On a recent Friday afternoon, I came across a paperback copy of a Young Adult Contemporary novel by Nora Price called ZOE LETTING GO. Zoe, the main character, has been taken by her mother to a mysterious hospital called Twin Birch, where the only other patients are girls who are frighteningly thin. Zoe isn’t like them, so why did her mother bring her there? Terrified and confused, Zoe writes letter after letter to her best friend from home, Elise. But Elise won’t write back.
Within just a few pages of ZOE LETTING GO, I was absolutely hooked. I spent that entire Friday night on my couch, reading until I got to the end of Zoe and Elise’s story. Price really goes deep into their friendship, revealing bone-chilling insights about these characters and their world.
As writers, there’s a lot we can learn from the way ZOE LETTING GO engages with sensitive issues like eating disorders and self harm. I reached out to ZOE’s author, Nora Price, to find out more about how she avoided cliches in her work, as well as how she handled the intense struggles affecting her characters. Here’s what she had to say:
LS: In the back of my copy of ZOE LETTING GO, it says that “Nora Price is a pseudonym for a New York-based writer and journalist in her late twenties.” Can you share with us why you chose to write this book anonymously?
NP: Yes, absolutely. The answer is that I’m very shy! I get tremendously anxious speaking in public or having my picture taken, which are both things that many authors do (and do well!). When making the decision, I did spend a lot of time hemming and hawing; worrying that to publish under a pen name was irredeemably cowardly. I still think it is a little bit cowardly but I’m not sure I would have published the book otherwise, to be completely honest.
LS: I grew up in the Saved By The Bell and 90210 era, so for me, “a book about anorexia” usually makes me think of a pat story where a teen girl stops eating, but then her friends and family intervene to convince her that she’s in danger, followed by a swift emotional and physical recovery. How and why is your approach to the topic so different?
NP: When someone very close to me suffered from a severe eating disorder, I learned firsthand that the reasons a person stops eating—and continues not to eat—are far more complicated than could be wrapped up in, for example, an episode of 90210. The late writer Caroline Knapp wrote an incredible book called Appetites which explores the topic in depth. “What’s astonishing to me,” she wrote, “is the level of self-hatred a woman can live with, which is really a way of living with chronic pain.” This is true of many women, and not only those that suffer from anorexia specifically. I wanted to write a book that acknowledged this fact very plainly.
LS: What genre do you see ZOE LETTING GO as being a part of?
NP: I think “Young Adult Contemporary” is the perfect description. As a younger person, my favorite authors wrote titles that might be described as “dark”, from Maurice Sendak to E.L. Konigsburg to Sharon Creech. The funny part is, when I look at their books in retrospect, I don’t find them dark at all. Instead—and from a slightly older perspective— I’ve found that their true distinguishing factor is that they treat children as rational, complex humans. As adults, almost. There was nothing I wanted more as a kid than to be treated like an adult. So naturally, I loved the books that expressed this wish.
LS: To me, Elise and Zoe were beautiful, smart, and sweet girls who were desperate to control some aspect of how they are perceived. Was it challenging to write such an unrelentingly sad and scary narrative?
NP: If I had been writing in a sad mood, I’m afraid the reading experience of the book would be sad, and I definitely didn’t want to put readers in that mood. More often I found myself newly mystified about the fact that anyone gets through high school at all. (I barely did!) Adolescence is a vulnerable period where you’re constantly encountering “firsts”: first party, first sip of alcohol, first best friend, first boyfriend/girlfriend, first betrayal, first heartbreak (maybe). Plus, your body is mutating in unpredictable ways and you have absolutely no idea what your life will look like in, say, two years. It’s like running an emotional marathon.
It’s easy to verge on gloominess when you’re writing about a tough subject. But then, you know, I’d step away from my laptop, go outside, and there’d be a teenage girl blazing down the street in a shirt printed with “CLASSY, SASSY, AND SMART ASSY” and I’d think to myself, “Okay, the kids are alright.”
LS: I am particularly curious to know how you approached the careful plotting of ZOE LETTING GO. Each reveal seems to happen in such a purposeful way. Can you tell us more about how you made this work so smoothly?
NP: Outlines are a girl’s best friend! Also, I downloaded the program “Freedom” to prevent me from noodling around on the internet while I was writing. It kept me focused.
I also gave myself a daily word target of 300 words, which is basically 1.5 paragraphs. The lowness was intentional. If my word target had been 1,000 words, I would have felt defeated from the start. But by making it a reachable number, I guaranteed myself that I’d at least write SOMETHING every day—plus, it created a neat psychological effect where I’d work hard to “surpass” my daily goal.
Writing involves a lot of internal dealmaking like this. You have to figure out ways to outsmart your lazy instincts!
Nora Price is the pseudonym for a New York-based writer and journalist. Visit her online at noraprice.tumblr.com.