Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

On Writing, with Lisa Harrington

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Lisa Harrington

Lisa Harrington is the author of Live to Tell (Dancing Cat Books). Live to Tell, which is Lisa's second novel for young adults, tells the story of Libby Thorne, who wakes up in the hospital with no memory of the accident that put her there. She's told it was her fault, but things don't add up. A psychological thriller, Live to Tell keeps readers guessing until the end.

Today Lisa speaks to Open Book about her character Libby, the inspiration for her story and the pleasures and challenges of writing for young adults.

Open Book:

Tell us about your book, Live to Tell.

Lisa Harrington:

Live to Tell opens with the main character, Libby, waking up in the hospital but has no memory of how she got there. After pleading with her parents, they reluctantly tell her she had gone to a Halloween party, had been drinking, and then got behind the wheel of her mom’s car. She’d caused an accident in which a pedestrian was struck and was now clinging to life in the same hospital. It’s inevitable that there will be criminal charges brought against her. With the help of her best friend, Kasey, Libby is able to piece together the events that led up to that horrible night.

But it’s also a story about being in high school, all the emotions and drama that go with being that age, the choices you make and how they can potentially affect everything and everyone around you. It’s about the power of friendship, what it means to ‘best’ friends. It’s about parental love, the fierce desire to protect your children. And that no matter how hard you try, sometimes you just can’t.


Where did the character of Libby come from? What were some of the joys and challenges of writing her?


I think Libby is part me, part my daughter (who was the same age as Libby when I was writing this story).

I live only a couple streets over from where I grew up and went to school, so sometimes it feels like I’ve never left that part of my life. I can remember vividly being in high school, getting my heart broken, fighting with friends, fighting with best friends, trying to get away with stuff, not to mention a hundred other stupid things I said and did. As a ‘grown up’, you leave most of that behind, but I’m not sure the voice inside my head has really changed that much. I don’t feel that different (good or bad) from the person I was in high school. I hope I’m smarter, make better choices, and my cooking has definitely improved, but other than that...

So overall, Libby wasn’t too hard to write. I found I could slip into her head and feel what she felt, as if it was happening to me. Because in a way, it was.


The narrative raises questions of guilt and responsibility, when Libby is told she's responsible for another person's serious injuries. Were these themes that interested you?


The themes of guilt and responsibility weren’t my original focus. They basically just became part of the story. I had more wanted to write a mystery actually. It was to be about a girl who’d been dumped, leading her to do something stupid, which finds her in the hospital with no memory. The mystery was going to be trying to figure out what happened in between.

How did she end up in the hospital? Car accident seemed the logical choice. But something more than just a car accident.

When I was in high school, grade ten or eleven, another student hit and killed a pedestrian. It happened during the day, she may have even been on her way to school. There were no charges, the person had stepped into the street.

I drive by the spot where it happened at least a few times a week, and every time I do, I think of her and how she must have felt, how hard it must have been to get over, return to school, go on with life. You’d never be able to forget.

I tried to channel her when I wrote much of Libby’s internal pain and guilt over what she’d done, though I could only imagine what it must have been like.


This book features intense subject matter and psychological drama. What was your approach to writing this book for young adults?


I wanted to write a book my daughter, and kids her age would like to read, with characters they could relate to and perhaps see bits of themselves in. Going by what she does read, and she reads a lot, the more intense, edgy and dark it is, the better. I think that’s true for many YA readers. It might have something to do with the age span, being in between childhood and adulthood — it suits their mood.

But I like to read edgy and dark too, and more importantly, I love a story with a twist. There’s nothing better than that ‘Whaaaat?’ moment, when you didn’t see it coming. The stories that seem to do it best are the psychological kind, confusing what’s real and what isn’t. Then when you figure it out you go, ‘Oh, it all makes sense now.’


What are you working on now?


Right now I’m working on another YA. Since my daughter is in grade twelve, and I tend to write for her, the characters are university age (they age as she does).

It’s about the dysfunctional relationships within a step family. The main character’s mother dies leaving her in the care of a stepfather she despises. She runs away to Halifax to meet up with her boyfriend who’s going to Dalhousie University. Things don’t go the way she plans and she’s forced to track down her step-brother whom she hasn’t seen or spoken to in over two years. He had left under mysterious circumstances that no one, not even her mother, would explain to her.

At the moment I’m calling it Twisted, which pretty much hints to what type of story it is.

Lisa Harrington’s work has appeared in A Maritime Christmas; her first novel, Rattled, was published to critical acclaim in 2010. She holds a degree in English Literature from the University of Acadia, and has worked as a childcare worker and a teacher. A lifelong resident of Nova Scotia, Harrington currently resides in Halifax.

For more information about Live to Tell please visit the Dancing Cat Books website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

Check out all the On Writing interviews in our archives.

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