Where do you get your ideas?
Since I was a kid, I’ve been making up stories. I’ve always been a watcher and a listener more than a talker. I like to eavesdrop on strangers in diners and trains. I like to watch people on the street. I like to read obituaries of well-lived lives. Somehow it all gets churned together and characters and ideas form. Often a book, for me, will coalesce around an image. For Strings Attached, I saw Kit dancing on a stage before I knew what her story was. I just knew she spotted someone in the audience she knew, and that she was afraid.
I want to write. How do I start?
All writers give the same advice to aspiring writers: read. I also think it’s a good idea to read outside your comfort zone. If you want to write YA, read the classics, too. Find a poet who speaks to you. Read nonfiction. I also tell beginning writers that setting small goals can help. Write a small amount every day—a couple of pages, or even a couple of paragraphs. Words add up, one hard page at a time. If you have a story that’s burning to be told, you’ll eventually reach the end. One hard page at a time is still the way I write, though I wait for those days when the writing flows and I am lost in my story and forget to eat lunch. Actually, that last part rarely happens. Lunch is a very important part of my day.
What do you do when you’re stuck?
I try to write my way through it. I just keep putting down sentences until something sings and I get inspired again.
If I’m really, truly stuck and disgusted with myself, I turn away from words and try to do something visual. Despite an appalling lack of talent, I sit down with art supplies and draw, or make a collage. I’m lucky to have some of the best museums in the world just an hour away, so sometimes I go to the Metropolitan Museum to look at something—paintings, photographs, ceramics, furniture—something I’ve never seen before. And then I hit the sidewalk. There’s nothing like a long city walk to kick start your creativity.
Why do you write YA?
Most of the trouble I got into in life happened the summer I was fifteen. That’s when the bumper sticker “Question Authority” became my motto. I remember feeling crazy. I remember feeling like a freak. I remember feeling like nothing would ever work out. I remember feeling insanely happy and stupidly miserable. It was a great summer. You feel so intensely, and make so many mistakes, and love so hard when you’re that age. You can get into so much trouble. It’s when you start to realize that your decisions can form the adult you’re going to become. It’s such great territory for a writer.
Why the postwar years?
I’ve always found the period fascinating. It evokes glamour for me. And yet it has a hard edge too, gritty and real. It’s full of contradictions– there is tremendous optimism, yet every day Americans were told that the Russians were going to drop the Bomb. As Life magazine said (and everybody read Life magazine in the fifties) “it’s not a question of if, but when.”
I also like the fact that teenagers had more autonomy. They were more on their own; they weren’t tethered to each other by cell phones. If you got in trouble, you couldn’t text OMG HELP to your best friend.
Can you explain the influence of film on your historical fiction?
I was a huge film fan. When I was fourteen years old, I spent an entire summer staying up all night watching movies on TV. At that time there was no Tivo, no streaming, no DVR. There were about ten channels to watch in New York City. And on a few of these channels, there was the late movie, and the late late movie, and the late late late movie. I watched them all.
I got my education that summer. In screwball comedies, in film noir, in the Marx Brothers, in musicals, in melodramas. I slept and read the days away, and I lived for those nights. Maybe if I had been part of a different family, I would have been given medication and therapy, but thank goodness children were ignored in those days. I got to live in the movies. I think I became a writer that summer, even though I didn’t write a word.
When I started working on What I Saw and How I Lied, I started out with Evie’s story. It took me awhile to realize that the story had the tropes of classic noir. I thought it would be interesting to throw a fourteen-year-old in the position where the hardboiled detective usually is– to be the one who everybody is lying to. For Strings Attached, I thought more about melodrama and those old Douglas Sirk movies. I liked the idea of taking the dancer and gangster and soldier and making their stories fresh, real, and emotionally resonant.
Do you base your characters on real people?
No. I might borrow a trait or a physical characteristic, but I’ve never based a character on a real person.
Do you have any hobbies?
I don’t like to cook, and I’m hopeless at crafts. I tend to kill plants. I like to mess around with art supplies—I don’t call what I do making art, I just love pencils and brushes and paper. On weekends, I like to read, go for long walks, and spend some unhurried time with my husband and daughter.
What is a typical day?
I wake up at 6AM every weekday and reach for my computer. I like to touch base with what I’m working on while my head is still a little addled from sleep. I can manage about an hour if I’m lucky. I have coffee with my husband, glance at the news, and then begins the typical scramble of getting my daughter to school– signing permission slips and finding library books and boots– and then we run down the hill to the school bus because we’re always late. When I return, the house is quiet and my workday really begins. I work until the school bus arrives, with time out for a walk. If I’m really crunching on a deadline, I’ll sneak in work anywhere— I’ve written in the elementary school gym, in the back seat of my car, by the town pool. When you’re a mom, you learn how to concentrate while the swirl of activity takes place around you. But you do run the danger of your child thinking a laptop is permanently affixed to you.
How do you do your research?
I love doing research! I start with primary sources: letters, autobiographies, newspaper articles, magazines I buy on Ebay. I listen to the music of the time. I also try to isolate myself as much as possible from the contemporary world. I only read books that are about the time period or set in the time period.
Can you recommend any movies from the period?
If you haven’t seen “All About Eve,” run and do it right now. I also love the darkness and acid of “Sweet Smell of Success.” “The Apartment” was a touchstone for me, even though it takes place in the early sixties.
Any chance for a sequel to What I Saw and How I Lied or Strings Attached?
No. I think I left both Evie and Kit with enough resilience to handle whatever life would throw at them next. I’ve set them loose to become interesting young women who have learned how to live with integrity.