Lara Avery on Europe, Kurt Vonnegut, and Writing Your First Novel

Lara Avery is the debut novelist of Anything But Ordinary. It’s the story of Bryce Graham, a 17-year-old competitive diver who ends up in a coma after a terrible accident at the Olympic trials. Five years later, she wakes up to find she’s lost a half decade of her life. Her friends have graduated from high school—and college. Her little sister is now 17—the age Bryce was at the accident. And there’s a weird tension between her parents. As Bryce comes to terms with these changes, she also begins to recognize how much she’s changed as well.

Lara has been nice enough to stop by Figment to answer some of our pressing questions and offer some great advice for all of you aspiring writers.

Describe your novel in five words.

Surreal, homegrown, colorful, shifting, fateful.

If you were to wake up one day after having been in a coma for five years (like Bryce in Anything But Ordinary), what is the first thing you’d want to do?

After seeing the people who meant most to me, I would want to take a long drive.

Bryce is spunky, passionate, and determined. Are there any similarities between you and her? Are there any major differences?

I think Bryce and I are similarly sensitive and passionate. We want to see the beauty in things, and we want to see the world do right by us. I also drew heavily from my days growing in Kansas to form her home life: her connection to the outdoors, her doting parents. If she hadn’t had such a solid, tried-and-true foundation growing up, perhaps she wouldn’t have worked as hard she did to make it better when everything had changed for the worse.

The major difference between us is her athleticism and discipline. I played basketball for many years, but could never focus on getting better because I was too much of a daydreamer. You could say Bryce is a daydreamer, too, but she channeled it into motivation for her goals.

You quote Kurt Vonnegut at the beginning of Anything But Ordinary. Is his writing an influence on your work? 

Kurt Vonnegut is an enormous influence to me, in Anything But Ordinary and all of my writing. I like to compare Bryce to his Slaughterhouse Five character Billy Pilgrim. Everything that happened to them seems beyond time, space, and what is generally fair and logical in our universe, but neither Bryce nor Billy let it affect their will to make their world better. Tragedy often strikes that way in real life, too. I think fiction that gives characters the opportunity to fight pain and sorrow and all those awful things that are out of our control inspires readers to do the same.

If you could choose a theme song for Bryce, what would it be and why?

I actually made Bryce an eleven song playlist, but St. Vincent’s “Cheerleader” wins out of all of them. The sweet, melancholy verses are about regret—the sulking we inevitably do when life gets us down, the cataloging of mistakes—and then the chorus hits you with epic transformation. When she sings “I don’t wanna be a cheerleader no more,” I think of Bryce realizing how much strength there is in redemption. Maybe she can’t play the game how she used to, but she refuses to stand on the sidelines, wishing.

What was the editing process like for you? How many drafts did you go through? What kind of relationship did you have with your editor? What would you do differently next time?

As a favorite professor of mine once said, “Writing is re-writing.” Constant changes, up to four or five drafts of the novel, and lots of help along the way. I couldn’t have done this without my editor at Alloy, Joelle Hobeika. We were on the same page about where we wanted the book to go from the start, mostly due to her insight about what kind of scenes suited my writing best. Then, when you get used to someone chopping up your prose all the time, a piece of encouragement from them becomes so much more meaningful. The same goes for the editors at Disney, Laura Schreiber and Emily Meehan. They were so detailed and dedicated to every corner of the story. They caught things I would have overlooked, which made Bryce’s world much richer.

That said, next time I hope to trust myself more. Drafting my first novel was frightening because I wasn’t used to making so many huge mistakes, so my instincts were to go with what everyone told me. I think the supporting characters would have benefitted if I stood my ground a little more. I wanted to spend more time with each of them, and if I had spoken up, I know my editors and I would have worked together to make it happen.

You spent a month in Europe this spring (lucky girl!). Did your travels provide any inspiration for upcoming writing?

It was lucky! I probably wouldn’t have to keep three other day jobs now if I hadn’t gone (haha), but it was worth every penny. I used my month in Europe to sort of cleanse myself of being in Bryce’s head and get back into the rhythm of my own voice. I had a lot of time to ruminate in beautiful places, and though I didn’t get started until I got back, I decided somewhere between Paris and Berlin that I would dig into my family history. Now I’m writing about my great aunt, who was a bit of a jetsetter herself in the 1920s.

What has your experience been like working under contract for Alloy? How is it different than working with a more traditional publishing house?

It was perfect for someone like me who is just getting started. In fact, I don’t have the experience of working with a traditional publisher to compare because Alloy gave me this opportunity straight out of college. I learned everything there is to know about writing a novel—from the publishing side, the promotion, the actual plotting of each chapter—because of their guidance. No matter where my writing takes me next, I couldn’t have asked for a better start.

What advice would you give to young writers working on their first novels?

It’s amazing how much comes out of giving yourself boundaries. Narrow down what you want to say and where you want to go, and then let your creativity bounce around in those little rooms. The amount you produce will do the opposite of what you’d think. It will overflow! I promise. Think of yourself in the deodorant isle of your supermarket. You’d be there for hours unless you knew how you wanted to smell.


4 thoughts on “Lara Avery on Europe, Kurt Vonnegut, and Writing Your First Novel

  1. The ending was…. Ugh. I can’t even explain the emotions that flashed through my head. This is just… The only thing going through my head is “how can the book be over?”

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