From her first novel, Hold Still, Nina LaCour has entranced readers with the honesty of her characters’ emotions, whether love, guilt, grief, or a heart-wrenching combination of all three. In her latest novel, the extraordinary We Are Okay (out today), protagonist Marin leaves her home in San Francisco after the death of her beloved Gramps to attend college on the East Coast. With exquisite attention to detail, LaCour unfolds Marin’s emotional journey away from a life she loved, and a girl she loved, to a stark existence thousands of miles away.
LaCour, a San Francisco native, currently lives Richmond, California, with her wife and daughter. I spoke with her over email.
DIANE COLSON: We Are Okay is both deeply introspective and suspenseful. Readers are immediately intrigued by the mysteries of Marin’s past. Did you write knowing Marin’s secrets, or did they evolve as you explored her character?
NINA LACOUR: I knew there would be trauma around Marin’s grandfather’s death, and that some of that trauma would be due to secrets he’d kept from her. It took me a long time to decide what those secrets would be, though. Initially, I planned for him to have committed some sort of crime, but no matter what crime it was and how I thought to position his motives, I couldn’t find anything that worked for his character. Then, when I realized what his secret actually was, it felt as though the answer had been there all along. Since Marin is so focused on the necessary act of holding herself together, of finding out what is in store for her as a true orphan with no living family left, she doesn’t initially face what she’s gone through. She is more consumed by confronting her solitude and isolation. So, in a way, I guess it makes sense that it would take me a while to face the details of her past as well.
Exploring sexuality is often a theme in your books. Are you drawn to reaching out to young adults who might be struggling with their own sexuality?
All of my books include queer characters, but my first queer narrator didn’t appear until my third novel, Everything Leads to You. I approached that novel with the clear intention of writing a love story for queer girls that was not a coming out story or an issue novel, but a romance with a happy ending. Similarly, You Know Me Well, which I co-wrote with David Levithan, was always intended to be a book with gay and lesbian alternating narrators. Whether their sexuality involves a struggle or not, young adults—and especially queer young adults—need to see positive representations of themselves and their relationships, current or aspirational. I remember this so well from my own early years with my then girlfriend/now-wife Kristyn, when I was nineteen and then in my early twenties, and I longed for more depictions of lesbian relationships. I hoped that the rumors Tegan and Sara Quinn were queer were true; we watched The L Word religiously; I was infatuated with Michael Cunningham’s novel The Hours. Now we have so much more queer representation in the mainstream, and I’m so glad to see the narratives expanding beyond lesbian white women. When readers tell me that Everything Leads to You or You Know Me Well helped them figure out their own relationships or feel validated, I am especially grateful to be giving them something that they need because I, too, seek out representations of myself.
The characters’ sexuality in We Are Okay, though, came about differently. I felt that I’d written the happy lesbian love stories that I wanted to give to young readers and could set aside that responsibility for a while. I didn’t know that there would be any romance in We Are Okay, but as I made my initial notes, I realized that there was a degree of longing and awkwardness between Marin and Mabel that felt romantically loaded. And since a major part of the novel is about them finding out who they are to each other after the passage of time and the change in their circumstances, I was compelled to explore the complexities of each girl’s identity. Though the character of Bev in my second novel, The Disenchantments, is bisexual, I was able to examine Mabel’s bisexuality in a much deeper way because she’s more sure of who she is, while Bev is a bit of a disaster and still figuring it all out.
In We Are Okay, you describe San Francisco with warmth and color, while Marin’s lonely existence on the East Coast is cold and stark. Is this a reflection of something deeper about Marin?
I remember being so hard on myself in grad school because my classmates would write using all of these poetic techniques and I couldn’t—and still can’t—write a good simile to save my life. But gradually I have noticed that more description is seeping into my work. I’m sure it comes from my life. I’m one of those people who will try out different seats at a café until I find the right spot with the best view and light. I want my morning coffee in a particular mug and my lunch on a beautiful plate. (Hence, Marin and her bowls.) And when I write, I see the scene; each movement of the characters feels significant.
In We Are Okay specifically, my settings had so much emotion already assigned to them because of Marin’s orphanhood. While the San Francisco scenes are warm and vibrant, full of the smell of Gramps’s baking and the sound of him singing and all of the familiar objects that fill a home, the New York dorm scenes are cold and stark but for a couple glimmers of the new life that Marin is creating for herself. Her yellow bowls and her plant mean so much to her because they are choices that she’s made. She has to create her own home now—alone—and she is doing so with care.
Is there a real Gramps? His character is so vibrant.
While Gramps is an invention, the novel was influenced by the loss of my grandfather. There are a few true similarities: a penchant for telling jokes; a card-playing habit (though my grandfather’s game of choice was bridge and not poker); Catholicism (though my grandfather remained a believer until the end); frugality (the only time my grandfather ever spoke harshly to me was when he thought I had over-tipped a waiter); and the best of hearts and intentions. The rest of Gramps, including his tragic backstory, was invented. But even as I say that I feel like it isn’t quite right. Something I learned from my grandfather is how deeply and enduringly people can be haunted by grief. He suffered from dementia, but even as the disease was erasing most of his memories, he would sit me down and describe a specific horror he endured in WWII. That someone could be so kind and funny, so loving and warm, so accessible and so joyful—and at the same time carry the weight of such darkness and grief still astonishes me. He’s been gone for almost five years now but I’m still learning from him.
After creating a complex character like Marin, is it hard to say good-bye when the novel is complete?
Yes. Marin feels real to me, and I do wish I could check in with her a few years down the line to see how she’s doing and what her life is like. But I also have faith that she’s okay.