E. Lockhart: An Exclusive Interview on We Were Liars

E. Lockhart: An Exclusive Interview on We Were Liars

Hi Emily, thanks for speaking to us! Let’s start at the beginning of the book where you’ve included a beautiful map of Beechwood Island and a family tree. Can you tell us more about them? What was their importance to the reader’s understanding of the story?

We Were Liars is set on a privately owned island off the coast of Massachusetts in the USA. It has four houses – plus a staff building and a boathouse, tennis courts and two beaches. The island setting is a huge part of the story. What would it be like for a group of cousins to spend every summer there, isolated from the rest of the world? Having the map and the family tree lays out two important themes for readers right away, before they even begin reading: property and family history.

Why did you decide to set the book on a private island? How did it influence the atmosphere of the story?

I love books set on isolated islands. Three of my favourites: Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None; William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, Alex Garland’s The Beach. I started We Were Liars by imagining the setting, and of course – most stories set on isolated islands have some secrets. Violent secrets, usually. So I figured I should write a thriller.

The meaning doesn’t reside in what the author thinks. It resides in what is on the page.

How did you plot all the twists and turns of your story? Did the narrative change during writing?

It is a twisty book. I planned it out from the start, but I had to do a lot of rewriting to make it work well.

Readers seemed to have lots of different theories about where the story was going. Was that your intention from the beginning or was your mystery simply more unpredictable than you anticipated?

It was my intention for readers to have a number of theories about what Cadence will uncover as she returns to Beechwood Island to confront her past, but my intention doesn’t matter. The text is there to be interpreted however readers see fit. I believe that’s true of all texts. The meaning doesn’t reside in what the author thinks. It resides in what is on the page.

There’s a lot of vivid violent imagery within the book, particularly in Cady’s use of metaphors, which gives the book a unique, almost surreal and poetic style. What inspired you to write in this way?

Cadence (the heroine) suffers from chronic and persistent migraines. Headaches are very dull to write about. The character just lies in bed and feels horrible. I searched for a way to write the migraine scenes energetically, and violence seemed like a good answer.

Who was your favourite character to write and why?

Johnny — Cadence’s cousin. He’s the comic relief, mostly, and comedy characters are always my favorite to write.

What do you think it is about the Liars’ friendship that is so special?

The Liars are a group of four teenagers who have grown up spending summer after summer on this private island. They’ve known each other forever – three are cousins, and one boy is an outsider to the family – but they hardly communicate during the school year. I wanted to capture the intensity of the kind of friendships that develop when people are separate from the concerns and pressures of their everyday lives. Summer friendships.

Which character did you “meet” in your head first and what significance did they have for you then?

I started with the Sinclair family structure: there is a patriarch and three beautiful grown daughters, like princesses from a fairy tale. A bit of King Lear, you know? I started with that idea, and wondered what life would be like for the grandchildren in that family.

Did you draw on any personal experiences when writing the book?

I know what it is to be young and heartbroken and to wonder why an ex-boyfriend doesn’t love me any longer. I know what it’s like to be a middle-class intellectual kid (as Gat is, in We Were Liars) who spends a lot of time with very wealthy people. I love two people who suffer debilitating migraines. Other than that, I made it all up.

Cadence uses fairy tales to tell truths about her family life that are otherwise unspeakable to her.

Did you learn a lot about amnesia whilst researching?

Cadence has selective amnesia after a swimming accident that leaves her chronically ill with migraines. She can’t remember the accident, or much of the summer that led up to it. Someone I know suffered amnesia after a trauma, and it functioned very much like it does in We Were Liars – but I did not concern myself with accuracies about amnesia. The point was not medical accuracy. The point was emotional truth.

Cady alludes to fairytales throughout the narrative. What significance do you think they had in her story?

Cadence uses fairy tales to tell truths about her family life that are otherwise unspeakable to her.

We love Cady’s surreal descriptions of her friends. Mirren is ‘sugar, curiosity and rain’, Johnny is ‘bounce, effort and snark’. How would you describe yourself?

Thank you! Peanut butter, hot pepper and brains.

Cady strikes us as a very challenging character to write. What was it like to write from her perspective?

She is a lot like me, just more dramatic. And a lot wealthier.

It seems you’ve left some of the story to the reader’s imagination and allowed us to take our own meaning of what was going on. Why did you decide to take this approach?

I have a Ph.D. in English literature. I am interested in stories that open themselves up to multiple interpretations.

Cady and Gat write their thoughts and feelings on their hands. What significance does this action hold for you?

I have always written on my hands. Cadence and the Liars write mottos, specifically, on their hands, as a way of trying out ways of being, adopting modes of thinking. “Always do what you are afraid to do.” “Do not accept an evil you can change.” “Be a little kinder than you have to.”

Materialism and wealth is a key issue within the book. What inspired your interest in this subject?

Growing up, I was a scholarship kid at some very fancy schools.

Gat lives by the motto “Do not accept an evil you can change”. Is this a saying that has particular significance for you?

Every book has these layers of influences. It’s just how my mind works.

The question is, what does it mean to live by that motto? It sounds good, but how do you try to effect that change? What do you do, and what are the consequences of trying?

Do you have a favourite quote or scene from the book?

The character Mirren has a motto – “Be a little kinder than you have to” – that is a paraphrase of a J.M. Barrie quotation. She doesn’t remember it accurately, but that’s the idea of it. That’s a pretty good motto to live by, I think.

Are there any people or authors who particularly inspire you to write?

My writing is always layered with a gazillion influences. We Were Liars has fairy tales, Wuthering Heights, King Lear – but also those isolated island books I mentioned earlier, and a load of amnesia thrillers I read while I was working on it, and the movie Truly, Madly Deeply and probably sixty other things as well. Every book has these layers of influences. It’s just how my mind works.


Quickfire Round…

What is your favourite book that you’ve read recently?

Americanah by Chimananda Ngozi Adichie.

Who is your favourite character from a book?

Lorelei Lee, from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, by Anita Loos.

Is there a book that you wish you wrote?

A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving.

What is your favourite book to film adaptation?

Spike Jones’s Where the Wild Things Are.

Which character from a book would you have as your best friend?

Bridget Jones.

Which character from a book would have as your boyfriend?

I like human boyfriends, not fictional ones.

What do you love about reading?

Hello? It’s reading.

What’s the best thing about being a writer?

Having written. The rest of the time it’s reasonably akin to bleeding.

eBooks or paper books?

Paper. They’re prettier.

Proudest moment?

Oh, gah. Ag. Urgh.

City, countryside or beach?

New York City.

When you were a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?

A writer. Then an actress. Then a writer.

What was your favourite subject at school?

Boys.

Favourite song at the moment?

“My Shot” from Hamilton. “I’m am just like my country/I’m young, scrappy and hungry/And I’m not giving away/My shot.”

Favourite photograph?

Any picture of the kitty. His name is Blizzard.

Favourite place to read?

The gym. I read a lot on audio.

Favourite place to write?

Anywhere my laptop is. I travel so much, I have to be flexible.