Behind the Scenes: The Making of LIE
Caroline Bock has attained the unattainable. In today’s devastating publishing market, she managed to get an agent and land a book deal with a major press: St. Martin’s Griffin. And since she accomplished all of this without any major previous fiction publications under her belt, we’re left wondering, how did she do it?
Maybe she’s the hardest working writer around (anyone who knows her will attest to her endless dedication). Maybe it is her talent. Or maybe it is a mixture of both. Whatever the case, she wrote a manuscript that stood out amongst the thousands that St. Martin’s receives every year. This manuscript, now the contemporary young adult novel LIE, follows seventeen-year-old Skylar Thompson as her nice suburban Long Island town gets shaken up after a vicious hate crime. Her boyfriend Jimmy, baseball and football star—a Scholar-Athlete—stands accused of brutally assaulting two young El Salvadoran immigrants from a neighboring town, and she’s the prime witness, along with Jimmy’s best friend and accomplice Sean. The novel has earned rave reviews from Publisher’s Weekly, School Library Journal, and Kirkus Reviews and has established Bock as a rising voice in American fiction.
Whatever this magic potion is—talent, drive, luck, divine intervention—we all want some of it. And I’m sure you want some too. If you’d like to ask Caroline about her tricks, and get a free glass of wine out of the deal, you can catch her at Perch Restaurant on 5th Avenue in Park Slope, on Thursday, December 1st at 7:30 p.m. She’ll be reading with Pamela Laskin, author of My Life in Shoes, and Lyn DiOrio, author of Outside the Bones.
Construction: How were you initially notified that you had just published your first novel?
Caroline Bock: I had my literary agent call me at the end of a long day and tell me LIE was rejected by eight publishers—I was devastated—then she said that the 9th—St. Martin’s Press, had accepted it.
Construction: Did she pause and make it really dramatic?
Caroline Bock: She was very matter-of-fact and I think that’s why I like her so much. I was lucky to find an agent who knows how to relate with me. Rachel Sussman, she’s very cool.
Construction: How did you respond after she told you?
Caroline Bock: I had to say, “Yes.” (I almost forgot to say, “Yes.”) To an offer I couldn’t refuse, so-to-speak!
Construction: After you said that, how involved was your agent during the editorial process? Did you work with St. Martin’s directly or was she an intermediary between you and the publisher?
Caroline Bock: I worked with my editor at St. Martin’s directly. But before it was even sent out to publishers, I worked on revisions with my agent for about six months. Another good thing about my agent (and many out there) is that she is a former editor. If there are writers out there looking for agents, one bit of advice is to do research on the backgrounds of who you are sending your work to; even though some may think that any agent is better than no agent, I don’t think that’s the case. Agents have their interests, their strengths.
Construction: And does your agent have a background in YA?
Caroline Bock: No, not all. Did I just break my own piece of advice? But I didn’t write LIE as a young adult novel. I just wrote what I thought would be a compelling story. When I was finished with the revisions, looking at the marketplace, we discussed the strategy on selling it, and decided the best case would be to take it out as a mature young adult book—because in this very tough literary market (and when is it not a tough literary market?), she thought it would have the best chance to be published as a YA book, especially since the category has expanded so much. She was right. At the same time, I’ve had a lot of adults read it, asking me why it is a young adult book—because they found it intriguing, or, as one of my friends said, “uncomfortably good.” But that’s another trend in the young adult literary world—adult readers. So I’m hoping that adults as well as teens find LIE compelling.
Construction: I’m fascinated by the process of making a book. When it came to the design and layout of LIE, how involved were you?
Caroline Bock: Fairly involved for a first novel—even though, contractually, they had no obligation to me. But my background in marketing and public relations helped. For example, I had specific ideas about the type font—that LIE should be all in caps and have, for New Yorkers at least, the double meaning of the Long Island Expressway—L.I.E.—which is a major metaphor. I also wanted a certain edgy, indie look to the font (hey, the LIE font and Construction are pretty close!). Once they realized I had sane and instructive input, they did let me have some say. But I also tried to be helpful. I offered to write a reader’s guide, which wasn’t originally supposed to be in the book, but I put it together in a day, and they did include it. Being able to write fast helps!
Construction: Something that sets LIE apart from other YA novels is that it’s told by several narrators.
Caroline Bock: It’s a Rashomon story.
Construction: What’s a Rashomon story?
Caroline Bock: Rashomon is a famous Japanese film about a crime that is told from multiple points of view that don’t always coincide. It’s left up to the viewer, and in this case, the reader, to piece it together. The structure tells the story—and my editor appreciated that. Others rejected the novel largely because of the multiple points of view. But the distinct voices: five adult, five teen, including three Hispanic voices, make LIE stand out. I felt compelled to tell the story that way, and one agent, one publisher, one editor, really believed in it, and that’s all you need.
Construction: Were there any narrators that you had more fun with than others?
Caroline Bock: Yes—I really felt for Skylar, but I had the most fun with mean girl, Lisa Marie.
Construction: What is it about villains that makes them so fun?
Caroline Bock: I don’t know. Lisa Marie is the girl everybody knows in high school—hates—but wants to be her. I wasn’t her (see my file under shy, bookish girl in high school; I know a bit hard to believe now). On the other hand, the worst person in the novel, Jimmy’s father, I despised him. But in an odd way, as a writer I liked exposing him. I like to hear from people that they don’t like him at all. Good. You shouldn’t like him.
Construction: When you were first thinking about writing LIE, did you ever consider writing it in third-person or with one first-person narrator?
Caroline Bock: I think I struggled with it for a week or so in third person, but the novel didn’t take off until I started writing multiple first person narratives. Then I finished a first draft in about eight weeks.
Construction: And how much of what you wrote in those eight weeks went into the published book?
Caroline Bock: Almost all. The first draft was actually deemed too short by my agent. I had to add about 15,000 more words in a revision before it ever went out to a publisher. And this book is still only a little over 200 pages. I write fast, but not long!!
Construction: Before you mentioned the “tough literary market.” I’ve heard people say YA is the way to go if you want to publish. Are they right?
Caroline Bock: These things go in waves, don’t they? I think you just have to write what you’re passionate about—in the most distinctive way possible. Yes, there’s that word again. But I think whatever you write has to stand out in today’s marketplace in terms of story, character, voice, style in order to get noticed. I actually was taken on by my literary agent because I wrote a book that was half in prose and half screenplay. It was totally rejected by every publisher, but she noticed me, and believed me when I said I would write another novel—and that novel is LIE.