lucy’s ancestress Fenella, the first Scarborough Girl, is alive and well somewhere … strange things can happen when you are taken off into Faerie …
Impossible includes a take off of the ballad "Scarborough Fair". Did you do much research for the different versions of the tale? If so, was it a long process?
I did a great deal of research, but no, it didn’t take long because resources on folktales are very accessible and easy to find. I was also lucky to have a wonderful resource in my writer friend Franny Billingsley. I tend not to separate research out from writing the book, by the way. Some people do a lot of research before beginning writing. I do only enough to get started, and then, as I go along, when I encounter a topic that needs more research, I go and do it then.
You first book published was Are You Alone on Purpose. What was your road to publication like for it? Did it changed in any ways as you continued to write other books?
Writing my first novel, Are You Alone on Purpose, took me about three years. When I had finished a draft, I sent queries to three editors. All of them read the novel, and two of them rejected it. One of them sent me a revision letter, making suggestions for what I might do to the book to make it better, and she also offered to read it a second time if I made the revisions. (She did not promise to publish it; only to read it a second time.)After sulking for a while and feeling misunderstood, and wishing I had had a fairy-tale acceptance and was going to be rich and famous, I got over myself. I sat down with a writer friend, Athena Lord, who helped me learn how to approach a serious revision. Those lessons are with me to this day. A real revision is not about changing a few words here and there, and it’s not about fixing spelling and punctuation, or fixing dialog. A real revision requires huge changes –at least for me. It can be very frightening, because you let go of what you have in hopes that you’ll figure out something better, and you can’t always tell as you work if you’re making things better or worse. And revision notes even from the most intelligent and involved editor cannot actually tell you how to do the work; they are only suggestions. You must re-imagine your story in a more satisfying way. And if you do not have the writerly craft to do it well, you must work to get it. Eventually, I made things better in the revision. I knew it, too, and that was another valuable lesson. The revision took me 6 or 8 months. I sent the revised manuscript back to the editor who had sent me the revision letter. And she then called me to make an offer to buy and publish the book. My publication process since then has been almost embarrassingly easy, because that same editor, Lauri Hornik (now at Penguin, where she is President and Publisher of Dial and Dutton), has continued to publish all of my work.
What time of day do you usually write? Also, do you write everyday?
On a writing day, I like to start after breakfast and go as long as I can, but usually I ran out of steam by 3 or 4 o’clock (and yes, I take a lunch break). I don’t write every day. Three days a week, I go to my regular job as a technical writer for a software company, and at least one other day a week, I need to run errands and go grocery shopping and see family and stuff. So I hardly ever have more than three days a week in which to write.
Out of all your books, which was the most challenging to write? Easiest?
Every single book feels like the most challenging during the time I’m working on it. Every book seems to demand technical skills that I don’t have yet, and that I have to develop. And every single one wears me out emotionally … and I always wonder if this time, I am not going to be able to finish it. Are You Alone on Purpose and The Killer’s Cousin were tough because I was learning how to write a novel, and to trust my artistic instincts (which actually could not always be trusted, at that point. Or now). Double Helix required the most research from me, and I resented it and thought I couldn’t learn the genetics I needed for the book – and then I thought I didn’t have the skills to integrate the science into the narrative smoothly. Locked Inside demanded that I understand online gaming, and that I learn to write action sequences. Black Mirror had the challenge of a narrator who was pretty much outside of the main action – how was I to manage that? And all of these books – all my books – demanded a level of emotional honesty from me that can be tough to sustain and that perhaps only another writer can fully understand. Impossible got rough because I was using third-person omniscient voice, which I had never used before, and because of the need to mesh magic and reality as smoothly and realistically as possible.All that said, there’s no doubt in my mind that The Rules of Survival was the most difficult emotionally to go on with. Nothing I’ve ever written has come easily to me. But I will say that writing Impossible gave me more joy than any other book that I’ve written, because it is the book that, of them all, is the kind I most enjoy reading. Even when it was hard, I loved working on it. I loved that it made me think hard about love.
How do you come up with the ideas for your books?
Stephen King says, “Writer never ask other writers where their ideas come from. We know we don’t know.” (Or something like that.)Every set of ideas that becomes a novel comes from somewhere in my head and in my life, but how they accumulate and alchemize into the compulsion to make a book is a mystery to me.
How long does it typically take you to write one of your books?
The writing part seems to take about two years. The incubation part can take many, many, many years. Impossible simmered for over ten years.
Has anything major changed in your life since you have became a National Book Award Finalist & Edgar Award Winning author?There have been some major personal changes in my life lately, such as getting married, and moving, but I don’t think that’s what you mean. My life has not changed much in the material sense. I still work part-time as a technical writer and part-time as a YA writer. What awards have done is make me feel more confident in myself as a writer, and that’s been a wonderful thing. I trust myself more; I trust my instincts. I know I can rely on my editor and publisher to believe in my work. But I am also aware that awards can have a backlash effect. I don’t want to start imagining I’m a genius, or that I don’t have much more to learn. I hope that my best work is still ahead of me. What I want more than anything is a long career in which I write books that do not repeat themselves, and that reflect my growth as a writer.
What can we expect next form you?
For my next book, I'm thinking about love and betrayal between girls and women in friendship. And I am still thinking about magic and fairies and human courage (as I did with Impossible). Those elements will come together in a story about Phoebe and Mallory. Phoebe believes she knows everything about her best friend Mallory and that Mallory knows everything about her. But Mallory, for very good reason, keeps secrets from Phoebe. When do secrets constitute betrayal? What is love between friends? It's going to be a terrible frightening story, and I hope a good one.
For aspiring authors, do you have an advice to give?
Any aspiring writer needs to keep reading, first and foremost -- and when you love a book, then read it a second time with your writer's eye, trying to notice exactly how the author made you think and feel the things you did.
In other words, you're now reading with an eye to writerly craft. I have to confess that as a teenager myself, even though I knew I wanted to be a writer, I didn't do much writing at the time, so unlike many authors, I don't necessarily feel that a young aspiring writer needs to be working at the writing just yet. I think you can do that, and it's wonderful if you are, but it's also a great time to simply soak things up as a reader.
Thanks so much, Nancy, for taking the time to answer my questions!!!