This weekend, I had the privilege of meeting New York Times bestselling author Gayle Forman, who was on her Philippine tour.
Gayle Forman is the author of the critically acclaimed “If I Stay” and its sequel “Where She Went,” and a second duet of novels, “Just One Day” and “Just One Year.”
“If I Stay” features Mia, a seveteen year old with a happy family, the boy of her dreams, and a promising future in music when tragic accident strikes. Mia finds herself caught in the in-between, contemplating the choice between life and death. The story continues in “Where She Went,” told from the point of view of Mia’s boyfriend Adam who grapples with life in the aftermath.
In “Just One Day” good girl Allyson Healey is on the last day of her European tour when she meets Dutch street actor Willem and goes with him on a whirlwind tour of Paris, twenty-four hours that irrevocably change Allyson’s life. The companion novel, “Just One Year” chronicles how their Paris interlude affects Willem in turn.
I had gotten the first two novels of each duet the night before, to read in preparation for the interview and was halfway into the second novel the next morning, when I knew I had to get the two other books, because I knew I had to read them all. I finished all four novels this weekend (a feat, considering I had a six-hour Sherlock watch-a-thon on Saturday night), and I must say it’s been a long time since I devoured a bunch of novels at this rate.
I actually finished the latter duet first, because after finishing “Just One Day,” I couldn’t stand not knowing what happened and promptly continued reading Just One Year. I had conflicting emotions for Just One Day because while I thought Allyson was a compelling character, I was on the fence about Willem the whole time (Hahaha! For reasons purely, err, personal, and I think a lot of girls will probably relate; there’s always that one boy :p) — he seemed like a total flaker. Of course, we never know what happens to him until the next book, so I was pretty happy to revise my opinion of him by the time I was reading “Just One Year.”
I like how the two books play out: two souls, a little lost, come together, and the encounter gives both of them the push in the right direction, ultimately allowing them to find themselves and be their own person. I like how the characters journey, both geographically and towards physical growth, and while I’d love to read more about what happens at the intersection of the two novels, I think this is one of those moments that truly underscore that travel isn’t about the destination.
“If I Stay” was a totally shocker. First of all, the blurb on the cover (in reference to Twilight) did not make me want to rush out and read it (I’m sorry!), and given the premise, I thought it was all too easy for the story to turn depressing. But it wasn’t. I must say I was completely blown away, and that’s not a regular occurrence in my recent reading history. I never expected to fall in love with this book, but I did — a few pages in and I was already sold on the rest of her novels. Mia as a character is all too real, you feel that you really get to know her as the story progresses. And there’s some exceptionally beautiful writing in there; subtle but gut-wrenching at the same time, and I was crying from page 159 (yes, I marked the “breaking point” in my book) onwards. The novel is both honest and hopeful, and invites reflection on the fragile nature of life, grief, as well as the power of choice.
I saved “Where She Went” for last, because I had a feeling it was going to leave a lasting impression on me and I was right. I thought “If I Stay” was poignantly beautiful, but “Where She Went” was even more so, in a way I didn’t expect. I think I cried even more with this book, as it fills us in on what transpired after the events in the first, and made the effects of the accident all too real. Adam is equally compelling to read as Mia, his emotional journey so raw that it just flickers from the page. I also thought the novel was resolved properly, without trivializing all the emotions that came into play, and it all builds up to a very satisfying ending (*squee!*).
I like how the novels are in duets, structured similarly but from different points of view, providing an interesting counterpoint for the stories to unfold. But what I really appreciated about Gayle Forman’s work is the quality of writing — I later find out that she’s had twelve years of experience as a journalist, and the writing chops really show in her work. There’s a depth and sophistication to her writing that isn’t all that easy to find in YA (and New Adult) novels, and her prose reads effortlessly.
I got to spend time with Gayle at Powerbooks Greenbelt on Saturday, right before the bloggers’ forum scheduled before her book signing at National Book Store Glorietta (where the line snaked outside the mall as early as 8 am for the 4pm signing). Here’s the transcript of my interview:
Q: When did you get bitten by the writing bug? When did you start writing?
A: I have been telling stories since before I could write. I was one of those kids that always liked to tell stories, and in the States there’s this thing that you do in kindergarten, where you would dictate stories and they would type them up — back then it was on typewriters — and you would color them in. My stories, I found them when I was in college, and they were all about little girls whose parents locked them in closets, little girls whose families left them alone while they were on vacation… There was one story where a little girl exploded — spontaneously exploded — and then the last line of that was, “She went ‘POP,’ and then she said, ‘Amen.’
I look back at those and I think first, thank God my teachers didn’t call Social Services on my parent, because I had wonderful parents; but I also think that there was an early sign of wanting to explore the darkness from the safety of my wonderful life. I made poems when I got to high school; I wrote the typically tragic bad poems. I wrote these things like the Neverending Story, which was sort of a novel without end; I wrote a play… all of these things.
It never occured to me that I wanted to be a writer, that I would be a writer, or that a writer was something I could be, until I got to college and studied Journalism. But I’ve always written.
Q: So your training is in journalism and not as a creative writer?
A: First I was studying to be a doctor. I took three years off before going to college, to travel. When I started college I was 21. I decided I was going to become a doctor; I was gonna join Doctors Without Borders, and I was gonna save the world. It was a noble idea except that I didn’t really enjoy the science of it.
So after about six months, I was gonna drop out because I didn’t see the point of being in school if I didn’t want to do it. But I decided to start taking some classes: I took a journalism class, I took a creative writing class, I took a pottery class. And the first journalism class is an intro class. The school I was going to had a hard to get into journalism program, and there was this class called Information Gathering. It was supposed to be the weeder class — if you couldn’t cut it you dropped out, because you had to do this massive research project with fifty sources and then write this huge paper, and I took that class.
I took that class partly because it was interesting to me, but partly because I had this crush on this guy Ben, who had been in the first class, and we’d become friends. I said, “Ben’s taking it, so I’m gonna take it because of Ben.” So I finished the second class and I didn’t have a crush on Ben anymore, but I totally had a crush on journalism. I loved the investigating part, I loved the writing part, I loved every aspect of it. From that point on, I knew that I wanted to be a journalist, and I was, for about twelve years.
Q: How did you get into YA?
A: I got my degree in Journalism, I moved to New York, and I was on staff for a couple of places, including Seventeen, and then I was freelance, writing for a bunch of publications. My first book was a non-fiction book called, “You Can’t Get There From Here,” where my husband and I traveled the world for a year. I spent time with these subcultures, these groups on the fringes, in places that, at least for Americans, are on the fringe.
I wrote that, I came home, got pregnant and had my first daughter. I didn’t want to travel the same way that I’d been traveling, and I still wanted to make my life as a writer and someone suggested, “You should just write a young adult novel.”
And it was like a lightbulb came on. I had written an article, when I was at Seventeen, about these behavior-modification bootcamps, basically like private prisons that parents would send their kids to thinking it would be therapeutic, and it was horrible. I had thought about that article and that issue for years — I think it was ten years earlier. And within four days, I had started writing this fictional story about these camps, and that became my first novel. That’s the full story of how I became a writer.
So you got into YA because of your experience at Seventeen?
A: I think I was always drawn — I didn’t wind up at Seventeen by accident. When I was in college, there was a teen magazine called Sassy, and that was my little goal. I wanted to go to New York and work at Sassy. It was a wonderful teen magazine. I loved the voice; I loved how edgy it was. By the time I graduated, Sassy was gone, and I wound up at Seventeen.
So I think it’s not because I worked at Seventeen. I’d always been drawn to writing about these people in this voice, and first it manifested at Seventeen. So when I wrote that first novel, it was like a homecoming.
Q: Dystopian and Paranormal YA have been really popular these days, what made you go into contemporary, realistic fiction?
A: It’s not a conscious decision; it’s what interests me. As a reader and as a writer, I tend to go more into contemporary. I won’t say that I won’t do anything else; I have a fondness for speculative fiction, like Ishiguro’s “Never Let Me Go,” or Atwood’s “The Mad Adam” trilogy. They’re called science fiction but they’re set in a world much like ours. Dave Eggers has that book, “The Circle”… I have toyed with an adult novel that kind of tweaks on the world we live in now, but I can’t see ever writing high fantasy; I’m just not interested in it. And dystopian — I think the world we live in is so rich that I don’t feel the need to leave it.
Q: What was the story behind you getting published? What did you have to go through?
A: For me it was a little bit different, because I had been a journalist for so many years, and [in those years] I was thinking about publishing a non-fiction book. When I traveled around the world, I knew I wanted to publish a book so I researched, came back, wrote the proposal, got it [the book] published, and got an agent.
So when I wrote the YA novel, I didn’t have the experience of a zillion rejections. “Sisters in Sanity,” the first one, the one that nobody’s read, was sort of halfheartedly published and then I wrote two more books under a fake name that Harper Collins asked me to write. And then after that I got serious, and I was like, this is what I want to do, and there are only so many chances for you to do it badly before they won’t let you do it anymore.
And then my editor at Harper left, and my agent didn’t want to be an agent anymore, so I was starting from square one. I was very careful. We went out with “If I Stay” and it’s very fortunate that it’s been embraced like that, but when I wrote it, I had no idea it’d get published.
Q: Where were you when you found out you made the NY Times Bestseller List? What was your reaction?
A: It’s funny, because I was at home, and something was wrong with my email, so they weren’t coming in from one account. But I got one from another account that assumed that I already knew, so the one from my editor being like, “Congratulations, you made the list!” — that didn’t happen.
I remember I had just taken my daughter home from ballet lessons, and so it was like this big deal, but my kids didn’t give a crap. They were ennoyed because I was on my computer. And then Don Weisberg (sp?), the head of Penguin Children’s called me from London, and then he said, “Savor this, because this is a big deal,” and I was just so happy because Penguin had worked so hard to do that.
Q: Where did you get the inspiration for your duet books?
A: “Just One Day” is kind of a cliche, because I’d been working on another book, and there was this guy and this girl and they were in a warehouse, and I knew they just had this really intense day together. In my half-sleeping state I just started to daydream it and spool out the story. And then I woke up and immediately wrote the first thirty pages, and my editor loved it and wanted me to write it.
A week later I was in the shower — showers are where all the best ideas happen — I realized that if there were two books, it would be much more complicated. I could see the one book and the other, and I could see the mystery element of it and once you read the second one, you would really see how they would work together.
“If I Stay” is a completely different story because I was working on “Sisters in Sanity” at that point, and I was working on this other novel that didn’t go anywhere, and one day, this character Mia showed up in my head. She was seventeen years old, with dark hair and she was a cellist. And I knew all this, she was immediately fully formed and real, and she was there to answer a question that had haunted me for years.
Two of our best friends and their two kids got into a car accident much like Mia’s, and at the time of the crash, by the time we got the news, all of them had died, but one of the boys had lived longer and evacuated to a trauma center. I’d always wondered, did he know, what happened to his family? Did he choose to go with them? And that tormented me for years. And then I kind of accepted it.
But then Mia showed up, it was eight years after that accident, and she was going to answer that question. And that’s where the story came from.
Did your medical background come into play while you were writing “If I Stay”
Funny you should ask that. Because one of my friends who I started pre-med with stayed on track and she wound up not just a doctor but an emergency room doctor. So she really helped me out, because I’d call and say, “Hey Jen, I have Mia and she’s sitting here with her rib sticking out,” and then she’d go, “No, when ribs break, they break inward and it’s really dangerous because they collapse the lung.” Things like Glasgow coma, and scales — I knew nothing of that stuff, she told me all about that, as well as what kind of vocabulary it would be, with the doctors, so that was that.
I spent a lot of time in ICUs in my late teens and early 20s because my mom had had a couple of heart surgeries. And those places, they’re so particular, the sounds and smells of it, those details stuck with me.
Q: How did you imagine the concept of Mia in limbo, in between life and death?
A: It was the conception of the book. I was thinking of the real life situation, and having this awareness, as you were in this dire medical state yourself, that this catastrophic thing had happened. There was only one way I could conceive of that that would happen, and that was an out of body experience. I’ve heard plenty of people have had those. That was something I didn’t research. I had to create rules for Mia.
Q: There’s a movie adaptation coming up for If I Stay, did you have any involvement in it? What can fans look forward to in the movie?
A: I did, I was an executive producer. Chloe and Jamie are spectacular; the chemistry between the two of them is amazing and they’re both really great actors. That relationship is fantastic, the relationship with the family is great. And the music, they’ve created all this music for Adam’s band, for Denny’s band, and then there’s gonna be the cello, that’s something to look forward to, especially for the music lovers.
Q: What other books do you have in the pipeline?
A:The next book I have coming out is called “I Was Here,” it’s my shorthand for this suicide mystery love story. It opens about a month after Cody’s best friend Meg (who she’s grown up with — they’ve done everything together) has committed suicide. It has blindsided everybody who did not see this coming at all.
Cody is both furious and full of guilt. Meg had gotten a scholarship at this fancy college, and Cody starts to pack up the room for Meg’s parents. A, she meets this guy who she initially hates, and B, she starts to uncover some clues that maybe Meg wasn’t acting alone. Maybe Meg didn’t commit suicide, or maybe she was pushed into it. It’s kind of this journey, this mystery but also her own forgiveness. And the hottest guy I’ve ever written. There’s no date yet, but it will be Winter 2015.
I’m also putting the finishing touches on a picture book, which was so hard to write. We’ll be sending that out to publishers already. It’s about two sisters, and it’ll be called “The Best Day Ever, The Worst Day Ever.”
One of my daughters is black; she’s adopted. And the kind of books that she loves to read are these funny books like Fancy Nancy, Pinkalicious, and the girls never look like her. I wanted to write this funny book that had a character like Fancy Nancy but looked more like my daughter. I was trying for about a year, then another writer, Emily Jenkins (E. Lockhart), gave me some really good advice, and so I wound up writing about both my daughters.
I’m hoping it’ll show up as a biracial family, but that’s not what it’s about. It’s about these two girls, it’s Saturday morning, they’re bored and they’re fighting. And they’re fighting so much the parents send them up to their rooms. As soon as they’re up in their rooms, they’re like, “Mom and Dad are so mean, we have to run away.” They pack their bags and they run away, but they keep meeting their parents and keep needing their help in running away, like closing the suitcase and crossing the street. It’s about that but it’s also about this imaginary world they create for themselves in running away, and they in effect solve the problem for themselves by running away. Their parents give them the space to do it and they wind up having the best day ever.
Q: Who are your favorite authors? Authors you grew up reading?
A: In the YA world, I love Libba Bray. I think she’s brave and subversive. Melina Marchetta, the Australian YA author, is probably my favorite YA author and maybe one of my favorite authors. Growing up, I read Beverly Cleary when I was a child but when I hit thirteen I read a lot of smut: Jackie Collins and Harold Robbins and Sidney Sheldon. But then a funny thing happened. I read that, and I started reading Vonnegut. By the time I was in high school I was obsessed with Vonnegut and with Tom Robbins. A lot of these spurts would be like a writer that I love more than anything, like when I was younger, I read John Irving all the time, and I haven’t read John Irving in years, I don’t know why. Anne Tyler was another one of those authors. I read every Anne Tyler book. I’m terrible that way — I’m like, monogamous, and then you’re dead to me.
Q: What is your writing process like?
A: When I’m really cooking with gas on a manuscript, I can’t wait to get moving. A lot of times when I’m drafting a book, I’ll have insomnia. I’ll be up at four in the morning and be thinking thinking, thinking. And then I’ll wake up, get the kids ready for school, get them out the door, and then I’m like a horse out of the gate, I’m at the computer. I write chronologically; I’m what’s called a pantser — I don’t outline. Although usually those insomnia sessions are a little like a mental outline, because I know where I’m going that day. And when I sit down, I have my beginning, I have my premise. I kind of know what kind of ending it would be.
So I write chronologically; I can’t skip ahead. But I also revise as I go. So I’ll write a chunk, and usually I will write in a frenzy if it’s working really well, but I will stop, or as Ernest Hemingway says, you don’t leave the cask completely empty. You have to have something to refill for tomorrow. And I usually back up; I’m usually revising and tinkering as I go. I can’t move on until I feel it’s solid.
The next day I go back a thousand words and kind of revise what I’ve written, which gives you momentum because you’re not starting into a blank page. And I do that until I get the end of the manuscript. Then I go back to the beginning, and I’ll go through it a couple times until it’s ready to be printed out. I’ll print it out and mark it up, go back to the computer, put in the markups, and go through it one or two more times. I print it out again, and then I read it aloud. By this point we’re usually at draft 12 or 13 and I turn it in for a friend to read or an editor. And then we have a whole revision that pulls the thing apart on a deep level. There’s at least one of those, or probably two.
Then there’s a line edit, and I always finish by reading out loud. Because when you read out loud, those things that you’ve been trying to pretend are okay, there’s no ignoring that they’re not. They clang in your ear, you catch typos that way, and you can really get the sense of how the rhythm is going. Because even if people aren’t reading out loud, the rhythm matters.
Q: What is your advice to aspiring writers who want to break into YA?
A: I always say, don’t put the cart before the horse. Make it about the work. It’s a different world now, because you can self-publish. And there are these stories of people who wrote a book in a month and then they self-published it and got a zillion readers and got a huge deal. That’s fantastic; it’s great that it’s become more accessible. But I still think, especially when you’re younger, that you make it about the work. It’s got to be one of those stories you just can’t wait to get out of you. Which isn’t to say that if you have to revise a lot that means it’s flawed.
“If I Stay” came out really easy; “Where She Went” was like pulling teeth, and I like this book better. A journalism professor of mine always said, “Hard writing makes easy reading.” So I think you just have to find the story you really want to tell in your heart, and not worry about what’s hot now. The market is very fickle; it changes based on what’s hot, and usually what’s hot is something that’s found a huge readership because it’s connecting.
Then I think, revise. There are twenty different versions in most of my revisions, and they’re significantly different. You have to trust your gut feeling. You can bring in friends to critique, if that helps you, but on the flip side, I think you have to trust your own gut and listen to the thing that sounds good to you.
And then of course you need to read. Because everything you read, even the bad stuff, you absorb osmotically. And all those books I can no longer remember; I swear they’re part of my literary DNA. They’ve taught me things I want to do, things I don’t want to do, or they’ve inspired me. When I read a book I really love, my first thought is, “This is amazing,” my second thought is “I’m so jealous” and I dash off a fan letter to the author. It inspires me, that that kind of work is being produced out there. It raises the bar. So just keep reading.
I’m so glad I completed the four books that morning, so I was able to get all of them signed:
It was really great meeting Gayle Forman — her energy is amazing. Considering she was getting over a bug that nearly canceled her trip, she gamely sat through her interviews (I was her ninth since she got to the Philippines) and managed to regale the bloggers at the forum with her karaoke repertoire of Frozen songs! And then she signed books for five hours after that, then flew to Cebu to meet her fans there. So awesome!
It was definitely a memorable first author interview for the year.
If I Stay, trade paperback, 5/5 stars; Where She Went, trade paperback, 5/5 stars
Just One Day, trade paperback, 4/5 stars; Just One Year, trade paperback, 3.5/5 stars
Gayle Forman’s books are available at National Book Store.
Special thanks to National Book Store for arranging my interview.