January 18, 2014

My Conversation with Gayle Forman

Reading books by Gayle Forman is a roller coaster ride of emotions.  There are genuine highs with dips so low tears would start flowing before you realize it. She is a brilliant writer.  Suffice it to say I love her books and have read all of them.  So I was very excited when I found out that she was coming to Manila for the first time upon the invitation of National Book Store

I finally met her at the Writer’s Bar (apt place for an interview) at Raffles Makati.  Having arrived only a few shorts hours prior, she was exhausted and experiencing jetlag.  However, that did not diminish her excitement in being here and meeting her fans.  Here’s our conversation.

Lyn:  You were a writer before for magazines and you were writing specifically for young adults, how did you make the transition to writing novels?  Was it easy for you since you already know how the minds of teenagers work?

Gayle: I know the minds of teenagers. Let’s see if that holds true when I have a teenager.... It was an accidental transition.  I had a baby and I had gone around the world with my husband the year before and I had published a nonfiction book.  So that book came out, and I was doing magazine pieces but not as many because I was having the baby and we just bought an apartment and we couldn’t afford the apartment because It had this tax on it that it wasn’t supposed to have so we strictly budgeted it but there was $500 more a month and that extra $500 was killing us.  And then I had 3 magazine pieces killed in a month which is more than I had killed over my entire career, so I was freaking out! 
I told my agent you have to help me, like do you have anything, ghostwriting, I am dying here.  And she had a ghostwriting project of a young adult novel.  But she said it’s not a lot of money, you’re better writing your own and (she snaps her fingers) I had written an article around 10 years before about these behavior modification bootcamps.  It was called disturbing behavior. And it was about these teenagers who were sent off to what amounted to private prisons to these unregulated states in the United States or overseas.  And they were sent away for drinking or taking drugs, something that should have sent them to rehab, or being defiant or ditching school, sometimes for being overweight, sometimes for being gay, and they were horribly treated here and it bothered me so much at that time I thought about writing a non fiction book and it all came running and that’s where my first YA book was born.  And once I wrote that I was like Oh, this is what I wanna be doing.  Fiction is a lie that tells the truth.

L: The book is Sisters in Sanity right?

G: Yes

L:  Where did that happen?

G:  It happened in the US, it was in Utah.   Every couple of years there’s regulation and then a kid will die, they’ll shut a bunch down but they just pop up again and now I think a majority of them, there are still some in the States, but most of them are out of the States.  It’s awful.

L:  You have been here only a few hours but are you ready for your Filipino fans? 

G:  I am so excited to be here.  It’s such a long trip but because the fans have been asking me for a couple of years now “when are you coming?” and I’m like guys, you are literally on the other side of the planet from me.  So when National Bookstore said do you want to come over and I jumped at it.  And I wouldn’t necessarily have jumped if it had been another country because I have young kids ages 6 and 9 and they hate it when I go away.  I have been traveling a lot this last year between the book and touring but I was like Hey guys, it’s the Philippines.  I don’t know quite what to expect.  They seem so excited, I am excited too.

L:  The first novel of yours that I read was WHERE SHE WENT , then I immediately read IF I STAY and both just destroyed me while reading it.  Of course at the end you find redemption and happiness….

G:  And you knew how IF I STAY was gonna end…

L: Exactly!  It just made me feel emotional. So what exactly do you want your readers to feel when they read any of your books?

G:  Exactly how you felt. All the feels.  The books that I like the most are the ones that I feel like a slightly different person once I finish reading it than when I started; that makes me feel all the emotions and do it in an honest way.  Because sometimes when you watch a movie and you realize it is totally manipulating you yet it is working and yet you are totally irritated by it.  It’s different when something actually brings you there, where you erupt into sobs.  That’s your experience that I want.  I want to make you cry, but not in a cheap way.

L:  What lessons do you want your readers to take away from your books? Because from JUST ONE DAY and JUST ONE YEAR, I got this sense that I have to take an adventure, that I need to do what I want to do Now!

G:  I don’t write morals into the books.  Travel was definitely transformative to me when I was younger.  Instead of going to college I backpacked for 3 years.  It changed the course of my life.  It put me on this trajectory to do unsafe things.  And I don’t mean physically unsafe but to go freelance, to become a writer, to choose a career path that maybe isn’t so great.  To move to New York City which is a hard place to be.  I wanted to write about the transformative power of travel, and after I was done writing JUST ONE DAY (I realized) this was a book based on what I was going through about creating boundaries.  Like Allyson had to create boundaries with her mother, I had to create boundaries with my mother and my kids.  So I am not ever trying to build a moral in, if I did I would be profoundly unsuccessful and the books would be terrible.

L:  Will you ever write a trilogy?

G:  No.  And I don’t think I’ll be writing any duets for a while.  The next book is a standalone.  Well, I wont say never but the reason I like duets is the switching up of the characters’ points of view.  I like how when you shift from one person’s point of view to the other you get a different sense of the story.  I have now done this twice.  I’ve done it with the two books that shared a synchronology and the other where the one book picks up several years later.  I’ve done that and I don’t think I wanna do it again.  I will never say never, it’s just that it is not that appealing to me but I have enormous respect for people who can pull that off.

L:  you mentioned that you went backpacking for 3 years.  Where’d you go?

G: I went backpacking for about 4 months then I ended up living in Amsterdam on and off for the rest.

L:   So all those in the books, you saw and experienced them all yourself?

G:  Yeah.  And then my husband and I went around the world for a year.  So Allyson’s travels are more like my early travels, and Willem’s travels are more like my later travels.  I was more adventurous at that point.

L:  What was your most memorable experience when you were traveling?

G: Oh gosh there were so many. India was my favorite country.  We were in India for about 2 months and when I got there everyone said to me that I was gonna hate India and it’s so difficult. I got there and I was all poised for a fight.  Sure enough on my first day some guy grabbed my backside.  But then this amazing thing happened.  Everywhere we went people were extraordinarily open, gracious and generous and helpful.  I was also lucky because when I was down in Mumbai, my friend was living there so I stayed with her and I met her family and when I needed a doctor suddenly 10 calls were made my behalf.  India was just magical and surreal.  And meeting these little kids who did not speak any English and we all went swimming together, That was a spectacular experience.    There are so many. Being on a safari in Kenya with this really amazing guide called Isaac who we became friends with.  It’s always about the human connection.  The safari was great but the time with Isaac was better.

L:  For those who want to start reading your novels, those who have not discovered you yet.  What can you tell them about your books and what inspired you to write them.

G: My books even though they are about different things, they are about delivering that kind of emotional experience that you talked about, all the feels.  On the surface I think IF I STAY and JUST ONE DAY are very different books and maybe you don’t bawl your eyes out, but I hope you finish JUST ONE DAY with that same feeling of your chest being not quite big enough for your heart.  I’m inspired by all sorts of things.  I would like to say that I write about young people but I don’t write young stories.  I think I’m writing stories that are universal so if you’re 18, you’ll find something in them.  And if you’re 48, you’ll find something in them as well.  And I’m writing about love, life and death and identity and transformation, the big stuff we all grapple with.
L:  You have a lot of quotes and my favorite is  ‘We die in one day, we can change in one day, we can fall in love in one day, anything can happen in just one day’.  Do you believe in all of your quotes?

G:  That quote has become so widely spread around, I don’t believe that quote at all!  I mean it’s the point of the book.  Okay, we were born in one day and we die in one day, agree.  We can fall in love in one day, we can begin to fall in love in one day, we can change in one day.  The whole point of writing this book was to show that this one day had been a catalyst for each of these people.  But then we had to pull back and spend this year of each of them kind of fumbling around and doing the hard work of changing.  That’s the point.  So I don’t think you can change in one day.  You can decide to change and that’s the hardest part.  Understanding this is not how I want to be and then you gotta do the work.  So I think it's hilarious because that quote comes very early in the book, right before Willem disappears on her and I don’t believe it at all but it has been widely quoted.  But you can’t change everything in one day.  There is no shortcut.  That’s why these books take place over the year, because that day catalyzed the change.  But you have to back it up with really changing your life.  Both of them had to do work in their lives to really change.

L:  Another quote that I like is ‘everything is happening all the time but if you don’t put yourself in the path of it, you miss it

G:  That I agree with

L:  That’s why you travel a lot

G:  Yup.  And the thing about traveling is that everything is so foreign and different that it's much easier to see it without your blinders on than when you're in your everyday life. I think that still holds true.    
L:  What’s your favorite quote from among your own and which one do you believe in?

G:  The one that’s become most quoted that I'm surprised about is from IF I STAY and it's ‘sometimes you make choices in life and sometimes it makes you’ which I do believe.  I don’t know what my favorite quote is.  There are just small little lines…..  there’s one in IF I STAY where the dad’s friend Henry is so mad at him for leaving the band and then when he has his own kid he calls up crying and says ‘I get it now’.  I choke up just thinking about it.   Or there's a line in WHERE SHE WENT, my favorite line maybe in any book where Adam at the end appears with the band who he is estranged from and Liz who used to be his rock.  And then Mia pops out and Liz freaks out and looks at Adam and there’s a line there that is ‘and if I'm not forgiven, at least I'm understood’.  That’s probably my favorite over anything.

L:  There’s a strong factor in both JUST ONE DAY and JUST ONE YEAR which is Fate.  Do you believe in fate?

G:  It’s the intersection right?  It's the two of them.  Willem lets his life at the beginning be completely ruled by what he thinks is fate, Allyson doesn’t leave any room for accidents or go with the flow.  They both have the balance wrong.  I don’t think I believe in fate’s hand but weird things happen in life.  There’s a domino effect in life that when you try to unravel it you realize how random it all seems and how this wouldn’t have happened with that.  So that’s kind of amazing.  You can’t sit around waiting for it, you have to drive your own life.  I’m pragmatic.

L: IF I STAY is being made into a movie.  What was your first reaction when you found out?

G:  The first reaction when I heard they were trying to sell it was like No way.  My second reaction when I heard it's been picked up was well obviously it's going to suck. And then as we got deeper into it I was like Huh, maybe it’s not gonna suck.  And now maybe I have no perspective but the screenplay is so solid and so good and it's so well cast and R.J. Cutler (the movie’s director) so gets it, and the music is such a vital part of it and what I saw shot is just so beautiful so now I think it might actually be really good.  I don’t know, we’ll see.

L:  How involved are you in it?  Did you choose who would play the characters?

G:  I was an executive producer so I saw the screenplay as it developed.  I would write notes and they were incorporated a lot of the time.  In terms of casting, Chloe (Grace Moretz) was already attached, but they would come and say ‘we’re thinking of Mireille Enos as the mom’ and I thought, are you kidding she is amazing! So it was more that.  There were occasions when they were weighing people and I would weigh in, everytime the people I’d weigh in on they got cast.  I think it's because we all had the same sensibility.

L:  If JUST ONE DAY and JUST ONE YEAR gets turned into a movie do you have a dream cast?

G:  I don’t.  But if they get turned into a movie we would combine both books into one film so we’re just starting to talk about that.

L:  Among your books what was the most difficult to write?

G:  JUST ONE YEAR I think, or JUST ONE DAY just because of the way they were plotted.  With JUST ONE DAY I had to figure out who Willem and Allyson were pretty deeply because I had to understand what they’d answer to each other even if they couldn’t.  And JUST ONE YEAR was difficult because at one point I had to back up and throw everything.  I had sort of gone down a wrong turn.  So those two were hard, it’s the reason why I don’t wanna write a trilogy.  All that plotting is not for me.

L:  You mentioned in your acknowledgement that a novelist is a thief by necessity.  What was the best thing that you borrowed?

G:  I don’t borrow I steal (laughs).  With JUST ONE DAY and JUST ONE YEAR because of all the years of my traveling I was like a magpie, stealing things from people that I met even for a day and oftentimes not even fully remembering that I was actually stealing from them.  I totally stole my brother in law, his nickname was Broodje, so I stole his nickname and a little bit of his physical (features) and a couple of his stories.  That story about Willem meeting Broodje (in JUST ONE YEAR) and how they were casing the house for robbers and how the police came after them, that actually happened to my brother in law.  So I stole that from him completely.

L:  When you’re free, how do you relax?

G:  I relax in the evenings with my husband, we’ll watch a tv show that we have on Netflix or something.  And I don’t work on the weekends, I really try to keep Monday to Friday hours.  And my favorite thing is the family will have dance parties together.  We live in a compound where our backyard is connected to two other backyards so the kids run back and forth especially in the summer so we’ll all sit outside and have all these long nice dinners together and that’s how I relax and it's great.

L:  What or who are the top 5 YA novels or authors that you’d recommend?

G:  I would recommend Melina Machetta. I’d give you a taster’s choice of her books that you have to read: Saving Francesca, Piper’s Son or Jellicoe Road.  Rainbow Rowell if you haven’t read Eleanor & Park and Fangirl.  Andrew Smith’s Winger which I read last year which I thought was just absolutely phenomenal.  Jandy Nelson’s The Sky is Everywhere.  If you haven’t read the Hunger Games, you should read them.  Also Libba Bray’s Beauty Queens.  It’s hilarious, it’s a satire about these beauty queens that crash land on a desert island. It’s hysterical, fantastic. It’s wonderful, pure Libba and it’s one of my favorites.

L:  Can you give us an idea about your next novel which you said is a standalone.

G:  it's a standalone called I WAS HERE.  My shorthand for it before I had a title was Suicide, Mystery, Love Story J  It opens a month after Cody’s bestfriend Meg has killed herself which has been a shock, nobody saw it coming, Cody especially.  And it follows Cody’s search for what happened because she winds up packing up Meg’s stuff, finding some hints that maybe it wasn’t a straight out suicide but also Cody desperately needing to forgive herself because she feels that she somehow is to blame. Plus there’s the hottest guy I have ever written I’m just telling you.

L:  When are we expecting that to come out?

G:  In about a year.  It’s gonna be winter 2015.

L:  So what more can we expect from you in the future and a message to your fans?

G:  More books.  They are the reason that I get to do this.  They read it and that’s why I can continue to write it.  I am incredibly grateful for their support and I'm so excited to be here and just Thanks!

All Gayle Forman books are available at National Book Store branches nationwide.

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