What inspired you to become a writer? I wouldn’t really say it was an inspiration but an inevitability—and I actually tried to resist it. At 16 I decided I would not become a writer, because I foresaw years of sitting in a room by myself. Three years later I decided I wanted to be a filmmaker, and I dreamt of traveling to interesting locations around the world. But the truth is, I am a writer to the core—it’s how I interpret the world, and I need it to stay sane.
What is the first book that made you fall in love with it? What about it made you feel that way? I can’t really remember a specific title, but a more general awareness as a young child that books were a necessary magic. They could make you feel deep emotions, and transport you to places. As a lonely child, books made me feel less alone.
Have you ever gotten reader’s block? I don’t exactly get reader’s block, but sometimes I have trouble finding books I want to stick with. I’ve gotten very impatient as I’ve gotten older and I no longer read—or watch—something if it doesn’t captivate me. Where once, if a book started too slowly for my liking, I might have waited to see if something developed later on, but my reading (and watching) habits have little room for the wait-and-see process now. And really, there’s so much to read that interests me that I don’t want to waste precious time on things that don’t resonate in some way.
If you could tell your younger writing self anything, what would it be? Don’t be so afraid of writing novels. I came to it late because I’d always been a little intimidated by the complexity and length, having more experience with screenplays and poetry. On the one hand it was helpful that I came to novels after I’d already developed my writing discipline and process. But one of the things I discovered is that, in spite of the complexity, novels contain a series of elements (plot, characters, pacing, exposition, dialogue, etc.) that can be focused on individually: you don’t have to be a genius at all of them at once.
How did publishing your first book change your process of writing/reading/ engaging with books and/or your career? That’s a complicated question. I feel fortunate that my writing process was well established, so that isn’t something I worried much about after I transitioned to being a professional author. One thing that changed as a reader is the quantity of books I now read that are written by writers whom I know in one way or another (often through ongoing social media interactions). I recently checked my reading log (I have to keep one or I forget the titles of everything) and so far this year I’ve read books by sixteen authors who are, at the very least, cyber friends.
Selling and publishing my first book literally changed my whole life. I’d had this kooky idea that writing—the only tangible skill I felt I had—was the only means by which I could possibly work my way out of poverty and off of federal disability. J.K. Rowling was my role model for that, because I knew she’d been on welfare when she wrote the first Harry Potter book. I had no expectations to follow closely in her footsteps, but I did succeed in lifting myself out of poverty (though it’s fortunate that I am still considered disabled, as it guarantees my health coverage via Medicare). I’ve also been able to move “home” to Pittsburgh, and I truly think of my furnishings as “the bed that Baby Teeth bought,” “the sofa that Baby Teeth bought.” Being poor is extremely stressful, and the sale of my first book improved my quality of life in ways I’d never imagined possible.
What was an early experience where you learned that language had power? I started writing poetry when I was six, after being inspired by a collection of poetry designed for children called Piping Down the Valleys Wild (which I still have). I felt misunderstood in my family, and through writing, I discovered a way to express myself. In the beginning, the power I found in language was private and personal, a much-needed outlet. But later I realized that the written word is something that connects one human being to another.
What’s your favorite under-appreciated novel? Everything by Willa Cather. I discovered her as a teenager after a year in which I’d only read Dostoekvski and Dickens. Her writing was such a revelation, and I read book after book of hers. After that I started to realize that women writers were not elevated the way male writers are, not as renowned, not the pillars of a literary education. The unfairness of it became obvious, and it changed what I wanted to read.
What does literary success look like to you? I have a strong desire for creative autonomy—to keep exploring ideas and challenging myself. So I guess “literary success” would be to have the freedom to do that, while also being able to experience the complete process, which is to see my work published and in the hands of readers. I do believe in the symbiotic nature of writing/reading, and something I’ve written isn’t truly finished until a reader experiences it. Without that, my words are like a bridge that don’t go anywhere.
What kind of research do you do, and how long do you spend researching before beginning a book? I have a complicated relationship with the concept of “research.” Maybe it’s because I have very little in the way of a formal education (I started at an alternative high school when I turned 14, graduated at 16, and didn’t go to college), but I’ve always questioned if I really know how to do it. So I tend not to do much research before starting a book. I like to use the information and interests that I’ve absorbed over the years—and I’ll even expose myself to things (especially documentaries) because I think there might be some future application. But once I am writing, I use Google daily, and YouTube (if I need to see/hear something), and see where that takes me.
What did you edit out of this book? Fortunately, nothing. I tend to write short first drafts, and then add things during subsequent revisions. Much to my shock, the editor who purchased Baby Teeth didn’t request any real changes except a couple of clarifying sentences. And we toyed with alternate endings, but ultimately kept the original one I’d written.
Do you read your book reviews? How do you deal with bad or good ones? I read some book reviews. When I first started getting reader reviews on Goodreads I was very excited: people had taken the time to read my book and comment on it! Even though they weren’t all glowing reviews, I felt like I learned something—at least what to be prepared for—in regard to the scope of people’s comments. As time has gone on I’m much more selective about what reviews I read. My trade and press reviews have been very good and I’m very grateful, but I read fewer and fewer reader reviews now. The reality is that in this day and age sharing one’s opinion online is ubiquitous, and can be quite aggressive (to passionately hate something has become a sport unto itself); I have to limit my exposure. The trickiest part for me involves being tagged on social media: while it’s very nice to be tagged in an enthusiastic review, you don’t know what you’re getting until you click on the link. It definitely helps to develop a thick skin, and accept as due course that everyone now has access to promoting their opinions, good or bad.
What is the most difficult part of your artistic process? I know some writers have gazillions of ideas, but for me it takes some time to develop an idea that I think is novel-worthy and that I feel able and excited to write.
How long on average does it take you to write a book? Typically, I write a first draft in about three months. I usually take some time between drafts (at least a few weeks if possible), so actual combined writing time—including agent and editor revisions—is usually about eight to ten months.
What do you have to have when you read/write? When I write I need endless glasses of water and a small bowl of M&M’s.
Who is your author role model/super hero? Ursula Le Guin was a very inspirational writer for me because of how she used fantasy and science fiction to delve into the complicated societal and behavioral aspects of the real human world. She helped me realize that “genre” could be entertaining while functioning on a deeper level.
What do you want people to take away from your book? First and foremost I hope it’s a captivating read, but I also hope it gives some readers things to ponder, such as a better understanding of how an invisible illness—physical or mental—can impact a person’s life, especially if it’s something they’ve never considered. While some readers have felt that Hanna was too advanced for her age, I genuinely believe that children possess a complexity of emotions and knowledge (even if they have misunderstandings) that they are often not given credit for. There has been some controversy about Hanna’s interest in sex, and I think our society doesn’t want to see that sexuality is an inherent element that we are born with. Baby Teeth might not be the platform to explore that more deeply, given the warped nature of Hanna’s moral compass, but eventually this topic needs to not be so taboo if we are to raise boys and girls with an understanding of healthy, consensual sex.
Plug an author friend. (ex. If you like my book, check out ____.) If you like my book, check out Catherine Ryan Howard, Jennifer Hillier, Rea Frey, and Caroline Kepnes. And for something a little different, a little gentler, try Emily Strelow’s The Wild Birds.
Something you want your readers to know is _____. At the point when my agent came into my life I had decided to stop pursuing a professional writing career. I needed to have peace with my writing journey that wasn’t dependent on achieving those elusive milestones. It’s really true that sometimes your life changes the most when you reach an understanding that everything is okay just as it is.