When It Happens. The author? Susane Colasanti, who has since published two more novels, Take Me There and Waiting for You. Her latest, Something Like Fate, is out May 4. The verdict? Ms. Colasanti is awesome. Read on:
You were a high school teacher in New York City for almost ten years. Now that you're no longer teaching full-time, how do you keep up with how teens talk, what they're listening to, and what's on their minds?
It was definitely much easier to keep up with the latest scene when I was surrounded by kids all day. Even though I’m not as immersed in the culture, any slang that survives at least a few years will find its way to me somehow. When I’m writing, I usually only include slang that has been around for a while so people can understand what they’re reading when they pick up my books decades from now. As far as what teens are thinking about, I believe that never really changes. Contemporary issues like sexting and online social networking are new, but the universal issues that connect us all are timeless. Teens will always have the same intrinsic needs and wants, no matter what year it is.
When I was a teacher, I listened to a lot of the same music as my kids. I told myself that I would never be one of those clueless grownups who has no idea what’s on the radio. But these days I mostly listen to NPR, and I’m sad to report that I’ve become out of touch with a lot of the newest music. One of these days, Z100 and I will have an overdue reunion.
Your novels have a variety of settings: Manhattan, suburban New Jersey, a Connecticut river town. How do you decide where to place each story?
When I start writing a new book, the setting is a very important element for me. I like using the physical environment to enhance the story as much as possible, almost as if the setting is its own character. That was especially the case for my second book, Take Me There, which mostly takes place in my own Manhattan neighborhood. I wanted to share the energy and intensity of New York City with my readers. Since the story involves several heavy issues, a frenetic city setting was perfect for that book. When It Happens was my first book, so it made sense for the story to take place near where I grew up. An author’s first book usually seems to be the most autobiographical one. I’m a huge fan of Dawson’s Creek and wanted to capture the magical element of Capeside, Massachusetts in Waiting for You. That was my inspiration for setting the book on the water. And I think it worked – some readers have commented that the cover reminds them of Dawson’s Creek! It’s an interesting example of how one type of creativity can inspire another.
In Waiting for You, your narrator, Marisa, is an avid John Mayer fan, and you are in real life as well. What do you think about his recent controversial Playboy interview? Has his public persona affected how you listen to his music? Why or why not?
As a hardcore John Mayer fan, I made sure to read the full Playboy interview. Most of the people who’ve been snarking on what he said didn’t even read the interview and don’t know his music at all. Perhaps if those people were more informed, they wouldn’t be so angry.
John’s intentions were not malicious in any way. He just doesn’t possess a verbal filter that would allow him to censor the graphic nature of his responses. He also commented that he feels the need to be outrageously shocking in interviews, as if he’s trying to live up to the public’s expectations of how a rock star should present himself. To what degree public figures should take on a persona is always an interesting debate. However, I’m not going to stop believing that his music is true just because he feels the need to be sensational in some interviews. If his music didn’t reflect his soul, there’s no way he’d even think to incorporate the lyrics he does. John Mayer’s music has been a major part of my world for years. The most life-altering experiences I’ve ever had are emulated in his music. He sings my life. Nothing can change that.
What's your writing process like? Do you adhere to any particular routines?
Since I work at home, routines are essential. It's scarily possible to get sucked into the online realm for hours before you even realize what just happened. Also, I’m an organization freak – establishing routines is part of my innate tendency to organize everything. A typical morning goes like this: get up when it’s light out (but not insanely early)*, limited online time, gym (if I’m not being lazy, which I usually am). Afternoons are when I write because I’ve never been a morning person. Ever since I was a teen, I’ve always felt the most productive and energized at night. If I’m working on a new book, I write for about five hours, five days a week. If I’m on deadline, I can easily work a 12- to 14-hour day. Wednesdays and Saturdays are my days off for two reasons: I don’t need two days off in a row and doing errands on weekdays rocks because there are no lines.
*Related note: School starts way too early. There’s no need for this. Kids aren’t going home to do farm chores anymore. It’s time for schools to join this century. No one should have to get up when it’s still dark out. That is just depressing.
Your characters have very definitive tastes in music: the Cure and R.E.M. are mentioned many times. What appeals to you about those bands, and what other musicians inspire your writing?
When I was a senior in high school, things finally started happening. I’m from the middle of nowhere New Jersey where nothing ever happened. But then one day they did. And the music I began listening to at the time was The Cure and R.E.M. Those groups will always be intrinsically connected to that intense time in my life. Whenever I want to remember those emotions and experiences, I play that music and everything about being 17 comes rushing back. Their songs have the capacity to heal your soul. Some people say that The Cure is really depressing, but I find them reassuring. Like no matter how bad your life gets, at some point it can only get better, and there are other people out there who feel your pain. That was good for me to know back then.
For inspiration, I mostly rely on the same music I listened to as a teen. Paul Simon, James Taylor, Fleetwood Mac, and Sting all have a very Zen, contemplative vibe that helps me find the right words. I’m also into more recent stuff by John Mayer, Death Cab and Coldplay.
Both you and your characters are big advocates of inner peace and strength. How do you maintain a healthy work/life balance?
Finding balance is something we all struggle with. It was pretty much impossible to attain any kind of balance when I was teaching. Things are easier now that I work at home. I’m able to structure my day to include enough work and play time. It’s also really important to get enough sleep, which is something I can finally do. When I’m on deadline, I work long days and don’t really have any free time. But on a typical day, I’m able to get my work done and still have time for funtivities.
More and more adults are reading YA fiction, and the majority of YA authors are way out of high school. Any advice for grown-ups who want to write for teens?
The best YA novels are written by grownups who totally remember what it’s like to be a teen. Although there are tons of YA novels that outshine my own, existing in the teen world is just how I live. My internal age is 16. I know that no matter how old I am chronologically, I will always be 16 spiritually. Connecting with that time is my natural state of being.
My advice for aspiring grownup writers is to know what you’re writing. If your writing is true, your characters will feel real. I’ve read some YA books where it seems like the author is struggling to sound younger or trying too hard with their dialogue. As long as you’re in touch with the essence of how you felt as a teen, your writing will be true. If you’re out of touch, find a way to reconnect. Spending time with kids is the best way to achieve this. If that’s not possible, then try the music, movies, shows and books that speak to you the most. Creativity sparks creativity. Our ideas are the collection of everything we’ve ever experienced. The more you immerse yourself in the teen world, whether it’s the 2010 world or the one you survived back in the day, the more authentic your writing will feel.
Who are your favorite authors (YA and otherwise)? What are you reading right now?
My favorite YA author is Laurie Halse Anderson. Every book she’s written is absolutely phenomenal. Some of my other faves are Blake Nelson, Rachel Vail, and E. Lockhart. Recently, I blurbed the incredible debut YA novel The Sky Is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson. I also really enjoyed Looks by Madeleine George and I Am the Messenger by Marcus Zusak. And I have to give a shout-out to S.E. Hinton because The Outsiders was the book that inspired me to write my own.
I’m a huge Jodi Picoult fan, so right now I’m reading My Sister’s Keeper. I wanted to see the movie before reading the book because it’s helping me visualize the scenes in richer detail. My two favorite books by Jodi are The Pact and Nineteen Minutes. I mentioned both of these books in Waiting for You, then sent her a copy. It was my way of thanking her for making the world a better place. Other adult novelists I love are Jonathan Tropper, Nick Hornby, Garrison Keillor, Tom Perrotta, and Anne Tyler.
You're very communicative with your readers, through your blog, Facebook, Twitter and email, plus you have done in-person appearances. What has been your craziest fan encounter?
My readers are why I write, so communicating with them is a priority. I actually can’t remember any crazy fan encounters. My readers tend to be very generous, sensitive, kind people. I’m a lucky girl!
I'm a huge High Fidelity fan, so I ask all my interviewees: what are your desert island, all-time, top 5 favorite movies?
Garden State, The Good Girl, Office Space, Election, and The Station Agent. High Fidelity would probably make it into my top ten.
Can't get enough Susane? Check out these links for more!
And stay tuned for next week, when I review her latest, Something Like Fate! Same Unpro time, same Unpro channel.