The Voice of 'Speak' Is Loud as Ever

Speak, a Y.A. novel written by Laurie Halse Anderson and published by Farrar Straus Giroux in October of 1999, tells of the aftermath of the rape of Melinda Sordino, who, in her freshman year in high school, nearly stops speaking altogether in her struggle to deal with what's happened to her.

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Speak, a Y.A. novel written by Laurie Halse Anderson and published by Farrar Straus Giroux in October of 1999, tells of the aftermath of the rape of Melinda Sordino, who, in her freshman year in high school, nearly stops speaking altogether in her struggle to deal with what's happened to her. In the 13 years since the book's release, it has faced numerous censorship attempts, became a New York Times best-seller, won the 2000 Golden Kite Award and was named the 2000 ALA Best Book for Young Adults (among other acclaims), and was adapted into a 2004 movie starring Kristen Stewart.

More importantly, it's been read by countless teens and also parents. (Most of those who seek to ban it, on the other hand, haven't read it all the way through.) It's been used in schools in order to not only teach literary analysis but also to teach and give students tools against sexual harassment. And from the readers, Anderson's debut novel has solicited numerous requests from fans desperate to see Melinda in a sequel. While the author gave them a brief glimpse at the character again in 2002's Catalyst, and has written numerous other books for young adults, including 2010's Wintergirls, about anorexia, she has yet to write a follow-up to Speak. That doesn't mean she won't, as she explained in an addendum to a later edition to the book, but the bar is high. In the meantime, she's working on a new book for Y.A. readers, due out in the fall of 2013.

I came to Speak late in the game (very late: I read it, finally, a few weeks ago). That has nothing to do with the book's impact and everything to do with my age when it came out in 1999, a time when I was focused primarily on reading books for adults. When I did read it, though, I was blown away: It's powerful, scary, real, and written in an incredibly modern, dare I say bloggy way, despite having been composed in the very early days of the Internet. Anderson and I had communicated previously about the great Judy Blume, and I reached out to see if she'd speak to me about Speak's longevity, among other Y.A. things. Our conversation follows.

It's been 13 years since Speak was published. Has the overwhelming response and continued interest in the book been anything like what you expected?
I feel about my books the way I feel about my children. You try your damndest, but the kid has to go out into the world and face things beyond a parent's ability. The same is true with a book. When I wrote Speak, I didn’t think it would be published. I wrote it in '96—I wrote 7 drafts and showed it to some girlfriends because my kids weren’t old enough to read it at that time. When it did get published, my editor hastened to assure me it wouldn’t sell many copies. They thought it would sell 3,000 copies in 3 years and then go out of print. It found its way. I think that’s as much a reflection of where the culture has been as what my book says. I’ve been humbled daily by letters and communication with readers. My whole life has been changed because of this book.

What was the inception for it? 
I’d been working on Fever 1973, which at that point sucked. (Speak taught me how to write the first-person point of view.) It’s about 10 percent of my experience. My oldest child had gotten to sixth grade—that age when one has physically developed so quickly and yet is still a sixth grade girl—and that brought back so much stuff I had successfully buried. It helped me experience my old adolescence, and the book just tumbled out of my head.

The way the novel is divided up into short, perspective-driven scenes, almost like blog posts, seems incredibly Internet-savvy, even predictive. 
[Laughs.] I didn’t have the Internet at that point. I think we had a dial-up connected in '99. When I submitted the book to FSG, the marketing people asked if I’d put it in conventional chapters. Being able to sell bullshit with the best of them, I wrote a 2- or 3-page letter explaining how this generation is used to quick cross-cutting and getting information this way. They let me keep it.

Tell us about some of the responses you've gotten to the book.   
I have two favorite comments that are closest to my heart: The first is that reading the book made the readers feel less alone and maybe helped them speak out about whatever painful things they’ve been quiet about. The other thing I hear from some readers is that this is the first book they’ve finished since third or fourth grade. You can’t believe how awesome I feel about that.

Have the responses changed over the years?
When the book first came out, English teachers—and there are some really cool ones in America—were like, this is groundbreaking stuff, but were tentative given the subject matter. I remember I toned down the scene in which Melinda remembers the rape, thinking that this is a book seventh and eighth graders really need to be able to read. Now it’s a standard book in so many school districts.

The book keeps getting reborn. When the film version of Speak came out with Kristen Stewart, and then when she became Bella in Twilight, that brought a whole other cohort to the book. I'm in that film [Speak] for like 8 seconds. It was really evident that [Stewart] was an incredibly talented young woman—she was 13 at the time.

Parents and school districts have repeatedly sought to ban the book for what they considered explicit sexual content. How do you deal with that? 
I think parents should be watching what their kids are reading and watching on TV. I wish more parents would pay more attention. But where I start mounting the ramparts with my buring torch is when parents try to say the same thing should go for everyone. There’s dissertation-level research looking at using Speak in English classes. It does change things—you can use this book to help your children become good, loving, mature people.

I love to talk to people who try to ban my books. My dad was a minister, and I understand and have a lot of respect for that aspect of spirituality and that worldview. Usually in those cases it's because the parent feels helpless and inadequate; they don’t know how to talk to their child, they feel unprepared to answer those questions. I love when people have the courage to be honest and say that to me. Most school districts have a process in place involving a committee, and the parents have to read the whole book before it's banned. There have been so many reports of the parent completing the book and withdrawing the request. Every once in a while someone calls me a pornographer, but my response is, Does your school library carry newspapers? If it does, your children are reading about sexual violence. The whole point of literature for the young, adolescent mind is to give them experiences we hope they don’t have, to help them prepare for those experiences. Smart parents are reading the books their kids are reading. They realize story-telling is how we pass things along.

In a later edition of Speak you responded to repeated requests from readers that you write a sequel featuring Melinda. Tell us more about that. Will a sequel ever happen?
Four years ago, I wrote a response. There's been a little bit of a change since then, I think. I’m a bit more open to it now. My family’s life has shifted, my youngest is a senior in college, and I feel like my horizons have gotten broader as a writer. I’ve written about a couple of older teens, in Wintergirls, for example. But I will not write that book until that character [Melinda] does what she did the first time: wake me up out of a sound sleep. When I woke up she was sobbing, and I really thought it was one of my children at first. I sat down and started to write and what tumbled out was that line about the new skirt and the notebooks. I’m sure if we’re still talking about my books in 10 years, we'll be saying that was the night I found my voice. A sequel would have to be an organic, grounded story. She’s completed the arc of her journey in the first book, so there has to be something in her deeper backstory, or something that occurs or arrives out of the circumstances of her life, for a new book.

But you did give fans a glimpse at her in another book.
I wrote her into Catalyst. I had so much fun writing the high school environment of Speak, and I thought, I have my location, I have my teacher characters. Kate [the main character of Catalyst] is a talented-and-gifted kid trying to ignore the pain in her heart. She's focused on her intellect, and so she’s perceived differently than the way Melinda was. So many readers still wanted to know how Melinda was doing, so when Kate is reaching a low point, she comes across her in the hall putting together an art project for the art club.

What was your favorite book growing up?
It took me a little longer to learn to read, because I was dyslexic. By third grade I was like, This is fun, and by fourth I was ripping my way through the Little House on the Prairie books. Maybe it wasn't great history, but it was about having a character I strongly identified with and learning through her adventures. They ignited that passion in me to understand how America came together. In high school I mostly read sci-fi and fantasy. In high school I was so depressed, I didn't want to read about real life. I understand people who are like, give me Twilight. There was one terrifying book, I Never Promised You a Rose Garden, and the main character’s life is very, very bad. Every time I would finish it I'd sigh and think, At least my life’s not that. 

What are you working on now?
I was sick there for a year—my pituitary gland has become quite a diva—so there’s been a delay in my books, but I’m back on it. I’m coming to the end of my next Y.A. novel. The title hasn’t struck me yet; it often takes a long time. The book looks at being the kid of a parent who is loved desperately but is trapped in his own disease. In this case, it's post-traumatic stress disorder, and self-medication. It's a dad and a daughter. My dad was 18 at the end of World War II, and he was with the units that got to Dachau a few weeks after the war ended. He's 85 and he still wakes up screaming, and that colored my own life. My nephew is home after two tours in Afghanistan and a tour in Iraq, and I'm looking at him and my dad and multiplying how many families have experiences like these. We do such a terrible job in America of helping our soldiers heal.

There’s also a love story, the first I’ve written. When I was on the Wintergirls book tour this one kid looks at me and goes, "Man, why don’t you let somebody fall in love?" I thought I should do that now. Cross your fingers, the book should be out next fall, or very close. My editor still hasn’t seen the book, I want it to be so good before I give it to her!

What's your writing process like?
I’m in my 18-hour-day writing mode. I live out in the country, and I have this kick-ass cottage that my husband built for me, but the only heat in this building comes from a wood stove. So, I get up at 5, have breakfast, tweet once or twice, and start working. Do you ever get to that place while working out where you catch your second wind and think you’re a goddess, you’re a viking warrior? That’s what 18 hours a day of writing feels like. In the last couple of weeks, all of the story threads are in my head all of the time.

Do you have any time for reading? 
There’s always time for reading. I don’t read much in my genre. I occasionally will if an editor says I have to, or if Stephanie [her eldest daughter] or another of my kids says to read something. I read The Beautiful Mystery, which is set in Quebec, and a cultural biography of Walt Whitman.

What about Y.A., any category favorites? 
Sherman Alexie. He writes amazing poetry, and for adults, but I want him to keep writing for kids—Part-Time Indian; I think he’s such an important voice. I don’t read much in my genre, but also, John Green, I just love him and have such respect for how he’s made the world safe for a lot of kids to be who they are. It took me to age 35 to be who I was; if I were 15 now, John would save me years of angst. He is a holy man. David Levithan, the books that are addressing sexuality and sexual identify; Ellen Wittlinger, she did one book about a transgendered kid. These are the bedraggled books stolen from libraries in the backpacks of the kids who need them to get them through the day.

What books have had the most profound impact on you as a writer?
Christopher Paul Curtis's The Watson's Go to Birmingham—1963. It opens up with one of the funniest scenes ever in a middle-grade novel, and I defy you to get to the end and not be weeping. He uses humor and the way  kids and teens are innately funny, but those kids have to interact with hard things because life is hard. The most significant book in my language use is Finnegan's Wake. I don't understand James Joyce, I have to read it with a translation guide, but  my degree is in linguistics and Joyce is Mozart in my ears. English is a gorgeous language.

What do you think about the trend in adults reading books for younger readers?
I think that American culture, not deliberately, I hope, has so screwed up the adolescent experience. Contradicting everything we know about how the adolescent brain and soul develop, we put kids in your typical high school, 400 to 3000 students, changing classes, teachers, never maintaining contact with adult figures at the time they most need trustworthy adults around because they need to separate from their parents. The generations coming up since the 1950s have emerged bleeding, emotionally. Adults are going back and experiencing their youth through the shelter that a good book offers the heart. And kids are reading stuff they hopefully haven’t experienced. But those of us who have experienced it, the damaged adults, we can grow from it.

I also think the writing in Y.A. is a lot better than in "grown-up books," because our readers hold us to a higher standard. They will only read a book if it grasps them by a throat, and if it's not boring.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.