'Speak' turns 15: Author Laurie Halse Anderson on the book's life and legacy

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Tell Laurie Halse Anderson that her 1999 young adult novel Speak changed your life, and she’ll respond with a warm, heartfelt “thank you!” Sure, she gets this sort of thing all the time — but as Anderson will say, with a friendly chortle, “I’ve never gotten it from you before.”

Speak tells the story of 14-year-old Melinda Sordino, an ostracized high school freshman with a terrible secret. (If you’d rather not know what that secret is, you may want to stop reading right about here.) Its choppy, nonlinear narrative gradually reveals that shortly before the first day of school, Melinda went to a party, where she was raped by a handsome, popular senior. The book’s unflinching look at sexual assault and its aftermath — not to mention its sharp prose, keen observations of teenage life, and welcome bursts of dark humor — have won it and Anderson legions of fans, as well as a number of prestigious awards. (Speak was a National Book Award finalist in 1999.)

Macmillan is marking the book’s landmark 15th anniversary with the second annual Speak4RAINN campaign, a drive to raise funds for the nation’s largest anti-sexual violence organization. The publishing house will match donations of up to $15,000 to RAINN throughout April, which is Sexual Assault Awareness Month.

In honor of the campaign — and Speak‘s birthday — we spoke to Anderson about how and why she wrote Speak, how the world has changed (or hasn’t changed) since the book was first published, and whether a sequel might be in the cards someday. (Hint: Signs point to “yes.”)

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: So many things have changed since Speak first came out, not least of which is the YA landscape — young adult fiction is this huge business now. What has it been like to watch that change happen?
Laurie Halse Anderson: You know, it’s really hard to write books. And for me, it’s actually gotten harder. Because now people are watching. I have to spend so much energy on just trying to be a writer, and then on top of that to try to balance things like family, and all the publicity, and travel –I just don’t have any energy left over to worry about the larger landscape. People ask me about trends, and honestly, there are other people who have a much better perspective to look at things like that. I will say that I’m super happy for my readers, and for this generation of not only adolescents, but people who are 20, 30, 40 — there are so many different writers approaching YA fiction from their own unique angle. That’s cool.

How have readers’ reactions to Speak changed over the past decade and a half?
You know, they haven’t. It’s fascinating. I worried for a while there –I guess about when Twisted came out, so that was about ’07. I can remember fussing a little bit, thinking that Speak was going to fade away because it didn’t have updated technology in it. There’s no cell phones, and really not internet, or things like that. I don’t know why that hasn’t happened, but it hasn’t. I think it might speak to the universal struggle of having a hard thing in their life that they don’t know how to talk about. Plus, obviously, way too many people have to deal with sexual assault, so there’s that.

What about readers’ attitudes about sexual assault — are they different now than they were when the book was first published?
No. Sadly, no. And I fault my generation, the parents’ generation. We lack the courage to talk to our children honestly about human sexuality. And yet we allow our kids to be submerged in a cesspool of sexual imagery, rape culture crap. The people who are supposed to step up to the plate, to talk to their kids, to teach their children how to be safe — to teach their children, primarily their sons, not to rape people — we don’t do that. Really, what I need to write is a book for parents. I just want to grab them by the shoulders, and shake them, and tell them, “You have fallen down on the job if you raised a rapist.”

And those are the same people who try to ban Speak because they say it’s too dirty.
Oh, people call me a pornographer. That’s always fun. What I’ve learned is that when people want to ban my books, it’s generally because they don’t know how to talk about the topic [in the book], and they’re afraid. I say that if your kid is exposed to the news, online, at night, in the newspaper, then your kid gets to read these books — my books, but also the other YA authors who are handling the realities of our world.

I’ve read that the idea for Speak came to you in a dream — you woke up after hearing Melinda crying in your head.
That was the impetus for the beginning of the writing. With perspective, I think there’s two things that were happening. One was my oldest daughter was starting middle school. So as a parent, you know, [I was] doing the parent freakout: “Oh my gosh. How do I be a mom to somebody going through this?” But also, I had been sexually assaulted a month before ninth grade started. And my family had been in utter chaos because of my dad’s PTSD and alcoholism at that point. So I didn’t tell anybody for 25 years. And I think what happened was that as my own child was beginning to get close to the age where I was raped, that was making me think — and then my subconscious mind, which is the smart part of me, found a way to work through my story in fiction. Speak is not what happened to me, but having that secret and not knowing how to talk about it, that was my struggle. And writing the book was incredibly healing for me. It finally led me to go and get counseling, and then that completely changed my life.

I also read for the first time today that “Sordino” is a musical term that means “mute.” It totally blew my mind.
[laughs] Nice, thank you. That falls under the official category of “sneaky author trick.” It’s really fun to do that.

Are there any other Easter Eggs in Speak that most people don’t know about?
The one that seems to surprise audiences, even audiences of English teachers, is [in] the Thanksgiving Day scene. The dad makes the [turkey] soup, and the soup has to get buried in the backyard because it’s so awful. And Melinda tells us, the reader, that her dad buries the soup next to the grave of her dead dog. And she tells us the dog’s name was Ariel. And Ariel, of course, is the story of The Little Mermaid, who was a character who gave up her voice for a boy.

Going back and looking at Speak, is there anything about it you wish you could change?
I don’t go back and look at it. [laughs] I don’t reread my books after they’re published, because it’s agony. I mean, there’s a couple of sections that I’m pretty proud of, but I always see things that I want to fix. I would edit the life out of that book right now if I could. What was easier about it than my other books, is that when you write that first book, you’re writing really blessed, in a sense, because no one’s watching. I really never thought the book would be published.

Really?
Completely seriously. And it got rejected [by] the first publisher I sent it to. The book was mostly written between 4 and 6 in the morning, and then I’d get my kids up. I was a freelance journalist, I have two kids. Life was busy. But it was a good puzzle to work on, and I learned so much in terms of the craft — I learned so much about voice. And then I had all this voice, but I had to go in and find a plot. The first feedback I got from the editorial board was that they liked it, but they wanted me to turn it into kind of a traditional narrative format. And so my editor at the time had me write a letter to them explaining why I made the artistic choices that I did, and to their everlasting credit, they were really supportive of that.

What did you say?
Well, I talked about the need for people of their age to think about the other kinds of cultural influences that that generation of readers had. If you grew up in the ’60s, you were exposed to text in long blocks — chapters that each had chapter titles, and were ten pages long. But if you grew up watching quick-cut edits on Sesame Street, which then 20 years later led to quick cut edits in music videos — there’s a dissertation waiting to be written about that connection — there was something to be said about using shorter bursts of text, using white space on the page. I was trying to make the form and function marry each other, if I could, and they let me do it.

Was the title your idea?
Yeah, that was one of my few titles that was there from the beginning. Sometimes things just fall out of your head on the paper, and if you’re smart, you learn not to touch them.

I also feel like Speak doesn’t get enough credit for being as funny as it is.
Thank you! This is part of why I’m really drawn to write adolescent characters — I’ve stopped saying “writing for teens,” because the YA audience is now everybody, teens and adults. But to write adolescent characters, you have this amazing secret weapon, and it’s that teenagers are super funny. They’ve just figured out that the world is a stinking ball of hypocrisy, and that’s why they are so lovely and sarcastic. They use humor as a wonderful weapon, and it’s a source of strength.

You’ve written a lot of different sorts of books — historical fiction, contemporary YA, books for younger readers. Do you ever want to write something that’s just kind of lighter and funnier?
You know, I don’t know if you’re familiar with my book Prom.

Oh yeah, I read Prom. I really liked it for being the sort of book that hardly ever gets written these days, just about regular kids doing regular things.
Exactly. And I really loved writing that book, by the way. I had so much fun with it. That’s a light, funny book, and it’s still in print — thank goodness — but I think that it’s challenging for publishers and booksellers when an author steps outside what they’re known for. And for readers too. If I’m lucky, I’ve got another 40, 50 years to write, and there are some other kinds of stories I’d like to tell. I think maybe I might have to do what some other authors do, which is do a variation on my name, just to send readers the message that “yep, this is me, but this is a different part of me. So brace yourself.”

I read also that you’re working on a graphic novel version of Speak.
[gasps] How exciting is that?! I’ve been asking for it for a while. I’m actually working on the script, the text version, now. [My collaborator is] a young woman artist from Vancouver Canada, I believe. Emily Carroll. And I had a hand in choosing her. I mean, Melinda finds her voice and expresses her pain in her art. So how perfect is this? I am just beyond crazy about this idea.

So you must have to reread the book if you’re adapting it.
Yeah, I’m being forced to. [laughs] It’s fascinating. And it’s kind of helpful, I think, that I’ve written a bunch of picture books. Because as the writer, you have to respect your partner, the artist, and recognize that their talents carry all the visual information. So my job is really to create the stage upon which Emily can create her magic.

When I read Speak for the first time as a pre-teen, I was shocked when I finally figured out what had happened to Melinda over the summer. But the book is so well-known now that I’m assuming the kids who read it today know what it’s about even before they get to the big reveal. How do you think your experience of reading Speak changes if you know the whole time that she was raped?
It’s really interesting, because young readers who are in 8th, 9th, 10th grade, who often come across it in English class now — they still don’t know, believe it or not, a lot of them. It’s really interesting to listen to readers tell me when they figured out what had happened. Generally, girls figure it out way before boys, which talks a lot about what our girls know and our boys don’t. Maybe what it does is, if the reader does know going in that this is about the aftermath of a sexual assault, it might give readers the luxury of reading a bit more slowly. From my own experience, if I’m like, “What happened?” I’m flying through the pages of the book. And if you know what the big reveal is, then it becomes a question of “How did she handle it?” Then you can read it with more care.

I’m sure you get this question constantly, but have you considered writing a sequel?
Yeah. [laughs] My favorite request came from a 9th grade guy in Buffalo: “Miss, miss! Please write a sequel, and you can call it Spoke!” [laughs] I’d love to write a sequel. I know my publisher sure would love me to write a sequel. But to write a sequel for a sequel’s sake is, I think, to disrespect the muse. So I’m open to whatever magic there is in the universe that leads us to write. I’m open always to the moment when that story idea might pop up in my head. But it hasn’t yet. It might never pop up. If it does, I’ll write it, but I know I won’t force it.

Without giving the whole sequel treatment, do you have a sense for what happens to Melinda after the end of the book?
Well, the next YA novel I wrote after Speak was Catalyst, which I set in the same high school.

Oh yeah, I forgot about that — there’s a scene that shows her as a sophomore, right?
Exactly. Melinda shows up I think on a page and a half, and you see her through the eyes of a very different character. But I put her in there so readers would know she’s doing okay. She’s doing okay! Given — I met a lot of people on the most recent book tour who read Speak at your age, who are now real adults with lives and jobs, and still rereading it. And that made me think about how old Melinda would be now. Like I said, I’ll still wait for the idea to come. But it might be super interesting to write about her as an adult. Because we know who she is as an adolescent. And it would be really interesting to see what parts of that time of her life are still informing her character as a young woman. So stay tuned; I’ll let you know.

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