Meet the Neighbors: Q&A with Meera Trehan

Meera Trehan was born in Washington, D.C., and grew up in nearby Virginia. After attending the University of Virginia and Stanford Law School, she practiced public interest law for over a decade before turning to creative writing. Her work for children has been published in various magazines. Her first novel is The Science of Seeing. Trehan lives in Maryland with her family.

Q: When you were working as a lawyer, were you also writing on the side?

No. A lot of my work as a lawyer involved writing, but even though I was an avid reader and loved the idea of writing creatively, it didn’t occur to me that it was something I could actually do.

Q: What gave you the confidence to focus on creative writing?

After thinking about it for much too long, I took a class at The Writer’s Center in Bethesda and then another and then another (and then one at Politics and Prose). I also worked through the exercises in Steering the Craft by Ursula LeGuin, as well as other books on craft. Eventually, I joined SCBWI (Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) where I had my work critiqued by authors, agents, and editors. All of these things were crucial to my development as a writer.

But I don’t want to imply that I always feel confident! Confidence is elusive. One day you have it, the next day you don’t. Part of writing, in my experience, is pushing through on those harder days, knowing you can revise, and if there’s an aspect of craft that’s holding you back, working on that.

 Q: How did you end up writing for children and young adults?

I had an idea for a YA book with a teenage protagonist during the first class I took at The Writer’s Center and when I gave the one-minute summary to Susan Land, my teacher at the time, she told me that was the book I should be writing. I didn’t believe her at first, but after a few years of the characters rattling around my head, I got there. Joining SCBWI was also instrumental to teaching me about the children’s market and connecting with other writers.

Q: Does writing for younger audiences require any sort of special approach?

Yes and no. I think about the audience when I first get the idea for the story and particularly when I’m developing the protagonist(s)—who for a middle grade or young adult book will be about the age of the targeted readers or a little older. Getting that perspective and that voice right is critical. And when I have a close-to-final draft, I edit with my audience in mind, in case I’ve accidentally slipped into my lawyer-voice. But when I’m in the middle of drafting, I just focus on trying to tell a story that moves, with characters who are real, and that ultimately feels true.

I think it’s important not to underestimate young audiences or write down to them. The basics of craft are equally important for any readership.

Q: When we met, you said that a lot of YA literature is read by adults as well as teens. How does a writer navigate these two audiences?

By writing the best YA book that they can—an excellent YA book is an excellent book, period. I think that’s what many adult readers realize and why there’s such a crossover market.

Q: Is Shel Silverstein still your favorite? Who are some other inspirations/models for you?

Ha! While I did perform a Shel Silverstein poem for my fourth-grade talent show, I would say I have stronger influences now–though I do appreciate the obvious fun he has with words.

I know I’ve already mentioned it, but Steering the Craft by Ursula LeGuin is the single best book on craft I’ve encountered. And it’s short! But it’s worth doing all the exercises. I’m in awe of Marilynne Robinson’s writing and I love so many books by Margaret Atwood.

Given that I write for children, I tend to read more children’s book authors, and there’s no shortage of models. Some who’ve inspired me recently include Anne Ursu, Veera Hiranandani, Jason Reynolds, Sayantani Dasgupta, Corinne Duyvis, Celia Perez, and Angie Thomas.

I also tend to focus on individual books that I think are lessons in craft. Right now, I’m trying to work on the arcs in the novel I’m drafting, so The Thing About Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin is sitting on my desk, heavily tabbed. It’s been deservedly praised for its excellent writing, but that writing is hanging on a rock solid structure. I’m using it as my textbook of the month.

Q: Are there any thematic or philosophical connections between your work as a public interest lawyer and your creative writing?

Not always consciously, but yes. I became a public interest lawyer because I cared about equality and fairness, and the type of society we live in. Even though I’m not practicing now, I care about those issues just as much as I always have.

Thematically, my creative writing explores the idea of belonging and how our identities play into that. I don’t necessarily try to write with those themes in mind, but inevitably after a draft or two, that’s what emerges. I had a teacher at The Writer’s Center who said that beginning writers are sometimes under the misapprehension that they can hide behind their fiction, but they can’t. At some level, your fiction will reflect who you are. That’s certainly been my experience.

Q: What are you working on now?

I’m currently drafting a multiple POV middle grade novel. Once I send that off to be critiqued, I have a couple of picture books waiting in the wings as well as very rough drafts of a YA novel and a YA short story. So, even on those not-so-confident days, I have something to keep me busy!

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