So I know I said last week that I’d be starting this feature next week but.. well two things happened.
First up, this interview was too good to sit on for a fortnight.
Secondly… well, I dunno- I might be making this up, but did something important happen in America this week?
Nah, I don’t know what I’m talking about. It seemed extremely apt to post this today.
OK, so my first post for my On Writing feature (What? What’s this? Find out more here) is going to be the first of three interviews on my favourite subject in Young Adult fiction: contemporary.
Trish’s first book, Something Like Normal, tells the story of Travis, a Marine who has just returned from Afghanistan and explores how he deals with being home. You’ve all read it, haven’t you? (If not why?! Go!) So you shouldn’t need me to explain why I chose Trish to answer my questions on writing books set in contemporary America.
Just one more thing before I hand over to the fantastic Trish, I sent my answers to Trish in my British Word Document and it had a nasty habit of changing certain words to the English spelling. Which is NOT what I want when I’m celebrating American
writing. I’ve tried to go through them and change them back but please don’t be offended if the odd pesky ‘u’ gets involved.
RIGHT.. let’s do this.
When you think of contemporary US YA books, what first comes to mind?
I can’t help but think about how vast the selection of contemporary young adult fiction really is. I mean, go into a bookstore at any given time and it feels so small compared to the dystopian and paranormal titles, but contemporary has been around for a long time. Before it had a name. Back when Judy Blume and S.E. Hinton were the biggest (and next to only) YA names on the bookshelves. But now it runs the gamut from light-hearted romances to dark issue-driven novels, and I can’t help thinking we’re all the better for it.
What is it about contemporary America that provides such a rich ground for young adult books?
I think it’s because America is so sprawling and so socioeconomically diverse. I also think–despite book banners’ best efforts–we have authors who aren’t afraid to dig into controversial topics, or to defend their decisions. It’s a really exciting time to be a contemporary YA author.
This might just be me, but as a reader of YA, I often think that it’s easier to forgive an author if they haven’t quite ‘got’ the voice of a teenager in a dystopian/fantasy. But with contemporary, voice is absolutely vital. What steps do you take to ensure that your character is authentic?
I think the first step, for me, is to know the character inside and out. To know how he or she would react to any given situation. When Travis was living in my head, I would sometimes ask myself how he would feel about “x” or even what he might order while I was sitting at the drive-up window.
But I think the key to the most authentic voice is to remember that your characters are human beings and their responses aren’t necessarily “male” or “female” but human. For example: I have never been a 19-year-old Marine, nor have I been inserted into Afghanistan by helicopter under the cover of darkness. But when I put myself in Travis’ boots, I couldn’t help thinking about how terrified I would be, even if I had a gun in my hand. Layer on top of that the realization that as a Marine you can’t change your mind and go home. You can’t say, “I don’t want to do this anymore.” It would be like being caught in a nightmare. I would probably react by making a joke, which is ultimately what Travis did. His reaction and mine are the same because we’re human first.
I often find that setting in a contemporary book is just as important as the characters. Do you agree? How do you find the perfect place to set your story?
I absolutely agree that setting is as important as the characters. If you’re striving for authenticity, setting should feel every bit as real as the characters and their situations.
For me, the settings seem to present themselves in the same way my characters usually do. Travis’ story could have been set anywhere and I believe it would have still resonated, but the city in which I live is kind of a weird juxtaposition of Anytown, USA, and paradise. People vacation in Florida, so it’s very easy to forget that real people with real problems live here, too. For my second novel, I visited this smaller-sized Florida town called Tarpon Springs, which has a Greek-American community within the community. It’s like this little Old World pocket, and I started thinking about what it would be like to be an outsider dropped into that pocket, trying to fit in. So in some ways, the setting was there before I had characters to populate it.
America is a vast place and each state have a different personality, different outlook on life, different views on things. Whereas other contemporary writers only have to be conscious of whether their book will be received in other countries, you have to worry about the divides in your own country. Does this affect how you write? Are you ever tempted to tone it down a bit and make your story more “American” as a whole?
I didn’t consider the different parts of the country–or even other countries–when writing Something Like Normal. Now that it’s been released, I can see that there are parts of the country where it’s been more well-received than others, and I’m sure it’s been a harder sell in other countries where our military might not be seen in a favourable light. The thing is, I can’t think about those things if I want the story to be its most authentic. I have to focus on the characters and their setting, and let their story unfold organically. If I try to cater to one segment of the population or another, I could make myself crazy.
Readers of contemporary YA are more likely to have been through/going through the same things as your characters and because of this, they might be likely to call you out on things if you get it wrong. So how do you research contemporary issues?
Readers of contemporary YA absolutely call you on things when you get them wrong, so research is vital. For Something Like Normal, I spent an enormous amount of time reading articles and books, watching videos, and looking at hundreds of photos of Marines in Afghanistan. I talked to them, asking questions about everything–even things I probably didn’t need to know. But I’d rather know more than necessary than not enough because when authors don’t do their homework, it shows.
When people are being offered fantasy/dystopia, contemporary is often seen as the ‘boring’ genre. Do you ever feel like you have to make it interesting? Is it tempting to fit as many issues as is possible?
Sometimes it is tempting to throw in the kitchen sink, but I’d rather crack open a character and let the reader step inside. I think losing yourself in a character whose voice refuses to let you go is anything but boring. And those are the kind of characters I strive to write.
I’m thinking specifically about Something Like Normal here, but I definitely think it could be applied to contemporary as a genre. In SNL, Travis is a Marine who has just completed a tour in Afghanistan. Obviously, that is something extremely current in American life. Did you always know that Travis was going to be a Marine? Or did a nameless Marine transform into Travis? Basically, how much do current affairs affect your characters and your stories?
Travis wasn’t affected so much by current affairs as by my own personal experience. He was meant to be the potential love interest of the girl he had wronged. It was her story. But as I was trying to decide how to damage him, I remembered a young Marine I’d interviewed as a reporter. He was home for Christmas after a stint in Iraq and when I met him, I was struck by how young he was to have experienced war. He is not Travis, but he was definitely the inspiration.
An interesting side story: In one of my shelved projects, Ryan Stephenson–Travis’ younger brother–was a main character and when I started working on what would become SLN, I always knew that this damaged Marine would be Ryan’s older brother and I knew his name was Travis. Ryan, Paige, and Harper’s dad all came from that project, although I’ve tweaked them all to fit Travis’ story.
I do think the one way SLN was influenced by current events was that I’d originally planned to have Travis returning from Iraq. But as I was writing, the conflict in Iraq was winding down and troops were coming home, while Afghanistan was escalating. In fact, I followed–to the best of the limited information I could find–the movements of a battalion of Marines who were fighting while I was writing the book. So in that regard, SLN is fairly up-to-the-minute.
I know for a fact that you are an avid Tumblr fan (because it’s one of my favourites) and you regularly post pictures that inspire your current WIP. How does using sites such as Tumblr/Flickr help you create your stories?
Sometimes a picture will provide me with a physical description of a place or a person. Other times, it will elicit an emotion that puts my heart where it needs to be in order to write. I absolutely love having visual inspiration and I love sharing my discoveries with others.
Let’s talk about music. I know you are a huge music fan (with impeccable taste) so how does music help you write? How does it influence you and inspire you to write your characters?
Music is everything to me. In fact, I was recently thinking about how some people (particularly my age and older) become musically stunted and refuse to evolve. I know a guy who truly believes there’s been very little good music since the Seventies. That kind of thinking makes me crazy, especially because I know better. Every decade has had something amazing to offer, it’s a matter of being open to it. Finding it.
Which doesn’t really answer your questions, but still….yeah, I love music, too. It occupies the wandering part of my brain when I’m writing, and–like pictures–it puts my heart where it needs to be. There was one day I was working on Something Like Normal and I needed Travis to feel angry and helpless, so I listened to Savior by Rise Against on repeat ALL DAY LONG. And every time I listen to Girl America by Mat Kearney I get tears in my eyes because it reminds me of Callie from my next book.
I love finding the right songs to go with my books and when readers find songs they love that fit–and even better when they share them with me.
And finally, what are your Top Tips for people who are looking to write a contemporary YA story?
1. Remember that your characters are human and have them respond accordingly.
2. There’s no wrong way to write a character of the sex opposite your own, but see number one.
3. Don’t let the wild success of paranormal or dystopian make you lose faith in contemporary. It’s a steadfast genre and it’s so very rich with talent.
4. Setting should be every bit as real as your characters, even if it’s a fictional place.
5. Step out of your comfort zone. Don’t be afraid to try something you’ve never tried before.
A huge, huge thank you to Trish for answering these questions and doing so so wonderfully. I find it so fascinating and useful to read the behind-the-scenes of a story, don’t you? Even though, obviously, my contemporary stories will be send in the UK those last pieces of advice can apply to anyone and I’ll definitely be taking note. I absolutely adore the idea that you should look as a character as “human” as opposed to “male” or “female”, I think it’s so important to develop your character with that always in the back of your mind if you want them to be as realistic as possible.
Also, a story told from Ryan’s perspective? Yes. Go write it, Trish, NOW!
So what do you reckon? Are you writing a story set in contemporary US? Do you agree with Trish that Americans are comfortable writing about so-called “controversial” subjects? Is there anything you’re particularly struggling with your own writing? Does the diversity of America make you think twice about aspects of your writing or does it inspire you even more?
Let us know in the comments!