How do you talk about a story so shrouded in secrecy, its own heroine doesn’t know what’s going on? Here’s what we do know: The characters in E. Lockhart’s 10th novel are members of a privileged American family. We know that a private island is involved, on which both intense friendship and romance bloom. But anything else we think we know could be a lie.
Fortunately, Lockhart, author of the 2009 Printz Honor-winning The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, is willing to tiptoe through some of the details.
We Were Liars is told from the point of view of 17-year-old Cadence Sinclair Eastman, when she returns to the island off the coast of Cape Cod where she and her family—and one special friend—spend every summer. But “summer seventeen” is marred by questions surrounding a mysterious accident that occurred two years ago, leaving Cady with unexplained injuries, including chronic migraines and selective amnesia. Why did she go swimming by herself the night of the accident? Why are her aunts and cousins acting so strangely? And what dark secrets lie beneath her family’s proud exterior?
It’s no surprise that Lockhart is good at keeping secrets, as her real name is Emily Jenkins. (“Lockhart” was her grandmother’s maiden name.) She has written several children’s books and two adult books using her real name, but has found something special writing for teens.
“I really like being a member of the young adult fiction community,” Lockhart tells BookPage from her home in the New York City area. “There are issues around which the community galvanizes: literacy issues and freedom of speech issues. I never found that kind of public-minded dialogue and enterprise in my short time in the adult fiction world. As a maker of literature, or a writer or artist . . . as a person, it was a much better fit than anything I had done before.”
In her latest YA novel, We Were Liars, the suspense-laden narrative is interrupted by flashbacks and snippets of fairy tales such as “Beauty and the Beast,” elements that gradually become more connected to the main story.
“All of the fairy tales begin, ‘Once upon a time there was a king who had three beautiful daughters,’ ” Lockhart says. “I took a lot of those fairy tales and used them, and variations of them, to tell the story of this family.”
Although no actual royalty lives on Beechwood Island, the Sinclair family patriarch, Cady’s grandfather, fills a parallel role. His three beautiful daughters compete for his affection—and for the best parts of his inheritance. As the fairy-tale daughters profess their love and ask for gifts, the Sinclair daughters turn to increasingly desperate tactics to claim the island’s choicest sections for themselves. And as unsuitable suitors find their way into the fairy tales, Cady also finds herself in love with a boy of whom her grandfather intensely disapproves.
"You’re seeing more YA books that are influenced by postmodernism, in a playful, fun way. Young people love it—they’re ready to go forward with a new narrative device.”
As her mother and aunts squabble for their share, Cady struggles to fill in the missing pieces of summer fifteen. Flashbacks provided a challenge to Lockhart, both in terms of their content and their placement within the primary narrative. “Those could be moved and then reworked depending on where they settled. Those were rearranged many, many, many times,” Lockhart says. Readers will undoubtedly want to revisit Cady’s reminiscences, looking for clues as to what really happened that fateful summer.
Cady’s debilitating migraines echo the real-life experiences of people Lockhart knows, forming an important aspect of her storytelling. “I was interested both in the way that chronic pain affects one’s sense of oneself, and the way it would feel to live a life where you’re often taken out of your own life story for days at a time—and then have to reinsert yourself into it.” Similarly, Cady’s pain forces her to periodically retreat from her own storyline.
Ever since Robert Cormier, an early pioneer of YA literature, penned I Am the Cheese in 1977, unusual narrative forms and unreliable narrators have found a welcome home in YA fiction. Cady’s narration both echoes and elaborates on this tradition.
“I think we’re seeing a lot of formal experimentation and play,” Lockhart says. “There are lots of hybrid novels, mixing graphic and traditional storytelling. . . . You’re seeing more YA books that are influenced by postmodernism, in a playful, fun way. Young people love it—they’re ready to go forward with a new narrative device.”
These shifting formats involve “asking a lot of the reader,” but that works fine with Lockhart’s conception of teens: “Readers [of YA lit] might be reading about, learning about or experiencing certain things for the first time. But that doesn’t mean disrespecting or devaluing their intellectual or emotional capabilities.”
For many teens, including Cady, summers constitute entire separate worlds, distinct from regular school-year life but every bit as meaningful. In fact, readers see so little of Cady’s school year that it almost seems not to exist. Only her summers, peppered with intense architectural and culinary detail, seem real.
Lockhart has an abiding interest in these sorts of immersive environments, ranging from her love of the eccentric, iconic NYC restaurant Jekyll & Hyde Club to wax museums. “They are creepy,” she admits. “But I like artificial environments and any kind of fictional spaces. There’s a story in every waxwork. I like the dioramas the best, where there’s a narrative being created. I like that mix of reality and unreality.”
Lockhart holds a doctorate in English literature and loves the connections between her academic work and writing for teens. She argues that both academia and fandom are valid ways to connect with literature. Reinterpretations of contemporary works, such as fan fiction, fan art, board games and video games, “are interpretations of popular texts that might say something different [from what] a classic college reading of those same texts would generate.”
In the end, Lockhart says, writing for teens is about “just trying to write the story and tell the story truthfully.” Truthfully? Well, maybe with a few lies thrown in here and there.
Jill Ratzan reviews for School Library Journal and works as a school librarian at a small independent school in New Jersey. She learned most of what she knows about YA literature from her terrific graduate students.
This article was originally published in the May 2014 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.