|Photo Credit: Josh Hailey Studio|
Hi, everyone! I know I've been gone for a minute, but I'm excited to come back with my interview with Lindsay Sproul. Lindsay and I have been working on this interview for a while, ever since I first read We Were Promised Spotlights. I'm so excited to have a more in-depth discussion about the book and get to look at it through this new prospective. It was a super eye opening read for me and probably most other teens my age who weren't alive when the story takes place. If you haven't had the chance to read Lindsay's book, you can check out my review here to get up to speed.
1. The most notable part of the book right from the start is that it doesn’t take place in 2020. It’s set in 1999-2000 in a small beach town. Why did you decide to set it in the near past? How do you approach writing a book for teens who mostly hadn’t been born when the story takes place?
Aside from the fact that I was a teen in the late 90’s/early 2000’s, I think it’s important for teens to be aware of and live in (at least for a few hours) a time that came before them, just as I feel it’s important for me to do the same. The queer community has come such a long way—beyond what I could have imagined as a seventeen-year-old—though, of course, there’s still so much farther to go—and it’s in huge part because of the messiness of the progress made throughout history.
When I was writing We Were Promised Spotlights, I had to contextualize (or cut) some of the 90’s references, and also bring myself back to a time before social media and common cell phone use. Perhaps the most difficult part was leaving my adult retrospective self out of Taylor’s present-day, teenage mind. She says and does (horrendous) things that are a product of her surroundings—and I had to step away from myself and into her headspace and let her make huge mistakes, so she could learn from them.
There’s a resurgence of nostalgia for the late 90’s right now, but it’s also super important to remember the problems of that time. The language, the queer media (or lack thereof) and the overall sense of homophobia were very real parts of that time period that I’m not nostalgic for, but that shaped queerness for so many of us in our thirties or older. It’s also important to note, I think, that without the (albeit false) distance of screens, homophobia, and bullying in general, was experienced face to face in the late 90’s, which made it even more intense for Taylor.
2. On a similar note, I found it really fascinating to read about a time I never got to experience. There are so many similarities to today, but there are also tons of differences (the idea of no cell phones or being able to go to an airport just for lunch were both interesting moments). Was it challenging to think of all the ways the world is different to make sure it stayed true to the time? Do you think there’s one major thing we have today that Taylor didn’t that would’ve majorly altered her story?
I touched on this a bit already, but I think three major things that Taylor is missing are education, a framework for queerness that’s not so narrow, and a community. In an economically depressed small town without adults (or other teens, besides Corvis) present to show her that queerness exists on such a huge spectrum, Taylor just doesn’t have the resources she would today. If she had access to social media, the plethora of queer books and films that are available now, or even a window into online conversations about queerness, everything would be different for her. (What I remember most was renting Desert Hearts... and every movie Kate Winslet was naked in... from Blockbuster over and over, and reading depressing novels where queer outcasts committed suicide, and... that’s about it.)
I was actually living in the Mississippi Delta for a big chunk of time while I wrote this novel, and, sadly, it wasn’t much different (maybe even worse) being an open lesbian there than it was fifteen years earlier in Massachusetts. One day, after editing a chapter where Corvis is bullied, I was walking my dog, and a guy in a pickup truck pulled up next to me, rolled down the window, and screamed a whole list of homophobic profanities at me that I won’t repeat here. It was traumatizing, but I definitely learned so much from living there that gave me a huge appreciation for the queer community in the Deep South. I attended the first ever Mississippi Pride, which, because it was roped off and guarded by armed police officers, couldn’t hold a parade, but rather a gathering of people who would never otherwise speak to each other, and it was a somber but quietly beautiful experience. Watching drag shows in the middle of the sweltering hot day, with protesters screaming from the sidelines, was something I’ll never forget.
In short, because all I had to do was look around me and also go back to my own memories of being a teenager, writing in that time period was more emotionally challenging than anything else. I do miss eating lunch at the airport with my mom!
3. Taylor’s dad is sort of a mystery throughout the story, but there is the running suspicion that he’s actually a famous movie star. She uses the idea of his life in LA as a crutch for when she’s unsure how she’ll make it out of her town. Eventually, she comes to a place where she’s less reliant on other people to direct her life. Why did you include this detail in the story? Even though he’s never actually present, how does Taylor’s dad impact her story and view of herself?
I grew up with an absent father, and while I never wondered if he were a movie star, I do feel that his absence made him take on this larger-than-life role for me. Often, for me or for friends I had whose fathers weren’t part of their lives, in difficult moments, we imagined our fathers as almost fairytale-like figures who could save us. Which is a problem! It’s also a huge trope throughout history in the form of children’s books and fairytales: girls need men to “save” them. I wanted to take on this idea in my writing. Regardless of who Taylor’s father is, he wasn’t around to raise her. She needed to rely on herself—not a man—to take charge of her own destiny.
4. Friendships are also a major point of the story. There’s a lot of complexity in who Taylor decides to hang out with, and I feel like everyone ends up shifted from where they started the book. Mostly it centers around how much goes unsaid in social circles. Why do you think Taylor and her popular friends were so insistent on keeping up an appearance that didn’t come naturally to any of them? Why was Corvis so immediately accepting when Taylor started moving away from that after all the years Taylor bullied her?
I struggled to find books or films that portrayed the “popular mean girl” as anything other than a one-dimensional villain, especially in films made around the time period of my book. I’ve heard many writers say, write the story you want to read. So, I decided to unpack the character that rarely gets unpacking. Growing up with the same group of people in an isolated setting leads to friendships that are based on habit and proximity. As Taylor becomes a young adult, she realizes this.
As far as Corvis forgiving Taylor—I’m not entirely sure Taylor deserves it, but there are two major reasons why Corvis does. For one, Corvis has access through educated parents to a world outside of Hopuonk, both through travel and through books, and she also shares an understanding of Hopuonk with Taylor at the same time. At first, she pities Taylor, and recognizes that small town pressure is different for everyone—that for Taylor, the pressure is a loud, strong, overwhelming voice in her head, and Corvis knows her path out of the small town already, while Taylor doesn’t. But, more importantly, as they all prepare for graduation, Corvis realizes that Taylor might understand things about her—like her queerness—in that particular place and time—better than anyone else. They were friends before Taylor made awful choices, and there was a reason why. She needs someone to talk to about her own heartbreak, but she also wants to share some of her knowledge with Taylor, who has never left Massachusetts.
Taylor faces difficulties that Corvis doesn’t (and vise versa) but one major roadblock for Taylor that Corvis is aware of is the threat others feel toward beautiful teenage girls. They are a threat to men, older women, other girls, boys... even their own mothers or best friends, in some cases (in Taylor’s case). It’s as if people think they have so much power—and in some ways they do—but in most ways, they’re still just regular teenagers with insecurities, and often, very little actual power. Corvis has much more confidence than Taylor does. Still, they share the important, specific difficulty of being open lesbians in a time and place where that was taboo. Beyond all of that, they genuinely like each other as humans.
5. You’re currently an assistant professor of creative writing. Has teaching the craft changed how you approach your own writing? For those considering taking a creative writing class or majoring in it, what do you think is the greatest benefit?
Teaching is such an incredible gift, and so is the beautiful work my students turn in. I learn so much from them, and I’m continuously inspired by both their written words and the discussions we have about queerness, which I never had as a student, even at my ultra lefty liberal arts college. Writing classes offer students a community and an audience, often one that expands far outside of class. Both for me when I was a student and for them, that’s the biggest benefit. Sitting in a classroom and getting that kind of careful feedback on your work from peers who could become your writing pals for life... that’s why it’s worth it.
6. Now that your debut book is out in the world, I’m sure readers will be interested to know when they’ll be seeing more of your work. Do you have any upcoming projects that you can talk about?
We Were Promised Spotlights was sold in a two-book deal, and my second novel, currently titled Call Me Out, follows the journey of a sixteen-year-old girl as she faces her memories of childhood sexual abuse and battles CPTSD. The book also explores the danger of cancel culture and its implications IRL, tension within the queer community, and what happens when you grow out of one friendship and into another. So, it should be a light read!
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