On Setting YA Aside to Write a Novel for Adults
Nina LaCour on “Growing Up” Through Fiction
When I was twenty and visiting New York for the first time, I stepped into a Brooklyn café and a character came to me. In the near-empty room, I saw her clearly: Tall with short hair, fiercely guarded, with a younger brother. I knew they loved each other, knew Sara had abandoned him and was trying to make amends.
In the months that followed, back in San Francisco, I wrote scenes, painstakingly trying to excavate a story. Soon another character came to me—Emilie—and I knew she and Sara would fall in love but I didn’t know how they’d come together. Their lives felt so different, and yet I could see how right they’d be for one another. I couldn’t stop thinking of them—of Sara and Emilie, and all the years it would take, the events that would need to transpire, the growing they’d need to do before they’d find each other. This would be my first novel, I realized with a thrill.
Slowly—often excruciatingly—I amassed a modest stack of pages, longer than any short story I’d ever written. College was coming to a close but I knew I had more to learn, so I used some of Sara’s and Emilie’s scenes to apply for an MFA program, worried for months that the sample wasn’t good enough, was overjoyed when I got in.
I showed up on the day of my first graduate level workshop eager and shy, riddled with self-doubt but also incandescent with hope that my colleagues would see something worthy in my pages, would give me the validation I craved. I sat around the massive oval table, one of only two first-year students in the class. My voice trembled as I read a couple pages aloud, and then I sat silently as the scenes I’d labored over were torn to shreds.
Afterward, I cried in a bathroom stall. Composed myself. Put the novel away for a very long time.
I wrote a different first novel instead. Not a love story, but a grief and friendship story, a book about a sixteen-year-old that I felt better equipped to write. I was only twenty-one, I told myself. What had I been thinking, writing a story about adulthood? I wrote my young adult novel with confidence. I knew what it was like to be sixteen, to lose a friend to suicide, to live in a small suburban town and dream of something more.
That book, Hold Still, was sold in 2007, and for the next thirteen years, in between writing my young adult novels, I would take Emilie’s and Sara’s pages out of the folder I kept them in. I’d scatter the pages across the floor, searching for salvageable moments, and ultimately—each time—I’d find myself estranged from the version of myself that had written them. There were so many phrases I didn’t recognize, words that didn’t feel like my own, scenes that didn’t move me. I’d changed, of course; it had been so long since I’d walked into that Brooklyn cafe.The most tangible gift of “entering adulthood” was a feeling of expansiveness and the freedom to stay with my characters well past their teen years.
And then, in 2020, during those strange and quiet months at home, I took the pages out once more, and it hit me: Oh—I’ve grown up.
I was finally ready, so I started over. From the perspective of my thirties, I wrote about young women hurdling through their late teens and twenties. With the experience of my five novels (six if you count the one I co-wrote with a friend), I now knew how to tell Sara’s and Emilie’s stories.
Now the novel, Yerba Buena, is about to be released, and a certain question keeps coming up: “What are the differences between writing for teens and writing for adults?” Or, put in a way that made me laugh, “What is it like, entering adulthood?”
I’ve struggled with this question. Yes, Yerba Buena is for an older audience, but it still comes from me. Like my YA, it’s full of longing and quiet moments and art and vulnerability and heartbreak and love. It isn’t any more or less honest than my YA work. But of course it’s different.
When I’m writing YA, I feel like I’m holding my readers’ hands and saying, “Come here, I’ll lead you through this. It might be hard, but I’ve got you.” Writing Yerba Buena felt more intimate, like it was just me and the story, and I didn’t feel the same kind of responsibility to comfort; all I needed to do was discover.
As I type this I’m thinking of what it must be like to scuba dive. I got all my gear, made sure I had enough oxygen, and then I plunged in. I got deeper and deeper and didn’t know where I was going or what I’d find. I ended up in some very painful places at first, and then I found so much beauty, and finally I emerged and it all made sense together, and I thought, “Here is life in its difficulty, its confusion, its wonder. Let’s see if I can make a story of it.”
Here’s another answer to the same question:
The most tangible gift of “entering adulthood” was a feeling of expansiveness and the freedom to stay with my characters well past their teen years. In my YA, the timelines are compressed, so I follow my characters through an event and its immediate aftermath. I spend a week or a year with them, and during that time I get them to the place where they’ll be okay for a little while and a next step feels possible.
But what happens after that? This was the question I didn’t know how to answer when I was twenty-one, but it felt luxurious to explore it in my late thirties—to have over a decade of time to play around in, to allow myself so much space. Both Sara and Emilie suffer traumatic events in their teens. Though unequal in scale, the events are foundational; they shape the way they see themselves, the choices they make, and the ways in which they interact with the world. The events reverberate, but they’re only a part of the story. Years pass, and Sara and Emilie continue to grow and change and understand what they want from their lives. They see the past from new vantage points. They return to it, wrestle with it, attempt to make sense of it from a distance—exactly all the things I needed to do in order to tell this story.
Yerba Buena by Nina LaCour is available via Flatiron Books.