Friday, January 14, 2005

The Story Behind The Story: Laura Ruby On Lily's Ghosts

Lily's Ghosts by Laura Ruby (Harper, 2003). Since Lily's mother has broken up with her boyfriend, they're broke and, therefore, have to move into Lily's uncle's summer house in Cape May, NJ. Only problem, there are ghosts there... Ages 9-up.

What was your initial inspiration for creating this book?

I'd spent years slogging through an as-yet-unpublished-and-probably-for-good-reason YA novel — gritty, tragic, full of dysfunctional characters and atrocious behavior — and I was simply worn out. I just wanted to work on something completely different, something fun and quite possibly mysterious and magical. I was on vacation, getting an unfortunate sun burn by the side of a pool when I thought to myself, "Hey, why don't I write a ghost story?" (I've always loved a good ghost story). I had a friend that I went to college with, whose family had a huge old house in Cape May, NJ that was supposedly haunted. I knew she wouldn't mind if I set my book there. I had the title before I wrote a word of the text.

What was the timeline between spark and publication, and what were the major events along the way?

I began writing Lily's Ghosts in the summer of 1999, wrote a hundred pages, and then set it aside. When it became clear that my first novel, the gritty, tragic YA, wasn't going to be published in its current form, I picked up Lily's Ghosts again and finished a draft by spring of 2001. My agent requested a few revisions, and then the manuscript was ready to submit to publishers in the summer of 2001. At the time, I was a freelance copywriter, but the economy was starting to crash and I was a little depressed. I wasn't making much money with my copywriting, and I knew that the odds of selling a book were slim. In August of 2001, on a lark, I interviewed for fulltime job as a writer for a "collectibles" company — you know, commemorative plates, Precious Moments figurines, swivel-hipped Elvis ornaments, etc. — and tried to figure out what else I could write to keep from going nuts.

And then came September 11th.

My whole family lives in the New York/New Jersey area. I, myself, had spent three years living in Hoboken, NJ, commuting across the Hudson to New York City for work every day. I could not believe what I was seeing on the television. I could not comprehend what my closest friend — who lived just a mile from Ground Zero — told me about the devastation. I couldn't understand how my work, my little ghost story, could ever be interesting or important to anyone. When the collectibles company called a week later to offer me the job, I took it. It didn't matter to me that I'd have less time to write fiction, because who cared about fiction?

Looking back now it's amazing to me that just two months later, my agent called to tell me that two editors were interested in Lily, but that they felt the manuscript needed some revision. I agreed to revise the manuscript and turned in a new version in January of 2002. I got a contract from Clare Hutton at Harpercollins in February of 2002.

What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, logistical) in bringing it to life?

Despite my desire to write something fun and simple, I had a lot of ambitions for this book. I wanted to take a traditional ghost story and expand it by giving the ghosts their own point-of-view sections. I wanted to have several story lines — the various ghosts' and Lily's — converge at the end. I wanted the book to be a tightly plotted mystery, but I also wanted the story grounded in character. I wanted the word "ghosts" in the title Lily's Ghosts to mean not only the ghosts of the dead, but also the ghosts of the living who haunted my main character.

Tall order. Especially since I really don't "do" plot well.

So. I spent a lot of time researching the history of Cape May, NJ, where my book is set. I took a trip out to Jersey and stayed in a Cape May B&B to get the lay of the land. I wrote outline after outline to try and get clear on the plot of the book — the red herrings, the big "twist" at the end of the book (entirely unplanned, by the way). I started out with one ghost and ended up with a town full (plus one plucky poltergeist and one shady Tarot card reader). I'm lucky to have found Clare Hutton, a careful, respectful editor willing to allow me to take a risk with the multiple viewpoints. Part of the reason I wanted to write this book is because I wanted to know what ghosts were really thinking. Turns out Clare did, too.