Meet Liz Lawson and THE LUCKY ONES
The pre-publication buzz for Liz Lawson’s debut young adult novel The Lucky Ones (Delacorte Press) was hard to miss. Throughout the winter, non-stop praise flowed from a starred Kirkus review, positive notices from School Library Journal and Publisher’s Weekly, and glowing individual responses from readers with advance copies. Unfortunately, as the April 7, 2020 publication date neared, the COVID-19 pandemic unfolded, causing all of Lawson’s in-person publicity events to be cancelled. On a more positive note, those who read The Lucky Ones continue to rave about it online. Now, Nerdy Book Club is honored that Liz Lawson agreed to answer some of our questions about her work.
The Lucky Ones focuses on the aftereffects of a school shooting. May and Zach are alternating narrators with different connections to the shooting. May’s twin brother was one of the victims, and Zach’s mother is the killer’s defense attorney. Although they would seem unlikely to find common ground, May and Zach eventually realize that they are also victims and hardly “the lucky ones,” as the survivors are sometimes called.
Those of us who work with students know that school shootings are on the minds of today’s young people. They arrive on campus each day with the grim awareness that tragedy can unfold anywhere on any day, and no one seems to have functional ideas or the political will to stem this societal problem. The Lucky Ones will help students think about and process this issue that is such a concern for America’s schools.
Let’s start with the question that we all seem to be asking each other during this epidemic. How are you doing? How are you spending time?
I’m doing okay! I’ll admit, some days (some moments) are harder than others, but generally speaking I’m okay. Worried for the world, our country, and so many people and small businesses, but personally, I’m doing okay. Gotta admit though, it’s sort of a bummer to have my debut come out right now but trying my best to pivot!
I always like to ask this question to people who write for teen readers: What were you like in high school? Are you still the same in any way, and how are you different now?
I was pretty emotional in high school, and I was always a writer. I gravitated toward English and History—stories of people—and always found Math, particularly to not really be my thing. I’d say I’m similar to how I was then, but more even-keeled in adulthood, and more able to see things from other people’s POVs.
Let’s delve into The Lucky Ones. Your book deals with the aftermath of a school shooting. Obviously, this is a somber subject. Although your book is more than simply a “school-shooting book,” what drew you to this subject matter, and what do you hope will draw readers to it?
I grew up and graduated from high school right when Columbine happened, and that changed the entire landscape of our country, forever. I started writing this book for all the kids who are faced with this reality, day in and out. I wrote it for the kids who have lived through the shootings that are mentioned above and the many other shootings that aren’t, and for those who fear that they might endure a similar fate someday. For those who have made their way through painful, heartbreaking times and managed to find their way through to the other side. I wanted to show them that there is hope.
May and Zach, the two main characters and narrators of The Lucky Ones, have distinctive voices. How did you manage the challenge of creating two strong voices, one male and one female?
Thank you so much! That was hugely important to me while writing the book—to create these two characters with voices distinct enough that they really did seem like two individuals rather than one creation from my brain. When I started writing it, I read something that said that an author’s goal with dual POV is to create voices distinct enough from each other that if a reader opens the book to any given page, they’ll automatically know which head they’re in. I kept that in mind while writing. Zach and May are so different from each other, that in the end, once I figured out who they were in their heart of hearts, their voices came pretty easily. May is so outwardly angry at the world and hides her broken insides, whereas Zach shows a lot more internal sadness, and is much more vulnerable.
Something that really impressed me with your book is how the face-to-face conflict scenes are super-intense in their action, and the more interior, psychological moments are just as intense in their complexity. As a writer, do you bring somewhat different mindsets to those separate challenges?
Thank you! Writing the two different kinds of scenes each bring their own individual challenges. Interior moments are so hard, because describing someone else’s emotional responses is tricky—I tried to make them just right and in line with how people generally experience PTSD and anxiety, and not just rely on my own personal experiences with them. Face-to-face conflict is a bit easier, in my opinion, because they’re external and aren’t as laser focused on bodily reactions and thoughts.
There is a lot of music in The Lucky Ones. The school’s band room is an important setting, and a lot of the characters’ social lives involve a rock band that some of them are in. I know you are involved in music projects when you’re not writing. Can you tell us about that? Also, what have you been listening to lately, and can you tell us about some interesting music that we might not know?
I am! In my day-job life I’m a music supervisor of film and television and so music is a huge part of my daily world. In terms of what I’m listening to right now… a lot of stuff for work (hip hop mostly) but in my downtime, at least right now, it’s a lot of my all-time favorite songs rather than newer stuff. I love Warpaint and Cautious Clay and Sufjan (especially his newer stuff) as well as the Silversun Pickups and Daughter (a band that was enormously influential on not only this book but my second book as well).
There is a heroic teacher in The Lucky Ones, but for the most part the grown-ups are dealing with their own dysfunctionality. How do you see the parents in your book?
They’re struggling just like the kids, each in their own ways. I know some people might think “oh these grownups should get their act together and help their children,” but as an adult, I can tell you that it’s not always that easy. May’s parents have dealt with their tragedy by pulling apart from each other—May’s mom has collapsed in on herself and her dad is just so, so angry. Zach’s mom is, interestingly enough, the parent who I think is actually handling all of this the best. Yes, she took this case that made her family pariahs, but she did it because of ethical reasons that she strongly believes in. And Zach’s dad, well, he’s an example of a parent struggling with their own mental health, which is something that isn’t talked about enough I think, and a situation that a lot of kids are faced with—how do you feel safe when your own parent is dealing with their own issues?
Your Author’s Note at the end of The Lucky Ones is the absolute best Author’s Note I’ve ever seen. It is personal, passionate, and timely. I’ll be recommending that teachers and librarians use it in their book-talks for The Lucky Ones and as a stand-alone piece for rhetorical study. Can you tell us how you approached writing that Author’s Note?
Well, thank you. This compliment made my week! I’m so happy it’s touching so many people. I’ll be honest; it was really hard to write. When I started thinking about it, I realized that I wanted to honor all the people who lost their lives in school shootings in this country, so I listed their names to start the note. Remembering all those names as actual people rather than statistics is hugely important, I think. I also wanted to remind the reader that the people who are left behind after these shootings occur are affected by them for years—their trauma doesn’t just disappear when the news vans leave. They are left with massive scars, and deserve our attention, too. And, finally, I wanted to leave readers with a sense of hope—that was and always has been the most important thing I’d love for people to get out of my book—that with love and care and attention, we can make the world a better place, together.
What else do you want to do as a writer?
I just turned in my first draft of my second book to my editor! It’s due out in 2021 (although with everything going on right now, I assume there’s a chance that it might be delayed) and is entitled In Silent Seas We Drown. It’s an emotional contemporary young adult novel that examines addiction.
I also recently started writing a comedic YA thriller, and I love it so much!! I really, really hope that it can be my third book – it’s a little different from my first two, but still deals with mental health (just in a less heavy way).
A lot of teacher and librarians will see this interview. What can you say about how their work is connected to yours?
I love teachers and librarians—the work they do is so crucial to our country and our children. Just like YA novelists try to speak to kids through our words and our books, librarians and teacher try to speak to them through education and daily actions. They’re all heroes in my mind.
The current COVID-19 crisis and the trauma of a school shooting have some common ground: Kids are hurting. Many kids cannot attend school or see their friends in person. They are seeing cancellations of important life events—prom, graduation, musicals and concerts, sports seasons, college visits, etc. What have you learned that might be helpful to your young readers right now?
Yeah. The state of the world is so much to grapple with right now, and I feel for all the kids out there who are missing huge life events; it’s so, so sad. I recently wrote something for “Teen Librarian Toolbox” about my own experience dealing with the world right now, how sad I’ve been, and how I was reminded recently that no matter what, we are in this together. That feeling joy in the midst of enormously painful, world changing situations isn’t selfish. It’s courageous. (If you’re interested in reading more you can find it here!
Thank you for your time doing this interview, and thank you for writing such an important book. The Lucky Ones will affect everyone who reads it.
Thank you so much for having me on the blog and for the great Q&A!
Gary Anderson is a literacy educator, professional development mentor, and writer. He is co-author (with Tony Romano) of Expository Composition: Discovering Your Voice (EMC School). Follow Gary on his blog at What’s Not Wrong? and on Twitter at @AndersonGL. This is Gary’s sixth Nerdy Book Club post since 2012.