St. Martin’s Griffin, 2011
I can’t say it’s a pleasure to read a book about hate crimes by teens. But since hate crimes against Latinos have seen the highest spike in more than a decade – according to the FBI, over 66% of hate crimes in 2010 targeted Latinos – I was intrigued to find LIE by Caroline Bock. This debut novel tackles the topic by taking us inside the minds of both victims and victimizers. Ten lives intersect one horrible night when two brothers – one an immigrant from El Salvador, one a natural US citizen – are brutally assaulted by a group of Long Island teenagers. The novel lays bare the land mines of power groups among teens, racism, and ineffective adults. Mostly, though, I admire this powerful book for making us consider the bigger question of how hatred this dark can take root in people who are young, bright, and at the beginning of everything.
I’m honored to introduce you to Caroline Bock in my first Q & A feature, where we’ll talk about both craft and content.
Congratulations on a great debut, Caroline. To start us off, would you tell us a little bit about yourself in terms of what brought you to writing? What made you move from film and marketing to the world of writing for young people?
Thank you so much, Meg. I feel like I’m in terrific company with you and your readers!
I’ve always had dual career dreams – to work in television and to write novels, screenplays and poetry. I was the editor of my high school literary magazine, I went to college, on scholarship, and majored in Communications and English at Syracuse University. I thought I would work for a few years in this job I found as a public relations assistant for a cable network and then go to graduate school and write my novels. Twenty years later, I was leading the marketing and public relations teams at Bravo and at the Independent Film Channel and I realized that I hadn’t written that novel I thought I would always write. I quit. (Well, it wasn’t as easy a decision as that but pursing one’s dreams is important at any age, isn’t it?). So about eight years ago, I started my second career as a writer, which by then also included being a mom.
Is the title LIE, as in the Long Island Expressway… or is the title Lie, as in an untruth? Both work, of course, but which did you have in mind?
Originally it was L.I.E. — after the expressway – I thought I was being clever. But here’s why having early readers – and little brothers — is so important. My younger brother, David, who lives now in Cleveland, Ohio read the title and said to me, “What are you thinking? Nobody outside of New York is going to know why you are naming your novel after a highway.” So, after some thought, I changed the name to LIE, as in “untruth,” though I asked my publisher if we could have the title all in caps so all the New Yorkers – and all the close readers — would read the double meaning.
We’re both Queens, New York girls, which is always fun to find out. Do you still live and write there?
When I was in my 20s, I lived in Queens in several different neighborhoods — Flushing, Rego Park, Forest Hills. In LIE, I write about baseball and the Mets — I lived within walking distance of the baseball stadium – and it was a lot of fun going to games with my super-fan husband. About a dozen years ago, I moved out to Long Island where I live now – but it’s still only about 30 minutes (without traffic) to get to a Mets game and we are often there.
What drew you to write a novel about a hate crime against Latinos on Long /Island?
The first was having a very good friend from El Salvador with two teenage sons. The second was reading a 2008 front page New York Times story about the murder of young man from Ecuador by a group of mainly white teens on Long Island, who were out “beaner-hopping” in their words, i.e. beating up people they assumed were Latinos for sport.
I kept asking myself, “How could this happen here – in Long Island, in these nice middle class suburbs, in the 21st century?” I turned to my friend and asked her that. She wasn’t shocked – she knew prejudice, discrimination, violence — she knew it well in El Salvador, where she fled from a civil war, and here, on Long Island in New York.
Describe your research for this novel. Were there any surprises as you dug into real-life cases? Have you come to any personal conclusions about what spurs this type of violence?
I read intensively about hate crimes across the country; I spoke at length to many friends and acquaintances from places such as El Salvador, Dominican Republic, Cuba and Puerto Rico about their experiences in the suburbs; I even called the county sheriff’s office to confirm details about visiting hours for the county jail. However, I never spoke with anyone involved with the actual incident on Long Island. By the end of the day, when I started writing, I wanted to make these characters my own and I put away the research. I think that’s why you come way feeling that these characters are “real” – the fiction makes them so.
In doing my research what surprised me—and saddened and angered me the most—was learning that these kind of violent hate crimes against Latinos were not isolated to Long Island in any way. I keep hearing from readers across the country that they can relate to the themes in the novel.
One last thing, one thing that kept me going: all four of my grandparents were immigrants (from Russia, Poland and Italy) and they had hard times when they first arrived. They faced discrimination and many obstacles to the American dream. Yet, what I want more than anything is for this country to shed our 20th century prejudices. I hope my debut novel makes people think about how we break the cycle of racism and prejudice and embrace the diversity that is the destiny of the America in the 21st century.
You tell this novel from alternating points of view. Tell us a little bit about that decision. What worked about that strategy and what was difficult?
I think I should have put a warning label on my novel: beware 10 distinct first person points of view even though 17-year-old Skylar and Sean emerge as the two main characters.
What worked? I believe in some ways the reader becomes the 11th point of view and hopefully is asking himself or herself by the end of the novel: what would I have done? There’s not a lot of authorial moralizing in this book – which some readers have liked and others have been critical of – you read it and judge!
What was difficult? I had 10 different characters in my head – sometimes all talking to me at once, demanding to be written.
Many of the characters in LIE fall far short of the way we’d like to think that people of good conscience behave. I admire that you still make them feel fully realized – and not just twirling moustache bad-guys. Which character proved the most challenging for you to write? Is there a favorite – or one you’d like to slap around in a dark alley?
I’d like to give a good talking to Lisa Marie. She’s the best friend from hell.
To some extent, all writers call on their personal experience in shaping characters. Skylar lives with her single dad, a trait you share with her. How did your life experience of being raised by your father inform how you developed these two characters?
When I was four-and-a half my mother had a stroke, which left her brain-damaged and paralyzed and hospitalized for the rest of her life. My father raised four kids alone and I’m the oldest of the four. There was always a sense of loss in our house. We were the kids without the mother. I felt like I had to find my own way in life, though my father was there – a big, gruff, kind-hearted presence.
So when I started writing and I wanted to create a particularly vulnerable family, I created Skylar, who had lost her mother the year before from cancer, and her father, Tommy Thompson. I didn’t realize how much I was drawing on my inner self until I finished writing but I think that’s the way it is with a lot of writers.
You delve into the psychology of power. I’m always interested in how that plays out in the lives of young women. Can you talk a little bit about the relationship between Jimmy and Skylar?
Jimmy, the leader of the group, handsome, confident, star Scholar-Athlete, wants to control Skylar – as much as he wants to control everyone around him. He sees the world in terms of winners and losers – and he plans to be a “winner.” In his world, there’s “first place or no place.” Why wouldn’t Skylar want to be his girlfriend? Everyone wants to be Jimmy’s friend. Haven’t so many of us felt giddy being picked by the boy we thought could do no wrong – until he does.
The book contains violence, sexuality, and suicide. What’s your answer to critics of these elements in books for young people?
I devoured novels as a teen to understand the way the world works – I think many teens read for that reason. At the end of the day, we can’t make the world — either in fantasies such as Hunger Games or in contemporary, realistic novels such as LIE – any prettier or lighter than it is and still be true to our characters and our stories – and our lives.
Most of all, I’m in the Sherman Alexie camp (one of my inspirations for LIE is his brilliant novel: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian). Earlier this year, he wrote in the Wall Street Journal a response to such critics that he writes books for teenagers, “Because I vividly remember what it felt like to be a teen facing everyday and epic dangers. I don’t write to protect them. It’s far too late for that. I write to give them weapons—in the forms of words and ideas – that will help them fight their monsters.”
Yes, but they are still in development, and I am very superstitious and cannot talk about them until I know they will exist beyond my computer screen. But I do hope to have a long second career writing novels, screenplays and poetry, so stay tuned as they say in television.
Meg, thank you for the chance to speak with you and your readers!
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