This blog was featured on 11/03/2017
Jen Lancaster on Writing a YA Novel
Written by
Stephanie Elliot
November 2017
Written by
Stephanie Elliot
November 2017


Jen Lancaster talks censorship, self-publishing, sensitivity readers, YA versus women’s fiction, and what’s on her TBR list!

SheWrites recently had a chance to chat with Jen Lancaster, the New York Times bestselling author of 14 books, including both memoir and contemporary women’s fiction. Her latest, and first young adult novel, The Gatekeepers, is based on a privileged community where a cluster of suicides takes place. 

SheWrites: The Gatekeepers was inspired by real events; can you tell us what it’s about?

Anyone passing through North Shore, Illinois, would think this was the most picture-perfect place ever, with all the lakefront mansions and manicured hedges and iron gates. No one talks about the fact that the brilliant, talented kids in town have a terrible history of throwing themselves in front of commuter trains.

Despite the town’s history, classmates are shocked again when a popular classmate takes his own life and his death triggers more tragedies. With so any students facing their own demons, can they find a way to save each other—as well as themselves?

The Gatekeepers is an unflinching look at the pressures teens face and the hope that tragedy can be prevented. 

You’ve written memoirs and women’s fiction. Was there something in particular that made you say, “I want to write YA”? 

Editors and agents had been encouraging me to venture into this space. But it wasn’t until a spate of teen suicides in my hometown that I was inspired to explore what kids in my community might be going through. So I took The Breakfast Club-movie archetypes and placed them in the pressure cooker that is 2017 academic environment, adding in the stressors of absentee parents and the desire to appear perfect on social media. The Gatekeepers is the end result.

Which is your favorite to write and why: adult fiction, YA fiction, or memoir?

Definitely adult fiction, as this genre affords the most creativity. Can I tell a story about high school mean girls, time travel, and the band Whitesnake? Sure, why not! (FYI, this is the conceit of Here I Go Again, the only book I’ve ever written to receive three starred reviews.) With memoir, my stories have to be true, so I’m confined by reality. While I enjoyed delving deeper emotionally with the YA book, I’m finding the protocol of what can and can’t be said far too restrictive. (More on this in the next answer.)  

You did a lot of research for The Gatekeepers including a program working with the police. Can you tell us what that was like? Is the process of writing YA different from the other books you’ve written? How so?

When I first moved to this community, I thought the kids who lived here were the luckiest in the world, being raised with every advantage and some of the best school systems in the country. Until the 2012 suicide cluster, I assumed local teens lived charmed lives and their issues were of the #richkidproblems variety. But through my research, I discovered that privilege is not tantamount to happiness and in homes where the household income is above $120K, high school students have the highest instances of anxiety, depression, drinking/drug usage, and suicidal ideation. 

I saw these factors in action through my coursework with the local Citizens Police Academy. One night I was on a ride-along and we were called to a scene where two drunk 14-year-old girls were in conflict with their limo driver. (They’d both barfed in the vehicle and the driver was furious.) I listened on speakerphone as one of the mothers yelled at the officers, angry that she had to come to the station instead of the police just driving her daughter home. She said, “Then why did I even bother to book them a driver?” I 

What I found oddly disconcerting about writing YA is that I could drop F-bombs with abandon, delving into details about sex, drugs, and self-harm. No topics were off-limits, but certain words were verboten. For example, two of my teen male characters were arguing and one called the other a “pussy.” Sensitivity readers—and, yes, they are a thing—said the term might trigger a reaction from those who didn’t like the idea of a woman’s sexual organs being equated with weakness, so I was highly encouraged to rethink the phrase. 

I also had to delete terms like “crazy” and “insane.” Apparently, those labels are considered “abelist” and smack of privilege. With every edit, I wondered if the sensitivity readers had ever actually heard a seventeen-year-old talk. And if these expressions were so problematic, why not leave them in and let me use them as teachable moments?

Unfortunately, in the current climate, that’s not an option.

If you’re unfamiliar with what’s happening in the YA world, we’re treading dangerously close to Thought Police territory here. To be clear, I want every voice heard and diversity represented in print—all kids should have literature that reflects his or her reality. Yet there’s a tiny (but vocal) group who are the self-appointed arbiters of what can and can’t be expressed, and publishers are running scared. While hearts are in the right places, I find the execution so distressing. Censorship is always the wrong solution. In the marketplace of free speech, bad ideas die because they are bad ideas. While I’m so glad to have had the opportunity to tell this story, I can’t imagine wanting to write YA again. 

You’ve also recently ventured into self-publishing with your book, Stories I’d Tell in Bars, and have a podcast with the same name which I absolutely love! How was your self-publishing experience? And how is it different than traditional publishing?

Self-publishing is the best experience I’ve had as an author. From a business perspective, I sold more books the first week than any traditionally published title of my career, and that’s with zero advertising, marketing, or publicity support. By going direct to the consumer, readers were able to buy my work at a much lower cost. Everyone wins. 

From a creative standpoint, I enjoyed having complete control over the process. I was able to deliver exactly what my readers had requested. I didn’t have anyone regulating my every thought or urging me to write on topics outside of my wheelhouse. (Traditional publishers wanted me to deliver essays on feminism and politics. Cool story, bro, but I built my memoir career on tales of getting drunk in a pool. We already have Roxane Gay and she’s a national treasure; we don’t need a poor imitation.)  

Was Stories a perfect roll-out? No. But the self-publishing process is so agile, I was able to fix what didn’t work on the fly. If I’d gone through the traditional process, the time between initial proposal and finished product might have taken two years. Two years is a lifetime in terms of ever-changing personal preference. Basically, traditional publishers are guessing what readers might like for dinner in eighteen months; self-publishers are asking readers what they want to eat tonight. 

What’s in store for your fans next?

Long term? No idea. For now, I’m doubling down on what’s the most fun, which is podcasting and screenwriting.

Bonus Round:

I knew I was an author that moment when:
When people I didn’t personally invite showed up at my book signing. 

If I couldn’t be an author, I would like to be a:
Makeup artist. I am the contour master. Or, I’d like to be a person who could do math in her head. I feel like I could do a lot with that. 

What is something unique, quirky, annoying, or endearing about you that most people don’t know?
I’m the world’s slowest driver because I’m very cautious. Every car passes me on the highway. Every damn car. And I curse at all of them.

A non-electronic item you MUST have with you every day and why? (and you cannot say your pearls!)
Sunglasses, lip liner, and a small switchblade. I like to be prepared for anything. 

 What’s on your TBR pile?
John Green’s Turtles All the Way Down

Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere

Robin Sloan’s Sourdough

Allison Winn Scotch’s Between Me & You


Jen Lancaster is the New York Times bestselling author of fourteen previous books, including both memoir and contemporary women’s fiction. She resides in the suburbs of Chicago with her husband and their ever-expanding menagerie of pets.

Stephanie Elliot is an editor and author. Her young adult novel, Sad Perfect, is based on her daughter’s experience with ARFID/Avoidant Restrictive Food Intake Disorder. 

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