February 25, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Interview: Rebecca Stead on ‘Liar & Spy’

SLJ talks to Newbery Medal-winner Rebecca Stead about her latest book, Liar & Spy (Random, 2012), a middle grade novel about friendship, bullies, spies, and family.

Rebecca Stead
Photo: Joanne Dugan

Where did the idea for Liar & Spy come from?

I began with just a glimmer of the main character, Georges. And then the story grew, fueled mostly by my memory of school and childhood.

I heard that you initially wrote the book for younger kids. Why’d you change your mind?

I didn’t actually write it for younger kids, though that was my initial approach. But there was just too much material. I needed more space to unpack it.

Liar & Spy is a much quieter book than your Newbery-winning When You Reach Me (Random, 2009). Was that intentional?

Yes and no. I never thought to myself, “And now, I will write a quiet book!” But as soon as I began to recognize the characters in Liar & Spy, I knew it would be different from When You Reach Me.

Many people read a book with the expectation that the emotional impact will line up with the story’s “big events.” But Liar & Spy isn’t written that way—for me, the book’s loudest moments are in the aftershocks, places where the characters drop their guards and allow themselves to be vulnerable.

Safer and Georges have a complicated relationship. What message were you trying to send about friendships?

I’m rarely trying to send a message, but I think if there is a message to be taken from their relationship, it’s that friendship is messy sometimes.  Forgiveness may be necessary.

What inspires the quirky characters in your books?

I’m big on specificity when it comes to characters, because they usually reveal themselves in small details. But I feel the same way about actual people. Maybe it’s just how I see the world.

How do you write so convincingly in a kid’s voice and make your characters so real?

None of it is easy for me, because the discovery of the story is such an agonizing process. And finding the characters is part of finding the story—it’s all intertwined.The story is written on the characters, I think—you have to be able to read their experience in their actions and their words. And that’s why writing, all of it, is hard.

Both Liar & Spy and When You Reach Me are set in New York. Tell us about your connection to the Big Apple and why your books tend to take place here?

Ha! Well, it’s the most obvious connection:I grew up in New York City and have lived here my whole life. Observation and memory are 90 percent of my writing, and most of my observations and memories were made in New York…if I thought I could write convincingly about life in a suburb or in the country, I might do it. But so far, I can’t. The truth is that I’m always driven by what I believe I can do pretty well. Writing is terrifying enough without adding a high wire act.

What impact, if any, did winning the Newbery have on your writing?

It made me shy about writing for a while, but it also gave me confidence. Neither the shyness nor the confidence lasted long, though.

I remember running into you and your son on the upper west side a while back. I think you said you were touring middle schools. Do your kids give you inspiration—whether dialogue or stories—for your books?

I don’t draw directly from my kids’ lives, but I’m sure that living with them informs my dialogue. I also know that watching my sons navigate life sometimes taps my own memory of childhood in ways that are helpful to me as a writer. (And I’m happy to report that we found a great middle school. Five weeks in, and he’s loving it.)

Glad your son is happy with his new school. Did you have a difficult time in middle school?

Yes, in the sense that there was unrelenting name-calling by a small group of kids. I felt that I was never really safe from them. I walked around in a state of high alert. But I had one close friend (to whom Liar & Spy is dedicated), and a handful of less-close friends with whom I killed time, and some perfectly kind teachers. When I think about it carefully, I realize that the put-downs were a tiny part of my school experience. And yet they completely colored my life at the time.

Do you think you’d still be a lawyer if your then four-year-old son hadn’t dropped your laptop?

Good question. I have no idea. I wonder about things like that all the time.

What advice do you have for kids who aspire to become writers or someone who wants to write but is either scared or has no time?

Time is an interesting issue. There are many days when I don’t write at all. Sometimes I’m grocery shopping or running down the steps to the subway and something will hit me—a line of dialogue or description, or an idea about a place where my storylines might touch. Whatever it is, I stop and write it down. Often it’s the only real writing I get done that day. Other days I’m able to do much more. But there isn’t a clear relationship between how much time I have and how much I actually write. My advice is, begin.

As for fear: Almost everyone is afraid, because when you write you expose yourself to 1) the risk that you will be disappointed by your own work, and 2) the risk that others will not understand your work as you yearn for it to be understood.

In fact, these risks are more than possibilities—they’re almost certainties. But if you think about it, these things aren’t so terrifying. Disappointment is where the work begins, for every writer. So come, join us.

What are you working on now?

A middle-grade novel. I’m at that part right before the beginning.



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About Debra Lau Whelan

Debra Whelan is a former senior editor for news and features at SLJ.