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.
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.
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:
To order Underneath Everything:
Books of Wonder (signed copies)
Barnes & Noble