Jeff Hirsch is the author of the new futuristic dystopia The Eleventh Plague, which no less a luminary than Suzanne Collins called an “excellent, taut debut” (and which you can start reading for a limited time here on Figment). But even he has to defend his literary tastes sometimes. Here’s Jeff on why writing YA fiction is harder—and more satisfying—than adults might think.
A lot of people ask me, “Why write books for teens?”
For me, it started with reading YA. K.L. Going. M.T. Anderson. David Almond. Suzanne Collins. What struck me about great YA writing was how it melded strong, well-developed characters and sophisticated writing with highly focused and fast-paced stories. Personally, I’d put the lyricism of M.T. Anderson’s writing up against anyone writing for adults, and he’s doing it while being mindful of the fact that he’s writing for new or reluctant readers and has to keep it moving. That’s quite a trick.
I was writing plays at the time (I had just gotten my MFA at UC San Diego) but felt a strong enough pull to these books that I decided to give it a shot. Once I did, things seemed to fall into place. Writing YA just felt right.
Maybe it’s because I’ve always felt my life to be very much in flux—I lived in Virginia, then North Carolina, then New York, then San Diego, then back to New York again. I wrote poetry. I studied then pursued acting. I wrote plays. I wrote books—and I think all that change reminded me of what being a teenager was like, at least for me.
One minute you’re in junior high and you have this one set of friends, then all of a sudden you’re a freshman in high school and everything’s different: different school, different friends, different activities. And once you’re in high school you’ve got even more change coming at you. You fall in love. You get dumped. You get your driver’s license. You have sex. You discover the Clash. One little adjustment and everything changes. You change. Over and over you’re saying goodbye to one world and hello to another. You wake up one person, you go to bed as another. When else does that happen in a person’s life?
So I loved YA writing and it turned out that the stuff I wanted to write about, that feeling of transforming into a different person, of your world transforming around you, lined up perfectly with YA’s concerns of growing up and becoming your own person.
Aside from that, I think the time between being a child and being an adult is one of the most important and trying times in a person’s life. There needs to be work out there that speaks to that time, work that offers entertainment and insight and says that while growing up seems impossibly hard and frequently unfair, there’s hope. It’s difficult, but it’ll work out.