A Discussion with Laura and Tom McNeal
Q: What is the writing process for you both like? Do you switch off every other chapter, or write together?
A: Laura: The first time we wrote a novel together (Crooked), we switched back and forth. I wrote a chapter from the girl’s point of view and then Tom wrote the next chapter in the boy’s voice, and so on. It was fun but a little like knitting a sweater without a pattern. The first draft was four sizes too large. Now we write outlines and talk about what we think is going to happen in the end. We still take turns, but we write longer segments, sixty or eighty pages. When one person is absolutely sick of the characters and disheartened about the plot, it’s time to trade. Taking a month or two away from the story and then coming back to it, finding it transformed and improved by the other person, is extremely rejuvenating. It’s like the elves and the shoemaker. You go to bed, and when you wake up, someone has turned your leather into shoes.
Q: Where do you get your writing done, and how do you manage to do that with two children at home?
A: Tom: We don’t work on fiction in the house, and we don’t do it full-time. I’m a partner in a family business, which can be fairly demanding, so I normally only work on fiction two mornings a week and on weekends. Laura works only when the children are at school or with a babysitter–ten to fifteen hours a week initially, now roughly twenty. When the children were small enough to be home with a babysitter, it was essential to be out of sight (and beyond earshot). We started working in separate but adjoining rooms of the guesthouse, and that’s where we still work now that the children are in school. We can’t see each other, but we can call to each other through an open door.
Q: Did you both always know that you wanted to be writers, and to write for young adult readers?
A: Laura: It wasn’t always crystal clear. Tom’s unlikelychildhood dream was to be a veterinarian by day and nightclub singer at night, and I planned to be a forest ranger, but my mother has saved very early attempts at picture books and embarrassing poems, and Tom was the sports editor for his junior high, high school, and college newspapers. Young adult novels just turned out to be the form in which we could work together, stay offstage, and avoid sleeping in the woods.
Q: You both really seem to get into the mind frame of today’s teens. How do you do that? Do you spend time with teenagers or just remember your own teenage years?
A: Tom: Those teenage years are painful enough to stay with you until death or dementia. The funny thing is, even though adolescence was a horrible place to live, I now find it a really interesting place to visit.
Laura: I think adolescence is always the same. You always think you are ugly. You always worry that you will ruin your life. You always hope that the next person you meet, or the next place you go, will change everything.
Q: Is the character of Audrey Reed based upon anyone from your own life?
A: Laura: Audrey Reed is not based on an actual person, though I was glad to give her the laundry room from the apartment building where I once lived in Syracuse, New York. The book is fiction, but the laundry room is real.
Tom: Well, the fact of the matter is that the first rough model for Audrey is Laura herself, at least the adolescent I imagined Laura to be: tall, thin, long-haired, witty, selfdeprecating, and a demon student. Also, fetching. That should have been the first modifier actually. Fetching.
Laura: I have to repeat my first answer here–Audrey is not based on a real person.
Q: Why do you think Wickham Hill is attracted to Audrey?
A: Tom: Wickham is very sensitive to class distinctions. He has come from a region of the country–the South–where there is still a faint whiff of class hierarchy, and where his status was shaky. In a way that's both innocent and selfish, he seeks a person who can make him feel secure. Audrey initially seems to live in the secure realm of wealth.
Q: Did you have an experience in your own life with a Theo Driggs—like character?
A: Laura: Not to the degree that Audrey does. My mother was always telling me to take a dime with me on dates in case the boy said, “Give in or walk.” I guess she thought the boy would also give me the option of getting out of the car and making a convenient phone call. Theo is the dark incarnation of those dimes, I suppose.
Tom: I never knew a Theo Driggs, but what I notice is that most of the thugs in our books are compact, muscular, and tightly wound–exactly the type of guy that I as a tall, skinny, recessive type feared most in high school. So Theo Driggs may well be those teenage fears come to life. What’s funny about this is how much pleasure I take in writing this kind of character.
Q: What were your favorite books as children, and do you have favorite children’s books or authors that you read now?
A: Laura: I have a deep attachment to certain children’s books, including The Meanest Squirrel I Ever Met by Gene Zion, Mouse Tales by Arnold Lobel, and Corduroy by Don Freeman. In my childhood, books served the role of security blanket and pet.
Tom: I had pets myself, but that didn’t steer me clear of the literary animal kingdom. I remember the Babar books fondly, and later Freddy the Pig. When I was ready for humans, Great Expectations was a big event for me, the first book that, as an adolescent, I could completely immerse myself in.
Q: What advice can you give to teens who aspire to become writers?
A: Tom: To adults, I usually say, Don’t quit the day job. So for teens, I’d probably say, Keep prepping for the SAT. But the truth is, there are some things you can do to move the process along. For example, you don’t find many published writers who didn’t start as demon readers. So I’d say read everything decent you can get your hands on. And for a lot of writers, both beginning and not, keeping a journal is good both for getting the juices flowing and for storing ideas that might one day prove useful. The idea for our next book (The Decoding of Lana Morris) is one I’d jotted down years ago, and when Laura recently figured out a new way to use it, we were off and running. And lastly, I’d say, Go into it for the right reasons, which have nothing at all to do with fame and glory.
Laura: It may sound obvious, but for me an important turning point was to look at a seven-page story I’d spent weeks writing and rewriting, agonizing over every word and how well or inadequately it expressed my complex and deep emotions, and I thought, “Why would someone want to read this?” Sometimes you’re thinking so much about your feelings (which are admittedly intense, so intense that they drive you to write) that you forget the reasons people read. They read for escape, resolution, epiphany, and to feel affection for the world you put them in. So I think it helps, when you’re writing, to practice making that fictional world, and to look at the real world around you, and to notice every little thing about it.
1. When Wickham first arrives in Mrs. Leacock’s classroom, Audrey writes in her notebook, “Something happening. Something definitely happening” (p. 4). Discuss her first impression of Wickham. How does Audrey and Wickham’s initial conversation set the stage for their relationship? Audrey immediately notices that he smells sugary, like Christmas. Do you think this is significant? Why? Contrast Audrey’s initial feelings toward Wickham with her first impression of Clyde. How does her attitude toward the two change by the end of the novel?
2. C.C.’s mother says, “What makes people interesting is their secrets” (p. 236). Do you think this is true? Discuss which characters have secrets and how these secrets shape their personalities and influence their actions. Toward the end of the novel, Audrey says, “People’s secrets can be what makes them interesting. They can also be what makes them awful” (p. 270). Do you agree? Find some examples in the novel that support this statement. Are there any examples that contradict it? Wickham’s accident is one of the central secrets of the novel. How do you think the accident has affected Wickham? How has keeping it a secret affected him? Is it unfair of Audrey to ask him about the accident? Why do you think he reveals his secret to Lea right away?
3. There is a cassette tape stuck in Audrey’s car, and the lyrics to the Gilbert & Sullivan song Audrey, C.C., and Lea performed at Tate School recur throughout the novel: “Three little maids from school are we, / Pert as a schoolgirl well can be, / Fill’d to the brim with girlish glee– / Ev’rything is a source of fun. / Nobody’s safe, for we care for none!” Look at moments in the book when the song plays. What is the significance of the jammed tape? How have Audrey’s feelings changed about the song since the girls performed it together? How do the lyrics relate to their current situation and to the themes of the novel? What about the lyrics playing in Lea’s car on page 229 (“Non, je ne regrette rien / ‘I regret nothing’”)?
4. Soon after Audrey meets Wickham, he asks her to help him cheat on a Physics quiz. Why do you think Audrey does it? Is allowing Wickham to copy her quiz different from fixing his Physics paper? When Audrey tries to explain her reservations about cheating, Wickham claims that life isn’t fair–the “rules” aren’t always fair–and therefore, cheating isn’t always wrong. Do you think his argument is valid? Is Wickham’s cheating harmless? Why or why not?
5. Privacy is an important theme in the novel. When Clyde’s father discovers that Clyde used his computer program to look up Wickham, Theo, and Audrey, he says, “These are the personal lives of real people. People like you and me and your mother. Who shouldn’t have to think about strangers peeping through the keyhole” (p. 114). Was it wrong of Clyde to use the program? Was it wrong of him to let Audrey know what he found out about Wickham? The Yellow Paper is perhaps the most obvious example of invasion of privacy and exposure in the novel. How does it affect the students and teachers of Jemison High? Do you think Theo, Zondra, and Sands deserved to be outed? What about Mrs. Leacock? Compare Clyde’s looking up his three classmates to Brian’s creation of The Yellow Paper. How are their actions and consequences alike? How are they different?
6. When Clyde first sees Audrey’s house, he is dismayed to discover that her family is much wealthier than his. Compare Clyde and Wickham’s financial situations and attitudes toward money. Do you think it would matter to Audrey that Clyde isn’t as wealthy as she is? How does having (and losing, in Audrey’s case) money affect the three girls?
7. As Wickham and Audrey sit in her car, kissing and watching the snow, she thinks, “This is like being inside the most wonderful snow globe” (p. 139). Toward the end of the novel, Wickham stares out the window of his room, “wishing it would snow and cover the yellow lawn and the dirty street and the bare hedge with white and white and more white” (p. 297). Snow is an important symbol in the novel. Find some other passages in which snow appears, and discuss its significance. How does it reflect the way the characters feel? What does it represent for Audrey? For Wickham? For Clyde, whose mind is on the upcoming lilacs? Consider the last line of the novel, “In Jemison, it was snowing again.” Why do you think the authors chose to end this way?
8. On page 136, Audrey calls Wickham her “own personal Cary Grant.” When they watch Suspicion, the movie in which Cary Grant’s character is suspected of murdering his friend, Audrey comments, “It’s kind of creepy not knowing whether to trust Cary Grant or not” (p. 137). Discuss the importance of this scene. How does it relate to Audrey and Wickham? To the themes of trust and betrayal in the novel? Do you think Audrey has suspicions about Wickham over the course of their relationship? Did you?
9. Audrey, Wickham, and Clyde all have to deal with their parents’ problems to some extent, in addition to their own. Discuss the relationships the three have with their parents. How are Audrey, Wickham, and Clyde affected by their parents’ actions and circumstances?
10. The authors often give us two or more sides of the same story. For example, in chapter 41, Audrey reads the article about Wickham’s accident, and then in chapter 55, called “Wickham’s Version,” Audrey gets his side of the story, in his own words. In the next chapter, Wickham thinks to himself that “he should have told her everything,” and then we as readers finally get the real story. How do the three versions of the accident differ? Do you think if Wickham had told Audrey everything, things would have ended differently for the two of them? Find and discuss some other examples of multiple perspectives in the novel. Why do you think Mrs. Leacock feels the need to tell Audrey her side of the story about her husband?
11. Lea is a quiet, sweet, “innocent” character throughout the novel. Is her behavior at the end surprising? Audrey feels as if Lea has betrayed her–do you think Lea sees it this way? Does she feel guilty for her actions? Lea says to Wickham, “You and I see each other’s secrets, and people who see each other’s secrets should face the fact that they’re always going to be together” (p. 295). What does she mean by this? Do you think their relationship will last?
12. Why is “Crushed” an appropriate title for this novel? Find and discuss some examples of characters being “crushed.” On page 307, Mrs. Leacock says, “We’re all crushed at some time or other. It’s true that some of us never recover our size and shape, but most of us do.” Do you think Audrey will bounce back from the pain Wickham and Lea caused her? Will Mrs. Leacock recover? Will Clyde?