I've known Lisa online since before her first novel's publication, and had the good fortune of meeting her in person at the 2007 national SCBWI Conference in Los Angeles.
Lisa's first published novel, I Heart You, You Haunt Me was written as a novel in verse for the teen market in January 2008. Her second verse novel, Far From You was published in hard cover at the end of last year. Come January of 2010, her third novel in verse, Chasing Brooklyn, will be published. Also on the slate for 2010 is a middle-grade novel entitled It's Raining Cupcakes, which will be released in March.
Like Amanda Marrone in yesterday's interview, Lisa's books have been quietly selling lots of copies. I Heart You, You Haunt Me alone is in its eighth printing, with over 60,000 copies in print. And only a few days ago came word that Far From You has made the 2010 TAYSHAS reading list, which is selected by the Young Adult Round Table of the Texas Library Association.
For today's interview, I thought we'd start with Chasing Brooklyn, then double back to talk about your earlier YA novels, and then discuss your picture books and forthcoming middle grade novel as well. Okay?
Your latest YA novel, Chasing Brooklyn, is due out January 5, 2010. I had the good fortune of reading an advanced review copy, and I am certain that your established readers will be delighted, and that new readers will be quick to seek out your earlier works.
This is the first of your books to alternate point of view, going back and forth between the title character, Brooklyn, whose boyfriend (Lucca) died about a year ago and Lucca's brother, Nico. Both characters are still working to get through losing Lucca, but Brooklyn is also working hard to get over the death of her friend Gabe, who recently died of an overdose. Each of the main characters is haunted (literally): Gabe appears to Brooklyn (who would much rather be seeing Lucca) and, as her fear of the nightmares and messages from Gabe intensify, Lucca starts communicating with Nico, urging him to help Brooklyn.
1. First off, I have to thank you for so consistently alternating between the two characters – one poem from Brooklyn, one from Nico, throughout the book; the predictability of whom I'd be hearing from next kept the alternating viewpoints from becoming confusing – at the same time, you managed to keep it from actually feeling predictable, and I never felt that a single entry was there just because it was that character's "turn" to speak. Did you originally conceive the book as dual viewpoint?
Thank you for saying that! I love how this book turned out, but I have to say, getting it to where it flowed nicely and had two clear character arcs was not easy.
To talk about its conception, I need to back up a little and explain that Chasing Brooklyn came about when I asked my editor about a possible sequel to I Heart You, You Haunt Me, since I get asked about one from readers occasionally. And, I have a lot of readers who write to me and say – please write more books “just like that!” So, I really wanted this third book to be for the fans of I Heart You.
However, when posed the idea of a sequel, my editor felt like we left Ava, the main character in I Heart You, in a good place. He suggested she might make an appearance in the next book. Thinking on that, I thought she might be one to provide comfort to someone else who was struggling with loss. So that’s how this book started.
I knew it had to be different from I Heart You, because even if readers say they want another book “just like that,” they really don’t. The School Library Journal described my second novel, Far From You as “a roller coaster of emotions to which many teen readers will relate.” I think THAT is what my readers want when they pick up one of my books – and that’s what I wanted to give them.
Anyway, I decided there would be two ghosts and I think the two main characters, Brooklyn and Nico, came about when I figured out it made since for each of them to be haunted by one.
Can you talk about how you went about writing it – did you write all of one character's story first, then double back? Write them both simultaneously?
As far as the actual writing of the book, I wrote it straight through, alternating between Brooklyn and Nico as I went along. I can only think of one or two times when I struggled to write something because it was somebody’s “turn.” I loved having two characters whose lives intertwined, so we could see events from both their points of view. And I LOVED writing from a male POV this time around. It really spiced up the book for me, and writing the first draft was a blast. The revisions? A bit of a different story. In the end it all came out okay (I hope).
KRF: It sure did!
2. Your first YA novel was I Heart You, You Haunt Me, which told the story of a girl named Ava who was trying to recover from the death of her boyfriend, Jackson. Like Brooklyn, Ava was being haunted; in Ava's case, it was Jackson that was hanging around for her. (Fans of Lisa's first book should know that we get to see Ava briefly in Chasing Brooklyn.) In your second YA novel, Far From You, Alice has lost her mother to pancreatic cancer; she begins the novel in a sulky, angry sort of place with much of her anger directed toward her father, stepmother and baby half-sister. There may or may not be a supernatural sort of moment in it as well.
All three books are very much about dealing with the loss of a close loved one. Why is that, do you think?
Well, in all honesty, I didn’t actually set out to write three books about death and loss. The first book came about from a dream. My goal when I sat down to write that book was just to tell a good story. And as I wrote and wrote some more, I wanted to tell a haunting story. A story of love and loss, yes, but also of healing and hope.
The second book, Far From You, started with a few seeds of ideas that had nothing to do with loss, but then, around the time I was writing it, a beloved teacher from our neighborhood elementary school lost her battle to breast cancer, leaving two wonderful children behind. My heart ached for those kids for a long time. And other writers will understand that sometimes, what we do to deal with the stuff life hands us is to write about it. So, Alice’s mother died from cancer. And as I wrote the emotional scenes between Alice and her “angel,” I thought of [those] kids, and the things I thought their mother might say to them if she could.
And now, there’s Chasing Brooklyn, which is also about loss. But I think each book can possibly have a bit different takeaway. The themes are similar, yes, but each one is unique too.
I suppose, at the most basic level, when I look at the body of the YA work and consider why I’ve chosen to continue to write about loss, it’s because I believe life is precious. Love is precious. I certainly understand losing someone is hard and sad, because I’ve been there. But it is possible, as my characters show us, to come through the pain to a place of hope. We all need to have hope.
3. I believe that your first three YA novels not only tell terrific, riveting, emotional stories, but also are likely to help teens as they navigate through difficult times (whether it's the death of a loved one or the loss of a first love through other means). I don't think any of your books are "issue novels" or "message novels" – if those are the right sorts of terms – but I do believe they nevertheless can help teens cope with difficult situations that they may already have experienced, or may come up against later, whether it's the death of a friend or parent or somebody else – a grandparent, perhaps, or co-worker. When you wrote your YA novels, did you realize that the books might accomplish something like that, or did you just write the stories as they came to you?
With the first book, I had no idea people would write to me and tell me my book had helped them. As I said before, I just wanted to tell a good story. It honestly shocked me when a young woman came up to me at my very first book signing and told me my book had helped her because she had lost her boyfriend a few months prior. And then, awhile later, notes started coming in from readers through my web site. One girl told me she lost her dad in Iraq and she knew, after reading my book, he’d want her to keep living, and to be happy. Another young man who lost his partner in a violent crime told me, “Your book made me feel a little less alone in the world.”
Sometimes books are a way for kids to escape. To forget about life. And that’s a wonderful thing. But reading for kids can also be about finding themselves on the pages, and feeling a little less alone in the world. If I’ve managed to do that for some teens, I don’t think there’s really anything more I could ask for.
4. Your main characters tend to be artistic souls – Brooklyn is an artist, and Alice a musician. Besides writing (which is an art all its own), what other artistic endeavors do you engage in?
I draw the BEST stick figures. My specialty is belly buttons. I’m really good at drawing belly buttons on stick figures. Pretty special, huh?
Besides that, I’ve recently taken up guitar lessons! I love music and I wish I had done more with it when I was younger. But, it’s never too late, right?
5. Speaking of art (sort of), you have totally lucked out with the covers of your YA novels. I Heart You had that lovely image of linked hands, and the hardcover of Far From You was spectacular. That said, I just caught sight of the upcoming paperback cover of Far From You, which will be released at the same time as the hardcover version of Chasing Brooklyn, which also has a phenomenal cover.
Do you have a favorite among the covers?
Hmmm… I don’t think I have a favorite, although I do think the new Far From You cover is incredibly beautiful. I was a bit taken aback at first because it’s more of a symbolic image than a literal one, but I love it.
Has Simon & Schuster kept you in the loop while the covers are developed, or is it a surprise to you when you see them?
Like most authors, I don’t get much input in my covers. I know they work hard behind the scenes coming up with what they think will do a good job selling books. And I’m okay with that. They’re the experts, not me.
6. The first book of yours that I ever read was a picture book entitled Baby Can't Sleep, which was illustrated by Viviana Garofoli. I hear that you've got another picture book coming out soon: Little Chimp's Big Day, illustrated by Lisa McCue, due out in Fall, 2010.
What can you tell us about this little guy? And when can we expect to see what he looks like?
Little Chimp is adorable! I’ve just finished going through the first pass pages, making a few changes here and there, and I really think Lisa McCue did an amazing job. The book is going to take kids through a jungle filled with plants and flowers and animals, and we get to see this small chimp having a big adventure without his mom around (although she’s not as far away as he thinks she is). I wish the cover was finalized so I could show you, but alas, it’s not quite ready. As soon as I can share, I’ll put it up on my web site and post it on my blog. Hopefully in the next month or two it will be read.
Also, are you prepared for you and your illustrator to be referred to as Lisa-Lisa? (Those of us who are of a certain age will understand the reference – everyone else has youth on their sides!)
As far as Lisa-Lisa – I like it! It’s been done before, but that’s okay, we’ll bring a new look to the name! Honestly, I’m so honored Lisa agreed to illustrate my book. She does cute animals like no one else can do cute animals!
7. I'd like to shift again, and talk a bit about your forthcoming novel It's Raining Cupcakes, which is due out from Aladdin in March of 2010. You went from writing picture books to writing YA novels in verse or, if we're talking about age groups, from writing for kids who can't read yet to writing for kids who are in high school. What made you decide to double back and write a middle grade novel (for kids in the 9-12 age range)?
Yeah, I’m sort of schizophrenic with the writing, aren’t I? It keeps things interesting, I suppose!
I actually wrote three mid-grade novels along side picture books for the first few years I was writing. But none of them were good enough to sell. My strongest memories of reading and books from my childhood are of those mid-grade years, and I still LOVE books for that age group. So, when I had this idea for a mid-grade novel, and it involved CUPCAKES, I knew I had to write it. And I had SO much fun.
8. Was it a tremendous adjustment to switch from writing in verse to writing straight prose?
I actually like taking a break from writing in verse from time to time. It feels so good to let my characters talk and talk and TALK!! And like I said, writing It's Raining Cupcakes was a lot of fun. The story poured out of me and everything came together just the way you hope it will.
9. What can you tell us about cupcakes?
Cupcakes are little bundles of happiness with frosting on top! Just thinking about cupcakes makes people happy, right?
How about It's Raining Cupcakes?
I was driving home from work one day and was thinking along those lines. Like - what can I write about that everyone would go, ooooh, I want to read that book because it has X in it? And cupcakes popped into my brain.
It’s about a girl, Isabel, who has a dream to travel, but has never left the state of Oregon. Her mom is in the middle of opening a cupcake bakery when Isabel learns of a baking contest where the finalists travel to New York City for a bakeoff. Of course, Isabel’s mom thinks she should enter a cupcake recipe, but Isabel has a different idea. It’s a book about family, friendship, dreams, and, of course, cupcakes! I hope kids find it a delicious read!!
10. What’s next?
I honestly don’t know. My agent is reading a YA manuscript right this very minute that I’ve spent the last nine months working on. It’s very different from anything else I’ve ever written, so we’ll see what she thinks. It may end up being something I just needed to write for myself. I have another novel-in-verse I’m playing around with, that’s also very different for me. Different can be a good thing some times, but there’s a line, I think, so who knows if I’ve crossed it or not. It’s hard to know as a writer sometimes. Anyway, we’ll just have to wait and see!
11. Speed round:
Cheese or chocolate? Chocolate
Coffee or tea? Tea
Cats or dogs? Dogs
Favorite color? Depends on the day. Today I’ll say raspberry.
Favorite snack food? Trail mix
Favorite ice cream? Strawberry cheesecake
Water or soda? Both
What's in your CD player/on iTunes right now? Taylor Swift
What's the last movie you memorized lines from? Overboard: “And my children may be rotten, but they’re mine!”