Tell Me No Lies is a book about secrets and rebels. It’s also a novel that’s set in the last year of the 80s, back when I myself was a high school senior ready to trade some Y from my own personal YA life and replace it with an S for Sophisticated. Or at least an E for Experienced. All through high school, I’d been a rule follower, an academic who hit the books and rarely gave my family cause to worry.
In other words, nothing had happened to me.
By senior year, I wanted to change all that.
Like Lizzy Swift, the protagonist of Tell Me No Lies, I lived outside Philadelphia. Like Lizzy, I never sampled the city except for special occasions—a theater ticket, a class trip. Like Lizzy, I was an extremely fearful traveler. I worried about terrible outcomes, to the point where I saw peril in even the tamest micro-adventure. My bad sense of direction didn’t help. In a pre-GPS landscape, maps refused to make sense to me. I couldn’t get landmarks to stick. Worst of all, the state of being lost (because I always got lost) meant a full-on panic attack.
I’m not sure what made me phobic about the big wide world, except that I’d moved around so much as a kid. My dad was in the military, and by the time I’d reached ninth grade, I’d lived nine different places. I’d been to a different nursery school, kindergarten, first grade, second grade, third grade, fifth grade, seventh grade—and two different ninth grades. Occasionally former “Army brats” speak to the positives of growing up without a sense of home. You overcome shyness. You learn how to make friends. You become deft at navigating your always-new school and neighborhood.
Not me. I thrived on habit. I was comforted by all that was familiar. Only in my writing did I enjoy—via my characters—big risks and sweeping horizons. The real me, like Lizzy, preferred to stay put.
And yet with high school graduation approaching, I knew I had to address my crippling timidity. I remember a morning that I wanted to go into Philly to see an art house documentary that never would reach the ’burbs. I got on the local train. It was a thirty-five minute trip to 30th Street Station. Five minutes later, at the first stop, I got off. My heart was beating too hard. Sweat stuck my shirt to my back. I couldn’t move forward. I couldn’t go anywhere. I sat outside the station until I recovered to catch a train home. How would I ever be brave enough to do anything with my life, if I couldn’t even leave my neighborhood?
Writing Lizzy’s story meant launching backward in time to examine those old fears. Every time I drafted another chapter, I had to revisit my most fragile high school moments. Lizzy isn’t an Army brat, but in giving her epilepsy, Lizzy’s fear of losing control correlated with my own old terrors of trying to manage an unpredictable world.
And yet whenever I cast the ’80s memory net, I never knew what might come up. Wonderful weekends at friends’ houses eating pints of ice-cream and watching horror movies. The time I bought myself a pair of coveted Doc Martens. When my bestie coaxed me into Philadelphia and we danced all night at a new club, then slept overnight in the train station (not recommended). Senior year was risk and repeat. It was missing curfew and going a little wild. Many of my own adventures funneled right into Lizzy’s turbulent year where she, too, finally and messily traded some safety for freedom.
For all its personal emotional havoc, Tell Me No Lies was a pleasure to write, perhaps because YA itself is such an appealing and satisfying genre. Lizzy might be stuck on the last page coping with a lot of nail-biting unknowns, but writing about young people is also a victory lap where optimism prevails. Of course there’ll be end-note wistfulness, regret, lessons learned, and a possible desire for change, but the Y in YA is the embedded victory. No matter what the YA protagonist fears or mourns or doubts, she’s usually got plenty of time left to face her demons, take her chances, and pick her path. In fact, she has her whole life ahead of her.
And so to close the book on Lizzy Swift is to figure that she’s got this.
I know I’m cheering her on.