When you style yourself as "the world's toughest book critics," you have to expect that you will make authors unhappy on a regular basis. The advent of social media has allowed authors to express their frustration widely via blogs, Facebook and Twitter. But no one, to my knowledge, has achieved catharsis with such brio as Lara Zielin, who turned the Kirkus review of her newest book, The Implosion of Aggie Winchester, into a black-metal masterpiece.
Read the last From the Stacks on the state of publishing.
The very definition of a "good sport," Zielin talked to me about her video, writing and Aggie's roots.
How did you get the idea to make the video in the first place?
The review was the catalyst, and I showed it to our friend Andy, who is in a death-metal band. We were joking that it would make fabulous lyrics to one of his songs. Then the joke turned into the video.
Is Andy the lead singer?
Yes, he was the perfect character. He could look like the reviewer and sing the song. Win-win.
Absolutely. We all look like that. Especially me. Though I need a new black oxford shirt, I realize.
How long did it take you to do the filming? Those production values are pretty high. It's not some fly-by-night video.
We actually did it all in one night. Andy and the other "band members" came over around 8 [p.m.] on a Friday night. We were done by midnight. My husband is a filmmaker, so he's pretty good at making quick and dirty shoots look amazing.
I'll say! You had your book launch this past weekend, right? How did it go?
It was great. I was part of a book tour called "Girls Taking Over the World," and the goal was to highlight books with strong female voices and to encourage girls to not only be readers, but be true to who they really are. It was a blast.
There are several "guest authors" coming on board for each town that we're visiting, but the core of the group is me, Saundra Mitchell, Christine Johnson and Rhonda Stapleton.
It constantly amazes me how hard writers work. You hold down day jobs, you promote your books, you have family and friends, and somehow you squeeze in time to write. Is there something special about writing for kids that keeps you going?
I definitely love the YA genre, and it's where my heart is writing-wise. One of the things that the Kirkus review said was that the angst in Aggie was totally over the top—but I think that angst is pretty real for kids. There's a lot of pressure and a lot of drama, and it's a challenge to put that "head space,” so to speak, on paper, but I can't imagine writing anything else.
In general, though, I will say that writing is just one of those things that I have to do. I mean, most of us writers obviously don't do it for the money or the fame. We put our art out there and get tough reviews. Most of us stay midlist for many, many years—and in a shrinking economy, that can be hard. So you gotta love the craft, you know, to keep your butt in the chair and to keep writing.
What were the books you remember reading as a teen that kept you going? And does remembering the impact of those books help to "keep your butt in the chair?”
The girls on the GTOTW tour and I were just talking about this! We were all agreeing that there were seminal books for us growing up that helped turn us into YA writers. For me, it was Where the Red Fern Grows. Billy's work ethic was really inspirational to me. He was stuck in a rural location without many options, but he was able to help himself and his family by training his two dogs. Of course there was also a bit of magic and a beautiful setting, which made for great reading. I just loved it.
Also Bridge to Terabithia was amazing. The friendship between the protagonist and his friend was so raw and inspiring. I remember reading that and wondering how the author had managed to craft what seemed like a deceptively simple story but was really so, so deep.
Your next book is about tornado chasers, right? Can you tell us a little bit about that?
Sure, the book is called The Waiting Sky, and it's about a girl, Jane, who goes to Tornado Alley for the summer to chase twisters with her brother, who is older and a meteorologist. Jane leaves behind a mom [in Minnesota] who is an alcoholic, and their relationship is both complex and co-dependent.
The book was inspired by a chase I went on in 2004. You can pay money to go on these "tornado tours" to see extreme weather up close. I did that and I thought, "this would make a great backdrop to a story."
Also, I didn't know if you knew—but Aggie was also inspired by true events.
I didn't know! Can you tell us a little bit more?
When I was in high school, a pregnant goth student was elected homecoming queen. The school administration burned the ballots and put a pretty, popular girl on the throne instead. This happened my junior year, and my dad was my principal at the time. He was embroiled in the scandal, which made national headlines. My dad lost his job over the whole thing…Aggie is definitely fiction, but the ways in which she figures out that leadership and parenting aren't always black and white are certainly things I personally discovered.
What does your father think of Aggie?
He loves the book. At first, it was tough for him to hear that I was writing about it. I think he thought it would just be dredging up this painful past. But he was so pleased with how it came out—the issues it explored and how Aggie is forced to grow through the whole thing—and I know we are both grateful it afforded us the opportunity to talk about what had happened. Would you believe it, we never had before I started writing the book. Maybe it's a Midwestern thing—you just smile and nod and pretend everything is fine, just fine. It was great to finally have a chance to honestly discuss what went down all those years ago.
Vicky Smith is the children's and YA editor at Kirkus.