A Conversation with Libba Bray

-This post comes from Emily of BookPeople’s Teen Press Corps


LIbba Bray with Parker of the Teen Press Corps

Emily: How do you begin a book? Do you choose a scene, character, or a line of dialog to run with?

Libba Bray: That’s a great question. I never have a starting point. I always say it’s like a river. It’s like the game Katamari. You’re a big ball of sticky-ness, and you roll around and things sticks to you. I’m always working on something and what happens is, something will ping into my head and I’ll write it down. It could be anything. It could be a character, or a scene, or a line of dialogue. I remember, when I started thinking about The Diviners, I was sure if it would be history or steampunk. I saw these guys who had this steampunk stuff and I started drawing them. I filed that away. Some small elements made it into The Diviners. It’s around us always. I always have a notebook or a phone (when I don’t leave it at JFK) to take notes and ask questions. You know, ‘Did Evie’s powers start when she was three, or did they develop later?’ I’ll ask myself constant questions. There’s never just a BOOM- start.

E: Do you have a special routine or writing space that you need?

LB: I’m a huge fan of routine. Because I’m so chaotic on the inside, I need a certain amount of structure in order to create. I actually get kind of grumpy if there’s too many interruptions. My favorite time to write is in the morning. I’m a morning person. All things being equal, I get up and once my son has left for the day I go to a coffee shop and get something to eat, a cup of coffee and maybe spend ten minutes going through email then write. I find that in the afternoon I’m kind of shot. I’m really shot at night. The only time I can write at night is with people who normally write at night, like Holly Black. I like to go “I’m gonna write between 8am and 1 pm” and just go ahead and write.

E: What’s the very first story you remember writing?

LB: *Laughs* I can tell you! I remember it was Ms. Caufield’s fifth grade class. We had to write Halloween stories, and I was such a horror freak that I was just like ‘Yes!! My day has come!’ I wrote this story, there were lots of drawings with heads on pikes and stuff like that, stuff that would get a call from CPS these days, but then it was just A+. It was called “Death Castle.” I have it, and it’s ridiculous. I lay waste to my enemies in this story. Like Don Pistol, who was not very nice to me, he does not meet a good end in this story.

E: What’s been your favorite thing about Austin so far? I know you’ve lived in Texas for while.

LB: I love this festival. I love that there are actual teens here. Austin has just such a special place in my heart; it’s where I went to school, it’s where I kind of found myself. I found myself in New York too, but Austin was just such a huge- it shaped me in so many ways. It gave me permission to do things in a lot of ways. You know, “Keep Austin Weird!” I was weird, I could actually be okay here. I’m also really looking forward to eating some really great Tex-Mex!

E: What are you reading right now?

LB: The Rest of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness. I also just finished reading Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates.

E: Now that Lair of Dreams has been published, what are you excited to see/have seen from readers about it?

LB:I haven’t spent too much time online recently, but there have been some really positive messages from people. It was the toughest book of my writing career, so those are nice to read.

E: What are some of the changes you’ve seen in the YA book world since you were first published? Are there things you hope will happen in the future?

LB: There’s so much change. When I started in YA, in a way it reminds me of Austin. In the 80’s it was a cool place but it was a little sleepier. Then it became a boom town and now everyone wants to be in Austin. YA has become a place where everyone wants to be and it’s such a great community. And the influx of money that started with Harry Potter and Twilight made Hollywood really pay attention to YA. Social media really changed the game. When I first started with A Great and Terrible Beauty is when blogging started and I could interact with readers. There wasn’t Twitter or Facebook. On the awesome side it’s a great way to be able to talk to readers. On the other side there’s a pressure, like you’re supposed to be out there on social media. My feeling is above all I have to get the books out there. I wouldn’t want to be there just to *makes jazz hands*. To say things just to says things. A huge positive change has been the We Need Diverse Books campaign. The push for diversity is been so important and I’m looking forward to there being more of that in the future.

E: Of your books, which was the most fun to write?

LB: It’s a toss-up between Going Bovine and Beauty Queens. Going Bovine was shortest writing time; I wrote the first draft in two and a half months. It’s the two comedy stand-alones. I think Beauty Queens was the most fun to write. That was the one where I just went, “Nope! I’m taking all the bumpers off.” Just unfiltered. It was great. And working with David Levithan as my editor, who is a friend of mine, that was really fun.

E: You’ve spoken about how difficult Lair of Dreams was to write, why was that?

LB: First off, I think the second book, the second book of four is hard. It felt like a vamp*. “Am I just vamping, or am I actually setting up parts of the story?” That’s tough. You have to push forward and pull back at the same time. Plotting is something I have to work hard at. I think that’s because I can think of fifteen different ways for this to go. This book had seven different opening chapters and they were all different. I was just trying to find it, trying to find it. With the character Ling, there was a lot of research of writing a character who is of a different cultural heritage. I was trying to do the due diligence. Even with characters like Henry who was from New Orleans, I had to research. There was so much to do, so much story to tell. It felt too big and unwieldy. I wasn’t sure if I was up to the task. I wrote 300,000 words and got rid of half of them. The other part of it was personal; I had major depression. I think that, for a long time, I just kept trying to power through. Then I finally just reached that point, that rock bottom in Spring of 2014. I just went “No. I’m not coping. I have to stop.” Everyone was really great. My publisher delayed book. Ultimately, it’s very interesting. My friend Laurie, who I went to UT with and we’ve been friends for 30 years, she read a draft in January of this past year. I said “Can you read this? I’ve lost my way, I’ve lost my compass.” Which is weird for because even if I’m not sure what kind of choices I’m going to make, there’s this sonar or gut level feeling of what direction I should take. I couldn’t even find that. I told her, “You know me so well, can you read this, I don’t even know anymore.” Her response was “I thought it was beautiful and really sad. I know you went through a really rough time. If you’re going to do anything, go through and find the places where you can put in that lightness and humor and hope. At that point I was at that. I went through it and it was like, “Oh yeah, where’s the funny?” So, tough book was tough.

*Vamping- the repeated use of a phrase through an entire song or the improvisation on top of a repeated phrase through a song.