Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Author Jessica Warman talks about Breathless and writing

Good evening all out there in blog land! My birthday is four days away and the presents have already started rolling in. Yesterday, I got an ARC of Jessica Warman's upcoming book, Between, and today, I'm posting my first author interview on 1600 Words a Day.

Jessica Warman generously agreed to share her perspective on writing Breathless, a novel that made it onto the ALA/YALSA list of Best Books for Young Adults.

What made you decide to make Breathless a YA book instead of an adult book? 

Jessica Warman
Going into it, I didn’t have any definite ideas about who my audience was. I wrote the first draft at age 18. I was just out of boarding school, and I thought, “I need to write this down before I forget all of it,” because it was such a unique and life-changing experience. Over the next few years, I worked on the book on and off, and by the time I found and agent (the amazing, fabulous Andrea Somberg), even she wasn’t sure whether it would sell to an adult or YA publisher. She submitted it to both, and we kept getting the same feedback: adult publishers would say, “we like it, but it’s too YA.” YA publishers would say, “we like it, but it’s too adult.” (I will mention that earlier drafts were MUCH more edgy, content-wise!) So after encountering this problem for many months, I decided I needed to focus on my audience more; I did a re-write in an attempt to make the book more YA-friendly, mostly because I felt that it would benefit young readers more than adults – and because I knew that, down the line, I wanted to write more books for young adults. Once the book finally sold, it turned out that I had to tone down the content even more in order to genuinely make it ‘YA-friendly.’ (Yes, there was a LOT of debauchery in my high school!) I’m not sure if that entirely answers your question, though – basically the book started as My Story, with no real audience in mind, but as it got closer to actual publication (which was such an abstract idea to me way back when), I continued to shape it for the audience I wanted to write for the most.

What feedback from readers and critics has been the most surprising to you? 

This is an easy one, but it’s a question I’m always eager to answer. I’ve read quite a few reviews that seem to think I have a serious problem with organized religion, specifically Christianity. This always REALLY surprises me, because the truth is just the opposite. What I have an issue with is all the posturing that comes from ALL religions – not the belief systems at their cores. I’ve read plenty of comments complaining that I portray Drew (in BREATHLESS) as a crazy Bible-thumper with no redeeming qualities – and while I certainly intended for particular elements of his personality to irk readers (for instance, his insistence that pretty much everyone around him was going to burn in hell), I also wanted to show readers how religion can be beautiful. There’s a scene in the book where Katie reveals to Drew that she’s been lying to him about many things for years. And while he’s hurt and angry… he forgives her. I wanted to depict him as a confused teen who was trying to create an identity for himself through religion, and making a few mistakes along the way – as we all do at that age! So it always sort of baffles me when people read his character as ‘anti-Christian,’ because I didn’t mean for him to come off that way at all. I simply meant to make him human.

Breathless contains several passages with profanity, sex, alcohol, and smoking. What sort of pushback, if any, have you gotten from other writers, readers, and professionals in the publishing field? 
Because the book is based so heavily on my real-life experiences, I wanted to portray my high school years as accurately as possible, while still maintaining the “fiction” element. And I’ll be blunt: smoking, swearing, and drug use were all a huge part of my high school years. So to me, there was never any question that these things would be included in the book. Again, it’s always interesting to me when people take issue with the simple depiction of these things, because I think that depicting them is quite different from glorifying them. The characters might get away with plenty of things, but they’re never rewarded for their misbehavior; it’s just the opposite, really. I think the bottom line is that some people are going to take issue with that kind of content no matter what. It’s sort of a fundamental difference in our world view, I guess. There are negative things all around us, and talking about them and facing is something that some people would rather not have to do. And that’s okay; this book is simply not for them. It doesn’t change the reality of my high school years.

If you had a chance to start the book over again tomorrow, what would you do differently? 

Not a thing. It was a fabulous experience – living those years, writing all those different drafts, all the struggles that finally brought me to publication. I wouldn’t be the writer I am today if those things hadn’t happened.

In many ways, we live in more enlightened times than we did a decade ago. However, close friendship between same-sex friends often is misunderstood or distorted. In Breathless, Katie spends most of the story at boarding school and grows close to her roommate, Mazzie. Have you encountered any resistance to how the relationship between Mazzie and Katie was presented?

Surprisingly, I haven’t! Which is funny because I anticipated lots of resistance to the portrayal of that relationship. I guess it just goes to show that you can never fully know how people are going to react. If anything, what I hear the most about BREATHLESS is how much people love Mazzie. People’s reactions to the book are constantly surprising me.

What advice do you have for new writers?

There's the usual "be persistent" advice, which I think is great, and VERY important. But lately I've been running into something with new writers that I think is a major roadblock for some people, and that's the inability to take criticism well. In short, if someone wants to make it as a writer - and even more important, if he or she wants their writing to improve - then a person has to be willing to listen to other people's feedback. It helps to have a VERY thick skin. I teach a community writing workshop, and there have been multiple occasions when I've met people who have a LOT of potential as writers, but are far too attached to their work to openly listen to others' feedback. I also used to see this a lot in my first couple semesters of grad school. People wanted to hear what was good about their writing, but when it came to the weaknesses, they'd argue with people endlessly about why they were 'wrong.' I just want to shout at these people, "Jeez! If you think these people are being tough readers, wait until you have to interact with an editor!" So I guess my advice in a nutshell is: respect other people's opinions of your work. Listen to them. If you have more than one or two people telling you that there's a serious issue with an element of your story, it's quite possible they won't be the only ones who think so.

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