I’m so pleased to welcome one of my favorite authors to blog today! Laura Whitcomb’s writing is so gorgeous you can practically feel your soul lifting out of your body. We reviewed her latest book Under the Light last week, which is the thoughtfully rendered sequel to A Certain Slant of Light.
Today, Laura chats with us about how this sequel evolved, as well as the unusual way the story came to her. We’re also giving away two sets of both books in the series, so that readers who haven’t discovered these books yet will have a chance to read them!
Please help us welcome Laura to The Midnight Garden.
Q & A with Laura Whitcomb
How would you describe your Light series to someone who’s never read it?
In book one, ghosts fall in love and borrow the abandoned bodies of two teenagers so they can be together. In book two, the boy and girl, returned to their lives, unravel the mystery of what happened while they were out-of-body and fall in love in the process.
It’s been 8 years since A Certain Slant of Light was published. I don’t think most readers expected that there would be a sequel, since Helen’s story at least was pretty definitively wrapped up. And yet, there was Jenny. Did you always intend to write a follow-up book? I have to confess, the one qualm I had about the first book was that Helen’s choices left Jenny in such an untenable situation.
I never thought I’d write a sequel to ACSOL. Like all good ghost stories, it resolves a haunting. But then I gradually started to wonder what it would be like to be Jenny and to come back to my body after being away for weeks, not knowing anything I’d said or done. and to have the first thing that happens to me when I come back be that a boy I hardly know breaks down my door and shows me a photo of us together, in bed, looking happy. I also wondered where Jenny’s and Billy’s spirits went when they escaped their lives for a while. Eventually I had to write about them.
What took so long with Under the Light? We’ve been dying for it since it was first announced a few years ago!
Well, I wrote one version of the book, then I adopted a premature baby boy and had my hands full for a while, then, when he started sleeping longer than two hours at a stretch, I wrote a different version of the book, a much better one.
I won’t lie–the wait was agonizing, but it was worth the torment! What kind of research did you do for this series? Are there real places and anecdotes that you borrowed from your own life?
I didn’t need to do much research. A little on WWI for James’s flashback in ACSOL. I did loosely base the character of Mr. Brown on my best buddy during my teaching credential program – we were learning to be English teachers together. In ACSOL the character of Helen’s first host, The Saint, was a combination of Emily Dickinson and my grandmother who (among other things) wrote lovely poetry.
Also, in the first book I stole a conversation I had with some missionary friends in 1982 (in which I was trying to understand a much more conservative viewpoint than my own) and morphed it into the scene where Helen loses her temper at the women’s group meeting. In Under the Light I borrowed an incident from my girlhood—the boy I had a crush on from second grade through eighth grade came to my aid once when we were thirteen – I was waiting for the bus with my cardboard model of a house. Another boy said it looked stupid and my guy said, “No, it doesn’t!” Be still my heart! I changed it up a bit and let Billy defend Jenny in a remembered moment from their junior high years.
I loved The Saint–it’s lovely to hear the inspiration behind that character. How did such an unusual ghost story come about? Do you have your own Helen as a Muse to your Mr. Brown?
I don’t know if I have a Muse–sometimes things do come into my head as if from somewhere else. But I remember exactly how I came to start writing ACSOL. I was doing housework while listening to an audio book of an Anne Rice novel in which a vampire who lived in a previous century was commenting on the modern world in an antiquated voice. I thought, “I like that. I’d like to do that. But you don’t have to be a vampire to be displaced in time. You could be a ghost.” I started writing the opening scene of my book not knowing whether it would be a novel or a short story. I had no plan at first. But a voice in me, whenever I was tempted to doubt myself, kept saying, “Just write this story. Don’t worry about anything else.” Maybe that was my Muse!
Wow, that’s quite a way for a book to begin! I can see the connective thread, with Helen’s voice being so present and strong, even though she starts out the story with no physical form.
Your writing is so beautiful–it’s subtle and strong, witty and serious, gentle and fierce, deep and light, with lovely shading in between all that. I’m curious if you have a background in literature or education? There is a measured quality to your words that is unusual, particularly in young adult fiction.
Thank you for those kind words about my writing style. I do have an English degree and was a language arts teacher for a bit, but my writing voice was probably formed, for the most part, before I became an English major. I’m sure I was influenced by the books I read, and the ones read to me, when I was young. My mother read me British children’s novels like Peter Pan, the Chronicles of Narnia, George MacDonald stories of goblins and princesses, and E. Nesbit’s books about sand fairies and flying carpets. My grandmother read me The Secret Garden, A Child’s Garden of Verses, and fairytales from around the world. And so I graduated to authors like Mary Stewart, Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, and Daphne du Maurier. Later the Bronte sisters and Austen. Oh, yes, I almost forgot that it was probably not a coincidence that after seeing my first live Shakespeare play (“As You Like It”) and falling in love with Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet, I started my first attempt at a novel during the summer between ninth and tenth grades. I would be thrilled if I thought my writing was in any way a reflection of the works of these beloved writers.
It’s very heartening that a publisher was bold enough to take a chance on this story. There are many mature themes, and it’s definitely not the typical ghost story, in terms of plot or mood. Was ACSOL always intended as a young adult novel? Did you worry about whether teens would connect with it? Of course, there are now a lot of adult readers of YA fiction, too.
I didn’t know whether ACSOL was an adult book or not. At first I assumed it would be like Janet Fitch’s White Oleander, an adult novel with a young adult protagonist. And my agent wasn’t sure whether it was YA or not either. She sent it to editors of both adult and young adult lit and it sold to YA. I asked her, when I heard of Houghton Mifflin’s offer, “Is it okay that it has sex and some language in it?” And she assured me that yes, YA fiction was different “now” than when she and I were in high school. And the sex and the four letters word were not the things my editor had me change. I would not give the first book to a 12-year-old. Or at least not most 12-year-olds. I’d say 14 and up would be safer.
Definitely depends on the YA reader, I think. What are some of your favorite young adult books?
I’m embarrassed to say that I have had very little time to read since my son was born so I’m dreadfully behind on current YA fiction, but some of my favorites overall are:
To Kill a Mockingbird*
Catcher in the Rye*
A Separate Peace*
The Crystal Cave*
The Princess Bride*
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy*
A Wrinkle in Time
and more recently read . . .
The Harry Potter series
The Alphabet of Dreams
The Dark Materials trilogy
A Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
One for Sorrow
(*didn’t used to be considered YA but have been re-classified in some circles)
I love the way the romantic relationships are written in your books, too. There’s a certain courtly, perhaps old-fashioned manner, coupled with very passionate, joyous feelings. Did you deliberately set out to write a love story that was so different from others on the market?
Again I am embarrassed to say that I was completely out of touch with what was/is in the YA market. I hadn’t been reading much YA fiction since the early 80s when I discovered the Wrinkle in Time books and the Austin series by Madeleine L’Engle. I just let the love story between Helen and James develop the way I thought it would if a young woman who died in the 1870s or so and a young man who’d died in WWI, and who were gifted with young bodies, were thrown together. I guess it was a bit unusual. I am lucky that my agent and ACSOL’s editor clicked with the story and that its fans have been so enthusiastic.
Well, there’s something to be said for writing in your own world and not paying attention to market trends, I think. There’s a reflective quality of your books that’s very appealing, and they seem timeless and somehow untouched by the modern world, even though the passions and intellect in them are very strong. What do you find romantic yourself?
If the attraction is just physical, I’m not interested. It’s when people fall in love because of what they observe in the other person—the way that person treats other people, the way he or she thinks, believes, stands up for what is right—that kind of glimpse into a character’s soul is what interests me. And when the lovers see the flaws and wounds in each other and they love all the deeper for it, that’s what excites me.
Ahhh. And you’ve just described exactly what’s so appealing about the romance in your own books–and what’s most appealing about romance in real life, too. Is there any further news on the ACSOL film? I know the rights were sold to one of the producers of The Departed awhile back. I’d be interested in seeing what they do with such an unusual story.
Kristin Hahn optioned ACSOL and wrote her own script for it, then sold her screenplay, In the Flesh, to Summit Entertainment (of the Twilight movies) and they picked up my option. That’s all I know at the moment. I would love them to make a great film out of my story.
Are you working on any future projects that you’re able to share with us?
I am now writing the first book in a trilogy, a love story with fairy lore content. I hope it turns out as good as it is in my head.
Oh, that sounds lovely! We’re looking forward to hearing more about that when you’re ready. Thanks so much for joining us here today, Laura. Do come back and visit anytime!
Win A Certain Slant of Light + Under the Light!
Thanks to our friends at Houghton Mifflin, we’re giving away TWO sets of the Light series to our readers. (A Certain Slant of Light in paperback, Under the Light in hardback.) Please, please be sure you’ve read reviews of the novels–we want to make sure they go to appreciative readers.
If you think that’s you (heh!), please leave a thoughtful comment below telling us what interests you about this series, and fill out the Rafflecopter form. (Note: the unfeeling Rafflecopter gods randomly pick the winners, but we do check comments to see what was written and have final say.) You may also earn additional entries for tweeting about the contest, etc. as usual.
This contest is now open internationally to readers aged 18 and up, or 13 and up with parental permission.; complete rules are on entry form. Good luck!
a Rafflecopter giveaway
About the Author
Laura Whitcomb grew up in Pasadena, California in a mildly haunted house. She received her English degree at California State University at Northridge in 1993. She has taught Language Arts in California and Hawaii. She has won three Kay Snow Awards and was once runner up in the Bulwer-Lytton writing contest for the best first sentence of the worst Science Fiction novel never written. In her spare time she sings madrigals with the Sherwood Renaissance Singers and is the props mistress for the Portland Christmas Revels. She lives in Wilsonville, Oregon, with her son Robinson.
Our thanks to HMH Kids for providing the books for this giveaway. Photos appear courtesy of the author.