‘I was a very unattractive little girl. I was fat; I had buck teeth and glasses. Writing was the one thing I was good at.’ It’s difficult to square this self-portrait with the slight form and lively intelligent face of the present-day Lois Duncan. Difficult too to accept the implication that the child who at ten was submitting typed manuscripts to The Ladies Home Journal was driven to it as a last resort. No. Fate may have given her a useful if painful nudge from time to time but Lois Duncan is a born writer who from the first has worked hard at her craft. The six teenage novels available in this country are only a small part of her American published work since she sold her first story at thirteen in 1947.
From newspaper and magazine articles and stories, romance and crime novels for adults, verse and photography she now concentrates mainly on novels for young adults. For these she has won critical acclaim in the shape of prestigious literary prizes and, a rare and welcome combination, the popular vote in Young Reader awards. In 1980 Killing Mr Griffin was the first of her novels to be published in Britain; two of the six are currently in paperback and there is now a well-established and steadily growing audience for the Duncan combination of strong and unusual plots with popular themes and good page-turning writing.
Lois Duncan grew up by the sea in Sarasota, Florida, with her parents and younger brother. Her parents were magazine photographers who worked from home. ‘To be creative was “normal”,’ she recalls, so the dreamy, bookworm daughter who made a hobby of collecting rejection slips from publishers was not considered an oddity. When the braces came off her teeth and the puppy fat dissolved and she decided she rather liked being a girl she, of course, didn’t stop writing. After that first success at thirteen, her work appeared regularly in magazines for young people like Seventeen, Senior Prom and American Girl.
‘It was really all I ever wanted to do. I was not a wonderful writer. I was writing for people just like myself in a way they could understand about things they were familiar with.’ It was an audience which she has now made her own again. although much writing and experience has significantly intervened.
At the end of her first year in college she won Seventeen’s annual short story contest. It carried a prize of 500 dollars. On the strength of this – and not entirely happy with student life – she got married. ‘What I should have done with the money,’ she says wryly, ‘was buy a car. It would have lasted a lot longer.’ Eight years later she was divorced with three children. ‘I had four books published but they were not really very good. Quite simple I wasn’t earning enough to live on so I wrote – for newspapers, magazines, advertising copy. anything. I forced myself to write every day. I learned if you keep hacking away at it day after day, you’re bound to make some progress. For this new life as a single parent and full-time writer Lois Duncan took her family to Albuquerque in New Mexico. a place she had once visited with her parents on a photographic assignment. She lives there still, very happily, with Don, whom she married in 1965, and their two children. Her three older children, whom Don adopted, are now embarked on careers of their own.
Returning to writing for young adults after her second marriage she discovered that everything had changed. ‘When I first started writing I had a story returned as not acceptable because I had a nineteen-year-old boy drinking beer. Now there is a whole world of material to draw upon. It’s exciting and challenging.’ Lois Duncan’s novels show young people facing evil in many different forms. ‘I like to take a totally realistic background, create realistic characters and then inject something – an act of violence, the supernatural, one very disturbed personality that can throw everything over.’ For Killing Mr Griffin the catalyst is Mark, a very charismatic boy. ‘I drew on the character of my oldest daughter’s first boyfriend for Mark. He was so charming but, we discovered, almost psychotic. I had my character. I knew he had to influence a group of young people. I knew I would have boys and girls – four, a manageable number. I had to figure the type of young person who would be led by such a boy, get their background so that it would be logical that they would be weak enough to be led. Then I had to decide what he would do.’
The idea of a high school student plot to terrify a hated English teacher also had its roots in reality. ‘Mr Griffin was drawn from a woman drama teacher at my children’s school. Everyone hated her: she was so strict, everything had to be perfect. It was only very much later her pupils realised how much she had meant to them. There are lots of teachers like that.’ From the basis of realism Lois Duncan deals with interesting questions which arise when the plot goes tragically wrong and Mr Griffin dies while held captive. How will the characters cope? Have they murdered him? Should they confess?
Stranger with My Face has identical twins, separated at birth, one evil and using astral projections to try to take over the body and the life of the other.
In The Eyes of Karen Connors the central character learns to recognise and use her psychic powers. The starting points again were a mix of experience and research.
‘Along with other freshman students in my first year at college I was a guinea pig in some experiments into ESP. I was very surprised at the results – not for myself but for others. Some young people have amazing abilities. It’s almost like magic. Then, a few years ago, we had a series of murders in Atlanta, Georgia. Many black children had disappeared and the police were using people with psychic powers to try to trace them. That’s where Karen Connors began.
Stranger with My Face meant a lot of research into astral projection particularly among the Navajo Indians of New Mexico. ‘I didn’t believe it until I started reading the laboratory tests, and since the book has been published I’ve had a lot of letters from children describing similar experiences. They almost all describe exactly the same sensations, some of which are not in the book.’
Those two books which ‘could be true’ Lois Duncan separates from Summer of Fear (which features witchcraft) and her latest Locked in Time (in which a mother and two children remain the same age for generations). ‘Those are pure fantasies. I don’t believe in the occult – it’s like the wicked witch of Oz.’
Fantasies or ‘could be true’, all Lois Duncan’s books have very specific settings and characters. I write about upper middle-class America. The few books I’ve tried to place outside this have not been good. It’s hard to get into another culture. It’s also hard to set a book in a place you haven’t lived. I use New Mexico a lot. As I was writing Stranger with My Face which I set in New England I realised that I didn’t know what happened there in winter. I had to phone a cousin every month to find out what was happening in Nantucket!’
Middle-class America and New Mexico are as exotic and strange to many of Lois Duncan’s readers in the States as they are to her readers here. What overcomes this strangeness particularly for the inexperienced reader is her ability to create very strong and specific visual images; a skill which she reveals may be derived from an unusual deficiency. ‘I have almost no visual memory. I cannot remember what things or people look like. I began to realise that written descriptions would reinforce my visual memory, I wrote word pictures of things I wanted to remember in my diary. Once the words were on paper the picture was mine.’
Another quality which recommends the books particularly to female readers (‘I write mostly from the girl’s point of view. It’s harder to get into the brain of a boy, though Mr Griffin and Summer of Fear have double viewpoints which means they are used more in schools’) is the inclusion, alongside more weighty themes, of the ‘Sweet Dreams’ staples of American High School life: the Homecoming Dance, the Senior Prom, Graduation and boy-girl relationships. ‘To leave them out would be unrealistic. The characters I write about are concerned with their social life: but they grow and change and mature because of what happens to them.’
Lois Duncan welcomes the new freedoms offered in publishing for young adults and admires authors like Robert Cormier and Judy Blume who are, she says. ‘writing at the edge’. But she recognises responsibilities. ‘I try always to have an underlying base of morality. Killing Mr Griffin is about the dangers of peer group pressure, about how easy it is to be sucked in by a charismatic leader and led a little step at a time until suddenly you are over the line and you can’t go back. Everyone can relate to having to deal with the results of following the leader. Taking personal responsibility comes hard for young people.’
But writers have no control over who reads their books. Lois Duncan’s readers are getting younger and she has an interesting reaction to this. ‘My characters are always High School seniors – 18- or 19-year-olds – because I know young people like to read about those just a little older than themselves. My readers used to be fourteen and fifteen – now they are as likely to be eleven or twelve and I have had letters from nine-year-olds. I’m horrified. I don’t think they should be reading these books. Children are growing up too fast – perhaps it’s something to do with so much sophisticated television – I feel they are missing a stage of life I enjoyed very much.’
Lois Duncan has an acute sense of the stages of life. Her ability to get inside her characters and make them real owes as much to her recall of living an experience as to her reading of psychology (she’s done a lot of that) and her observation of current teenage language and life-style.
She is a professional writer and proud of it. Writing gave her independence, though she had to fight for its recognition as a proper full-time job for a woman. In Albuquerque she went back to college and graduated; for eleven years she taught a course in writing at the University of New Mexico. Now, when she signs a contract for three new books with her publisher she can write what she likes. ‘A dreadful freedom. I love it.’
She has just sent off her latest manuscript, The Twisted Window – ‘the plot is full of twists-too.’ What about the next book? ‘I look around. It’s my job.’
(published in hardback by Hamish Hamilton)
Locked in Time, 0 241 11769 0, £6.50
The Eyes of Karen Connors, 0 241 11438 1, £5.95; Pan Horizons, 0 330 29248 X, £1.95 pbk
Stranger with My Face, 0 241 10193 2, £6.25; Pan Horizons, 0 330 29255 2, £1.75 pbk
I Know What You Did Last Summer, 0 241 10723 7, £6.95
Summer of Fear, 0 241 10544 7, £6.95
Killing Mr Griffin, 0 241 10457 2, £6.95
Horses of Dreamland, 0 241 11784 4, £5.95 (picture book in verse for younger children)