History, Research, Romance and “Lies We Tell Ourselves”
Local author Robin Talley will be at the NoVA Teen Book Festival Saturday, March 7. You can get to know her in advance through an interview she did earlier this year on tumblr, with YA librarian Nico.
We are really excited to talk with Robin Talley, author of “Lies We Tell Ourselves.” Can you give us a quick description of your book?
It’s set in 1959 Virginia, and it’s about a black girl who’s one of the first to integrate an all-white high school and the white girl whom she slowly falls for.
This is a very specific time period in a very specific place. How did you decide to place this story there and then?
I grew up in Virginia, but I didn’t realize until I was an adult how complicated the school integration process had been in my home state, even though my parents lived through it. In the 1950s, there was intense resistance on the part of Virginia’s governor and other state leaders to the Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown v. Board of Education. The state went so far as to shut down entire schools for months at a time to prevent integration. They only gave up when a series of federal court rulings tied their hands and required that a tiny number of black students be admitted to all-white schools. When I realized that all this had happened only one or two generations back, and not so far from where I used to live, I knew I wanted to write about it. The first major school districts to integrate in Virginia did so on February 2, 1959, so for “Lies We Tell Ourselves“. I created a fictional Virginia town and characters but stuck with the historical timeline.
One of my favorite things about this book is how fully realized both Linda and Sarah are. They have very different things that motivate them and very different goals. How did you decide that these two girls would be your narrators?
Sarah was in my head from the very beginning. When I decided to take on this story, I knew I needed to focus on a girl who was extremely intelligent, strong and responsible, since she was going to be faced with such enormous obstacles. Linda was trickier. She was always there in my conception of the story ― in the early drafts, she was a minor villain ― but she didn’t rise to the level of co-narrator until I was already a few drafts in. She’d fascinated me from the start, though. I’d always wondered how there were people who were genuinely intelligent, but nonetheless held onto these abhorrent, fanatical views and believed them with all their hearts.
Basically from the first page of “Lies We Tell Ourselves,” you are building an overwhelming sense of tension as you keep reading intensifies in an amazing, un-put-downable way. You create some incredible stakes for your characters. Was it difficult to structure your writing to make this happen?
Thank you! And yes, it was difficult, because structure is always one of the hardest parts of writing. But to some degree, developing the structure for “Lies We Tell Ourselves“ wasn’t as much of a challenge as it has been with other books because the tension is built into the history. I didn’t have to come up with the stakes ― as I did the research, I realized everything was already there. The kids who first integrated public schools in the South really were putting their lives on the line so that kids who came after them would have better educational opportunities. It’s hard to come up with stakes that are much higher than that.
Your author’s note shares a little bit about the kind of research you did to make this book happen. Can you share some of your process for our readers? Was it difficult to get into the 1959 world view?
I did a big chunk of my research at the Arlington Central Library! It has a great Virginia room with a lot of historical resources. They also have old yearbooks from the Arlington area, so I could go back and look at yearbooks from the 1950s. That was fascinating and helped me to get a better sense of what day-to-day life was like for teenagers in this era (it wasn’t all bobby socks and “Happy Days”). I spent most of my research time, though, pouring over memoirs by the students who had lived through this, and watching interviews with them. It was hearing their stories that made “Lies We Tell Ourselves“ possible.
Sarah (and teenagers like her) were giving up their regular lives with old friends they’d had and teachers they knew and liked, in order to go to a high school where they were treated horribly, all for a greater cause. It’s extremely hard to read what happens to them at Jefferson High. Was it difficult to write about?
Yes. Yes. Yes. I cannot emphasize enough how difficult it was to write this book. This story occupies a very dark place in history, and the writing process reflected that. The one light at the end of the tunnel was that what these students went through served a greater purpose. School integration was the start of the slow but monumental process that ended legalized segregation was we knew it. It was a nearly unbearable experience for the people on the front lines, but the impact of what they did can’t be understated.
We’ve talked to some authors who write entire biographies of their characters before they start. Did you do any of this? Do you know what happens to Sarah and Linda after their book ends?
I do a lot of thinking and note-making about my characters during both the preparation and the drafting/revising process, but I don’t put together full biographies. I do have an idea of what I think happens to Sarah and Linda after the epilogue, but since there isn’t a sequel to “Lies We Tell Ourselves,” it’s really up to the readers to decide what they think happens!
Are there any YA books that you would recommend to fans of Lies We Tell Ourselves?
There are a number of great novels out there about school integration. “Fire From the Rock“ by Sharon Draper and “The Lions of Little Rock” by Kristin Levine (see our full review) are two that I really liked. For queer YA, my all-time favorite is “The Miseducation of Cameron Post” by emily m. danforth (see our full review).
Can you tell us about your next project?
Happily! Later this year my second book, “What We Left Behind,” will be coming out. It’s about one of those high school couples everyone hates because they have a perfect relationship, but now they’re going off to college and are about to be separated for the first time. Toni identifies as genderqueer and Gretchen identifies as a lesbian, and the story explores the strain on their relationship during their freshman year that comes from both the distance and Toni’s growing exploration of gender identity.
What has been your favorite part about being a YA author, so far?
Talking to YA readers! There’s such a passionate community focused on YA books, and I love talking to both teens and adults about all the awesome books that are out there.
Do you have any advice for our teens who want to be writers?
Read everything you can get your hands on, and write every chance you get. Every writer has to practice, practice, practice to get good, and the sooner you get started, the more practice you can get in. Don’t wait until you think you can write something perfect ― that day will never come. Just pick up your pencil or sit down at your keyboard and write some words, now!
Thanks for joining us Robin! If you’d like to keep up with Ms. Talley, you can find out what’s new on her website.
Check out our Teen Tumblr for more of our interviews with YA authors.