Nina LaCour is an English teacher at Maybeck High School and the author of Hold Still (2009), and The Disenchantments (2012). She won the 2009 Northern California Book Award for Children’s Literature and was featured in Publishers Weekly as a Flying Starts Author. Nina is the co-founder of Write Teen, a series of YA writing classes. We are excited that Nina will hold a creative fiction writing workshop for students as part of LitFest on Friday, February 15.
1. How did you get involved in writing young adult fiction?
I entered the Mills College MFA program in Creative Writing with about eighty pages of a novel for adults, but while I was there I took a class on YA literature and fell in love with so many of the books we read. Then, when I started writing the first chapters of what would become my thesis and my first novel, Hold Still, I was struck by how right it felt to write about teen experiences. I was in my early twenties and I remembered clearly how it felt to be in high school, but had enough distance from the experience to really examine it. The teen years are such a rich time of personal growth and change and I’ve found that all the great questions and struggles of life—about love, family, friendships, responsibility, identity, etc.—can be explored through young narrators who find themselves on the cusp of adulthood.
2. Your books have fantastic illustrations in them. What lead to you include them, and how do they enhance the story?
Mia Nolting, the illustrator of Hold Still, is a dear friend of mine who I met in high school. Completing my first book felt like a monumental task, and during that time Mia and I had been exchanging letters through the mail. She was in college, studying illustration and typography, and somehow the idea occurred to us that she should illustrate the journal entries that one of the characters writes in the book. We were so fortunate that my editor at Penguin was enthusiastic about including them in the published book, because I do think they help bring the character of Ingrid to life.
3. You have taught in a variety of places: high schools, colleges, juvenile halls, and through your organization Write Teen—how do these experiences differ, and what do you love about teaching writing?
All of these experiences have been so rewarding. I come from a family of teachers. Both of my parents are teachers, my grandmother was a teacher, and now my little brother is also a teacher! Though my various teaching positions have all been different from one another, I believe that some aspects of teaching writing and literature are universal: we are trying to learn how to express ourselves better and to understand the world more fully through the crafting and studying of language. So whether I’ve been working with adults on writing sophisticated analytical essays or with incarcerated girls on producing poems or high school students on analyzing Jane Eyre or Invisible Man, it’s all about discovering who we are and what our place in the world is and could be.
4. How do you balance teaching with writing and promoting your books?
At first balancing teaching with writing seemed almost impossible. Both of them are jobs that require full commitment; both are consuming. When I started teaching high school full time, I crammed as much writing into school breaks and summer vacation as possible. As my writing career has developed, I’ve transitioned to part time teaching, which I love. I can give my one or two classes a lot of attention and still have plenty of time for writing. I have a new set of challenges coming up, though, as my wife and I have a baby due in June! Once again I will find myself striving for balance as I enter parenthood, but I’m sure it will be more than worth the effort.
5. What advice would you give—or do you give—to high school writers?
The advice I give to high school students is the same advice I give to adults who are emerging writers: Write from the heart, write for the love of it. Find a person or a small group of people with whom you can exchange work because writing can often be a lonely pursuit. Know that after the initial burst of inspiration, writing will feel like work. Take walks when you feel stuck. Finish your stories. Read.