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2009 National Book Award YPL
Interview with David Small

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Jim Di Bartolo, Illustrator
Laini Taylor
Lips Touch: Three Times
Arthur A. Levine Books, an imprint of Scholastic, Inc.

Interviewed by Willie Perdomo

Willie Perdomo: A life-transforming kiss is at the heart of Lips Touch. National Book Award Winner John Cheever once said that “saving a letter is like trying to save a kiss.” How would you respond?

Laini Taylor: I don’t know the context. Is Cheever suggesting that saving letters is a futile exercise in hanging onto something fleeting, like a kiss? Or is he saying that you save a letter for the same reason you would a kiss, if you could? To hold precious moments close?

Imagine if we could save kisses the way we save letters! I could write a story about that. At estate sales we might find parcels of vintage kisses tied with string, and when we unwrap them, bygone kisses would waft out and overtake us. For a moment it might be 1942, on a station platform. Boisterous soldiers in new boots smoke Lucky Strikes and hang out train windows. A girl with bouncy hair stands on tiptoe to kiss a boy who won’t be coming home. You’d feel it all, taste and hear it all, then wrap the kiss back up and tuck it away.

Imagine the obsessive kiss collectors rummaging through flea markets and estate sales for forgotten kisses. There would be rivalries, intrigue. The thought makes me smile.

WP: Your writing has been described as “lyrical” and “romantic.” Did you read much love poetry while your wrote Lips Touch?

LT: Those are both lovely words, and I’m pleased to have my writing described that way. There have been times in my life, off and on, when I’ve read a lot of poetry, but not while I was writing Lips Touch. I don’t write poetry either, but I pay close attention to the rhythm of my sentences, reading them aloud over and over until they fall just right. I love fiddling with language. For me, the writing process has two equally important components: the storytelling and the prose-craft, and though I love both, I think it’s when I’m tinkering with words that I’m happiest.

I know writers who breeze through first drafts and hate to revise, but I’m the opposite. Revising is my candy shop, and I can be a bit ridiculous, spending hours on a single paragraph, the way I imagine it is with poets. It’s a slow way to write a book, but I love it.

WP: There are some writers who don’t see a difference between fantasy and non-fantasy (i.e., magic realists). As a writer of young-adult, fantasy fiction, what would you say is the biggest difference between fantasy and realistic fiction, and how is this enhanced by illustrations?

LT: I’m going to go with the obvious here and say that in fantasy, anything can happen—at least within believable parameters established by the writer. To a degree, that’s true of all fiction, but in fantasy there’s just such vast scope for the imagination. Not having to adhere to reality is so much fun. I love world-building. I love folklore and monsters and myths. Goblin orchards, ambassadors to Hell, shadows reeled out on kite strings, marionettes that bite, a child who goes fleetingly invisible every time she sneezes.

I read realistic fiction too, and have loved many a non-fantasy book, but when it comes to writing I can’t help myself. My people sprout wings—and even occasionally forked tails they keep tucked down a trouser leg (the left).

As for illustrations, while they may not be necessary in a novel, they add an extra dimension and enrich the reading experience. Lips Touch is illustrated by my husband and collaborator, Jim Di Bartolo, and we’ve been wanting to do illustrated novels ever since we met in art school. There seems to be a prevailing belief that teens and grown-ups don’t want art in their books, but I don’t believe it. I think everybody loves art, and there are so many ways it can be done. The art can exist simply to make a book beautiful, and Jim’s illustrations do make Lips Touch beautiful, but they also add to the narrative, telling parts of the stories that aren’t in the text.

I hope we’ll see more illustrated fiction for teens and adults—including more from us!

Willie Perdomo is the author Where a Nickel Costs a Dime and Smoking Lovely, which received a PEN America Beyond Margins Award. He has also been published in The New York Times Magazine, Bomb, CENTRO Journal and African Voices. His children's book, Visiting Langston, received a Coretta Scott King Honor. He has been a Pushcart Prize nominee, a Woolrich Fellow in Creative Writing at Columbia University and is a 2009 fellow in Poetry from the New York Foundation for the Arts. He is co-founder/publisher of Cypher Books.


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