Young Adult Author Nina LaCour on Why You Shouldn't Talk Down to Your Readers

Kristyn Stroble
Kristyn Stroble

Nina LaCour is back with another young adult book that deals with grief, romance, and unconventional happy endings. With her latest novel, We Are Okay, the Bay Area author drew from Gothic literature to deliver an irresistibly mysterious story about a teenager named Marin and the life she left behind before moving to New York for college. Marin then confronts her past as her best friend Mabel arrives for a visit. The remainder of the book focuses on their complicated friendship, the loss of her parents, and her grandfather's tragic secret.

What struck me most about We Are Okay is the way in which it maturely handles darker aspects of life while also still appealing to young readers. In speaking to Nina, it became clear that her ability to maintain those two qualities is more organic than it is forced. She said, "I just trust that whatever themes or stories I'll be exploring, young readers will get something from it. Young people's experiences are still human experiences and they're pretty universal." Read our interview in its entirety below, and then read an excerpt from the book.

POPSUGAR: Why did you write this book and what did you want your young readers to take away from it?

"We're all human and we're all figuring it out."

Nina LaCour: When I start writing a new book, for the most part, I don't really think about a message for young readers. I'm really more concerned about myself and what questions I'm interested in, in that moment, and what's happening in my life. I feel like that's where the most authentic writing comes from. I just trust that whatever themes or stories I'll be exploring, young readers will get something from it. Young people's experiences are still human experiences and they're pretty universal. I'm never looking to talk down to a reader or feel like I have great things to teach to a young person. We're all human and we're all figuring it out. At the core are the same experiences, whether you're young or older.

PS: On that topic, grief is very thematically present in the book, both in the way that Marin's grandfather deals with his grief and in the way that she deals with it as well. Was it difficult to write about grief from a younger person's perspective since it is such a weighty topic?

NL: I started writing the book when my daughter was still an infant. Before I became a parent, I didn't fear death. As soon as I became a parent, then came this overwhelming fear for me. I was just kind of haunted by this idea of a girl who would grow up without a mother. For Marin, she doesn't really face that very much until much later in the book. Because of her loneliness and how much she's lost, she protects herself by telling herself that her upbringing with Gramps is all that she needs. So, I feel like her process is really to shut grief out — kind of similar to what Gramps does, but in not as extreme of a way. The book is very much about her journey in figuring out how to face the many immense losses that she's already had in her relatively short life.

PS: I found Marin to be a very dynamic character. What inspired her character? What was your process in developing her character and making her so well-rounded?

NL: I didn't model Marin after anybody, but I think I just really inhabited her as much as possible. I tend to see what I'm writing. I picture the room or the scene, wherever they are, really well. I'm a very slow writer, so I just sit at my desk or at the cafe and just really imagine the room and feel what it would be like to be that character. If anything, I feel very connected to Marin in the way that she thinks about things and sees herself in the world. All of my characters start with myself in some way and then take on lives of their own.

PS: I definitely want to talk about Marin and Mabel's friendship and their romantic relationship within that. I found it to be really realistic, especially since younger people are more openly identifying as being sexually fluid or queer. I'd like to hear more about your decision to make that an aspect of the story.

NL: Well, I had just written two books that really focus on queer relationships [Editor's note: Everything Leads to You and You Know Me Well with David Levithan] and they were real love stories. . . . I wasn't expecting We Are Okay to have that romantic element, but when I was making early notes for myself, I kept getting this feeling between Mabel and Marin. There was some kind of yearning and loss and attention that would have been easier to get past had their friendship been platonic. I think they still would have had a lot to work through, but I just felt like it was such a complicated relationship.

PS: So that wasn't your intention when you started writing the book?

NL: It wasn't. It emerged as I was writing. I actually questioned myself, like, did I want to throw this further complication in? It's just something that emerged between them and I felt like it was meant to be there. Once it was in there, then I really enjoyed exploring it, especially Mabel's sexuality because it is really fluid. I don't define them in the story. I don't label them. Personally, I like "queer" the best because many people are very fluid and that's the term that I feel most comfortable with. I think it's a really inclusive term. That Mabel is currently in a relationship with a guy and has been in a relationship with Marin, I wanted to really explore how both of those relationships matter a lot to her and they were both equally as valid.

PS: I wanted to also chat about Jane Eyre. It's mentioned throughout the book and the book ends with Marin and Mabel watching the film adaptation together. Do you see similarities between the stories?

NL: Well, I used to teach Gothic literature and Jane Eyre was a staple of my class. I was really interested in the idea of ghosts. Jane Eyre is so interesting in that I like how it walks this line on supernatural events. Are they supernatural events or are they all imagined or manifested by the emotional journey that Jane is on? I found that to be a really compelling question for Marin, too. She is really by haunted her grandfather, though not in a literal way. To me, Marin is the kind of character who just runs all the time, before this big tragedy happened in her life. I thought of her as the kind of teenager who would really enjoy Jane Eyre and be drawn to the melancholy of it. Then, she endures this horrible loss and becomes a true orphan, like Jane, and the book then resonates with her in a way that's not as comfortable as it was when she was in her sunny apartment with Gramps.

PS: Would you classify your book as a modern take on the Gothic novel?

NL: It's influenced by those elements. Having the huge, empty dormitory with the tower and a young woman isolated in the Winter — all of those are definitely borrowed from Gothic conventions. That's something that I would leave to the readers. I wouldn't classify it as Gothic, but it's certainly influenced by it.

PS: Would you say the book has a happy ending? I was surprised by it, given how mysterious the rest of the book is.

NL: I've heard definitely conflicting things about the ending. Some people think it's so healing, and some people say the book is so brutal and it never lets up. Without giving away spoilers, the way that I look at it is: there is tremendous generosity, compassion, and love in the world. Marin allows herself to let that in. At the same time, the world is full of horrible things. She's also still facing that and in the process of facing that. I feel like both exist at the same time for her at the end.

PS: What are you personally reading right now? What's on your nightstand?

NL: I just started reading The Mothers by Brit Bennett, which I'm really loving so far. History Is All You Left Me by Adam Silvera is on my nightstand, as is The Careful Undressing of Love by Corey Ann Haydu, both of which I'm really excited to read.