When I heard that my all-time favorite Broadway musical*, Dear Evan Hansen, was going to be made into a young adult novel, my heart swelled. Not only do I love reading YA books, but I’m working on two of my own as I pursue an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Vermont College of Fine Arts. I was excited for us DEH fans to have a different way to enjoy the overwhelming and satisfying experience that is Dear Evan Hansen. But mostly, I was excited for this novel way (see what I did?!) to share the story with teens and adults who may not get to see the show in person. The book (along with the soundtrack) are truly excellent surrogates that can be enjoyed again and again.
Despite the daunting task of turning a brilliant Tony- and Grammy award-winning musical into a YA book, Val Emmich—with book writer extraordinaire, Steven Levenson, and the dynamic, Oscar-winning duo, Benj Pasek and Justin Paul—did it. The book is wonderful. It’s moving. It touches your heart. I was admittedly very nervous to read it, because how could it measure up to the Broadway musical? But any fears I had about the novel not being able to capture the magic of the stage production disappeared in an instant. Like the show, the novel made me laugh and cry. And, like the show, it’s one I will be sure to visit again.
After fan-girling over Emmich, Levinson, Pasek and Paul at both BookCon last spring and at the Dear Evan Hansen: the Novel book launch this month (see photos below), I had the pleasure of doing an email Q & A with the multi-talented Emmich.
At BookCon 2018. From left to right: Justin Paul, Benj Pasek, Steven Levenson & Val Emmich.
At BookCon 2018. Never too old to be a fangirl (or fanwoman)?!
At Dear Evan Hansen: The Novel book launch at Town Hall in New York City. Moderated by Queer Eye’s Tan France & Antoni Porowski.
At Dear Evan Hansen: The Novel book launch at Town Hall in October 2018. Even my husband (far right) is a fan!
A singer/songwriter, actor (30 Rock, Ugly Betty, etc.), and novelist, Emmich was kind enough to share what it was like to work on Dear Evan Hansen: The Novel and give us a glimpse of his creative life:
Overall, how was the experience working with the Dear Evan Hansen team (Steven Levenson and Pasek & Paul and the publishing team) to turn an extraordinary musical into a young adult book? What were the highs and the challenges?
In some ways it was easy because I had source material of the highest quality. But that also made it challenging, because I had to meet such a high standard. There are expectations with this book and some of those expectations are unfair. A book can’t do what a musical can do. However, the opposite is also true. A book can really take its time and give a close-up, intimate view of characters. The hardest obstacle was making sure the really big, emotional moments on stage had enough of a wallop on the page. The team was always there to gently nudge me when I wasn’t being faithful enough to the show and they also allowed me the freedom to do my own thing, particularly when it came to backstory.
Did you have any reservations about diving into the young adult book space, especially after writing your first novel, The Reminders? And did you have any idea what you were getting yourself into (DEH’s fans are among the most amazing and devoted, and readers of YA books are a smart and discriminating bunch)?
I was overwhelmed with reservations. I saw how devoted the DEH fanbase is and I didn’t want to disappoint them. I also didn’t want to disappoint Steven, Benj and Justin. They’ve worked so hard to make this story what it is and I wanted to honor that. In the end, I tried to trust my own emotions. I related to the character of Evan immediately and I knew that if I stayed true to that shared experience, I’d be okay.
You are a multi-talented and creative person. How did your musical and acting background inform/enhance the writing of Dear Evan Hansen?
I’ve put in my 10,000 hours as a songwriter, so breaking down songs is instinctive to me. I created a playlist that I’d listen to while writing. The playlist included every song from the show. I’d listen to whatever song matched the scene I was writing and it would give me insight into what the characters were feeling. I always knew that I wanted to somehow honor the show’s music in the novel and I found varied ways of doing that. One example occurs in the beginning of the book in the opening scene with Evan and his mom, Heidi. In the show, Heidi sings the song “Anybody Have A Map?” in which she reveals her misgivings about how she’s performing as a mother. The book is mainly told from Evan’s point of view, so I couldn’t show all of what Heidi was feeling in that moment. Instead, she walks up to a physical map on Evan’s wall and that leads to a revealing discussion between the two of them. In the song, the map is a metaphor. In the book, it’s a literal thing.
How did you prepare with the team and solo to write the novel, and did you have a particular process?
I saw the show twice and had a copy of the book that Steven wrote. When I had questions, I’d email the guys and our editor, Farrin Jacobs. I referred to a few other novels, mostly YA, to get a clearer picture of what I wanted our novel to be. I also spoke at length with people clued into high school—my nieces and nephews, as well as my teacher friends. After that, it was just sitting at my desk every day and writing. The hardest part for me when starting a new piece is finding the voice, in this case Evan and Connor’s. How they speak and think, how they tell their story. That takes the longest.
Where and when do you like to write (music, novels, etc.), and what are a few must-haves on your person/desk or in your work space to stay inspired?
I write mainly in two places, both alone. At my desk and in the bathtub. The bathtub is full of water. It takes some practice not to electrocute myself.** I haven’t found a better place for feeling totally isolated and shut off from the world. Also, there’s something about water that works for me.
What would you say was the best, most fulfilling part of the Dear Evan Hansen writing experience? Was there anything new you learned about yourself or otherwise along the way?
Getting a chance to flesh out the character of Connor Murphy with the guys was definitely the most rewarding. I think that’s the main area where the novel and the show are different. In the show, we only know Connor through the lens of Evan. In the book, we get to know the real Connor. Writing his story was emotionally taxing. I just wanted to make sure it was handled with the utmost care and respect.
Which character in Dear Evan Hansen do you most relate to and why? And what, if any, advice would you offer them?
I relate most to Evan. I, too, am a shy, anxious, neurotic person. I’m proud to be involved with a story that promotes a message of hope, that we are not alone in our loneliness. I’d add that our mistakes may seem insurmountable in the moment, but most of the time there really is a way out. There is a tomorrow.
What projects (in any of your many fields) are on the horizon for you?
I’ve just released some new music, an EP called Autobio, Part 2 which is available to stream through all the usual platforms. I’ve also recorded a cover of “If I Could Tell Her” from the Dear Evan Hansen musical, which I performed on tour with Benj and Justin. And I just started a new novel. It’s too early to know if it’s worth finishing. We’ll see.
Emmich performing at the Dear Evan Hansen: the Novel book launch at Town Hall in New York City, October 2018.
Favorite recent/current read and why: The North Water by Ian McGuire. Beautifully written and researched while also swift and suspenseful.
Favorite recent/classic artist/album and why? This is probably bad to say, since I release albums myself, but I listen mostly to singles these days. “Origins” by Tennis is a current favorite.
Favorite snack: Popcorn.
Favorite flavor of ice cream: Coconut Almond Fudge
Coffee or tea? Coffee. Black.
Pizza or pasta? Pasta
Going out solo or with 1-2 people or with a big group? 1-2 people
To learn more about Emmich, visit his website. Dear Evan Hansen: The Novel is available wherever books are sold.
*No offense to A Chorus Line, Jersey Boys, Cabaret, Hairspray, Rent, Sunday in the Park with George…you know I adore you.
**Do not try this at home! (And Val—please don’t electrocute yourself!)
This post updated on 1-8-19.
At the most recent BookCon in New York City, I had the pleasure of sitting next to Heather Frimmer (and her adorable, precocious son, Jonah) at the Dear Evan Hansen The Novel book panel.
Any fans of Dear Evan Hansen–the musical OR novel–are friends of mine!
Besides fanning over Pasek & Paul, Steven Levenson and Val Emmich, we spoke about respective writing journeys. A radiologist by day, and writer whenever she can fit it into her busy family life, Frimmer could not be more excited for the birth of her debut novel, Bedside Manners (SparkPress, October 2018). Here’s a description:
As Joyce Novak’s daughter, Marnie, completes medical school and looks ahead to a surgical internship, her wedding, and a future filled with promise, a breast cancer diagnosis throws Joyce’s own future into doubt. Always the caregiver, Joyce feels uncomfortable in the patient role, especially with her husband and daughter. As she progresses through a daunting treatment regimen including a biopsy, lumpectomy, and radiation, she distracts herself by planning Marnie’s wedding.
When the sudden death of a young heroin addict in Marnie’s care forces Marnie to come face-to-face with mortality and her professional inadequacies, she also realizes she must strike a new balance between her identity as a doctor and her role as a supportive daughter. At the same time, she struggles with the stark differences between her fiancé’s family background and her own and comes to understand the importance of being with someone who shares her values and experiences.
Amid this profound soul-searching, both Joyce and Marnie’s futures change in ways they never would have expected.
Here’s a Q & A with Frimmer about her book and writing life:
How does it feel to be a debut novelist and published author?
It’s exhilarating and exciting, but at the same time I still can’t believe it’s happening. The fact that people I don’t know are holding my book in their hands and reading my words is hard to believe and a bit scary. I am proud of my accomplishment and completely hooked on writing fiction. Also, the community of women’s fiction authors and book bloggers has been so welcoming and supportive. With social media, I feel the love for my book even while sitting at home at my writing desk.
When did you first have an inkling to write a book? And was this book the result of that first spark/idea?
To exercise the right side of my brain, I signed up for an introductory writing class at Westport Writers’ Workshop. On the last day of class, my instructor asked me to come up with writing goals. When I said I planned to write a few short stories, she asked if I could write a novel. I promptly informed her she was crazy, but I couldn’t get her suggestion out of my mind. Being a driven, type-A personality, I immediately started writing what would become Bedside Manners. I joined a writing workshop class which definitely helped me see the novel to completion.
I also have to give credit to my husband, Ben. With his characteristic humor, he suggested “colostomy” as the first word of my novel. That silly suggestion got me going and a colostomy bag still makes an appearance in the first chapter!
Did you have a formal writing process or some kind of schedule you followed to get it done?
I wrote whenever I had time—sometimes after work or on weekend mornings, but most of my writing happened on Wednesdays, my day off. I didn’t typically set a word count or particular goal. I just wrote the part of the story that flowed at the moment. I tried to end my writing sessions with a small part of the next chapter done to make it easier to pick up the next time. Sharing four pages with my writing workshop every week also kept me on task.
How do you balance your day job with writing time?
It’s not easy. I work full time as a radiologist and spend a large portion of my day in a dark room staring at mammograms, x-rays and CT scans. When I’m not at work, I try to write, edit, read, spend time with my family, take care of errands, and sleep. It’s a constant struggle and one or all of these things often goes by the wayside despite my best efforts.
What’s are you reading now, and what’s in your to-be-read pile?
In the past few years since I began my publication journey, I’ve been reading books by female authors almost exclusively. I am currently reading The Book of Essie by Meghan MacLean Weir, a fellow physician writer. The writing is wonderful and the story is completely unique and fascinating.
Because I also write book reviews for Books INK and for my blog, my TBR pile is always sky high. I am also a sucker for e-book deals and a dedicated library patron. Suffice it to say that I have more books than I could ever read. Up next, I would like to read Unbroken Threads by Jennifer Klepper, a novel about an attorney who represents a Syrian woman seeking asylum. The Cast by Amy Blumenfeld, and advanced copies of The Rain Watcher by Tatiana de Rosnay and Forget You Know Me by Jessica Strawser are also up soon. A hopeless book addict, I could go on forever about what I’ve read and want to read.
Where do you most like to write?
I created a beautiful writing and reading nook in my family room which I rarely use because it’s too quiet. A bit of activity and background noise actually helps me focus. I wrote most of Bedside Manners at the Barnes and Noble café in Westport, CT powered by a large iced coffee, my other addiction.
Do you have any advice for other writers who want to write a book?
Cast away the self-doubt and don’t fall prey to impostor syndrome. If you have an idea and the perseverance to sit down and put in the work, you can write a book. Expect it to be difficult and frustrating, but the work will ultimately pay off in so many ways. Becoming a writer has added amazing depth and richness to my life and I cherish the people I’ve met along the way.
To learn more about Heather Frimmer and Bedside Manners, visit her website. (And here’s a recent AP article about her journey, and a piece on her recent book launch at Barnes and Noble in Westport, CT.)
If you’re looking to have more fun in someone else’s bed (no cheating required), look no further than Mr. Nice Guy (St. Martin’s Press, 2018) by Jennifer Miller and Jason Feifer. At their recent New York City book launch*, the real-life couple and dynamic writing duo—Miller is a frequent contributor to The New York Times Styles section and Jason Feifer is editor-in-chief of Entrepeneur—told a packed house how, on a whim, they sent an early copy of Mr. Nice Guy to Kevin Kwan, author of Crazy Rich Asians. To their great surprise, he later blurbed the book: “I COULD NOT PUT THIS BOOK DOWN! It totally messed up my week, it messed up my deadlines, but I absolutely loved it.”
Kwan is not alone in his endorsement. Publisher’s Weekly calls Mr. Nice Guy a “witty romp through the allegedly glamorous world of magazines” that’s “sharp and satisfying” and “will have readers turning the pages quickly to get the latest dishy details.” And buckle up: Mr. Nice Guy may soon appear on the small screen!
Here’s a brief description of Mr. Nice Guy:
Lucas Callahan gave up his law degree, fiancée and small-town future for a shot at making it in the Big Apple. He snags an entry-level job at Empire magazine, believing it’s only a matter of time before he becomes a famous writer. And then late one night in a downtown bar he meets a gorgeous brunette who takes him home…
Carmen Kelly wanted to be a hard-hitting journalist, only to find herself cast in the role of Empire’s sex columnist thanks to the boys’ club mentality of Manhattan magazines. Her latest piece is about an unfortunate―and unsatisfying―encounter with an awkward and nerdy guy, who was nice enough to look at but horribly inexperienced in bed.
Lucas only discovers that he’s slept with the infamous Carmen Kelly―that is, his own magazine’s sex columnist!―when he reads her printed take-down. Humiliated and furious, he pens a rebuttal and signs it, “Nice Guy.” Empire publishes it, and the pair of columns go viral. Readers demand more. So the magazine makes an arrangement: Each week, Carmen and Lucas will sleep together… and write dueling accounts of their sexual exploits.
It’s the most provocative sexual relationship any couple has had, but the columnist-lovers are soon engaging in more than a war of words: They become seduced by the city’s rich and powerful, tempted by fame, and more attracted to each other than they’re willing to admit. In the end, they will have to choose between ambition, love, and the consequences of total honesty.
Stacy London interviewing Jennifer Miller and Jason Feifer.
Feifer watching Miller dissect and discuss sex toys.
Miller and Feifer were kind enough to do a Q & A about their book and writing life. Here are some highlights:
What sparked the idea for this book, and was it always a given you’d work on it together?
Jason came up with the idea of having two people critique their sex lives like movie reviews years before we met. He’d been contacted by a younger writer who’d written the sex and relationships column for her college newspaper and wanted help breaking into professional journalism. During their (entirely vanilla) correspondence, Jason came up with the idea for Mr. Nice Guy. Over the years, he tried to start the book, but just didn’t feel comfortable writing fiction. What a boon that he married a novelist! He suggested that Jen take the idea if she liked it; she suggested they write the book together.
Was this the first project the two of you have worked on together? If yes, what was your process?
We frequently ask each other for professional advice and feedback. But Mr. Nice Guy was our first truly joint project. We developed the plot and characters together. Jen wrote the bulk of the narrative and Jason wrote all the columns. Then we edited each other’s work. We definitely weren’t typing over each other’s shoulders.
Did you have any hesitation sharing the intimacies of your relationship with readers and each other?
The book definitely forced us to open up about our dating and sex lives. It was actually a great way to discuss all that stuff—we had a reason to talk about it, which is a lot less awkward than simply saying over dinner, “so about last night’s sex…” Frankly, knowing that our parents would read this book was the most awkward aspect of the whole thing and is kind of horrifying.
What are the particular strengths each of you added to the novel?
Jen’s eye for detail and ear for satire captured the absurdity of NYC media culture and its brand of conspicuous consumption. Jason is great at turning conflict into comedy, which he did expertly in the columns written by our protagonists, Lucas and Carmen.
How excited are you to have sold the television rights to the novel? And who would you choose to star in the series?
OMG, so excited! It was amazing to have the producer of the movie Crash and the former head of NBC Universal on the phone outlining the first THREE seasons of our book-turned-TV show. Timothee Chalamet would make a great Lucas, our highly ambitious, sexually inexperienced male protagonist. Auli’i Cravalho would make a great Carmen.
Any more joint projects in the works?
We’ve plotted out a new novel about two political pundits on opposing sides who fall in love. Like last time, we plotted out the novel together. Jen is going to write the bulk of the narrative and Jason will write the couple’s contentious and absurd television appearances.
What will your 3-year-old son Fenn say about this book when he’s old enough to read it?
We hope that Fenn never reads this book!
For more about Mr. Nice Guy, visit Mr.NiceGuyNovel.com or Feifer’s website. The book is available wherever books are sold.
*Hosted by Hendricks Gin, Meltshop, The Balvenie, The Little Beet, Smart Water, Monkey Shoulder, and Fields Good Chicken.