Lois Duncan on reaching a new generation of teen readers

Lois Duncan on reaching a new generation of teen readers
Lois Duncan and her novel "Debutante Hill." (Lizzie Skurnick Books / Ig Books)

Long before YA literature was a massive category of books yielding an unending stream of blockbuster movies, Lois Duncan was a writer whose page-turners kept teen readers up at night.

Author of more than 50 books, many for children and teens, Duncan hit her stride with a series of thrillers and supernatural tales written in the 1970s and '80s. From "Killing Mr. Griffin" to "I Know What You Did Last Summer," her books specialized in relatable, ordinary girls caught up in extraordinary situations such as dealing with ghosts, murder or mysterious twins.
But it is Duncan's long-out-of-print first novel -- "Debutante Hill," originally published in 1957 when the author was in her early 20s -- that is being reissued as the first release from Lizzie Skurnick Books.

Devoted to resurfacing classic young adult books, the new imprint, curated by writer Lizzie Skurnick, celebrates titles that shaped the formative years of readers now in their 30s and 40s, with new print runs planned for books by authors such as M.E. Kerr, Ellen Conford and Ernest J. Gaines. The imprint also plans to reissue more early Lois Duncan books in coming seasons.

"Debutante Hill" suggests that Duncan's instinct for teen emotions was finely honed from the start. A realistic story with no magic in sight, the book focuses on a popular girl who forgoes the social obligations of debutante season, and the class-crossing consequences of her choice, which make her an outcast in her crowd.


The era of the deb may be over, but Lynn's struggles with her steady boyfriend, a usurping frenemy and an attractive outsider from the wrong side of the tracks feel fresh and evergreen.
Duncan spoke to me on the phone from her home in Florida to talk about “Debutante Hill,” “Twilight's” Stephenie Meyer and what it's like to try to update an old novel for the age of cellphones and social media.
How have things changed between now and when you first published "Debutante Hill"?
Social things have changed, but the thing that has not changed has been human nature. All the emotions young people felt then they feel today. The social interactions, the competition and ostracizing of people, they’re all still there in the teenage life.  Young women want to be loved, they want to be appreciated, find what they want in the world. Girls today are having a more difficult time with the demands upon them, with a career and a family and competing with men.

When did you become a writer?
I was an oddball. I started submitting stories to magazines when I was 10, and I started selling stories to magazines at 13. When I was a teenager, that’s how I got my extra money, by selling these stories. At 20, I wrote "Debutante Hill," my first book. I didn’t know what to do with it and I put it in a drawer for a couple of years. Then I saw “The Seventeenth Summer Literary Contest,” which was looking for a teen novel by somebody who was a first-time novelist.

I sent it in, it got first place, and I got a prize and they published it. By the time it came out, I had one-and-a-half babies.

How did you start writing stories about teenagers? It wasn’t necessarily a popular thing to the degree it is today.
Back then there were no YA novels. I was writing for my peers mostly. I grew up with children’s books, and then there was this gap before the adults’ books came in. My books were a sophisticated look at what it was like to that age, between children’s books and adult books. Those very early books, I had forgotten them. I had to reread them to see if I wanted them published.

Then I got into the golden years of my career, where I wrote the psychological suspense novel. Some of my favorite books come from them, “Stranger With My Face,” “The Third Eye,” “Locked In Time,” and “Killing Mr. Griffin.” But after the murder [her youngest daughter, Kaitlyn, was slain in 1989], I found it hard to write fictional books about young women in trouble. [Duncan has published two books about her daughter’s unsolved slaying, “Who Killed My Daughter?” and this year’s “One to the Wolves: On the Trail of a Killer.”]
Some of your books have made for fun movies, including “I Know What You Did Last Summer” and “Hotel For Dogs.” Are there more on the horizon?
I’ve had a lot of luck with Hollywood, some good, some bad. “Twilight” writer Stephenie Meyer optioned one of my books, “Down A Dark Hall.” They’ve got a film script written and are shopping for a director.

How did the cover design for “Debutante Hill” come about?

The girl in the red shirt [in the foreground] is me at age 16. My dad [Joseph Janney Steinmetz] was a professional photographer, and he used me and my friends as models for him all the time. And the photo was taken in the blue Jeep that I bought with money from selling stories to magazines in my teens. It was primarily to Seventeen, but there were several other youth publications that I was selling to, and they're gone now.
How did you get involved with Lizzie Skurnick Books?
Lizzie Skurnick has started this new line of retro YA classics, a whole new concept. Many excellent books were written and published and in the past, and she thought they should come back for a new generation. Middle-aged women who loved those books when they were young react emotionally and strongly to them, and now they can buy them for their daughters and granddaughters.
We wrote differently then. We wrote carefully. We had manual typewriters so you couldn't make a mistake or you'd have to redo the whole page. It was a whole different era of publishing books, where they were more carefully edited.

What about other books from your back catalog?
My next book with Lizzie Skurnick Books will be out a year from now, "Written In The Stars." It's a collection of the stories I had written for youth publications, and looking them over, I can watch myself growing up since I took the stories from my life. And the cover's going to be a picture of me at age 20, sitting with my notebook, dreaming and writing. Lizzie has taken two more books and is considering two others.
I have five books being published with Open Road publishing, and most of my suspense novels with Little, Brown were republished and updated. Cellphones cause me a ton of trouble. My plots are based on the heroine not being able to call for help. I had to do the same thing for laptops and Facebook, and taking the characters' social media away so they can't call for help. My grandchildren helped me figure out how to take the cellphones away from my characters: One fell in a river, one fell in a toilet, one was put in the wrong pocket of a different jacket, one is taken by the villain. I had a lot of ways to do it.