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’m also planning to release a cover of a song from the Dear Evan Hansen musical, “If I Could Tell Her.” I performed that song on tour with Benj and Justin. Look out for that soon. 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!)
PLEASE LEAVE A COMMENT BELOW FOR A CHANCE TO RECEIVE A COPY OF DEAR EVAN HANSEN: THE NOVEL (COURTESY OF ME!). WILL ANNOUNCE THE 2 WINNERS AT 2 P.M. ON SATURDAY, OCTOBER 27TH.
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 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!
When I learned a friend of friend wrote a book called Dear Rachel Maddow, I was overjoyed. A big fan of The Rachel Maddow Show which airs weeknights on MSNBC at 9:00 P.M., I often joke the show is the glue to my marriage.*
Here’s a description of Adrienne Kisner’s debut young adult book, Dear Rachel Maddow, from Amazon:
Brynn Haper’s life has one steadying force–Rachel Maddow. She watches her daily, and after writing to Rachel for a school project–and actually getting a response–Brynn starts drafting e-mails to Rachel but never sending them. Brynn tells Rachel about breaking up with her first serious girlfriend, about her brother Nick’s death, about her passive mother and even worse stepfather, about how she’s stuck in remedial courses at school and is considering dropping out.
Then Brynn is confronted with a moral dilemma. One student representative will be allowed to have a voice among the administration in the selection of a new school superintendent. Brynn’s arch nemesis, Adam, and ex-girlfriend, Sarah, believe only Honors students are worthy of the selection committee seat. Brynn feels all students deserve a voice. When she runs for the position, the knives are out. So, she begins to ask herself: What Would Rachel Maddow Do?
Although I had never read an epistolary novel before, I so enjoyed Kisner’s book. I found the format to be an effective way to tell Brynn’s story. Her struggles in school–and in the context of her family–were compelling, and the humor sprinkled throughout the novel was a nice touch that drew me in. Despite the book’s title, Kisner does not beat readers over the head with politics; instead, she seamlessly weaves in subtle descriptions of Maddow’s personality and show to support Brynn’s admiration for her.
Kisner was kind enough to do an email Q & A about the book and her writing life. Here are the highlights.
Zied: I read on your blog that you were inspired to write Dear Rachel Maddow after having your first child aka Screamy Baby. Can you elaborate?
Kisner: I live on a college campus. Our cable television was great for late-night-don’t-sleep types until one sad day right after my daughter was born. They took away the WE network and I didn’t really know what to do with myself. I aimlessly flipped until I settled on our new assortment of myriad news channels. Rachel Maddow repeated at least twice a night . . . possibly more, my memory from those days is dream-like. Then I discovered her podcast where I could listen to her while doing chores. Things are always new when your short term memory is shot from sleep deprivation. So it’s like it didn’t even repeat.
Zied: What is it about Rachel Maddow that led you to make her someone your protagonist reveres/reaches out to (if mainly in spirit)?
Kisner: Rachel is so smart and civil and engaged in this world. All the things my main character does not think herself to be, but to which she really aspires deep down. Rachel’s often really funny on her show, too. How can you not like that? (I mean, I know it’s possible. I’ve seen Twitter. But still.)
Zied: To write the book, did you plot or pant, or do some combination of both?
Kisner: I’m a pantser, all the way. Plotting baffles me.
Zied: Did you have a specific schedule/routine while writing this book?
Kisner: None. I have to squeeze in writing whenever I can, around work and family and stuff. I’d have an hour one day, fifteen minutes the next, none for two weeks.
Zied: When and how did you decide to use the epistolary format to write this book?
Kisner: Initially I’d planned to really rip off the Dear Mr. Henshaw format—write half of it in letters, then go to more of a journal. And it sort of goes like that. But Brynn, the main character, wouldn’t really write in a journal. I think she wanted to connect with someone, outside herself. She’d only write (or dictate) if it were to someone else.
Zied: You hold both a master’s and doctorate degree in theology. How do you think your studies have informed or influenced your book (if at all)?
Kisner: I don’t know. The longer I went on studying faith, the more I became convinced that people who claim to know God’s will, probably don’t. Mystery and faith seeking understanding and dialogue are stressed in the circles I run in. Here, notions of what “sin” is become more situated in the unknowable mind of God, so I got more and more pissed off that the government should try to legislate off the unknowable mind of God. If anything, the excessive amount of time I spent studying theology gave me a true appreciation for the importance of the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause in the First Amendment. That people are screwing with that in the name of the ineffable is infuriating and dangerous.
Zied: What made you want to write novels for teens?
Kisner: Teens are awesome. I don’t understand why everyone doesn’t write for teens. I assume people who write for adults do so because writing for kids is too hard.
Zied: How did your MFA studies at Vermont College of Fine Arts** help prepare you both creatively and professionally to become a young adult novelist?
Kisner: VCFA gave me a community of writers, many of whom are now my best friends. I’ve had other people simply stop talking to me because I was too much or not enough or something tied to my life as a creator of things. That sucked. The inevitable ups and downs of the industry make for a wild ride, too. VCFA gave me lectures to polish my craft, but also gave me mentors and friends who are always in my corner. I love them all.
Zied: Have you shared your book with Rachel Maddow (if she’s anything like I’d suspect, she’d be flattered not to mention gracious).
Kisner: Welllll . . . I think she got an ARC? Lol. Not from me, per se. Because she is a real person whose name is on this thing that I wrote. I honestly wrote it thinking it would be another novel that no one would ever see (like so many of my novels before it). So when it was the one that sold, I thought she should be allowed the space to ignore it entirely. I have no doubt she’s lovely. But I don’t try to push it. I don’t want her to feel like she ought to be gracious. Fame has to be wearing enough without one more thing. (Though I have friends who @ her on Twitter. I do think that’s kind of funny, I admit.)
Zied: What’s next for you?
Kisner: A book about girl birders. I think of it as “Dear Rachel Maddow” meets “The Big Year.” I have dream goals of inspiring a few readers to both vote and go birding.
*My like-minded husband and I love Rachel’s ability to tell stories and give context to the ever-changing state of the union. Especially now!
**I began my MFA studies at VCFA in July. Read about my writing journey here.
To learn more about Dear Rachel Maddow and Kisner’s work, visit her website here.