Author interview: Gayle Forman

Gaze upon Gayle Forman and the eldritch horror to her right.
Gaze upon Gayle Forman and the eldritch horror to her right.

(Regular reader numbering in the Ones, if you haven’t noticed it yet, my blog went through a snafu that resulted in all the posts from October 2013 onwards to vanish into the ether. So I’m just uploading all of these transcripts without any garnishing because I barely remember what I wrote back then.)

RONREADS (RR): Is it your first time in the country? I know you’re well-traveled.

GAYLE FORMAN (GF): It’s not. I’ve been here before, in 1996 or 1997. It was a long time ago. I used to work for Seventeen magazine and when I was there, UNICEF contacted us and they were sending a bunch of journalists from youth magazines to write articles on youth activism. I met youth activists changing the world in different places.

RR: What was your impression of the country back then? I think I was in sixth grade back then.

GF: Thank you. Thank you for that.

RR: Sorry.

GF: I remember that I had an immediate sense of the Filipino people being incredibly friendly. People are generally friendly, but there was a particular warmth, which now that I’ve made a lot of Filipino friends back home, I get it. It’s like the Brazilians, there’s just something warm.

As for the country, I thought it was incredibly diverse. We also went to Leyte, so I got to see the rural aspect of the country. There’s so much US history embedded here. We went to a base when we were in Leyte. I also remember some excellent shopping — I have some clothes from that trip that I still wear. I remember that the traffic was legendary.

RR: (Laughs) It still is!

GF: And the food was fantastic.

RR: Is this your first time back?

GF: Yeah. It’s such a short trip. I’m in Manila until Sunday and I’m in Cebu until Monday night.

RR: The movie adaptation of “If I Stay” is going to come out in August. Are you feeling any jitters? What are you expecting once it comes out?

GF: It’s hard to say now. I think if I’m going to be truly honest, the first assumption that I had was that it was never going to happen. And then when it got bought, my first assumption was it’s going to suck.

And then as it went by, I thought that maybe it’s not going to suck, and that’s kind of a dangerous thing because then you start to get hopes invested. I’ve seen it be built from the ground up at this point, and the screenplay is wonderful. It’s so funny and true and romantic. It’s different from the book, and yet real and true to the essence of the book. No matter how many times I read it, I always cry.

When they started casting it, the actors were all so perfect. Chloe (Grace Moretz) is just incredible. Jamie Blackley, it’s like they pulled Adam out of my mind. So you have this great script, this great screenplay, and then you have these great actors. And then I went to the set and you hear this music that they’re using for it. No matter what you put on the page, it’s never going to be the same visceral experience listening to it. That blew me away. I wasn’t there for the entire shoot, but I was there for a couple of weeks of it, and what I saw felt so real. It didn’t feel like Chloe Moretz and Jamie Blackley playing Mia and Adam, it felt like watching Mia and Adam.

So far, that’s what I’ve seen. The building blocks are there, but now it’s being edited and cut together. There’s an alchemy to it all, but I think our director R.J. Cutler is pretty brilliant, so I am excited. We have all the building blocks for a movie that can translate that kind of powerful emotional experience of the book.

RR: Growing up, was becoming a novelist always part of the plan, or did you really plan to become a journalist.

GF: No, I was an accidental novelist. I was an accidental journalist.

When I was little, I wanted to grow up and be the sun. As in, the sun, which looking back I find horrifying because does that mean I want everybody to revolve around me? I was devastated when my dad said to me that I couldn’t be the sun, and he really turned the knife when he said “If you had been a boy, you could have been my son.”

RR: (Laughs)

GF: (Laughs) I was kind of all over the place. When I was 16, I was an exchange student in England for a year, and that’s where my travel bug was born. I didn’t go to college after high school. I went traveling for a few years. All I wanted to do was keep traveling, so I thought I would be a flight attendant.

Then I decided that I would be a doctor and work for Doctors Without Borders, and that lasted about four months, five months. Then I started taking all these writing classes because I didn’t know what to do. I took a journalism class and I loved it, and that’s how it kinda happened. I always loved to write, and I love being nosy and asking people questions that are none of my business, but that was the first time that I’d ever thought of that as a career.

I did that for a dozen years and I didn’t think I would become a novelist until I had a child and didn’t want to travel anymore. That was when I started writing my first novel and that was the “A-ha!” moment where I thought that this is what I wanted to do. I haven’t looked back and I haven’t looked forward either. I know there might be other things that I might want to try, but writing novels is just…

RR: That first novel was “Sisters in Sanity”. Could you talk about it? We don’t have it here.

GF: When I was a journalist, I had done a story on these behavior modification boot camps. They’re basically like private prisons. Teens got sent there for all kinds of things. It could be for doing drugs or ditching school or dropping out of school or being defiant to their parents. But they also got sent for being overweight, for being gay, and parents would pay and insurance would pay as well.

These places were horrible. Some of them were fine, but some of them were not therapeutic at all. Kids would be escorted, which meant they would basically be kidnapped form their homes. After I finished that story, I was so upset because they were prisons with no oversight. Kids who’d been there were really scarred. The place really stuck with me.

Years later, when somebody suggested a young adult novel, it was like a lightbulb went off. By four days, I had the first quarter of the book written. It’s a fictional account based on one of those places, and it’s about these five girls that were thrown together there and how they deal, how they cope, why they’re there, and how they survived.

RR: Was it the first time you started writing fiction?

GF: Yeah. I played around with it, I wrote short stories, but never anything real. I sat down and started writing it and I discovered that I actually knew how to write a novel. The years of journalism, and my first book, which was narrative non-fiction, had really taught me about structure, about arc, about transition, about dialogue. Being a journalist for 12 years was my MFA program.

RR: When you started writing “If I Stay”, was it always going to be a duet of novels?

GF: “Just One Day” and “Just One Year” were going to be a duet. “If I Stay”, no. “If I Stay” came to me in a flash and I just started writing it. I didn’t have a publisher at the time, I didn’t have an agent. It was just a book that I had to write. I wrote it very quickly, and a few months before that was due to come out, I was already writing my next book, which had nothing to do with the story. It was “How Maisie Grew”.

What happened was I kept waking up about 4 o’ clock in the morning, and there was this little knock in my head, and it was these characters Mia and Adam. Without spoiling too much, even if I ended on a hopeful note, they were saying “Where have you left us?” I started thinking about that, about what their lives would actually be like. It was horrifying. I knew they had really tough years ahead, and you think that this is ridiculous. They’re fictional characters, tell them to shut up! But they become like your family, and I couldn’t.

I couldn’t think about the immediate aftermath of their lives, so I skipped ahead a few years. And when I did, the story started to take shape. I started to realize what was happening, and it was Adam’s story this time. Once I got there, I realized I was going to write the second book. That was much later on.

With “Just One Day” and “Just One Year”, there was about a week where I thought I was just going to write “Just One Day”, and then I realized that if I wrote two books and wrote the intersection of the two, it would be much more technically challenging, and it was. It was much more challenging to write knowing that they were going to go together.

Now I’m done with that. No more duets. I’ve written a duet of duets, and now I’m back to standalones.

RR: When you were writing “If I Stay”, did you already get the sense that it was going to be something special, or did its success still surprise you?

GF: I knew it was going to be something special in a very personal way, because writing it felt so beautiful and profound. I was sitting there in the family’s living room, with the desk pushed into the corner, and I was writing out of this very personal place, and it was so emotional and it was so cathartic and such a beautiful space to be in. It’s a sad story, what happens to Mia, but it’s also a story of love, her love of her family, her love of Adam, her love of Kim and music. I just felt like I was bathed in love while I was writing the story.

That said, when it went out into the world and it started to have the impact it had, it was surreal. I had just been there, by myself, quiet on my little desk. I had no publisher and no agent, I was just writing it for myself and I think there’s something to that. I knew it was special, but that doesn’t mean I knew it was commercial.

RR: Was there pressure then when you were writing “Where She Went”? How did you get over that?

GF: There was pressure not just because “If I Stay” was a success but because everybody knows that sequels always suck. Why was I writing a sequel? Why was I basically going and stepping over something that was so beloved? That’s the thing. I would not have written this sequel if the characters had not demanded it. There was the pressure of following-up a successful book, but there was also the pressure of having a sequel where people readily said to me that they don’t want to read it. The most gratifying thing about that is it’s followed by “But then I did, and I loved it even more than ‘If I Stay.’” I want every book that I write to be better than the one before it. It’s a high bar and it keeps me working hard.

RR: Did you feel any apprehension writing another duet again after the success of the first two?

GF: I didn’t feel any apprehension about writing another duet, but I thought “Just One Day” and “Just One Year” were much more technically challenging because “If I Stay” was done and out by the time I wrote “Where She Went”. You don’t leave any breadcrumbs from the first that you pick up in the second. You kind of just work with what you’ve got. It was fine because I was picking up the story three years later.

With “Just One Day” and “Just One Year”, the stories happen concurrently. Also, I wrote them on a deadline. I had a year to write both books, and it was incredibly challenging because “Just One Day” is full of things that come to fruition at the end of “Just One Day” and the end of “Just One Year”. There was a lot of plot structure, which is not my favorite thing to do because I’m a pancer(?), I just go with the flow. You can’t do that when you write these kinds of books.

But I also had to figure out both of these characters as I wrote the first book. I had to wait until “Just One Year” to understand Willem because I had to understand, even if Allyson didn’t, what he answered in her, what she answered in him. I had to figure out who they were, and they both had these deep and complicated histories. It was the technical difficulty of that and having to do it with a deadline on top of me that was the most pressure.

RR: I’m curious who you were bouncing off ideas with when you were writing “Just One Day” and “Just One Year” because some of the “accidents” that happen in the book could have looked contrived.  They don’t, but were you conscious about that or did you have someone checking for you?

GF: Here’s the thing about the contrived thing. I get that things like that may seem contrived, but the reason why I wanted to write these books is because this kind of stuff happens all the time. I can’t even count the number of times where I’ve ran back to the house and I’ll leave five minutes later and when I get to the subway there’s my long-lost friend whom I haven’t seen in 20 years. There so many profound things that all have to do with timing. If that hadn’t happened, this wouldn’t have happened.

Even in writing these books, when I realized that Shakespeare was going to be a part of it, I went to see “As You Like It” because that was playing in New York at the time. It was the perfect play, it was almost tailor-made. It wasn’t contrived at all, it was a happy coincidence, and it happens every day in life if you pay attention.

I’m not a big believer in fate. I believe you drive your own bus. That said, I just think when you step back and look at all the times where it’s like, even little things like leaving your keys, things like that happen all the time in life. I don’t think that there’s a hand of fate guiding you one way or another. I just think that because that thing happened, it leads you to a series of events that lead you down this road. When you stop and step back, it’s kind of fascinating.

A lot of the things in that book happened to me. I think you can look at a lot of relationships and think, “If I had been there on that day” or “If I hadn’t….” My sister married her husband because we met these guys at a bar. We were all a little drunk and young and I invited them all for dinner because we were drunk. I made them exchange driver’s licenses with me to make sure they’d come. Otherwise they’d have blown it off. We exchanged licenses and we don’t even know each other! She ends up married to the guy! I wonder about those little twists. What if we hadn’t exchanged licenses? That’s just life. Those kind if little tweaks comprise life. If you stop and take a step back and take a look at them.

RR: I also like how you treat LGBT characters in all four books. They’re just part of the world and not some sort of “special” character. Was that a conscious decision when you were writing? Is it important for you to have them present in your books?

GF: It’s just like my life. I have a lot of gay and lesbian friends. Thankfully, now that’s just sort of who they are. It doesn’t have to be the thing that drives them. One of them is an attorney that fights for death row cases. That’s the thing I think of as her defining characteristic. I just want to sort of see that, and also see characters of color, be brought into the fabric of life, not as a token but as who they are.

Liz, when she showed up, she was just this butchy drummer with wiry arms and she was lesbian. There was no big deal to it. She had a girlfriend and they were really serious. It’s the same with “Just One Year” and Max. And then Dee, who I think is one of my favorite characters. Dee is an interesting character. Dee was in a book that I shelved called “How Maisie Grew”. He was in that book, and I loved him so much that I imported him. When I did, I found that this character is a stereotype. I had turned him into the black, sassy, gay sidekick. With “Just One Day”, I changed Dee and had him be someone who is completely aware of all of the stereotypes that people might see when they look at him: he’s poor, he’s black, he’s a scholarship kid, he’s gay. He used people’s expectations almost as an armor to throw back into their face and manipulate them, which made him profoundly more interesting because he was so much smarter than anybody in the room. But initially, he wasn’t developed that way. He was a hard one to get right, but now, the most common comment I get from “Just One Day” is “I want Dee to be my bestie.” He’s just somebody who’s so smart and so used to people thinking he’s the poor scholarship kid or the the black kid in a white school or the gay kid, and people treating him in a certain way. He’s a multitude of things and he’s not defined by any of those things. He knew that and he had become an expert at playing the people. He was just  — pardon my French — fucking with people all over the place.

RR: (Laughs) Speaking of the F-word, one thing I also noticed about the four books is that  from “If I Stay” to “Just One Year”, the swearing lessens. Is that a conscious decision on your part or was that something the publisher wanted?

GF: No, that’s the characters. In “If I Stay”, Mia doesn’t really swear, but Adam does. That’s why in his book, boom! Lots of swearing. Allyson, not a swearer. And neither Willem. Those were the characters I had in my head. The new book coming out? Lots of swearing. I write the characters as I hear them in my head.

I get some grief for this. I get people who are upset about the language. But to me, to have a character who really wants to say “Shit!” and then have him say “Shoot!” or somebody who really is going to say “Fuck!” and then have him say “Freaking!” it feels completely false. I don’t really put it in there unless it’s needed. Or if I’m done, I’ll go through it and pull out ones that I can do without.

But I’ve also never equated morality and cursing before. I come from a family where my mother would use the F-word and then we’d all volunteer at the soup kitchens. It just wasn’t an issue. I come from a very ethical, moral family, and we curse like sailors. They’re not connected. And I understand that for some people, they are, and so it’s offensive. But for me, it’s the character’s actions that speak louder than words. Mia’s mom in “If I Stay” curses a lot, but is she a good mother? Is she a Momma Bear that looks after her kids? Yeah. And she curses. Are those two things contradictory? I don’t think so. Somebody else might disagree.

RR: I also liked how Paris was written in both the “Just One Day” and “Just One Year” books, because nobody ever seems to bring up that there’s a huge Muslim population.

GF: There’s a huge Muslim population.

RR: Was it something you consciously wanted to include in the book, or was it just you going with the flow?

GF: Here’s a couple of things. “Just One Day” came to me in a dream. It’s such a cliche, but it’s true. I had this dream of this guy and this girl and they were in this big, warehouse-y space that turned out to be the art squat. I woke up and started unspooling the story in my head. I realized they were in Paris. Aside from being annoyed, because is there a more cliche place to write a love story than Paris? I also realized that I wanted to set it in a Paris that I didn’t know.

I went and took a trip to Paris and spent it mostly in the outer arrondissements. I’ve always liked Paris before, I kinda appreciated it, but I fell in love with Paris then. I went to Vilette, and then Montmartre, and then Barbes-Rochechouart. I had always known that there’s the Muslim population there, and I’ve been keeping up with the news about the issues there with the hijab. So that all came to play. Then I had seen this movie by Claire Denis about illegal aliens that are kept in these internment camps in Calais. And I was kind of shocked by it. All of that kinda came into being into how that section of Paris would be described, because when I walked through Barbes-Rochechouart, there’s really not a lot of white people walking through that neighborhood. We got whispered at. We got called Friends ofwhat’s his face? Former Prime Minister? All I can think of is he’s married to Carla Bruni.

RR: Sarkozy.

GF: Yeah, Friends of Sarkozy! It was a very interesting experience, but I loved it. THe neighborhood is so fantastic, and Paris is so diverse, too! It’s just something that you don’t realize, but it’s incredibly diverse. I’m from New York, and when I come across a city that’s like that, I alway feel happy.

RR: You’re also on various forms of social media. Do you find it distracting to have fans in your ear? Does it factor in to your writing?

GF: I wish I could say no and that it’s my choice to turn it off. Sometimes I do detach from Twitter in particular. These guys are growing up with social media. It’s bringing this wonderful access to authors. In some ways, it’s really nice. The Philippine fans are the most fantastically outspoken and warm fans.

But in the same token, I kinda feel like a line is crossed when they will tweet directly at me or email directly at me to tell me that they’re very angry at the way I ended my book. It’s hard to get that voice out of my head. You can write your review however you want, you can post your review on Goodreads however you want, but when you talk to me like that, you’re crossing the line. I’m not McDonalds, I don’t write books to-order. That part of it can be difficult.

But for the most part, aside from it being a distraction, it’s a very nice way to connect with people who are otherwise very far away. It has, in the past, been helpful in writing because I would have questions. Where would a barge be moored in France? I had a question about dental plans in the Netherlands, which is a piece that got taken out. My fans would weigh in and I get research questions answered. Then it feels nice. I prefer the social media interaction when it’s like that, when we’re all in cahoots together.

RR: How did this trip to the Philippines come about?

GF: It’s funny how it came about. I had been wanting to come here for a while. About a year or two ago, I started noticing my Twitter feed had all of these tweets that were half in English and half in a language that I didn’t know. They would literally be “Gayle Forman, this book blah blah blah blah blah.” I first thought that it was my Indonesian fans, but then I came to realize that it was English and Tagalog. And then I kept getting the calls, via Twitter. When was I going to go to the Philippines? And I thought, I should get over there. It seems like they have a really great fanbase. And I was in Australia last May, and I looked into jumping over here, but I couldn’t because there was no way to make it easy and I had two young kids.

And then Margie Stohl came over with Melissa dela Cruz, and then when she got back, she asked if I had any interest going to the Philippines? I said yes, and she put me in touch with Miguel (Ramos, National Book Store’s marketing director). We got talking, and here I am.

Trips like this, I don’t just take to go anywhere. It’s hard for me to be away from my kids. But I was so happy to be coming specifically to the Philippines. If somebody asked me to pick one destination to take a trip to, it would be here.

On the day before my flight here, I was so sick, and there was no way I wasn’t going to go on this trip. These fans have bought airline tickets to come to the signings. They’re coming from other islands. It’s just the fans, their excitement. That’s what told me that I need to go.

RR: Aside from meeting the fans, is there anything else you want to see while you’re here?

GF: I’m excited because we’re going to be in Cebu for Sinulog. I’m going to check that out.

RR: What’s the most gratifying reaction you’ve gotten from a fan?

GF: I got an email a couple of years ago from an older man from New Zealand. He had just read “Where She Went” and he and his wife had just lost their daughter to suicide. He was saying that he was not the reader for these books, and how we don’t really talk about death and grieving in Western culture. There was just something about what they had been through. His wife had read “Where She Went” and she didn’t think she was ready for “If I Stay”, but she read it anyhow. For both of them, it was an incredibly healing experience. That email has really stuck with me. Meeting the fans is great and it’s hilarious when they get excited and treat me like a rock star because when I go home to my children they treat me like a maid.

RR: (Laughs)

GF: That particular interaction, I’ve never forgotten that.

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