After more than a decade of writing critically acclaimed YA thrillers--including The Rules of Survival, Double Helix and The Killer’s Cousin--Boston-based author Nancy Werlin explores new territory with a novel that blends romance and the supernatural. Impossible (Dial) tells the story of Lucy, an ordinary high school student, who teams up with her family and her best friend Zach to defeat an ancient curse.
Bookshelf spoke with Werlin about the allure of literary bad boys, why she now writes mostly in cafés, and the golden age of YA literature.
With Impossible, you’ve made your first foray into the supernatural, after more than a decade of writing YA thrillers. How did this come about?
Well, it’s actually not quite as much of a departure as you might at first think. If you take a look at some of my thrillers, for example [in] The Killer’s Cousin, there’s a ghost and a hint of supernatural assistance for David, and if you take a close look at Impossible, you see that it has many aspects of a suspense thriller, as well.
That said, the thing that I feel about Impossible is that for the first time I’ve written the kind of book I most love to read, and that I’m finally able to integrate a little bit more Nancy the reader and Nancy the writer, who are always almost two separate beings. What I felt like writing, such as The Rules of Survival, isn’t always what I would choose to curl up in bed with and read. And the kinds of books I always love most in the end are the ones that go on what I call my comfort shelf, the books that I’m going to reread over and over and over again.
On your Web site, you write that Impossible explores the idea of the literary “bad boy.” Can you talk a little more about that?
Going back to my own past as a reader, I was a big, big reader of romances, particularly as a teenager, the age that my books are aimed at. And it seemed that in many of those books, and in many romantic books today, there is still this idea that the male hero is a bad boy who can only be tamed by the love of a good woman.
So while on the surface, the plot is boy meets girl, boy chases girl, boy catches girl, all romance readers know that it is exactly the opposite. It’s the girl that is catching the boy, and taming him, and bringing him home on her saddlebow. And it works really well in a book, but as an adult I wondered if it would be possible to have a different kind of hero that would be just as appealing and just as romantic, and would be the kind of boy you really would want to seek out as a mate.
You also say on your Web site that though you’re a longtime fan of romantic fiction, before Impossible you “never before felt drawn to write it.” What changed your mind?
I’m in love. I’m getting married in a couple of months. So having Jim in my life has affected me. But I actually wrote the bulk of the first draft before I had met him.
I don’t want to go into too much detail, but a rather terrible thing had happened in my life and I discovered to my surprise that I needed to believe in love more than anything. Desperately needed to believe in it. And so I set to work on this book that was not the book I had intended to write next, or maybe even ever. But suddenly in my need the whole plot of it came to me, and I started writing about love. Of course not just romantic love. The love of Lucy’s family is incredibly important to her, her foster parents, and though she doesn’t know it, her birth mother as well. And then there’s the role of her friend Sarah.
I’m not through thinking about love. My next book is also about love. And I look even more closely at a best friendship between two girls.
Do you feel romance novels are less respected than other genres?
Oh, of course they are less respected! I think that we are still in a male-dominated literary environment, and the topics that women are most concerned about much of the time don’t get a lot of respect. And love and mating, which are of vital importance both to men and women, are treated in romance literature as the center point of these explorations of how we can mate with someone, maintain mutual respect, love each other for life, have children.
We go over and over and over it in this genre, which is the bestselling genre to the readers who read the most fiction--women. And yet it’s over in the corner somewhere, disregarded, disrespected. But there is important philosophical work happening, between the pages.
In your book, one of your characters--Zach--drops out of Williams and marries Lucy. Kids in that socio-economic bracket are usually encouraged to go for success at all costs. What was your thinking behind Zach making this decision?
Well, I haven’t thought about that until just this second. But my subconscious is always busy working and it often has a purpose and it does here as well.
I went to Yale. And because of that, I am frequently asked by my peers, who now have kids of college age, “Oh, my smart kid could get into Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Berkeley... but oh my God, it’s so expensive, what should I do?” I would say my honest feeling about this, which is if you can afford to write a check for tuition, and not feel it, and not suffer, then by all means, do it. But if you can’t afford that, just as good an education is available for a lot less money.
I do think it’s important to get a college degree, but there are some terrific state schools. And it’s about what you need and what you want. And given the appalling price of college now, I sometimes think you’d do better by your kid by buying him a McDonald’s franchise. I really do!
But I wasn’t thinking any of these things. But I guess in the back of my mind I must have been thinking, you know what? It won’t hurt Zach at all, not to graduate from Williams. He’s a smart kid. He’ll be OK. After your first job, nobody asks you where you went to school.
I actually hope people don’t react to Impossible in a way where they think it’s terribly retro. The plot needed to do what it needed to do. But I’m a little surprised to find myself looking a little bit like an advocate of teen marriage. It takes some exceptional circumstances for that to be a reasonable idea. But circumstances are exceptional for Lucy and Zach.
Impossible even has its own video trailer! Is that something new for you?
Penguin put that together. I’ve never had anything like that before. And I’m delighted by it! I don’t know what exactly its purpose is. I do think it’s a neat one-minute way to get a little taste of the book.
Penguin has also produced a promotional DVD and Web site, which include more information about Lucy’s ancestors. How did that come about?
I did a family tree for Lucy, so you could read back in time for each one of her ancestors--and of course they’re only 18 years apart--going back to Fenella, the original Scarborough girl. That was a fun project.
So was that something that was created at the same time as the novel, as a back story? Or was it something you created once the novel was done?
Pieces of it were integral to the novel. I learned about Fenella, and Miranda’s mother and grandmother, while I was writing. But then Penguin told me they were looking for material to put on the promotional DVD, and asked if I had any ideas. And I thought, well, I could do a family tree.
And it was great fun. I tried to make each Scarborough girl be a little bit a woman of her time. You know, I’ve only got a little paragraph about each of them. And for some: “no information available, unfortunately.” I tried to give them names that fit in with their times, and sketch a little bit of the backdrop of what was going on in their worlds. They were going through various wars, the beginning of the women’s liberation movement, women beginning to be nurses.... It was a great, fun project.
I see a spinoff in the works!
[Someone] actually asked me about a prequel. The thing that I’ve stumbled on, a little bit, is that in a prequel, there is necessarily a tragic ending. And I’ve actually never done that. I’ve never written a book that didn’t have a more or less happy ending.
Your Web site includes a gallery of your books’ covers, along with your own, rather frank comments about them. Tell me more about that.
Well, I’ve noticed I haven’t gotten a bad cover since I’ve started doing that! [laughs]
Have you already planned what you’ll write about the cover for Impossible?
I love the cover! It just stunned me when they sent it to me. At this point, they’ll send it to me and say “what do you think?” and not “here it is.” And I do have the sense that if I cared to make a great big commotion about a cover, they would certainly think about changing it. I do sort of figure at this point that they might know better than I what would be appealing. And I’m over the newbie writer thing, where all you want is for your cover to be beautiful.
In Impossible, the heroine works to present a façade that is convincingly “normal,” in part to compensate for her mother’s madness. This sort of thing--a protagonist compensating for a hidden family secret--seems to come up frequently in your novels. Can you say more about that?
I do seem to have a lot of family secrets in my novels. I guess I’m one of those writers who is often writing about the same sort of themes, but taking different angles on them.
My family of origin, my parents and sisters--we didn’t have a particular secret, but as I think we talked about 14 years ago, my sister’s autism, was--although out there in public--in a way was the family secret. And I had become accustomed to always thinking “You have a secret” about people whenever I meet them.
You start thinking about a character in a new book, of course you’re going to think pretty soon, well, what’s their secret? What is their problem? Maybe “what is their secret?” is another way of saying “what is their problem?” There’s got to be some issue or you’ve got a totally boring book!
When I first interviewed you for PW, back in 1994, you were working part-time as a technical writer. Are you writing fiction full-time now?
I still work part-time as a technical writer, at a different company at this point. But still the same three-day week, with 10-hour days. It’s worked perfectly for my life, I have to say. From time to time, being human, I resent having to get up and go to the job on those days. But oh wow. A regular paycheck? Health insurance? Retirement planning? These are good things. And it’s allowed me to take the time I need with each book.
Do you end up writing all four of the days you have off?
Normally, when I’m working hard on a book--and I’m not always doing that--I try to get in three writing days of those four. Which is hard to do. Sometimes it is only two. When life intrudes. As it should. But I’m doing really well if I can get in three good writing days. Which doesn’t necessarily mean eight-hour days on all three days. But maybe a three to four hour patch.
In the acknowledgements section of Impossible, you thank many people--including the staffs of all the Panera Bread cafés in your area.
Yes. I wrote most of the book there.
So do you prefer writing away from home?
This is actually something that happened while writing Impossible. I used to write at home, but I was living with my mom and saving money for a condo, for about a year while I was working heavily on the first draft of Impossible.
My mom is a sweetie, but when I was working, she would tiptoe past and she would say, “Are you writing? I’ll be very quiet.” Which really meant that I had to leave. She wasn’t telling me to leave, but I couldn’t work with her tiptoeing and beaming at me. “She’s writing! The genius is at work!”
I didn’t want to make a nuisance of myself at Panera, but luckily there are about five within equal distance, so I would rotate. And I discovered that I could work really well in that atmosphere. You know, you get a good table, with an outlet. And you don’t want to give up the table, so you can’t leave. And none of the distractions of home are around you. So you put your head down and work. And the people all around me, it was like white noise.
Now that I am in my condo, and my fiancé is with me, I have an office, but it’s kind of turned into a place for office work--for email, and marketing stuff, and files and things. But when I have a serious writing day? The café is the place I want to be.
When I first interviewed you, you said you thought your next book would most likely be for adults.
Yes, at that point, I didn’t have a grip yet on who I was as a writer. My second book, The Killer’s Cousin, actually went through two drafts as [a novel for adults].
When did you discover that you were truly a YA author?
It was through the process of writing The Killer’s Cousin.
I’m thrilled to be a young adult novelist. It’s a golden age of young adult literature, if you read the stuff that’s being published now. Plus, the kind of writer that I am, writing all sorts of different things, I’d be all over the bookstore if I were an adult novelist. Some stuff under fiction, some stuff over in mysteries, some stuff over in science fiction, and now some stuff over in romance. Only in YA can I have all my books together.
Has Lauri Hornik been your editor from the beginning?
From the very beginning. I followed her from Houghton Mifflin, where we did one book, to Random House, where we did two, and then to Penguin, where we’ve done four so far, and are now working on a fifth.
That sounds like a relationship with legs!
Yeah. I would say so. The luckiest thing that could have happened to me was my friend from high school who worked at Houghton Mifflin identifying Lauri for me as the person to send my first novel to. A lucky, lucky break. At that point Lauri was an assistant editor, and now she’s publisher at Dial. So I do feel like I hitched myself to a lucky star.
Your books have received a great deal of recognition [The Rules of Survival was a National Book Award finalist, and The Killer’s Cousin won an Edgar Award]. What is the most gratifying part of that for you?
I think it’s having the freedom to build upon your work over time. To be able to write, every single time, the next book that I most want to write and to take my time with it. I have a lot of writing friends, and I see a lot of different pressures on other writers. One of them is financial, and I’ve removed that from the equation by having a job. But when you get praised for your books you feel more faith in yourself. You’re willing to take that next risk with something a little different.
Is it more or less intimidating to start on a new book, now that you’ve received so much recognition?
It is less intimidating, but I don’t think it’s because of the recognition. It’s because I’m now working on my eighth book and I trust myself more. I recognize my process. I no longer feel like ripping my hair out when I have a bad day, because I know, oh, I do have bad days. Oh, I do finish a book and then I’m unable to start anything new for months. Oh, it does happen to me that in the middle of book that I think it’s trash and I can’t go on. This has all happened before. So I feel more confident.
Can you share anything about the new book you’re working on?
Well, I’m interested in elves right now. And I’m interested in love. So this next book is going to be about friendship, love, and elves.
Friendship, love, and elves...
Yes. Again. I do think that fantasy works beautifully as metaphor for so many things in life. It’s powerful stuff and I do think I want to work with it for a few more books, just as I worked with suspense and mystery for a while.
When I was reading Impossible, I couldn’t help remembering that novel Mr. and Mrs. Bo Jo Jones [the 1960s novel chronicling two teenagers who marry due to an unplanned pregnancy].