November 17, 2017

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Living with Ghosts: Nina LaCour on “We Are Okay”

Nina LaCour

Photo by Kristyn Stroble

Haunting, lush, and lovely, Nina LaCour’s We Are Okay focuses on college freshman Marin. As her best friend visits, Marin begins to address painful emotions, reconsider her life in California, and look forward to what her future has to offer. LaCour discusses with SLJ the literary choices she made—such as her decision to alternate between bitterly cold upstate New York and warm San Francisco—and how she was able to incorporate elements of a ghost story into this work of realistic fiction.

Marin’s voice feels absolutely right. Can you talk more about how you captured it, especially the challenges of loneliness and depression?

Sadness and longing are the feelings I gravitate to most when writing, and in Marin, I found a character who allowed me to carry those emotions through the story without worrying that the voice would get too dramatic or self-important. She’s been through so much, so I never had to rein her in. She does a good job of holding herself together, so I was able to enjoy the push and pull of how she restrains herself and then lets herself feel her grief, anger, and isolation. The solitude was tricky, though. I didn’t know if I could write so many passages of her all alone, but I knew it was integral to the story. When Marin is with another person, there is the inherent conflict of what she will reveal, and ultimately, I learned that that conflict can also exist when she’s alone. How much of her past and future is she willing to acknowledge to herself? What will she do to distract herself from her pain, and what will she allow herself to remember?

Your main character is a college student reflecting on her past. Do you consider the book to be in the “new adult” category?

“New adult” never really came to mind as I was writing. I knew that this book had a more adult feeling and aesthetic than my other novels. I keep pushing the YA limits with my narrators’ ages, but I tend to associate “new adult” with very steamy and romantic stories, and though there are certainly romantic aspects to this book, I wouldn’t classify it in those terms. But who knows? “New adult” is a relatively new category and is still being defined.

Your characters refer to many other books (Jane EyreOne Hundred Years of Solitude). Can you share a bit about your decisions to incorporate these classics into the narrative?

I’m interested in the way that our relationship to the things we love in youth changes over time. What parts of us do they bring back when we encounter them again, and how do we forget something integral in our former selves when they fail to move us now?

On the most practical level, books and art give Marin and Mabel something to talk about during their days in isolation. They are smart and studious and interested in art and literature, so it makes sense that they would revisit the books they used to love together and introduce each other to new works they’ve been studying. But it goes deeper than that for Marin. Even before Marin recognizes it, her life has been a lonely one, and books have given her glimpses of a rich emotional life. They’ve also explored themes that Marin didn’t know would impact her in such a real way. Once the events of her life take a turn, the books she loves are still present in her mind, but she no longer finds comfort or entertainment in them. They become too real to her.

The book’s settings seem to match the tone so well (an upstate New York winter for Marin’s depression, for instance). Was this intentional? Did you have these settings in mind from the start?

we-are-okBefore I even knew who the characters were or what the situation would be, I knew I wanted to write a book that switched back-and-forth between times and locations. I was inspired by Peter Hedges’s film Pieces of April, in which we watch the character of April throughout her day as she tries to cook Thanksgiving dinner for the first time. I love how Hedges gives us the tiny details of the day, much of it in relative silence, as April attempts to tie the turkey legs together, sets the table, and sits and waits. I love the stillness and quiet of it, and what is more still and quiet than an empty building in the snow? So that setting came to me, and then my wife suggested the San Francisco’s Sunset District, where Ocean Beach is, and it felt like the perfect pair: The roar of the ocean and the buzz of the neighborhood and the vitality of San Francisco in stark contrast to an isolated upstate New York college during winter break, when everyone except Marin is elsewhere. When writing, I would often have to remind myself that the San Francisco scenes come just a few months before the New York scenes, because they feel like different worlds, and Marin’s life is barely recognizable from one to the other.

The theme of ghosts runs throughout the novel, even though it’s realistic fiction. In some ways, is this a ghost story?

The ghost element came to me very early on when I was jotting semicoherent notes to myself and hoping that they would become a book. I didn’t know if the ghosts would be literal or if they only spoke to a feeling, but I knew they were important. In many ways, it is a ghost story, because in her solitude and isolation, ghosts are all Marin has. There are the literary ghosts she’s been interested in since high school, the ghost of her long-dead mother, and, of course, the ghost of Gramps, but the ghost element that surprised me the most when it came—and also the one that feels most vital—is the ghost of who Marin was before her life took such a dramatic turn. I imagine that most people who have had the experience of a revelation or event changing the way they understand the world and their place in it will recognize that feeling.

Mahnaz Dar About Mahnaz Dar

Mahnaz Dar (mdar@mediasourceinc.com) is Assistant Managing Editor for Library Journal and School Library Journal and can be found on Twitter @DibblyFresh.

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