Interview with LAUREN MCLAUGHLIN
I grew up in the small town of Wenham Massachusetts. After college and a brief stint in graduate school, I spent ten years writing and producing movies before abandoning my screen ambitions to write fiction full time. Though I fondly remember much of my time in Massachusetts—the marina, the beach, various teenage escapades—I cannot, for the life of me, remember my SAT scores, my GPA, or any of the numbers that once summed me up.
What are you reading right now?
I'm reading Junot Diaz's THIS IS HOW YOU LOSE HER. I adored THE BRIEF WONDROUS LIFE OF OSCAR WAO and have enjoyed some of his shorts. The weird thing about this new book is that I actually already part of it in the New Yorker. The New Yorker's strange that way. They seem to like printing shorts by current literary favorites who have new novels out. I think they did that with Zadie Smith recently. It's almost like they're publishing book trailers. At any rate, I just love Diaz's use of language. It's all extremely conversational and idiomatic without ever being cloying. And the Spanglish is wonderful for me because I used to speak the language really well.
What first sparked your interest in writing?
I can't remember a time when I wasn't writing. I wrote my first poem at age 7 and basically never stopped. I switched from poetry to screenplays in my early twenties, then to fiction in my early thirties. I pretty much always have several stories going in my head. It's useful when I'm trapped in a boring conversation with someone. I can just keep nodding and smiling while disappearing into a more interesting world. Every once in a while I get caught doing it though, which is always socially mortifying.
What do you love the most about writing? The least?
What I love most about writing is falling in love with my characters. At some point in the process they become startlingly real. I begin to care about them as if they were friends (troubled friends always). I begin to feel a sense of responsibility to them. Which brings me to the worst part of writing, which is the heavy responsibility of completing a project in such a way that the initial spark isn't snuffed out by all the mechanics of rewriting. Things can and do go wildly awry during the writing process and the majority of my time is spent trying to get things back on some kind of track. Each novel should feel like a journey. The reader doesn't necessarily have to know where they're headed, but once they get there, they have to believe it was worth the ride.
Tell us a little about your writing process.
It's constantly changing. I used to do a lot of very detailed outlining, but the outline rarely survived the first chapter of the first draft. For my latest, I scrapped the outline and just took off for points unknown. At the end of each chapter, I asked myself, "If I were a reader, what would be the most thrilling thing to happen next?" I had a vague sense of where I wanted to end up, but by the time I got there, the novel had become something very different from its initial inspiration. This led to tons and tons of painful rewriting, a slog-fest from which I am only now beginning to emerge. I'm still in search of The Perfect Process. So is every writer. If you find it, please tell me. In the meantime, I shall resign myself to a life of slogging through rewrites.
What are your passions?
Besides writing, I love to dance, especially swing dancing. I'm an avid runner. I love baking. I throw lots of parties and enjoy having as active a social life as my writing schedule and three-year-old daughter will allow. I'm passionate about people. They fascinate me. I love meeting new people and getting to know familiar ones more deeply.
What inspires you?
People inspire me. Especially people who overcome difficulties. I'm inspired by people who work twice as hard as I have ever had to work in order to get half as far in life. I'm inspired by what I see as a dangerous trend toward massive income inequality in the U.S. I'm inspired by technology, which has the capacity to empower people but also to subjugate them.
Why science fiction?
I can't live in the future, but by writing science fiction, I get to participate in it somehow. I love imagining the ways in which today's technology will mutate into something unfamiliar and even scary. Thinking about these things challenges us by pointing out our prejudices. For example, with SCORED, I wanted to imagine what would happen if everyone (or almost everyone) embraced ubiquitous surveillance. I was already familiar with the critique of ubiquitous surveillance, but what I kept seeing was an unmistakable trend of more and more surveillance all the time. At the same time, I was not seeing an increase in the numbers of people complaining about it. As anyone who reads my book will know, I believe that we are inviting a surveillance state. I wanted to explore what that might look and feel like from within.
Why young adult?
Teenagers are great readers. They have few literary prejudices. They haven't yet settled into any genre loyalties. They'll read SF, fantasy, horror, romance, biography. You name it. This frees up writers who don't have to worry about blurring or crossing any genre conventions. I think if SCORED came out as an adult SF book, SF fandom would complain about the lack of hard core technological specifics in it. They have certain expectations based on the majority of books in the genre. It can start to feel like a bit of an echo chamber and I didn't want to be in it. I wanted no limitations whatsoever on what I wrote. In Young Adult you have that freedom. The only real limitation is the age of the protagonists. But I love writing about teens because they don't have any psychological baggage yet either. They're still in the process of inventing themselves. This is much more exciting to me than writing about adults.
How was CYCLER born?
CYCLER began its life as a screenplay. I don't honestly remember how the initial idea was born. Perhaps it had something to do with the fact that I grew up as a tomboy. In fact, when I was about seven or eight years old I remember telling people: "I'm not a girl. I'm not a boy. I'm a tomboy." I actually believed this was a separate gender and that you could choose it if you wanted to. I think what I liked about the tomboy identity was that it had no limitations. At least in my mind. I could climb trees and get dirty. And I could also do gymnastics and cheerleading. In my mind, there was absolutely no incongruity between these two things. I must have been starting to sense the encroaching limitations of society's rules about gender. That's probably what made me so militant in my self-identity. With CYCLER I wanted to explore what would happen to a girl who desperately wanted to conform to society's rules about gender, but couldn't because her own body kept betraying her. That's what we do with protagonists. We ask "what's the worst thing that could happen," then we make that happen and watch them squirm. It's cruel, really.
How was SCORED born?
I was living in a rough neighborhood of London on a street where cars were constantly having their windows smashed in. On the same day that I noticed there hadn't been any smashed windows for a while, I also noticed a bunch of new surveillance cameras. The thieves had gotten wise. They'd simply moved on to a different street with no surveillance cameras. The take home message was clear: install cameras everywhere and you'll eliminate theft. This was a lightbulb moment for me because I realized I liked having those surveillance cameras there. They made me feel safe. That's when I got really scared because I realized that ubiquitous surveillance would come to us, not through coercion by an overzealous government or an overreaching corporation, but by invitation.
Do you consider SCORED a possible future in reality or a fictional “what if”?
I think the world of SCORED is already a reality. We just haven't gone whole hog yet. Education is already reduced to test prep in many places. There's certainly no trend toward reducing the number of cameras in schools. If anything, they're increasing. I don't think it's possible to predict the future accurately, but I don't see any shift in the cultural trends of surveillance and high stakes testing away from the dystopian vision of SCORED. If anything we're moving closer to it.
Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?
The most important thing for an aspiring writer is to read a lot and write a lot. Whoever you are - and no matter how talented - you're going to write a ton of rubbish. Successful writers know how to wade through that and spin it into gold. It's about time served, words typed, drafts completed. There's no way to do it but to sit there and write. A lot. When you've finished something and you've sent it off to editors, agents, your writing group, your teacher, or what have you, start writing something new. It'll be better than what you've just written. Repeat ad nauseam. If you're lucky, you'll get published, and then your troubles really begin.