An interview with debut author Sarah Lariviere

I met debut middle grade author Sarah Lariviere at an SCBWI event in San Francisco.  We bonded over our general anxiety about visiting schools and swore a blood oath to help each other navigate this strange new terrain (well, maybe not a blood oath but you get the idea).

Her new book, The Bad Kid (S&S) is out today. How much do I love the cover?  It’s as good as what’s inside! Find it at your local bookstore, IndieBound or Amazon. And now, some questions for Sarah. (PS: enter a giveaway at the end of the interview!)

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Where did your love of books/storytelling/reading/writing/etc. come from?

I always knew I was an artist, but after I graduated from Oberlin College with an acting degree, I decided art was too indulgent, and I became a social worker instead. There is a ton of writing in that job, to most social workers’ dismay, but I always enjoyed doing bio-psycho-social assessments, which are basically character studies. I loved learning to identify key details in people’s lives, describing their homes, and asking questions that would lead to further understanding. And then writing someone’s story in such a way that they were illuminated without being boxed in. I detested making diagnoses; they’re way less scientific than people think, and can be jails. I think my MSW was my MFA.

As for actual creative writing, I started by accident—or maybe I should say, without thinking about it. From the time I was 14, I kept a detailed diary. It made me feel more secure to have a black notebook with blank pages when I was out alone in public, at a café, or a bus station, or whatever. Like I had company. I always wrote poems, and am still very fond of explosions of language that are personal and defy the adhesion of logic, that resist the imposition of stories. Never would I have imagined myself writing fiction. Nothing linear, anyway.

I never imagined it until it happened, one month when I was 29. I’d left a job as a social worker feeling very burned out, and thought I’d make a picture book, as an organizing idea for creating a series of images. But when I sat down and started writing the story, it turned out to be a novel. I was blown away, discovering I could connect with this ocean of energy. The book seemed to write itself, and I had no idea how to handle that power. I was pretty nervous and scared, actually. Not to be too freaky, but it felt religious, and I sweated a lot, like, oh no, what does this mean?

Once I discovered I could write a novel I became obsessed with figuring out how to write a good novel. So that’s my passion, that investigation. I’m curious about how many holes a novel can have and maintain its integrity. How much information about the story and the characters can be absent, and still support truckloads of sensual descriptions of places, things, weather, feelings. I’m curious about novels that feel real, that you fall in love with, but that upon close inspection have many holes, and a lot of curlicues. Lace novels.

I miss acting, though—I just have to say that—even though I haven’t done it since college. I miss so badly the fun, spontaneous energy of creating with people, building something together. That exchange. It’s terribly lonely writing the jokes all by myself! If anybody out there needs an actor, call me.

Also, for me, a painting is just as much of a novel as a novel. I’m a very visual person.

What do you think most characterizes your writing?

Well, they say there is no such thing as originality, right? But I will kill myself to be sure I’m saying something in a way I’ve never seen it written before—to a degree, I mean. Hopefully not an annoying degree. It’s important to me that the texture of the language is full of pleasure, sensually. Without feeling contrived or overthought. I’m also really impatient with flat characters when I read, and I might err on the side of making people and things more complicated than they need to be. The whole “simplicity is beautiful” thing never clicked with me. I like it in other people’s work (sometimes). But it’s not me. I hate things that feel too cleaned up. I feel like I’m getting tricked into hating my own tangents and flaws. When to me that’s the best part of life. Odd little dead ends. Red herrings…

What was the hardest part of writing The Bad Kid? 

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Two things were super hard.

One, I really wanted a clear plot that moved along with suspense and surprise. That is the opposite of writing fragmented, absurd, obfuscated abstract poems. So getting the plot to click was huge. And when the voice came for Claudeline, that was all I had, and a title. There was no plot; she just wanted to talk. So I think I chose to make her book a mystery specifically to figure out about plots. Give her some challenges so I could see what we were made of.

Two, as a social worker I want any kid I’ve worked with over the decades to be able to open the book and think, “Hey, she was inspired by me!” Which means writing diverse characters. That is a huge challenge and anybody who cares about people, and the state of humanity, and knows some history can have a healthy anxiety about it. Of course I wrote in plenty of mistakes and problems and asked my friends explicitly to point out where I was making errors, invoking stereotypes I might not have been aware of. (I shared the novel with like, 30 people or something, from a range of perspectives, before it went to press.) The whole thing about communication is that you can’t rely on your good intentions; you have to ask people what is coming across. In my opinion, anyway. I lost years of sleep combing through the manuscript trying to be sure it was awesome and fun for kids and not yet another inadvertently hurtful and obnoxious thing. Because the thing about conversation is it’s fluid, and someone can shake you and say, “No no no, that’s all wrong!” And you can be like oh no, okay, ugh, and adjust your understanding with an open heart and some muscle, too. But words in a book are set. Until they’re pulped or disintegrate, people associate those words with you.

Who are your favorite authors?

A practically random handful of the writers whose work has touched me include Daniel Pinkwater, Ellen Raskin, Polly Horvath, Lynda Barry, Andy Dowdy, Virginia Woolf, John Steptoe, Reinaldo Arenas, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Katherine Paterson, Rita Williams-Garcia, Roberto Bolaño, Ursula LeGuin, Beverly Cleary, Clark Coolidge, Elena Ferrante, Jim Henson, Nancy Farmer, my friend Ginny Wiehardt (whose debut poetry collection MIGRATION is just out, and terribly moving), more poet pals Ron Horning, Jeffrey Yang, Adriana X. Jacobs, Rebecca Wolff, Jennifer K. Dick, Jonathan Regier and a thousand million others.

What is your favorite thing to do when not writing?

I love to make art! Ink, paper, paint, photos. Experimental film. I also love to cook, drink great coffee, dance, play with my toddler, go for long, winding walks in cities and in nature with my husband. When I have a house again, I will go bananas in the garden, as I have in past homes in Paris, New York, and Texas… I love big, wild, messy natural permaculture gardens full of butterflies and herbs and stones. Also, now that I live in Northern California, I loooooooooove the beach and the fog. I miss writing long letters on paper and decorating the envelopes and etc. My step-daughter is French and wants to be a pâttissière, so this summer we binged on The Great British Bake Off.

What are you working on right now?

I’m revising a time travel novel for middle grade readers. I’m also working on a stream-of-consciousness style YA novel with a top-secret concept, and I recently finished an adult novel under a pen name, which I’ll revise heavily after it takes a rest from me. I’m working on developing illustrations—would love to do a graphic novel.

How do you prefer readers get in touch with you?

My website is SarahLariviere.com, and you can sign up for my newsletter or email me from there. Twitter @sarahlariviere is also a great way to connect. I’m new to Twitter but trying to make following me worth people’s while. I’m scheduling school visits and conferences for the upcoming academic year now, and I’d love to hear from readers. Anytime. My agent is Susan Hawk at the Bent Agency—and she’s amazing.

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