I started writing a Contemporary NA about a girl who, among other things, falls for her TA. While shopping for contemp NA to read, I came across a book with a very different cover from the others (which, by the way, was designed by Raeder, because being a brilliant writer is obviously not enough), called UNTEACHABLE, and saw that it, too, was a student-teacher romance. Well, I should really see what other writers with similar stories are doing, I thought.
I bought it. I started reading it. About five seconds in I thought, Oh, crap. This is so good it makes me want to move to a yurt and forsake all typing materials forever. You know the type – the books that make you think “WHY DO I EVEN BOTHER?!” And honestly, I thought about putting it down. I even tweeted about how miserable it was making me to read it. And she saw my tweet, and basically told me to buck up and keep going. And I was all, “OH, STFU, I HATE YOU,” but actually, “ZOMG I LOVE YOU WHERE HAS YOUR WRITING BEEN ALL MY LIFE.” But that was only in my head, I think, or maybe not, because I’m awkward.
ANYWAY, I kept reading, and waiting for it to get bad so I could feel better about myself (I am a PRIZE, I know), but…it didn’t. It was just a really, really, really great book. And then it turned out its author is pretty damn great herself. And didn’t get creeped out when I rec’d her book to every literate person under the sun. And also agreed when I asked her if I could interview her to celebrate her paperback release.
AND SO HERE WE ARE. Ladies and gentlemen: Leah Raeder.
You went through the whole “get an agent, go on sub” thing prior to eventually self-publishing UNTEACHABLE, which you discussed very candidly on your blog. Having now tried things both ways, what would you say to someone who was considering which pub path to choose?
Don’t get seduced by the glamor. Strip away the fantasies and pursue the path that makes the most sense for you. And I mean that for both routes: it’s easy for an unpublished author to get swept away by fantasies of monster advances and movie deals and seeing their hardcovers on the shelves at Barnes & Noble—or, conversely, dreams of becoming an overnight viral sensation on Kindle. Both paths are difficult and success is never guaranteed, even with a traditional deal.
Because self-publishing has long borne the stigma of being the last resort of failed authors, I’m a little more defensive of that route compared to the traditional one. So here’s the part where I say: don’t dismiss self-publishing as being the route of failure. I didn’t choose to self-publish because I “failed” at becoming traditionally published—I chose it because traditional publishing failed me.
Which isn’t to say the traditional model doesn’t work. It does. But it’s seriously flawed, and many skilled, engaging writers are slipping through the cracks. I encourage any writer to consider self-publishing as a viable and equal option alongside traditional pub, not merely as a last resort.
Nearly all of what’s really succeeding in New Adult right now are sexy, commercial, college-set reads, while UNTEACHABLE breaks the mold with both its literary quality and the fact that it’s set in Maise’s senior year in high school. How did you come to the decision that you were going to publish it as NA, and what made you choose to put Maise in high school?
It had to be set in high school for the taboo to be a real issue. College professors hook up with students all the time, and while it’s frowned upon, it doesn’t tend to evoke those visceral feelings of disgust and moral affront. But an eighteen-year-old high school senior is toeing the line between childhood and adulthood, and that’s exactly what the book is all about: identifying where that line lies, then unrepentantly crossing it.
The decision to publish as NA came down to sex and taboo. It’s too sexually explicit for YA, and the way the taboo is embraced doesn’t jive with the cautionary approach YA tends to take, especially with controversial subjects. But the book is about more than sex: Maise’s issues are split between YA (coming of age, first love, high school, parents, boys) and NA (serious LTR, sex, college, money, debt), so I think it’s more of a crossover YA/NA than pure NA. Due to its controversial nature, though, I’m more comfortable simply calling it NA.
One of my favorite things about UNTEACHABLE is the way Evan and Maise are so honest about the fact that the taboo of their relationship plays in to the attraction of it. Knowing that about themselves and each other, why would you say they believe their relationship would be sustainable once it’s no longer a factor?
Answering this would be perilously close to telling readers how to interpret my book, which is a big no-no for me. So I’ll just say: one of the most important things in any relationship is honest communication. If two people can communicate about their relationship with total honesty, that’s a huge point in their favor, even if that relationship contains some disturbing elements.
The characters of Wesley and Siobhan definitely provide both interesting perspectives and varying sorts of moralization on Evan and Maise’s relationship, but they’re also great characters on their own. What inspired your vision of their home life, and what would they be up to in an imaginary sequel?
If Maise and Evan are my ideal teacher/student romance fantasy, then Wesley and Siobhan represent my ideal family fantasy. In some ways I feel like Maise—as if I never really got to be a kid, and will spend the rest of my life trying to capture whatever it was supposed to have been. The Browns are my fantasy of what growing up normal would’ve been like.
What would they be up to in an imaginary sequel? I can’t say, because there’s a possibility (small, but non-zero) that we may someday see that firsthand. (DEAR TEAM WESLEY: PLEASE DON’T KILL ME IF THIS DOESN’T HAPPEN.)
So, I’m just gonna come out and say it – your book is pretty freaking hot. Got any tips for the squeamish on writing scenes on the sexier side?
Booze, booze, and more booze. With a side of booze.
I could lie and say I’m just that mature and in tune with my sexuality, but I’m a terrible liar and a total priss. It was all alcohol. Lowered inhibitions FTW! Also, the whole, “I’ll never make a living writing, so I may as well have fun with this before I throw in the towel and become a surly, misanthropic waitress” thing really helped.
For the record, I can’t re-read certain scenes in Unteachable unless it’s like, after dusk and there is warm, soft lighting in the room and I’m absolutely sure my boyfriend is nowhere nearby to see me blushing my ass off.
Going back to that whole “pub history” thing, UNTEACHABLE was actually your third book. What can you tell us about the other two, and when can we expect to see those up for public consumption? And, because I’m me, when do we get more contemp from you?
Book 1: Zombies! It’s a crossover YA/adult thriller about five strangers who survive the zombie apocalypse together. Four of them are infected. One of them holds the key to stopping the outbreak. Dun dun dunnnn. (Also, it has a teacher/student relationship in it. HAPPY, DAHLIA?) (Blogger’s note: Not really, because IT ISN’T AVAILABLE TO ME AND I NEED IT.)
Book 2: A physically disabled half-cyborg girl must stop the serial killer stalking her spaceship. YA sci-fi thriller. (No teacher/student…but it does have a boss/employee romance, complete with age gap!)
When can you see them? No effing idea. I’m still evaluating how I want to proceed with my career. But I’m planning to have a standalone New Adult contemp romance out sometime this winter-ish.
So, I’m not at all awed or anything that you wrote UNTEACHABLE in a freaking month, obviously, but for those who might be, how did that happen? What parts would you say really wrote themselves the most strongly? And do you have any fast drafting tips or was this a real anomaly for you?
I think it was a combination of experience (each novel has been faster—the previous one took two months), and of learning which scenes are “candy bars” for me—that is, scenes you really look forward to writing that you can basically dangle in front of yourself like sweet, sweet chocolate and creamy nougat.
Unteachable made me finally admit to myself that I love writing romance. There. I said it. I love writing that world-stopping, time-slowing first kiss scene, that OMG-I-need-a-cold-shower first sex scene, all of it. Those are my candy bar scenes. I will always be a tomboy who snickers at candles and roses and shit, but yeah, I confess, I’m in love with love. AND I’M TOTALLY FINE WITH THAT. Mostly.
So as to which parts wrote themselves: the Evan scenes. All of them.
Also, I’m a fervent Scrivener disciple. Once I switched from Word to Scrivener, my writing sped WAY up. Having all your notes in one place is invaluable, and it’s awesome being able to visually storyboard with index cards. Going back to Word now would be like trying to write longhand.
Maise listens to music often throughout the book, though UNTEACHABLE’s wise author knows to ix-nay other people’s lyrics in your writing unless you want to shell out for permissions. Now that we’re in a safe, bloggy zone where we can talk about such things (I think? Right? Am I going to get sued for asking this? Please don’t sue me), what songs and, more specifically, which lyrics, really scream UNTEACHABLE/Maise/Evan to you?
I love you for asking this, even though we are probably the only two people on Earth who actually care. <3
The main theme is (surprise!) “Maps” by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs: “Wait, they don’t love you like I love you.” It applies to so many relationships: Wesley’s love for Maise, Maise and Evan’s love for each other, even Maise’s troubled love for her mother. But mostly I associate it with the way Evan loves Maise. Even though the story is told from her POV, I kind of see her the way Evan does, as the shooting star he can’t hold. She feels like a real person who just took over my brain, wrote her own book, then walked away and vanished, leaving me empty and aching with wonder. I miss her.
Maise’s theme is “Bravado” by Lorde, because…well, the title, obviously! But also lines like: “I’m faking glory / Lick my lips, toss my hair and send a smile over / And the story’s brand new / But I can take it from here / I’ll find my own bravado.” It’s about a lonely girl faking confidence, and there’s this gorgeous gospel choir that captures the soulful sadness at the core of her, and it’s just friggin’ perfect.
Evan’s theme is “Shooting Stars” by Bag Raiders, for obvious reasons: “I’m in love with a shooting star / But she moves so fast / When she falls, then I’ll be waiting.” I also heavily associate him with “When in Rome” by Band Called Catch: “I remember that night like it was the beginning of the rest of my life,” “And I rose to your love / Like a blackbird to his dove.” Which sounds a lot less cheesy when the dude sings it.
Then there’s Lana del Rey’s “Young and Beautiful” right before the big I Love You: “Will you still love me when I’m no longer young and beautiful? / Will you still love me when I’ve got nothing but my aching soul?”
And finally, “Girls Like You” by The Naked and Famous. It’s the song I hear in the very final scene when the “music fades in,” and it is so Maise, man. Listen to it. I can’t quote from it because the entire damn thing is relevant. Whenever I hear it, I picture that plane on the runway and get this funny feeling in my throat and the screen gets blurry and fuck, let’s change the subject.
UNTEACHABLE is set in the Midwest, where you currently reside, but you’ve lived in cities including LA, NY, and Tehran. Any of your past home cities particularly inspire you, and will we see any of them appearing in future books?
Absolutely, and maybe. I am so over the eight months of cold and darkness you get each year in Chicago. I need to live somewhere with more sunlight and less concrete, and I think my longing for that bled a bit into UT.
I’m not sure if I’ll write about the big cities I’ve lived in. What I really love is writing about little out-of-the-way places you don’t usually see in popular fiction. Also, the Midwest (the real Midwest, not Chicago) is seriously under-represented in everything except, like, MFA-produced literary fiction.
And now, it’s book rec time! What teacher-student relationship books must get a shoutout? And which New Adult books are your absolutely favorites?
The Adults by Alison Espach is one of my all-time favorite teacher/student books. Even though the romantic relationship is totally fucked-up and dysfunctional, the book has this dry, black humor that makes it compulsively readable. It’s lit fic, not romance, though. I also liked R.A. Nelson’s YA contemp Teach Me, which has an entertainingly batshit heroine who goes on a crazed revenge quest, and Cathy Coote’s Innocents, which is a pretty graphic and disturbing YA (sort of?) inversion of Lolita: the student is actually the villain.
And I have to give Taming the Beast by Emily Maguire an honorary shout here. It is not, in any way, a romance, but rather a brutal portrait of a young woman who’s completely devastated by her affair with a sadistic teacher. It’s like watching Dolores Haze grow up…when she becomes a walking timebomb. There’s real pain and despair in this book. It’s by no means a pleasure read, but if you like dark and bleak, you may dig it.
As for New Adult…I don’t read it. I can’t stand the misogyny and superficiality that’s so rampant in NA, so it’s difficult for me to find a title I can read without grinding my teeth. We can, and should, be doing so much better. I’m dying to find a new Laurie Halse Anderson in NA. I crave complex, nuanced characters and Serious Issues that aren’t just played for cheap angst. NA is still in its infancy, and I hope that in time, great new voices emerge.
In case you can’t tell from my having her here, and also from my raving about UNTEACHABLE like a freaking madwoman, there’s a great NA voice right here in Leah Raeder and her debut, so if you haven’t already, pick it up ASAP (in paperback, even!), love it like I did, and stay tuned for more!
YOU SHOULD PROBABLY BUY IT.
Got questions for Leah? Ask them here! (You can also follow her on Twitter at @LeahRaeder! And you totally should.)