Once upon a time, a young girl was fed a hearty diet of classic fairy tales. Andrew Lang’s Red Fairy Book for breakfast. Howard Pyle or a little Arthur Rackham after lunch. Kay Nielsen or Harry Clarke before bedtime.
Unsurprisingly, that girl, now known to YA readers as E. Lockhart, grew up to be a writer. When the heroine of her forthcoming, highly anticipated novel, We Were Liars (Delacorte, May), needs a way to process the recent, mystifying events of her life, which include selective amnesia, she writes her way to clarity by taking her fragments of memory and weaving them into familiar fairy-tale tropes. Her grandfather becomes the powerful king. Her mother and two aunts, three beautiful princesses. The palace exists on an island her grandfather owns off the coast of Cape Cod. There is a fortune at stake, banishment is a real threat, and there could be a curse at work.
“As a child, I was captivated by these beautifully illustrated collections my mother owned,” says Lockhart (the E. stands for Emily). “Fairy tales have been a preoccupation of mine for a very long time, and for a long time I wanted to write a contemporary story with a fairy-tale structure so I could unpack some of what I had spent so much time thinking about.”
The fairy-tale variant that undergirds Liars is “Meat Loves Salt,” the tragic story of a wealthy father who rejects his youngest daughter because he misunderstands the way she expresses her love for him. Shakespeare liked this one, too; it’s the same tale thought to have inspired King Lear.
Liars is narrated by Cadence Sinclair Eastman, the eldest child of the three striking Sinclair sisters of Boston, all divorced, whose wealthy father, Harris, owns Beechwood, a private island where the entire clan summers. Cady and her cousins, Mirren and Johnny, and Gat, the nephew of Aunt Carrie’s live-in boyfriend, are the liars of the title: a tight-knit quartet who live for the summer months they spend together.
Something happens to Cady during “summer fifteen,” as she calls it, an accident that brings on an unspecified brain injury and intense headaches, but like the shimmery cover art designed by Angela Carlino, the precise outlines are hazy. More than that, insists Lockhart’s editor, Delacorte Press v-p and publisher Beverly Horowitz, nobody needs to know.
“When I was preparing to talk about the manuscript at our list lunch, I realized the campaign had to be, ‘Trust me. I can’t really tell you what it’s about,’ ” Horowitz recalls. “There’s an extremely rich family but if I say more, I’ll ruin it, so just read it. I’m insisting on this for you. You will thank me later.”
Random House believes Liars will have crossover appeal to an adult audience. A dedicated tumblr account (wewereliarsbook.tumblr.com), designed to look more like a luxury goods site than a book-promotion page, focuses on the exclusive setting rather than the plot, and gives readers a place to talk about the book without spoiling it for others. Horowitz says that, like Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief, the complicated, flawed adult characters in Liars are central to the story.
“The best crossover books often have teens who must interact with imperfect adults and imperfect adults who are important to the entire dynamic of the plot,” says Horowitz. “I’m not knocking Nancy Drew but her dad gives her the car keys and she solves the mystery. That’s not real life. Real life is a lot messier.”
Lockhart has a higher profile these days, built on the success of 2008’s The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, which was both a National Book Award finalist and a Printz Honor book. Liars will be her 10th novel; critical acclaim came more quickly for her work for younger readers, which she writes under the name Emily Jenkins, than for her YA novels. Her first picture book, Five Creatures (FSG, 2001), won the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award.
Given her mother’s profession—preschool teacher—it’s perhaps no surprise that Lockhart is a connoisseur of the picture book. Given that her father is a playwright and dramatist, she spent many hours in darkened theaters, watching rehearsals. She considered a theater career for herself (and fictionalized her experience at theater camp in Dramarama) but says she was a lousy actress. “I feel things hard but digging up those emotions when in front of a film crew or an audience is tougher than it is to write about them,” she says. “I was a so-called ‘sensitive child,’ and I still can’t watch the news on TV. It wrecks me for days. But it’s a useful quality as a writer since what I’m always trying to do is get emotion on the page.”
Cady shares this deep sensitivity—and perhaps, too, a knack for drama—so that when in the opening pages of Liars, she watches as her father puts a suitcase in his car, leaving her mother—and Cady—for another woman, she describes it this way:
Then he pulled out a handgun and shot me in the chest. I was standing on the lawn and I fell. The bullet hole opened wide and my heart rolled out of my rib cage and down into a flower bed. Blood gushed rhythmically from my open wound, then from my eyes, my ears, my mouth. It tasted like salt and failure.
In response, Cady’s mother, steeped in the merits of Yankee stoicism, tells her: “Get a hold of yourself.”
Lockhart imagined herself an author as early as third grade, when she penned a “seminal picture book featuring an orange sleeping bag,” followed by novel-length imitations of Joan Aiken’s The Wolves of Willoughby Chase and Astrid Lindgren’s Pippi Longstocking. She got her father to type her Pippi story into book format and make 50 photocopies. A friend of his silkscreened a drawing Lockhart had made for the cover. She gave copies to everyone she knew.
“Painters learn by imitating famous painters all the time,” says Lockhart. “I’m not sure why it’s considered a bad thing to try to imitate the voice of a beloved writer. I think it’s a very valid way to teach yourself how to write.”
She spent her last two years of high school in Seattle, attending the Lakeside School, a private academy that counts the writer Po Bronson, former Washington state governor Booth Gardner, and Microsoft’s founders Bill Gates and Paul Allen among its alumni. She attended Lakeside and later Vassar College on scholarship.
“A lot of what I write comes out of the experience of being a person with one foot in and one foot out of that world of American privilege,” she says. “I’m interested in the way that social institutions—those privileged worlds of boarding school or prep school—influence the people who come out of them.”
At Vassar, Lockhart worked in the college’s lab preschool, preparing her for work after graduation as an assistant teacher in a Montessori school, but also giving her a chance to study the audience for the picture books she’d later write. Before she wrote books herself, she worked as a reviewer, and wrote essays for magazines. Her first published book was a middle-grade novel she co-wrote, via e-mail, with her father, The Secret Life of Billie’s Uncle Myron (Holt, 1996). “It was a really quirky story, sort of like a middle-grade Douglas Adams adventure,” says Donna Bray, who acquired and edited the novel when she was at Holt. “I think it was way ahead of its time.”
The two stayed in touch. Bray read Lockhart’s essay collection, Tongue First (Holt, 1998), and invited her to lunch. “I thought she could write teen books because she had such a great handle on the teen years,” Bray recalls. “We brainstormed a couple of ideas and out of that lunch came Dramarama.”
The same formula—Bray’s idea, Lockhart’s execution—produced The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks. “Emily is so good at taking an idea and running with it,” Bray says. “You give her a spark, and she creates a bonfire.”
Lockhart had also written one novel for adults, Mister Posterior and the Genius Child (Berkley, 2002), which Barnes and Noble chose as a Discover Great New Writers pick, but she felt her career didn’t have a lot of traction. “I had a writing life but I didn’t have much momentum because I had been writing in different categories,” she says. When her agent, Elizabeth Kaplan, got her a two-book deal with Delacorte for her novels starring Ruby Oliver—The Boyfriend List (Delacorte, 2005) and its sequel, The Boy Book (2006)—Lockhart decided to forge a separate YA identity. “I had never had a two-book deal before. My name at that point meant nothing and I wanted these books to have a shot,” she says. E. Lockhart is not a pseudonym but a slight truncation of her full name, Emily Lockhart Jenkins. (Though her father’s last name is Jenkin, Lockhart says her mother was advised by a numerologist to add an “s” to their last name. “It was the ’70s,” Lockhart explains.)
The Ruby Oliver books were a hit—Delacorte published four in all, and now wants to build on that success with Liars. Horo-witz has signed Lockhart up for two more stand-alone novels.
Could there be a happy ending for the girl in love with fairy tales? For one thing, those beloved illustrated books that belonged to her mother now reside in Brooklyn, where Lockhart makes her home with her family. For another, her career definitely has the traction she was seeking.
“Emily wrote a great book and we challenged her to work even harder on it in revision,” Horowitz says. “She totally delivered.”