The Art of Breaking Things: Q & A with Laura Sibson

The Art of Breaking Things (Viking Books for Young Readers, June 2019) by debut author Laura Sibson tells the story of 17-year-old Skye, an artist set to leave her small town and attend art school once she figures out how to survive senior year and confront the trauma she experienced several years earlier. Here’s a brief description of the novel from Sibson’s website:

Weekends are for partying with friends while trying to survive the mindnumbingness that is high school. The countdown to graduation is on, and Skye has her sights set on escaping to art school and not looking back. 

But her party-first-ask-questions-later lifestyle starts to crumble when her mom rekindles her romance with the man who betrayed Skye’s trust and boundaries when he was supposed to be protecting her. She was too young to understand what was happening at the time, but now she doesn’t know whether to run as far away from him as possible or give up her dreams to save her little sister. The only problem is that no one knows what he did to her. How can she reveal the secret she’s guarded for so long?

With the help of her best friend and the only boy she’s ever trusted, Skye might just find the courage she needs to let her art speak for her when she’s out of words. After years of hiding her past, she must become her own best ally.

I finished the novel in a day and found it to be immersive and compelling, With so much beautiful writing, believable characters, great dialogue, and seamless transitions from present to past, Sibson handles the issues of sexual assault, drug use and abuse, and consent with tremendous care. Not shying away from creating uncomfortable situations for her characters, Sibson allows protagonist Skye (and other characters such as her best friend and love interest Ben) to experience life as well as the consequences of their actions without being preachy or judgmental. I especially loved the way Skye uses her art and creative vision of the world to confront her past, deal with her present, and prepare for the future. I have no doubt that this novel will give teens and their parents a wonderful starting point to have conversations about consent, substance use and abuse and so much more.

I had the pleasure of getting to know Sibson during the Writing Novels for Young People Retreat at Vermont College of Fine Arts. Here are highlights from our email interview about her writing life:

EZ: What first sparked your interest in writing for children?

LS: In my junior year of high school, we wrote short stories. Working on a story about a good girl who shoplifts was the first moment that I remember realizing that I could craft stories myself. I’d been a certified bookworm since I was a young child, but it hadn’t occurred to me that maybe I could write. Fast forward to 2008 and I’d been working on a story that my critique partner observed had flashbacks upon flashbacks. I read Twilight (because let’s be honest, who didn’t read Twilight in 2008?) and it hit me like one of those lightbulbs over the head of a cartoon character: I could make my main character a teen?! Ever since then, I’ve never looked back. I love writing for teens and exploring that particular adolescent tension of beginning to understand yourself as separate from your family, but not yet possessing the real power of an adult in the world.

EZ: How did going to VCFA for your MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults impact your writing and change your life?

LS: I love this question because I do feel that VCFA changed my life. I remember reaching out to Lauren Myracle when I was thinking of applying and she said that the degree from VCFA wouldn’t necessarily get me a book deal, but it would help me become a better writer more quickly than if I tried to improve on my own. And though I secretly hoped to get an agent and a book deal as a result of the experience, what actually happened was so much more important. I met people who I could identify with and who were supportive and passionate about writing for children. In that environment, I learned how to write better fiction. But what helped my writing even more was learning how to revise. When I arrived at VCFA, I thought that the need for revision was an indication of my lack of ability. It took Amanda Jenkins in my 3rd semester to open my eyes not only to the essential need for revision for every writing project, but for the opportunity that revision offers to make the story even better. Now, even though revision is hard, I look forward to digging in and making the writing more specific, more focused, and better paced.

EZ: How did your experience as a career counselor for undergraduates inform or inspire your work as a full-time writer?

LS: Oh, another great question! I’m not sure that my career counseling work directly influenced the subject of my writing, but coaching college-aged people to identify their strengths and interests and pursue their dreams forced me to stop and wonder if I was doing what I was telling them to do. Also, colleges and universities are places of possibility and curiosity, you know? So working in higher education was inspiring and energizing.

EZ: On your blog, you say you’re on “A journey toward writing dangerously”—please explain.

LS: I’m so glad you asked about this because I was just thinking about it the other day. So, back in 2010, before I started at VCFA, I attended the annual SCBWI meeting in New York. Libba Bray was the keynote speaker. (Sidenote: while searching for a transcript of her speech I saw that she was also keynote in 2018 and you heard her speak! Isn’t she amazing?!) Anyway, I’d been a fan of Libba’s since shortly after I’d discovered young adult books. Her talk focused on writing as an extreme sport and at the end of the talk she invited the audience to join her in a year of writing dangerously. I’d felt at that time that maybe I was playing things a bit safe in my writing. I wondered: if I really let go and took risks, would I be able to achieve the depth of fiction that I hoped to achieve? And the good news is that in my forthcoming novel, I believe that I did achieve that. (But sheesh, it took a heck of a lot longer than a year!)

EZ: Would you say you fit writing into your life or do you fit your life into writing? And how do you organize your writing life/days?

LS: Well, when I worked part-time in higher education and my boys were in grade school, I definitely fit writing into my life. I would get up early to write before work. I’d write on the two days that I didn’t go into the office while my kids were in school. And I’d write while my boys were at swim practice, baseball practice, all sort of practice! But now, I’m an empty nester and I decided not to return to my counseling work. My writing is my priority. But I’ll be honest, it was very hard for me to make it a priority before I had an agent and a book deal. Until then, it was all too easy for me to let my writing time get eaten up by volunteer commitments, house stuff, catching up with friends and family or other aspects of being an adult in the world. My routine now is that I try not to schedule anything between 10-3 each day. And at least one day a week, I host writers in my home or meet up with writers somewhere else. Writing alongside other writers helps hold me accountable.

EZ: What are some must-haves that you need to write?

LS: I really like to have a hot cup of coffee when I sit down to write. For reasons I cannot explain, earbuds help me focus. So, when I’m drafting a new project, I’ll get my coffee, put my earbuds in (even if there’s great music playing at the coffee shop) and sink into the writing. I’ve found that it can also help me to set a timer. (A tip I learned from Sarah Aronson.) I can get a lot of scenes written in back-to-back 25-minute increments! But when I’m revising, all I need is time, my laptop and a big space lay out the plot points and emotional beats of my novel.

EZ: What was your journey from writing to becoming a published author?

LS: My road to publishing took forever and then happened really fast. I’d written a complete manuscript before applying for VCFA. I queried about 8 agents and editors (as opposed to the recommended 50) before giving up. While I don’t recommend that writers give up after querying a handful of agents, I don’t regret my path because it led me to VCFA. In my last semester there, I wrote a bare bones draft of a new novel and after adding flesh to the bones and revising, I tried querying again. This time I made it to about 24 agents and editors before giving up. The lesson I still needed to learn at this point was that agents and editors are subjective. I understood that intellectually, but didn’t really get it on a gut level, if that makes sense. I started a new story – a paranormal that was a lot of fun to write – and on the side began writing something only for me. When I read a little bit of the “me” project to trusted writer friend Cordelia Jensen, she encouraged me to keep at it. That project eventually became The Art of Breaking Things, which I started querying in March 2016. I stopped querying in November 2016 to revise and regroup. I’d received a lot of full requests, but no offers of representation. I started a new middle grade novel (that’s what I was working on when I met you at the Whole Novel Retreat at VCFA). At the end of August 2017, another trusted writer friend, Laurie Morrison, encouraged me to give one more go to querying The Art of Breaking Things. I queried three agents. Two requested fulls immediately and in early September, Brianne Johnson of Writers House offered me representation. People talk about their dream agents. Bri is the agent that I didn’t even have the nerve to dream about. She’s an incredible advocate of my work and excellent at her job. Bri sold my book by early December 2017 and the book will be in readers hands in about two short months!

EZ: Best writing advice you’ve ever received and/or given?

LS: One piece of advice that has stayed with me and which I consider when I’m asked to critique others’ work and when I receive feedback from readers is something that Neil Gaiman said: “Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.” What I like about this quote is the reminder that readers are invaluable in helping us understand how our writing is landing, but that we are the best source of solutions for issues that come up. Of course, it’s helpful to brainstorm with trusted people and consider different angles for your story. But when it’s time to dive in deep with revision, it’s you, the writer, who needs to figure out the best way to implement changes to your novel.

EZ: What’s the best thing about becoming a published author (with a two-book deal, I might add)?

LS: As you know, writing is a mostly solitary endeavor. Even while working alongside fellow writers, you spend most of your time in your head with your characters I’m thrilled that my book was chosen by a dedicated team at Viking who believe that this story will connect with teens. I don’t take that for granted. With this book, I most look forward to readers experiencing hope when they read Skye’s story. And I’m grateful that Viking wants another book from me. As soon as I’m able, I’ll share what that will be.

EZ: What do you do to de-stress or get inspired when confronting the rigors of deadlines and the business of writing?

LS: Hmmm, that’s a big question. To get ready for writing, I like to either work out or take a walk in the morning. I find that I’m better able to sit still and focus after some physical movement. To de-stress after a big writing day, I’ll take the dog for a walk in the woods or zone out to an amusing TV show for a little while. If I need to process what’s going on in the writing or deal with the stress related to business things over which I have no control – I connect with my close writing friends who have been through the process before me. As for deadlines, I love them! I’m more likely to be stressed by a general “whenever” than by a specific deadline, even a tight one.

Read the Kirkus review of Sibson’s novel here.

If you’d like a chance to win a copy of The Art of Breaking Things through May 17th), visit Goodreads. The Art of Breaking Things can also be pre-ordered from IndieBound, Amazon, Barnes & Nobel and BAM.

Sibson is also doing a giveaway of books by authors who blurbed The Art of Breaking Things on Twitter. Learn more about her and her work on her website and on Instagram and Facebook.

Disclosure: At my request, I received an early copy of The Art of Breaking Things from the publisher.

 

 

When I Was Summer: Q & A with J.B. Howard

When I heard about J.B. Howard’s debut novel, When I Was Summer (Viking Books for Young Readers, April 30, 2019) and saw the absolutely gorgeous book cover, I began counting the days until it would be in my hands. Intrigued by the promise of music and mystery (maybe some mating too?!), I pre-ordered the novel and anxiously await its arrival. If it turns out to be anything at all like its author–because what work of fiction doesn’t include at least part of the soul from which it comes–I can’t imagine it’ll be anything less than awesome.

Here’s a description of When I Was Summer from the publisher:

A relatable novel about unrequited love, rock ‘n’ roll, and what you find when you go searching for yourself.

Sixteen-year-old Nora Wakelin has always felt like an outsider in her own family. Her parents and older sister love her, but they don’t understand anything about her: not her passion for music, not her all-encompassing crush on her bandmate Daniel (who is very much unavailable), not her recklessness and impulsiveness. Nora has always imagined that her biological mother might somehow provide the answer as to why she feels like such an outsider.

Through internet stalking and leaps of logic, Nora identifies three women living elsewhere in California who seem like they could be her biological mother. So she sets out to track them each down, one by one, under the pretense of a statewide tour with her rock band, Blue Miles. Three cities, three gigs, three possible birth mothers–it sounds so easy.

But once they’re on the road, of course, it’s anything but easy. Nora wants to be with Daniel, she wants to find her birth mother, she wants to keep her parents happy, she wants the band to stay together, and she wants to know why she is the way she is. But she won’t be the first musician to find out that, while you can’t always get what you want, sometimes you get what you need.

I had the pleasure of doing an email Q & A with author J.B. Howard. Here’s what she had to say about being a debut novelist and about her writing life:

EZ: When did you first know that you were a writer?

JBH: The urge to tell stories predates my confidence in my capacity for prose-spinning. If I had to put the evolution of my authorhood on a timeline, I’d say that I probably first developed the urge to tell a story when I was a child, then felt I had something to say as a young adult, and finally developed a love for language itself in my early twenties. I’ve been lucky enough to have many incredible writing (and life!) mentors along the way, and most of them told me to call myself a writer long before I actually felt comfortable doing so. In fact, even with my debut novel coming out, I’m still probably more comfortable calling myself a professor than a writer. Being a writer feels like a gift that I have to wake up every morning and earn. Some days I earn it; some days I don’t. Then again, maybe feeling a bit like a fraud is the most writerly thing about me! It seems like we all struggle with that to some degree.

EZ: What made you want to write fiction for teens?

JBH: A combination of things! First of all, I think I’m just now recovering from (and understanding) my own teenage years. It’s amazing how long the heartbreak one experiences as a teenager can linger. Second, that remarkably brief period of life is so ripe with drama, lending itself to the thematic exploration of all the questions that most occupy me still, questions about identity, family, friendship, and fate.

EZ: With your writing, theater and musical background, you’re a triple threat. How did your high school interests and college (and MFA) experiences impact your debut novel, When I Was Summer, both in terms of actually writing it as well as the story you tell?

JBH: A triple threat! I like the sound of that! My interests all came together in the most fortuitous way for WHEN I WAS SUMMER, since it’s about a girl who plays bass in a band (and I also played bass in a band in high school), and they all meet while performing / playing in their high school’s production of GREASE (I also played bass in the stage band for my high school’s production of GREASE). Nora, my protagonist, is a much more proficient and confident musician than I ever was, but I think living in that world for some years gave me a valuable insight into how bandmates interact and the interpersonal problems that might arise when band members get too close or start to pull away from one another.

My formal education (playwriting, screenwriting, and music as an undergraduate and fiction writing as a graduate student) was crucially important at every stage of writing this book. My playwriting classes taught me about tension within scenes and gave me useful tools for the creation of suspense; my screenwriting classes taught me about structure and pacing; my fiction writing classes taught me about character and, hopefully, the effective use of language. That being said, there will always be more to learn. After I wrote WHEN I WAS SUMMER, I read Lisa Cron’s craft book STORY GENIUS and felt a thousand new little lightbulbs switch on. I’ve been keeping that book close as I develop the next project.

EZ: What was the most challenging part of writing this novel, and how did you fit it into your life (in the context of your creative writing career and family)? And what practices or habits helped you guard your writing time?

JBH: When I don’t get a chance to write at least an hour or two a day, I become very grumpy. I’m not proud of this, but it’s true. So, even when publishing a novel seemed about as likely as waking up to discover I was actually Queen Elizabeth II, I would either get up at 4:00am to write, or I’d stay up until 2:00am to write. I never just… didn’t write. Fun fact: WHEN I WAS SUMMER was actually the fourth book I wrote all the way to the end, and before I found an agent and sold the book to a publisher, I’d written a fifth book. Setting aside the time to write has never felt like a sacrifice. In fact, doing other stuff (other than being with my family) is what feels like the sacrifice! My strategies: over the years, I’ve learned to say “no” to things I don’t need or want to do and distance myself from people who trail drama everywhere they go. I also quit all social media for a while, and that was AWESOME; though I’m back on Instagram, because the world (or at least my mom) needs pictures of my baby and I’m the only person who can provide that service. I leave my phone off as often as I can. I don’t do these things specifically to guard my writing time, but it works out that way. Basically, I try to do things that matter to me and try not to do anything out of simple guilt or FOMO.

EZ: Where do you like to write, and what conditions help you write your best? (Any must-haves on your desk or in your work space when you write?)

JBH: I love to write at my desk! It’s not a big space, but it’s mine, and somehow that makes all the difference in the world – just the existence of a writing-dedicated space. When I’m at my desk, I have a bulletin board in front of me, which I use for outlining, and on the desk surface itself (beneath a clear protector sheet thing) I have a diagram of Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, which I copied out of his Hero With a Thousand Faces and have annotated over the years, along with Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat beat sheet and Alan Watt’s structure questions. I also have Lisa Cron’s story definition taped up to the wall in front of me – “A story is about how the things that happen (plot) affect someone (protagonist) in pursuit of a difficult goal (story problem), and how that person changes internally (theme) as a result.” I like to keep these things in front of me all the time, so I can pretend that writing stories is a de-constructible, repeatable, understandable process and not really just a big, fat mystery. Other desk/writing essentials: black coffee in the morning, water at all other times, plus my ever-lengthening to-do list so that if I get stuck writing, I’m more likely to fold my laundry than end up on my phone’s news app reading some unnecessary article about the one thing you should never ever eat if you want to live to be a hundred.

EZ: What did writing a novel teach you about yourself as a writer?

JBH: That I inevitably will not get it right the first time, but that I will get it right. Eventually. That I can trust the process.

EZ: The writing life can be a tough one filled with distractions, deadlines and rejections. What do you do to de-stress and get into a mindset that helps you write your best—or at least write—no matter what’s going on?

JBH: Coffee! Also, naps (in theory; rarely in practice). I also have an audiobook of Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art that I will listen to whenever I’m feeling dejected or unmotivated. But probably the number one thing I do to de-stress and cope with writing/life is exercise. I used to love jogging, but I tore some cartilage in my hip a few years ago, so now I mostly lift weights or do other resistance cross training at the gym. I always feel better afterwards.

EZ: What advice do you have for aspiring novelists? (And what’s the best advice you’ve received or that’s been helpful to you on a practical level?)

JBH: Everyone will tell you to read everything you can get your hands on, and you definitely should. But something I figured out along the way was that it’s helpful to treat reading as research. I read with a pen or pencil in my hand and am always dissecting what I read. Character introductions, turning points, act breaks—so much can be learned just by paying attention to precisely how other authors pull these things off. I go back to the opening of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway all the time, just to revisit how she seamlessly weaves Clarissa Dalloway’s past in with her present, advancing story while simultaneously building character. She makes it look so easy! And you know that when someone makes something look easy, it means they worked long and hard at it.

Other advice: Avoid people who make you feel insufficient in any way; nurture relationships with the people who feel like friends of your mind and soul. Take the craft seriously and yourself not seriously at all. Don’t worry so much. Keep going.

EZ: What are you most looking forward to about being a debut novelist? And what are your future writing plans?

JBH: Ah! I don’t know that I am looking forward to being a debut novelist! I keep thinking, in fact, that I should have written under a less obvious penname, because the idea of people reading my work is at once thrilling and terrifying. In writing workshops, I always tell my students not to qualify their work before distributing it; don’t say, “So, I wrote this quickly, and I know that it’s lacking for x, y, and z reasons.” Just distribute it! But here I am, about to have a book published, and I’d seriously like to affix a letter to each copy of the book that says, “Look, I know this isn’t perfect, but I really did try, and I promise to do better next time!” I wrote a YA noir book last year, but I’m sitting on it right now, because it needs to be better. I’m currently working on a YA sci-fi book that I am madly in love with, and I would love to tell you more, but I’d probably better leave it at that.

EZ: Which authors (living or deceased) most inspire/influence you and why?

JBH: William Shakespeare for depth of thought and poetic language. Jane Austen for her sardonic wit / keen sense of irony. I fell in love with Juliet Marillier’s Sevenwaters trilogy when I was in high school, for reasons that are hard for me to explain; I return to those books often, just to try to figure out why I like them so much! Virginia Woolf for her insight into the nature of the mind. I’m always excited for Zadie Smith’s next book and am impressed by everything Lauren Oliver does. I have a deep admiration for Stephen King’s powers of imagination, his commitment to good storytelling, and his obvious work ethic. I’ve heard, too, that he’s a pleasure to work with, just a really nice person, and I aspire to be that sort of writer, too—a true professional.

See what Kirkus has to say about When I Was Summer.

About the author: J. B. Howard studied theater, screenwriting, and music at the University of Southern California, where she produced her first two stageplays, Sparrows and Violetta Dying. After graduation, she traveled around New Zealand for one year; there, she briefly played bass and sang for an Auckland cover band, pruned grapes on a vineyard, waited tables, taught yoga at a women’s gym, spent one whole month living in a tent, and was an extra in a UK bank commercial, all while continuing to work on her writing. In 2013, she was awarded a Creative Writing Fellowship at Chapman University, enabling her to earn an M.F.A. in Fiction. She currently lives, works, and writes in Southern California, where she is a Creative Writing lecturer at Chapman University. To learn more about J.B. Howard and her books, visit her website. When I Was Summer is available at Amazon, Indiebound or wherever books are sold.

Our Year of Maybe: Q & A with Rachel Lynn Solomon

If you’re looking for a new young adult book title to add to your TBR list, Our Year of Maybe (Simon Pulse, January 15, 2019) by Rachel Lynn Solomon may be a great addition. Already earning a starred review from School Library Journal, Our Year of Maybe examines the complicated aftermath of a kidney transplant between best friends.

Here’s a description of the book from Solomon’s website:

Aspiring choreographer Sophie Orenstein would do anything for Peter Rosenthal-Porter, who’s been on the kidney transplant list as long as she’s known him. Peter, a gifted pianist, is everything to Sophie: best friend, musical collaborator, secret crush. When she learns she’s a match, donating a kidney is an easy, obvious choice. She can’t help wondering if after the transplant, he’ll love her back the way she’s always wanted.

But Peter’s life post-transplant isn’t what either of them expected. Though he once had feelings for Sophie too, he’s now drawn to Chase, the guitarist in a band that happens to be looking for a keyboardist. And while neglected parts of Sophie’s world are calling to her—dance opportunities, new friends, a sister and niece she barely knows—she longs for a now-distant Peter more than ever, growing increasingly bitter he doesn’t seem to feel the same connection.

Peter fears he’ll forever be indebted to her. Sophie isn’t sure who she is without him. Then one heartbreaking night twists their relationship into something neither of them recognizes, leading them to question their past, their future, and whether their friendship is even worth fighting for.

After reading and enjoying Solomon’s debut novel, You’ll Miss Me When I’m Gone, I was thrilled to connect with her by email about her latest work that I’ve already preordered. Here are the highlights:

EZ: What planted the seed for Our Year of Maybe?

RLS: I find organ donation extremely fascinating–I can’t imagine a more selfless act. I wanted to explore the aftermath of a kidney transplant between best friends because I imagined there would be a lot of complicated feelings there. As I grew to know my characters better, though, I wondered if this selfless act did actually include a bit of selfishness. Sophie, the donor, is in love with her best friend Peter, the recipient, and part of her hopes that after the transplant, he’ll love her back. It’s a very small part, she acknowledges–but it’s still there. I wanted to swim around in all that messiness.

EZ: Was your process for writing this book much different than it was for your debut novel? How did you approach each, and what did you learn by writing your debut novel that you applied to/that helped with writing this one?

RLS: The biggest difference is that book 2 happened on a much shorter timeline. I wrote the first draft over a period of a few months in early 2016, then set it aside for a year (huge mistake) while working on revisions for my debut. When I picked OUR YEAR OF MAYBE back up in the summer of 2017 a couple months before it was due to my editor, there was a lot I didn’t love and wanted to change, which led to a slightly feverish rewrite. (And then another once my editor read it.) Both my debut and OYOM are dual POV, so I applied a lot of what I learned in terms of distinguishing the voices and making sure each character had a complete arc.

EZ: Where do you best like to write? (What environment is most conducive to your creativity?) 

RLS: I do most of my writing at a local coffee shop across the street from a lake, with big windows and amazing hot chocolate.

EZ: What are your must-haves when writing?

RLS: I struggle to focus on writing when it’s quiet, but I also can’t write if the music is too familiar, which is why writing in coffee shops works so well for me–there’s music, but I don’t have control over it. I also enjoy having a warm sugary beverage beside me, either chai or hot chocolate.

EZ: What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received or that you’d give to a fellow writer?

RLS: Someone gave me this advice once, and it’s really stuck with me: if your characters are crying, then your reader doesn’t have to. If your characters are laughing, then your reader doesn’t have to. Essentially, it’s about showing vs. telling–instead of having the characters burst into tears or laughter to tell the reader how they should feel, show the reader that what’s happening is sad or funny or insert adjective here. If a character is crying on page 1, I’m not quite sure how to react–I don’t know enough about them yet to connect with their journey. Not saying it can never work, but I try to torture my characters for as long as possible before I allow them to cry.

EZ: Are there any craft books you love (and why do you love them)? 

RLS: Not exactly a craft book, but BIRD BY BIRD helped me out of a writing rut and gave me the permission I needed to write terrible first drafts. All I need from a draft is something book-shaped–I can make it pretty later.

EZ: What are you reading now? (Any recent reads that you couldn’t put down?)

RLS: I read it a couple months ago, but I still can’t stop thinking about A HEART IN A BODY IN THE WORLD by Deb Caletti. I’ve never read anything that so fully and painfully captures how it feels to be a teen girl.

EZ: How does being an author of a sophomore book compare to being a debut author in terms of pressures and expectations?   

RLS: I feel somewhat less pressure this time around, I think, but there’s so much emphasis on The Debut when the second book is often much tougher to write. The second book is the one (usually) forged in the midst of debut year anxiety and self-doubt. I was revising OYOM while early reviews from YMMWIG were coming in, which was difficult for a while. I had to focus on writing the book primarily for myself–and more specifically, my teenage self–as opposed to writing it to change the mind of the person who gave YMMWIG 2 stars on Goodreads, haha. The best part of promoting my second book has been seeing readers who enjoyed YMMWIG excited for OYOM–it’s a surreal and wonderful thing that someone I’ve never met is looking forward to reading more of my words. I’m so, so grateful.

You can learn more about Rachel Lynn Solomon and her work by visiting her website, or following her on Twitter and on Instagram. Our Year of Maybe can be purchased wherever books are sold. 

Disclosure: No goods or services were exchanged for this post.

Dear Evan Hansen: The Novel-Q & A with Val Emmich

Dear Evan Hansen: The Novel-Q & A with Val Emmich

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.

 

 

 

Bedside Manners: Q & A with Heather Frimmer, M.D.

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.)  

 

 

Soulstruck: Interview with YA Author Natasha Sinel

If you’re intrigued by the idea of soulmates and are fascinated by fate, Soulstruck (Sky Pony Press, June 12, 2018) may belong in your hands and on your bookshelf. Here’s a description of Natasha Sinel’s sophomore young adult novel:

She might be only a lightning bolt away from finding her soul mate.

Seventeen-year-old Rachel Ferguson is trying to get struck by lightning. Maybe it will lead to finding her soul mate, like it did for her mother. And then maybe her mom will be as devoted to her as she is to her lightning strike survivors group.

When Rachel discovers letters written by her mother’s soul mate—the man she thought was her father—she begins to question everything she’s always believed, including soul mates, fate, and even her mother. No longer sure of its power, she decides to quit chasing lightning.

Rachel feels abandoned and alone—her best friend has ditched her, her boyfriend has dumped her, and confronting her mom only made things worse. At least she still has her friend Jay—in fact, their growing attraction to each other seems to be the only good thing happening.

But when her relationship with Jay starts to unravel too, the impulse to get struck by lightning resurfaces.

And there’s a thunderstorm coming.

Set in a small Cape Cod beach town in the off-season, SOULSTRUCK is about the search for love, and the risk of losing it while waiting for destiny to happen.

I had the pleasure of doing an email Q & A with Sinel. Read below to learn more about her and her writing life.

EZ: Now that you’re a seasoned novelist with two titles, how would you compare the process of writing your first novel, The Fix, with that of Soulstruck?

NS: A seasoned novelist? Ha! That’s super nice of you to say. While I did feel more confident this time around, writing a new novel still feels like starting from scratch. I think it’s safe to say that writing Soulstruck was just as difficult as writing The Fix! My novels have always started out as one thing and inevitably evolved into something very different. So I end up rewriting a few times as I discover my characters’ emotional arcs and the themes. It’s a long process, but so far it’s worked for me. I’m always looking for new processes to help streamline drafting and revising, but I usually end up doing what has always worked for me—basically, there’s no way out but through!

EZ: What’s the best thing you learned as a first-time author (related to writing, book promotion, etc.) that has helped you moving forward?

NS: I learned what a lot of debut authors learn—self-promotion is uncomfortable and it kind of sucks. Also, I’ve gotten much better at letting things go—like the little jealousies that arise about other authors getting sent to conferences or festivals, etc. I’m learning that sometimes it happens, and sometimes it doesn’t. Even with Soulstruck coming out, I’ve been much more focused on revising my current work in progress than on the release. I’m getting much better at doing what everyone says to do—just keep writing. The only thing we really have control over as authors is the writing.

EZ: What was the spark that lead to the idea that became Soulstruck?

NS: Back in 1991 there was a lightning strike at a high school lacrosse game in Washington, DC (where I’m from)—more than ten people were struck, and one teenager was killed. A young EMT who happened to be there saved several people’s lives that day. I wasn’t there but I’d heard about it and the story always stuck with me. An idea started to form in my head and as I researched lightning and the lightning strike survivors, my characters came into focus and my story began.

EZ: What was the most challenging part of writing Soulstruck?

NS: Some of my ideas in the beginning forced me toward a more paranormal storyline and, as I’m much more comfortable with realistic writing, it felt uncomfortable. I moved forward with it, though, because I remembered a former writing instructor saying it’s better to go big to start out and then you can always scale back. So that’s what I did. Though it was strange letting go of so much of the original idea I’d written, in the end, it was what was best for the story.

EZ: What was the best/most exciting or fulfilling part about writing Soulstruck?

NS: I always love those a-ha moments that come when you least expect it—as you’re falling asleep, taking a walk, in the shower. It makes me realize how hard my subconscious is working on my stories all of the time. One of my favorite moments was after I’d gotten some amazing editorial notes from my agent Linda Epstein, and I was in despair because the notes were BIG—like, really big. I let it all swirl around for a few days and then I got to work. I took out about 15k words. And added about 15k words. After I was finished, it was so much better, and when we sent it off to my editor, she loved it.

EZ: How did you get the idea for “Moving the Body,” your short story that appears in the recent adoption-themed anthology, Welcome Home? Was it something you had worked on before, or did you write it specifically for the anthology? And how excited were you to be asked (such an honor that must have been)!

NS: It was such an honor to be a part of Welcome Home. Eric Smith is amazing, and it was so wonderful to work with him. The anthology as a whole is really very special. And yes, I wrote Moving the Body specifically for the anthology! A few things came together to inspire the idea—one: I wanted to show that the bond between an adopted child and his mom can be as close as the bond between a biological child and his mom, two: I’d read a horrifying article about a teen in the UK who became involved with someone through an online game and the results were devastating, and three: right around the same time, there was an incident in my town—kids had spray-painted a swastika on a neighbor’s garage, and later it came out that a few of the kids were Jewish. Those three things did a little dance in my head, and out came my story.

EZ: Would you say you’re a one-book-at-a-time kind of author or can you work on multiple projects at once?

NS: So far, I work on one book at a time, though recently, when I was having difficulty with my work-in-progress, I wrote a few scenes for a new idea rather than skip a day of working. That was fun, and I could see myself doing that more. 

EZ: Any advice for writers struggling to get their butts in the chair to just write?

NS: Ugh. It’s just so hard. There’s no way around it. Some things that help me are: 1. getting my butt in the chair right after putting my kids on the bus, so I don’t keep putting it off all day, 2. talking things out with my critique partner or setting up check-in times with her, 3. setting a timer for 25 minutes and committing to writing for just that amount of time—often, I’ll get on a roll and keep going, 4. writing a kissing scene or something I love even if it’s not the next scene I need to write. But some days, it just won’t happen. I try not to let it bring me down so I can start fresh the next day.

EZ: Anything exciting on the writing horizon for you?

NS: I’m finishing up a manuscript and getting ready to send it to my agent. I really have my fingers crossed for this one. And once I send it to her, I’ll get started on my next idea, which will require some research that I’m really excited about.

EZ: What’s currently on your book shelf?

NS: Lots of contemporary YAs: Monday’s Not Coming by Tifany D. Jackson, Foolish Hearts by Emma Mills, Sarah Dessen (I’m catching up on all of her books, way behind!), The Secret History of Us by Jessi Kirby, The Nowhere Girls by Amy Reed, and I can’t wait to read my agent-sister Miriam McNamara’s debut The Unbinding of Mary Read. I could go on…

EZ: Any favorite TV shows you’re currently enjoying?

NS: I read a lot more than I watch TV, but currently I’m watching The Handmaid’s Tale, Younger, and The Bold Type.

To learn more about Natasha Sinel and her work, visit her website here.

Full disclosure: Sinel’s publisher sent me an ARC of her book. I did, however, buy my own copy and cannot wait to get it signed!