Like Thirteen Reasons Why, the novel is told through multiple narratives: recordings left behind by Tim, an albino boy who attended an exclusive boarding school for his senior year with exhilarating and tragic results, and Duncan, a current senior haunted by the events of the previous year who inherits Tim’s room--and the recordings. In a community grounded in rituals and gatekeepers, these very different senior boys are joined by a puzzle, the answers to which are measured out in past and present, CD by CD.
I agonized and empathized with Tim and Duncan as they navigate a parallel landscape of first love in all it's shining, biting, and often terrifying glory and I thought the ending was pretty genius--it pushed the same buttons that make me appreciate a good mystery: powerful and unexpected, the final surprise that, if it's missing, makes even the most explosive but predictable conclusion a bit of a let down. Though it is her first published novel (see below), in The Tragedy Paper author Elizabeth LaBan is an expert storyteller--not shouting to be heard but captivating her readers immediately and intensely, making it difficult to turn away. Nor would you want to.
According to her interview below with bestselling author Jennifer Weiner, Elizabeth LaBan attended the Hackley boarding school in Tarrytown, NY, which served as the foundation for The Tragedy Paper. The two authors--and close friends--also talked about LaBan's book, her favorite reads, and what is apparently a penchant for worrying. I think this is the first time I've seen a Top 10 list...of worries! I'm not sure I'd be game to share my list so my hat is off to LaBan not only for her talent but also her fortitude.Jennifer Weiner: I know you went to a school that’s a lot like the one in the book. How did your own experiences in high school inform the story?
Elizabeth LaBan: Quite a bit–I went to a school called Hackley in Tarrytown, New York, for my junior and senior years of high school. It was very different from the schools I had gone to until that point, and it took a little getting used to. By the time I was a senior, probably even sooner than that, I loved it and really felt like a part of the community. But I had no idea how much it stuck in my head until the story of The Tragedy Paper started to unfold. First of all, the jumping off point for the setting was always Hackley. The Irving School is slightly different (there is no tiny round window above the quad at Hackley the way there is in Tim’s and Duncan’s dorm room, for example), but as I created that fictional world, Hackley was at its base. Even more than that, though, the whole idea of the actual tragedy paper assignment–which I wrote as a senior – was truly stuck in my head all this time. It came tumbling out when I wrote the book.
JW: First novels can tend toward the autobiographical, but this story is told from the point of view of two boys. How hard was it to write from a male point of view?
ELB: First let me say–and you, of course, know this, but other people don’t–this is not the first novel I’ve written, it is the first one that is being published. The first one I wrote–which you have read many times–is about someone who is married to a restaurant critic. That is about as autobiographical as it can get for me. So maybe I got a lot of that out of my system by the time I wrote this book, which is actually my fourth novel.
I didn’t really think that writing from the male point of view was hard. Of all the things I thought about constantly while I was writing The Tragedy Paper, the idea that I was writing from a male perspective wasn’t one of them. When I was writing about Tim and Duncan, I rarely asked myself, what would a boy do in this situation? Instead, I found myself always thinking, what would a teenager say and do? The scenes where I focused most on that issue were when the boys were interacting with each other. From observing my teenage daughter and her friends, I noticed that there is a big difference between the way the girls deal with other girls and the way the boys deal with other boys. Even in the first scene of the book, when Duncan sees Tad for the first time that year, I knew they wouldn’t hug the way girls would. I had to keep those details in mind throughout. While there are clearly great distinctions between boys and girls, they also share a lot of similarities in the way they handle the challenges of adolescence. Young people–boys and girls–have many of the same concerns and obstacles, so when Tim and Duncan were each alone, those were the things I was paying the most attention to.
JW: What do you like to read? For people who fall in love with your book, what other books would you recommend? And what were your favorite books in high school?
ELB: I read a lot. I’ve been to your events where people ask about getting into writing, and one of your tips is to keep reading. I totally agree with that. So what do I read? I’ve been reading a lot of young adult books lately. I can’t get enough of John Green’s books. I don’t know what I would suggest for people who like my book. Some have compared it to Thirteen Reasons Why and Looking For Alaska. I don’t know if people will agree, but I was thrilled by those connections. I’ve always loved books about teenagers. In high school, I loved S.E. Hinton’s books–particularly The Outsiders and That Was Then This Is Now. I had always fancied the idea of being a writer–really since I can remember–but reading those two books made me want to actually do it.
I also read adult books. I love Scott Spencer, John Irving, Curtis Sittenfeld, and Jane Smiley. I discovered another author I love recently named Liane Moriarty. I loved her last two books–especially What Alice Forgot–and now I plan to go back and read her earlier books. And of course I read every book you write–the minute they come out–or even sooner when you offer me an advance copy.
JW: Could you give me your list of the 10 things you’re worrying about right now? Bonus points if one of them is the brown recluse spider.
ELB: Did your mother put you up to that question? I know she always gets a kick out of my long list of worries. I’ll give you a sense of the 10 things I’ll probably worry about over the next few weeks–though I don’t mean the really big worries–like that the world will end or there will be a catastrophe. These are my everyday worries:
1) I worry that the tiny bit of raw chicken juice that got on my finger at the store will somehow give my whole family salmonella.
2) I worry that my son didn’t eat the rather chunky soup I packed in his lunch today–and I don’t mean chunky in a good way.
3) I worry that I won’t make my mother’s 82nd birthday festive enough (she is big on festive).
4) I worry that I’ll forget how much I hate swimming in open water and I’ll find myself between two shores with no place to touch down.
5) I worry that I’ll get stuck in an elevator.
6) I worry that the smoke detector in a hotel room might not work–which makes me worry about all the smoke detectors in the whole hotel.
7) I worry that the hamburger my husband had for lunch wasn’t properly cooked.
8) I worry that I will settle in to watch Parenthood (my favorite show!) and a mouse will scurry across the floor and ruin my night.
9) I worry that writing all of these worries down will make them come true.
10) Also, did you say something about a brown recluse spider?!