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April 15, 2018 BOOKLIST
Find more Booklist Printz Interview
This year’s Michael L. Printz Award winner is a real stunner: Nina LaCour’s quiet, stirring We Are Okay explores grief, love, loneliness, and healing in a pithy, beautifully multilayered story belying its short page count. Below, we speak with LaCour about the novel, its inspiration, and the importance of ghosts.
Is We Are Okay a ghost story? What are Marin’s ghosts?
LACOUR: I can’t tell you how much I love this question! I taught high-school English for six years, including an elective on gothic literature. I’ve always been drawn to ghost stories. I think it has to do with the longing and fear and desire and isolation and self-doubt that are so often at the heart of them. I played with the idea of having actual ghosts in the novel. I wanted to have ghosts in it. But in the end, realism won out, and although I would say that it is a ghost story of sorts, the ghosts became the kind that haunt all of us after we’ve endured profound loss.
Marin’s ghosts are those of her mother and grandfather, but the ghost that leapt from the pages unexpectedly was that of her past self. My central question when working on the book was: What happens after your life changes so dramatically that the person you once were is barely recognizable? When your life is no longer your life, and you are thrust into a new one, who are you then? How do you make peace with the ghost of who you used to be?
Marin talks about reading so much. What role does fiction play in her character, and how did you choose the books she talks about and loves?
LACOUR: They are all books I taught, which I suppose makes sense because I’ve had so many conversations about them over the years. Jane Eyre, The Turn of the Screw, One Hundred Years of Solitude . . . they all have ghosts and they all have orphans. I find them all beautiful in their own brilliant and strange and fascinating ways. At first I thought I might have been going overboard to talk about so many novels in such a short book, but reading was such an influential part of my childhood and early adulthood. Reading has always helped me make sense of my place in the world. Marin and I have a lot in common, so I decided to let her keep them.
What part of the story came first?
LACOUR: Writing has a dreamlike quality for me, which can often be difficult to describe, but I will do my best! For this novel, the first thing that came to me was the structure. I wanted to write something that took place over only a couple of days and that had a lot of stillness. I wanted to examine quiet moments, the simple things we do every day that take on meaning and become ritual, like the making of a simple meal, or even the washing of hands. And because I knew that not much would happen in the present action of the book, I realized that the main action would be in the past and I would tell that story alongside the present one. So I had the structure but, of course, a structure does not make a story.
Then, a few months after my grandfather died, my wife said she had an idea for a novel for me: a girl who was raised by her grandfather near San Francisco’s Ocean Beach. So then I had characters and a structure but still no story. As time passed and I kept thinking about it, I felt a darkness emerge—secrets and deception and isolation. I felt a lot of grief and loss and then the snow came to me. And then Mabel arrived. And then I finally felt that I had a story. All along, though, it was that quiet and stillness that anchored me to the project and made me want to write it.
There’s a profound sense of isolation throughout the novel, in Marin’s experience in her dorm, of course, but also at home with her grandfather.
How did you approach cultivating that feeling in the novel?
LACOUR: I’m so interested in the way that many of us isolate ourselves, even when we are with the people who love us, and for Marin and Gramps, unspoken grief creates a barrier between them. Their relationship relied on a denial of grief and pain, but it also made it impossible for the two of them to truly know each other.
In terms of cultivating the feeling of isolation, I would say that it started with the images and the setting and the small, quiet movements. But then there is also something much more internal—the yearning, the pretending, all of the things that go unspoken even after Marin and Mabel really start talking—that makes the isolation carry into the relationships.
Marin’s affection for those yellow bowls is so palpable! What inspired the bowls and the pottery shop where she got them?
LACOUR: I love going to the Heath Ceramics studio in Sausalito and looking through the stacks of what they call “seconds,” the plates and bowls and vases that have little imperfections. All of our dishes at home are taken from those stacks, and it just feels so special to eat from them. The shop Marin goes to is much smaller, though. It’s just a fantasy—the kind of shop I would love to frequent if it existed. To me, the bowl and the shop and the prospect of her working there in the future signify an openness to her life, a promise of good things to come and opportunities she will create for herself.
I realize you have very little control over this, but I’d love to talk about the striking cover: Did you have any input in the design?
LACOUR: I had no idea what was coming when I got the email from my editor with the cover options. I was so nervous while the file downloaded and then I burst into tears once I saw the images because they were perfect. I’m so fortunate to have had such an incredible team behind it who understood the story so well and designed something that matches its tone and holds so many layers of meaning. The way the two settings of dorm and beach bleed into each other, her pose where she is facing the past but not wanting to look, the snow falling and waves crashing—it’s just incredible! I could not love it more.
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