So, it’s been a while since this blog got updated. The reasons are perfectly valid, dear Reader Numbering in the Ones: there was that little issue of the hosting thingie that kept my blog up on the internets going kaput and erasing every post from October 2013 onwards, and then that typhoon that went through the country that plunged us INTO A SECOND DARKNESS.
But all that’s part of the past now. I’ve put up (sloppy) versions of the entries that disappeared into the ether, and our internet connection finally, finally came back a couple of days ago. And I suddenly have lots of free time.
This conversation with Stephanie Perkins happened weeks ago, but I still remember it so clearly because I don’t think I’ve talked to a visiting author who was as cheerful and enthusiastic as she was. Sure, Margaret Stohl, Melissa dela Cruz, and Alyson Noel were a barrel of laughs (I’d like you guys to the transcript, but I can’t find it anywhere now.), but there were three of them. Stephanie was all by herself! And she had some stomach problems to boot!
ANYWAY. Under the cut, Stephanie talks about growing up in a family of readers, her publication journey, and her writing process. Also, we fangirled for a bit about Francesca Lia Block.
RONREADS (RR): Are you feeling better? I was told that you were throwing up!
STEPHANIE PERKINS (SP): Yeah, about every half hour, so there might be a good chance that I might pop up and say “I’ll be right back!” I just can’t help it (laughs)!
RR: But aside from the throwing up?
SP: Aside from that, everything’s been wonderful. It’s such a shame that this happened because it’s been such a fun day getting to talk with everyone and everyone’s so friendly. Apart from that one thing I’m having a great time.
RR: What else have you been doing since you arrived?
SP: I arrived about a day and a half ago. I came in at midnight, so really all I have done is sleep, eat, and meet the media (laughs). But it’s been really exciting. I did a television thing this morning and then a radio interview. That’s not the normal kind of thing I get to do at home, so it’s very exciting, it’s thrilling (laughs)! I feel so special. It’s what every author dreams about and it’s actually happening. I feel really lucky!
RR: What was the reaction among Filipino fans on social media when the news first broke out?
SP: It was huge! I think the news broke when I was asleep and when I woke up I think Tahereh Mafi said something at a signing. My feed was just going crazy. There were hundreds of messages when I woke up. I got a message from National Book Store saying the news is out but they’re still saving the official release for later in the week so I had to stay quiet (laughs). But it was really exciting. It was astounding, really.
RR: People were freaking out on Twitter and there was radio silence on your end.
SP: Exactly! It was a very awkward silence. It was like, “I’m just ignoring hundreds of tweets right now.” (Laughs) But it was amazing. It was wonderful to see how many people were excited about it. I’m good friends with Tahereh and Gayle Forman and Jenny Han, who was here a week ago, and they all just rave about it, so how can I not be exited?
RR: What are you looking forward to having heard all these positive things from your friends?
SP: I was excited and also very nervous because this is the furthest I’ve ever been. I’ve traveled to Europe before but this is my first time in Asia. It couldn’t be a lovelier country. It’s just absolutely perfect. My husband and I felt right at home right away and everyone has been so kind to us, especially today when I’m in the middle of this really embarrassing situation and everyone has been really good about it (laughs)! “Pardon me, I’m about to throw up!” And everyone is like “Can I get you anything?” I’m really grateful for that.
RR: Aside from meeting your fans, is there anything else you’re looking forward to?
SP: I have a day off in Cebu and Jenny Han actually was telling me about an amazing massage that she had on the beach, and I’m definitely looking forward to that. I just want to sit beside the ocean because it looks so beautiful in pictures. I just want a quiet day somewhere beautiful. I think it’s going to be amazing. I think it’s going to be on Friday, right before all the big events. It’s kind of perfect timing to get me relaxed, and hopefully healthy. It’s going to be gorgeous, I can’t wait.
RR: Hopefully it doesn’t rain!
SP: I know! There is that thing. If not, that’s okay. I love rain too. I’m just so genuinely happy to be here, that if it rains, life is still so good.
RR: Did you grow up in a family of writers or readers?
SP: Not writers, but definitely readers. My mother, farther, and sister are all great readers, especially my mom. She would always read me bedtime stories. She actually did it way past the age where it would still be cool for parents to still be reading to their children, but it was my absolute favorite thing, and there was nothing I loved more than that time with my mom and those books. She really instilled that lifetime love and friendship with books. I just feel such a relationship with them. I’m lucky.
My parents were always really encouraging about me writing. They saw that I had a talent or a drive for it. At a pretty young age I was always creating stories in my head or poems, and they really encouraged it. That’s kind of unusual because I know a lot of author friends whose parents did not encourage it. It’s kind of a terrifying thing for your kid to say “I want to be a writer” because it basically means “I want to work in fast food for the rest of my life!” (Laughs)
SP: I was a creative writing major and my first job out of college was working as a cashier at an arts and crafts store. You don’t go and get a great job. I was lucky enough to get hired by a library, which is much closer. It was fortunate that when I told my parents that I was going to be a creative writing major, that they instead of worrying, they were going “Of course you are.” It was such a nice moment. I think I was actually the only student in that course whose parents were supportive, so I have amazing parents.
RR: When you were taking that creative writing course, were you thinking that you were going to turn this into a career, or were you thinking “Maybe I’ll get to write.”
SP: It was more of a maybe. My thoughts were always “If I’m really lucky, by the time I’m in my 40s, 50s, or 60s, I will have enough practice and talent and maybe someone will buy something from me.” It was definitely a shock that I was able to do it in my late 20s. I did struggle with it first. I worked for seven years on a book that really went nowhere before I started Anna. I feel very lucky to have kept doing it even when it was really hard. Even if those seven years were pretty awful, it was definitely the practice and the fact that I kept doing it that made it happen much faster than I thought it would.
I think a lot of people want to be writers but they don’t actually spend the time writing. They just think about it a lot. I was fortunate that I was working in a library where I am surrounded by books and I’m reminded of them. My co-workers didn’t let me forget that that’s what I wanted to do. They were really encouraging as well, just like my family.
RR: How did those book-adjacent jobs fuel your writing now?
SP: Yeah, because I started as a bookseller as a teenager. From there, in my 20s, I was a librarian. Then I transitioned into being a novelist. I think more that the job itself, begin surrounded by books and that constant reminder was huge. It was always there, they were always present. But more than the books, it was really the people I was working with. I feel like it always goes back to the people, and if you have the right people in your life who are also excited about the same things you’re excited about and who encourage you to try. I was just surrounded by so many encouraging booksellers as a teenager and as a librarian as an adult, and they wouldn’t let me not do it. That was pretty amazing. They had a bigger influence I think than the books themselves.
Of course, I’ve alway been a nonstop reader, reading everything, every genre that I can get my hands on. I love them all. Of course all those books were influencing me the whole time, but it was the people that gave me the drive to actually do it.
RR: What made you push through with becoming a novelist in spite of the seven years that you spent writing that one novel?
SP: It was terrible! That seven year novel actually became a 10 year novel, and it became my second one, Lola and the Boy Next Door. It actually did get published after a lot of hard work of fixing that into something enjoyable.
I think it was determination not to be a librarian forever. I knew in my heart that it was the best job that I could have that wasn’t being a writer, and I still wasn’t happy and I still didn’t love it. It was cool and I loved my coworkers, and it felt great to say that I was a librarian, but I wasn’t really happy at the job. I knew that it was the best it gets, if I’m not a writer, but it still wasn’t that great. So it was the fear, maybe, of being stuck in my second choice my whole life. That gave me the needed push. It really felt like do or die. I have to do this thing.
I pushed really hard that first year when I switched books and started working on Anna. I was working full shifts in the library, and then I would come home and sleep for about two hours, and then when my husband would come home from work, he would fill me with coffee and dinner and push me upstairs and I would work until sunrise. Then I would get maybe another two hours of sleep before heading back to the library. It was really two full-time jobs for a year and not a lot of sleep. I knew it was a good idea. It felt like a much better idea than the thing I’d been working on. I just had to. That’s what it felt like. I had to make it work.
RR: How did the idea for Anna and the French Kiss come about?
SP: It’s always embarrassing for me to say this because I think it makes it sound kind of cheesy, maybe kind of fairytale magic, when writing is really like…. People have this idea that when we sit down to write, it just flows out from our fingers.
RR: A light shines from above.
SP: Right! And that it’s this very pleasurable experience. And mostly it’s really hard work! I love it, I wouldn’t trade it for anything, but most of the time I don’t like it! I love it but I don’t like it (laughs)! I just have to do it. I think a lot of writers just have that in common. We have to do it. There’s something in us. Not doing it is worse than doing it.
Anyway, the idea for Anna came about because the other novel had stalled and so it came to me in a dream. Which is why it’s kind of embarrassing for me to say because it kind of plays into that idea of it just being this magical, easy thing, but it wasn’t. The dream was pretty spectacular. In the dream, I was in Paris and I saw this really beautiful boy sitting on the steps of the Pantheon, and I knew, looking at him at that moment, that I was deeply in love with him. I talked to him and I found out that he had a French name and an English accent, and that he studied at an American boarding school. When I woke up, I was still very, very taken with him and I wanted to spend more time with him.
So really, it came about from trying this puzzle, this tri-cultural boy, where he came from, where he was, and then trying to create his perfect match. He was kind of right from the beginning, and she was a lot harder to pin down. I finally kind of found her by reaching into myself and pulling a lot from my own life, trying to make that as honest as possible. I didn’t want perfect characters. I wanted the book to feel like this perfect romance, but I wanted it to be full of lots of problems and hard truths and honesty too.
RR: Could you talk about your publication journey? You were talking about how you were expecting to be published at 40, if you were lucky.
SP: Once I switched novels, it felt right. It felt much stronger. It was still a lot of work. It was over 20 drafts before it was published. It was a lot of work for a long time, but I knew there was something special about it. I knew that it had a shot. I worked as hard as I could on it. I had a lot of help from really amazing writers and friends who gave me great advice. I feel like that was the first step, to befriend people who are more talented than you, who can teach you. If you’re having trouble making those friends, that’s when you know you go to the sources, the books that you love and you pull them apart and you see what it is about them that’s speaking to you, and how do you do it and how do you replicate it? I had a lot of good people on my side and they kind of taught me and guided me through this stuff. They told me how to get an agent and how to write a query letter to get that agent. They referred me to agents that might be a good fit for me. I had a lot of help from very kindhearted people.
I got my dream agent, I got my top pick, and she got it right away. And she sent it to an editor who I thought never in a million years would ever look at a book like mine. She’s Julie Strauss-Gabel and she works with John Green. She publishes all of his books. She did Gayle Forman, If I Stay. Just a lot of really dynamite titles that I love. When she was really interested in it, it just fell into place. It really felt like fate. It’s so cheesy, but I felt like I had a lot of luck on my side, as well as a lot of hard work and people who worked hard for me to make it happen.
RR: What made you decide to write these novels as companions of each other?
SP: What had happened there is that when I was writing Anna, Lola was still so on my mind. It had been on my mind for seven years, and I ended up writing a lot of parallels with their story and it ended up sending these characters to San Francisco where Lola lived.
I wasn’t planning on revisiting Lola, I was done with it. I was heartbroken over it. When I was talking to my agent about what the next thing would be, I was telling her a couple of ideas. And then when I told her a little bit about Lola, she was like “Yes, that’s your next book.” I wrote it in parallels with both of them having connections with movie theaters and the city itself. It just made sense that I could connect them somehow. I like it because a lot of my favorite writers do that. Sarah Dessen does that, Stephen King does that. His other monsters hang out in the background, which I think is a really cool treat for his very devoted readers and fans to get to see that. It was my way of getting to do that and really hang out with these characters who I still really love and was attached to. I wanted to get to hang out with them just a little bit longer (laughs). I have a hard time letting go (laughs).
RR: When the news first came around that your book was selling like hotcakes, what was your first reaction?
SP: Terror (laughs). It sounds so silly. It was a thing that I never imagined. It was a very modest contact and contemporary books weren’t very big at the time. They always had steady sales, because people want to read about people like them, but it wasn’t a thing at all and no one expected anything from it. Very, very quickly, there was this kind of momentum and word of mouth, and it scared me. I kind of prepared of everything but that. I prepared for lots and lots of failure, hard work, and time. To get the kind of career that I was hoping to have, it usually happens 10 years down the line. But to have it happen right away, I didn’t really know what to do with that.
I couldn’t really celebrate it or enjoy it. I knew it was wonderful. I was so grateful for it. But I was also the kind of person who immediately thought “Oh no, now I have all these people to please!” They’re so expectant, and I don’t want to let them down! I was working on this book that I had been working on forever, and it was a mess, and suddenly this book was definitely going to have readers. Whereas before, I thought it was going to be an invisible book and not many people would read it. Suddenly, people were going to read it. It kind of freaked me out. It took me a few years to really accept it and embrace it and be really happy and excited.
Now I feel so genuinely thankful and grateful for it, but I’m also trying to keep a little bit of distance from it in my head. This is really special and wonderful, but if it only happens for these books and never for my others, that’s okay too. To have this one experience, right now, in this point of my life, is amazing. I hope it doesn’t sound too negative, but I try to keep my expectations tempered to something I can either meet or exceed. That kind of keeps me happy and sane. It’s weird that the most amazing thing that happened, I became terrified.
RR: When Margaret Stohl was here, she was talking about how Veronica Roth had the same reaction when Divergent became a hit. She was also terrified.
SP: Yeah, it’s really scary! Writing is such a solitary thing. You’re alone in your house, in your pajamas, unshowered, and it’s just you and your thoughts for a few years. And then suddenly, the rest of the world is exposed to that.
RR: And they’re telling you about it on Twitter.
SP: Yeah! And it’s really startling to go from this very quiet, introverted, private kind of life, to this very, very public one, especially when a lot of authors like myself and Veronica are very introverted. We were the kids in school who kind of hid in the back. To suddenly be in front of a lot of people is very intimidating. The great thing is, you quickly learn that you’re in front of a lot of people who you have a lot in common with. That’s why they’re responding so strongly to your book. They see a part of themselves in it too. That makes it a to easier to talk to people, and it makes it such a joy to get to meet people I see a lot of myself in.
I have the most amazing readers. I don’t know if it’s because I write pretty positive, feel good, kind of books, but I feel like my readers have such big, kind, wonderful hearts. I’ll go to a signing and I’ll be sitting next to an author who writes really scary, dystopian books, and it feels like we have very different readerships (laughs). I’m always like “Look how nice and friendly my readers are! Not scary at all!” (Laughs) It’s a big leap to go from someone invisible to someone really visible.
RR: When was the turning point for you? When did you realize that you could deal with this success?
SP: It was only about a year ago. It took about a few years, and that’s why my third novel, Isla and the Happily Ever After, it had a two year delay on it. It was supposed to come out in 2012, the year after Lola, and I just couldn’t do it. I think from the outside, it looks like that book was the problem, but it was never that book’s problem. It was still reconciling with Lola and being a visible person and just having my life change so completely overnight. It took me a few years to get used to that and learn how to live this new kind of life in a healthy and sane way. Once I was able to do that, I was able to write again and write rather quickly. I had been struggling trying to write for a couple of years. I would sit down and write and I wouldn’t get very far and I would get frustrated. I would try new techniques and that would kind of fail. It felt like I had so many failures, again and again and again. But it kind of goes back to this message that I try to put in all my books, that these girls get these amazing happily-ever-afters, but they work on themselves first. They have to overcome some personal obstacle. It was really like a version of that. I had to get over myself and learn how to be me again. Once that happened, I was so much happier and healthier and I was able to work again. I feel like I’m in a really good place now, but it took a few very hard years where I was very afraid that I wasn’t going to be able to write again. Maybe it’s done right now and I have to go back to the library, my second best job, which was not good enough (laughs)!
RR: How does social media factor into all of this?
SP: It’s pretty crazy. When we were younger, the idea of taking to an author? No! I never met an author or talked to an author. They were kind of like these deities. It’s still really surreal when I meet an author whom I read as a child. I still feel like it’s really hard to talk to them (laughs).
RR: When I was younger I thought all authors were dead.
SP: (Laughs) I love that! That’s even better! To have these real, breathing people, I think it’s such a cool opportunity for readers, and it’s amazing for writers to have that instant feedback, those instant connections, to really know who is reading your books. It’s a wonderful gift.
But there’s a flip side, too. You suddenly feel that people are reading it, and that there are these expectations. I knew these readers, I knew they were reading, and I wanted to please them very, very bad. I really wanted them to be happy and proud of me and my work. I think I placed too much emphasis on them for a while than trying to heal myself first. I’ve seen a lot of authors become fatigued of social media. But we always go back to it because it’s pretty amazing. I love it, I genuinely love it. Twitter is my favorite, it’s where I hang out all day. I’ve met so many of my closet friends on Twitter, too. It’s amazing and ridiculous and I never would have imagined this as a child.
RR: One thing I loved about Etienne was that he could easily have been a Manic Pixie Dream Boy, but he doesn’t. Was that something you were actively working against when you were writing it?
SP: I do have kind of a weakness for those manic pixie characters. I know they’re cliche and not realistic, but I’m someone who likes really quirky characters, so I’m still kind of okay with them. But what I really wanted to avoid was when you read a book and the character is perfect, and they’re attractive, and they’re smart, and they’re funny, and everyone loves them. All the things are correct about them and cool.
It was important for me to give him a few characteristics. He makes a lot of mistakes. I feel like when I read characters that are too perfect and always do the right thing, it’s pretty boring, actually, and I feel like it makes them less desirable. I feel like giving my characters flaws, they feel more real and therefore they fell like someone you would really want in your life and you would really understand where those flaws come from and relate to them in a way that you couldn’t relate to someone who is perfect.
Etienne makes a lot of mistakes in the book. He does a lot of wrong things. He’s a history nerd, he loves history books. In America, it’s harder to be a short guy. I really wanted to make him the hero and have him still be beautiful and confident and charismatic. It was really important to me. It was really fun. It was just a dream to get to write. He was always really easy. His dialogue always just came out perfect the first time. None of my other characters have ever been like that.
RR: I also really like the thing with his teeth. I don’t know why, but it really spoke to me.
SP: I love that! I love characters and I love to make them as real and deep as possible. I feel like those details are kind of what makes someone come alive. For that, I really studied the Harry Potter books actually. I think J.K. Rowling is amazing at character. She has a few thousand characters in her series. It’s a huge number and it blew me away. And the amazing thing is you read it and immediately you know what kind of person it is who walks onto the page. Even down to the bus driver or the conductor on the Knight Bus. You remember Ernie and Stan. Stan has acne and is a little unsure, so later, when he makes a mistake and becomes a Death Eather, you’re like, “Awww, Stan!”
SP: “You should have more confidence in yourself!” That’s incredible, to have a character that small, that in most books would just be background, someone who’s just there to support the main character. With her characters, you always feel like they’re living really rich lives on their own. They’re not just there for the sake of Harry. I try to have all my characters living an active life. They’re not just all there for the protagonist, someone handy for them to accomplish their dreams and goals. I really try to have all of them have dreams and goals and fears and wants and needs. It always starts with characters for me.
RR: I’ve been reading some New Adult books, and what I liked about the flaws that your characters have is that they’re realistic flaws. Because in some New Adult books, you kind of go “He’s also that?”
SP: Right, right (laughs)! They go to the extreme, and it’s fun, but it doesn’t feel very real. Thank you. I try to write about people who I think I would know or want in my life.
RR: When I was reading Gayle Forman’s Just One Day, I liked how she wrote about Paris beyond the tourist spots. I felt the same way about how you wrote Paris in Anna and the French Kiss. How did you do your research?
SP: There was a lot of research involved. I was never expecting that I would write a book on Paris. I was never one of those girls who grew up with romantic notions about the city. I was just never really interested in it, at all! I was very much an Anglophile, I loved English culture, and I loved the Beatles and the BBC. That was very much a part of my life.
When this dream came to me, I was like “Gosh, I guess I’m writing a book in Paris.” I guess that was why I was writing the book from the perspective of someone who didn’t know anything about it and was very scared of it because I was scared of it. I had a lot of ideas about the French being very intimidating and not liking Americans. I kind of dealt with my emotions and fears with that. As she became braver, I became braver. I learned something and became braver. It was really cool that we were able to grow together.
It was lots of research and at the time I was still a librarian, so I couldn’t afford to just fly off on a fancy research vacation. But because I was a librarian, I was a great researcher. It was a skill I happened to have and I had a lot of access to a lot of books and movies and music. I read every book, literally, every book that we had in our library system about Paris or French culture. I would read from the History section. I would read children’s books. I read graphic novels. I read cookbooks. I really tried to read it all and get a complete idea of it. I especially liked the writing of authors like David Sedaris and other Americans who lived in Paris. I found those really helpful, the outsider kind of perspective, learning what they thought it was going to be and what it really was. That was really helpful.
I watched a ton of movies, and instead of just watching them for plot, I was watching the background. What did the lamp post look like? How long does it take to walk from here to here? How do French people move their body? What does it sound like when they speak? I ate a lot of French food, I listened to a lot of French music. I took a French language class. It was terrifying and I was so bad at it! Like Anna, I took Spanish in school, and I’m okay at Spanish, but I am terrible, terrible at French. I have a few French friends now, and they always read all of my French lines before they’re published because I always get it wrong every single time!
SP: It was a lot of work and a few years of research.
RR: I also liked how you tackle the concept of home in Anna and the French Kiss. Was that something you were actively writing into the book, or was that something that you only found out as you were reading back?
SP: That kind of thematically realization for me always comes at the end. As I’m getting through it, I’m just thinking about plot, about getting from A to B to C. When I get to the end and read back through it, I realize that it’s something that I keep talking about. That’s when you try to bring it out and make it more clear and give that emotion and theme a storyline as well. I didn’t realise I was going to write about that idea of home but I think when I wrote that line at the end about home being a person and not a place, it was a big moment for me because as I was typing I was going “So that’s what it’s all about!” It struck me as a very honest thing because that’s what I feel about my husband. Wherever he is, I feel safe and happy and I realize that I’ve written that into every story.
RR: Was the humor something that you were also purposely injecting?
SP: I love humor in books. I really love to laugh and so it was really important to me that that was in there too. I think it can be a little challenging. I think this is funny and someone else does too. Luckily, I think most of the time it’s worked. But that’s why it’s also important to have good critique partners who will tell you that that joke is not as funny as you think it is. You need to take that out. I’ve had many jokes were people went “No, no, no.” (Laughs)
RR: Could you talk about your writing process?
SP: For a long time I did. Now, the only time I listen to music is when I’m revising and it’s really loud dance music. I don’t really listen to dance music in my regular, daily life, but something about that drives me like an extra caffeine buzz. It’s something that I can ignore but is still pulsing in my brain. I spend many, many long nights revising listening to Lady Gaga (laughs). If someone looked at my play count on iTunes, they would think I was her biggest fan in the entire world (laughs). I think she’s fun, but those numbers aren’t really representative (laughs).
The rest of the time, I need to have total silence. I write with noise-cancelling headphones on. I turn off my phone. I’m really easily distracted, and if something catches my attention, it takes a really long time to go back to the story. I really purposely set up an environment where no one will bother me. I text my friends and my husband that I’m writing and no one should bother me. Please don’t call me for four hours unless it’s an emergency. I give them that warning. They know that I’m very distractible and they’re always very respectful about it. That’s the most important thing for me when I’m writing: To set a really quiet, comfortable environment as best as possible.
RR: Do you write on a computer with an internet connection or without an internet connection?
SP: I have a program called Freedom which will shut off your internet connection for 30 minutes or an hour, and I’ve found that I usually have to turn it on because the temptation is to just look up this one thing and then you end up looking at your Twitter feed instead.
RR: And then four hours later….
SP: Yeah, I’m so bad at that! I’ll go straight to Freedom and just turn it on for four hours or however long I need to write, and then I keep a pen and paper beside me. When I have a research question, I write it down. When that time is up, I can do all that research in the end. I have questions that I need to answer so I get to focus a little bit more before I get distracted again. Because once I go down that rabbit hole, I am gone for the rest of the day (laughs).
RR: Any advice you would give to young fans who would like to become writers as well? Is a creative writing degree something that is essential?
SP: No, definitely not (laughs). I feel like if someone really wants the writing degree, they should go for it. But when I took creative writing in college, my professors actually discouraged me from writing children’s books, which I had always wanted to do. They kind of looked down upon it. Why would I want to write this lesser thing?
In the beginning, I was able to laugh it off. We all started off with books like Charlotte’s Web, not Moby Dick! That’s where you start! But after a few years of this constant berating, I’m ashamed to say that it really got to me. I began asking why I did want to write it. That was part of the seven year struggle with Lola. It was originally an adult novel and I kept having these flashbacks to when she was a teenager, and those where the scenes that I enjoyed writing! But it still took me seven years to figure it out. That’s what you enjoy writing, so that’s what you should be writing! Those voices got really loud, and I don’t know how it is in this country, but in America a lot of the colleges and universities, they kind of discourage writing for children or teens or writing genres like fantasy or romance. They really just want you writing this dry, what they think is literary writing. I wrote really boring, terrible things in college. So awful, I would never revisit any of it (laughs).
To anyone who wanted to study, I would say yes, definitely follow your passion. But remember why you’re there. Take the lessons you’re learning. It was very good to learn to critique with other people, to learn how to give and receive criticisms. That was an important skill. Learn those skills and use them and apply them to the thing you really love. Never forget why you’re really there.
The most practical advice I was taught by a professor was how to read like a writer. I never thought about that before, but it really was about slowing down when you read and when you have a reaction to something, whether it’s funny or sad or scary or swoony or whatever it is that you have a strong reaction to, to stop and then to look back and study the writing itself and find out how the writer made you feel that way.
I always tell my young readers that all the greats that I grew up reading, like Austen or Dickens, didn’t go to creative writing school. What they did was read the books that they love and studying those. That’s still the best way to learn how to do it. I know so many successful authors who didn’t study writing in school and learned by studying the books that they loved. I would encourage them to slow down and read books carefully. If they have a negative reaction, they should learn from that too. What is it that I don’t like and how do I avoid that in my own writing? It’s a really powerful teaching tool, for sure.
RR: What’s your favorite book?
SP: My favorite book depends on the time. Harry Potter is huge for me, but it probably goes back to something that’s a little obscure now. It was written in the 80s by a young adult author when young adult wasn’t as big. It’s called Weetzie Bat.
RR: FRANCESCA LIA BLOCK?
RR: I love that book! Oh my god!
SP: Yes! I love meeting Francesca Lia Block fans because there is that instant “You love her too!” She’s so unique and strange and I love her world and her characters, and Weetzie Bat, that book! I have read it so many times. I met Francesca for the first time last year.
RR: So jealous!
SP: I was at a festival and I had to introduce her for a panel, and I was just shaking and she couldn’t have been nicer or sweeter and I own more of her books than any other author. She’s really prolific but I had to chose because I was going to be on an airplane and I didn’t want to be too crazy going “Here I am with all your books, please sign them!” (Laughs) But it was so hard to choose! But she’s just so incredible and I don’t think Lola would exist without Weetzie. Lola is a very Weetzie character. Weetzie inspired me as a teenager and in my 20s. I definitely wanted to be Weetzie, and getting to write about one is the closest I could possibly get.
RR: It’s so hard to push her on my friends because her books are so hard to get here.
SP: Yeah. And she’s such a strange writer, it takes a certain kind of person to read it and say “This is amazing!” But I love her so much!
(Photos courtesy of National Book Store.)