In her post-apocalyptic viral outbreak sci-fi series Road To Nowhere, author Meg Elison wrote about something we all hope never happens. It’s a similar approach she’s taken for her but decidedly un-sci-fi novel Find Layla (paperback, Kindle, audiobook), a real-world tale of bullying and extreme poverty. In the following email interview, Elison wrote about what inspired and influenced this sadly all-too-true tale.
Photo Credit: Debbie Reynolds
So, what is Find Layla about?
Layla is about a smart kid growing up in extreme poverty with very few options. Facing parental neglect and some uncreative but cruel bullies at school, she makes a video about the biome of her house that goes viral and upends her life.
Where did you get the idea for Find Layla, and how did that idea evolve as you wrote this story?
This book is based in large part on my own experiences as an adolescent. I would tell some of these stories to my friends and watch how uncomfortable it made them. I got the idea to write it and fictionalize a lot of it from the power in that discomfort, and from my own need to tell.
Obviously, Find Layla is a very personal story for you. In writing it, did you ever find yourself shying away from making it so personal or did you go other way with it and make it even more personal?
Layla is the most personal thing I’ve ever written. When I was working on it, there was no sense of shame or exposure; I dug for details that no one else could have made up because it brought a richness to the work. I got inventive when it came time to involve social media, which was not a thing when I was 14. That allowed me to blow the story’s proportions wide and speed it up; everything happens faster now that we’re all connected and constantly broadcasting ourselves.
Find Layla has been classified as a young adult novel, and while some YA books are written for teenagers, some are just regular stories that don’t have anything inappropriate for young adults. Where does Find Layla fall?
I always have trouble with these designations. Genres are not as rigid as we make them out to be, and many, many YA readers are adults. When I wrote it, I didn’t try to limit my vocabulary or shrink my concerns to make it a book for kids. I wrote a book about a kid, so kids might be more likely to read it. But really, art is for anyone who relates to it. The rest is marketing.
So do you think adults will enjoy Find Layla as well?
I am fortunate to receive a steady volume of fan mail, and so far all of the feedback that’s come directly to me about this book has been from adults. Some of them related it to experiences of their own, others told me how they ached as parents for Layla, how they wish they could adopt her. That’s been unexpectedly touching, but not really a surprise. I get a little fan mail from teens, too. I think both teens and adults appreciate not being talked down to in a work of fiction. I told it as levelly as I could, and people respond to that.
Prior to Find Layla you published the three books in your Road To Nowhere series — The Book Of The Unnamed Midwife, The Book Of Etta, and The Book Of Flora — which were dystopian post-apocalyptic sci-fi novels. Did you ever consider writing Find Layla as a sci-fi story?
I didn’t consider writing this book a sci-fi because the trappings of genre didn’t suit what I wanted to say. I have a plan for a sci-fi YA novel, and in that one the technology of the future is absolutely essential to the story I’m trying to tell. I love the genre, but it’s not the only medium I want to work in.
Are there any writers who had a big influence on Find Layla but not on your Road To Nowhere novels?
Find Layla has totally different influences than my previous work. I drew on the great YA authors I had read as a kid: Katherine Paterson, Doris Gates, and Judy Blume all had their hands in this. I also remember thinking about the way that Pat Conroy constructs a setting, the explicit sensuality and terror of his details. I brought all that with me into this book.
What about such non-literary influences as movies, TV shows, and video games; did any of them have a big impact on Find Layla?
There’s so little representation on TV or in movies of the kind of poverty I wanted to write about. The TV show Roseanne was the only image I ever saw on TV that looked anything like my life. I remember how shocked I was when they did a single episode about the power company cutting off their electricity. It was such a taboo subject; I could never talk about it with friends at school and I certainly never saw it on TV. I carried that example with me like a spark; it showed me it was possible to talk about these things. Maybe you had to be funny, but you could do it.
Find Layla is set in Southern California. But you live in the Bay Area. Why did you set Find Layla in SoCal and not NorCal?
I set Find Layla in SoCal because I did a lot of my growing up there. The experience of homelessness is extremely specific based on climate and culture. I was homeless in SoCal and could write competently about it in a way that I couldn’t about the Bay Area. I’ve done research and journalism involving unhoused folks here, and it’s quite different from what I knew. But I know SoCal intimately from a number of angles: I’ve hated Los Angeles with a baroque obscenity, I’ve known the desert and the beach down to the skin. I’ve lived behind the Orange Curtain and I’ve partied on top of the MoMA in the glow of the red Variety sign. I have more SoCal stories in me, and their flavor is so different from NorCal they might as well be two foreign countries at war.
Now, I’m sure you knew when you decided to name your lead character Layla that some jerk who interviews authors on his website was going to ask you about Derek & The Dominos. But was that song why you named her Layla or did you do in spite of the song?
Layla is 100% named after the song! There are very few moments of connection I remember with my birth mother, but one of them was over this song. I knew only the Unplugged version Eric Clapton released because it charted in 1992. My mother heard me singing it and was completely weirded out because she knew the Dominos version. She hunted down a used vinyl of that album and played it for me, that incendiary opening riff ripping its way out of the giant Kenwood speakers she’d bought off a drug dealer who took goods in trade. She saw the song hit me in the solar plexus and I saw her watching. I can count on one hand the number of naked emotional exchanges I ever had with her before she died — this is the one that sticks. The kid had to be Layla.
Speaking of jerks who interview authors, in the previous interview that we did about The Book Of Flora [which you can read by clicking here], you said there was some interest in adapting it and the other Road To Nowhere books into a movie, TV show, or game, but nothing you could talk about at the time. Can you talk about it now?
Ha! Still no. Any writer out there dreaming of adaptation should know that the process is long and mysterious and mostly comes to nothing. It’s money for nothing and existential dread for free.
And has there been any interest in adapting Find Layla?
There has been a little interest already, for which I am excited and grateful. This is one of those moments when I can see exactly what I want: Find Layla ought to be a Hulu original. They have a great instinct for what is lurid and original and emotionally fraught. It would fit perfectly alongside work like PEN15 and East Los High.
If that happened, who would you want them to cast as Layla and the other main characters?
Casting is tough because I don’t know a lot of child actors, but Ivy George [Big Little Lies] immediately springs to mind. She’s got so much intensity for such a young girl.
Finally, if someone enjoys Find Layla, what somewhat similar YA novel of someone else’s would you suggest they read next?