By DAVID GREEN
Why did you have Jake leave and not come back?
Why did you decide to have Astrid get pregnant?
How did you decide which people would become couples?
"Man, you guys are nailing me with hard questions," said author Emmy Laybourne last week in the Morenci Middle School library.
Laybourne wasn't actually in the room with Mrs. Kruger's freshman English students. She was in her house near New York City, talking into her iPad. The students watched her image projected on a large screen, while taking turns sitting in the "interviewer's chair" in front of a school iPad. The application Facetime closed the 600-mile gap between the two locations.
Mrs. Kruger developed a curriculum around Laybourne's first novel, "Monument 14," and the author agreed to chat with the two freshman classes.
She was impressed with the lessons Mrs. Kruger created for the book and she told the students they should appreciate their instructor.
"I've met a lot of English teachers in my time," she said, "and you have one of the best."
Laybourne said she earned an English degree in college, but started doing improvisational comedy in New York City in the 1990s.
"I would write comedy bits during the day and go perform them at night with old friends who are now famous," she said.
Zach Galifianakis, Amy Poehler, Mark Maron, Louis C.K.—it was a wild time for comedy in New York's lower east side. Saturday Night Live producer Lorne Michaels watched one of her shows and that led to a role in the 1999 comedy "Superstar," starring Will Ferrell.
Laybourne gave up comedy for writing after she was married and became a mother. She pitched the idea for a novel to her agent and "Monument 14" was bought by MacMillan Publishers. She's now about to begin work on her third book.
The story tells about 14 students who are trapped inside a big box superstore while a series of natural and unnatural disasters unfold outside. Laybourne said at one point she began wondering what was wrong with her to create such a dark story that's so tough on her characters.
"I think the darkness of the story really serves as a backdrop to allow the characters to care for each other and take care of each other, and to stand up for what's right," she told the class. "I hope readers will see a spark of their own goodness."
Laybourne was asked how she came up with the idea for blood types serving as a key to the story.
"I get a lot of my best ideas when I'm out walking," she said. "I was walking down the street in Manhattan, talking to my husband about the book. I knew a chemical spill was coming, but I wished that it didn't affect them all in the same way."
That's when the idea of blood types came to mind.
Why make Astrid pregnant?
There were several reasons, Laybourne said, including giving the character Dean a reason to stay. She said sometimes a character speaks to the author. That's her mystical answer.
"Sometimes an author gets a sense of something happening," she said. "Either it feels right or it doesn't, and if it doesn't feel right, you have to tear it up and start again, and go in a different direction."
Laybourne said it took about two years to write "Monument 14," much longer than it should have. After her initial chapters were bought by the publisher, she wrote a long, long second section which wasn't well accepted.
"I got one of those scary letters that writers sometimes get," she remembers: "We think you're a very talented writer but this manuscript isn't the book that we bought."
She could feel her heart sinking and she wondered if the publishers would want their money back. It wasn't that bad. The editor thought the story could be fixed so Laybourne began re-writing, picking and choosing the best portions from the long version. By then she knew her characters quite well.
Her second novel went much faster and she expects to have the third book completed in about eight months.
She was asked if she ever got discouraged while writing the book.
"Absolutely," she said. "It's so easy."
When writing fiction an author uses the creative mind and critical mind. Words are written and then assessed to determine if they're any good.
"The problem is that you can't do them both at the same time," she said. "If there's one thing for you to learn from today, it's this: If you're making a piece of art, do not judge it at the same time you create it."
Just then the book chat was interrupted by an announcement from the school office. Due to inappropriate behavior, the seventh and eighth grade students had lost their recess—a humorous interlude for the much older freshmen.
Back to the discussion, Laybourne said that the inner critic can be depressing, especially knowing that most books on the store shelves won't be around in six months. Few have staying power.
"It's really easy to get discouraged and you have to fight for your right to create, within yourself," Laybourne told the class.
How to develop writing skills? Practice, practice, practice. Why the potentially offensive language? She wanted the dialogue to be realistic and she thinks many teens would react to the situations presented with cursing.
After a couple of final questions, the hour was up and the freshmen were on to their next class.
"Don't get into trouble like those eighth graders," Laybourne cautioned.
Been there, done that, quipped a ninth grade student.