Last month, the Blue Bunny Bookstore (where I work!!) was lucky enough to get some fantastic authors in for a YA panel that featured Lori Goldstien, Jen Brooks, Elissa Sussman, Diana Renn, Lee Kelly, and Trisha Leaver, as shown in the picture above. Prior to the panel, I got to interview Lori, Lee, Trisha, and Jen, of the Freshman Fifteen group. (Trisha is an honorary member of the group! 😉 )
I’d like to start off with an easy question: Describe your book in 6 words.
(Jen: That’s easy?)
Lori: Modern spin on wish granting genies
Trisha: Twin sisters, tragic accident, devastating lie
Lee: Family secrets and sister in post-apocalyptic NYC. That might be seven, I apologize.
Jen: Boy creates world to get girl
Lee: I was a lawyer at the time, when the idea came to me. I moved from Los Angeles to New York, and it’s a very different lifestyle in terms of work-life balance. I was working for a large law firm near Central Park; it’s one of those glass towers. I was there at 2 am making photo copies and it’s just devastating. [I was] really doubting my career choices and I just started daydreaming. I think I just needed a creative outlet to funnel all that frustration. I started picturing Central Park as like a true prison. When I was riding the subways to work, I started thinking of “what if these rides really were life and death”. [I] just started reimagining New York, a place I was very frustrated with, as something other and the world of City of Savages took shape. It takes place in a post-WWIII prisoner of war camp in Manhattan. That just kind of came from there. The characters and the central plot came after that. It was really about the world. [A] silver lining of all that crazy time.
Lori: I got the inspiration for the character first, before anything else. There was an earthquake in 2011 in Turkey. There was a mother and infant daughter, who was two weeks old. They were pulled from the rubble and they both survived. I had seen a news report about it, and the baby’s name was Azra, which is the protagonist in Becoming Jinn. I heard the name and it was just unusual, and I thought, “it’s so beautiful”. I wanted to come up with a world that I could put her in. I started to think about that other side of the world, Turkey, Morocco, the middle east, and those other areas, and the idea of the jinn came to me. I’m sure I knew what jinn was because I watched Charmed and there was a jinn in Charmed and the X-Files. So I knew that was kind of like that side of the world’s version of our modern day genie. I kind of put the two together and that’s what sparked the story.
Trisha: All of my story ideas come from nightmares. The Secrets We Keep was no different. I was dreaming about me and my sister. We’re Irish twins, they’re one year and two days apart. We were driving back to college, to the University of Vermont. And we were arguing, like sisters always do, like who’s turn was it to pay for gas, who got more Christmas money, who had to do more chores. She got more Christmas money [and] I had to do more chores, just for the record. She went to change the radio station in the car and we were arguing about music, and I jerked the wheel to irritate her and get her to stop. And I slid offside the road into a tree, and that’s when I woke up. So the first 3 or 4 chapters of The Secrets We Keep are that accident with the two sisters in the car. Once I woke up, for a good 2 weeks afterwards, I literally could not function until I figured out what would happen. What would happen to me emotionally, physically, and psychologically if I had actually killed my sister by accident, and how do you deal with that.
(Lee: Didn’t you mention you always dream in black and white? That seems so cool.
Trisha: I always dream in black and white, never in color. And I always have nightmares. I’m sure I have pleasant dreams. Like, that’d be sad if I didn’t. I just don’t remember them, but I remember my nightmares vividly. And I have them almost nightly.
Lee: I don’t think I’ve ever had a black and white dream. Ever.
Trisha: Always! I’ve never had a color dream.
Lee: Mine are all in color.
Trisha: And I can see color. Like, you’re wearing pink and green. I can see it.
Lee: She’s wearing red.
Jen: This thing is black and white.)
Jen: I have no idea where mine came from. I had to write something new while another novel was on submission. So I started writing a page a day. I used to be a track coach, and I did want to write a scene. I had this idea of a scene on a bus from a track meet, and this kid has this power to make alternative world, which I thought would be pretty desirable power to the US government or some nefarious gang/organization or something. So I had this idea of a scene where the kids are all riding home in the bus and they’re trying to grab this kid. It never happens and there’s no bus scenes in my book, so I don’t even know why it’s even relevant. But that’s where, I guess, this started. I wanted to write a kid in a track meet.
(Lee: That was really organic, your whole book. I didn’t know that, actually.
Jen: Yeah. I was looking for something to do. I really thought the other book was going to be my first book.)
What’s a typical writing day like for you guys? Can you write anywhere, you just sit down and you start? Or do have specific things you need to have done, like it has to be this very specific table at a very specific time, with no one around or lots of people around? What kind of things?
Lee: I am really dictated by my son’s schedule. He’s two and a half. I have childcare two days a week so I have to write on demand, which was a very new thing for me. I used to write in the mornings before work and that was a very free-flowing, creative time. Two childcare days, and then I write [during] his naps. This is the time I get, so this is when I write. I prefer to write at the library or my desk. I can write anywhere. I cannot talk when I write. These guys probably think I’m so antisocial since I’m like “yeah, uh huh”. I’m very bad at taking in outside noise when I’m writing.
Lori: Yeah, I have to write at home. I don’t do well writing outside, like in a coffee shop. I wouldn’t even [write] in a library. I like my own space. I work on a laptop. My favorite spot to write is my back porch with the wicker couch and cushions, and I sit there with my laptop. I can sit there all day. So it’s harder in the winter, obviously. So I [write] on my couch in my living room instead. I like to have my feet up [when] writing.
(Lee: Really? I can’t do that.)
Lori: I can’t sit at a desk. I’m very distracted when I sit at a desk. I don’t know why. Some people say you get conditioned to write where you did it. So if I’ve been writing that way all along and then I go try to sit at a desk, I find I can’t focus on the writing. I’m distracted. It’s very strange. Same with [how] I only write on a laptop, I have trouble writing on a desktop computer. I would like the tiny screen, and my laptop is one of those small ones.
(Kim: No freehand?)
Lori: I freehand all my outlines. All my outlining is done in a notebook by hand and all my plotting is done that way. I’ll just take a notebook and it’ll be pages and pages of what if’s and stream of consciousness, like what would happen here, and on and on and on. I can’t do that to actually write. I have to be typing to write. And I can’t plot by typing, I have to be writing it out by hand in a notebook.
Trisha: I’m going to sound like the crazy, paranoid one here, but I have to write at my dining room table facing the same wall all the time. Not because I’m a creature of habit, but because it’s the one place in my house where I can see every access point to my house, every door on the bottom floor and every window. I’m not paranoid of being taken hostage by surprise but I have this need. I have this need to feel secure in my own home, and so this is the spot where I can see everything.
Trisha: I do, I sound like I’m crazy.
(Lee: You do sound a little bit crazy.)
Trisha: I can see my slider door. I can see the kitchen, and the garage door. I can see the front door.
(Lori: Do you get so immersed that you feel like you wouldn’t hear something if someone came up?)
Trisha: All my windows and doors are alarmed, so even if the alarms aren’t on they beep when they open up. Oh, and I have a big dog. So I have to be able to see everything. And my dog always sits on my feet when I write, always. He’s extremely loyal. He’s going to have to live forever. If he gets old or sick, my writing career is over.
Trisha: So there’s the lovable, paranoid side of me.
Jen: I don’t have an interesting story. I can only write at this one particular computer at my desk in my office. It must be quiet.
(Lori: Do you turn off the internet? Or can you keep yourself off?)
Jen: Oh no. I go on the internet all the time. Like, I write three sentences then I don’t know what the fourth one is, but if I go on the internet for a minute it will come to me. You asked about a typical day, but I don’t have a typical day. I can write a lot or a little.
I know when people read, they each get a different take away from the books. But what’s the one thing you hope readers would get from your book(s)?
Lee: I always say that in my head I bill City of Savages as a near-future thriller with a family saga at its heart. I guess even though I tried to write the book more fast paced, with the thrills and the twists and turns, what’s important to me is that sisters relationship and that mother-daughter relationship. It explores many definitions of sisterhood, [from] friends [to] actual biological sisters. I hope that resonates with readers. That sisterhood bond. The strength of women when they team up.
Trisha: The message is always be true to yourself. Varying who you are at the core, to try to be someone else, or to try and please everyone else around you is more damaging than anything you could do to yourself. It’s okay to be who you are. You gotta learn to love yourself in your own skin and there are people around you, if you don’t know it, who actually do love your individuality, your quirks, and all that.
Jen: The message of my book is part of the reveal of the book, I guess. So I don’t really want to say … I guess, I just hope a takeaway from my book or how a reader would feel about my book is that they spent a little time with a story that has encouraged them to think about the situation that — my main character is Jon — the situation that he’s faced with being alone and having these sort of god-like powers. I would like the reader to put themselves in his position and think about what they would have done in his position. I’m finding that people are very judgmental of him and his choices, and part of the point of the book is to sort of explore what somebody that desperately lonely would do to help themselves.
Lori: I think mine is kind of a core teen idea of discovering that you have an adult life that you have responsibilities that you have to take on and how do you deal. In her case, it’s a destiny that’s kind of laid out for her, and how does she learn to accept that. In a teen’s life who’s not a genie or has no magical powers, we’re always faced with that point where all of a sudden you’re responsible, whether it’s your first job or you’re responsible for a sibling. And how do you deal with being not just a kid anymore and transitioning into being a little bit of an adult. You have expectations and responsibilities. I think that’s kind of the core message, and as you’re doing that to realize that you can’t do it alone. Which is what Azra has to realize in the book, that she needs her support system and she needs her family, sisters, and friends. You transition to the next phase of your life is with a support system, and how important that is. You ask the most popular kid and they still say inside they feel alone. Most of them. That’s an inner feeling that you always have as a kid, and to realize that you’re not alone and you have all these people around you and they can help you.
You guys are part of the group, the Freshman Fifteen, and it’s really cool that authors do this, where they have these groups. So you’ve been on tour together, is there anything fun you can share about each other that might be interesting that we might like to know? Or just a funny story?
Lori: I think a theme for most of the travel we’ve done — we seem a bit — not directionally challenged — Transportation issues. Trisha, Jen, and I did an event in Cambridge at the public library. We were chatting and the library’s underground garage door closed while we were there. We thought we were locked inside, ‘cause we waited too long. They’re making announcements and everything, and all of a sudden we’re like “oh, how do we get out? There’s this huge gate that’s down.” We were in New Jersey with Lee and her town decided to rip up every road within a mile of her house.
Lee: It’s such a small town and it should take you two minutes to get there, anywhere. And it took us 45 minutes to get [there]. We could’ve walked quicker to the library.
Lori: Oh, and we were in a retreat in South Carolina and someone’s rental car got stuck in the mud. We had to call a tow truck to get it out.
Kim: So a lot of transportation issues.
Lori: Yeah, so that’s kind of the theme.
Just to end it off, what’s something amazing you’ve read recently?
Lee: Okay, I can’t be biased and pick one of their books. And I won’t pick a Freshman Fifteen book, but I will pick another YA book outside that realm. Stephanie Kuehn wrote Charm & Strange. Her newest book is called Delicate Monsters, I can’t wait to read it. But Charm & Strange is brilliant. It’s about a boy coming to terms with who he is and his past at a boarding school, and everything kind of crashes down on him all at once. It’s a super tight, taut novel. Read it in two days, which I just don’t do. Awesome. I totally recommend it.
Trisha: Dating Down by Stephanie Lyons. I like to call it the sleeper book, because it’s not from a big publisher, well it’s mid-tier, it’s Flux. It’s written in verse. It’s amazing. I asked her, when I met her, why — I was amazed she could write in verse anyway. I can’t write in verse. I asked her why she did it that way, and she said “the use of white space in verse kind of mimics her characters emotional headspace”. I was thinking of what an amazing way to look at the layout of the book. You see that a lot in picture books but you don’t see it a lot — Like, Where the Wild Things Are, it gets bigger and bigger and bigger as Max goes. But as a novelist, you don’t think that way, and she was. I was like, “I want to be you when I grow up”.
Jen: I’ll say Jandy Nelson, I’ll Give You the Sun. What a fabulous book that was.
Lori: One I love that’s not a 2015-er book, We Were Liars by E. Lockhart. That just blew me away.
These group of ladies are fabulous. Many thanks for sitting down to do the interview with me, and I hope that Book Munchies’ readers are planning to or have already started reading any and all of these awesome books.
Meet the authors:
Lori Goldstein was born into an Italian-Irish family and raised in a small town on the New Jersey shore. She earned her bachelor’s degree in journalism from Lehigh University and worked as a writer, editor, and graphic designer before becoming a full-time author. She currently lives and writes outside of Boston. Lori is the author of the young adult contemporary fantasy series Becoming Jinn (Feiwel & Friends/Macmillan).
Lee Kelly has wanted to write since she was old enough to hold a pencil, but it wasn’t until she began studying for the California Bar Exam that she conveniently started putting pen to paper. An entertainment lawyer by trade, Lee has practiced law in Los Angeles and New York. She lives with her husband and son in Millburn, New Jersey, though after a decade in Manhattan, she can’t help but still call herself a New Yorker. City of Savages is her first novel.
Trisha Leaver lives on Cape Cod with her husband, three children, and one rather irreverent black lab. She is a chronic daydreamer who prefers the cozy confines of her own imagination to the mundane routine of everyday life. She writes Young Adult Contemporary fiction, Psychological Horror and Science Fiction and is published with FSG/ Macmillan, Flux/Llewellyn and Merit Press.
Jen Brooks has a habit of being deeply moved by profound ideas, and her writing reflects her interest in exploring human goodness, relationships, and the feeling of being a part of something greater than oneself. She loves the science fiction and fantasy genres because of their dazzling possibilities for portraying characters and ideas. She credits her undergraduate experience at Dartmouth College, her MFA at Seton Hill University, and her fourteen years of English teaching with shaping her writing. She is grateful to her family, friends, and students for inspiring her to write.
Everything can be made better with a good book or some relaxing knits. 😀 Find me on IG @kimberlyh12 or on Twitter @enervated.