YA Wednesday: Lucas Klauss on Being a Guy Writing YA
It isn't every day that Booklist predicts a debut novel may "become the sustained hit that Chbosky’s Perks of Being a Wallflower proved to be," so when Everything You Need to Survive the Apocalypse (a January Best Book of the Month) author Lucas Klauss agreed to write something exclusive for our YA Wednesday column, I was delighted!
We bounced around a few ideas but kept coming back to his first suggestion: explaining why he, a grown man, reads and writes young adult books. I've not done the actual math but any YA reader knows that a majority of books in the genre are by a woman.
So what made Lucas decide to write about teens instead of "someone his own age?" A lot of reasons, actually, and yes his love of Coldplay factors into it.
I really like being an adult. Reasonable bedtimes? Awesome. Weddings and babies? I love weddings and most babies. A diet that doesn’t consist entirely of chicken fingers? Hell, yeah!
And as I rapidly approach 30, that glorious birthday on which I shall finally, truly become old, I find that I care less and less what other people think of me. In fact, this might be the greatest advantage of being a grown man, especially considering my taste in music.
Let it be widely known: I like Coldplay.
Of course, I am still very much aware of people’s perceptions of me—or what I imagine their perceptions to be. (Coldplay makes beautiful music, okay?! Back off.) And now that I am a published young adult author, in addition to my job as, essentially, a reviewer of YA fiction, some of the people in my imagination look at the direction my life has taken, furrow their brows, and mumble: “Weird.”
These imaginary people have a point. After all, I, a grown man on the verge of oldness, spend most of my days reading and writing about adolescence. Make-believe adolescence. And make-believe adolescents!
So, yes: weird.
Yet I feel hugely fortunate to have so weird a life. I love YA and am thrilled to be a part of the community that has developed around this burgeoning literature. I am too old to feel I need to justify my enthusiasm; but I hope I never tire of wondering why. Herewith, then, my invented critics and curious readers, a few of the reasons I read and write YA:
Communication. Most YA novels tell a story in a direct way, unencumbered by cynicism, cleverness, or pretentiousness. Teenage readers will not tolerate that bulls**t. True, this approach, like any other, has limitations, and more oblique methods can yield surprising insights, but I find young adult literature’s straightforward style refreshing and rewarding. If one of the major goals of fiction is to help us empathize with one another—or, from a different point of view, to help us feel less alone—then why not try simply to communicate?
Accessibility. “Accessible,” as a description of a story, can sometimes be a backhanded compliment meaning “cliché,” “weak,” or “suitable for idiots.” But I think of YA literature’s accessibility as one of its most important and exciting features. Generally, YA novels appeal both to dedicated readers and to “reluctant” readers, teens who read only occasionally or not at all. Many YA books, including some of my favorites, such as the Escape from Furnace series, are targeted to these intermittent readers. In this way, YA aims to bring a diverse, wide audience (including adults!) into what my high school English teacher, Ms. Collins, called “the Great Conversation.”
Impact. Some in the adult literary fiction world worry that the novel is an irrelevant art form. (As the literary magazine n+1 described many contemporary writers’ attitude toward writing: “What is it, again, you once had to say? And who, supposedly, wanted to hear it?”) Few in the YA fiction community, I’d say, feel similarly. I refer not only to the growth in sales and increasing cultural prominence of YA novels over the past decade but also, more importantly, to this literature’s ability to expand young people’s imaginative horizons, alleviate their loneliness, and even change their lives.
That may sound grandiose and self-serving but I don’t think it’s delusional. In reaction to an essay in The Wall Street Journal last year decrying the supposed “darkness” of current YA novels and the potentially harmful effects thereof, thousands of readers testified to the critical importance of YA literature in their lives. Many described, often using the Twitter hashtag “#YAsaves” created by author Maureen Johnson, how reading YA novels helped to stop them from harming or killing themselves; others mentioned that encountering LGBTQ characters their age helped them become more comfortable with their identities.
A book is not a rescue device. And we, the YA community, should avoid self-righteousness. But I am happy to be part of a literature in which the novel’s relevance is proven every day in the lives of its readers.
Storytelling. I can appreciate a postmodern romp. I can totally get into a sprawling, satirical take on contemporary America. But what really excites me is a damn good story. And I think that some of the best, boldest storytelling in today’s culture is happening in YA literature. As examples I would submit a variety of 2011 YA novels, ranging from the realistic to the fantastical but all damn good, including Coe Booth’s Bronxwood, John Corey Whaley’s Where Things Come Back, Marcus Sedgwick’s White Crow, Christine Hinwood’s The Returning, and Laini Taylor’s Daughter of Smoke and Bone. And if reading those is not enough to convince you of my point, I have plenty of other examples handy. (Just please return them when you’re done. Having full, prominent bookshelves is an important part of being an adult.)
Community. YA authors are lucky to have, in teen readers and “crossover” adult readers, a passionate, inquisitive, and open-minded audience. And most YA authors are, in my experience, not just engaged with and inspired by their fellow authors’ work but supportive of their fellow authors’ careers—and they’re generally pretty nice people too. As a result, YA has the support of an ideal readership, the features of a thriving artistic community, and, at its best, the feel of a really big group of friends.
I’m not so blissed out on YA that I’ve forgotten it is, at its core, a business. But my tax bracket would probably be proof enough that money is not my motivation; nor is it, I’d wager (with small bills), most YA authors’ reason for doing what they do.
And, to be clear, I don’t sit down with a YA novel and think, “I can’t wait to be communicated to right now!” or open a blank page on my laptop and say, “Man, am I going to make a difference in some kid’s life with these words!” Though maybe it’s worth a shot.
What motivates me, ultimately, is what motivates any reader and writer: the desire to see the world from another perspective, the longing to adequately express one’s own perceptions, and, as a participant in the Great Conversation, the ability to be a part of something larger than oneself.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go pour myself a glass of wine, put on some Coldplay, and curl up with a full, prominent bookshelf.