Last Sunday, in true “Anna and the French Kiss” style, I had lunch at a French boulangerie with none other than New York Times Bestselling YA author Stephanie Perkins!
Stephanie Perkins’ popular debut novel “Anna and the French Kiss” (hailed as NPR’s Best Teen Reads 2010 and CYBILS Finalist for YA Fiction in 2011) features Anna Oliphant, who is shipped off by her parents to a boarding school in Paris. Struggling to adapt to her new environment, Anna reluctantly makes new friends, including Etienne St. Clair. Anna and Etienne grow closer together, but Anna is afraid to confront her true feelings for Etienne because he is already in a relationship.
Meanwhile, “Lola and the Boy Next Door” (included in the YALSA Best Fiction for Young Adults 2012 and the ALA Book List 2013) is set in San Francisco, where budding designer Lola Nolan is confronted by her past with the return of her next door neighbor (and first heartbreak), Cricket Bell. Lola is beset by a turbulent storm of emotions as she tries to deal with Cricket’s renewed presence in her life, her relationship with her unconventional family, and her own identity.
While the books’ reputation precedes them, I actually only got to read them in the week before I was set to interview Stephanie Perkins, and I had my reservations about “Anna and the French Kiss” because it was burning up the blogosphere some years back.
“Anna and the French Kiss” was a slow starter for me, mainly because I like strong heroines and I found Anna frustrating. Here is someone who has a grand opportunity (even if she was forced into it. Hello, you’re in Paris!), and her resentment towards the situation, her reluctance to venture out and learn new things drove me stir crazy! Anna gets over this hump eventually, but then she gets hung up over a boy who strings her along for the longest time but won’t break up with his girlfriend because it would complicate his life. I just found the dynamics of Anna and Etienne’s relationship to be out of balance, and it swings into place a little too fast for me down the end. Granted, there are foot-popping romantic moments (That, I totally get), and Anna does develop more of a personality as the book progresses, but I wasn’t completely sold.
And then I read “Lola and the Boy Next Door” and it had everything I was looking for in “Anna and the French Kiss.” I loved Lola from the first pages, maybe because I could relate to her more, and not just for her love of costumes. Lola’s character is just so much better developed than Anna’s, and she reads more like a real person. I could feel the turmoil Lola goes through, and her relationship with Cricket feels more natural, more believable to me, and that totally amped up the romance in the book (squeeeeee ?). The novel builds up into a lovely finale, and I must have read that last chapter thrice because I was so bowled over. Haha. Even Anna and Etienne are great support characters in this book, and I’m looking forward to all four characters return in “Isla and the Happily Ever After.”
Here’s my interview with the lovely Stephanie Perkins, who — surprise, surprise — turns out to be a fellow Potter geek and Whovian!
Q. How did this trip to the Philippines materialize?
A. It happened last November — there’s a big YA literature festival in Charleston, South Carolina every year started by Margaret Stohl and a couple other wonderful authors. Margie had been here in the Philippines last year, and had loved it, and she invited Miguel (Ramos) from National Book Store and I met him at a cocktail party.
We had this very pleasant conversation; it was only five minutes long. I asked, “What are you doing here?” And he explained the story, and he said, “You should come!” And I was like, “Yeah, that would be great!” And I saw him the next day, and waved, because I was on my way somewhere, and that conversation was like the one minute. And when I came home I actually had an invitation from Miguel. I was not expecting that, and it was a shock — you just can’t say no to that.
Q. What inspired you to start writing?
A. It’s my love of books, for sure. Love of writing almost always comes from a love of reading. My parents read to me when I was young, my mom in particular, way past the age when it was “okay” to be read bedtime stories by your mother, but it was my favorite part of the whole day, getting to share those stories with her.
I’ve always had this love of story. When I was in school, I would be pretty bored, and while the teacher would be droning on in front of the class, I would be making up my own stories. And I had this really elaborate other lives happening. It was also my way of protecting myself because I didn’t love school, or my peers either.
Q. What were the books you grew up reading?
A. The books of Roald Dahl, specifically I loved “The BFG” and “Fantastic Mr. Fox.” I loved them all. He was the first author I was really conscious of being an author, that there was someone behind those books, writing those books. He’s got such strong wordplay and funny language, and his books were very vulgar, especially for children’s books, which I loved and thought hilarious. That was hugely influential and I still reread his books; I think they’re marvelous.
Q. How did you get your big break?
A. That would probably be when John Green put me in one of his videos. That was when Anna was released, the week it came out. John Green and I share an editor, and she’s wonderful and really, really brilliant. She had given him an advance copy, and he already read it, and he put it on one of his blog brothers videos. Hundreds of thousands of people saw it, so for the first two years of my career, maybe about 85% of the emails were like, “I read your book because John Green recommended it.” I still hear that, the power of that is astounding. I am so, so grateful to him. I keep telling my publisher they should write him a check for marketing.
Q. But before that all happened, how was your journey towards getting published?
A. It was both long and short. Long because I worked for seven years on a book that was not working — in seven years I only had 70 pages of it written. Ten pages a year, not too great! But it was the book I learned how to write on; it certainly wasn’t a success. It was frustrating and heartbreaking and I knew I had to set it aside. So when I had the idea for Anna and I started writing it, I had skills I’d been building up over the years, but I had a new focus, a new story and a new determination to make it work. Once I decided to take it seriously as a job and I gave it full time work hours — I was still a full time librarian then but when I got home I would work another eight hours on that book — it happened very quickly. A year later I had an agent and not long after that a book deal.
Q. Did you plan the books together, to be the companion novels that they are?
A. It was a bit of an accident. I like companion novels, and I like authors who do that, like Stephen King and Sarah Dessen. But it happened because Lola was that seven-year book; it ended up being that ten-year book and while I was writing Anna I still had those characters in that city on my mind, and I wrote a lot of parallels to their story. So it was very natural that when my agent and editor started asking me what was next that I could show them, and I was like, well, there’s this thing I could work on again, and they were like, yes, let’s do that, please! And then I had to, which was really hard. So when I was writing Anna, I knew that Lola would be next, so I added in the background the character of Isla, whom I did not know much about at that time but I knew I wanted to write more about Josh and give him a full story in the end. She was really inserted in there so I could talk about another boy.
With these books, each book has its own story and they can be read out of order. You get the full story and you don’ t have to wait to the next part to get the happy ending.
Q. Setting is an important element in your books. How did you choose the location for your books?
A. I selected Paris not because I had some big, grandiose romantic notions about it like a lot of people do. I do now, now that I feel like I know it better, but I was never that interested in Paris or France. It came to me in a dream, and it’s so corny, but it did. There was this very beautiful boy in Paris and I wanted to spend more time with him so I did the story.
It was a challenge; I was really terrified to write about Paris. There are a lot of notions that Americans have about the French people, that they’re rude and that they don’t like us, and I was afraid I would offend them because I knew very little about Their culture. So I did so much research to make sure that I got it okay.
With Lola, that one was easy. I was living in San Francisco when I had that idea. To me it’s the most romantic city in the world. I was dating the man who became my husband there, I got engaged there… It’s just so vibrant and odd and I love that about it. It was fun to write about it.
Isla is back in Paris, and that is for practical purposes. I added in New York City and a little bit Barcelona too to give myself something fresh to write about. I’ve been visiting New York a lot for my job, and I just love the city so it was fun to kind of bookend it there. That is why the New York skyscrapers are on my cover rather than Paris?
Q. What inspires your characters, and the voice you use for your stories?
A. They are inspired by all of the things that inspire me. I give my characters strong interests and passions, and usually it’s because that’s something I’m interested in at that time and I’d like to know more about it.
I’m a huge cinema buff; I’ve always loved film. I love story in any format, whether it’s cinema or podcasts. Anyone telling a story, I’m into it.
As for the voice, I think I still have that teenage voice. Also, I think teenagers have adult voices even though they’re young. They might be going through everything for the first time so they might be making a lot of mistakes, but all of those emotions and experiences they are going through are very very adult. I remember what it was like as a teenager, when the adults around me didn’t get that about me, especially because I couldn’t relate with my peers so much and all my role models were adults. I feel like it’s very easy to write for teenagers because they’re feeling the things I’m still feeling now.
Q. Is this also why you fell into the YA genre?
A. Yeah, I remember so vividly what it was like to be a teenager, a combination of that very defining moment of meeting my husband when I was seventeen and having this powerful experience of true love at that age. I also had very difficult, unhappy teenage years, and anytime you go through a period of great difficulty and sadness, it sticks with you. When I see teenagers out there who are like me, I want to talk to them and tell them it’s gonna be better. I feel like by writing my books it’s kind of a way of doing that.
Q. Do you know how the story ends when you write your novels? What is your process like?
A. Yes. I write what I call the “spine” of my novel. I know how it starts and how it ends and a few points along the way. I try not to know too much of what happens in between because the fun is in the discovery, but I like to know where my beginning and ending are. And I like some sort of parallel between them, too. All of my books have a pretty clear parallel from the first page to the last; I feel like it gives it its “story shape,” as Neil Gaiman calls it, and I try to give it that circular shape.
I’m a really slow drafter. It takes me nine months to a few years to create a first draft. I find that process of getting words on a page not enjoyable at all. What I really love is revising and editing. I go through many, many, many drafts after the first one. I end up having more than 20 drafts for each book, and it’s because I love polishing it and making it prettier and finding a better word for the thing that I’m trying to say. I think that’s so much fun.
I used to write only at night, it ended up being unhealthy for me so now I’m writing in the morning, four hours every day, trying to do that before I go online, because otherwise the day is just shot.
Q. How have you dealt with the pressure of writing, especially for the highly anticipated Isla?
I’ve dealt with it very, very poorly. I made almost every mistake a person could’ve made, it was not taking of myself and I had a very hard time believing what readers were saying. The relative success of these books was very very unexpected; I thought it would be a quiet book that a few people would read. I wanted one person to love it; if I got one letter from one person who loved it, that would be amazing. And I thought it would be out for a year or so and it would disappear, the end, I would just have to keep trying and I would have a solid readership ten years in. When it happened very quickly, I wasn’t prepared for it and I didn’t believe it and I became self destructive in a lot of my habits.
A lot of Isla wound up being about that very thing, when that thing you want to happen, your dream, actually came true. She’s had a crush on this boy forever, and he actually likes her back, and they get together and it’s amazing but she has to deal with the reality of that situation, and what we imagine isn’t always the reality. So a lot of the book is about self-confidence, which was definitely my big struggle. For a while I really thought that once Isla was done — it was a contracted book I had to deliver — that my career might be over. It was too much, I was too unhappy.
Luckily my publisher saw that I was struggling, and my editor was so generous to give me many breaks: one year became two, and was going on three. She was like, get yourself healthy and write the book you want to write. I could have published an okay book a few years ago but I wouldn’t have been proud of it. I wanted to publish a book that I loved and she gave me the time I needed to do that, and before I could do that I had to fix myself first. That’s really what I was doing last year. It seems like Isla was the hardest book, but it was really the book before that where I developed all the bad habits; that was really the one that killed me.
Q. They say right now is the age of the contemporary novel — what are your thoughts on this?
A. It’s going to go away, too! It’s exciting because I’m the one benefiting from it at this moment. I’m benefiting from the hard work of people like John Green and Rainbow Rowell, and I’m really grateful for that. But it’s cyclical. When Harry Potter came out it was magic, and before that fantasy had been so uncool, then Eragon came out and it was dragons. Then Twilight and its vampires which led into this huge paranormal one, which led into dystopian and now contemporary.
The nice thing about contemporary compared to other genres is that there will always be a market for it. Like dystopian is getting burned out and it’s getting harder to sell one, but realistic stories people will always want. There’s always gonna be someone who wants to read about someone who’s going through what they’re going through, and I love that about it. Contemporary is always there because life is always there. It’s exciting and special that it’s being singled out right now; I feel lucky that I’m writing what I’m writing.
Q. And how do you feel about that article shaming adults who read YA?
A. It’s really sad that an adult would shame other adults for reading something for pleasure, for something that gives them happiness or relaxes them after a hard day at work. I think it’s so sad to shame anyone for anything that they love and the act of doing that in itself is very teenage. That’s something a lot of us go through as young teenagers, when we want to fit in, we want to be liked and cool so we’re really aware of what is cool and what is not. When I read this article, I see someone who’s stuck in those middle school years, and it’s such a sad place to live. It’s ridiculous!
I bet if you asked the authors of these articles if they like “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” or “Mean Girls” or “The Breakfast Club” or “Easy A” they would probably say they like those movies. We all remember what it was like to be a teenager; the quality of books is no different. Amazing literature is being produced. Shame on them for shaming us!
Q. What is your advice to aspiring YA authors?
A. To read, a lot. To become really conscious about what you read, to really slow yourself down. The most important thing I learned when I was studying creative writing in college was that class I took just designed to teach us how to read as a writer, to force us to slow down. It was like a book club; all we did was to read great books, and we had a notebook with us, and if we ran across anything that gave us emotion — whether happy or sad, swoon or scared — we just stopped and looked back at what it was that caused great emotion. That’s what I would advise to aspiring authors. To read a lot, and to read consciously, to really study the structure. Writers like Jane Austen and Charles Dickens, they didn’t go to school for it; they learned by studying books and obviously they did a really great job. Your teachers are books.
Here I am with Stephanie:
And I’m giving away a set of signed Stephanie Perkins books to one lucky winner:
Anna and the French Kiss, trade paperback, 3.5/5 stars
Lola and the Boy Next Door, trade paperback, 4.5/5 stars
Stephanie Perkins’ books are available at National Book Store.
Special thanks to National Book Store for arranging this interview.