Author Lois Duncan Picks Her Best Books for Breakups and Thrill Rides
Lizzie Skurnick Books, the imprint founded by the "Shelf Discovery" author, kicks off its mission of reprinting classic young adult novels with the re-release of Lois Duncan's 1958 drama "Debutante Hill." We talked with Duncan about the excitement of seeing "Debutante Hill" back in print with a new cover, plus which of her classics--such as "I Know What You Did Last Summer" and "Stranger With My Face"--she would recommend to today's YA readers in various situations. She also shared fun insights on which of her other books will return to print, as well as how she manages to update her thrillers to keep up with 21st-century social media.
Bookish: Were you nervous or excited about putting "Debutante Hill" back into print? What was your experience rereading it?
Lois Duncan: I was surprised. I had not read "Debutante Hill" for so many years, because it was published in 1958, and I'd gone on and written 50 books since. So, it was like somebody else had written it. I had kept up the copyright all these years because I was afraid that it was a bad book--because it was my first book--and I didn't want it to go into the public domain and have somebody snatch it up and publish it. I'd be embarrassed that they'd think this was my first book, and then [read] my most recent book, and that I was on my way down the hill. So, I went and read it and was very surprised at how well that story had held up. I'm not embarrassed by it at all. I'm quite pleased by it. I've come full circle now.
Bookish: What's your feeling about using the photo of you on the new edition's cover?
LD: I thought it was fun. My father was a magazine photographer; everywhere we went, he took pictures. This was a picture he took at a teenage hang-out--a drive-in where you had the little trays on your cars. I was sitting in my blue Jeep in the foreground of the picture, with some creepy boy I had picked up somewhere. [Laughs.] I sent [my publisher] that picture, and they decided it would be a very "American Graffiti"-type of picture. I was 16.
Bookish: Among your own books, what's the best book for someone struggling to establish his/her independence?
LD: "The Third Eye." It's about a teenage psychic whose mother does everything she can to prevent her daughter from utilizing her psychic ability, because to be labeled "different" will prevent the girl from fitting in socially. Rebelliously, the heroine agrees to work with police to locate missing children.
Bookish: Someone who just got out of a break-up?
LD: "Summer of Fear." The heroine loses her boyfriend to her own sexy cousin.
Bookish: Suspense fans?
LD: "Don't Look Behind You." It's about a family forced into the witness protection program.
Bookish: A reluctant reader?
LD: "I Know What You Did Last Summer." One: Both boys and girls relate to it, because there are both male and female viewpoint characters. Two: Although I didn't intend for this to be a high/low book, it apparently turned out to be one; the characters are in their late teens so teenaged readers don't regard it as "babyish", but at the same time, it's easy to read and understand. It's often used in special ed classes. Three: The title of this book resonates with kids because the movie was a box-office hit.
Bookish: Why do you think your books still resonate with readers?
LD: In the beginning, it was because I was the same age as my readers, and they could relate directly to me. I started submitting stories to magazines when I was 10; I started selling them when I was 13. I was writing for my contemporaries, and the stories rang true for the readers because I was going through the same things they were. As I grew up, my writing grew up with me, but I had five children, and they were spread out--[there's] a 16-year difference between the oldest and the youngest. But, I was always surrounded by kids of different ages and all their friends. Then I taught for a number of years at the University of New Mexico. I can relate very well to all [ages].
Bookish: Do you prefer writing realistic fiction (such as "Debutante Hill") or suspense ("Stranger With My Face," "I Know What You Did Last Summer")?
LD: For the majority of my real career--the heart of my career, the peak--young adult suspense novels. I loved writing in that genre because it gave you so much leeway to develop plot and characters and put people into exciting situations and get them out again. I was fascinated by the metaphysical, but I did not want to become known just for that. So, I would take turns: I would write one book like "Killing Mr. Griffin"--that was pure realism--and then I would write one like "Stranger With My Face"--that was astral projection. I never wanted to write the same book twice. In between, I would write other things, like "Hotel for Dogs," to cleanse my palate.
But, the ones I kept coming back to [write] were the suspense novels because that's the kind of book I enjoyed reading. Also, that's where I became known, and that's what everyone wanted.
Bookish: Did you find it easier to write suspense novels as you wrote more of them?
LD: Yes, I think my writing improved. I'd like to think it did! But, at this stage of the game, I stopped writing teenage suspense when our own teenage daughter was [attacked] in her car and shot to death. At that point, the idea of making up a story about a young woman in a life-threatening situation--when our own young one's life-threatening situation had not been resolved, and it was all I could think about and focus on--it seemed frivolous to make up one. I just could not direct my thinking into creating a fictional situation like that. I've written a couple of books about [my daughter] Kate's murder. The most recent one has just been released: "One to the Wolves."
Bookish: Did you find that cathartic to write?
LD: Not cathartic, except for the fact that it made me feel less impotent. Otherwise, a case gets buried, forgotten. This way, I could actually do something to keep the case alive and to elicit input from tipsters and to fight the system and get things changed…. It gave me a place to direct my grief and fury.
Bookish: Will we be seeing more of your older books back in print? How are you deciding which books will be reissued?
LD: Lizzie Skurnick wanted a lot of them. I looked through them, and there were some that I really didn't like anymore; I didn't want to be represented by them. She's publishing "The Middle Sister," which is a good, solid book. She's publishing an interesting book--it was called "Peggy," and I think I want to expand on that title because it's nondescript. It's written in the first person from the viewpoint of Benedict Arnold's 19-year-old bride, who was involved in the treason. That was my only historical novel I've ever written. It's really an excellent book, I think. I was intrigued when I went back and reread it. That's one that slipped through the cracks.
The one I'm really excited about is called "Written in the Stars"; that's going to come out next September. [It's] a collection of short stories I was writing and having published when I was in my teens. They were all published in magazines, so this will be the first time they've been put together in a collection. I have a blog [entry that goes] behind each story, that describes what was going on in my life at the time I wrote that story. It's always something during my angst-filled youth that I could escape into writing a story about. It's almost like looking back at a journal.
Bookish: What do you think of the use of social media in today's YA books?
LD: It's like it's happening all at once. I haven't been able to inch my way into it, as I inched my way from the typewriter to an electric typewriter to a word processor to a computer. I could do it with time, but now, I don't even know what half the terms mean. Which might make it a little difficult now for me to write for teenagers, because everything I wrote would be outdated.
A couple years ago, [my publisher] decided they wanted to bring out new editions of all [my YA suspense] books, and they asked me if I would be willing to update them to bring them into the present time. So, I updated 10 of them; that was fun. The biggest challenge was the cell phones. A lot of my plots were young women in jeopardy, who could not reach anybody for help. But now, people would say, "Why doesn't she text her boyfriend?" I thought, all my plots are going to be ruined! My challenge was getting rid of the cell phones, in 10 different books. I have to drop one into a toilet; drop one into a river; with one, have the batteries run down; another one gets left in somebody's jacket pocket; another one is borrowed by a friend who doesn't return it. I've reached the point where I phone my teenage grandchildren and say, "Granny needs to kill another cell phone. What can I do?" I felt so proud when I got rid of them all!
I get them out of the area where they can't get a signal. And of course, I had to get rid of their laptops and their smartphones--everything had to go in order to make these plots work. But also, of course, you change the names--my books have a lot of Lucilles and Madisons--and the clothing. Nobody now wears polyester pantsuits. They don't set their hair in bobby pins. All these little things, [readers] say, "Wait a minute, they don't do that now." In "Summer of Fear," I had a young woman who was a witch--meaning, she practiced witchcraft--and I had her fly somewhere. One way you can tell a witch is, she can't be photographed--but she would have to have a photo ID to get on a plane! I couldn't whip out a broomstick because she wasn't that kind of witch.
Bookish: Over the course of your life, which books have you most often recommended to others, and why?
Lois Duncan was a young wife and mother of two when she decided to write a novel to pay the bills. The result was "Debutante Hill." The novel was originally rejected for consideration in the Dodd, Mead and Company's Seventeenth Summer Literary contest due to one character drinking a beer, but after Duncan swapped in a soft drink, she won the prize, which paid the down payment on her first house. Since then, Duncan has written over 50 novels, receiving worldwide acclaim for her young adult fiction. She pioneered the teen suspense novel, and is a regular nominee for the Edgar Allen Poe award. In 1992, Duncan was awarded the Margaret A. Edwards Award For a Distinguished Body of Work for Young Adults. Her novels "I Know What You Did Last Summer" and "Hotel for Dogs" have been adapted into popular films.