PW: In 1993, your novel Make Lemonade was published to great acclaim. What prompted you to return to the heroine, LaVaughn, after an eight-year-hiatus?
VEW: Young readers, in letters, kept telling me that the ending [of Make Lemonade] was up in the air. It took me eight months to find a name for LaVaughn. Originally, in Make Lemonade, the narrator was nameless and faceless. She was an instrument to help Jolly. [My editor] Brenda Bowen forced me to make her much more than a messenger. Having found LaVaughn by my fingernails going up a cliff, I felt I knew her well. She felt like a person I wanted to revisit. I felt that LaVaughn was a friend, that she wouldn't assault me, saying, "How dare you write about me," which is what many of my new protagonists do.
PW: Even though Make Lemonade is narrated by LaVaughn, in many ways it is the story of Jolly. How did you go about filling in LaVaughn's back story?
VEW: You sit down with pen and paper-some people use a tape recorder-and interview her. I type a lot of questions and [LaVaughn] answers them: What do you like to do? What are your hobbies? At first [while writing Make Lemonade] she was stubborn: "Why should I talk to you now-you weren't interested in me in the first draft?" I work early in the morning, before my nasty critic gets up-he rises about noon. By then I've put in much of a day's work.
PW: The adults in LaVaughn's world, especially the teachers, are as fully formed as the teens. Have you had similar experiences, as a former teacher yourself, of those pivotal one-on-one connections between teacher and student?
VEW: I've probably had 100, but [none] that dramatic. I read about super-dedicated teachers who go above and beyond what's expected. I've taught with them. They're out there. Some people say it's not possible that a student would encounter several teachers like this in the same school. I disagree. I don't think it would be fair for me to write only about desolation for kids.
PW: Several of your characters pick up right where they left off in the previous novel. Did you spend much time revisiting Make Lemonade before continuing these characters' stories?
VEW: No, I didn't, really, because I knew it by heart. No one writes as slowly as I do, I'm convinced. It's so hard for me. I learn slowly; I make decisions at a snail's pace. I went back to check things, but I don't think I studied it.
PW:True Believer handles the issues of faith and religion very respectfully. Even though LaVaughn feels excluded by Myrtle and Annie's narrow-minded take on God, she never dismisses her friends out of hand, but rather continues to explore her own sense of right and wrong. Why do you think so few novels take on the subject of faith?
VEW: I haven't a clue. We're so mixed up about religion in this culture. We say the Pledge of Allegiance "under God indivisible" but there's no prayer in the schools. I would be so untethered without my personal faith. I wouldn't be able to go through a day-but that's my own experience. We're taught a respect for all religions; our founding fathers describe freedom for all faiths. Maybe authors are afraid of treading on toes.
I found it difficult to write about religion with lucidity; I wanted to be fair, strenuously fair. Readers have their own religious beliefs and questions. The teenage years are the years to examine faith-the need to be independent and the need to be anchored. Who made all this? And what do I have to do with it?
PW: This is the second book in a planned trilogy. Can you give us a preview of what's to come?
VEW: I can't talk about it because I don't want to jinx it. There will be a third book. I do have a plan. I measure my progress in millimeters, just as LaVaughn does.