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Author Interview: Natasha Sinel

Figure 1. The Fix by Natasha Sinel

Figure 1. The Fix by Natasha Sinel

 

Today I’m pleased to share an interview I did with Natasha Sinel, author of The Fix, which came out this fall and was named as a finalist for YA Fiction in the USA Best Book Awards. I read The Fix early on and was really caught by its honesty in the difficult topics of sexual abuse, family dysfunction and addiction. The Fix takes an in-depth look at how we identify ourselves with respect to what was done to us, and what that means about who we are. I highly recommend.


Tell us a little about how The Fix came to be.

I took one meaningful moment from my high school experience—a girl and a guy have an intense conversation in which he unlocks something in her she didn’t fully realize was there, then he disappears the next day—and then I built a new story from there. I knew that Macy, the main character, was angry, and as I dug into her backstory, I discovered why. Ultimately, the reason for her anger and her struggle to come to terms with her past became what the book was about.

Had you done any other writing before The Fix

Yes! After short stories and bad beginnings of novels throughout high school, college, and my 20s, I completed my first manuscript (also YA realistic contemporary) in 2008. It struggled to find a home, so I put it aside to write The Fix. I view the manuscript’s current state as “taking a nice long break.” I haven’t lost hope for its future.

Talk a little bit about the non-writing aspects of your life.

So much of my life has become focused on the writing aspects of my life—writing, reading, and the business of publishing—that this question is surprisingly hard to answer! I think about writing all the time. My non-writing life involves mostly keeping my three sons, who are 10, 9, and 7, alive and generally on the happier side of surviving. They are very close in age but each of them is completely unique, which makes life interesting for us, and also very physically, mentally, and emotionally draining. But we all have fun together—we go on ski trips in the winter, and beach trips in the summer. And, since our extended families are spread out along the east coast, midwest, and Florida, we do a lot of traveling and hosting.

The Fix deals with some pretty intense issues: addiction, trauma, sexual abuse. What was the experience of writing about these topics like?

It was intense! I hadn’t planned on writing a novel about so many tough issues, but they turned up in my characters’ backstories, and once they were there, they were there to stay, along with the fixes they used to cope.

I believe that everyone hides pain from others. Often it’s denial used for self-preservation, but sometimes it’s because we believe our pain isn’t important enough to share. This seems particularly true for girls. Through Macy, I learned how a girl can go through the process of accepting not only that her pain is real but also important enough to share. That she’s important enough to speak up and to be heard. I felt a lot of pressure to do this right. I did plenty of research for this book—on sexual abuse, addiction, psychiatric hospitals, depression—to make sure I got the details right, but most of what my characters felt, I could imagine. That’s what writers do. And that was pretty intense!

Figure 2. Author Natasha Sinel

Figure 2. The author herself, Natasha Sinel

 

I have to ask the Obligatory question about writing YA: what do you think of our genre?

I’m a YA fiction reader—mostly contemporary realistic—so I love our genre. I know I should expand my reading to include other types of fiction, as well as non-fiction, but my reading time is limited, and I’ve decided I should just read what I want! What I love about reading and writing YA is exploring the very real feelings that happen to us during high school. Things matter. Teenagers are just beginning their journey toward independence, figuring out who they are, what’s important to them, how they feel about themselves. And they’re seeing that adults are actually just people—and that’s a precarious and exciting place to be.

What other kinds of books or media do you enjoy?

I love reading picture books and middle grade books with my three young boys, particularly picture books. I’m always interested to see which my children have loved and wanted to read over and over (and over and over) again, and whether, as an adult, I feel the same way. At the opposite end, I also like to read racy new adult fiction.

I worked on the business side at Showtime for years, so being a TV junkie was pretty much a requirement for the water cooler. Lately, though, I’ve been finding that reading is the only activity that stops my often-involuntary multi-tasking behaviors, so I’ve been doing a lot more reading than watching. I’m hoping to start leaving my house and going to the movies again—we have an amazing non-profit theater nearby that shows the best indie films.

What’s on tap next for you in terms of book stuff?

I have two manuscripts (both YA realistic standalones) in the almost-done stage and ready to send to my agent. But the almost-done stage is taking longer than I’d hoped!


Thanks for the chat, Natasha! 

Buy a copy of The Fix:
Indiebound
Barnes & Noble
Amazon

Visit Natasha Sinel online:

Author site
Facebook
Twitter

 

Author Interview: Marcy Beller Paul

underneath everything

Figure 1. Underneath Everything by Marcy Beller Paul, now available everywhere (signed copies at Books of Wonder)

 

I am happy to present an interview I conducted with Marcy Beller Paul, author of Underneath Everything, which released last week, and which was a pretty delicious book about girl friendship and the toxic interdependence of twining identities in adolescence.

Okay, that sounds kind of conceptual. It was a super juicy book. If you like contemporary realistic fiction, you’ll want to crack this one. 

Let’s talk writing. What’s your history with writing? 

In fourth grade my teacher, Mrs. Sullivan, gave us a handout that had an unfinished sentence at the top (these days I’d call that a writing prompt). It said something like “I got locked in school last night and…” We were allowed to sit wherever we wanted and write whatever we wanted. I went into the hallway, sat on the ledge of the window, propped my notebook on my legs, and hurt my hand trying to write as much as I could. And the whole time I just kept thinking: this can’t possibly be school. This is way too fun. After that I always picked the creative option in every English class assignment. Sometimes I submitted a creative option even when there wasn’t one offered. Sometimes that didn’t go over so well.

I tried to keep a journal a bunch of times but could never keep it up. Maybe because they weren’t actual journals. I never wrote about what happened to me in plain language. I filled the pages with images and stream of consciousness and parts of poems. I guess the journals were more like creative notebooks.

In high school I wrote articles for the paper and poems for the literary journal; and in college I took a poetry writing course with Jorie Graham, which actually did a lot for my fiction writing. But I wouldn’t figure that out until 11 years later, when I took the MediaBistro class in which my novel was born. That was January of 2010. I hadn’t done any formal fiction writing since my seventh grade short story, LOVE, STARS, AND DEMONS. I mean, I’d tried to write a novel a few times: once in high school, once or twice in college, a few times while I was working in publishing, but I’d always get fifteen or twenty pages in and realize I had no idea what I was doing. Especially when I saw all of the wonderful work coming across my desk at the time—books that did and didn’t published. But the urge to write never went away. Writing was always a thing that came easily to me. I loved English papers. I loved playing around with words and phrases.

Marcy Beller Paul

Figure 2. Author Marcy Beller Paul, Herself

 

So, tell us a little about the rest of your life, i.e. the non-writing aspects.

I’m the youngest of three. My brothers are five and seven years older than I am, so in a lot of ways I was the little princess of the family, and in a lot of ways I wasn’t. I didn’t willingly wear a skirt until I was ten or eleven, despite my mother’s best efforts. I threw a fit the day of my older brother’s Bar Mitzvah because I didn’t want to wear a barrette in my hair. I was pretty strong willed, I guess. And I liked being the center of attention. At my younger brother’s Bar Mitzvah, it started raining and I took it upon myself to grab my father’s trench coat and hat and entertain everyone in our backyard with a one person kick line to the song New York, New York. I was eight years old.

I was dragged around to a bunch of things for my brothers when I was little, but I also did a bunch of my own things. I rode horses and danced and played tennis and piano and clarinet and went to Hebrew school. I remember at some point my mother told me I couldn’t do everything, so I gave up horses (which still makes me sad to think about), and focused on tennis (which still makes me happy to think about).

By the time I got into skirts and boys (but not really makeup, which my mother was always asking me to try), my brothers were both in college. I was getting a lot more attention from my parents, which I didn’t always like, but at least I still had my brothers around to tell me what was coming next in life. I love that about having older brothers, and still do. I feel like I’m always getting a sneak peek at ages I haven’t experienced yet.

Even though I loved playing tennis and volleyball in high school, I didn’t continue in college. I wasn’t really good enough to play. But I did sing in a co-ed a capella group for three years called The Opportunes. If you play King of Wishful Thinking I can still sing my block part 😉 Luckily, the boy who sang the solo on that song, who I met before classes even started freshman year, can still sing it for me. We’ve been married for 10 years this November and have known each other for 19. He’s seen me through college and my career in publishing, our party days (years) in New York, marriage, the birth of two children, and the writing and publication of my first book.

Do you watch television? What shows do you enjoy? Feel free to be elaborate on stories or characters. This is a safe space.

I do watch television, but I’m sort of like Andy Samberg in the intro to the Emmy’s this year: ask me if I’ve seen a show and the answer is probably no. No Game of Thrones. No Homeland. No Veep. No American Horror Story. No Walking Dead. I found Friday Night Lights pretty late and I think we can all agree that FNL is just about as good as it gets (I could basically listen to Tim Riggins say “Lyla” over and over again for eternity and it would always slay me.) And I finally watched Breaking Bad this summer and it was as intense as everyone says. (I sort of want to be Jesse’s sister and mother and girlfriend all at once. Is that weird?)

When I watch television with my husband it’s usually sports (hockey for him, tennis for me) or comedy. We love watching stand-up specials, Drunk History, Key & Peele. Anything to make us laugh after long days.

My one true weakness is singing competition shows. I’m actually watching The Voice right now. (Yes, it’s the best in terms of pacing and production, but American Idol (RIP) was obviously better at grooming breakout stars.) I’ve even watched the X-Factor, which is pretty horrible, but who can deny the adorableness of Alex & Sierra? I’ve been trying to figure out what it is about these shows that’s so addictive. I mean, I sang a cappella in college (it’s one of the ways I met my husband), but I don’t think that’s it. I think what really gets me is that the process feels familiar—people are going after their dreams and taking creative risks and working their asses off to make something difficult seem effortless and genuine. It’s basically the same thing a writer does every time she puts words on the page. The only difference is that the writer does it in private. I can’t imagine what it must be like to do it in such a public forum, in front of judges! All I know is that I get really happy when someone does it well.

tim lyla

Figure 3. We can’t stop thinking about you, Tim

 

Tell a little bit about where Underneath Everything, your debut novel, came from.

Underneath Everything was born in the last two weeks of an online MediaBistro class. I’d been out of the publishing industry for about three years, my kids were almost one and three, and I needed something for myself. I figured that maybe with some basic training I could get past that fifteen/twenty page wall I’d hit every other time I’d tried to write a novel, and I did! I got fifty pages into something before I realized I didn’t actually care about it. After that I spent a few classes trying out different styles, then in the final weeks I came up with the first sequence of Underneath Everything. By the time the class ended I had the tools I needed to finish the manuscript—a writing habit, critique partners, and the permission to take my work seriously.

But that first draft was very different than the book I eventually submitted and sold. It had a traditional love triangle between two boys and a girl. Then, during my read-through for revisions, I got to a scene between the main character and a female friend of hers that immediately stood out to me. It was so much more intense and interesting than anything else.

I think maybe I was trying to tell that story in the first draft, but was afraid to face it, so I buried it in the subplot. I’d had my own toxic friendship in middle school and high school and I’d gotten past it by cutting it off completely. I’d never gone back and forced myself to examine it. If I was really going to write this story, I knew I’d have to go back there, mentally. I also knew it was going to take a lot of work. I was going to have to cut off the second half of the novel, rewrite it, then heavily revise the first half.

The funniest part of the whole thing is that at some point during that massive revision, I found some of my original failed novel attempts from high school and college, and all of them were about groups of girls. One even had a character named Jolene! So I guess this story had been in me for a long time, I just needed the right timing and tools to tell it.

Now we have to have the Obligatory YA question: did you mean to write Underneath Everything as a YA novel? 
That MediaBistro class was for YA novel writing, so yes, I definitely meant to write YA.

Although I hadn’t worked in almost three years when I began writing Underneath Everything, my last position in publishing was Audio Acquisitions Editor at Scholastic, so I was already familiar with the age range (and had totally fallen for it). I still remember how I much I swooned reading Thirteen Reasons Why and Cassandra Clare’s City of Bones when they came in on submission. I loved that job.

Scholastic is actually where I began my career in publishing as well. I had an internship in the Arrow and Teen Age Book Club division the summer after my junior year in college and got to work with Nancy Mercado (who is fun and fabulous). That was my true introduction to YA. Part of my job was to read books for content and note any bad words and behavior. I tore through all of Ellen Hopkins’ and Laurie Halse Anderson’s books, and a bunch of others. I couldn’t believe books like that were being written. I couldn’t believe how well they were selling. That also happened to be the summer the first Harry Potter book came out (in paperback), so every day in the elevator you’d see some new article about how adults were buying children’s books, and how Harry Potter had hit the NYT adult bestseller list (there was no children’s list back then). It was pretty cool.

Despite all of that coolness, I took a job at an adult publisher after I graduated college. Maybe because I felt like it was my first job as an adult and I should be publishing for adults? Luckily after a few years working in print, then ebooks, and eventually audiobooks, I saw the Scholastic job opening. Once I was there I couldn’t believe I’d ever left children’s.

Author Malinda Lo wrote a really great piece for The Horn Book a while back talking about her “central projects” as a writer. Have you identified your own “central projects” yet? 

I’ve only finished one book, so I’m not sure I can identify my central projects 100% (hey, it even took Malinda Lo a few published works to figure it out!) but now that I’m looking over what I’ve done and what I’ve got in the pipeline, I’ll give it a shot.

It may seem weird to start talking about religion here, but stick with me: I was raised Jewish. I went to Sunday school and Hebrew school. I had a Bat Mitzvah. I even went to confirmation class after that to continue my Jewish education. But (as my mother can tell you) from a very early age it didn’t make sense to me that I should believe in a religion just because my parents did. When I asked about this I got the standard answer. I’m paraphrasing here, but it was something like: “Because that’s how it is. Now get out of bed.”

When I got to college I was still struggling with this. If I didn’t believe in Judaism, what did I believe in? Luckily I met my husband around that time. He was studying religion and philosophy. So obviously we talked about it. I told him how God was something I couldn’t really get a handle on. But the intricate and complicated way we affect each other, and what happens as a result of that? The energy that exists between people? That was something I believed in. That was the closest thing to a religion I could find. My husband (then boyfriend) labeled me a secular humanist. One of the tenets of secular humanism is “a consequential ethics system.” To quote the Council for Secular Humanism, “Secular humanists seek to develop and improve their ethical principles by examining the results they yield in the lives of real men and women.”

So if people are my religion, then their actions and interactions are my scripture. The closest thing I’ve got to a central project so far is: to dig deeply into how and why and when people torture and please each other, and what the consequences of those actions are. Especially since we’re living in a world where Facebook and Instagram and so many other social media sites show only the glossy moments of life.

Talk about your reading life a bit: what do you read for comfort, escape, research, curiosity…?

For the past few years I’ve immersed myself in YA. I wanted to know what was doing well and what was coming and what I liked and didn’t like if I was going to try to publish into it. When I’m not on a strictly YA diet, I like literary fiction, psychological thrillers, poetry, and memoirs. Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking is one of my favorite books of all time. I saw the show as well, with Vanessa Redgrave. It was heartbreaking and beautiful. Every once in a while I’ll throw in some non fiction, but honestly I’d rather just read a magazine article for stuff like that. It’s hard for me to sustain interest in an entire non fiction book. Memoirs are my only exception in that category, because they focus on the personal experience.

Speaking of social media – what is your own relationship to it? Has it changed since getting a book deal?

Oh, Social Media. We’ve had our good times and we’ve had our bad times. But I can’t deny that you were instrumental in the writing of this book. Here’s how:

I’m not an early adopter. I didn’t even get a cell phone for a year or two after most people had one. And when touch screens were the big thing, I clung to a keyboard (up until last year!). I never had a MySpace page and I was late to Facebook. But something happened after I left my job to stay home with my kids. For most of the day I was busy with diapers and feedings and laundry and such, then for the few minutes I had free I would check out Facebook and see my friends in glamorous dresses at wonderful parties or with their kids who could sing the alphabet at 18 months. It didn’t matter so much at the time, because it was only a few minutes here or there, but it was still a reminder of the fact that I was home in my pajamas trying to take care of the babies and wondering if I’d ever have a clean apartment again.

Then this amazing thing happened. Both of my children began napping for two hours in the middle of the day. If you don’t have kids, this is basically The Dream. I had TWO WHOLE HOURS to myself! I could workout! Cook! Clean! Shower! Eat! The possibilities were endless. And of course I did none of them. Instead I looked at Facebook. The first day I wasted every single minute of my precious free time on Facebook I decided I had to make a change. Why should I be reading about everyone else’s fabulous life and doing nothing about my own? That was the day I signed up for the YA Novel Writing Mediabistro course. Every day after that I put my kids to bed for their naps and ran to my computer to write.

But writing is difficult, especially when you’ve never tried to write a novel before. I wanted to talk to someone about it. I missed the publishing industry, not to mention adult conversation. So I got on Twitter. Since I couldn’t take the time away from my kids to go to conferences, Twitter was where I found my writing community. Twitter made me feel less alone and helped me motivate through the most difficult times during the writing process when I felt like I couldn’t do it, because there was always some writer tweeting about having trouble with the same thing (sometimes even authors I admired a great deal). And even though it has changed a little since getting my book deal, I still feel like for the most part Twitter is my watercooler. It’s where I find my writing and publishing people talking and thinking about industry things. It’s where I’ve made some absolutely amazing friends. It’s just that now there are people looking forward to my book on there, which is still surreal.

Thanks for the chat, Marcy!


Visit Marcy online:

Author site
Instagram
Twitter
Facebook

To order Underneath Everything:

IndieBound
Books of Wonder (signed copies)
Barnes & Noble
Amazon

 

 

Author Interview: Ash Parsons

Figure 1. Still Waters, by Ash Parsons, available April 21, 2015

Figure 1. Still Waters, by Ash Parsons, available April 21, 2015

All right. Tell us a little about yourself.

I am allergic to questions like that.  But I have taken Benadryl today so…here goes. I hate personality tests and I hate those introvert/extrovert posts.  When did we all become such special snowflakes? I’m feeling grumpy today. It’s the weather, I think. Also maybe I need more coffee. I need a lot more coffee. I love coffee. I also love TV. I wish I could just watch TV in bed all day, especially today. I have circled back around from grumpy-to-appreciative-to grumpy again. I am usually happy, I would say. But today I am grumpy. I need it to be warm already, no more cold snaps, FFS.

Okay, let’s pan out. When did you start writing? And WHAT did you start writing?

Hmm. I’m pretty sure I wrote ever since I picked up a pencil but the first “I’m going to write a book!” moment I for certain remember was in the fifth grade. I wanted to write a “Ben and Me” meets “The Black Stallion” middle-grade animals-as-main-characters-historical-fiction. I have it somewhere, probably. It was called THE HORSE LATITUDES and was about when Spanish boats  would throw off dead/dying horses when there was no winds/the voyage was prolonged enough to affect water supplies.  In hindsight, I really just wanted those horses to make it to an island and survive. My kid thinks this is an excellent book idea, btw.  I may be guilty of telling him a version of LOST complete with smoke monster except my horses are the MCs. Kinda like a wingfic AU except with Horses instead of people.  And no wings.  

I still need coffee.

Tell us a little about your debut novel, Still Waters. How did this novel come to be?

Like all authors, inspiration comes from many places but there are two things that directly inspired STILL WATERS – one, I was a teacher in a rural school (7-12). One day, I overheard my students talking about how another student had been shot over the weekend. The student turned out to be fine, but it was one of those things that rumors were swirling around (it was a hunting accident, but there were rumors of more before it all got sorted out). Hearing my students gossip and conjecture about the accident made me remember the second thing –a murder that a kid from my high school had committed (when I was in high school). I was thinking about that murder, and what the “official story” was about it, about why it had happened, and how. I knew the end of the story, but nothing else.  And I didn’t know (and I would dare say none of us know) how something like that starts. And that was the genesis of this book- I was thinking about how that situation started – or could have started. And then it took on a life of it’s own. 

You know that I’m contracted by law to point out that your main character, Jason, is a boy. And you are not a boy. What the hell is that? EXPLAIN YOURSELF, PARSONS.

Alas, I can not explain. Methinks that’s part of why I write fiction.I don’t completely trust biography. I don’t completely trust non-fiction. If you want to get at me with truth, you need to clothe it in story, then I’ll believe you. I like the freedom in fiction to tell hard truths without making it your truth, if that makes sense. Writing from any perspective other than “mine” is where I want to be. Not to sound like a hokey writer-with-the-hoo-doo-woo-woo thing happening, but honestly this voice was just there from the start and I recognized it immediately.  Dammit.  The hoo-doo-woo-woo happened anyway.

There’s a fuckload of violence and sex in your book. Which is just one reason I like it. So, let’s talk about that. What’s driving Jason? How do you feel about writing about sex and violence?

Lol – way to take it easy on me, Carrie. Okay, yes there’s a lot of violence in my book. Sex too. The dark fights in the boys bathrooms – that happened at the school where I taught. And fights were a fairly regular occurrence both there and at the high school I went to, back in the day. So I wanted to include that – where it wasn’t a sanitized thing and where it’s almost just background noise that feeds into the main story. What drives my main character Jason, is anger and desperation. I was very connected to the anger aspect, and so I really loved writing that. Not gonna lie. I liked writing the fights a lot. I actually had to cut some. Sex I wanted to write because it felt true – these characters were having sex and while it affected them it wasn’t the end-all-be-all of the plot…it was more about revealing hunger for connection but was also inherently “connectionless” – I wanted that to feel authentic but not necessarily satisfying.

Okay, let’s talk about television. Specifically, Daryl Dixon. But I’ll be down for some Hannibal discussion. Or Nashville. Or Beauty and the Beast. It’s TV that brought us together, so we must pay some tribute.

Let us discuss!  TWD: Do you think they’re going to kill Daryl Dixon on Sunday?  I so miss S. 2 Daryl I could spit. I need some badassery pronto, Daryl. And some misplaced hostility, please. And a haircut. Kthxbye. 

Hannibal!!!  Hannibal!!!  That s2 FINALE. How the hell. How. The. Hell. The writers of that show have my love & admiration. Can’t wait for s3. Can’t wait for the great red dragon (Richard Armitage).  I want more murder tableaux. Also after last season I’m ready for tasty-looking-people, take that how you will.  (How you WILL. See what I did there?)

And Y U NO WATCH Vikings when I have TOLD YOU and TOLD YOU.(sorry for shouting).

Figure 2. Bloody knuckled  Georgia boys are an A. Parsons favorite

Figure 2. Bloody knuckled Georgia boys are an A. Parsons favorite

I DIDN’T HAVE CABLE UNTIL RECENTLY, HAVE MERCY! I totally will watch the HELL outta Vikings. But I’m struggling with the juggling, yanno? Gotta finish Supernatural, of course. Back to television/fiction topics: tell us your favorite kinds of stories and/or books.

I still don’t have cable. *cue the world’s smallest violin*

My favorite stories are character rich but aren’t just a character study. I like to have an arc, as we spoke of  regarding Mr. Dixon. I love when there is a giant hook plot-wise but which is then made powerful through the characters dangling on said hook (see:  The Walking Dead,Rectify, Hannibal).

In books I love the same things – giant plot hooks that are then handled/examined with absolute deft characterization. I love The White Darkness by Geraldine McCaughrean- talk about a hook! and Days of Little Texas by R.A. Nelson is one of my all-time favorite YA’s. There’s a special place in my heart for books that I loved as a teen and also loved to teach, so I must mention S.E. Hinton’sThe Outsiders (what a joy to teach) and I am the Cheese by Robert Cormier. Finally I love historical fiction and gravitate towards dark stories there – Sarah Waters, Rose Tremaine, and Maria McCann are my go-to-authors in that sub-genre. Someone please point me towards another dark historical, prithee. Seriously have you read As Meat Loves Salt? Amazing.

Dude, I’ve only read The Outsiders. I need to get with the program, obviously. All right. Now we have to discuss the YA factor. Still Waters is a Young Adult novel; its main character is an adolescent boy. So, out with it! Is Young Adult a genre (a point of view? a marketing construct? a reading level? does anyone fucking care?) Here’s where you explain yourself about how you ended up writing a YA novel, because we have to know who to blame.

My answer to this question is: Yes. It’s a genre, a possible reading level, a marketing “where do you put it in the bookstore” construct, and yeah, people care. I care insofar as I don’t want my work dismissed as “just” for teens. That pisses me right off for several reasons. First and foremost let’s stop insulting young people as if a genre focusing on characters their age isn’t worth any adult attention. How very 1950s. Run along, Junior.  Also, honestly, I would be pissed right off if I wrote in another genre that was dismissed for whatever people-putting-up-fences reason — examples: literary (too esoteric), scifi (too far-fetched), romance (too girly), etc. Let’s not be reductive assholes, huh?

How I ended up writing a YA novel – I already talked about some of the inspiration for this particular story. Beyond that there is the undeniable universality of the conflict between “being vs becoming” – the coming of age story. It’s why we still read Romeo and Juliet, etc. If you want to go a little further you have to start to examine why readers read – and that can get interesting. Honestly I think that’s at the root of dismissing books/genres. Ugly human nature likes to dismiss things/people to elevate itself or reinforce the status quo. Huh. Maybe I should write a dystopian next.

Maybe you should marry me? 

I DO.

Excellent. Now, once we dispatch with our spouses and children, we’re golden! Tell me about what you were like when you were in high school.

*Hurk* I just threw up in my mouth. Yuck. I don’t know what I was like, I just know what I’d like to remember myself as/what I wanted to be like….or what bugged the fuck out of me and stuff. I look back on past me with charity – cluelessness was my natural state. At first I loved high school because I was finally back in public school after 2 years in parochial school (*emphasis puke*) and 2 years before that in DOD school. Then I got depressed as hell and hated pretty much everything for most of the rest of it. I failed math almost every year and was lucky to get a diploma, really. That’s another story. I had a small group of very good friends and that helped. I wasn’t popular, I wasn’t a pariah, I was just keeping my head down. When I look back, sure I had good times, but I just remember struggling a lot – with mental health, with school, etc. Until my senior year when I started the painful process of giving less fucks. That only worked because it was almost over. Also my senior year I truly realized what I excelled at, and more specifically, how much it meant to me: studying books and poems and creative writing. My senior AP English teacher was the first adult who made me feel like a writer. I’m trying to find her address as I want to send her a thank you card with a copy of the book when it comes out. 

Have you asked these questions of yourself?  Cos now I’m curious about what you were like in high school.  Since we’re getting married and stuff.

Figure 3. Tanlines: the bane of any girl's formal dance experience, as Young Ash can attest

Figure 3. Ash Parsons, high school version. And can I just say this? Tanlines = the bane of any girl’s formal dance experience

I hung out with some very excellent, funny girls and we did so many sneaky things we totally got away with! But I was not popular, nor an outcast. I was sort of basic. I had pretty good grades, but not a 4.0. I played some sports, which I was fair to middling at in terms of skill. I had a couple of boyfriends who were by turns gross and amusing. Mainly, I had friends, which is why I have some good high school memories. If you’ve got people to sit by at lunch, that’s about as much success as a person can hope for in high school. The rest is just gravy. 

Also, I had giant Jon Bon Jovi hair that defied any attempts at curling up into the coveted hairspray horn so popular in that era. I had terrific Brooke Shields eyebrows you could surf on. I started junior high as a label whore and evolved into a flannel-wearing, old-man-sweater fan. 

Okay, I’ve said too much. Interviewer over-share. Now, tell us what comes next after Still Waters? What are you planning to do for its release? And what are you working on now?

I LOVE your definition of being successful in high school. We need that tacked on to the mandatory pledge, IMO. That’s perfect.

I’m working on book 2 – I’m not certain what I can share except that it’s about celebrity- taking giant plot-hooks and sinking them into some poor characters. I’m loving the writing and revising – I’m fascinated with pressure magnifying wounds or unmet needs from childhood. So yeah. That’s my book 2. It will come out summer of 2016.

For Still Water’s release I’m going to TLA!  [That’s the Texas Library Association’s annual conference, for the civilians – Carrie] I’m so excited! Librarians are my tribe.  And when I get back the book comes out. I’m going to visit my friend Chantel’s university class, and then that night we’re having a party in a brewery.  It’s perfect, there will be beer. I wish you could be there, Carrie. We could elope.

We’re not gonna elope unless you can figure out somehow to get Norman Reedus to marry us. That’s the only way my husband will approve.

Figure 4. Ash Parsons, current version

Figure 4. Ash Parsons, current version, heading with her hobo stick to TLA…

To preorder Still Waters: 

IndieBound
BAM!
Amazon
Barnes & Noble

To learn more about Ash Parsons:
Ash on Twitter
Ash Parsons’ author website 

Author Interview: Bryan Bliss

Figure 1. No Parking at the End Times, debut novel of Bryan Bliss, out February 24, 2015

Figure 1. No Parking at the End Times, debut novel of Bryan Bliss, out February 24, 2015

 

Bryan Bliss is now a part of the Minnesota Kidlit Cabal, so sorry if you were hoping to get your hooks into him! TOO BAD; he’s OURS.

I first met Bryan at a conference at the Loft in Minneapolis, when he came to do a presentation on writing realistic boy characters in YA with his cohorts Steve Brezenoff and Jeff Geiger from the late great Boys Don’t Read blog and he was super disarming and chatty and I love that in a man (okay, I love that in any person).

As well as being agent-mates, Bryan and I have had lots of fun online debating about religion (not with each other but with other unsuspecting internet rubes) and he is very very smart about theology and religion and lots of other things. I was lucky enough to get an ARC of his debut novel, No Parking at the End Times and highly recommend it. In this story, twins Abigail and Aaron are living in their van with their parents, who have sold everything to follow a charismatic preacher who has convinced them the world is going to end. Except, the world doesn’t end as predicted, and the family finds themselves stuck in a futureless loop of handouts and hopes in a strange place. It is a multi-layered story that deals with basic YA subject matter (parental disillusionment, becoming independent, taking risks) as well as issues as vast as homelessness, poverty, street culture, and the big obvious one, religion.

Figure 2. The actual man himself, Bryan Bliss

Figure 2. The actual man himself, Bryan Bliss

 

Tell us a little bit about yourself. Likes, dislikes, habits. GO.

I lived most of my young life in Chicago, but I always say I grew up in North Carolina. I moved there the summer before my senior year and it was one of the best things that ever happened to me. Part of it is being the new kid and all the allure and mystery that comes with such a thing. I spent the next fifteen years in the south–going to college, getting married, having kids. It’s not an accident that everything I write is strongly tied to North Carolina. For me, that was my sweet sixteen. My prom. Pick your John Hughes trope. Now, I live in Minneapolis with the same wife and kids and I spend most of my time reading, writing, riding my bike. I like to think that I’ll go all Hemingway and get into something like rock climbing or bull fighting, but it doesn’t seem likely.

Why don’t you tell us your opinion on Hemingway, since you brought old Papa up…

I’m not a fan, actually. A lot of it comes from him being the White Male Ideal in a lot of ways. That’s obviously troublesome for a number of reasons, patriarchy being the first. But also, I think he’s also a bit of the exemplar for what a writer should be (again, especially White Males) – manly, gun-toting, drunk. There’s a fucked up romanticism about those things that I unwittingly just aligned myself with. But in all honesty, I hate that. It goes the way of the depressed artist who needs to be broken to create. I think it’s bullshit.

Wow, that was a dark turn. Ask me about My Little Pony next.

There is too much MLP in my actual life! No! Why don’t you tell us a little about what got you started writing fiction.

But I had a story about my son liking MLP and how he once told me, “Dad, it’s okay for boys to like this stuff and I want EVERYBODY to know.” But fine. Fiction. 

I’ve written short stories off and on since high school and my first real job was as a reporter at a daily newspaper. So writing has been a part of my life for a long time. But my first serious fiction project came about during a holiday break in graduate school. My daughter was about to be born and I had this intense feeling that I needed to write a book. It was terrible and laughably autobiographic (minus the part where the Olive Garden waiter somehow gets recruited to be a spy… I don’t know.) But that was it. I was hooked. I rewrote that book at least twenty times, eventually turning it into a YA novel. It never sold, but it eventually got me connected with my agent. In a lot of ways, it’s how I really learned how to write fiction. Constantly revising, refusing to let go of an idea that I still think is great. And now that I think about it, this all happened ten years ago exactly. January 2004.

Figure 3. Rocking the turtleneck AND blazer, as one does...

Figure 3. Rocking the turtleneck AND blazer, as one does…

 

How does having kids affect how you write? Does it affect how you write YA?

Yes and no. Kids take up a lot of time, so it’s a constant battle to carve out an hour or two to work. But I don’t know if there are bigger fans of me or what I’m trying to do with this writing thing. They love to name drop, which I find hilarious. They’re especially enamored with Steve Brezenoff who, in their minds, is a mix of J.K. Rowling and John Green. They’re constantly saying things like, “My dad knows authors… You may have heard of Steve.” It’s hilarious, but it also reminds me that they’re getting to live a life that I would’ve loved at their age. To have connections to writers and books is awesome – even for me now. So I’m happy that I get to share that with them. Now, how it affects the actual words is a different story. I feel a fairly deep sense of obligation to my kids to write stories that will help them understand what’s coming and – this is probably going to sound really arrogant – who I am as a person. I’m pretty communicative, but I like to think that maybe these books are a way that we can talk to each other later on when I’ll be Mr. “Oh My God, Dad, Stop Being Such a Weirdo.”

What about your spouse? What does she think about your vocation?

That’s a good question. She loves books, and she knows that I love writing – so there will always be that level of consent. But if I’m perfectly honest, I know there are times when she wishes she wasn’t married to a writer. It gets old, always having to check out of situations because it’s the only time you’ve got to put some words down. And I’m actually pretty good at establishing boundaries, too. I think we’re lucky It probably would help more if I wrote the kind of books she likes to read. I don’t want it to seem like she isn’t supportive, because that’s not even close to be true. If anything, her level of patience with me and this work is saint-like. But I bet she wishes I had a different hobby… like knitting.

This makes lots of sense to me. I have a husband who supports me but he’s not exactly rushing to read my books (though he sure as hell answers every awful, obscene question I ever put to him). 

Let’s talk YA. What do you think it means, to write Young Adult Literature?

That’s a huge question. At a base level, I think it means that you’re interested in and believe that the lives – and stories – of teenagers have inherent worth. That’s where I start. From there, I just think teenagers are damn interesting and fun. They live in a world where Everything is Happening at All Times and that’s a recipe for compelling fiction. That urgency is something I love to tap into. It reminds me of what it’s like to see the Girl, to feel like you’re going to throw up because Holy Hell What Could I Possibly Say and Not Sound Like an Idiot? It’s driving around small towns with friends, listening to music with the windows down. It’s remembering when I was in high school and reliving all those glorious and awkward and legendary moments. I don’t know, it just kicks ass, right?

Figure 3. Bryan Bliss, Actual Teenager

Figure 4. Bryan Bliss, Actual Teenager

 

Well, yeahhhh! Also, these aren’t stories solely about teenagers. I think about all the characters in my books very intensely. Adult characters are just as key, even if they don’t dominate the narrative. What are some of the themes in YA that you like to write about.

Oh, you’re definitely right. It’s a huge pet peeve for me when parents or teachers become a way to make things happen in a book. The parents in my book are much maligned by the people who’ve read it, which is always surprising to me because I spent a lot of time writing them with empathy. And I think that’s key – we need to understand the adult characters even when the characters can’t or won’t.

That said, I seem to always come back to a few themes in my writing. I’m supremely interested in the fallibility of parents – it’s heartbreaking for me as a father, to realize that my kids will one day feel like I’m an idiot. But that switch from hero to goat happens to everyone, and I think there’s dynamite in it. Again: I’m not talking about making parents the typical “She’s such a bother” character. Like I said above, real characters with real issues – that’s my jam. A bigger theme is that of class. I grew up poor and can still feel the injustice of not being able to have the things kids want – toys, basketball shoes, all that. That definitely comes out in my fiction. It’s not that I don’t care about wealthy kids, or think that having shoes and toys makes you a happier person, but the struggle of being a kid/teenager compounded with economic realities is something I want to highlight.

In No Parking at the End Times, you write from the POV of Abby, a girl. Got anything clever to say about being a dude and writing from a lady’s perspective? (Please note: I’m contractually obligated to ask you this, because the Imagination Is A Mysterious Thing and Aren’t We All Writing What We Know?)

I honestly don’t. I will say that I’m very nervous about writing all of my characters, because I desperately want to get them right. I want their motivations to be real and their reactions to match. I think when you come from that place – a place of humility about what you can and can’t know – it becomes easier to write outside of “what you know.” I will say that when I came up with the idea for this book, I knew it was going to be told from a female’s perspective. It’s never happened to me before or since, but Abigail’s voice came to me instantly. I knew exactly who she was and how she would sound on the page. In fact, the first lines I ever wrote for No Parking are still in the book, unchanged. 

A lot of people have said that No Parking at the End Times is a novel about religion, which is true, but I also see it as a novel about disillusionment, whether that’s with parents or ideas or religion. What is the origin story of this book and what questions were in your mind as you wrote it?

You’re exactly right. When I told my agent about this idea, I pitched it as the story of a girl who loses faith in her parents. While I’m personally interested in stories that deal with religion – in any number of ways – I don’t want to write Christian fiction. In fact, before this, I had decided to never write a book about religion. I’m just too close to the topic and I didn’t want to be seen as a pitch man.  As a result, I tried really hard to make the religious parts of this book… not religious. I usually explain it like this: Friday Night Lights is not a t.v. show about football. Football is a part of the lives of the characters. And while football is definitely a big part of the show, we’re not invested in their lives because they play a sport. Same thing with The Walking Dead. Not a show about zombies, right? [EXACTLY! – ed.]

Hopefully, it’s the same way with my characters and story.

That said, I definitely had religion on my mind when I was writing this. Harold Camping had recently predicted the end of the world and of course that didn’t happen. He took a lot of people’s money. Regardless what you might think of them, these are people who faithfully believed in God and suddenly were left with nothing. Hopefully nobody got to the point of the family in No Parking, but that tension was alive for me throughout the writing. What happens when you make a big ass mistake? Adults can come back from it. Can teens? Once I got to that place, I knew I was going to write this book. 

 

What’s the most fun part about writing and publishing books?

I think the most fun is the writing and the publishing, which I realize is a boring answer. But for me, that’s it. I never thought I would get a book published, and I can’t properly explain why. So everything about this process – good, bad – is something I really appreciate. I realize I’m about two seconds from being all #blessed, but that’s really how I feel. We’re lucky to get to do this sort of work, even when it makes you want to hit your head against the wall. And that’s the perspective I try to keep whenever things don’t go as originally planned.

 What’s next for Mr. Bryan Bliss?

 As for what’s next, book number two is already written and with the publisher. For right now it’s called Meet Me Here, and it’s the story of two former best friends who reconnect at a graduation party. It’s told in that one night, with both of them having to make some pretty big decisions before the sun comes up. I’m also working on what I hope will be book number three, which deals with a topic I’m pretty passionate about. But I’m still keeping that one pretty close to the chest.

Thanks for chatting with me, BB!


 

For more on No Parking at the End Times and adolescent homelessness and poverty in YA books, here is an excellent post from Teen Librarian Toolbox.

No Parking at the End Times comes out February 24, 2015. Get your copy here and here and here. You can follow Bryan on Twitter to see what he’s got cooking in the future: @brainbliss

 

 

 

That One Time Andrew Smith Came To Minneapolis

It was kind of excellent, you guys.