Writer Lois Metzger was born in Queens, NY and has always written for young adults. She is the author of three previous novels, all set in the fictional “Belle Heights” which is much like the Queens neighborhood where Metzger grew up, the place she has said, “where my imagination seems to live.” Metzger has written two nonfiction books about the Holocaust, also for young adults, is the editor of five story anthologies and has contributed to The New Yorker, The Nation and Harper’s Bazaar, among others.
A Trick Of The Light, her new YA novel, is about a boy with an eating disorder and is told in the voice of the disease, the voice the main character hears in his head. It’s a very difficult thing to pull off, and she does – the pre-publication reviews have been uniformly laudatory.
Lois and I met when our children were small and took ballet classes together. We bonded over that and over being writers. We sat down together the week before the June 18th publication date of A Trick Of The Light to talk about how that book came together, among other things.
You’ve said the book had many incarnations before the final one, where the voice in the main character, Mike’s, head – the voice of the disease – narrates. What was the genesis of that? How did the final voice evolve?
The book began in a much more traditional way. Mike, the main character, told his own story and he had a voice in his head which interrupted him a lot. But I found this made the telling of the story awkward. So many things were happening to Mike, things he wasn’t really aware of, so how could he be writing about them? I tried writing it from Mike’s friend Amber’s point-of-view, but she wasn’t right either; Amber, who’s also anorexic, was going through her own stuff and wasn’t really thinking about Mike that deeply. I tried Mike’s best friend as the narrator but early on in the book Mike pushes him away. I tried Mike’s mom but she, too, has her own problems and by the time she catches on to what’s happening to her son, it’s late in the day. Even so, with every version, the voice in Mike’s head got louder and more prominent and took up more and more space in the book.
A Trick Of The Light is about boys (a boy) and eating disorders. The incidence of boys with eating disorders, while still far lower than in girls, has been growing. Did you choose to write about it because of its timeliness? How did the decision to write about this come about?
There are ten million people in the country with eating disorders, and at least ten percent are male, which translates to a million boys and men. Many authorities say the figure is actually closer to 30 percent. I chose the topic because I read a newspaper article in 2004 about a boy with an eating disorder. I was completely stunned. I had no idea boys could get eating disorders. The subject absolutely fascinated me. I got in touch with the writer of the article, Julie Patel, and she introduced me to the boy it was about and his family. From there I met other families and doctors and visited hospitals and read books. The story grew out of the research.
You write pretty much exclusively for young adults. What distinguishes YA from adult fiction? Or the new publishing category called “New Adult” which is aimed at readers out of high school?
Basically, YA books are those told from the perspective of a young person, and story is very important, but it’s not just that. I met a woman – not a writer or an editor – who told me she goes to the YA section in bookstores and buys books for herself. When I asked why, she said “things happen” in YAs. And there is resolution. That even though the characters get roughed up in life, they survive – maybe even triumph.
You’ve written about a girl who feels she’s missing from her own life in Missing Girls, who then finds a friend who helps her reconnect. In A Trick Of The Light, it’s an internal voice that “guides” Mike, the main character to act. In both cases, the characters are directed by another’s voice. Is this a particular interest you have, or was it coincidental?
Edra, now that you’ve brought it to my attention, yes, it’s something I’ve done all along. My characters are very heavily influenced by other people – a best friend, a mean girl, a voice inside themselves. I guess I see the teenage years as such a period of evolution, with constant upheaval and change. And there’s so much looking around and comparing yourself to other people. You look for inspiration, help, guidance. Sometimes you find it in the wrong places.
It’s interesting because your two non-fiction books, The Hidden Girl, and Yours, Anne are also, in a sense, about girls who are missing from their own lives because they’re hiding from the Nazis. Is there a thematic similarity? Something you’re drawn to?
I think I felt like I missed out on a lot of the junior high and high school experience, because I was very young. I was born in December, which in those days, made you the youngest in the class. I was only 20 when I graduated from college. I don’t think this was such a good idea. I saw a lot of girls who looked so comfortable inside their own skins. I was not that way. In many ways I’m trying to understand those years now because I didn’t fully live through them then.
A young reader, responding to a talk you gave, wrote, “I especially liked how you said that you don’t get an idea – an idea gets you.” How important is that concept in your writing life? Do you wait for ideas to “get” you or do you go looking for them?
When it comes to fiction, I wait – that’s why I’ve written so few novels. When I read that first article about the anorexic boy in 2004 that was the genesis of A Trick Of The Light, I got a feeling – this is really something. If an idea leaves me alone, I’m happy not to write about it. If it doesn’t, that’s when a book takes seed. It’s an inefficient system, but I’m stuck with it.
With non-fiction I’m more open to ideas and suggestions from other people. My editor at Scholastic [Scholastic published both Metzger’s non-fiction books], Roy Wandelmaier, had attended a talk by Lola Rein Kaufman, subject of The Hidden Girl. As a young girl in Poland during the Second World War, she survived by spending nine months hiding in a dirt hole beneath a barn. Roy thought of me because my mother had escaped from the Nazis by being on the Kindertransport. Roy brought us together and I was very proud to write Lola’s story.
Do you get ideas for subsequent books while one is underway?
A Trick Of The Light took me ten years, from original idea to published book, so in that time I did get another idea – thankfully. In its earlier versions, A Trick Of The Light got rejected a lot so the new idea gave me something to work on between rejections!
All your fiction is set in “Belle Heights,” a fictional neighborhood that is much like the Queens neighborhood where you grew up. Is place important in your work?
I came up with Belle Heights so I could put my characters in a place I knew well. Also I could create restaurants and movie houses and not have to worry that they’d get torn down and date the book. Growing up, I always found it so strange that Queens was part of New York City and yet so unlike a city – very dull and monotonous back then – it’s much livelier now. Belle Heights is definitely a boring place, so the characters can invent their own drama.