Book review: We Were Liars

Emily Lockhart writes for young adults but does not shy away from themes no matter how difficult they are but, she tells Tony Clayton-Lea that it is important to realise that her readers are on a journey of exploration.

Emily Lockhart

Hot Key Books, €12.65, ebook €5.40

You can tell the writer a mile off – she’s the person whose left hand has the words ‘read widely’ written on it in broad strokes of pen ink. 

Emily Lockhart says that for book signing events she always writes some kind of motto or pithy phrase so that her bunches of young adult (YA) readers can take from it whatever they will.

“Yesterday,” Lockhart reveals, “I wrote the words ‘be yourself’ on my hand.” 

Such sayings might seem either clichéd or banal to the average adult whose YA reading days have long since departed, but, Lockhart observes, the readers of her internationally acclaimed books take such wise words to their hearts and heads.

Born Emily Jenkins (she uses her grandmother’s surname as her pseudonym) in 1967, Lockhart has become something of a game changer in the YA marketplace in the past ten years. 

The quartet of ‘Ruby Oliver’ novels (The Boyfriend List, The Boy Book, The Treasure Map Of Boys, and Real Live Boyfriends – published between 2005-2010) and her 2008 book, The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks (which was a finalist in the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature) set the tone.

Last year’s We Were Liars, however, upped the ante even further by making the shortlist for the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize.

While Emily Jenkins writes children’s books (a continuous stream of them from 1996 onwards, the latest of which is The Fun Book Of Scary Stuff), it is Lockhart’s modus operandi that is making life busier and busier for the author with the ink tattoos. 

She says she far prefers writers who have a stylised, singular expression, who create their own little worlds. It’s a creative sensibility that she herself utilises in her YA work.

“I fell in love with literature by reading the likes of Tom Robbins, who wrote, among others, a marvellous book called Even Cowgirls Get The Blues. 

"And around the same time I was reading Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide To the Galaxy, Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, and Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange.

"While you might say that the likes of Burgess and Walker are miles apart, each of them use extreme dialect, as well as heightened dialogue specific to characters and time periods. 

"It’s a unique voice that contributes to the character of individual worlds. I always loved writers who were unafraid to take you into a very different linguistic universe.” 

Jenkins’ family background was reasonably solitary. Raised as an only child (she has a half sibling over 20 years younger than herself), her parents divorced when she was a child.

Influenced by her father’s non-mainstream work as a playwright, one doesn’t need to be a psychologist to know that words formed her. At Vassar College, she studied illustrated books, and at Columbia University she graduated with a doctorate in English Literature.

“My father, Len Jenkins, is a stylist of extraordinary ability,” she says with a mixture of huge pride and mild envy.

“He’s usually classed as a language poet/playwright, a downtown playwright as opposed to a Broadway-type writer. In some of my work, his influence is clear – the use of Americana, for want of a better word. 

"Things like roadside attractions, old-time showmanship, kitschy places, theme parks, and so on. We’d go on road trips back in the day, where we’d stop at places along Route 66 and other areas like that.”

How long did it take to find her own writing voice?

“He and I wrote a novel, The Secret Life Of Billie’s Uncle Myron, at the very beginning of my career, and that was a fun collaboration that we didn’t really expect to get published. 

"But it did, so in that sense he taught me about hard work, about revision, but he was also very respectful of my own voice, and what I had to bring to the work. It was deep encouragement.

“With a book such as We Were Liars, I was much more influenced by my education and my academic background, which is around the time when I started to think about nar

rative structure from reading a tremendous amount of very traditionally structured novels – the classics, Dickens, Bronte, Austen, and so on.”

From reading We Were Liars, you can sense that Lockhart’s work has paid off handsomely. 

The book revolves around a group of teenage friends, a family riven by jealousy and money, selective amnesia, sexual exploration, love, heartbreak and other crucial life affirming and life-destroying themes. 

There’s also a twist in the plot that quite a few thriller writers would love to have had first. Rumour has it that Lockhart reworked the book over 15 times to get everything right.

“Oh, at least that number, but that’s true for most of what I do. I wouldn’t say that central situations or plot lines changed that much, but I certainly rearranged We Were Liars a lot of times, and cut and wrote new scenes. 

"There was large structural revision, because given the type of plot – which, obviously, I won’t go into! – you have flashbacks across time periods, and memories coming up. 

"There’s a lot of temporal stuff to juggle; the opening of the book changed a lot, and the ending had to be worked on many times to get the effect I wanted.”

Does the reworking ever become an obsession?

“No, it’s just wanting to get the end result right, and it takes a lot of drafts to achieve that.” 

There is, she says, distinct differences between Emily Jenkins and Emily Lockhart. It’s all about finding the right audience for the right work. 

“I started out writing a variety of things for a variety of audiences – books for little kids, books for adults, essays, fiction, non-fiction. When I started writing for teenagers I had written about five books, none of which had been big successes. 

So I didn’t really have an audience, but then I got a two- book contract and felt I had to focus on the YA age category, to put my middle name on them, and to give them a fresh chance in the marketplace. 

I felt that way people would know what they were getting. It was a career choice, I guess, but it worked because the books did find an audience.”

Like any good writer of YA work, Lockhart takes the responsibilities to her audience seriously. She says she dislikes restricting young people’s access to ideas; and she believes in finding out what young people are interested in reading, reading it as well, and having conversations about the morals therein.

“I practice what I preach in that I have a 13-year-old daughter, and I let her read whatever she’s interested in reading. 

In writing specifically for young adults, I - and all of the writers I know that write YA books - do not flinch from adult topics. What we do is to remember that a reader of a YA book may well be reading about these experiences, or these situations, or these facts, for the first time.”

Whatever sexual content is there, Lockhart remarks, is to be written about in a considered manner, and not to be gratuitous or titillating, the way it is in many adult novels or films.

“There’s a slightly different attitude in covering topics,” she concludes in a firm but friendly tone. “YA covers all of these topics, but with sensitivity and awareness.”


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