In The Impossible Knife of Memory, author Laurie Halse Anderson demonstrates yet again her ability to define new directions for the YA “problem novel” genre. Teenager Hayley and her father, who suffers from PTSD, live with a past that threatens to swallow their future.
The title of your new book, The Impossible Knife of Memory, is quite striking. Why compare memory to a knife?
Not all memories are nice. The main character’s father is plagued by horrific battlefield memories. His PTSD rules the life of his family to such an extent that his daughter tries to push away her childhood memories, even the good ones, because it hurts so much to think about the life they had before her father’s spirit was broken. Memories can cut both ways.
What draws you to tackle intense subject matter like rape in Speak and PTSD in Impossible Knife?
I write about things that make me angry and confused. I don’t have to look far to find topics. If things like rape, anorexia and PTSD upset adults like me, what do they feel like to the teens who are trapped by them? That’s what I want to write about.
Why do you think teens need to read about these topics?
It’s not about what they need to read. It’s what they want to read. They know that life is tough and confusing and unforgiving. They want books that will give them insight into what’s coming. And—just like adults (who are flocking to YA books like never before)—they want to be entertained. I try to write books that give them exactly what they are hungry for.
“If things like . . . PTSD upset adults like me, what do they feel like to the teens who are trapped by them?”
Like in your other realistic fiction for teens, the difficult issues in The Impossible Knife of Memory are balanced by black humor. For example, Hayley’s high school places her in an ironic early morning “lunch” period and is (according to her) populated primarily by student zombies. Why is it important to include humor alongside such serious subject matter?
In Notes from Underground, Dostoyevsky said that sarcasm was “usually the last refuge of modest and chaste-souled people when the privacy of their soul is coarsely and intrusively invaded.” To that I would add that sarcasm is a tool of the powerless, an excellent blade to carry when life is beating you up. Teenagers understand this better than adults. They’ve just figured out the absurdities and hypocrisies of our world, and much of their sense of humor revolves around that.
Hayley’s high school has replaced its gym and library teachers with unpaid aides. It holds regular lockdown drills, and its classrooms are equipped with window blinds meant to deflect school shooters. Are these features intended to reflect the priorities of contemporary high schools?
I don’t know that they reflect the priorities of high schools today, but they reflect the reality in many schools. I continue to be amazed at America’s unwillingness to fund schools properly, to make them safe and to reduce class size. Children are born curious, but our education system sometimes seems hell-bent on destroying that curiosity instead of nurturing it.
Hayley’s friends and teachers encourage her to think about her future, but she has no particular plans. Did you have a firm direction in mind for yourself right after high school or did you, like Hayley, have no idea what you would do after graduation?
I had no clue what I was doing or where I was going. I spent my senior year in high school as a foreign exchange student, living on a pig farm in Denmark. When I came back to the States, I worked a dead-end job just long enough to realize that I needed an education. I found a job milking cows on a dairy farm and went to community college. I never thought I’d be an author; I just wanted to be educated enough so that I didn’t have to shovel manure the rest of my life.
Hayley knows a lot about American history and is constantly courting trouble by challenging her history teacher’s simplistic explanations. You’ve written several historical fiction novels for teens and tweens, including Fever 1793, Chains and Forge. Is there any particular historical event that you’d risk detention in order to explain correctly?
This is one of the best questions of all time! I’d risk detention and expulsion if I could explain the history of slavery in America. Our aversion to discussing our nation’s original sin perpetuates racism and damages all of us.
Your books have garnered significant critical praise, including a Printz Honor in 2000 for Speak and the Margaret A. Edwards Award in 2009 for your body of work as a whole. How has this recognition influenced your writing, your career or your life in general?
It’s been an incredible validation and an unexpected gift. I never thought Speak would be published, much less open the door to this wonderful life. I am a very grateful and lucky girl.