Debut Author of the Month: Crissa-Jean Chappell...
YA novelist Crissa-Jean Chappell's debut Total Constant Order, which was just released from HarperCollins, focuses on Fin, a teen who's got a lot to deal with. She's recently relocated to Florida, started at a new school, and her parents split up. And all these things put Fin's OCD in overdrive.
Chappell, who grew up in Miami, holds an MFA in screenwriting and an interdisciplinary PhD in film theory, philosophy, and literature. In addition to writing, she also teaches creative writing and cinema studies at Miami International University of Art and Design. Here she talks about writing her first novel, finding her agent, blogging and more and offers some advice to unpublished writers.
You've published a number of short stories and your debut book Total Constant Order started as a short story collection. Tell me about that evolution--what led you from short stories to novels?
My first "books" were 90-minute audio cassettes that I mailed to my cousin in Massachusetts. I'd write the epic script and act out the voices, not to mention the music (my totally awesome ghetto blaster, cranked to ear-piercing decibels in the background) and the cheesy sound effects--footsteps, falling rocks, etc. Sometimes I would Zip-loc my tape-recorder in a plastic bag and splash around in the pool. (Kids, don't try this at home).
In college, my creative writing professors focused on short stories. I grew used to thinking in terms of shorter formats, much like my old-school cassettes, and the thought of writing a full-length novel terrified me. I started out writing a collection of interconnected short stories. After a series of false starts, I threw that project out the window and began working on Total Constant Order, featuring Frances Isabelle Nash (Fin for short), a character that I had created years ago.
I met my agent in a very postmodern way: over the Internet. At the time, I had grown frustrated with licking stamps, sending out snail-mail queries, and receiving rejection letters months later. I decided to kick-start my agent-quest and fire off a round of emails. Kate responded to my cyber-query in a flash. I didn't realize that she had a reputation as the "agent to the bloggers." To this day, we correspond primarily through email.
What was the publication process like for you? From reading your 21 Steps to Publishing a Novel, it sounds long/exhausting/exciting. What would you say surprised you the most?
After working as a freelance journalist, where everything moves at light speed, I've learned that the book-publishing business is turtle-paced by comparison. My book was sold back in 2005 and it's finally hitting the shelves two years later. I've learned that it takes time to establish a marketing plan for a first-time author. HarperCollins has been so cool about sharing the process with me. For example, an author usually has little say in the cover design of their book, but they listened to my suggestions and I'm thrilled with the result.
Fin, your main character, talks about having a voice in her head "ordering me to listen." As a writer, do you have such a voice guiding you?
I bet most writers would admit, "Yeah. I hear voices in my head." I hear the sound of my characters talking to me. They spill their guts and whisper their darkest secrets. That's what makes writing so much fun. It's like dreaming with your eyes open. Every morning, I roll out of bed and stumble over to the computer and plug myself into an imaginary world. When I was a kid, I used to keep Trapper Keepers full of descriptions and drawings of my "invisible" friends. I still think about them and wonder what they're doing.
Tell us a little more about Fin and your book.
For the past two years, I've been secretly writing as my main character, 15-year-old Fin, in a Diaryland blog called "Sunshine State." I didn't want to write about myself (What I ate for breakfast. Or: What I bought at the grocery store). There's a lot of pressure on authors to blog as a way of reaching out to their readers. I'm a big fan of Megan McCafferty's "retro blog," in which she posts hilarious snippets of her high-school diary. Sarah Dessen's Livejournal features her favorite TV obsessions. I also love Blake Nelson's minimalist musings on his subway encounters with Prada-clad rock bands or the Zenlike nature of cows, etc. But I'm too shy to reveal large chunks of my private self: so I've kept an online journal under my real name, which is mostly about my publishing journey (because I'm obsessive and I like to keep track of things). At the same time, I've been blogging as Fin as my alter-ego in cyberspace.
At first, I shunned the idea of blogging. I shrugged it off as a distraction. Then, as Fin's readers began to respond to the stories, drawings and pictures I posted online, I realized that it is a valuable experience. Instead of sitting in my room, pecking away on a keyboard, I was connecting to people in an interactive universe. Writers live a very solitary life. For once, I didn't feel so alone.
You said that in college you were known as "the-chick-who-writes-about- teenagers." Why do you think you're drawn to creating teen characters? Why do you feel that "teenagers are the most interesting people on the planet"?
I still don't feel "grown up." In a kid's point of view, a day moves by slowly. They're always experiencing new things. Adults often complain that a week will fly by and they barely notice. I believe that it's easy to fall into a routine as you grow older...the daily grind of driving to work and all the responsibilities that fall on a person's shoulders. Sometimes when I talk to adults, it seems like their world has become so small. They chat about their jobs, the car they just bought, their mortgage, etc. As a college professor, I spend my days talking to teenagers. They haven't quite learned how to hide themselves yet. They blurt out their thoughts and opinions. They're desperate to have someone listen and take them seriously. (I get the feeling that they're used to being shooed away). I never grow tired of listening to them.
You've said Total Constant Order is based your own experience with OCD and that you are displeased with how the disorder is portrayed in the media. Why do you think it's misunderstood?
It's difficult to portray obsessive-compulsive disorder in TV or film because the action is primarily taking place inside the character's mind. Fin feels like a volcano. On the outside, she is sitting quietly at her desk. On the inside, she is ready to blow up. Thayer feels the same way when he takes Ritalin. I wanted to show that OCD is not a punchline to a joke. It's not about funny rituals: like tapping a light switch or counting footsteps. It's about feeling as if your life has slipped out of your control. I think that many teenagers can relate to that experience.
One review said that Miami is like a character in your novel (certainly a more interesting Miami character than the one in a certain David Caruso program). Here's another chance to tell us how Real Miami and TV Miami differ.
Miami must be the most misunderstood city in the United States. Those postcard-images of palm trees, pink flamingoes and sunny beaches are a mirage. Most often, you get a glimpse of a few neon-soaked avenues on South Beach (which is an island) and not the city itself. I wanted to depict the "real Miami," from the cookie-cutter McMansions of the Kendall suburbs to the graffiti-splattered industrial wasteland of downtown, the manatees hovering in canals and the hip-hop kids with the souped-up Hondas, fast food joints like Pollo Tropical, and Cuban coffee stands, a schizophrenic mix of urban sprawl and primal swamps. That's the Miami I know.
Megan McCafferty told you the YA community is filled with kindred spirits who remain forever teen, and it's important to help each other out. In that spirit, any favorite YA novelists you'd like to mention?
The blogging authors that I've mentioned are some of my favorites. I grew up devouring a lot of sci-fi and fantasy (think: Ursula K. Le Guin and Zilpha Keatley Snyder). In fact, the video game based on Snyder's Below the Root was one of my first experiences in thinking about interactivity and the way we read books.
(One more question since you don't like odd numbers). If you could give unpublished writers two pieces of advice, what would you tell them?
Everybody has a different story about their path to publication. If you listen to those stories, you'll hear a lot of conflicting information. I've learned that rules are meant to be broken (For example, many literary agencies say, "Don't query via email," and yet, that's how I met my agent). I was also told that teens don't like to read a lot of description. After hearing this a few times in my rejection letters from literary agents, I cut out some of my descriptive paragraphs. Then, when I met my agent, she encouraged me to put back what I had deleted. So my two cents would be: Write the book you want to read. And don't give up, no matter how many times you hear the words, "Not for me." Maybe it's not for them. It's for somebody else.