Dayna Lorentz was an up-and-coming young lawyer in New York City when she realized her passion lay elsewhere. Unlike most people, she did something about it, going back to school—yet again—for an MFA in creative writing. Just a few years after starting on this new path, Lorentz’s trilogy for young readers called Dogs of the Drowned City, about a group of dogs surviving in the wake of a Katrina-like hurricane in Miami, was published by Scholastic in the spring. A month later, Penguin published her young adult novel No Safety in Numbers, about a bioterror attack in a suburban shopping mall; Kirkus Reviews called it an "engrossing thriller." Now living with her family and dogs in Vermont, Lorentz spoke with Fast Company about her learning process, the necessity of extending stories beyond the page, and how the YA category is saving the book.
FAST COMPANY: What prompted you to leave law and take a chance on something as crazy as writing books for teens?
DAYNA LORENTZ: After finishing law school at Fordham, I started working at Debevoise & Plimpton, a great international law firm doing criminal defense and product-liability litigation mostly. I did that for a couple of years and then got a clerkship in federal court. One of my co-clerks was this incredibly smart, talented guy who would get to work in the morning and read all the circuit court opinions that had just been released, the SCOTUS blogs about all the clerks working for the Supreme Court justices, and stuff like that. He had this intense passion for being a lawyer. He was in his element—you could just see that. And I remember talking about this with a friend of mine from college who was also a law clerk. She said, "You don’t need to be like that to be a lawyer."
But I felt that if was going to be a lawyer, that’s the kind of lawyer I wanted to be. I want to be a person who’s getting up in the morning and is psyched. The law is a fantastic place for people who want to be doing that, but I realized that what I wanted to be doing was telling stories. I had been doing some writing on the side, but like many people, I had convinced myself that this wasn’t something I could do as a real job. But now I started pursuing it more seriously—going to workshops, taking classes, trying to understand what was going on in the industry.
There’s a lot of debate about the value of creative writing programs—and there are plenty of programs out there that really just take advantage of people. How did you find good classes and teachers?
I asked for recommendations from a few connections I had in the writing world and used those connections to find good path, so I wasn’t going to be scammed or ripped or in a program that wasn’t going to do anything for me. I definitely didn’t go with any fly-by-night operations. While I was clerking, I took a Gotham Writers Workshop online. It was totally basic, but I was finally given feedback on my work—I’d never really taken a creative writing class before. I took a yearlong novel writing workshop at the 92d Street Y, which was awesome, and I did some great summer conferences. Finally, after all this fantastic exposure, I decided to apply to MFA programs, but only nonresidential ones. My husband had a stable job teaching at a private school, which gave us insurance, and we had an apartment in Riverdale, plus three pets— I wasn’t going to uproot us so I could move for school.
How does a nonresidential program compare to "real" school?
I did the Bennington College program, and it was a really incredible experience. You do work on your own and every six months you show up for 10 days, and it’s super-intensive. It was certainly not 100 percent "rah-rah, you’re awesome"—it was really much more of an opportunity for me to get a sense of what I needed to work on. For one thing, I felt woefully under read. This program really stressed reading—you need to read 100 books to graduate. That really improved my writing, reading all these books—good, bad, stuff I never would have read on my own. It gave me exposure to lots of options for what you could do. [/interview]
When did you start focusing on writing for young people rather than adults?
My MFA is in adult literature. But I didn’t feel like I was really successful in my adult stories—they didn’t seem to be hitting with my teachers and fellow students. The stories that did seem to land with them were stories where I was writing about children and teenagers. That felt like a point of view that was really speaking for me. Also around this transition time I discovered—late to the game—YA literature. A very good friend of mine was a children’s book publisher at HarperCollins, and we started a YA reading group with a couple of friends. In children’s and especially in YA, there were these really expansive, explosive ideas about alternative structures, playing around with what you could do and call it a novel. We read books like Monster by Walter Dean Myers—a screenplay slash journal slash sort of photo-essay—and Speak, which has aspects of play and screenplay in the text. It was exciting to me that you could do these things with form and voices and that publishers were interested in work like that.
Did you have a particular book in your head that you wanted to write? Or did you just want to write books?
It’s never been like I’ve had just one burning idea for the book I have to write. I come across stories I want to tell. And I think that if you want to be a writer and make this a career, you can’t come to it with just one idea. I’ve now worked with two editors at two publishing houses, and almost the first question they both asked me was, "What else do you have?" A friend who’s an editor said to me that the first big thing is finishing a book, but the next big thing is also having other books to finish. If you want this to be a career, I think that has to be your mind-set. It’s especially important in the children’s and YA market, where your readership is going to age out. If you wait four years between books, your readers are going to change dramatically, so the pressure is on to produce. Kids fall in love with characters, and they want the next book right now, which explains the popularity of series and the trilogy.
When I was growing up, there were no "YA" books, or at least they weren’t called that. When did that all change?
They were all in the children’s section—there was the children’s section and the adult section. In the early 2000s, there was the creation of the Prince Award, a separate award from Newberry for YA literature, and right around then, you saw the transition to a separate category of books that were really not for young kids, but about the teenage experience. But I feel like it was really Harry Potter—the books and the movies—that forced Barnes & Noble and Borders in the mid-2000s into creating a separate YA section. There were two or three thousand published in 1996; last year there were 30,000 YA titles published.
In your YA book No Safety in Numbers, a group of teens is quarantined in a mall where a virus has been released, and things get Lord of the Flies pretty quickly. Books like the Hunger Games series are super-violent and dark—and super-popular. What’s the appeal of these kinds of extreme stories for this audience?
There are also lots of quieter stories about romance or family drama, but it’s true the stuff that’s dark gets a lot of attention. I think there’s a kind of intensity and passion, which can sometimes get played out in a violent way, that just feels right for a teen audience. I remember being a teenager—everything felt like the end of the world. Everything was, like, the biggest thing ever. So books that talk about situations that are seriously the biggest thing ever—end-of-the-world scenarios, fantasies about universe-challenging battles—appeal to teenagers because that’s just what they’re living.
The Hunger Games is so popular—and not just among high schoolers—because it’s a metaphor for what I think everybody today feels, that we’re all in competition with one another, and it’s kill or be killed. When you’re in high school, you’re constantly on guard, feeling like all eyes are always on you and every failure is the end of the world— that’s what the Hunger Games captures, in a very realistic, concrete sense. Literally, all eyes are always on you, and every failure really is the end of your world.
What’s involved in the job of being a writer these days, outside of just writing books?
There’s a marketing side to things that I didn’t quite expect. I made these little bookmarks myself, for example. If you don’t have a website at this stage of the game, that’s tough. You’ve got to have that now—it’s a calling card. That’s how readers get in touch with you. And on that website, you probably want to have a blog, because readers want new content. I have a Facebook page, and that’s how people find you—they want to be able to interact with you and leave you a note. I get a lot of emails from kids, but I still get actual letters in the mail, too, and that’s awesome. All these ways of interacting are not only fun and add to your experience as an author, but it’s also almost required at this point. Publishers expect you to be participating in the marketing of your work.
There’s also a video trailer for No Safety in Numbers. How important is it to have these other kinds of media supporting the books themselves?
Kids want that multimedia thing—they want to extend and continue these stories. There are kids who have started, of there own volition, online Dogs of the Drowned City role-playing games. They want to do that. You see that in the popularity of fan fiction sites—apparently, 50 Shades of Grey began as Twilight fan fiction. A lot of kids will do their own book trailers, or they’ll make a little scene. There are kids on deviantArt who have done drawings of the dogs in Dogs of the Drowned City, and I think that’s awesome—the fact that there are outlets to do that, and to share and have a community where fans of a story or character can get together is super cool.
But books are still at the center of all this—aren’t books supposed to be dead by now?
It’s awesome as someone who’s really new in YA to see that people are so passionate about reading. You hear a lot that publishing is going the way of the dinosaur—and then you look at a conference like LeakyCon, where you have people flying in from all over the world to just get together to hang out and talk about Harry Potter and all these other YA books. If there’s this much excitement about reading among kids, these kids are going to grow up and they are going to be lifelong readers looking for stories in a written form. And most of these kids are still buying actual books—the largest book-buying sector is YA and children’s. I’ve gotten emails from kids saying, "I spent my birthday money buying your book." And I was like, wow, a kid that has money to spend on any of these outlets they could spend money on, bought my book—that’s incredible.
Has your work as a lawyer helped you as a writer?
It has, especially in that I have a pretty intense work ethic. As a lawyer I’m very used to deadlines—and insane deadlines. When I was a lawyer, the understanding was that you were working at least 10 billable hours a day. I was asked by someone what do you do about writer’s block. It’s not that I don’t get writer’s block, but it’s also not something I have a lot of patience for within myself. I’ll just sit down and say, I’ve got a deadline, I’ve got to meet this deadline, and I’ll just write and see what comes. I may throw it out, but I’ve got to get something down today.
[Image: Flickr user Luca Moglia]