Dinner with Lauren McLaughlin
Interview by Devin Poore
to the sound of “Haitian Fight Song” by Charles Mingus…
As published in Sybil’s Garage No. 5
Lauren McLaughlin is one of the new breed of authors who delve into the realms of Young Adult fiction. Young Adult has become a hot commodity recently with the obvious success of J.K. Rowling, Phillip Pullman, and many other authors who choose those of adolescent years for their subject matter and audience.
Lauren is a survivor of the film industry, a former Sybil’s Garage editor and contributor, and a member of the Altered Fluid writing group. Her short fiction has appeared in Sybil’s Garage, Interzone and Salon.com. She has recently completed her first novel, Cycler, which will be published by Random House in the fall of 2008. She is currently working on the sequel, Cycler-2, and the screenplay for Cycler.
My “significant other,” choreographer Kristen Mangione, and I had dinner with Lauren and her husband, photographer Andrew Woffinden, and discussed… well, everything. It was a table full of artists, after all. Afterwards Lauren and I collaborated to boil-down the writer-related topics, which I’ve compiled here. —Devin Poore
You started out writing screenplays and then moved onto fiction. Did you start with novels or short fiction first? And if short fiction, why?
I started with writing a novel, but found I had to “unlearn” most of what I had learned while writing screenplays. I then tried short fiction as a way to get my name out there, and fell in love with the form. Quickly my ideas became unmanageable in that form, though, as I could not resolve them in the word limitations of the medium. My last short story was twelve-thousand words long, and there is no market for a story that length.
You fared fairly well with your short stories, though, selling a couple of them to large markets like Salon.com and Interzone. In the end do you believe that helped with getting your novel picked up and securing an agent?
I think my small successes in short fiction were useful in attracting editors to my novels. One editor, in particular, approached me after my story, “The Perfect Man” appeared in Salon. But not a single one of those editors ever acted. By that, I mean they neither rejected nor made an offer. In fact, they don’t even return my emails. So, in sum, I’d have to say that writing short fiction had absolutely no impact on selling my novel. To be honest, I became quite disenchanted with the novel submission process until I met my current agent, Jill Grinberg.
As for the usefulness of short stories to a writer’s career, I think it has to be artistic rather than opportunistic. You should write short stories because you love them. They have their own merit. There are things you can only do in a short story. Sadly, they do not reach the size of audience that a novel can reach, but I think they do impact their readership very strongly. People who love short stories, really love short stories.
From a bystander’s point of view, it seems you went from writing short stories, to having a novel ready, to picking up an agent, to getting a major book deal quickly. Seemingly within a matter of weeks. What was that like?
I quit my movie job in January of 2001 to begin writing fiction. I sold my novel Cycler in February of 2007. In the intervening six years I wrote two other novels and twenty or so short stories only three of which ever sold. So it definitely doesn’t feel like an overnight success to me. It feels like a long overdue break. But then, I’m impatient like that.
You mentioned that during the writing process it’s good to have a community of peers, like your former writers group Altered Fluid, or your new contemporaries in the YA field.
As a member of Altered Fluid it wasn’t merely the critiques, which were extremely helpful, and the writing tempo that really is above and beyond what almost all other writing groups have, but the shared experiences of colleagues that are going through the same things in the industry with submitting, editing, seeking out representation, etc. The community aspect is most valuable.
Talk about the process of writing. Do you enjoy longhand, typing, or other means of getting the words on the page/screen?
I had visions of writing Cycler by walking about Southstreet Seaport and dictating it into a tape recorder. At the end of the day I’d play that tape into a computer which would use voice recognition to put it all in a file, and then I would manually do line edits. The technology simply isn’t there, though.
Long hand writing and edits do indeed slow down the entire process and give your mind time to think of aspects that simply would not occur with the speed of editing on a computer.
Do you outline at all?
Initially I outline, I find that it helps to organize my thoughts, but once I start writing the outline goes to pot. I planned out Cycler-2, but the characters just refuse to follow the outline. After I begin writing, an outline is just a vain attempt to impose an order that just won’t hold.
How has the fact of a paid deadline altered any of your writing processes?
Other than the nagging sense of doom and failure, it’s had almost no impact. I basically try to forget about the deadline and just write. Thankfully, I’m writing faster and faster all the time, averaging about 3500 words a day. My deadlines, so far, have all been quite manageable. I’ve met writers who have to churn out whole novels in three months and that gives me the hives. I don’t think I could ever do that.
You have said that you are all about symmetry; you like to switch your mouse from left to right hand. You don’t like to play softball anymore because you’re limited to throwing with one hand. How does your need for symmetry translate into your writing?
There’s an inherent symmetry between the protagonist and antagonist, or at least there should be. A writer should love their antagonist as much as their protagonist so that both sides are well represented. I don’t believe in good and evil, but in misguided intention. As a writer, I take the main idea, the “good intentions” of the protagonist and develop a fully realized argument for the “bad intentions” of the antagonist. Only when both sides of the story are fully realized does the reader have the ability to make a conscious decision as to their loyalties to the characters.
Cycler deals with opposing ideas in that way, does it not, regarding gender?
Cycler has strong ideas of gender; how it can be a prison where we are all forced by society to choose sides. In context of the fully developed antagonist, I had to have a character that sees gender as only black and white, male and female, right and wrong. I came to really love the character even though I despise what she stands for because by putting my beliefs up against hers the entire argument of gender in the book was better developed. I was then able to explore gender, how it could be both male and female and neither male or female, and figure out a way to exist in a black and white, opposing, world.
Was the duality of your character(s) in Cycler a problem for you at all? There are those who would say that a man can not convincingly write about a woman’s experiences, and conversely a woman can not know what a man goes through enough to write of it. Am I correct in guessing those notions are entirely too simplistic and had no bearing on the writing of the book?
It takes a bit more than male anatomy and psychology to scare me away. I’ve written from the point of view of aliens, of sentient software programs, of religious fanatics, of anthropomorphized cultural entities, all of whom were vastly more different from me than a man. But I’d be lying if I said that writing from a male point of view is identical to writing from a female point of view. Especially in Cycler, which is very much about gender, I am exploring what it feels like to be male and female. And I had so much fun doing that. What I’ve always tried to shy away from is any notion of an essentialized maleness or femaleness. That’s one of the challenges of Cycler, exploring gender without bogging down in boring dualities.
Was the idea initially to write a YA novel due to the popularity of the subject matter, or was it the best way to deal with your subject of gender roles — to set it in the young adult life when we are becoming aware of “how we should act” based on our gender?
I never knew the category of YA existed until I started meeting science fiction writers who were suddenly being shelved in the YA section. I’m not an expert in publishing, but my sense is that it’s a new category. My original idea for Cycler dealt with the main characters at age twenty-five. But as soon as I started writing it I realized all the juicy identity stuff was being shoved into the backstory, so I simply backed up and wrote it from the teenagers’ points of view. In the movie version, I’ve backed it up even further to show the first day that the cycling began.
From what you have said it sounds as if simply telling a story is not enough for you.
Storytelling is the foundation of any good novel and I think it’s actually a very rare talent. Plenty of writers get by on killer premises and witty style. But effective storytelling is all about structure. It’s very mechanical, almost architectural. When you can marry that structure to a framework of ideas, then the novel can transcend pure entertainment. The trick, in my opinion, is to weave these ideas invisibly into the story so that they are discovered, unraveled by the reader. My goal is to seduce my reader into a compelling narrative that whittles away at some preconceived idea and leaves them with an uncomfortable but somehow intriguing gap in their sense of the world. I want them to close the book and have a head full of questions. I’m not interested in merely diverting them for a while or helping them fall asleep. Nor do I want that from the books I read. I want to be unsettled, challenged. I want to close a book and say “I never thought of that before.”
What else do you have planned beyond Cycler and its sequel? More YA books? Will you delve more into gender, or are there other themes you wish to explore?
I always have a backlog of projects itching to be realized. First in the queue is a novel called Steal the Future, which is about teens and surveillance. I’ve written the first draft, but it needs to be put through its paces. Next in line is my long-festering science fiction musical, Upload/Download, for which I’ve written about ten songs but have yet to bang out a script. I’m also toying with the idea of fleshing out my short story, “The Perfect Man,” into a screenplay. And I’ve just begun making notes for a post-apocalyptic teen adventure set in Brooklyn. The thing is, by the time, I’ve moved on to my next project, I’ll have hatched several more potential projects. Most of them never make it out of the larval stage. My hard drive is clogged with larvae.
And finally, what is the one question I did not ask you that I should have, that you thought “Wow, he really missed the point and should have asked this!”? (and of course, what’s your answer?)
I think you asked some great questions. The one question people always ask me that you omitted is: “Why did you quit the film business?” And my answer would be because it’s boring, trite, and nobody makes good movies any more.
For more information about Lauren & Cycler, visit:
Other interviews by Devin Poore:
A Conversation With Stephen Segal, Creative Director of Wildside Press
Devin Poore’s website:
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