Where do you get your ideas?
I have learned to really, really enjoy the moment when a bunch of thought fragments come together and create something whole.
I get my ideas for books, articles, and essays by reading everything and anything—from dense nonfiction to legal thrillers. I “waste” days at museums and indulge in impulsive decisions. I watch documentaries and films with subtitles and choose to walk instead of drive whenever I can. I write down everything in a journal, but if I don’t have that on hand, I’ll scribble on receipts, junk mail, my arm—any space available.
I ponder. I daydream. I read poetry. I think about The Big Stuff (love, time, meaning, etc.) a lot. I gather inspirations methodically, but to the outside world it probably looks like I am just plain living my life. I have learned to trust that my experiences, my information gathering, will all come together into something coherent. It’s not a perfect system, but I it’s the only one that works for me.
You must read a lot.
I do. I would read twenty-four hours a day if it was possible.
My idea of a perfect summer day begins and ends with a hammock by the shore of Lake Winnipesaukee and a stack of books. I read widely and pretty quickly. It’s not unusual for me to be tackling three or four books at once and I have a stack of New Yorkers that I might never get to the bottom of.
I’m a news junkie, so I read the New York Times and Boston Globe every day as well as a bunch of blogs and other news sites. There’s never enough time to read everything I want to.
Who are some of your favorite authors?
As a kid, I loved Roald Dahl, Shel Silverstein, Cynthia Voigt, and J.R.R. Tolkien. I read a lot of YA novels for my book review articles, and there are so many YA authors whose work I admire that worry I would miss someone if I tried to name them all.
As for adult fiction and nonfiction, I will return to Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Toni Morrison whenever I need to fall in love with language again. In high school, I lugged a hardcover of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essays in my backpack during a hiking trip through the 100-Mile Wilderness in Maine. I read everything Dave Eggers writes. I emulate Jack Kerouac, Gabriel García Márquez, Sherman Alexie, Neil Gaiman, Zadie Smith, Jennifer Egan, and so many others. I turn to poets Paul Kane, Charles Wright, and Nancy Willard whenever I need a kick of inspiration.
I appreciate writers who turn my world on end and books that stay with me years after I’ve finished reading them.
Even in Paradise
What inspired you to write Even in Paradise?
EIP began with a simple concept: it is possible to fall in love with an entire family.
I have known—and still know—such families. They are charming and tragic and both welcoming and guarded.
EIP is also a deliberate tribute to and directly inspired by two books that changed how I think about writing and storytelling: Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, which I read for the first time in a drafty flat while studying abroad in Scotland, and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, a novel I’ve loved since my sophomore year of high school.
Where’d you get the title “Even in Paradise“?
Even in Paradise comes from a Latin phrase, Et in Arcadia Ego, which loosely translates to “even in paradise, I exist.” Some very smart people (the kind of smart people who know how to translate Latin) interpret this to mean that even in paradise, there is darkness and sadness. Even in paradise, “I” (death) exists.
What kind of research did you have to do for EIP?
Over the course of writing EIP, I learned the social proprieties that must be considered when addressing another person in French. I had to dig out my sophomore Latin notes and rediscover Ovid. I tackled origami and Googled how to weld found-art sculptures. I gathered bottle caps with facts and looked at real estate listings. I asked my brother to explain the differences between various Austin Healey models. These are only some of the bizarre tidbits I gathered.
I traveled. I went to Nantucket, the Mexican restaurant where I worked as a waitress throughout college, to my old school, and so many other places.
I suppose that the most surprising “thing” I researched for EIP was myself. Before I started writing, I went through my journals, reread the books that I had read in high school, and studied old notes to refresh my memories of physics tests, AP exams, and all the trials and adventures of boarding school life.
How do you beat writer’s block?
I used to think writer’s block was a myth…and then I started working on my second book. Now, I know that writer’s block is real, and it’s the worst!
What I do to beat it depends on the severity of the situation. If I’m just struggling to find the right words, I’ll go get another cup of coffee. If I don’t know how to end a chapter, I’ll go outside, visit an art museum, read poetry, run around—anything to provoke creativity.
But say the writer’s block is a little more desperate. Say I’m stumbling over major plot points or a character is just not working out.
If I’m feeling completely stuck, I will go to extremes to clear my head. I have taken impulsive trips, gone skydiving, gotten lost on purpose, and put myself into situations requiring the use of machinery with sharp edges, all to jump start my creativity.
I do not recommend my mad methodology to anyone. That said, there is a kernel of truth in my crazy actions that I do endorse. I believe that to be a creative person—whether you are writing, painting, making video games, etc.—you need to live a creative and brave life. That means trying new things, exploring, adventuring, constantly pushing boundaries and asking “why?”
As Jack London famously said, “You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.”
Did you always want to be a writer?
Yes and no. For a long time, I didn’t know that I wanted to be a writer, but when I realized I did, the epiphany felt comfortable, like putting on an old sweater or walking into a familiar room.
I’ve always been a reader, but it wasn’t until college that I thought about writing. Vassar College was an incredible and life-changing experience for me. I loved being part of such a vibrant and intellectually curious community. During my four years studying English, I got to know Newbery Medal winner and poet Nancy Willard, conduct research for feminist scholar Karen Robertson, and write my thesis under the supervision of poet Paul Kane. Their encouragement was (and is still) invaluable.
What’s the best thing about being a writer?
Sure, there are days when constructing sentences feels as difficult as mowing a a soccer field with a pair of scissors and there are nights when deadlines circle above my head like the flying monkeys from The Wizard of Oz. but those days and nights are still valuable. Writing might be one of the few professions where you learn as much from failure as you do from success.
If pressed to pick just one “thing,” I guess I would say that what I love most about writing is when I am completely part of the imaginary world unfolding on my computer screen. Reality fades and for the span of a few minutes or maybe even an hour or two I live in a story.
Why do you write young adult novels?
I’m drawn to YA because the reading I did in middle and high school was the reading that made me fall in love with language. There are certain passages from Judy Blume, Cynthia Voigt, and Katherine Paterson novels that still make my breath hitch, they are that remarkable and lovely.
The other reason I write YA is the same reason so many people of all ages read it. I think people are drawn to coming-of-age books because they capture a fundamental truth of the human condition: Becoming the people we want to be doesn’t start at 13 and end at 18; it’s, in fact, a life-long project.
Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
I’m asked this question so often that I decided to devote an entire page to my answer.