An Indies Introduce New Voices Q&A With Robin Talley

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Robin Talley is the author of Lies We Tell Ourselves (Harlequin Teen), a Summer/Fall 2014 Indies Introduce New Voices title for young adults. Talley lives with her wife in Washington, D.C., where she works for a progressive nonprofit organization and is a Lambda Literary Fellow.

Lies We Tell Ourselves, set in Virginia in 1959, is told from the alternating perspectives of Sarah Dunbar, one of the first black students to attend her school, and Linda Hairston, the daughter of one of the town’s most vocal opponents of integration. “Both are intelligent, fierce, and passionate,” said Sara Hines of Eight Cousins in Falmouth, Massachusetts. “Their dialogue, debates, and conversations about segregation, racism, and social justice are unapologetic and thought-provoking. The story provides no easy solutions, but instead offers a solid and responsible ending that leaves hope for both girls to find a better future, while clearly indicating that there is still much left for us to do.”

What inspired you to write Lies We Tell Ourselves?

Robin Talley: I was on a road trip with my parents, and we got to talking about their school days. Both of them grew up in Virginia (as did I) and they were both in high school when their schools were desegregated for the first time. They told me about what they remembered from that time and I started doing research then and there on my phone. I learned more from that quick Google search than I’d ever been taught in school about what the civil rights movement in my home state had been like. For one thing, I learned that Virginia’s governor had shut down entire schools to prevent them from being integrated in the late 1950s. Tens of thousands of students missed out on their educations for months or even years, just so a handful of politicians could avoid having white and black kids in their state go to the same schools. Later, as I read more about what life had been like for the black students who integrated that first handful of all-white schools, I knew I wanted to explore that in a novel. And I also wanted to explore what it would’ve been like to be in such an enormously difficult situation and to have a huge secret on top of that ― to be a gay teenager in a time and place where coming out was simply not an option.

Your novel is set in Virginia in 1959, at the time of desegregation, but you also grew up in Virginia. Do you see parallels between the Virginia of 1959 and the Virginia you grew up in? In the country as a whole?

RT: It’s funny, because it seems like the civil rights movement was so long ago, but it wasn’t. We’re just one generation removed from the events of my book. The world I grew up in during the 1990s was very much a product of the decades that came before. The schools I went to were integrated, of course, but that didn’t mean there wasn’t racial tension. There was also plenty of prejudice against other groups ― immigrants, LGBT people, religious minority groups, and the list goes on. That was true everywhere, and it’s still true now. But in the 1950s, the 1990s, and all the time in between, there were people who took a stand against bigotry. And, of course, there are people working for social justice today, too. We’ve seen enormous progress on civil rights over the past few decades, and I’m confident that we’ll continue to see more in the years ahead.

What challenges did you face researching LGBT experiences of the 50s and 60s?

RT: It was tough! There aren’t very many personal accounts out there that discuss being LGBT in 1959, since being closeted was the norm. Those who did write about their experiences were usually well into adulthood, so finding information about what it was like to be a gay high school student in the 1950s ― especially a gay high school student of color ― was pretty close to impossible. So I did a lot of extrapolating from adult accounts. I also watched classic 1950s educational videos (like this one and this one) to try to grasp how a teenager in the 1950s, straight or gay, would likely perceive the idea of homosexuality ― as something strange and other, something to be feared. Not exactly the most empowering message to hear if you’re a girl who likes other girls.

Diversity in books, whether it be race, religion, sexuality or physical ability, is a hot topic in the book world at the moment. What are your thoughts on this issue? How do you think book lovers can help create a more diverse reading environment?  

RT: It’s been amazing to see the increasing discussion about diversity in children’s books over the past year or so, spearheaded by Diversity in YA, We Need Diverse Books, and others. It’s up to all of us ― writers, readers, booksellers, librarians, publishing industry folks, reviewers, and all the rest ― to support increasing the diversity of characters in fiction. Book lovers can help by going out of their way to seek out books with diverse characters ― especially books they might not otherwise come across ― and spreading the word about the diverse books they love so others can discover them, too.

Tell us about Unbreakable your next book, scheduled for 2015.

RT: Unbreakable is a contemporary story that follows a long-term, so-serious-they’re-basically-engaged high school couple, Toni and Gretchen, when they’re separated for the first time at college. Gretchen identifies as a lesbian, and Toni identifies as genderqueer. Toni and Gretchen spent nearly every waking moment together in high school, so it’s a shock when they’re thrust into new environments and forced to start functioning as separate people. Meanwhile, as Toni starts exploring gender identity more deeply, Toni and Gretchen’s relationship starts to feel a serious strain for the first time. Unbreakable is about what happens when you’re positive you know who you are and what you want and suddenly everything you were so certain about gets called into question.  

Thank you for putting IndieBound first in the list of retailers on your website! When you travel, do you stop at bookstores? Any particular indies make a lasting impression?

RT: I love indie bookstores! I definitely shop when I’m traveling. Last year my wife and I took a trip to Charlottesville, Virginia, and one of the highlights was walking down a street full of amazing indie bookstores like Daedalus and New Dominion and ducking into each one. I’m lucky enough to live in Washington, D.C., which has amazing indie bookstores ― there’s Politics and Prose, plus Hooray for Books! in Alexandria, One More Page in Arlington, and Fairy Godmother on Capitol Hill. They’re all so supportive of local authors and such fun places to stumble across an amazing book you’d never have heard of otherwise!

What advice would you give a young adult interested in writing?

RT: Read everything you can, in every genre, even if you think you won’t like it. And be patient. A writing career takes years of practice, and every book takes multiple rounds of revisions before it’s even close to done. Unfortunately, writing well takes time, and there’s no way to rush it.

If you were a bookseller for a day, what book would you want to put in every customer’s hand?

RT: I think my answer to this question will change at least once a week! Right now, it’s The Fire Wish by Amber Lough. It’s another 2014 young adult debut, and it’s set in ancient Iraq. It follows a young, female jinni (not a genie!) and a young human woman from a town in the countryside to the grand palace to the underground cavern of the jinn. This book is completely different from anything else out there in the YA world, and it’s also gorgeously written. (Plus, a bonus: it’s entirely about characters of color.)

Is there advice you wish you could give to Sarah and Linda? To readers facing similar challenges?

RT: To Sarah and Linda, and to teenagers everywhere: Be true to yourselves. Don’t let anyone decide who you’re going to be except you. You’ve got a greater stake in your future than anyone else ever will, so you should be the one to decide how it plays out.

Lies We Tell Ourselves, by Robin Talley (Harlequin Teen, Hardcover, 9780373211333). Publication Date: September 30, 2014.

To learn more about Robin Talley, visit

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