An Interview with Playwright and Young Adult Writer Laurie Brooks
For years, Laurie Brooks’ stage plays for youth have made teenagers and adults laugh, cry, and think about edgy issues ranging from sexual orientation to personal belonging. Her work has been honored with three Distinguished Play Awards and has been seen in many places, including Ireland, New York, and Washington D.C.
Recently, Brooks entered the field of young adult books when she adapted one of her plays, Between Land & Sea: A Selkie Myth, into her first young adult novel Selkie Girl. The book has since proved popular with young adult audiences and has been nominated for the American Library Association’s Best Books of the Year 2010 List.
I interviewed Brooks via email on June 9, 2009 and learned more about her thoughts on playwriting and adapting a stage play into a young adult novel. The following is an edited version of the interview.
Michael Jung: What was the process like of adapting legends of the Selkies – mythical seal folk who can transform into humans – into your stage play Between Land & Sea?
Laurie Brooks: The play was first called Selkie. It was developed at The Kennedy Center among other venues and won the American Alliance for Theatre and Education’s Distinguished Play Award for 1998. It made use of words from the “Norn,” a now-archaic language that would have been spoken in Orkney in the 1800’s when the play is set.
MJ: What can you tell us about the research you did at the Orkney Islands for the book?
LB: I traveled to the Orkney Islands to research the play and then the book. The islands are wild and largely unknown. The Orcadian people take the selkie myths very seriously and were thrilled that an American writer was so interested in the stories and history of this incredibly beautiful and untamed place.
MJ: Why do you think we continue to be fascinated by stories of animal transformation?
LB: Our relationship to animals is a complicated one. They are such a compelling mystery to us because there is so much we don’t know about their inner life and thought processes. Grey seals in particular have much in common with humans – their focus on community, their language, which can sound like the cries of human babies, the way they nurture their young
MJ: What do you enjoy most about the storytelling opportunities offered through playwriting and producing a stage play?
LB: I love the magic of the theatre. I have written several plays that make extensive use of movement and images to accompany the dialogue. I wrote a play called The Lost Ones that is post-apocalyptic, where two boys have lost most of their language and have nothing to guide them in their struggle to survive but a battered copy of Peter Pan.
Several of my plays make use of an ensemble of actors who voice the inner thoughts of the characters and who comment on the action like a Greek chorus. These are some of the stylistic elements a writer can bring to a theatre experience.
I love working with actors. They are the most generous people I know. I have learned so much about the human condition from them. I have been lucky enough to work with terrific directors who make the work better. Brave directors, actors and producers are the greatest gift for playwrights.
MJ: Why did you want to adapt Between Land & Sea into a young adult book?
LB: Many people who saw the play thought the story would lend itself to becoming a young adult novel. I wanted to expand into narrative fiction and I am so glad I did. Narrative writing is a freeing experience after having written for the stage for so many years.
I have always been drawn to writing for and about young adults. A friend of mine once suggested that in a former life I died at sixteen and my interest in writing for young adult stems from that. Who knows?
MJ: What are the main differences between playwriting and writing a novel?
LB: In playwriting, it’s all about revealing character and plot through dialogue on the page, and then the actors bring the characters and the story to life. The story must be compressed into a couple of hours or less of playing time, so ideally, a playwright must reveal important information in nearly every line to keep the action moving forward.
In narrative writing, the canvas is much broader and there is plenty of time to extend moments and reveal the inner thoughts of the characters. You might say that playwriting is all about compressing and narrative fiction is all about expanding. Now I write both books and plays. I find that the writing of a play informs my narrative fiction writing and vice versa. It’s great to have a foot in both worlds.
Learn more about Laurie Brooks’ plays and novels at her website.
Arizona based freelance writer Michael Jung is the Children’s Books Feature Writer for Suite 101, an online magazine.