Claire Coughlan in Dublin meets the New York Times bestselling author of We Were Liars, ahead of the publication of her latest novel, Genuine Fraud
Genuine Fraud, the compelling new YA novel from E. Lockhart, and published by Bonnier Zaffre's Hot Key Books, sets out its stall early on, as a story influenced by a multitude of stories that have gone before. There are no coy allusions here: the introductory author’s note clearly explains that the novel was inspired by 'many, many books and films'.
Lockhart cites 'Victorian orphan stories, con-artist tales, antihero novels, action movies, noir films, superhero comics, tales told backward, stories of class mobility, and books about the lives of ferociously ambitious, unhappy women,' including The Talented Mr Ripley, by Patricia Highsmith, and Great Expectations, which is perhaps the archetypal orphan story.
"Orphan stories are often stories of the complications of class mobility," says Lockhart, sipping tea in the bar of a Dublin hotel. "In America, there’s that dream that you can come up from nothing and become wealthy, powerful, successful - make something of yourself. And I was interested in what that dream really might look like and how it might corrupt someone. That’s very much the subject of Great Expectations. But it's also the subject of The Incredible Hulk – an ordinary man becomes tremendously powerful and morally compromised at the same time. I wanted to write a story that existed somewhere in between those two, and to have it be about a teenage girl."
E. Lockhart is the author of nine previous novels for young adults – she also writes for children and adults under the name Emily Jenkins. Her last book for YA, We Were Liars, also Bonnier, was a New York Times bestseller and a Zoella Book Club pick. She is in Ireland and the UK for a promotional tour of her tenth YA novel, Genuine Fraud, which includes book signings, interviews, panel discussions and an appearance at YALC.
"There are always a lot of stories overlapping in my novels," she elaborates, when asked about the influences cited in the author's note. "I often think of myself as rewriting or riffing on a story archetype, or on a collection of stories that talk to each other across history. Genuine Fraud is no different, and perhaps it's more overt than the others."
Lockhart has a PhD in the 19th Century British novel from Columbia University in New York, and she says that as a result, she is a very 'referential' writer. Genuine Fraud is told from the point of view of Jule, a teenage girl who is on a Ripley-esque odyssey in Mexico, London, the US and Puerto Rico. The structure is chronologically backwards, which allows the reader to delve neatly into Jule's complex psyche.
“I was influenced by the Patricia Highsmith novel The Talented Mr Ripley, and by lot of other Highsmith as well – Strangers on a Train, and so on. She was a marvellous writer for her ability to explore what it means to be human by exploring what it means to be a bad person, from the inside," Lockhart says.
"Writing Genuine Fraud, I started with the idea of writing an anti-hero story like those that Highsmith wrote so beautifully, but about a teenage girl. I told it backwards as a way of going toward understanding of the character. As an anti-hero becomes more and more monstrous, the reader often can sympathise less. I wanted to explore the deepening of that sympathy or the changing of sympathy in the audience as they read.
"As I wrote, I realised that not only was I telling a Highsmithian story, I was also telling a Dickensian story, and a Marvel Universe story. Stories that examine social class and the lives of desperately unhappy women, like House of Mirth and Pygmalion, were layered in there as well. You can read the book without knowing any of these antecedents, but that's where Genuine Fraud came from. It came from realising that all these stories were talking to each other."
Lockhart grew up in Seattle, Washington. She attended Vassar College and Columbia, and made the switch from academia to writing fiction because she says she wasn’t very 'theoretically minded.'
"I didn’t want to write long papers about novels," she says. "I began writing fiction as a way of trying to yank myself off this path that I was on. By the time I finished school, I had published a couple of books. None of them were very successful, but at least they were published, so I never looked for a full-time job. I taught Freshman Composition, as many new PhDs do, and then I managed to segue my part-time composition job into teaching Creative Writing. Eventually, I began to write full-time."
Lockhart says she is 'self-taught' as a creative writer, though she isn’t opposed to the MFA programmes in Creative Writing offered by many US colleges.
"I had one class in college and it was a disaster," she says. "The criticism was very harsh. Everyone just ripped each other's stories apart. There was no sense of encouragement. The professor was very bored by me and made no secret of it. I don’t mind harsh criticism at all when the critic sees I might have to offer and can help me offer it up. I can take a very aggressive piece of criticism in that situation because I feel that the critic is trying to nurture my voice. But that was not going on in my college writing class."
Lockhart didn’t feel under pressure to follow up the success of We Were Liars, she says. It was more important that its ascent into bestseller-dom allowed her to 'keep working'.
"It was so nice that people read We Were Liars – it was my ninth book for young adults and my first bestseller," she says. "Reaching those readers was very joyful and I was happy about it. My goal, however, was not to become a bestselling writer. My goal was to be a working writer who made books that got put out into the world. And so what being a bestseller means to me is: I get to keep working, I get to keep telling stories, I get to keep making books."
Genuine Fraud is published on 5 September by Hot Key Books (£12.99, hardback).