Bringing light to a dark place
Nick Lake’s novel In Darkness, about a boy who survives the earthquake that devastated Haiti in 2010, is a harrowing but beautifully written book, the kind of story that can open up a whole new world to its readers. Our reviewer called it “incredible,” and the 2013 Printz Award Committee agreed, giving In Darkness its highest honor. Lake, a children’s book editor at Harper UK (when he’s not writing his own books for children and teens), answered a few questions for us about what it’s like to win the Printz.
What was the first thing that went through your head when you found out you had won the Printz Award?
The first thing that went through my head was that it must be a mistake. This was also the second thing, and the third. I actually asked the committee if they wouldn’t rather give it to someone else. Evidently not an orthodox response because they laughed nervously over 5,000 miles of phone line. But really, there have been so many amazing books this year—Code Name Verity and The Fault in Our Stars, to name just two—that my predominant feeling was disbelief. Then gratitude, obviously, and elation. Followed swiftly by trepidation. That sense of: What if someone finds out I paid my dog to write it? (I don’t have a dog.) But I think my mind has a tendency to look for the catch. Is that weird? Maybe it’s weird.
Who was the one person you couldn’t wait to tell about your award?
My wife, Hannah—she is my inspiration, muse, and first and toughest editor. It’s a cliché, but I wouldn’t be writing at all without her. Then I tried to show my two-year-old daughter the webcast, and she turned it off and found Where’s Spot on YouTube instead.
Do you have a favorite past Printz winner?
I think it’s a tie between How I Live Now and Looking for Alaska. They’re both such utterly beautiful books, and beyond that, I feel that they changed the landscape of YA fiction; they rewrote the rules as to what it was possible to do in a novel for teenagers, much as Holes and Coraline did for middle grade. John Green and Meg Rosoff just tower over this genre, for me.
What’s the best part of writing books for a younger audience?
Oh, that’s a hard one. I don’t really know. I’m not one of those writers who particularly enjoys writing. When I’m actually working on a book it’s more like a compulsion, a desperate urge to get to the end and get it out of my head. And when I’m revising, it feels like torture—like rewriting homework. But when I’m not writing I feel unanchored somehow, and I’m constantly thinking of things and making notes that eventually build into a story that then has to be compulsively written down and it all starts again. So it’s just an endless cycle of frustration in some ways. I’m not in any sense comparing myself to George Saunders but I recently read an interview where he expressed a similar thing (more eloquently than me, of course), so at least I know it’s not just me.
But . . . I guess it’s the feedback—young people are so immediate and unguarded in what they say. If they don’t like something, they say so. Like, they email me to say that the ending of a book is totally wrong. And vice versa. I had an email from an ex-gang member in LA who had read Blood Ninja, and said it was the first book he had ever read, and it had inspired him to get into reading. I remember vividly thinking that I could give up at that point and feel satisfied.
Have you read or listened to past Printz acceptance speeches? Are you excited (or worried!) about your own speech?
Listened? They RECORD it? Oh god.
Worried. Very, very worried. Public speaking about my own work is my nemesis. Put me up there in my editor role and ask me to speak about one of the authors I publish, and I’m fine. But this? I am anxious about it already. Luckily I live a long way from Chicago, so a lot of my attention will be focused on how to get a toddler through a 12-hour flight. . . .
What’s next for you?
The next book is called Hostage Three. It’s published in the U.K. already and coming out in the U.S. this fall. It’s told by a very rich, very privileged girl called Amy, who is acting out at home but has gone through some bad stuff in her life, and is deeply scarred on the inside. Then her father makes the sudden decision to buy a luxury yacht and take Amy and her stepmother on a round-the-world trip, much against Amy’s will. But they don’t get far before the yacht is captured by Somali pirates. It’s kind of a thriller mixed with a fairy tale, and a love story of sorts too—because Amy gets close to one of her captors. Maybe too close. No, scratch that: definitely too close. And then everything unravels. . . .