Interview With Author Billie Livingston

Since I started reading YA novels, I have asked many adults about the books they read when they were a teen. Everyone had at least one book that spoke to them or held some special meaning. Knowing that someone understands you or validates your feelings as a teen can be very powerful. This made me all the more curious about YA writers and their favourite novel(s) growing up.

I recently read The Trouble with Marlene by Billie Livingston, a compelling novella that I know many teens will treasure (full review click here). I wanted to find out a little bit more about our author and her latest novella. As you'll see, the teen years were trying for Billie, as they were for many of us. But she survived and still went on to author two novels, Going Down Swinging and Cease to Blush, and a collection of short stories, Greedy Little Eyes (for full review click here). She is also a poet and her book of poetry, The Chick at the Back of the Church,  was nominated for the Pat Lowther Award. What's more, when Billie is not writing, you'll find her working as stand-in or an extra in Vancouver's bustling film industry. FYI: a stand-in is a person who is a substitute for an actor for technical purposes, such as lighting. Billie has stood in for everyone, from Faye Dunaway to James Earl Jones. In the interview below, our author tells us not only about her YA favourites but also about a special development for  The Trouble with Marlene.

Here's our interview:

H-Which YA novels or adult novels did you read that had the greatest impact on you growing up?

BL-The first YA book that I remember devouring—or trying to—was Go Ask Alice.  I got my hands on it when I was about nine-years-old, but my mother took it away before I could finish.  She thought that the book glorified drugs. Ironic considering that the narrator, Alice, OD’s and dies.  I secretly got a copy of it again when I was about eleven and lapped up every word. Around the same time, I was also absorbed in a completely different book series: The Black Stallion. I loved the adventure of it and the way the kid and the horse were both misfits who were able to make a go of it together. Other favorites were The Pigman, Lord of the Flies, and The Outsiders. I suppose these books all depicted teenagers as somewhat agitated and floundering, struggling in a way that I could relate to.

H-Our 16-year-old protagonist Samantha uses a pretty crafty ruse to get money for food--finding a receipt, going to a store, picking up the exact products and then returning them for cash. Where did you hear about this trick? 

BL-There are a couple of shadier characters in my family who have always been willing to share a story or two.This particular ruse I got from a friend of my husband’s in Brooklyn. He’s an actor now, plays a lot of gangster types, but he was a pretty active street-con when he was younger. And I think he still likes to take an edge where he can.

H-The dynamic between Marlene and her 16-year-old daughter Samantha is pretty toxic. Where did you find your inspiration for these two characters?

BL-I had originally conceived of the Bell family, Marlene, Samantha and Sam (Samantha’s father) as the lead characters in a full-length adult novel. I drew from people in my family, and girls I’d known in high school.  I was in a foster home myself as a kid and I met a lot of people like the Bells. While fleshing out the story and characters, I decided to start writing Samantha’s world in short bursts first, chunks of life that would let me experiment with voice.

At 16, you’re on the cusp–not a child anymore but not an adult either. You’re almost full-grown and you’re drawn to adult indulgences but with a young, inexperienced mind that is full of all kinds of fear and bravado at once. Just as I was moving into a new piece of Samantha’s world, I got an email from editor, Melanie Little, asking if I’d like to contribute a story to Annick Press’s new Single Voice series.  Melanie had such a terrific reputation that I was quite excited to work with her. I decided it might be interesting to take Marlene and Samantha out for test drive and see what the response was. Much to my surprise, they were embraced with open arms.

I’m back to working on the adult novel now where Samantha, Marlene and Sam can open wide and tell it all, no holds barred.  The pleasure of an adult novel is that I can set it in a real city (The story takes place in Vancouver —Burnaby, actually, which is a suburb close to Vancouver) and I can use any kind of regional slang I like. 

H-There's a potentially explosive situation developing between Marlene and her daughter. Luckily, Samantha lets someone in on what's going on and asks for help. The ending was tragic for the 16-year-old having to get her mom out of jail, but it could have been much worse. Did you ever consider an even more tragic ending?

BL-Though Marlene is a mess, she’s not a malicious person but rather someone who is so child-like in many ways that she’s not very capable. Selfish as she is, she adores Samantha, loves her in a way that she isn’t capable of with anyone else. And perhaps counter-intuitively, Marlene’s dependence and crippled sort of love helps Samantha see herself as worthy. I think that once you come to a place where you value yourself, you can’t help but value who and what you touch. (Assuming you’re not a sociopath!) I always envisioned Samantha, even when exercising her criminal skills, as a girl with an instinct for change and light, the desire to connect with something greater than herself rather than one who’s bent on destruction.  

H-I've heard rumours that The Trouble with Marlene has been optioned for a film directed by an award-winning director. Is there any truth to this?

BL-Yes!  Ana Valine, who has won several awards for her short subjects, has optioned The Trouble with Marlene as her first feature film.  She’s working on the script now and plans to use my original title, Sitting on the Edge of Marlene. Ana has been racking up the accolades for her most recent short film, “How Eunice Got Her Baby,” and in March she received word that, based on her Marlene script, she had won the Women in the Director’s Chair Award, which brings with it a big chunk of funding.  You can read more about that here.

H-Well, let's hear it for women directors! Congratulations to both Billie and Ana Valine.

Thanks so much Billie for taking the time to talk with us today.

Related posts:
Review: The Trouble with Marlene by Billie Livingston
Review: Greedy Little Eyes by Billie Livingston
Interview: Christy Ann Conlin Author of Dead Time
Review of Girls' History and Culture Reader: The Twentieth Century
Dead Time by Christy Ann Conlin
The Social Media Survival Guide by Deltina Hay
The Birth House by Ami McKay
The Best Laid Plans by Terry Fallis
The Bone Cage by Angie Abdou
Unless by Carol Shields
Essex County by Jeff Lemire



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