Described by John Green as ‘one of our most important novelists’, E Lockhart is the author of a number of clever, gripping novels, as popular with readers as they are with critics. An American, she was in the UK recently in advance of publication of her new novel Genuine Fraud.
Anna James interviewed her for Books for Keeps.
E. Lockhart can’t resist the unexpected. In both the books she writes and the books she reads, she’s inevitably drawn to things that make you think, that surprise you, or challenge you. Genuine Fraud, her follow-up to We Were Liars, is another twisty, subversive look at growing up and finding your place in the world. It follows eighteen-year-old Jule, who we first meet in a hotel in Mexico before jumping back in time as we retrace the steps that led her there. ‘I’ve wanted to write a backwards book for a while,’ Lockhart says. ‘I often set myself some kind of structural task that pushes me to be creative within a certain set of limitations. It’s interesting to have something to push up against; that restriction of technique forces you into creative expression you wouldn’t get to otherwise.’
‘I wanted to tell an anti-hero story that was about a young woman’
On top of the structural challenge there were several literary references percolating, from superheroes to Dickens: ‘I started thinking about plot events that would be similar to The Talented Mr Ripley by Patricia Highsmith but I quickly realised I was layering in a lot of influences from Victorian orphan stories of class mobility – Great Expectations, Vanity Fair. And then also certain kind of superhero origin stories where somebody goes from feeling like nothing to a position of great but complicated power. I wanted to interrogate that escalation from powerlessness to power through this backwards antihero story.’ That antihero narrative is the final jigsaw piece that makes up Genuine Fraud: ‘I wanted to tell an anti-hero story that was about a young woman because I think there’s still a lot of pressure to make female character likeable and relatable in a way we don’t have with our male characters.’
‘you never know what is going to make somebody see themselves in a book’
Jule is not, in Lockhart’s own words, a good person but she’s not worried about having her at the centre of Genuine Fraud. ‘What’s going to happen to me?’ Lockhart says, ‘Some people will say you wrote a bad book? You’re a bad person? I’m not scared of those people. I made a piece of art that reflects ugly things about human beings, and my own self as well, but I don’t think my job is to write books that will model awesome behaviour, I don’t think that’s what literature is. I think sometimes people get confused when they’re talking about young adult literature because they want – from a very loving place – the books that their children read to provide hope, healing, role models. I’m glad those books exist, I read many of them and like them very much. However you never know what is going to make somebody see themselves in a book, and acknowledging the breadth of human rage and complexity and ugliness has a value too.’
Although she enjoys challenging the YA status quo, Lockhart has a deep affection for it: ‘I really like writing for young people, there’s a friendly attitude and supportiveness to the community. Everyone is looking to increase young people’s access to books and literacy. The attitude among writers I know is that someone’s success is a success for all of us. Because John Green is a juggernaut more teenagers are reading, more teenagers love books, more teenagers are sharing books on the Internet with each other. John wins, we all win. There’s this feeling that we’re all in this together to make beautiful or funny or cool books that will get children and teenagers excited – I like that atmosphere so much. I don’t ever feel limited.’ And Lockhart sees Genuine Fraud as firmly YA, even though its main characters are 18 and no one’s in school: ‘All the main characters have separated from their family of origin, and I think that’s a fundamental subject matter for YA – the separation from the family, the making of some kind of new home, the assertion of the self as separate.’
‘In films we’re told who’s on the side of right – in a book you’re complicit in the making of the meaning’
Despite Jule’s decisions and actions (to mention any plot points in much detail would be to spoil the experience of reading Genuine Fraud for the first time, but the cover blurb mentions murder) it’s hard not to root for her. ‘I’m interested in putting you in a position of complicity,’ Lockhart explains. ‘I’m not telling you what to think about your moral code, I’m just forcing you to say, oh, I rooted for this person, what’s that all about? In films we’re told who’s on the side of right and then we’re easily able to root for them if they beat someone up – in a book you’re complicit in the making of the meaning.’
Anna James is a journalist, scout and event chair. Her debut novel, Pages & Co, will be published in 2018 by HarperCollins Children’s Books.
Genuine Fraud is published by Hot Key Books, £12.99 hbk.