Lois Duncan e-interviewed by Josephine Anna Kaszuba Locke (July, 2006)
Her awards and nominations are abundant, which should not surprise reading audiences, as Lois Duncan is a master whose writings reflect quality and depth. Lois Duncan (Arquette) grew up in Sarasota, Florida, the daughter of internationally-known magazine photographers, Joseph and Lois Steinmetz. From early childhood, she knew she wanted to be a writer, penning poetry and stories. At age ten, Lois submitted her first story to a magazine, and at age thirteen, she made her first sale to a youth publication called Calling All Girls. Throughout her high school years, Lois wrote regularly for young people's magazines, such as Seventeen.
Relocating in 1962 to Albuquerque, Duncan taught in the Journalism Department at the University of New Mexico. She continued writing articles and short stories for magazines, including Ladies Home Journal, McCall's, Redbook, and Reader's Digest, and was also a contributing editor for Woman's Day. Lois's repertoire includes novels and non-fiction for adults, including Who Killed My Daughter?, the true story of her search for the truth behind the brutal murder of the youngest of her five children, eighteen-year-old Kaitlyn. The latter book was also embraced by young adults. Additional information about the family's personal investigation is at KaitArquette.Arquettes.com.
Duncan, who has written forty-eight books (including children's picture books and adult novels) is probably best known for her YA suspense novels. Many were chosen as American Library Association Best Books for Young Adults, as well as Jr. Literary Guild Selections. Young Readers Awards were won in sixteen States and three foreign countries. Awards were garnered as well from the Mystery Writers of America. In 1992, the author received the Margaret A. Edwards Award, presented by the School Library Journal and the Young Adult Library Services Division of the American Library Association, honoring a living author for a distinguished body of adolescent literature.
Lois Duncan is married to Don Arquette, and they have creative children. Robin Arquette (Burkin), a singer and composer, has collaborated with her mother on a series of musical CDs for children called Songs of Childhood. Excerpts from those songs can be heard at Robin's web site. Kerry Arquette writes children’s books – the most recent of which are Daddy Promises, and What Did You Do Today? - and also is co-owner and editor-in-chief of Cantata Publishing Company. Brett Arquette has penned three adult novels, including two in the horror genre, with the third, Tweaked, referred to as 'something even stranger'. Lois says of her son Donnie Arquette, that he is a free soul who does his own thing, and is an extremely talented artist.
Of her writing Lois says that even though she writes other books as well, "I still choose to write primarily for teenagers because I love the sensitivity, vulnerability, and responsiveness of that age reader". She was drawn to psychological suspense because those were the books she most enjoyed reading. Of her writing technique, Lois once said, "Although I've been told that some authors start writing with only a general idea in mind and let their stories evolve on their own, I couldn't work that way. My books are tightly plotted and carefully constructed; every sentence is there for a reason. Personally, I can't imagine writing a book without knowing exactly how it's going to end. It would be like setting out on a cross-country trip without a road map."
Q: In The Third Eye, Karen Connors struggles with revealing her psychic abilities. Did anything in your own experiences lead you to choose this theme?
A: At the time I wrote that book, I had never had any psychic experiences.
Q: After Karen visited the river to find Carla Sanchez's sandals and bicycle on the embankment, she experienced what the young girl went through falling into the water and drowning. There are psychics who work with police; is this the sort of thing that happens to them?
A: Psychics differ in the way they work and in the way in which they receive impressions. Psychics Noreen Renier and Nancy Myer both have told me that this is what they experience when they work with police. But the description doesn't necessarily apply to all psychics.
Q: Karen became exhausted after psychic experiences. Again, is this typical of psychics or a writer's empathy with the experience?
A: At the time I wrote that book, it was nothing more than writer's empathy. I tried to imagine what it would be like to experience someone's violent death vicariously. Since writing The Third Eye, I have interviewed psychic detectives, who have told me that they find the experience of reliving a victim's violent death so exhausting that they can only work one case per week.
Q: Do you think psychics are viewed as freaks today, or is society more open to such possibilities than in the past?
A: The subject seems to be experiencing a sudden rush of popularity, with "psychic celebrities" appearing constantly on TV talk shows. While some of those psychics are authentic, my personal belief is that others are cons, whose "gift" is in knowing how to put on a good show and impress an audience.
Q: Officer Ron Wilson comes across as something of a wimp when it comes to dogs. Why pick such a stigma for his character?
A: I wanted our teenage heroine, Karen, to save the life of this young police officer, rather than have him save her. Since I _didn't_ want him to be a wimp, I had to make him vulnerable in just one particular area. So I gave him a phobia about dogs. To make that realistic, I had to set up a history for that cop that would make it reasonable for him to become immobilized when attacked by a Doberman. So I gave him a background of having almost lost an arm after being attacked by such a dog in childhood. Just as it is in real life, the "why" of the behavior of fictional characters is at least as important as the behavior itself. When I taught at UNM, students who planned to go into fiction writing would ask me, "What courses should I take?" I would suggest that they take psychology courses so they could learn to create believable characters who had believable motives for their actions.
Q: In real life, do you believe that classmates would shy away from individuals who have such gifts as psychic visions?
A: Probably. Most teenagers tend to be socially insecure and try to avoid the stigma of associating with someone who is "different."
Q: Have you turned any of your stories' characters into a series, or considered so doing? If not, why not?
A: I don't write sequels. I feel that once a story is over, it's over. Sequels seldom measure up to the original story, and I like to quit while I'm ahead.
Q: Your book Psychic Connections (1995), in collaboration with parapsychologist William George Roll, was referred to "as Duncan going into parapsychology ... understandably after an ordeal" (that ordeal being the death of your youngest daughter). Were you at all interested in 'psi' before this awful event?
A: I found it interesting, but wasn't sure I believed in it. I used it in some of my novels, because it made for good story material, but I considered those novels fantasy. Because of personal experience with psychic detectives after our daughter's murder, my views about that have changed.
Q: What authors do you enjoy reading when you're not writing, and which other writers have influenced you?
A: Everything I've ever read, good or bad, has influenced my writing in one way or another. I might think, "What a terrific read! I wish I'd written that!" and try to figure out how the writer accomplished such a feat. On the other extreme, I might tell myself, "His pacing is off. He must have a deadline, because he's rushing his ending. I must be aware of that temptation and not do it myself."
As far as suspense writers go -- I'm a big fan of William Gldman, Ira Levin, and Thomas Perry. They are masters at plotting, and I learn from every novel of theirs I read. But I read a lot of other things too, including non-fiction and poetry.
Q: Many young adult writers today wrote successfully for adults first. Do you think that trend will continue? Is the YA market growing?
A: You'd have to ask the publishers. The market is constantly changing, and I don't make much attempt to keep up with the trends.
Q: How do you think the YA market has changed in topics and style over the years, since the days of series like Nancy Drew and The Hardy Boys? Do you welcome this evolution?
A: Today's young readers have been conditioned by television. They have comparatively short attention spans. It's a challenge to catch and hold their interest, because they're used to being able to "switch channels" if the momentum lets up for even a moment. That means that today's YA authors use less description, because it slows down the action. There's more dialog, more angst, and in many cases, more violence. I personally think that trend may have gone too far and am hoping that the pendulum swings back to more of a middle ground.
Q: I read that a producer is in the process of marketing a screen play for your book Stranger With My Face (a story of identical twins - one good and one evil - who can leave their bodies at will and travel to distant places). Would you comment on that?
A: The film rights to my books are always being optioned. That doesn't necessarily mean the films will be produced. Sometimes the options run out and the rights revert to the author, who may sell the options again. I Know What You Did Last Summer, Gallows Hill, Summer of Fear, Ransom and Don't Look Behind You all have been made into films. Other books, including Stranger With My Face, Hotel for Dogs and Down a Dark Hall have moved one step beyond the option stage and been assigned to screen writers. But if producers don't like the scripts, then they'll bounce back into my lap. Thank God I have an agent so I don't have to personally deal with movie rights. I would go crazy.
Q: Which of your many works make you most proud?
A: Who Killed My Daughter?. Because sharing Kait's story is my final gift to my murdered child. It's kept the facts of her case from being buried and forgotten, and I continue to hope that eventually her case will be solved.
Q: What's ahead in forthcoming releases for Lois Duncan fans?
A: I'm working on several different projects, but would prefer not to talk about them for fear I might jinx them.Find out more about the author, her background, her books and many awards, and read Teacher Guides at the Lois Duncan Website.
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