Lisa McMann spills the beans

I’ve ‘known’ Lisa McMann for about four years I suppose. We ‘met’, as I’ve ‘met’ so many writers, at the Zoetrope Virtual Studio and one of the first things I noticed about her was her positive nature.

Writing tends to attract people who are either vulnerable or overly sensitive, in somewhat larger numbers than other areas of interest – and Lisa was notable for being well-balanced, hard-working and generous. And a good writer. Never forget, if you’re aiming to make a career from writing, that it’s tough to be friends with people who are bad writers. I say that very sincerely – if you don’t fall out with them about their writing, they will fall out with you because they envy your success. Pick your friends with care, and your writer friends with neurotic precision. I’ve been lucky with most of my choices, because believe me, when they ask you to read something and you think it’s sub-par, there’s no easy way of saying it.

I’ve never read anything sub-par by Lisa, and in fact, her YA novel, WAKE, available through every good bookstore and via Amazon, of course, is currently on the NYT children’s bestseller list. And I read it at a sitting: it rip-roars, it really does. Faintly spooky, wise-cracking, fast-paced and funny, this is a book that my own teen is actually reading from choice, and he hasn’t done that since he was eleven!

So I asked Lisa some writerly questions:

1. How did you get into writing Young Adult novels?

It was by accident, though I look back now and think it should have been obvious to me all along. The first novel I wrote (practice novel #1, I like to call it now) was an historical novel and the main characters were teenagers. But because of the subject matter (the Holocaust) and that these teens were sort of thrust into adult-hood, it seemed to me like a book for adults. When others read it, though, they said “this is a great YA!” And I was like, “YA? It’s for adults.” Now I look back and shake my head – I didn’t see it. And I remember all the books I loved to read when I was a bookseller. YA novels held a special place in my heart and they still do. It’s no wonder the niche is right for me.

2. What’s the best thing about targeting this readership, for you?

Well, it seems to me that YA actually has two readerships – teens, and adults-who-love-YA. The teens I love because they are so brutally honest. And so willing to try a new book (and then email the author to tell her how she SHOULD HAVE written it, heehee). I love targeting the adults who read YA because of the challenge – they tend to know what they like and it takes a bit more to convince them to try a mild paranormal like WAKE when they really only read realistic YA, for instance. I like the challenge. It’s especially rewarding when I hear from someone who says, “I wouldn’t normally have picked up something like this, but I loved it.”

3. Do you ‘road test’ your YA credibility on test readers? If not, how do you go about making sure your book fits with a young adult culture which moves so fast?

I have a few teens that read for me. My son (14) is really helpful with this WAKE series – he keeps me up on the lingo, and my daughter (11) has read some of my other work that’s aimed at younger audiences (yet unpublished). I also really value the opinions of other YA authors and non-writer friends who love to read.

Also, when I speak at high schools, I ask the students what their favourite “Urban Dictionary” words are. Sometimes when I travel I pick up regional colloquialisms as well.

4. You’ve had fantastic success in reaching out to your target audience: do you think this is something that writers need to think more about, or is ‘the book’ still the only thing that matters?

‘The book’ matters, but if it’s not picked up as a lead title for the publisher, and if the author doesn’t have a built-in platform or existing fan base, the fate of that book (in my humble opinion) rests in the author’s hands. The more an author can do to reach out to that target audience, the more books he’ll sell. And yeah, sometimes the tedium of selling one book/reaching one fan at a time doesn’t seem worthwhile…I’m proof that it is. I started my Myspace page about ten months before WAKE came out, and I went out and found new friends that seemed like they’d like my book. And when WAKE came out, I can say that hundreds of these Myspace friends have bought the book. Some people might say, big whoop – a few hundred copies. But it’s the word of mouth that comes from those few hundred readers that sells books. It’s very important to look at the big picture and realize what you do now to get the word out will affect your sales down the road.

5. What’s the one mistake you made, when starting out as a writer, that still haunts you?

Probably thinking that literary writing was “better” than commercial writing. I admit I was a snob. That’s what I learned in creative writing classes – that, and about twenty gazillion rules that I had to unlearn before I could become a better writer. I think that’s really a shame. Too many writers wear a cloak of rules so heavy it makes their writing stilted. We get caught up in the tiny things and forget to let ourselves off the hook and just write.

I’m glad I pulled my head out of my arse (well, in this area, anyway) and realized that good writing can be commercial. And let’s face it – it’s hella easier to sell commercial work than it is to sell literary work. The audience is tremendously larger. Writing well and writing commercially are not mutually exclusive. Also, having a breakneck plot with well-rounded characters is achievable and ENJOYABLE. One doesn’t have to be a starving writer in order to feel fulfilled in this profession. So, to answer your question, it doesn’t exactly haunt me, but I do regret that I once had such a view. Some folks have a term for people like me — a sell-out. I don’t mind if they think that. All I care about is that I love what I do.

6. What advice would you give somebody who is thinking of becoming a YA novelist?

Read YA novels. At least, like, fifty of them. The variety is amazing, and since YA age group is categorized anywhere from ages 11 – 25, think about your target age group, because the space between ages 12 and 15 is about as big as the Grand Canyon. Also, please stop making up rules for “what is okay for YA.” Anything goes, and if you don’t know that, you haven’t read enough YA. Author Scott Westerfeld* says something like, Anything goes in YA except bestiality and boring. And if you have to have one, make it bestiality.

7. Is there a different approach to writing for each of the different fields you’ve succeeded in – for example, how does Lisa McMann approach writing a YA thriller compared to writing the winning Templeton Prize story?

Definitely a different approach. I spent a very long time agonizing over each word of the “Day of the Shoes” story – something that’s necessary with short stories and flash. And while words are very important in novels as well, each word holds less power individually. So yes, the approach is different but more because of the length of the work rather than the subject matter. Too, the short story cried out for a melodious flow of words, and WAKE is very different from that in style. WAKE is much quicker, more abrupt and mysterious. Faster paced. I like that variety. Keeps things interesting.

8. If you were abandoned on a desert island, with just one book for company, what would it be?

The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver. Or the full set of Harry Potters (that should count as one book, I think).

*(Lisa says, ‘apologies to Scott if I’ve mis-quoted – my Google safe-search didn’t like that word, apparently, so I couldn’t locate the exact quote and am going from memory. And yes, that was me Google-searching your name along with bestiality, but only in a good way, I swear…’)


  1. Melissa Walker
    30th April 2008

    Love the comments on literary vs. commercial–so true! I’m having fun in commercial, too, Lisa!

  2. Julie Ann Shapiro
    1st May 2008

    Oh, this interviews rocks. I love the comments on literary vs. commercial. Something to ponder, that’s for certain.

  3. Zen of Writing
    1st May 2008

    “Writing well and writing commercially are not mutually exclusive.”

    I agree. So why do the universities teach otherwise? It just leads to a lack of readership for “literary” work and the dumbing down of popular work.

  4. Quillers
    1st May 2008

    Excellent interview. Thanks Kay and Lisa for sharing your thoughts with us. I’ve linked to this from my blog where I fight the good fight against the literary v commercialism thing and try to show people that there’s honour in writing either.

  5. Lisa McMann
    2nd May 2008

    Thanks for the comments, all, and to you, dear Kay, for the interview.


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