Nancy Werlin (1961–) Biography
Personal, Addresses, Career, Member, Honors Awards, Writings, Adaptations, Sidelights
Born 1961, in Salem, MA; Education: Yale University, B.A. (English), 1983. Politics: Democrat. Religion: Jewish.
Agent—Ginger Knowlton, Curtis Brown, 10 Astor Place, New York, NY 10003.
Software technical writer for various companies, 1983–87; Thomson Investment Software, Boston, MA, part-time software technical writer, 1987–97; part-time worker for software companies, 1997–. Member of board of directors, Shriver Clinical Services, Inc.
Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators.
Quick Pick and Popular Paperback selections, both American Library Association (ALA), Publishers Weekly Flying Start Award, and New York Public Library Best Books for the Teen Age selection, all for Are You Alone on Purpose?; ALA Best Book for Young Adults, Quick Pick-Top Ten titles, and Teens' Top Ten Best Book Pick selections, Edgar Allan Poe Award for Best YA Mystery, Mystery Writers of America, Booklist Editor's Choice selection, Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books Blue Ribbon Book, New York Public Library Best Books for the Teen Age selection, and Bank Street College Best Book of the Year award, all 1999, all for The Killer's Cousin; Booklist Editor's Choice selection, and School Library Journal Best Book designation, both 2004, both for Double Helix.
Are You Alone on Purpose?, Houghton (Boston, MA), 1994.
The Killer's Cousin, Delacorte (New York, NY), 1998.
Locked Inside, Delacorte (New York, NY), 2000.
Black Mirror, Dial (New York, NY), 2001.
Double Helix, Dial (New York, NY), 2004.
Short fiction included in anthologies, Twelve Shots: Outstanding Short Stories about Guns, edited by Harry Mazer, Random House (New York, NY), 1997, and On the Fringe, edited by Donald R. Gallo, Penguin (New York, NY), 2001. Contributor to periodicals, including Booklist.
Double Helix was adapted as an audiobook, Recorded Books, 2004.
Award-winning author Nancy Werlin has earned a reputation for tackling difficult subjects in a sensitive and engaging way. In the process, she has carved out a niche for herself in the demanding world of young-adult fiction. Werlin's 1994 debut novel, Are You Alone on Purpose?, explores with sensitivity and insight the effects of autism on a family, a subject she knows about from personal experience. As Kit Alderdice noted in Publishers Weekly the author "touches on subjects not usually tackled in the YA realm," and does so "with rich, layered characterizations and believable situations." Werlin's second novel, the award-winning thriller The Killer's Cousin, deals with another delicate subject—teen homicide, while Black Mirror concerns a teen who is determined to break out of her depression following her brother's suicide, even though her efforts lead her into danger. As Werlin once noted, "I actually think of myself more as writing about teenagers than for them. Teens and adults are on similar reading levels and the only difference between most books for teens and most books for adults is that the protagonists in a teen novel are themselves teenagers. Perhaps I'm so intrigued with this time of life because it was such an uncomfortable one for me. My characters all tend to be uneasy in their teenager skins, just as I was."
Werlin grew up in Peabody, Massachusetts, the youngest of three daughters. She began reading when she was three, and by the time Werlin reached third grade, she was reading as many as ten books a week. Her favorite reading matter included the "Nancy Drew" and "Cherry Ames" series, Ray Bradbury's science fiction, historical novels of all sorts (especially those set in Tudor England and the French Revolution), and classics such as Little Women, Jane Eyre, The Hobbit, and The Lord of the Rings. "I also read encyclopedias," Werlin admitted. "I was particularly fond of a set that contained an appendix of plot synopses for famous novels. By the time I was ten, I knew I wanted to be a writer to create what I loved so much." As Werlin told Alderdice, "I just read all the time and it occurred to me that somebody had to write these things—and why shouldn't it be me?"
After graduating from high school, Werlin attended Yale University, where she majored in English, then took a full-time job working in the software industry as a technical writer. Traveling to Europe, she spent eigh-teen months in Germany working for a computer company, then returned to the U.S. determined to carve out part of the week for her fiction. Living in Boston and working part time, it took her a year to develop a writing schedule and to tackle the plot of what ultimately became her first novel, Are You Alone on Purpose?
In her fiction debut, Werlin tells the story of two Jewish teenagers locked in struggles with their families, with each other, and with their own identities. Thirteen-year-old Alison Shandling, a well-behaved high achiever, resents Harry Roth, a loud, crude, trouble-making bully who is also the only child of the town's widowed rabbi. Alison's sweetness and ambition are rooted in her desire to compensate for her family's most draining problem, her autistic twin brother Adam. For years Harry has taunted Alison about Adam and about her braininess. However, after a diving accident leaves Harry confined to a wheelchair, Alison is motivated by guilt to become friends with her former tormentor. As the two spend time together, they become more than friends and ultimately each begins to deal with the major issues in his or her life.
Most reviewers applauded Are You Alone on Purpose?, Marian Rafal writing in Voice of Youth Advocates that "Harry and Alison's tentative beginnings and tender friendship will strike a familiar chord with young people who cope with feelings of alienation from family and peers on a regular basis." Deborah Stevenson, writing in the Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, had mixed opinions: "The story is somewhat predictable and the psychology of the characters often obvious, but the emotions run strong enough to keep the story involving." School Library Journal reviewer Sharon Grover stated that although Alison's confrontation with her parents through letters misses the force of "Werlin's wonderfully strong dialogue, this first novel is a moving portrayal of two remarkable teenagers ably coming to grips with their unhappy circumstances." In Horn Book, Maeve Visser Knoth called Werlin's protagonists "rich, multi-dimensional characters," and went on to hail Are You Alone on Purpose? as "a complex, compelling story" and "a promising debut."
The product of five drafts, Werlin's second novel, the award-winning The Killer's Cousin, focuses on high school senior David, who moves to an attic apartment at his aunt and uncle's home in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to complete his senior year. David is trying to get away from the media hype surrounding the death of his girlfriend, as well as the suspicious looks of his exfriends and neighbors. As he tries to come to terms with the previous year's traumatic events, David's aunt and uncle and their eleven-year old daughter, Lily, have more than enough problems of their own. They are still recovering from the suicide of their older daughter, Kathy, four years earlier, an incident that took place in the very rooms David now occupies. Soon the teen begins seeing ghostly shadows at night and feels coldness, if not resentment, from his aunt. On the other hand, Lily is far from distant; she displays malice toward her cousin, and as her behavior becomes increasingly hostile toward him, David wonders why. He also begins to wonder what dark secrets are being hidden in this home.
"Werlin has a lot going on here … but she manages to keep all the balls in the air," Deborah Stevenson commented in a Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books review of The Killer's Cousin. "The book doesn't stint on the tension…. So much of [its] pleasure is that of an intelligent thriller." Stevenson concluded that readers "will be sucked right into the supernaturally edged story of the burden of the terrible past and its effect on the future." In a Booklist review, John Peters hailed Werlin's novel as an "utterly terrifying psychodrama" and a "tautly plotted thriller, rich in complex finely drawn characters." laire Rosser wrote in a review for Kliatt that "This is a demanding psychological novel … one that will have great appeal for YAs who enjoy untangling complex emotions," and dubbed The
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Killer's Cousin "one of the few YA novels that will grip and hold high school readers, and challenge even the most thoughtful ones."
Wealthy heiress Marnie, introduced in Locked Inside, is the sixteen-year-old daughter of a celebrity who was killed years before in a plane crash. Now enrolled at a boarding school, Marnie's life is lived at arm's length; cyberspace proves a comfort zone for her. She avoids participating in social activities, and prefers to hide in her room where she plays her favorite game and chats online with a fellow player with the handle of Elf. However, when Marnie is kidnapped and held in a cell-like basement by a new teacher at her school who hopes to cash in on Marnie's celebrity, the teen realizes that hiding herself away has not given her any real safety from the world. While forced to confront uncomfortable truths about herself and about her famous mother, Marnie must also use some of the skills from her strategy game to win her freedom.
A Booklist reviewer deemed Locked Inside "a compelling thriller" that "will gain readers by word of mouth." While a contributor in Publishers Weekly cited some "implausibility" in Werlin's plot, the novel was deemed "entertaining," while "Marnie's outsiderness is of the kind that appeals to readers … and her personality is spirited enough to live up to the creative problemsolving Werlin assigns her." A critic for Kirkus Reviews praised Locked Inside as a "meaty tale of self-discovery" and a "thriller for thoughtful readers."
In Black Mirror, Werlin once again sets her story in a boarding school, this time as sixteen-year-old Frances Leventhal attempts to deal with the recent suicide of her brother Daniel after a heroin overdose. Half Japanese and half Jewish, Frances has always struggled for a sense of her own identity, but her sci-fi writer father is too absorbed in writing unpublishable novels and her mom has opted out of the family in favor of a Buddhist monastery in Japan. Now, to cope with her loss, the teen can only turn to two friends: the mentally retarded groundskeeper Andy and her art teacher. Determined to turn her brother's death into something positive, Frances tries to come to terms with it by retracing Daniel's last days on campus. When she joins Unity Service, a group he was affiliated with, she senses that something is not right, and soon finds herself enmeshed in a campus conspiracy that may risk her safety.
Praising Black Mirror in a Horn Book review, Anne St. John wrote that "Frances's involving narration captures the whirling thoughts of a girl ensnared in a desperate situation."While noting that the novel's complex plot contains "some missteps," Hazel Rochman also compared the novel favorably with Werlin's previous books, describing it as "a YA coming-of-age novel where nothing turns out to be what it seems" and the many twists and turns Werlin maps for the reader resolve themselves in an "unsettling" conclusion. Praising the prep-school
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setting, a Publishers Weekly reviewer also praised the book, calling Black Mirror a "chilling and well-constructed mystery."
Featuring a male teen protagonist, Black Helix combines Werlin's interest in both technical subjects and the mystery format. In the novel readers meet eighteen-year-old Eli Samuels, a brilliant student who decides to postpone college—and disappoint his father—while he comes to terms with the fact that he may be carrying the same genetic disease that has institutionalized his now-insane mother for many years. Taking a job with Wyatt Transgenics, he is surprised when the lead researcher, Dr. Quincy Wyatt, seems to pay unusual attention to him. Eli also can't figure out his father's anger over his new job: Is there some terrible secret between the two men? When he finds that a new girl introduced to him by Dr. Wyatt, the attractive Kayla Matheson, bears a striking resemblance to his mother during her youth, the connections between Eli's family history and Wyatt's research begin to solidify, forcing the teen to grapple with moral issues regarding genetic research as well as the truth of his own past.
Praising Black Helix as "a solidly crafted, thoughtful" read, Booklist contributor Stephanie Zvirin cited the book as proof that Werlin "is a master at building suspense and creating the sort of clever manipulations that keep readers eagerly turning the pages." A Kirkus reviewer described the novel as "thought-provoking, powerful, and rich in character," while in Publishers Weekly a reviewer noted that "Werlin distills the scientific element to a manageable level," allowing readers to keep pace with Eli's discoveries, while also leading to a conclusion that "appeals to reason and love for humanity without resorting to easy answers." In School Library Journal, Jack Forman praised Black Helix as "riveting story with sharply etched characters" that will "stick with readers long after the book is closed."
"While I usually begin with an initial idea for a novel, most of the time this turns out NOT to be the central idea of the finished book," Werlin once explained of her writing process. "Instead, it's only the thing that primes the pump. I've learned to trust that the real stuff will arise in the process of actually doing the writing. I completely believe the 'one-percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration' concept of creativity. Ideas are a dime a dozen. 'Butt in chair' is what gets a novel written—that, and trust in the process."
"It's important to me that my books be enjoyable, involving reads," Werlin added. "I value the role of books as escape and as entertainment. But in particular, my books require this element for balance, as so often I work with darker material—intense, unhappy characters; frightening, terrible events; and (like most mysteries and thrillers) the importance of morality in our lives…. Personally, my concern is to stretch and grow with each book; to become a better and more mature writer; to gain skill at all the things needed, technically, to write good books—by which I mean, simply, books that people want to read, and them remember having read. For me, every day of writing is a difficult day. But I also feel blessed that I'm able to have this job."
Biographical and Critical Sources
Booklist, August 19, 1994, Karen Simonetti, review of Are You Alone on Purpose?, p. 147; September 1, 1998, John Peters, review of The Killer's Cousin, p. 113; October 1, 1998; January 1, 1999, p. 783; March 15, 1999, p. 1302; April 1, 1999, p. 1383; July, 1999; December 1, 1999, review of Locked Inside.
Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, December, 1994, Deborah Stevenson, review of Are You Alone on Purpose?, p. 147; September, 1998, Deborah Stevenson, review of The Killer's Cousin, pp. 38-39; September 15, 2001, Hazel Rochman, review of Black Mirror, p. 227; February 1, 2004, review of Double Helix, p. 975.
Horn Book, January-February, 1995, Maeve Visser Knoth, review of Are You Alone on Purpose?, p. 65; spring, 1995, p. 92; January-February, 1999, Anne St. John, review of The Killer's Cousin, p. 72; spring, 1999, p. 83; September, 2001, Anne St. John, review of Black Mirror, p. 597; May-June, 2004, Peter D. Sieruta, review of Double Helix, p. 337.
Kirkus Reviews, December 15, 1999, review of Locked Inside, p. 1965; January 15, 2004, review of Double Helix, p. 90.
Kliatt, March, 1996, p. 12; July, 1998, Claire Rosser, review of The Killer's Cousin, p. 9; March, 2004, Paula Rohrlick, review of Double Helix, p. 16.
Publishers Weekly, November 14, 1994, review of Are You Alone on Purpose?, p. 69; December 19, 1994, Kit Alderdice, "Nancy Werlin," p. 34; October 26, 1998, p. 67; January 10, 2000, review of Locked Inside, p. 69; November 12, 2001, review of Black Mirror, p. 60; February 16, 2004, review of Double Helix, p. 173.
School Library Journal, August, 1994, Sharon Grover, review of Are You Alone on Purpose?, p. 204; November 1, 1998, p. 131; March, 2004, Jack Forman, review of Double Helix, p. 222; August, 2004, Jane P. Fenn, review of Double Helix, p. 77.
Voice of Youth Advocates, October, 1994, Marian Rafal, review of Are You Alone on Purpose?, p. 219; October, 1998, p. 280.
Cynthia Leitich Smith Web site, www.cynthialeitichsmith.com/ (August, 2001), interview with Werlin.
Nancy Werlin Home Page, www.nancywerlin.com (May 8, 2005).