Interview: Claire LaZebnik, Author of Wrong About the Guy

Interview: Claire LaZebnik, Author of Wrong About the Guy

Posted on May 20, 2015 at 3:54 pm

Copyright Harper Teen 2015
Copyright Harper Teen 2015

The wonderful Claire LaZebnik has written another terrific YA book.  This one is Wrong About the Guy, the story of Ellie, a high school senior who lives with her mother, her musician stepfather, who has become unexpectedly famous as the judge of a reality music television series, and her little brother. The book is inspired by Jane Austen’s Emma, and like Emma, Ellie has a tendency to try to run the lives of everyone around her. Even when her intentions are good, the results are not always what she had in mind.

I loved the book’s heart and humor and I was thrilled to have another chance to interview LaZebnik.

Jane Austen famously said that with Emma she was creating a character that no one would like. Did you think that at times about your main character, Ellie?

You know what’s funny? I loved Ellie from beginning to end. My own teenage daughter is sort of charmingly irreverent and disrespectful (but only when we’re joking around). I saw Ellie as being like that–quick with a funny insult and a little overly confident, but fun to be with, whether you’re another character or a reader. So I’ve been a little surprised when some people who’ve read it have said they didn’t like her. I love her! I love all my heroines, no matter how flawed. But she does get humbled in the course of the book and becomes an even better person by the end.

We hear the story in Ellie’s own voice. As an author, what are the advantages and frustrations of a first-person account?

I love writing in the first person. It feels so much more engaging to me: the reader gets to go through the journey WITH the character, learning things as she does and falling for the same deceptions. But of course it’s frustrating that anything that happens away from the narrator’s presence can only be described to her. Sometimes the most dramatic scenes have to be boiled down to a bit of dialogue because you just can’t justify having the narrator in the room. And the fact that you can’t see into other people’s minds is also limiting. But I’d say the benefits outweigh the frustrations.

Ellie’s privileged life is very different from what she and her single mother had when she was younger. How does that affect her world view?

I wanted her to have clarity about the way people suck up to you when you’re famous and it seemed like she’d have more perspective on it if she hadn’t always lived with it. It made her a little less Emma-like (Emma is very much to the manor born) but more interesting to me as a modern character. She and her mother also aren’t used to being waited on and living in the lap of luxury, so they still appreciate those things and don’t take them for granted. It makes them more relatable.

Because her stepfather is famous and wealthy, she is reluctant to trust some of the kids at school who try to befriend her, and yet is still taken advantage of by one of them. How does that affect her other relationships?

I know some kids out here with famous parents and they really are besieged by attention from people who want access to their house and relatives. It’s a lot of work to sort out the real friends from the ones who are starstruck—and of course it’s not always a simple either/or. You can have a good friend who also gets a thrill from being around your famous father or mother. So it’s complicated. I think you learn to be wary. I explored some of this in my first YA novel EPIC FAIL, where one of the main characters has two movie star parents and is very distrustful of anyone he hasn’t known for years. And in this one, part of the reason Ellie desperately wants her best friend to go to the same college as her is because she wants someone she can trust completely at her side there.

Even though she is careful not to be too trusting in some cases, Ellie misses some important signals of less than trustworthiness in others. What makes her vulnerable to those mistakes?
Ellie’s problem is hubris: she thinks she knows everything. And she does know a lot–she’s actually very smart and fairly intuitive. But her very intelligence makes her overly confident. Once she thinks she’s figured something out, she assumes she’s right and ignores any evidence to the contrary. And that leads her down the wrong path several times in the novel. She also doesn’t like being disagreed with or told she’s wrong—it’s not something she’s used to—so she stops listening when someone tries to point out the flaws in her thinking.

Ellie is in some ways most wrong about herself. How does that crucial rite of adolescence, the college application essay, help her see herself more clearly?

Oh, I had so much fun talking about college essays! I really do think they reflect so much of what teenagers are trying to figure out about themselves and the world in general. Ellie tries to write about her passion for global community work, but eventually her tutor forces her to admit she hasn’t actually done anything to help people who are suffering in other countries. So then she tries writing something that’s more honest, about how she means well, but falls short of her ambition to be a good person. I think that’s true of so many of us: we want to think of ourselves as do-gooders, but we really just sit on the sidelines and try to stay out of trouble. She accepts the reality that she’s not nearly so involved or caring as she likes to think she is, and that makes her resolve to do better in the future.

Ellie’s mother and stepfather have a strong, supportive, close relationship, but it is hard for them to talk about what is going on with their son. Why is that and what role does Ellie play?

Because my own son has autism and I’ve written a couple of books about that, I’ve really studied how families react to concerns about their children. Ellie’s brother is a late talker and often throws tantrums. His mother thinks something must be wrong; his father thinks she’s overreacting. This is really a classic dichotomy: mothers tend to worry and fathers tend to be dismissive. Ellie loves her brother just the way he is, so she sort of agrees with her stepfather that they should just let him be. At the same time, she’s very close to her mother and wants to support her too. She finally realizes that her role is to help both parents really LISTEN to each other. That’s all that matters in the long run. Just listening and working together to figure everything out.

In Austen’s book and in “Clueless,” also inspired by Emma, the main character encourages her naive young friend to pursue a young man named Elton, with disastrous consequences. Your re-interpretation of that part of the plot is very creative! What led you to that variation?

I’m sure you know the Bechdel Test, based on a cartoon strip by the wonderful graphic artist Alison Bechdel. A movie fails the Bechdel test if there isn’t more than one female character, if the women never talk to each other, or if the female characters only discuss men when they DO talk. Even though I was borrowing a lot from Austen, I didn’t want the two young women in my book to spend most of their time talking about men, but I still wanted my main character, Ellie, to steer her naive friend in the wrong direction. So I switched Mr. Elton to Elton College! It’s the school Ellie wants to go to, and she wants her friend to go there too. It’s hard to get into, but Ellie’s a good student and very smart and her stepfather’s famous—she has a good shot at getting in. Her friend, on the other hand, is really out of her league with this school, but Ellie refuses to see that and keeps pushing her to apply early. The storyline follows the arc of the one in Emma, but it’s not about young women pursuing men—it’s about young women trying to figure out the whole college thing.

Did your own experiences as a teenager inspire any part of the story?

For the most part, no—I grew up on the east coast and this is very much a Hollywood novel. The only area that I’d say I drew from my own life for was the discussion about writing college essays. That hasn’t changed much in the last few decades—too many kids still try to sound like someone they’re not in those essays and I think the phoniness will always come through. I actually wrote a humorous essay about being the youngest of five siblings. It was weird and totally personal . . . and I got into to my first choice college. And my son wrote one about his lousy sense of direction. (Also successfully.) So I’m a big fan of doing something weird and unique.

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Claire LaZebnik’s Thoughts on Thanks

Posted on November 26, 2014 at 9:39 am

I can’t think of a better way to start Thanksgiving weekend than taking a few minutes to read my friend Claire LaZebnik’s wise and inspiring essay on gratitude. This most American of holidays is often accompanied by stress — from hosting and being hosted, from traveling, from family. Claire writes movingly about the way that cultivating gratitude has helped her through challenging times.

I feel like an exposed nerve these days, and that means the smallest touch can hurt, but it also means I’m exponentially more sensitive to the good stuff, too. As I stop focusing on tomorrow–because lately I’ve just been trying to get through one day at a time–I find myself much more aware of, and grateful for, every email from a friend, every encouraging comment on FB, every shared pastry at Starbucks, every stranger who smiles at me instead of shoving by, every good-natured exchange, every moment of solidarity, and every example of generosity, whether it’s directed at me or someone else.

There’s so much in the news that’s sad and scary but so much in my own life that’s decent and affirming. For a while, it felt like I couldn’t see that. I knew it intellectually: I just couldn’t feel it. But this is the strange gift of my own struggles: I’ve become very aware of the choices we all make at every moment of the day–how we can choose to be kind and generous or malicious and selfish–and I’m so grateful that the people I care about make the choice to be kind. I’m pretty sure that kindness, love, and generosity are all we’ve got to fall back on when everything else feels wrong or meaningless, and that every positive interaction makes life that much more livable for all of us. And the more I stop to notice the goodness all around me, the less hopeless I feel.

Wishing everyone a Thanksgiving filled with the bounty of friends, family, and blessings to be counted and shared.

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Interview: Overcoming Autism with Claire LaZebnik

Posted on March 24, 2014 at 3:57 pm

A completely revised new edition of the indispensable book Overcoming Autism: Finding the Answers, Strategies, and Hope That Can Transform a Child’s Life comes out tomorrow. The original, published ten years ago, was written by Dr. Lynn Koegel, the nationally recognized head of the Autism Research Center at the University of California, and Claire LaZebnik, a professional writer and the mother of a son with autism. The combined perspectives of the expert and the mother give this book both authority and emotional heft. It is wise, hopeful, generous, and compassionate. I am very grateful to Ms. LaZebnik for answering my questions.

The word “overcoming” in your title is a bold one.  How did you choose it?

Well, as Dr. Koegel and I often say, the title is shorthand for “Overcoming the symptoms of autism that make life more difficult” — but that’s not as catchy. Our goal isn’t to get rid of autism; it’s to help alleviate any of its symptoms that make life more difficult for the child and to teach the child to reach his or her full potential. People with autism have many strengths. We don’t want to get rid of those; we just want to use them in a positive and productive way.

This is an update of a book originally published ten years ago.  What have been the biggest changes in the understanding and treatment of autism since that time?  In public understanding of autism?

People are far and away more aware of autism now than they were back then. It’s rare to meet someone today who doesn’t have a family member or friend who’s on the spectrum. As a result, people are more informed (sometimes, sadly, more MISinformed) and more aware that you can have autism and be a vital, involved, and valuable member of your community—back when we were first writing, it was seen as something more debilitating and alienating. All of that is positive, and we’ve tried to incorporate the changing attitudes in our revision. We also call on the community to be more accepting of those who don’t fit into a narrow definition of “normalcy:” different viewpoints and experiences enrich our collective knowledge.overcoming autism

Interestingly, many of the behavioral interventions we described in our first edition still work. We’ve added some newer ones; we have more research on specific interventions and we’ve learned even more about which behaviors to target to bring about the greatest progress. But the interventions described in our first edition continue to work, and we’re happy to say that the last decade of research validates everything that was in our original book.

Both parents and children with autism can feel isolated, and it can be particularly devastating when parents grieve separately rather than together.  What can we do to make schoolmates and communities be more effective in providing support?

As I said above, we have to make our communities aware that differences enrich us all. We need to learn to smile at people who are struggling with a tantruming child and to offer our support if a family wants to include a child with any kind of difference in a community or school activity. I do think honesty and outspokenness help: for instance, families will sometimes go in to speak to a classroom to explain the ways in which the other students can support their child and that’s almost always of huge benefit to everyone in the classroom. Of course, acceptance has to come from the top: if a principal or a community leader acts like a child with special needs is a burden, others will take the lead from him or her. It’s important for inclusion to be practiced from the top down.

Isn’t it spoiling a child to give rewards like candy?

All good parenting boils down to reinforcing the behaviors you want to see and ignoring/discouraging the ones you don’t want to see. I don’t think it’s spoiling to give a child a piece of candy if he’s worked hard to get it—and “working hard” for a child with autism can sometimes mean making a vocalization to ask for it rather than simply screaming. If you give a child a candy to calm him down when he’s been misbehaving, you ARE  spoiling him—you’re teaching him that bad behaviors get good rewards. But if you give that same child a piece of candy because he’s sat quietly and listened for an agreed-upon amount of time, you’re doing the opposite of spoiling him: you’re inspiring him to keep up the good work and letting him know you’re proud of him. That’s how he’ll learn and grow  Often, that piece of candy or a promised fun outing will be the only thing that motivates a child with autism, whose social difficulties may keep him from finding praise as rewarding as typical children do.

Parents are used to measuring their children against other children and established developmental milestones.  But you urge parents not to compare their children to other children with autism.  Why is that?

It’s important to stay upbeat and proud of your child’s accomplishments: comparing him to typical children of the same age may feel frustrating, and that’s not helpful to either of you. However, understanding what other children are doing at certain ages can be helpful in developing goals for your child.

You have a “golden rule” — treat your child as you would if he did not have a disability.  Why is that so important?

Because it forces you to stay on the right track. If you constantly make excuses for your child and let him get away with behaving in ways you’d never let your other children behave, you’re not guiding him properly and you’re probably damaging his relationships with other people. You don’t want to compromise your expectations for your child simply because it feels like work to make sure she doesn’t hit other people or has to ask nicely for a snack. All kids need rules and clear guidelines.

One striking theme throughout the book is the focus on the child’s strengths as a starting point.  What are some of the strengths you see in children with autism and can you give an example of one that can be built on?

Most children with ASD have strong visual skills. Some are very good readers at an early age (my son was). A good teacher might ask the child to read out loud to the other students: it’s a nice way for them to connect and can lead to some real admiration from the other kids. Children with autism often know a lot about a very specific subject, like trains or presidents or (in one case I saw) fruit bats. If an aide or teacher or parent can structure a game around that interest, the child with autism will be the most sought after team member in the group, which builds pride and respect.

What do you mean by “prompting and fading?”  Isn’t that good advice for all parents?

We all do it already! Think about how we teach kids to say “thank you.” First we say it for them, when they’re too little to talk. Then, when they start speaking, we prompt them to say it every time someone does something for them or hands them something. Then we “fade” back, and wait for them to say it on their own at appropriate times. If they don’t remember to say it, we quietly remind them. Eventually, over time, children learn to say “thank you” without any prompting at all, and we can fade our prompts entirely. Kids with autism may need more prompting at the beginning than other kids—for instance, they may need to be prompted to greet a friend or share a treat or ask a question in class at an age when other kids are already doing all of that on their own–but the process is exactly the same.

Children with autism miss social cues that seem to come naturally to neurotypical kids, and that sometimes causes people to conclude that they do not care what their peers think about them.  Claire, your story about telling Andrew that his puppet hands stimulation looked strange to other children shows that is not the case.  Are children with autism usually receptive to being told how they are perceived and what they can do to fit in?  And what about the issue you identified that teaching them to respond to peer pressure can backfire when they become teenagers?

I think it does depend on the child. Andrew happened to be very motivated to fit in with his peers: he wanted to make friends and so he responded to any advice we gave him toward that end. So when we casually suggested that he save his “hand puppets” for the privacy of our home because the other kids might think they looked strange, he totally got that and did his best to control them out in public. Another child might not be as motivated by the idea of fitting in, but I think you’d be surprised how many kids with autism really do want to make friends and have playmates—a lot of inappropriate behaviors, like pushing or following another child really come out of a desire to engage. Those kids have to be taught how to approach another child appropriately.

I do have concerns that the whole “look what the other kid is doing and do that” approach has the potential to backfire when kids are teenagers and are engaging in some activities that parents aren’t so thrilled about. So Dr. Koegel and I have somewhat tempered our message along those lines: we now stress the importance of teaching your child to distinguish between appropriate and inappropriate behaviors and not imitate blindly. We’re all trying to teach our kids that, right?

What were some of the factors you considered in deciding to include stories about your own family?  What were Andrew’s thoughts ten years ago and how does he feel about it now?

When my son was diagnosed, I wanted desperately to know older kids and adults on the spectrum, to have a sense of what was in store for us all. I didn’t know any other families dealing with it until we entered a program designed specifically for kids with autism, and then the other mothers and I were all eager to share stories and advice. I felt it was important to put myself out there and share our early stories because it can be so lonely and isolating to be a parent of a kid who’s developing at a different pace and in a different way from the other kids.

Andrew was very proud when the book first came out: he was around eleven or twelve, I think, and he made a speech at the book party, thanking everyone who had ever helped him and bringing tears to all our eyes. Now that he’s in his twenties, he’s a little more reserved, but he contributed essays to our second collaboration (Growing Up on the Spectrum: A Guide to Life, Love, and Learning for Teens and Young Adults with Autism and Asperger’s) and remains supportive of the project. I am more careful about the stories I tell, though. If you read my newest essays, you’ll see that they’re more general and less specific. I need to respect the fact that he’s an adult and his stories are no longer mine to tell. He has remained very interested in helping others on the spectrum, and is currently working on a project toward that end—I’m excited about it, but not sure if I’m allowed to talk about it in public yet!

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Claire LaZebnik Remembers A Visit from Patricia Neal

Posted on June 18, 2013 at 8:00 am

Claire LaZebnik wrote a beautiful piece in the Wall Street Journal about a visit from the late Oscar-winning actress Patricia Neal.  The first movie I ever reviewed — for my high school paper — was Neal’s comeback film, “The Subject Was Roses” (with a very young Martin Sheen as her son).  Neal was at the top of her profession, starring with Gary Cooper and Paul Newman, happily married to author Roald Dahl (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Matilda, James and the Giant Peach), and pregnant with their child when she suddenly suffered a severe stroke.  Her recovery is a testament to her determination and Dahl’s.

LaZebnik writes about finding out that her home was where Neal and Dahl were staying in 1965 when she had the stroke.  Neal visited them there.

She looked more like a grandmother than a movie star, but the voice was as husky and gorgeous as ever. And those eyes. They were large and luminous and expressive. You could drown in those eyes….She was funny, wicked, charming, spellbinding. Every one of us fell in love with her that day. We didn’t want her to leave and we begged her to come back. She promised to return soon for a night of parlor and board games, which she said she loved.

But she became ill with cancer soon after and was not able to return.  Many thanks to her for sharing this lovely story.

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Interview: The Trouble With Flirting Author Claire LaZebnik

Posted on February 26, 2013 at 8:00 am

Claire LaZebnik’s latest YA novel, The Trouble with Flirting, published today, is the witty and insightful story of Franny Price, a talented teenager who gets a summer job working with her aunt, the costumer for a high school drama program putting on plays by Shakespeare.  I loved it!  LaZebnik was nice enough to answer my questions.

Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park inspired some elements of your story, including the name of the main character.  Your Franny Price is much more confident and outspoken than Austen’s Fanny Price.  What are their most important similarities and differences?

They’re both thoughtful, decent, intelligent young women who occasionally get overlooked because they’re not flashy or gorgeous—they’re the type that grows on you, rather than the type that hits you over the head from the beginning. So that’s how they’re similar.

But, like all of us, they’re products of the age they live in, which ultimately makes them more different than similar. Fanny lives in an era when a woman with no independent means either has to marry well or face a lifetime of poverty: she has no way to pull herself up except through marriage. Alone, she’s impoverished; married, she’s dependent on her husband’s goodwill. Franny, on the other hand, is a modern young woman, who’s dependent on no one but herself for her future success. She may have to work when others get to play, but that’s a cash issue, not a class issue and really just proves how self-sufficient she is. When she falls in love, it’s for fun, not to ensure her future.

One of the most important elements of Austen’s Mansfield Park is a theatrical production that ends very poorly.  What do you as an author think that giving the characters a theatrical setting allows you to explore?

Actually, I think the whole idea of any summer program–not just an acting one–is that you get to escape whoever you are at home and play at being whatever you want to be and of course acting does exactly the same thing. And the contrast between getting up on stage and acting–which is fun and glamorous–and sitting backstage sewing costumes–which is the opposite–really added to Franny’s outsider status. But she’s not self-pitying or angry and I think that reflects well on her character, especially since she proves she’s as good an actor as any of them when she’s given the chance.

Your characters are very witty and it was a nice change to read a book about teenagers where the main characters were not too shy or insecure to speak up.  What can readers learn from characters who have that kind of confidence and humor?

I think it’s incredibly important for boys and girls (and men and women) to feel comfortable talking to each other. Nothing makes me sadder than hearing people ask for advice on “how to talk to the opposite sex.” Really? Because in my experience, you open up your mouth and the words come out. The strongest relationships I know are the ones based on friendship, and friendship grows when you talk easily, openly, and with a shared sense of humor.

In addition to Mansfield Park, another classic literary work that inspires this book is Twelfth Night, the Shakespeare play that the characters perform.  Why did you choose that play and how does it relate to the themes of the book?  Is the duality and mirroring of Twelfth Night relevant to your story?

So I’m embarrassed to admit that I chose Twelfth Night largely because I knew the play pretty well and could write about it  easily, although you can definitely find a lot of parallels between it and the novel (for one thing, characters have a tendency to fall in love with the wrong people in both). But it’s actually Measure for Measure that I chose more deliberately for them to discuss because there’s so much in that play about how you shouldn’t trust someone just because he appears on the outside to be good. All of that really does tie into The Trouble with Flirting, since Franny makes the mistake of judging people on how they appear and not on what they actually do.

Why is it important that Franny comes from a family with much less money than the kids in the theater program have?  How does her unexpected opportunity to appear on stage affect the way the others see her?

In Austen’s Mansfield Park, Fanny can’t shake her outsider status no matter how long she lives with the Bertrams, because she’s dependent on their generosity and her father isn’t a gentleman. I decided that putting Franny to work during the summer when every other high schooler is just having fun would capture that “poor cousin on the outside looking in” feeling.

When she gets to join a cast, she can prove that she’s just as talented as everyone else, that she could have gotten into the program if she’d been able to afford it, and I think that’s important to her self-esteem. She stops being so much of an outsider at that point–but other obstacles crop up for her.

What is the hardest part of writing a book like this?  What is the most fun?

Hardest part is this: promoting the book. I’m a homebody. I like to sit in my house and write–it’s trying to get people to hear about my books that I find challenging.

The most fun is that moment before you start writing, when you’re thinking about the story and phrases start popping into your head and you see everything so clearly and it feels like it’s going to all come together perfectly–like you could just sit down and the book would flow from your fingertips in a few short hours. Of course, when you sit down to actually put it on paper, everything gets obscured and confusing again. But that moment is lovely.

What were some of the books you enjoyed most when you were Franny’s age?  What do your kids like to read?

YA books basically didn’t exist when I was a kid. There were children’s books and there were books for adults, and pretty early on I took a lot of pride in reading adult books. I wanted to read everything I’d ever heard of, so I read D.H.Lawrence in middle school and Virginia Woolf when I was fourteen. I absolutely loved Colette’s Claudine books, which no one reads anymore, and I reread Austen’s novels every chance I got. I really read anything I could get my hands on. (I wasn’t a very social kid, as you can tell–I was always reading.)

My 15-year-old daughter has no interest in reading adult books; she likes YA books, but nothing too heavy or too supernatural. She likes her novels light and romantic, which might explain why I write that kind of book. Anyway, it’s interesting to me that the “invention” of this whole YA genre may have made teenagers less interested in reading adult books. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing: a lot of my favorite novels from the last decade have technically been YA novels–I think some of the best writing of our times is being done in that genre.

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