This fall, Ig Publishing will kick off a new imprint, Lizzie Skurnick Books, devoted to reissuing YA classics that have been long out of print, from writers including M.E. Kerr, Ellen Conford, and Ernest J. Gaines. The series launches with Debutante Hill, Lois Duncan’s first novel, which follows the story of a teenager who is ostracized when her well-to-do father refuses to let her “come out” as a deb. PW spoke to Duncan about seeing an old story given new life.
Was it a big surprise to learn Debutante Hill was going to be reissued 56 years after it was first published?
There had been some discussions about bringing it back before so it wasn’t a shock out of the blue, but it had been out of print forever. I wrote it [in 1954] when I was 20 and it was published in 1957. I kept renewing the copyright only because I didn’t want it to go into the public domain and have somebody else wind up putting it out because it was available. I was afraid it might embarrass me. But when this opportunity came up I found a copy and re-read it and was amazed at how well it had held up over all those years. I was not going to be embarrassed at all.
What do you remember about how you came to write it?
I grew up in a small town – Sarasota, Florida – and everyone who lived there went to the same school. We all socialized together, whether your parents were well off financially or they were migrant workers or they were with the circus. [Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus established its winter home in Sarasota in 1927.] We never had a feeling of there being a dividing line between kids from affluent families and the kids from poorer ones. After I graduated, a woman decided to start a debutante season. She would select certain girls to come out as debutantes, and she chose the most attractive, socially acceptable boys to be their escorts. My brother was one of those boys. When I learned of this, I realized some of my best friends in high school wouldn’t have been invited to be debs and I wondered: would I have been able to stand up and say ‘I don’t approve of this,’ or would I have been sucked in by it?
Was it the first novel you had attempted to write?
I didn’t write it as a novel at first. I wrote a short story about it and submitted it to Seventeen. I had been submitting stories to Seventeen and other magazines since I was about 13. But the editor sent it back with a note saying, ‘There’s too much to this for it to be a short story. The characters need more development. Have you thought about turning it into a novel?’ I decided she was right and I turned the whole thing into a novel and then, because I didn’t know what to do with it next, stuck it in a drawer.
And then you got an agent?
No – a couple of years later, I was married and having babies, prolifically, and I saw a notice somewhere that a major publishing house was having a contest looking for novels for teens about a contemporary subject. I thought, ‘Hey, I wrote one of those,’ so I sent it in and I won! Part of the prize was that it would be published. I had to make a couple of changes. I have a bad boy in the novel and at one point he drinks a beer. He was 19. The publisher said I could not have a beer in a book for young readers so I had to change it to a soda.;
Did you have to make some revisions for this new edition?
They’re not wanting any changes at all; they want the original product. In contrast, Little, Brown reissued 10 of my YA thrillers a few years back and I updated all of them; I gave everybody cell phones, and I could not let anybody set their hair with bobby pins. But Debutante Hill is going to be re-released just the way I wrote it originally. I think it stands up. The social world around us has changed but not the vulnerability a teen faces as she makes her way through it. I think the story will still resonate in the hearts of today’s kids. It’s a good solid story. You know, back when we used manual typewriters, you had to think 10 times before you put a word to paper because you couldn’t just cut and paste or start over if you decided it was the wrong word. Books were not tossed together and edited with spell-check. Only dedicated authors got published and the competition was formidable. I think the result was there was a solidity to the story that many books today don’t have.
How about updating the cover art?
Yes, there is a new cover and what fun! It is actually a photograph that my own father took at a drive-thru [where] we all went to get malts and hamburgers [Duncan’s father, Joseph Janney Steinmetz, was a professional photographer]. All the cars are jammed together and I’m in the picture at age 16, sitting in my blue Jeep sulking because I let some creepy boy drive my beautiful blue Jeep.
Does the creepy boy know he’s going to be on the cover of your book?
I have no idea who he even is! I can’t remember. I had a car. It was easy to attract boys back then if you had your own car.
Will some other of your early novels be published as part of this reissue?
They’ve taken about five [books] but the one I’m really excited about is that they are going to publish a collection of my short stories [under the title Written in the Stars]. These are my earliest stories, which were all published in magazines but have never been released as a collection. Before I wrote books, I sold a lot of stories to magazines, especially Seventeen. I won Seventeen’s fiction contest three times – one second prize, the next year, third prize, and the third time, first prize. It was thrilling!
Did you ever imagine you’d be talking about these stories again in 2013?
It’s amazing. One of the main things about my career is that, at certain points when I thought it was over, something remarkable would happen and it was like I got discovered all over again – a movie would get made, or my backlist would be reissued – and a new generation would find me. It’s nice to keep finding a new audience.
Debutante Hill by Lois Duncan. Ig Publishing/Lizzie Skurnick, paper $12.95 Sept. ISBN 978-1-939601-00-1