Writers to Watch: Young Adult Novelist Liara Tamani
I recently read Liara Tamani’s All the Things We Never Knew (Greenwillow Books/HarperCollins Publishers)—a 2020 Kirkus Best YA Book of the Year that’s now out in paperback—and I couldn’t put it down. I laughed, cried, and swooned over the romantic, immersive, and layered story—a perfect YA novel. Here’s a brief description of the title from Tamani’s website:
The Sun is Also a Star meets “Love & Basketball” in a tumultuous, lyrical teen romance about two African American, high school basketball stars who fall in love hard and fast, but struggle while navigating their own tough family issues.
Carli feels completely lost. She secretly wants to quit basketball, but has no idea what dream she wants to replace it with. To make matters worse, her parents are getting divorced and she and her brother must decide who to live with. The only thing saving her is her belief that signs will ultimately reveal her destiny, and they all just pointed to Rex.
Rex craves love. He might be ESPN’s #1 high school basketball player of the year, but he’s terribly lonely. An only child, his mother died giving birth to him and he’s sure his father blames him for it. Plus, Rex has moved to a new school where all of his new teammates hate him. But meeting Carli changes everything. With her, he feels all the love he’s ever wanted to feel.
Set in Houston over the last few months of Rex and Carli’s junior year, ALL THE THINGS WE NEVER KNEW will make readers feel the all tenderness, messiness, and bliss of first love.
Before diving into Tamani’s gorgeous first novel, Calling My Name (Greenwillow Books/HarperCollins Publishers)—a 2018 PEN America Literary Award Finalist and an SCBWI Golden Kite Award Finalist—I had the pleasure of chatting with Tamani about her work and writing life. Here are the highlights:
EZ: We share something in common—we’re both graduates of Vermont College of Fine Arts. You received your MFA in Writing from VCFA in 2010. How was that experience for you?
LT: I loved the sense of community and still have good writing friends from the program. I loved getting different feedback every semester from different advisors. Each gave you something new to look at, and every semester a fresh set of eyes saw your work. Each advisor’s feedback resonated with me in different ways.
EZ: When did you first consider yourself a writer?
LT: I think all writers go through this thing where they’re afraid to call themselves a writer until they’re published. I’m sure it’s an insecurity many writers wish they could rid themselves of, and I definitely had it. I don’t know if I would have called myself a writer until I got a short story published. I had been writing for many years, and had definitely earned the title. But I didn’t want to say I’m a writer and then have to answer the inevitable question, Where have you been published? The fear in me never wanted to answer, Nowhere, to that question.
EZ: What inspired you to write specifically for children and young adults?
LT: Initially I didn’t have a specific plan for writing for children and young adults. At Vermont College of Fine Arts, I wasn’t even aware of the Writing for Children and Young Adults program. I did the adult program. I was also ignorant and naïve about all aspects of business and marketing, and where books fit in the market. When I was writing my first book, Calling My Name, I was just trying to write the best book that I could.
The girl who narrated the story had a young voice. So, during the first round of submissions, my agent pitched it as young adult. The plan for the second round was to pitch it as an adult novel. It ended up selling really quickly and then I got a two-book deal with the expectation that my second book would be written for the young adult market.
But I will say it’s been a huge blessing, and I’m so grateful that I get to write for kids. I always try to see the beauty in the world all day, every day, and to be aware of living a life in loving kindness. I try to do all of these things, and I love learning about the human experience because we are constantly evolving and growing. Just because we are adults, the learning never stops. Even when you learn things, you have to relearn them. Our learning takes place in a cyclical manner, just like everything else in life. We learn things and then we forget things, and then we learn them again. Writing for kids helps me remember.
EZ: It’s kind of like revisions. We rewrite something, looking at one thing, then we rewrite again looking at something else. We can’t make all the changes, or tackle everything all at once.
LT: We have these daily experiences where we’re living in the minutia of it all, and sometimes we forget some of the larger guiding principles. Sometimes we forget all the things we’ve learned along the way. I always have to remind myself of things I’ve learned but forgotten.
EZ: How did your writing process differ between the first two novels? Did you write each of them very differently?
LT: The process of writing both books was very different. I’m not sure I could write any books in the same way. For Calling My Name, because it’s based on my childhood—it flowed for me very easily. I wrote short chapters and vignettes completely out of order and did so by accessing and creating fiction around things that had made an impression on me growing up. At first, I didn’t know it was going to be a book. I’d probably written twelve to fifteen chapters that could stand on their own. But when I found the voice, I was like, oh—I love this. I loved her so much and kept writing more and more.
EZ: I understand you’ll have a third and fourth novel come out. Congratulations on that! Where are you in that process, and how are you approaching them?
LT: Every time I write a book I feel like I don’t know how to write a book. For me, the hardest thing about writing a book is coming up with what I’m going to write about. I didn’t have that problem with Calling My Name because I didn’t even know it was going to be a book at first. It was very organic the way the pieces came together for that. For my next book I wanted to write something that was meaningful and I had to fall in love with the idea of the book before I started writing it. So, my process was filling up many notebooks with ideas. I get excited about an idea and then I start to write about it, and then I’m like, no that’s not it.
I wrote my second book, All the Things We Never Knew, so differently than my first. I wrote it chronologically and used a short outline (a one-page guide) to let me know where I was going. For my first book, I had zero outline and wrote out of order. The third book, the one I’m working on now, is the hardest. Maybe because of Covid, but it has been very hard for me to find my way inside the characters.
Even in All the Things We Never Knew, I was able to easily embody my characters. That’s what it takes for me to get going. Then I let them lead me–it’s their story. With the story I’m currently working on, I couldn’t get inside the main character for a long, long time. I find that the interaction with the world is necessary for me to write. My brain had been slow and sluggish and I was writing and writing, feeling like it was all going to waste. I kept writing about her, writing in different voices. I was trying to write her in every way I could, trying to find my way inside. Eventually I did—it just took me a long time. And now that I’m there I see that all the writing I did wasn’t wasted. I realize that I was figuring things out even when I didn’t know it. We struggle and struggle, and when we’re struggling we can’t often see the fruits of our labor–they’re invisible. We just feel the pain of the struggle. But afterwards, we can see there was fruit that came from that struggle, and I’m grateful for it.
EZ: I love that. And I love how you said that nothing’s wasted. So many times, when you look back at your writing, you find a nugget of something that helps you figure something out. Or you use the nugget in some other way. Or you realize it led you to answers or to a voice or to something that gives you satisfaction or helps you feel like you’re making connections that you can then put on the page. I think that’s a good message for all writers, that nothing is wasted. Even if you cut something, it’s not wasted because you needed to go there to get to where you’re going. We’re all emotional, we all have feelings about our writing that sometimes get in the way, but we have to know that’s part of the process. And part of the beauty of it is finding your way through and realizing the struggle was leading you where you needed to go. You mentioned the pandemic—something you said that resonates with me is not being in the world and how that has affected our ideas and our ability to write and inhabit characters. So much of life is being out in the world, observing, being in nature—and with other people. Socializing, eavesdropping, listening and conversing–it’s all been so different. Have you found the light in that, or has it all just been very difficult, or both?
LT: After having that power outage [in Texas] and now that we are getting back out in the world, things are blooming and it’s spring and I’m feeling that energy—I’ve never felt spring so hard, things coming back to life and growing. I feel that growth in myself, and of course it’s all happening in conjunction with the world slowly opening up, and with people getting vaccinated. I feel that energy of people coming together. We’re all growing together. I definitely see the light, and I’m seeing it more and more. I’m grateful for that.
EZ: What are some things you need to have you when you write? Do you listen to music? Do you need silence? Is it different when you’re drafting versus revising? What helps you write your best and be productive?
LT: I’m not a writer who does a lot of drafting. I write line by line, and when I finish a book it’s mostly done. Of course, there are different things you need to go back and change, but I write line by line and revise as I go. I realize it’s less efficient, but it’s how I write. I love language and the rhythm of words and how they’re put together. I love the sound of writing and love it too much to neglect it at all. I have to love the way something sounds before moving on. I typically go back and read what I write every day to make sure that it all flows together. But what I need is silence. I have a young daughter, but I need to be by myself to write.
EZ: What would you consider the highs and the challenges of being a published author?
LT: Life after publishing becomes more complicated. It’s not just about the craft or about writing the most beautiful story you want—I still do that in terms of my work, don’t get me wrong. I’ll never sacrifice the work I do to try to write the most popular book. I have to write words I love and the stories I believe in. However, once you’re in the market, you do need to be concerned with marketing your work. A lot of the onus is on authors, especially if you don’t have a lead/chosen title where the publisher puts a lot of money behind your book. The money behind those books subsidizes other titles. The money is not spread out evenly. So, the vast majority of writers have to do their own marketing. That’s something I’ve found very difficult—just being out there selling yourself. I’m not good at that. It’s taken me awhile, but I’m working on getting a system down that’s intentional—where I’m offering something to my readers. It’s taken me three years and two books, and I still haven’t figured it out. But I’m excited to design a system moving forward that will work for me. Still, I prefer communicating with people in person—it feels more real.
EZ: A lot of times, interactions on social media feel transactional. You can have genuine relationships, but when you start promoting and marketing your work, it’s definitely a challenge. I’m like you and don’t really like selling myself or my work. But I love the way you present yourself in social media. Still, it’s a challenge to have genuine connections online.
LT: It’s a business where you’re helping people learn about books, but then you’re promoting your book and helping everyone promote their books. It’s a lot to bear. My mental health has taken a beating with social media, and I’ve had to step back. If I then sell fewer books, so be it. Sometimes I think about abandoning social media altogether. At the end of the day, writing the most books is going to be the most fulfilling. Not posting the most.
EZ: Social media can be dispiriting and taxing, and you do need to protect yourself and allow yourself to be in a certain headspace as a writer. Speaking of writers, who are the authors or books that have most influenced or inspired you or your writing?
LT: There are so many because I’m such a book lover. Toni Morrison is one of the big reasons I write. I read so many of her books when I was young. Entering the young adult space, I’m very inspired by the work of Renee Watson and Jason Reynolds. Also, Nicola Yoon’s books are beautiful and sweet but still manage to get teens to ask themselves the big questions.
EZ: If you could offer one piece of advice to writers—or share something that’s helped you—what would it be?
LT: Keep writing. Everyone has a story to tell. Only you can tell yours.
To learn more about Liara Tamani and her work (which includes being featured in the Black Enough anthology), visit her website. She has also been featured on NPR, and wrote this great piece for TIME.