Today I interviewed the author of a book I’m truly excited about. Robin Talley’s debut, the LGBT YA historical novel LIES WE TELL OURSELVES, will be out September 30th, 2014, from Harlequin Teen!
Sarah Dunbar is one of the first black students to attend the previously all-white Jefferson High School. An honors student at her old school, she is put into remedial classes, spit on and tormented daily.
Linda Hairston is the daughter of one of the town’s most vocal opponents of school integration. She has been taught all her life that the races should be kept “separate but equal.”
Forced to work together on a school project, Sarah and Linda must confront harsh truths about race, power and how they really feel about one another.
Boldly realistic and emotionally compelling, Lies We Tell Ourselves is a brave and stunning novel about finding truth amid the lies, and finding your voice even when others are determined to silence it.
Robin Talley grew up in Roanoke, Virginia, writing terrible teen poetry and riding a desegregation bus to the school across town. A Lambda Literary Fellow, Robin lives in Washington, D.C., with her fiancée, plus an antisocial cat and a goofy hound dog. When Robin’s not writing, she’s often planning communications strategies at organizations fighting for equal rights and social justice. You can find her on the web at http://www.robintalley.com, or on Twitter: @robin_talley.
Can you tell us a little about the inspiration for your debut book?
I was first inspired to write Lies We Tell Ourselves during a road trip with my parents. We were talking about their school days back in the 1950s and 60s, and the conversation turned to their fears that the schools would be closed due to the state government’s efforts to resist the Supreme Court’s order to desegregate in their 1954 ruling, Brown v. Board of Education.
Both of my parents were in all-white Virginia high schools during integration. They both saw first-hand the torment that the few black students in their schools were subjected to. These were stories I’d never been taught in history classes, even though I grew up in Virginia too.
I did some research and discovered just how well-organized opposition to the Brown v. Board decision had been throughout the South, especially in Virginia. Virginia was home to the rural Prince Edward County, which shut down its entire school system for five years to avoid integration, and to the city of Norfolk, where 10,000 white students missed out on half a year of their educations ― because the Governor closed down the white schools rather than let 17 black students into their classrooms.
I wondered what it would’ve been like to be one of those 17 students. And what would happen if you were dealing with that ― and if you were gay, too. In 1959, being gay wasn’t something you could tell anyone. Not unless you wanted to risk everything.
By that point, I was too sucked in by that story. I had no choice but to write it.
What kind of research did you do for Lies We Tell Ourselves?
I did a lot of research for this book. I spent several months researching the history of school desegregation and life in the 1950s before I sat down to write the first word of the story. This included a lot of listening to oral histories, reading of newspaper archives, and pouring through vintage high school yearbooks. Most of all, though, I relied on the memoirs of the heroes who lived through school integration and wrote about their experiences, such as The Norfolk 17 by Andrew Heidelberg and Warriors Don’t Cry by Melba Pattillo Beals.
What was the hardest part of writing this particular book?
Getting into the headspace of the characters, especially Linda. Linda ― at least at the start of Lies We Tell Ourselves ― is pretty unbearable. She’s a devout racist. She really and truly believes that white people are superior to black people. That’s diametrically opposed to my own beliefs, so writing from her point of view was a major challenge. It required some serious intellectual aerobics.
Do you have any advice for writers trying to get published?
Make friends with other writers who have the same goals you do. When I first started writing, I didn’t know anyone else who was writing seriously. It wasn’t until after I got an agent that I first really got to know some fellow aspiring YA writers, and I wish now that I’d known them all along. When we first met, we were all unpublished ― and now, we almost all either have books on the shelves or under contract to come out soon. Having people around you who understand what you’re going through is the only way to maintain your sanity.
Thank you so much, Robin!