Award-winning author Laurie Halse Anderson talks about the difficult and healing process of writing her new memoir, SHOUT, her hope for the future of YA literature, her advice for today’s teens and more.
How did you decide to write this memoir in verse? Did it allow you more freedom to explore certain memories or emotions than prose?
I conceived SHOUT on a trip to New York City in late 2017. The #MeToo movement (started by Tarana Burke in 2006) was gaining visibility and generating both support and push-back. The criticism of the survivors coming forward infuriated me. Lines of poetry boiled up from somewhere very deep inside and I scribbled them down. That was when I knew that a) I had to write this book and b) I wanted it to be in verse.
Writing in verse allows for a more visceral experience, which made it the perfect form for my raw and intense subject matter.
How did you decompress and practice self-care while writing this memoir, which delves into some very difficult subjects?
I took a lot of very long walks, usually listening to an audiobook. (Being able to borrow audiobooks from my library with the Libby app has changed my life!) I also gave myself permission to grieve. Writing SHOUT brought up old pain, but it also gave me perspective on why I made some bad choices when I was a kid. Reexamining those years left me awash in gratitude for all the people who tried to love me when I was so broken.
Was there any part of this writing process that surprised you?
The poem “calving iceberg” gutted me. It tells of moving into my university dorm room after living at home and attending community college. Writing it dredged up oceans of painful feelings—I never moved home after this move, and we all knew that was the plan—of loss and sadness. I had packed those feeling away so securely that unleashing them came as a shock.
The other unexpected thing was that writing this book has allowed me to enjoy the music of my teens and 20’s. I’ve always been able to listen to a song or two (hello, Fleetwood Mac and Boston), but listening to entire albums or playlists were uncomfortable. Now I understand why; too much of the music carried unresolved sorrow. Working on SHOUT helped transmute the sorrow into compassion and gave me back lots of great music.
What advice do you have for young adults who might be struggling right now with the current social and political climate?
Thank you for caring! Your commitment to each other and to a healthier culture, with equal justice, opportunities and respect for all gives me life. Revolutions are always bloody and usually led by the young, but you have the most at stake. Stay true to your cause, build your communities of kindred spirits, and take care of each other, please. Together, we will make the world better for everyone.
You’ve made a name for yourself by challenging the kinds of stories that we open up for young adults. What are your thoughts on the genre today, which is now one of the biggest segments of publishing?
It’s fabulous to see more writers of color and LGBTQIA writers being published, though we have far to go in the publishing industry in terms of representation. The boundary between YA and adult literature has become porous, which benefits all readers. I believe YA thrives because it examines the critical development point where so many of us stumble: adolescence. Once you can make peace with the events of your teens, you usually become a happier person. I suspect YA lit will be a dominant segment of publishing for quite a while.
Your debut novel, Speak, just had its 20th anniversary. Do you think we're finally at a cultural tipping point in terms of how we talk about sexual assault and consent?
We’re at the tipping point in terms of beginning to have these conversations. Beginning. I’m still hearing from high school teachers who want to teach Speak, but have to deal with parents who refuse to let their kids read a book about sexual violence. I talk to female survivors of rape who—when they disclosed their assault to family and friends—were greeted with “What were you wearing?” and “Did you lead him on?”
But we have start somewhere, right? I’m grateful for the progress we’ve made and am impatient for much, much more.
What are some of your other favorite memoirs that young adult readers would enjoy?
There are so many great ones!
Parkland Speaks: Survivors from Marjory Stoneman Douglas Share Their Stories, Sarah Lerner, ed.
Spinning by Tillie Walden
The Butterfly Mosque: A Young American Woman’s Journey to Love and Islam by G. Willow Wilson
Smoke Gets In Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory by Caitlin Doughty
Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson
All You Can Ever Know by Nicole Chung
The Beautiful Struggle: A Father, Two Sons and an Unlikely Road to Manhood by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Being Jazz: My Life as a (Transgender) Teen by Jazz Jennings
Darkroom: A Memoir in Black and White by Lila Quintero Weaver
Educated by Tara Westover
The Reason I Jump: The Inner Voice of a Thirteen-Year-Old Boy with Autism by Naoki Higashida
Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body by Roxane Gay
Sex Object: A Memoir by Jessica Valenti
Hey Kiddo: How I Lost My Mother, Found My Father, and Dealt With Family Addiction by Jarrett J. Krosoczka
Ordinary Hazards: A Memoir by Nikki Grimes (coming 10/8/19)
What project are you working on next?
I’ve just finished up a graphic novel about Wonder Woman for DC Comics that will be published in 2020. I’m juggling a couple of secret projects right now, but I can’t talk about them until they’re further developed. Stay tuned!
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of SHOUT.
Author photo by Randy Fontanilla.