Friday, January 11, 2008

Debut Author of the Month: Liz Gallagher...

Seattle-based writer Liz Gallagher's debut novel The Opposite of Invisible, was released just days ago by Random House imprint Wendy Lamb Books. Below Gallagher tells us about her book and what inspired her to write it as well as the Class of 2k8, the Vermont College MFA program, how she found her publisher, promoting her debut, and why her city is the perfect backdrop for a YA novel.

Tell my readers and me about your debut novel The Opposite of Invisible. Would you say your book is a coming-of-age novel?

I would say it’s a coming-of-age novel, yes. But it’s not on an epic scale; it’s not representative of all of the ways youth helps my character grow into herself. It’s about a particular moment in her growth. The book centers on Alice, a 15-year-old Seattle girl, who has always lived in what she thinks of as a comfortable cocoon with her best friend, a boy named Jewel. Their friendship is a real cornerstone of her life, but she starts to realize that it might not be enough, and when the boy she has a crush on starts to take notice of her, she emerges from that cocoon. She remains aware, however, that she might lose her most important friendship by expanding her circle. She’s also trying new directions in art.

Your website bio says you’ve always wanted to be a writer. Had you written or submitted novels before The Opposite of Invisible? What inspired you to write the book that would become your published debut?

Opposite is the first novel I wrote. Falling in love with young adult novels was really the key for me in deciding to pursue a career as a novelist. When I first realized that I was passionate about writing for young people—and about reading the literature that other people write for young people—I was lucky enough to get a one-year editorial internship at the magazine Highlights for Children. My first short story for younger kids was published in Highlights. I thought at that point that I would continue on an editorial path, but finally decided to pursue writing after I fell in serious love with YA—which happened while I was working at All for Kids Books & Music in Seattle. I was inspired to write this particular story based on the scene of Alice buying the dress that she wears to the Halloween dance; that was the kernel of the beginning of the character starting to see herself in a different light, and I wanted to see where that new vision would take her. It was the first scene of Opposite that I wrote.

What made you decide to enroll in the Vermont College MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults? Tell me about that experience.

I knew that I wanted to study writing craft and, for a while, it seemed like every book I was reading and enjoying mentioned in the acknowledgments that the writer was either a graduate or a faculty member at Vermont! Most notably, I was obsessed with M. T. Anderson’s books Feed, Burger Wuss, and Thirsty, and he was, at the time, the faculty head at Vermont. Once I did a little bit of research, it was a no-brainer that Vermont was my choice for an MFA. Not many programs give the degree specifically in writing for children and young adults. I think that I owe Opposite to the program; without deadlines and careful feedback from my advisers, I don’t think I would’ve accomplished the goal of writing an entire novel. The experience is intense, and wonderful in every way. Above all, it’s a community of like-minded readers and writers. Eight other graduates and I have a blog where we discuss writing craft and interview other writers.

I love the name of your main character! Any particular reason you called her Alice?

Hmm—I wonder why you would love it? Cute! Honestly, I’ve always had brain strain when it comes to naming characters. Toward the beginning of the writing process, I did some journaling in the voice of my character, about names, and she told me, “My name’s Alice. Am I supposed to live in Wonderland?” It stuck.

Judging from your website, you’re quite enamored with your town. What makes Seattle the right backdrop for Alice and Jewel? How important is setting in a YA novel?

I think that setting is important in any novel, but what’s even more important is the writing element that Seattle was able to lend to Opposite: atmosphere. Because of the drizzle, Alice and Jewel practically live inside of sweatshirt/jacket hoods. It’s cozy, but it also highlights the completeness of their small cocoon. The rain also helps to amp up the discomfort in scenes that are…uncomfortable. I love the grayness of Seattle for exactly that reason: it fits both warm and fuzzy moments, because you get to bundle up, and it fits restless moments because it can be annoying. Seattle is also a good choice for Alice and Jewel because it’s a city where kids their age can be free to roam to cool and quirky places on their own, without cars or parental escorts. They take buses, or walk. When I look around Seattle, I see that I’m lucky to live in a place where you can go by foot or bus to the movies, to concerts, and to about a ga-jillion coffee shops! I do love Seattle.

How did you end up with Wendy Lamb Books and why is that a good place for you? Tell me about your path to publication—do you have an agent?

I do have an agent, Rosemary Stimola. I signed on with her right before I graduated from Vermont, and right after I graduated, she had three interested editors. One was Wendy, and she made a preemptive offer. My path was “easy” because I had done my homework: put myself in the right communities to meet mentors, researched which agents and editors would be a good fit for me and my story, and worked hard on a manuscript.

Your bio says your “inner voice is perpetually 15 years old.” Many YA authors say the same sort of thing. Why do you think so many writers are compelled to tap into their teen selves? Why are you so compelled?

That voice in your head only matures to a certain point, I think. For some of us, it stops in teen-hood. I know mine did. I just feel that teen awkwardness so strongly, and the almost-tangible importance of events that to some adults might seem like silly teen things. Almost nothing seems unimportant when you’re a teenager, questioning the world for the first time. The things on my mind fit well with the themes of adolescence – Who am I? What do I want? Where will I end up? What really makes me happy? Some adult writers of teen books say that they eavesdrop on teen conversations to pick up language and speech cadence. I don’t do that. Maybe some day I will, but for now it’s all in my brain. I think what a lot of us YA writers are trying to do is honor teen-hood. We want to say to teenagers: Yeah, this time of your life really does matter. And we even want to say to other adults: Remember how much that summer when you were fifteen changed you?

Your book is just coming out and you’ve planned a number of events. What did you do to promote these events? Are you nervous? Excited? Psyched?

I think that e-vites are a good way to go, and I plan to use them in the future, but for my main two events—a release party at Chester County Book & Music Company in West Chester, PA, and another at All for Kids Books & Music in Seattle, WA—I had postcard invitations made and sent them to everyone in my address book! People have been so supportive over the two years since I signed my contract, and I want to celebrate that support by having as many friends around as possible. I’m lucky that I know a world-class poster designer, Jeff Kleinsmith, whose main gig is making rock show posters (and doing other graphic design) for Sub Pop Records. He created a truly beautiful image based on my book, and I used that for my Seattle postcards and for posters to have as keepsakes and to put up in the coffee shops I frequent. I’m really excited for those two parties! I’m a bit more nervous for other events—school visits, radio interview, smaller signings. Luckily, I’ve spent a few years working in schools, and that’s a great way to gain confidence in public speaking. I also just love talking YA books, so I’m excited to meet more YA readers! I truly feel like Cinderella at the ball, only better because there’s no midnight looming.

How and why did you get involved in the Class of 2k8? How has it been helpful to you?

I was originally scheduled for publication in 2007, and knew about the Class of 2k7. At ALA Annual in Washington, DC, I ran into Jody Feldman. She’s the co-leader of the Class of 2k8, and when I mentioned that I was interested, she put me on the waiting list and I ended up in the class. It’s definitely been helpful to have another community of support and advice; we’re all learning the steps after the writing and selling together, and it’s definitely helpful to have the experience of 27 other writers to learn from and commiserate over. Some of us have learned how to create a MySpace page; some have bounced publicity plans off of everyone; all have celebrated together.

In addition to being in the 2k8 collective, you have a website and a blog. Any other promotional tools you would recommend?

I think that having a web presence—be it a site, blog, MySpace, Facebook, or other—is key. So many readers, booksellers, teachers, and librarians are online, and my hunch is that teen readers are especially likely to seek out writers online. I also think it’s so cool that you can become friends with someone based on a true shared interest, regardless of geography, age, or any of the other roadblocks to “real life” friendship. For the record, I’m loving Facebook and if anyone wants to feed my pet penguin over there, Snowflake, he could use the strength! I also have a new Shelfari membership, to keep track of what I’m reading, and I like to post my own events and to keep track of others. I think contests are great. The other day, I rushed to do Cynthia Lord’s name-the-author photo contest so that I could win some books. And of course you can’t talk about Internet publicity and networking in the YA world without mentioning John Green and the phenomenon that is Brotherhood 2.0. Video blogs are certainly on the upswing. With all of that Internet stuff said, I know lots of writers who simply don’t want to get involved in blogging and web sites. The real secret to promotion? Write a great book.

What’s your advice for unpublished YA authors? Have you gotten any particularly useful advice from publishing industry types or authors you’ve met?

It goes back to what I said up there about writing a great book. The most important part to becoming a published YA author is to write, write, write and read, read, read. Know what books are out there—which you probably do anyway; if you love writing ’em, you probably love reading ’em. Have a discerning eye. Study craft; read a few craft books, but don’t take them as gospel. (There is no instruction book, but I love Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird and Robert Olen Butler’s From Where You Dream.) Once you’ve got a manuscript that you believe in, do some research online and in the writers’ guides to find out which agents/editors might be interested. Be professional. Learn the process. Write an appropriate query letter. For me, mentorship was key. My friend Lara Zeises was leaps ahead of me in the publishing game (still is!) and she helped me narrow down the field of agent possibilities, was a very helpful eye on my query letter, and a generally peppy cheerleader. Overall, the YA world is a very friendly place! Scour the Internet for industry news, communities, places to commiserate. SCBWI is a good organization to join if you’re just starting out. The process of earning an MFA was essential to my personal journey in that it allowed me to give myself permission to prioritize writing, but the degree in itself is certainly not a must. Write away!

Can you give us a teaser for your second novel (also under contract with Wendy Lamb Books)? When will it be published? Did you sign a multi-book deal?

I did sign a two-book deal, and am working on a companion piece to Opposite, set the summer before Opposite and exploring the character of Vanessa. I’m still only mid-way in the writing process, and don’t know when it will be published. I have a third novel mostly written that I hope to see in print someday. I’d like to do this forever!


Kym Brunner said...

Great interview! Thanks for posting.

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