Claire LaZebnik is the author of several novels, the most recent of which is titled Families and Other Nonreturnable Gifts. She also has written a young adult novel, Epic Fail, and co-authored two non-fiction books about autism.
Q: You have written for adults and for young adults. What would you say are some of the differences (and similarities) for you as a writer working in both genres?
A: Overall, they're more same than different: in either case, you want to tell a fun, engaging story with a strong protagonist and memorable side characters. The main difference comes from how you tell that story. I discovered when I was first writing YA that I needed to make things clearer and to let the main character voice her thoughts more. With adult fiction, I like to step back and let the reader read between the lines, but I think younger readers prefer the immediacy of being drawn into the character's emotions and reactions.
Q: You've also co-written two non-fiction books about autism. Has your knowledge about autism shown up in your fiction?
A: Absolutely. Knitting Under the Influence has an entire plot line that centers on someone who works at an autism clinic: the interventions she uses are based on the ones developed by my non-fiction co-author Dr. Lynn Kern Koegel and her husband Dr. Robert Koegel. And the siblings in Families and Other Nonreturnable Gifts are both clearly on the spectrum (in very different ways). Even the son in If You Lived Here, You'd Be Home Now could be described as being "spectrumy"--as could his grandfather, come to think of it. So, yeah--a lot! I guess you could say autism is a recurring theme in both my life and work.
Q: Some of your characters seem to be struggling with a sense that they don't fit in, or don't meet their families' expectations. What draws you to this theme?
A: Oh, wow. That's such a good question, because I've never stopped to think about it--both those things seem universal to me, but maybe the fact I assume they're universal reflects something about ME. I certainly grew up feeling like a bit of an oddball--I was more comfortable reading than talking to people, I was young for my grade and then I skipped ninth grade and went to high school when I was 13 and college when I was 16--so that feeling of being different just grew. It's easy for me to identify with outsiders, much harder for me to know what it would be like to be the popular kid or someone who effortlessly fits in.
But actually I DO think there's something universal about feeling like an outsider. We're all inside our own heads, and it's lonely in there. We're hearing a narrative that no one else hears--everyone else is hearing his own--and I think that at times in your life that can make you feel like there's a huge gulf between you and everyone else. The feeling of "no one understands me" is pretty universal--at least at certain points in our lives. My characters are just stuck in that mode, I guess. But that's part of their arc: to move out of that and make some real connections.
Finally, as far as families go: well, as I wrote in an essay at the end of Families and Other Nonreturnable Gifts, we almost always feel like Cousin Marilyn when it comes to our families: we love them, but the ways in which they're like us war with the ways in which we're different and that's an odd, uncomfortable feeling. You never feel like a capable adult around your family: you always feel like the little girl you once were. We all regress to bad old habits and immature emotions around our families.
Q: Do you have a favorite character that you've created, or one that you identify with more than the others?
A: I think I'll always love Olivia best; she narrates my first novel Same As It Never Was. She's smart and tough and capable and honest. She gets stuck with the guardianship of her half sister whom she barely knows and even though she resents the imposition and is terrified of how her life is going to change, she accepts the responsibility and does the best she can, and in the process, lets down a lot of her defenses and finds love. Writing her voice was a pure pleasure: the words just poured out of me. She gets to say everything I lack the confidence to, because she's much bolder than I am and less interested in pleasing other people. I sort of fell in love with her. I wish I were that strong.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I'm getting ready to launch my second YA novel, The Trouble with Flirting (due out in February 2013 from HarperTeen), and I'm writing my third YA novel. I just started a project with a friend--a novel we're planning to write together. And I'm hoping that my non-fiction writing partner and I will have a chance to update and revise Overcoming Autism in the near future.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: My yellow lab is snoring on the sofa right now and the kids are doing homework.
Interview with Deborah Kalb