Lauren McLaughlin Talks Big Brother and the SATs

Friendship, love, family, human value: all are questioned in Lauren McLaughlin’s Scored, the fresh and compelling dystopian novel set in the not-so-distant future. In it, teenagers Imani and Cady take a test that determines their entire futures: score high and they’re set for life, with great careers; score poorly, and they’re guaranteed a tough road ahead. When Imani scores high and Cady, the rebel of the pair, scores poorly, things between the two become strained–and it only gets more uncomfortable for Imani when the brilliant, as-yet-unscored Diego asks her to help him study. Below, Lauren answers some questions about her thoughts and inspirations for the world and characters in her latest novel.

What inspired you to write Scored?

I was living in the Hackney section of London a few years ago, a neighborhood that would later make itself known as one of the locations of the London riots. Not a posh neighborhood. Every day as I walked to the park for a picnic lunch, I’d notice piles of shatterproof glass on the ground and a few cars with smashed-in windows. The cars that thieves couldn’t steal, they’d merely break into and take whatever they could find. Then one day I noticed there hadn’t been any piles of glass or smashed-in windows for a while. I also noticed that someone had installed surveillance cameras up and down the street. They were obviously working. The thieves had moved on. I remember thinking that Hackney was a perfect test case for the effectiveness of surveillance in crime prevention. And the conclusion was obvious: put surveillance cameras everywhere and you could eliminate street crime entirely.

This was a lightbulb moment for me. I’d always been more or less anti-surveillance until then. I had opposed the Patriot Act’s warrantless wiretapping and, like many, I worried that we were “sleepwalking into a surveillance society.” But it wasn’t until that moment that I understood how seductive surveillance could be. I wanted those cameras there. Despite everything I feared about government overreach, corporate snooping and the vast potential for abuse that surveillance affords, I wanted more cameras. I wanted them everywhere. That’s when I became truly frightened of surveillance—not that it would be forced on us by a domineering government or a corporate giant, but that we would invite it. That was the genesis of Scored.

Standardized tests can be a controversial topic, but more often than not it seems to be adults having these conversations, not teens. How did you decide to make Scored a YA novel and to have teens debate this scoring system amongst themselves?

For the most part, I believe that the adults engaged in the current debate about standardized testing truly have the interests of teens in mind. Everyone wants to improve schools and broaden educational opportunities, especially for those who are currently stuck in low-performing schools. But I think too many of these adults have forgotten what it feels like to be a high school student. They’ve forgotten the difference between a rich educational experience and a high mark on a bubble test. They’ve forgotten how brain-crushingly boring it is to endure an hour-long class with a teacher who’s merely trying to stuff your head with facts in order to satisfy some dry curriculum mandate. Teens are vibrant, creative, inquisitive, passionate people. All of them. Not just the A students. And everything–I mean everything–about standardized testing works to sabotage all of those wonderful traits. Now add crippling anxiety, fierce competitiveness, and terror about your future prospects, and you have some idea what teens are dealing with right now. My cousin graduated with a B average, was the top ballet dancer at her performing arts high school and, because she underperformed on a single standardized test, couldn’t get into any state schools. That’s what these kids are up against. I don’t think you have to set a story that far into the future to create an educational dystopia. We’re in one right now. And, so far, adults aren’t helping the situation. They’re making it worse. I wanted to showcase what teens could do on their own behalf when they engage directly with the issues that affect them. And I sincerely hope that Scored inspires teen readers to get active and use all the tools at their disposal, like social networking, to contribute their voices to these issues.

Can you remember what your SAT or ACT scores were? Do you think that they accurately reflected your “ability to succeed”?

I honestly can’t remember my scores. I think they were decent but not stellar. I also remember my very well-meaning parents sending me to SAT prep classes on Saturday mornings. And I remember skipping them because they were so unbelievably boring I wanted to kill myself. I detest being bored. Moreover, I felt guilty about “buying” a higher test score, given that the whole point of the SAT was to provide a neutral yard stick. Of course, we know now that the yard stick is not neutral. That it favors boys over girls, despite the fact that girls outperform boys academically. In fact, we now know that the SAT measures absolutely nothing except the ability to take the SAT. So, no, I don’t feel that my standardized test scores reflect my ability to succeed. I don’t think they reflect anything.

There is a fair amount of “history” discussed in this novel (especially when Imani and Diego are arguing with each other) some of which is going on right now and some of which goes much farther back. How much research did you do for this novel? Were you ever surprised by what you found?

Most of the history mentioned in the novel came straight out of my actual education. I remember spending a whole year studying slavery in elementary school and actually coming out of it with a pretty deep and emotionally potent understanding of the institution. I went to a fantastic school and the teachers there really knew how to engage with us on our level. We wrote first-person narratives from the point of view of slaves and slave owners, and it wouldn’t surprise me if my passion for social justice stems directly from this experience. In the age of Google, research is cheap, and for this reason I think it’s wise to avoid cramming too many Googled factoids into a story. You should only use material that you know deeply and that you can truly connect with. So, no, I wouldn’t say I was surprised by anything I found in my research. The surprise came when I started compiling all of the historical data and finding patterns. That was the shocker for me. There’s a structure to caste systems that renders them inherently susceptible to revolution. Once you know this, you can design a diabolically perfect caste system that is resistant to change. When you’re in the dystopia business, that’s the kind of nightmare you’re looking for.

Novels that were required reading for previous generations (like Brave New World and 1984) are mentioned a few times in Scored. Did you read either of these when you were in school? Did you discover any books that you still love today because of required reading in school, or were you more of a reluctant required reader?

I read both Brave New World and 1984 in school. At the time, I was more of a reluctant required reader and the books didn’t fully resonate for me. I was a late bloomer. I only fell in love with reading when I was 16, courtesy of an English teacher with a passion for Faulkner. But the strange thing about 1984 is that even though it didn’t capture my imagination at the time I read it, the story definitely stuck in my mind. Something about the inescapable nature of that world became a part of my subconscious landscape. That’s the power of required reading. You may not know it’s in there, but it’s in there somewhere. It’s part of your understanding of the world and part of the collective unconscious of your peers. It’s important for teens to read books of their own choosing for pleasure, but it’s equally important for them to read outside of their own preferences. That’s where you find those unexpected gems. I never would have chosen a Faulkner novel off the library shelf. The first few pages of The Sound and the Fury went straight over my head. That’s a hard book to read. But boy am I glad my teacher made me read it. That book changed my life.

Many dystopian novels are set in a distant future that looks very different from our world today. What made you decide to set this in the not-too-distant future, essentially just a generation or two removed from where we are now?

I don’t think you have to look too far into the future to envision nightmare scenarios evolving from current circumstances. We already have surveillance, high stakes testing, and potent analytical software that makes judgments about us all the time. When a Google ad pops up on your screen, that’s the result of a sophisticated algorithm analyzing your web habits and making judgments about them. We rank each other by the number of Facebook friends and Twitter followers we have. We’re also currently slipping into a desperate situation of massive economic inequality. Wealth is being concentrated among fewer and fewer people. The middle class is shrinking. The old economy of credit-fueled growth turned out to be a pyramid scheme, and, with that in tatters, there’s nothing yet on the horizon to replace it. I don’t know where all of this will lead us, but I don’t think we’re going to have to wait very long to find out. I think we may already be at the leading edge of a real-life dystopia. I hope I’m wrong.

Issues of friendship, family, and loyalty all play big roles in the novel as things that Imani struggles with. Even without “The Score,” do you remember struggling with these same issues when you were her age?

I’m a fiercely loyal person. I probably shouldn’t advertise this fact, but it takes a lot for a person to get on my bad side. I’m ridiculously forgiving. I think I get this from my Dad. He has this way of seeing the other guy’s point of view. No matter how badly someone behaves, in most cases, it comes down to weakness rather than malice, and weakness is forgivable. Thankfully, as a teen, I was never trapped the way Imani is in a loyalty bind. I never had to choose between two groups of friends or between a friend and my family. I do vaguely recall, however, being summarily booted from one group of friends who decided to gang up on me for reasons they never made clear. Thankfully, I had another group of friends to hang out with, so I was okay. I’m pretty sure these kinds of shifting allegiances are common in high school. But I was never a player in those games. I was the simple, loyal friend.

What do you hope that the reader will take away from reading Scored?

I want to make people uncomfortable. I want them to feel the seduction of ubiquitous surveillance at the same time as being afraid of it. That’s the kind of reader experience I’m looking for. Not only is it vastly more emotionally gripping to love and fear the same thing, but it also reflects, on a philosophical level, precisely the bind we’re heading into as a society. Technology is a force for good and evil, and we’re not always equipped to know the difference. I want readers to think about these issues in complex, emotional ways, because it’s these complex emotions that will ultimately drive technological and societal change. As an author, I get nothing from creating simple, easy-to-hate bad guys. It’s too easy. Nor am I interested in reinforcing something people already know and believe. My goal is to make the counter-argument so seductive it occasionally gets mistaken for the argument. This will confuse and anger some readers, but I think it makes for vastly more interesting conversation.

You set Scored where you grew up, in Massachusetts. Did you base any of the characters or places on people that you know or specific locations in Wenham?

As a teenager, I spent my summer weekends on my dad’s boat, which he kept at a marina a few miles from our house. I have the fondest memories of that marina, of the smell of fuel and the sea. I used to love zipping down the Essex River on the bow of the boat and then spending the day at what is still the most beautiful beach I’ve ever been to: Crane’s Beach. I set the story there because I wanted to create a stark contrast between the richness of the natural world and the highly unnatural state into which Imani and her peers are being driven. As for the characters themselves, they’re all totally invented, except insofar as I am constantly stealing bits of real people’s souls to use in my creations.

When you were a teen, were you more like Imani or Cady?

I would say that I was Imani, with Cady itching to burst through. I wasn’t a rebel, but I wasn’t a conformist either. Truthfully, there wasn’t much to rebel against. My teachers were excellent and engaging, my parents were supportive and cool, and most (though by no means all) of my fellow students were decent and kind. There was room in my upbringing for curiosity and doubt, so I never felt stifled. I actually experienced my rebellious phase when I went to college. At that point, I was Cady all the way.

Have you always been a writer? What/who was your biggest influence in becoming one?

I’ve been writing since I could grip a crayon. I wrote poetry for most of my youth, then switched to screenplays in my early twenties, and finally settled on fiction in my early thirties. But even when I wasn’t actually writing, there was always a story or two playing out in the background of my mind. I’m a bit like a three ring circus. The real world plays out in one ring, whatever project I’m currently writing is in another, and a battle among the fragments of other stories waiting to be written is in the third. In terms of influences, it would be hard to pinpoint any one. But I did switch from screenplays to fiction after reading Dan Simmons’s Hyperion Series. Those books were a real awakening for me. I’d been pretty committed to movies at the time, but those books engaged me in a way no movie ever did. I discovered how deeply you could descend into someone else’s world and I wanted to do that.

If you were to cast the Scored movie, who would you choose to play the main characters?

I am completely useless when it comes to current teen actors. I have no idea who’s hot and who’s not. I don’t even watch that many movies any more. I also have such a clear picture in my mind of who these characters are that it would be impossible for me to cast them. If Imani, for example, didn’t have freckles across her nose and precisely the right hair, I’d have a fit. And Diego would have to be the exact right mixture of sly sensuality and icy intellectualism, with wolf-like blue eyes and floppy black hair that fell just so. This is why you should never ask an author to cast her own movie. It can only fail. Thankfully, no one ever asks an author to cast her own movie, so I think we’re okay. Ironically, when I was a movie producer, casting was one of my favorite tasks. Now? Useless. My first novel, Cycler, is in development as a movie and I’m terrified of how that will be cast.

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