Laurie Halse Anderson, the bestselling author of Speak (a National Book Award Finalist and Edgar Allan Poe Award Finalist) talks with Karen Hesse, MacArthur “Genius” Fellow and author of Safekeeping, a haunting look at a near-future America with chilling overtones of a political dystopia.
Laurie Halse Anderson: Safekeeping is your first YA novel in many years. Why this book, and why now?
Karen Hesse: Witness, published in 2001, was my last YA novel. I’m relieved to see Safekeeping also classified as YA. As for why this book, and why now, I watched the rapid rise of the Tea Party leading up to the midterm elections the way one watches a car accident, horrified, but unable to turn away. I’ve lived in Vermont for nearly forty years. We’re not all in agreement up here, not by a long shot. And we, too, have our tragedies. But we have a well-earned reputation for being neighborly to just about everyone, including those who hold vastly different opinions from our own. I am not seeing that kind of “neighborliness” in the Tea Party rhetoric nor in their behavior to date in Congress. My hope is for an educated electorate. One that asks questions, gathers reliable information, and makes a reasoned choice in the voting booth. I’m not kidding myself. Safekeeping will have no effect on the upcoming elections, but I wrote it because it was the best way to address my growing political anxiety.
LHA: In the book, politics have undone the U.S. What kind of research did you do for this part of the plot?
KH: I started with general research about the rise and fall of governments, cultures, and societies over the long story of mankind. I spoke with several historian types as I began narrowing the wide reach of my research net. Much of my reading, in the end, focused on Europe during the 1920s to 1940s, particularly France and England. Then the events in the Middle East began to unfold. I watched the news, especially the reports from Egypt, with fascination and awe.
LHA: Would you describe Safekeeping as “dystopic”?
KH: Yes. The fictional present of the book is not that many years from now, and though not everything is bad in this novel, I certainly wouldn’t call it utopic. My intention, when writing it, was to squint into the future, taking into account the direction the Ship of State might be heading over the next few years. Safekeeping is a window inside my brain as I contemplated the possible consequences of future national elections.
LHA: In the midst of so much unrest, Safekeeping has at its heart a story of friendship. What led you to the choices you made about Radley’s companion on her journey?
KH: Radley, in early drafts, traveled alone, just as most of my walking research was done as a solitary endeavor. But two dear friends offered to walk part of the journey with me. Sandy King, the head of the children’s room at Brooks Memorial Library, walked with me between Putney and Bellows Falls. Liza Ketchum, a courageous YA author and longtime mentor and friend, joined me for several miles approaching White River Junction. When I walked alone, I felt self-conscious and paranoid. I thought mainly of my own misery (the rain and bugs really got to me after a while) and my peril (cars and trucks often appeared to be steering directly at me). Yet when I walked with Liza or Sandy, I stopped noticing the road, I stopped thinking about myself. The transformation of my experience of the walk, from unaccompanied to companionship, made a profound impression on me. The insight I got from Sandy and Liza’s fellowship was truly illuminating. Radley had to start this journey on her own, but it was vital to her growth as a character to place someone beside her. What a wonderful question, Laurie. Thank you.
LHA: You made another bold decision — to include your photographs in the book. They are beautiful. What made you decide to include them, and how do they affect the narrative?
KH: Thank you, Laurie, for your kind words about the photographs. You’ve only seen the Advanced Reading Copy. The quality of the images in the finished book, on good paper, should be much better. Ever since I discovered the work of Wright Morris, I have yearned to have a try at widening the scope of fictional narrative with photography. My editor, Jean Feiwel, has always been willing to consider the use of my photographs in my novels, but she has never felt the projects I’ve brought to her were the right ones…that is until I submitted Safekeeping (originally titled We Shadows). It was Jean who suggested that, at last, with this project, it was time. I didn’t want the photographs to be slavishly tied to the text. I didn’t want to talk about a cow and place beside it a picture of a cow. I didn’t want the image to be a caption for the text nor the text to be a caption for the image. I hoped, instead, that the reader would study the image and speculate on why I might have chosen to place that particular photograph in that specific location in the story. I love in Wright Morris’s work how he asks the reader to make great leaps to bridge the distance between image and text. Reading Morris’s work is exhilarating, challenging, and supremely satisfying. I wanted to provide that same exquisite calisthenics-of-the-brain experience for my readers.
LHA: Karen, you were kind enough to praise my novel, Speak, many years ago. We’ve both been writing for a long time. How has YA literature changed since the earlier days?
KH: Laurie, it was a thrill to enter the mind of your narrator so many years ago. I’m a sucker for a compelling narrative voice and you totally nailed it in Speak. I have to confess that I am not reading as much YA literature as I once did, so I can’t intelligently answer the question, but I’d be curious to hear your thoughts.
I think that our readers are more comfortable with topics that used to be considered off-limits. Perhaps that is a reflection of how much harder life is for teens today. I also think the rich diversity in dystopian and fantasy fiction has broadened everyone’s imagination. That’s part of why I’m so excited for Safekeeping.