Author Elizabeth LaBan This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine.

February 19, 2014
Debut author Elizabeth LaBan hits the heartstrings with her first novel, The Tragedy Paper. LaBan paints a haunting tale of how the past can affect the future in this modern-day tragedy that takes place at a private school. The novel focuses on two boys who despite their differences share two common aspects of their lives – the senior year Tragedy Paper and the Game.

What inspired you to write your own tragedy?

The idea of literary tragedy got lodged in my head when I wrote a tragedy paper my senior year of high school. I always loved the twists and turns, as well as the amazing words associated with it – like hubris, magnitude, and reversal of fortune. It’s something I always wanted to do.

The novel is told from the perspective of two very different young men. How, as a woman, do you channel the opposite gender?

There were definitely times when I had to think about how a boy would react versus a girl in situations. For example, when Duncan enters the dorm for the first time his senior year and sees his good friend Tad, I thought about how their greeting might be different from two girls seeing each other after summer break. There were lots of situations like that, and I paid attention to the teenage boys I know to get a sense of what might work. But as far as getting into their thoughts, I was much more concerned with how a teenager might think about this or that than how a boy would think.

One of the main characters – Tim – is an albino. Why did you decide to make him different in this way?

It’s funny, because, of course, making Tim an albino was a very definite decision, but now I can’t imagine that Tim could be anyone else. Once I made that decision, it stuck for me. I was looking for something that made him different because I think most teenagers feel different and unsure and think everyone is looking at them and judging them. Tim’s being an albino highlights this.

I didn’t want whatever his “thing” was to make it hard to live his daily life, I didn’t want him to be sick or in pain. I also didn’t want him to look ugly or have it be an obviously bad thing – though, of course, Tim sees it as bad. It really just worked for his character, and now, for me, it’s just who he is.

Does the novel capture any real-life traditions that were part of your own private school experience?

Yes! For my last two years of high school, I went to the Hackley School in New York. Much more than basing characters on real people, I based much of the Irving School on Hackley. I too wrote a tragedy paper as a senior there, and there really is an arch that says “Enter Here to Be and Find a Friend,” and my senior English teacher, Mr. Naething, really did dismiss us each day by saying, “Go forth and spread beauty and light.” But there is also much that is completely fiction: the set-up of the dorm halls and the senior game, just to name a few.

When you were a student, did you have a teacher who acted as a mentor to you, similar to Mr. Simon?

I did have an English teacher when I was a senior in high school who had a big impact on me, Mr. Arthur Naething, but I didn’t see him as much as a mentor as I did a true teacher and inspirer (if that’s even a thing). He was a bigger-than-life figure who made everything we studied interesting and approachable. He also somehow helped me realize how much I love to write. I didn’t know him in the same way Tim and Duncan get to know Mr. Simon because I was never a boarding student, but I did have Mr. Naething in mind when I wrote Mr. Simon.

A novel is never an overnight project. How long did you work on it?

A long time. I think it took about a year to write the first full draft (which was really the fifth or sixth draft, but good enough to send to editors). Then it took a few months before my amazing editor Erin Clarke at Knopf bought it. And then it was a solid two years before it was printed. The short answer is a little over three years from idea to actual book.

For aspiring writers, the goal of getting published can feel daunting. What advice would you have?

Never give up. The Tragedy Paper is actually my fourth novel, though it is my first published one and my first young adult novel. It would have been so easy to give up after the first novel was rejected, or the second, or the third.

One thing that helped me stick with it was my amazing agent, Uwe Stender. Based on what I know now, I would also suggest that when aspiring writers choose an agent, they try to connect with someone who sees them having a career and not as writing just one book. The fact that my agent has turned out to be that way is pure luck. Another agent might have given up on me after that first book wasn’t bought. Uwe, however, kept believing in me and helped guide me to the right genre.

How has your life changed since the publication of your novel?

In the sense that I have accomplished one of my huge life goals, I feel extremely lucky and fulfilled. But I would say my general day-to-day life has not changed. I have thoroughly enjoyed the book events I’ve done, and interacting with readers, but I am still the same person, sitting at the same dining room table, typing on the same laptop with all the same insecurities about my writing. I still get as excited when I see an e-mail from my editor, publicist, or agent.

Do you have any other work in progress?

Yes – a second young adult book. It is completely different from The Tragedy Paper, with a female protagonist this time. I am also returning to the second book I wrote, which is women’s fiction, and rewriting it with the hope of selling it.

What novels and authors influenced your decision to become an author?

S.E. Hinton’s books transformed me. I was mesmerized by That Was Then, This Is Now. It made me want to make people feel that way through my writing. Also, finishing that book was the first time I ever deeply missed characters. It was a crazy feeling and I loved it (and also was so sad at the same time).

When you write, do you plan out the events first or come up with a main idea and let your character take over?

I would say a little of both. I like having a broad sense of where the story is going before I really start, but I am open to things changing as I get to know the characters. My first draft is usually just slogging through, laying down the story and beginning to figure out who the characters are. I sometimes let them take over, and those can be exciting writing moments. By the end, I feel I know them so well there is really no question how they will handle a situation. But it is a process. I am a terrible outliner – I hate writing them. I force myself to try to get a sense of the book as a whole, but half the time I never look at my outlines again!

Do you have a specific space that you use for writing or do you write wherever and whenever an idea hits you?

I typically write at my dining room table on my laptop. But I can write anywhere – in the den upstairs if my kids have friends over, at the kitchen table, in a hotel room, at a café. If I’m somewhere without my laptop and I’m hit with an idea, I jot it down on a scrap of paper. I have lots of tiny pieces of paper all over the place. In fact, when I was first working on my current work-in-progress, I thought of a sentence to end the first chapter. I was out with a friend and wrote it quickly on an old receipt in my purse. Then I forgot about it. I came across it not too long ago as I was finishing the draft. I had ended that first chapter some other way, but the idea I had scribbled down was so much better. So I changed it.

Do you manage to find time to write every day? Do you write what comes to mind or work on a specific project until it is complete?

Many writers set aside a block of time each day to write, but I don’t work that way. I try to, but I do a lot of freelance journalism work, editing, and ghost writing. So, if I have a deadline for one of those projects, I focus on that. If I have a deadline for a book or a round of edits, then that would always be my priority. I do tend to work on one fiction project at a time.

This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.

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