Robin Talley on “Lies We Tell Ourselves”


Lies We Tell Ourselves is a brave and stunning novel about finding truth amid the lies, and finding your voice even when others are determined to silence it. We spoke to Robin ahead of her novel’s release. Robin, congratulations on the release of your debut novel, Lies We Tell Ourselves. What are your emotions, a week out from release date? I suppose by now you’ll have been some feedback based on ARC’s, but surely nothing will beat seeing your novel in your local bookstore.
Thank you! It’s funny, just the other day I was strolling through the young adult section of my local bookstore, and I couldn’t help stopping to look at the spot on the shelf where my book will be once it’s launched. All of this is like a crazy dream coming to life. I don’t know if I’ll be able to believe it even once I see it in the flesh!
Was Lies We Tell Ourselves your first attempt at getting published? How long have you been writing for?
I started trying to write novels in about 2007, after a few years of practice in the fanfiction world (which, by the way, I highly recommend to newbies who want to experiment with writing but find the idea of writing an entire original novel to be horribly intimidating). I’d finished two novels and signed with my literary agent before I wrote Lies We Tell Ourselves.
Lies We Tell OurselvesLies We Tell Ourselves is the story of two high-school seniors experiencing desegregation for the first time in their Virginia school in 1959. What was the inspiration behind this story?
I originally got the idea from my parents, who were both high school students in Virginia when their schools were integrated for the first time. We were talking about their memories of that period, and I realized I didn’t know anything about it, even though I’d grown up and gone to school in Virginia too. Virginia has a very contentious history when it comes to the civil rights movement and racial integration, but it isn’t taught much in public schools there ? I suspect because everyone would rather sweep it under the rug and pretend it isn’t a part of the state’s history. The more I researched the period, the more I wanted to write a young adult novel imagining what it would’ve been like for one of the teenagers on the front lines of that battle. I also wanted to explore what it would’ve been like for one of those teenagers to be gay ? to be right in the middle of a huge external crisis and simultaneously be dealing with a huge secret you couldn’t tell a soul. As I explored those ideas, slowly, my main character, 17-year-old Sarah Dunbar, started to emerge.
It’s clear you write about issues that matter to you. On your website you say that you “spend an inordinate amount of time getting worked up about things that shouldn’t happen in the world, and yet somehow keep happening.” But with a propensity for “getting worked up,” does that make the writing process itself any less enjoyable?
I think it’s important to dig deep into to any topic, time period, or idea to write well about it. When you’re digging into upsetting stuff, big parts of the writing process can be decidedly unpleasant, and the writing process for Lies We Tell Ourselves was indeed pretty brutal. My characters go through a lot in this book. Sometimes while I was working on it I’d have to close Word and go watch videos of puppies or something to decompress for a while. Then I’d feel guilty, because the characters in the book ? who are inspired by the real children and teenagers who went through the integration process ? didn’t get to take breaks. For them, this was constant, and very, very real.  
I’m always interested in how authors who explore deeply personal and affecting themes – in this case race relations and sexuality – ensure their stories don’t become too preachy or self-righteous. It can’t be easy handling the subject matter with the kind of deftness required to make their story truly resonate.
I think the key is to write with a focus on the characters and what they’re feeling, rather than consciously thinking about how you’re delivering a particular thematic point. Most of the work in starting a new story, for me, is getting to know the main characters ? spending a lot of time in their heads, so you know how they’ll react to whatever the plot might throw at them. Remaining true to your characters is, I think, the way to avoid writing that sounds too heavy-handed or tries to impart a “message.”
What was the book that most influenced your career as a writer, and why?
The Baby-Sitters Club books by Ann M. Martin. I started reading the series when I was in the third grade, and it was those books that made me want to be a writer. I still love them, actually. My wife read them as a kid too. She and I will get into intense discussions about things like Mary Ann and Logan’s relationship, and what on earth was wrong with Dawn.
Tell us about your writing process. Do you have a particular routine or ritual – things that you prefer to have in place, like an outline, or copious character notes – or is it more of a free for all, just get the words down on the page?
I’m very into outlining. I have an Excel spreadsheet for every story I write with a highly detailed scene-by-scene outline, plus a list of characters, a list of miscellaneous details like names of businesses and characters’ class schedules, and a list of items I want to change in my next round of revisions. I can’t imagine writing without my lists. It’s just because I have a bad memory, though. If I tried to keep all those details in my head it would all shake loose.
What books might readers be surprised to find on your shelves? Information Architecture for the World Wide Web by Peter Morville and Louis Rosenfeld andManaging to Change the World: The Nonprofit Manager’s Guide to Getting Results by Alison Green and Jerry Hauser. In my day job, I work in online communications for nonprofit organizations.
What has been your favorite book of the year so far?
I can’t pick just one! Right now I’m reading and loving The Only Thing to Fear by Caroline Richmond, a young adult book based on a fascinating alternate history premise ? what would the world be like today if Hitler had won World War II? I highly recommend it.