Laurie Halse Anderson on writing "outside of your lane": "Be prepared to do years of extra work"

Salon talks to the author of "Speak" and "Shout" about writing, trauma and PTSD, and Brett Kavanaugh

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published March 18, 2019 4:00PM (EDT)

 (Salon Talks)
(Salon Talks)

In her 1999 YA novel of teenage sexual assault and its aftermath, she wanted to "Speak." Now, two decades later, Laurie Halse Anderson is ready to "Shout." The Margaret A. Edwards award-winning author of "Fever, 1793," "Catalyst" and "Winter Girls" is celebrating the 20th anniversary of her literary breakthrough with a special anniversary edition of "Speak," as well as a timely new memoir in poetry. Anderson spoke to Salon recently about "cancel culture," Brett Kavanaugh, and why she loves the parents who want to censor her.

I read an interview that you did less than a year ago where you were talking about "Speak." You said, "I feel like 'Speak' should be retitled 'Shout.'" Then a little while later, you said on Twitter, "I got angry again." Here we are. This came together quickly.

I was actually working on "Shout" at the time of that interview. I wasn't sure that it was going to work, so I didn't want to talk about a new book when I was in the middle of something new, like a memoir told in poetry.

You had some stuff that was bubbling up.

Twenty years. For 20 years of simmering.

Twenty years ago, when "Speak" came out, was a huge surprise. I never thought it was going to be published. Then it was published and even more surprising, people responded to it quite nicely. I began to receive invitations to speak at schools all over the country. For 20 years, I've been listening to the stories of survivors because I have never given a presentation at a middle school, high school, college, bookstore, anywhere, where I haven't had at least one — and often many — survivors come up to me afterwards.

I've been absorbing all of these stories. What happened in October of 2017, as the next wave of the #MeToo movement began — remember, it started in 2006 with Tarana Burke — then the backlash started. And it was the backlash that lit the fire for this book because I was so incandescently angry.

It's sometimes hard to take that long view and see that we have moved forward in many significant ways but also, why are we still having these conversations? Why are we still fighting these fights? Thinking of just this past year, the Kavanaugh hearings, in the context of this story, your story, high school sexual abuse, accusations of sexual abuse, that culture around it. When you were watching that unfold last fall, what were you thinking?

I was restraining myself from throwing the television out the hotel window. As frustrating as this can be, it has created moments of incredible light and education. I was in Colorado and I spoke to a woman that weekend, and she was feeling very enraged during the hearings for Judge Kavanaugh.

She sat her 17-year-old son and her 15-year-old daughter down at the breakfast table and they were the first people that she disclosed to about her rape when she was 15 years old.

You had better believe that was a powerful moment for that family. I think that's the difference between 20 years ago and now. Twenty years ago, you had women of my generation who were confused and trying to figure this out. There was a little bit of a door opening. 1999 was the first time I ever saw survivors of sexual violence being willing to put their face on the cover of a magazine. They said, "No, don't shield our names. It is not our shame that we were assaulted. It is the shame of the person who attacked us." I think those of us who came through that year, now we're the next generation taking our place on judge benches, in policy making positions. Then we've had this younger generation that is way smarter than ours. And much more compassionate. They're now taking it the next step forward.

There is a part in this book, and I want to ask you about the choice to do it in poetry, the moment where you say, "That was me." Those three words.

I've been saying them for 20 years. I thought when they first sent me on the road, that I was supposed to talk about literary devices. No high school student wanted to hear about literary devices.

But they liked the book. And the book "Speak," it opened up conversations that we needed to have. Then the kids started to ask me my relation to the book and I realized that if I was going to talk about a book named "Speak," I had to have the integrity to speak up. The stories that you find in "Shout" about my father's PTSD, the pain that that caused our family, our struggles, and being a survivor of being raped at age 13, I've been talking about that for two decades now. It came time to put it in the form of a book.

You've been very open in your conversations, but to see it in print like that, it just made me gasp.

I think that is a sign of how disconnected we are from what goes on every single day. A woman is attacked every 90 seconds in America. Raped. Every 90 seconds. We all know many, many, many victims of sexual violence. Male, female, and people who identify outside the binary, right?

But we're just beginning to clear our throats and find the space, the brave space to say, "This happened to me." The more we can do that, the more we can then have honest conversations about how do we change a culture that allows this to happen.

I think that's it because when you read it on the page, you're reading it in your own voice. That's really powerful because it just becomes your story as well. So why did you choose the medium of poetry for this?

When I had my moment on 11th Avenue in October 2017, I was listening to a podcast about the misogynist backlash to what the women in Hollywood were saying about their own experiences with sexual violence. I was just so angry.

I've been writing poetry my whole life. My dad wrote poetry and so lines of poetry started to drop into my head. I started to type them furiously on my phone. I was walking up to the Javits Center. By the time I got to the Javits Center, I called my editor and I said, "You're not going to get that novel. I'm working on a memoir in poetry," which I'm sure just thrilled her. But she's quite supportive.

I think that there are two reasons that I wanted to do this in poetry. One is any kind of physical violence, that is a marrow experience. That is a trauma. Most people who experience any kind of physical violence develop PTSD and it's always there. So many people can identify with this.

When you're putting together a narrative that's in prose, there are a lot of words that don't come with hammers attached. But in a poem, you've a lot of hammers and also, in between poems in a book, there's a space for the reader to breathe and to sit with what they've just experienced in the poem. That's what I really wanted to create.

That is the effect. You go on this journey with you and then you come to this point in the middle where it happens.

What's been the response so far?

It's been pretty delightful. What's already really making my heart grow even bigger is hearing from people who've gotten early copies or who read some of the excerpts online who said, "That's my story and now I'm going to talk to this person." That's what my secret hope for this book is, that it will be shared. Come Mother's Day, let's all buy a copy for our moms and our aunties and our grandmoms and our daughters and have these conversations. You can have the conversation about the book without necessarily disclosing whatever happened in your past. But I think if we can all begin to talk about this, I have total confidence that we can make even more changes.

You're talking about open conversations and trying to move the dialogue forward and yet, "Speak" has been a challenged book for 20 years. It is a book that a lot of people have tried to stop from being part of the conversation. You're constantly on the ALA lists. That's an exciting distinction for an author to have, no doubt.

My daddy used to tell me that whenever anybody attempts to censor my book, I should write them a thank you note because it creates a lot of publicity, and my dad was all about the sales.

Why do you think that is? What is it that is so scary?

I used to get really angry when people tried to censor my books because I took it quite personally. Now, I've actually learned to really love the parents who are so confused and frightened that they think that censoring the book will protect their children. They love their kids as much as you and I love our kids.

Nobody's ever talked to them about things like healthy sexuality or sexual violence. When I see a parent trying to censor a book, what I see the parent is really trying to censor is having to have an awkward conversation with their child.

As a parent, you can go, "I get that." But what we need to be really clear about is that parents are making their children incredibly vulnerable, and I think a lot of those parents have still bought into the old myth that the rapist is always the bad guy in the bushes with the gun. Ninety-three percent of victims under 18 years old know their attackers. And when you get above 18, that statistic doesn't change too much. Depending on the source you look at, 75 to 80 percent of victims over 18 know their attacker.

This is a big part of why I'm always fascinated with the idea that the onus of rape prevention has always been on victims, potential victims. What can we do to stop someone from raping? Whenever you try to put it forward that maybe we should really have conversations about how to not rape, it's, "No, no, no, rapists aren't going listen to that."

It's probably the guy down the hall in your dorm. It's probably the kid you go to school with or it's your swim coach or your friend or your cousin. That is a conversation we can be having with people about what is consent.

There are lots of pictures of you with this great shirt that you like to wear.

Got consent?

Got consent!

Next month is sexual assault awareness month and this year's theme is "I Ask." More states are moving to a consent based model in the judiciary. That it's not about, "Did she say no?" It's, "Did you get yes?" That "yes" has to be sober, informed, ongoing, and enthusiastic.

Having your sexual partner not say anything, that's not good enough. You have to get enthusiastic conversation. And this is what I want. We can start and we do try to start teaching consent to our kids when they're two. You don't touch somebody.

We model that. But we have to continue that. I've had so many conversations with teenage boys who don't understand the impact of sexual violence. Nobody has ever explained to them that after being raped, 90 percent of victims develop PTSD. Twenty years later, a large percent of those victims are still experiencing PTSD.

These boys just want to know what the rules are. What are the facts? When you explain to them, that this is a big deal, this is a truly big deal, so many of them don't have parents that have talked to them about healthy sexuality and they've gotten their information about what sex is from watching porn, where they see a lot of non-consensual sex and they feel that that's the way it's supposed to be.

What I love about teenage boys is that they're awesome and they just want somebody to explain the rules to them. When you put out this information and listen to them and get their feedback, they're like, "Oh." Then so many of them, they want to become the good guy, the honorable guy. We fail them when we don't tell them the truth.

Laurie, this is so important. I'm a mom of teenagers, I have teenagers all over my life, all the time. Teenagers are amazing people. They are the funniest people in the world, they're hilarious.

They're so smart, they're so curious, and you're right, for the most part, so many of them really do want to do right. They do. But we have this culture that is so insane, that sets up sex as a negotiation and the negotiation is that boys are always pursuing and always pushing and girls are always pushing back.

That is a very heteronormative concept, and I know that we're talking about male on female there. Certainly males are victims of sexual violence in a way that affects them in completely different ways, and girls can be abusers. All of that is very real as well. But the dynamic of "men pursue, women resist" is a huge problem. We can talk about it and when we talk about it, it changes.

There was this big campaign in Canada, you probably know about this, a couple of years ago. They saw a decline in sexual violence. Dramatic.

Yeah, it's amazing what happens when you give people information. Especially people who are at that really important emotional intelligence growth point in their lives, in their adolescence. But let's remember all the intersections too, because on college campuses, the sexual assault rates of students who identify as transgender is even higher than that of women.

Let's always remember too that we're both very white women, but this is a crime that affects across all boundaries. Women of Native American nations have a profoundly high [assault rate]. Usually the men who are attacking them are non-native and this is such an insidious part of our culture.

It's very upsetting, I think, particularly to older men but also some older women who grew up with this as the norm, to tell them that no, that was all damaging and wrong and we want to make it better. That comes as a surprise to some people.

We're talking about the need for open conversation, and that brings up something that is a very big topic right now in YA. These debates about who can say what. And who has agency to say what. I'm wondering how you feel about all of these debates that are going on right now about who gets to say what stories, especially with regard to YA and how you deal with that as an author.

I think it's very important to recognize that we are finally beginning, in children's publishing at least and adolescent publishing, to look at the fact that our table has been limited to people that look like me — straight, cis white people — for way too long.

That's not a reflection of our audience. We want, in the ideal world, all the books are published will reflect the world of our children, which is incredibly diverse in every single possible way. We're trying to make sure, those of us who care deeply about America's children, that we're bringing everybody to the table and we're adding tables on and making sure everybody's got a comfortable seat, that there's equity.

There have been some really horrific examples of people writing outside their culture, whether that's ethnic background, religious background, and being very harmful so that the children who identified as that character. Say for example, in a book, when that character's not portrayed accurately and respectfully, that's actually really harmful for that reader.

I think that the power of, for example, Twitter can be a little bit over-magnified. And Twitter can be a pretty vicious place. But we've had some incredibly important voices, particularly scholars, like Dr. Ebony Elizabeth Thomas from the University of Pennsylvania and Dr. Debbie Reese, who have been really doing studies and doing the work to show us.

Here's what I believe to be true. You can write about anybody and anything, but when you are writing outside of your experience, outside of your lane, be prepared to do years of extra work and to go way extra miles. If the thought of spending extra years on a manuscript is [too hard] then maybe you should rethink your topic or your subject or your narrator.

Artists are called to push boundaries, artists are called to write outside of themselves. That's how we learn about other people. But we are called, particularly those of us who are coming from the dominant culture, the oppressive culture for so long, to recognize how much harm our people have done in the past. Therefore, if we're going to write outside of our lane, which we should be doing, you're going write about a kid who's got a lot of experience, if it's a white kid, they have a lot of experiences with people who are not white, who are probably not cisgender, or probably not Christian, which is how a lot of straight, white people identify. You have to do more work and you also have to do work on plot and on character and on setting and themes. This is just another part of your tool bag as a writer. And if you don't want to do that, take off the guitar.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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