When I was introduced to Gayle Forman, I stuck out my hand for a handshake but she gave me a high five instead. In retrospect, that feels like a good way to sum up the entire Nashville leg of her I Was Here Tour, with special guests Ruta Sepetys (Between Shades of Gray, Out of the Easy) Courtney C. Stevens (Faking Normal), and David Arnold (Mosquitoland).
Gayle Forman is the international bestselling author of If I Stay, Where She Went, Just One Day, and Just One Year. For her latest novel, I Was Here (read my review here), a story about friendship and loss and healing, Gayle decided to turn her book tour into a Friendship Tour, inviting other authors to join her at each tour stop and use the events to discuss community and the importance of relationships (along with books, of course.)
The Nashville leg of the tour already promised to be excellent. Courtney, David, and Ruta are all close friends with excellent books (Mosquitoland has not yet hit shelves, but when it does, trust me, it’s a keeper), and the Nashville writing community excels at showing up and celebrating book events. So when this tour stop was announced, everyone circling the date on their calendars already knew it would be something special.
But I’m not sure anyone fully anticipated the giant crowd that showed up, packing Parnassus Books from wall to wall. I’m not sure anyone expected the unintentional hilarity of a dramatic live reading of a passage from I Was Here, starring Gayle as the narrator, David as Cody, Ruta as Ben, and Courtney as Stoner Richard. I’m not sure anyone was prepared for the amount of admiration and support and wisdom that came from hearing the four authors speak about community and and inspiration striving for greatness.
The whole night was a handshake that turned into a high five.
After watching and laughing as Gayle, Ruta, David, and Courtney reenacted a scene from I Was Here, the panel settled in to talk about why they were here, writing books for teens. Gayle believes friendship is a major theme in I Was Here, and also a big benefit of being part of the YA community. Everyone agreed, with David adding that he comes from the music industry, which he described as a “zero sum game,” and that the YA community was refreshing as it is more about building each other up.
The panel talked a bit about jealousy of other writers and their work. Gayle doesn’t believe it’s necessarily a bad thing, saying “Jealousy is the emotion that tells me that someone did something truly wonderful.” Courtney wasn’t sure that jealousy was the right term, but did agree that her natural competitive nature thrives when she is surrounded by people she considers her betters, because it forces her to raise her game.
They also discussed their writing processes, which vary from Ruta claiming she is a “bender writer” to Gayle sneaking in work on I Was Here while writing two other books, to Courtney isolating herself to finish a book and David writing in stolen moments at home while being a full time stay-at-home dad to his infant son.
An audience member asked for their best advice for aspiring writers, and the panel gave solid, pracitcal advice. Gayle urged writers to practice, practice, practice. “If you wanted to be a professional ice dancer, you wouldn’t just walk onto the ice and assume you could do it. Writing is no different.” She also encouraged writers to read widely, which the panel vehemently agreed with.
Ruta’s advice was to find people you trust, let them read your work, and learn to take critique. Courtney told us to not be afraid to write it wrong (she admitted she had thrown away 2,000 pages of her upcoming novel, The Lies About Truth) and not to submit to agents or editors until it’s the best book you can possibly make it. And David agreed, adding that while you have to take the time to make it right, you must find a sense of urgency in your writing.
Afterward, they discussed favorite childhood books, which ran the gamut from Beverly Cleary to the Chronicles of Narnia to Jackie Collins to Jurassic Park and Catcher in the Rye. Ruta Sepetys wound up passionately summarizing the plot of Ethan Frome, which I’m pretty sure no one saw coming. Then it was time for the signing, where all four authors interacted with excited fans, giving photos and hugs and encouragement for well over an hour.
It was an amazing night, an uplifting night, and I was so grateful to be there, and to be part of the Nashville writing community.
Before the event, I was given the opportunity to interview Gayle, and I hope you enjoy her answers as much as I did. There are some very minor spoilers in some of her answers, but nothing that will diminish the experience of reading I Was Here. (You can find my review for the book, which I loved, here.)
LT: You’ve written that your inspiration for Meg was a real girl named Suzy Gonzales. Did you feel an obligation to Suzy while you were writing I WAS HERE? How did Suzy’s true story influence Meg’s fictional one?
GF: You know, her true story was the thing that got me thinking about Meg, and Meg was what led me to Cody. It’s Cody’s story, so it really is about the fictional character. In terms of the responsibility I felt, it was a weird thing, because you’re using a character who’s based on a real live person and who’s not around anymore so there’s a huge amount of sympathy for this character. I don’t want people to be like, what a coward, or what a hero. I want to see her as human. And when it was done and when I went to Suzy’s parents and I said, “I wrote this book, it’s up to you. I can completely disguise it so only a handful of people would ever recognize her and never mention her in connection, but what I would prefer to do is to dedicate the book to her and to talk about the link in the Author’s Note and talk about the work that you’ve done.” It was a little terrifying when they read the book, but they were really happy with it.
LT: In I WAS HERE, Meg has a lot of people who love her, but they all miss the signs that she needed help. What would you say to the kids out there who feel like Meg?
GF: The sad thing about Meg is that not everybody did miss the signs. Her parents knew what was going on and they thought that they were helping her and Tree certainly knew what was going on. And Cody just didn’t want to see what was going on right in front of her face, for a variety of reasons. She was too invested in Meg being the Meg that she knew. But what I want the takeaway to be is, if you are feeling these things that Meg is feeling, there is no difference between a mental disorder and a physical disorder. They both have a biochemical cause. There is tons of research about mental illness and the various brain chemistry, the causes of it. They also both create a physical manifestation. A lot of depression symptoms are physical. So this idea that if you came down with one, that of course you go to the doctor and you get treated, but the other one, you don’t and you hide it from people and you’re ashamed of it, that’s the thing. It’s like, you have this thing going on with you because there’s something going wrong with your body through no fault of yours. It’s not a weakness, it’s not a craziness. So anybody in that situation, that is a thing that I want them to see, is like, it’s no different than if you got pneumonia. You would seek help for it and you would take the proper medication that professionals told you to take. And if the first drug didn’t work, you would take another one until something helped. So that’s what I hope people who are suffering take from this.
LT: One of the things I loved about I WAS HERE was the attention to detail, from the Seattle music scene to Meg’s quirky assortment of housemates to the Final Solution boards. What sort of research did you do to write the book, and what touches do you think are most important in a story to make the world feel authentic?
GF: I know the Pacific Northwest pretty well. I’ve never set a book in the eastern part of it, but I knew it well enough, and I haven’t spent as much time in Eastern Oregon and Washington, but the time I had spent really kind of imprinted on me because it’s so physically beautiful, but there’s something about a lot of those towns that feel like a dead end. So that just kind of are the small details that I remember and that come out. In terms of the research, I guess it was more creating the [Final Solutions suicide] boards, and creating the world of Cody, too. A lot happened in revision with her interactions with people, like whether it was the guy, Troy, who asks her out and what that means for her, or just her interactions in this kind of confined small town with the girl who’s the daughter of one of the women she cleans for. All of that, it’s very easy once you start thinking about it to really imagine the people. So I think it’s really that kind of thing rather than a physical detail that helps to give you a sense of where she is and why she wants to get out.
LT: Lots of YA novels tend to shy away from giving parents much time on the page, but family tends to play a significant role in your novels. I WAS HERE is no exception, with the Garcias and then Cody’s mother Tricia. Is it important to you to always include parents and family in your stories, and what role do you feel parents should play in YA storytelling?
GF: I think that’s up to every writer. Perhaps because I was a parent when I first started writing YA, I’m too narcissistic to take myself out of the story. And also, I think that parents are hugely important in teenagers’ lives. You might hate them or you might have a very conflicted relationship with them, but they’re major forces in your life. So to leave them out, I don’t ever do that. I think that they’re a huge part of the story. And yes, you have to find ways to allow your characters to do things on their own. In JUST ONE DAY, she had a very hovering parent, so it was about putting her in a context where she was away from her parents so she could further pull away, but I just can’t imagine writing books without parents.
LT: Even though we never meet Meg in I WAS HERE, her friendship with Cody was one of the central relationships of the book. How did you approach writing a relationship that exists entirely in Cody’s memory, and how important do you think the themes of friendship and forgiveness are to I WAS HERE?
GF: I think those are the themes. When I first wrote a draft of I WAS HERE, I almost thought it was a flaw how everything Cody thought about was Meg. I was like, get a life! But then I kind of realized, that was one of her issues was that, like a lot of really close relationships, they were very codependent. And that kind of gets a bad rap, I think, like, marriages are codependent. It just means you’re very intertwined. And she had seen Meg through such rose-colored glasses, because Meg was spectacular and special, that [Cody had] kind of assumed that anything that was special from her was just by reflected glory, especially when Meg went away and Cody kind of was left with just the flatness of her life. So I realized then that there was a reason I kept referring to this, because the friendship was the most important relationship in her life, and I’m starting to tell people that there is a love story in this book, and it is not Cody and Ben. I mean, they are definitely a love story. But the central love story is kind of under it all – and it makes sense, because for me, the great heartbreaks of my life all involve my female friends who broke my heart.
LT: There’s an expression, “Your perception creates your reality.” How did Cody’s perception of Meg create her reality?
GF: That’s sort of like my fake it ‘til you make it. Well you know, [Cody] idealized [Meg] in part because Meg was a really good friend to her and somebody who made her feel good about herself and also she saw Meg as doing all this great stuff. I don’t think Meg ever tried to pull Cody down, but she created this larger than life Meg, and then, as we do, it’s too painful sometimes to look at a full, nuanced person, because it challenges too many things. And so she couldn’t see Meg for who she was. She also couldn’t see herself for who she was. She sees Meg as perfect and she has sort of written herself off as this lousy piece of stupid white trash, and she’s anything but.
LT: How did being inside a story about loss, trauma, and healing manifest (if at all) in your life while writing the story?
GF: It’s funny because I wrote – I call this book my ‘affair book,’ because I worked on it while I was writing JUST ONE DAY and JUST ONE YEAR. And so it was actually an incredibly satisfying character to write in the midst of writing Allyson and Willem, who are so waffling that I wanted to drown them in a bathtub by the time I was done writing those books. So there was something about her and the immediacy of her anger that even though it’s dark, I found that great. The thing that was hard to write were the Bradford scenes. So for the first couple drafts, I just kind of skipped over that with the barest of interactions, and then slowly I deepened those and deepened those, because he had to have something about him that actually felt real and reasonable. If he was just a kook, you could write him off, but there’s something twisted about him that makes sense. That’s the trick. He’s my first villain!
LT: What do you believe makes a great story? How did you employ this when you were writing I WAS HERE?
GF: I don’t know what makes a great story. I just know when I’m writing it, if my fingers are [typing rapidly] or if I’m super – even if it’s not coming out that fast, but if I’m thinking about it and I’m kind of feeling as immersed in a story as I am when I’m reading it, then I’m onto something.
LT: Will you share a little about your writing process? How much time you invest in revisions, and what the biggest distractions are for you?
GF: My writing process is sort of different now, because since the [If I Stay] movie, there’s been so many different things going on, but generally when I’m drafting, I do try to – I get my kids off to school, and if I have nothing else going on that day, not going swimming that morning because I’m trying to get in shape or volunteering at my kids’ school – I’ll go straight to work. And then I’ll try to work straight through until 3 or 5. And I tinker as I go, so I always kind of back up and go over things. So by the time I have a complete draft, it’s definitely not raw. And then I revise and revise and revise before I ever show it to somebody. And then I think a lot of the best work always happens in revision, because even if something comes out relatively intact, that just means you can do deeper work and go more nuanced in revision. I mean, it varies. Certain books, IF I STAY and I WAS HERE both, the first drafts came very quickly, though I wrote I WAS HERE in two sections, so I would say like two months while I was working on JUST ONE DAY, two months while I was working on JUST ONE YEAR, and then I’d spend a lot, maybe on and off for a year revising it.
LT: What are you currently working on?
GF: I am currently working on three different things, because the affair thing from I WAS HERE, I think it taught me something, that working on different things at the same time can revitalize your energy from one toward the other. So you can get really sucked into one and just charge through it until you’re at the bottom of the barrel, and then you pivot around and you start on something else and you realize that while you were working on the other thing, that barrel has refilled. The spring has fed itself. So I’m working on a middle grade now, and I’m working on an adult, and I’m working on a historical.
LT: Is there anything that you know now from writing I WAS HERE, or JUST ONE DAY or JUST ONE YEAR, that you would have liked to have known back when you were writing IF I STAY?
GF: I think one thing that’s interesting is less about the writing and more about the publishing side of it, which is that different books are going to resonate with different fans. So it’s always really nice when a fan comes up to me and says, “JUST ONE DAY is my favorite.” IF I STAY is so overwhelmingly the most popular book in terms of what was sold, but I love when people say, “I didn’t think I wanted to read WHERE SHE WENT, and it’s my favorite.” So you understand that if you’re going to have a long career, there’s going to be different books, and I don’t want to write the same book. So different books are going to touch people differently, and that’s great. They’re not all going to do the same thing. There’s going to be peaks and valleys. But one book is always going to be someone’s favorite book.
LT: Is there anything I didn’t ask that I should have?
GF: You can say, “Why are you so fixated on writing about death?” And I can give you my answer, which is, “I’m actually not.” I think it’s pretty common for authors to use – Picasso has a quote that I’m going to mangle, but I love it, and it’s from every act of destruction comes an act of creation. [“Every act of creation is first an act of destruction.”] And it’s the same when you’re writing a story. For there to be a big transformation, something huge has to happen. And so a lot of time – not always, but it’s an act of destruction. And for me, writing about characters who don’t think that they can handle something and then finding the strength that they can handle it and rising to the occasion is so incredibly hopeful, as a writer and as a reader. So I’m always – people say things like that, and I know you didn’t, but preempting it – I think, I’m not writing about death; I’m writing about life.
Cody and Meg were inseparable…
Until they weren’t.
When her best friend, Meg, drinks a bottle of industrial-strength cleaner alone in a motel room, Cody is understandably shocked and devastated. She and Meg shared everything—so how was there no warning? But when Cody travels to Meg’s college town to pack up the belongings left behind, she discovers that there’s a lot that Meg never told her. About her old roommates, the sort of people Cody never would have met in her dead-end small town in Washington. About Ben McAllister, the boy with a guitar and a sneer, and some secrets of his own. And about an encrypted computer file that Cody can’t open—until she does, and suddenly everything Cody thought she knew about her best friend’s death gets thrown into question.
“I Was Here is a pitch-perfect blend of mystery, tragedy, and romance. Gayle Forman has given us an unflinchingly honest portrait of the bravery that it takes to live after devastating loss.”
—Stephen Chbosky, author of the #1 New York Times bestselling The Perks of Being a Wallflower
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