WBBT: Tuesday
Second Issue of the Growing Bookworms Email Newsletter

WBBT: Gabrielle Zevin Interview

Today I'm happy to welcome Gabrielle Zevin on one of two stops that she'll be making for the Winter Blog Blast Tour (you can also catch her at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast). Gabrielle is the author of two of my favorite YA novels: Elsewhere (reviewed here) and Memoirs of a Teenage Amnesiac (reviewed here, with Jules and Eisha from 7-Imp).

Elsewhere is about a fifteen-year-old girl named Liz who dies in a sudden accident, and finds herself headed for "Elsewhere". In Elsewhere, people age backwards, until they are seven days old, at which point they are bundled up and sent back to be reborn. It's much more upbeat than it sounds. Liz is a strong, engaging character who goes through some struggles, and learns a great deal about life from her death.

Memoirs of a Teenage Amnesiac is about a seventeen-year-old girl named Naomi who, after a sudden fall down the front steps of her school, can't remember the past four years of her life. Not certain she's pleased with the person she's become during adolescence, Naomi embarks on a quest to solve the mystery of her own life.

As you can see from the above, Gabrielle is a master of developing intriguing premises. What makes her books worth coming back for, however, is her knack for humor, and her three-dimensional characterization. I've asked Gabrielle about both of her YA books (she also has an adult title, Margarettown, which I haven't had a chance to read). I think that you'll enjoy her responses.

Q: Your website says that you were a big reader as a kid. Was there an unusual place that you liked to read? (For example, I used to read up in a tree in my yard, and sometimes on the roof when I could get away with it).

I read in the greenhouse at my elementary school in Chappaqua, NY. It was warm, and plants make for excellent reading companions.

Q: Who would you rather hang out with: Liz from Elsewhere or Naomi from Memoirs?

Naomi -- deeply flawed people make for more interesting friends.

Q: Who do you think would be a better boyfriend: Owen from Elsewhere or Will from Memoirs?

Definitely Will. He's smarter and more verbal than Owen.

Q: Both Elsewhere and Memoirs of a Teenage Amnesiac deal with identity, explored in different ways. Liz looks back at her family via the Observation Deck, and gets a perspective on the hole that she's left behind. Naomi looks at herself in the mirror, and looks through her things, to figure out who she's become in the past four years. Do you think that figuring out who we are is a universal compulsion? Or is it more of a teen thing?

I think we "come of age" our whole lives which is why I find it hilarious that we tend to refer to novels about teenagers as "coming of age" novels.

What is Madame Bovary, for example, if not a coming of age novel? There are only two great subjects for books and for life: the first is how to grow up and the second is how to die.

Q: I think you might be a bit young for it, but did you ever watch Pretty in Pink? Because the 7-Imps and I kind of thought that Will reminded us of Duckie from that movie. He's delightfully unconventional.

I watched Pretty in Pink again for you! I hadn't seen it since I was really little. I think Will is both smarter and more ambitious than Ducky. When I was in high school, my dad used to always tell me, "The nerds make the best boyfriends." Will, like Ducky, was that guy you should have dated.

Q: I think that you have a real knack for interesting premises. What comes first for you: the premise or the characters?

The premise comes first. And then I have to forget the premise, as strange as that probably sounds. Once I have the characters, I must write for them or everything in the story will be false. And to further complicate matters, I find that the characters usually change the premise as I go along.

Characters don't tend to care about my initial thoughts for the premise at all.

Q: Is it hard to write about your characters when they're difficult, or making bad decisions? Like when Liz is thinking about going back to Earth early, and when Naomi is thoughtless towards Will regarding the mix tape he gave her. I think that these things give the books tremendous depth, but it just seems like it would be tough to write, because you'd want your protagonists to be smart and nice all the time.

It isn't particularly hard -- except that every bad decision makes the book longer! I'm not "smart and nice all the time" and so I don't expect my characters to be either. Sometimes, it seems like the worst quality a girl is allowed to have in a YA novel is a charming clumsiness. Or occasionally yells at her brother. Or something else that isn't really a flaw at all.

Q: I loved the concept of people finding their avocation in Elsewhere. You touched on this again in Memoirs of a Teenage Amnesiac (when Naomi muses about how Will is passionate about the yearbook, and Alice her play). And your other interviews suggest that you've found your avocation as a writer. Where does this come from for you as a necessary theme? Do you think that people in general would be happier if they went after their avocations/passions earlier, and with more directness?

You might get the idea from ELSEWHERE that I believe in reincarnation or multiple lives -- well, I don't. I really believe that you only go around once, and we must must must fit all of it in. On the other side of that, I don't necessarily think that work and life are the same things. My dad and mom both worked in computers, but had incredibly creative "after 5 PM" lives.

Q: Another theme that recurs in your two YA books is loss. Liz loses her family (and they her), Owen loses his wife, Will loses his father, and James loses his brother. Naomi loses herself in amnesia, and learns that she's estranged herself from her mother. And yes, despite all this loss, the books are both essentially upbeat. How do you pull that off?

Well, book writing is a cheap sort of therapy for me. This is to say, most of my books have been a sort of elaborate pep talk to myself. I usually start a story because I've been asking some question in my personal life.

With MEMOIRS, my grandmother had been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease, and the question I was asking was, Is a person more than his or her memories and experiences? With ELSEWHERE, September 11th had happened and my dog had a lump and I had a series of other personal tragedies, and the question I was asking was, How do we live in the world when it is filled with so much loss? So, I write books to find answers. ELSEWHERE could have gone many ways -- I didn't necessarily think when I started that it would end up as hopefully as it did.

Q: Amnesiac has lots of flashes of humor (Elsewhere may, too, but I don't have quotes, because I only have it on MP3). Does the humor come naturally for you as you're writing, or is that something you add in on revisions?

I'm always looking for the humor in a situation. Life is better with laughter, and so are books.

Q: Any progress on the possible prequel to Elsewhere that you mention on your website? Or was that not serious? Is there anything else that you're working on that you can tell us about?

No progress to report, my dear -- if I should every write a prequel to ELSEWHERE, I think it would be interesting for me to be MUCH, MUCH older when I did it -- I was twenty-five when I wrote ELSEWHERE. Currently, I am in the midst of a book for the grown ups and in the glorious beginning of something for the children.

Thanks so much for your time, Gabrielle! It's been wonderful getting to know you better, after enjoying your YA books so much.

Further reading:

© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.