Thursday, July 6, 2023

Q&A with Liara Tamani


Photo by Amina Kaia McDyess

Liara Tamani is the author of the new young adult novel What She Missed. Her other books include the YA novel All the Things We Never Knew. She lives in Houston.


Q: What inspired you to write What She Missed, and how did you create your character Ebony?


A: I wrote What She Missed as an offering of hope. I wanted to remind teenagers that even in times of difficulty, the good is there. The beauty and love and joy and peace—the light. But when we aren't paying attention to it, we miss it. And missing the good can make the hard seasons in life even harder.


My hope for readers is that they learn to tune in to all the good around them, moment to moment, so that it doesn't pass them by and instead becomes a part of their lives.


Ebony was the hardest character I’ve ever written. I filled three notebooks about her before moving to my computer and trying over and over to find my way inside of her. I wrote countless opening scenes. I tried on many different voices and POVs for months.


It felt like torture, but I kept writing until there was an opening. Eventually I found one, and it felt like Heaven. I should probably add that I wrote this book during the pandemic, which was a brutal time. So, it probably wasn’t all of Ebony’s fault.


Q: The Kirkus Review says of Ebony, “She is a protagonist who is simultaneously deeply frustrating and relatable, and by the end she’s at least able to paint herself more clearly.” What do you think of that description?


A: Ebony is a 16-year-old painter who, for most of the novel, feels lost and isn’t making good decisions. So, I can understand the frustration one could feel while following her journey. Naturally, for someone Ebony’s age, she’s going through a lot of changes and trying on a lot of different things. This includes her name which she switches from Ebony to Indigo.

Then, to add to the internal changes, external changes begin to come her way. Both of her parents lose their jobs, and she moves from Houston to a small lake town. In the process she’s forced to leave her friends, her crush, and the private art high school that she’d worked so hard to get into.


In addition, moving back to Alula Lake confronts her with the death of her grandmother, who died in the lake. She struggles dealing with so much loss and change, and spins out of control.


I think Ebony is so relatable because she’s very honest as she’s retelling the story of what happened over the summer. She doesn’t sugarcoat her emotions or thoughts. She’s raw. And I think readers connect to her realness.


Throughout the novel, Ebony has a self-portrait due. She left Houston without completing it and struggles with trying to paint it the whole summer. By the end, she has a clear vision of how she wants to paint herself.


But she goes through the fire--all the bad decisions of the summer and their consequences--to get there. To learn. To see. To begin paying more attention to life, which allows her to absorb more of the good. And seeing more of the beauty of life allows her to see it and feel it within herself.


Q: How was the novel’s title chosen, and what does it signify for you?


A: This answer goes back to the first question. But essentially, awareness is a gift. We miss so much of our lives by not paying attention. And technology certainly doesn’t help. It’s so easy to be constantly distracted.


For me, the practice of paying attention is at the heart of happiness. Whenever I’m able to slow down and take in what’s happening around me, I see and absorb more of the beauty of life. It’s simple but very impactful.


Q: Did you know how the novel would end before you started writing it, or did you make many changes along the way?


A: I’m constantly making changes as I go along. I don’t do a ton of outlining. I usually start with a single page of bullet points in a notebook as a guide. Then as I begin to write, the characters and their journeys come alive, and they serve as my writing guides.  


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’m working on a young adult romance.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I’ll leave you with the dedication. Amina is my 11-year-old daughter, who I keep in mind while I write all my books for young people. What I want for her, I want for all children.


For Amina and young readers everywhere


Don’t be afraid of the unknown.

As you grow and change,

stay close to the things you love,

the things that bring you light and joy and peace.

In time, more will be revealed.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Liara Tamani.

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