Tuesday, November 2, 2010

A Conversation with Laura McNeal, National Book Award Finalist for Dark Water

For writer Laura McNeal, who divides her time between riding an island beach cruiser alongside the picket fences of Coronado and hiking to the Santa Margarita River through the avocado and orange groves of Fallbrook, paradise is more than the blissful pleasure of living in two distinctly gorgeous San Diego communities. Like a sprouting island palm frond or an orange blossom bud, McNeal’s life is beginning to unfurl with immense promise. Why? She is married to the renowned, salt-of-the-earth writer Tom McNeal. She is a mother to two charming boys. She’s a feature writer for the San Diego Reader. Her young adult novel Dark Water is on bookshelves. Oh, and did I mention this? She’s a finalist for the National Book Award in juvenile literature.


Author Laura McNeal
(Photo credit: Jeff Lucia)
You wouldn’t know it, meeting her. And what an honor it is, having tea in her comfortably elegant beach house. She’s humble and sweet, an unassuming writer-parent who volunteers at the school and shuttles her kids to sporting events. Laura’s like a lot of us, except she’s also whittling an intricate story in her mind, projecting an endearing persona in a sharp, soft way. Sharp because she’s smart. Soft because she’s emotive and nurturing, a quality that feels pillowy on her pages.

Her Early Work

Prior to Dark Water, Laura co-wrote many books with her husband Tom McNeal. She’s proud of the five books they have authored. We chat about the mechanics of how two distinct writers blend a story together. Their collaboration works. The Dog Who Lost His Bob, a picture book, came first. Afterward, they co-wrote many successful young adult novels. Crooked won the California Book Award for juvenile literature and was named to the ALA Top Ten. Zipped won the PEN Center USA Literature Award. Publishers Weekly called Crushed “compelling,” and The Decoding of Lana Morris received the Kirkus Reviews Best Young Adult Book of the Year. As Tom weaves in and out of the dining room where we sit, I can see why the collaborative books are successful. They seem a perfect fit.

But something about the books Laura co-wrote with Tom left her yearning to write a novel without the help of her O. Henry Prize winning husband. (Tom McNeal has also won the California Book Award and the James Michener Award, and his highly anticipated novel To Be Sung Underwater is scheduled for publication in June of 2011.) Challenged, Laura decided to go at it alone. She wanted to get her feet wet in Dark Water.

Two-fold Inspiration for Dark Water

Dark Water is Laura’s solo flight as an author, so to speak. She was raised on or near multiple United States Air Force bases so she understands that term, however cliché. Because of her upbringing, she is accustomed to being an outsider, perhaps the most prolific source of teen angst. Her readers can relate to the concealed desperation a newcomer suffers in order to acclimate, populating oneself with the right clothes and the right friends while still feeling the smoldering pain of leaving others behind.

She’s a bit shy about discussing Dark Water, a title that pays homage to the Rainbow Creek (which she fictionalizes and renames Agua Prieta Creek) in Fallbrook. I ask her if there is any part of her persona that bleeds into her work. Her husband Tom offers, “There’s always this innocence and sturdy sense of ethics in her female characters….they are always grappling with what is right and wrong.”

Yes, Tom is right. You see, Laura wrote Dark Water out of both guilt and experience, allowing her moral compass to guide her through her woodsy pages.


Several years ago, San Diego Reader editor Jim Holman had asked Laura to cover a story about migrant workers living in makeshift camps. While she ventured into their rural living quarters, conducted interviews and sympathized with their plight to live the American Dream, her vision of bringing about positive change through her article did not come to fruition. Had she not gone into the migrant camps and written a piece that left her with an unsatisfying guilt, she would not have had the initial spark she needed to write Dark Water. As a result, Laura credits Holman for the initial inspiration to write her novel. Holman, also a Coronado resident, is a “wonderful person and editor.” In fact, she “really regret[s]” his name was not included in her formal acknowledgements. “He is the one who first led me to that story,” she says.


Where there are sparks, there are fires. In 2007, after Laura’s Reader article, the infamous Harris and Witch Creek firestorms ravaged San Diego County, destroying 1,246 homes and causing 500,000 people to flee their neighborhoods in perhaps the most nerve-wracking week in San Diego history. While the McNeals primarily live in Coronado, at the time they lived in Fallbrook, journeying to their beach house for mere weekend excursions.

When I ask her about her experience with the fires, she kindly allows me to borrow an unpublished author’s note detailing the incident. I sense the subject remains too warm to talk about. Upon reading her note later, I realize the gravity of her experience. It was a night where “[w]ind flew screaming down the chimney, smacked the glass, tore the awnings, and hurled bark at the house.” Then, “an explosion lit up [their] bedroom” and firefighters could be overheard surrendering to an eighty-foot wall of flames. In the unpublished note, Laura explains that migrant workers were more concerned with being arrested and deported than escaping the fires. “For them,” she writes, “[T]he exits were also [immigration] checkpoints.” Most importantly, however, the fires claimed the lives of several people. Sadly, four charred bodies were found near migrant camps along the international border, presumably those of undocumented workers.

After the fires extinguished, and saddled with both guilt and experience, Laura wrote Dark Water, a moving young adult novel about forbidden romance between a teen American girl and a Mexican teen migrant worker. I ask Laura what she wants people to know about the book, to which she responds, “A novel can cross a divide that is difficult to [achieve] in reality. I don’t know how to do that in politics. I don’t know how to do that in immigration law.” She finds it satisfying to explore issues of social injustice and highlight a point of view that is often not well represented.

The Book That Almost Wasn’t

I don’t normally read young adult literature, so I compare Dark Water to Little Bee meets The Tortilla Curtain meets Romeo and Juliet for young adults. She likes the comparison, adding, “I did really think about the plot, that classic romantic dilemma of falling in love with a person outside of your family, your culture. That divide is pretty stark in rural California… It seems to me they [the workers]are the ultimate outsiders. Who do they have? It seems so difficult…What we believe in America is very beautiful, but [for some] it’s really hard on a daily basis.”

Dreams are relative. At the close of our meeting, we talk shop. In the shell-pink natural light of her sun room, she confesses she almost didn’t write Dark Water. The burn of previous rejections coupled with the state of an evolving and competitive publishing market seemed too bleak. It’s hard to believe, but Dark Water is the book that almost wasn’t. The loftiest of dreams are realized by combining risk and effort, and the decisions one makes to achieve that dream can be shockingly monumental. Laura understands this well. I can relate. And Laura’s character Pearl in Dark Water is keenly aware of the lasting impact decisions can have on the path of life, the pursuit of hearty dreams.

Laura McNeal’s Future

What’s in Laura’s immediate future? She’s going to speak about her books in Coronado’s public schools in early November. She’s attending the National Book Awards Teen Press Conference on November 16, 2010. And on November 17, 2010 Laura McNeal and her family will attend the National Book Awards Ceremony in New York City, a black tie event where she will revel not only in her literary accomplishment, but also in seeing her husband and boys in tuxedos.

Laura McNeal will represent San Diego beautifully at the National Book Awards ceremony. She must win. Either way, she’ll be honored for making good on a promise born of both guilt and experience. “Writing something that an adult or teen can be moved by is extremely satisfying,” she says.

Next time, Laura says she might try penning adult fiction. I’m standing in line for her future novel as we speak. Why? Because while the water may be dark, Laura McNeal radiates plenty of light.

*To learn more about Laura and Tom McNeal and their excellent books, please visit their website.

*To read my review of Dark Water, click here. It’s a book for everyone, not just young adults.

* Start a parent and teen book club. Read Dark Water and consider these discussion questions. Ask your fellow members to come to your meeting with gently used clothing and supplies, contributions for a food bank, or monetary support for local charities.

*Are you up for a challenge? It’s National Novel Writing Month!

* Dark Water makes a great stocking stuffer for the upcoming holidays.

* Many thanks to eCoronado and Laura McNeal for the exclusive interview. Good luck, Laura! San Diego gives you a standing ovation.

(Carrie Keyes is the author of the blog Pencil in Paradise, which can be found at www.carriekeyes.com, www.sandiego.com and www.eCoronado.com.)

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