Interview: Tara Altebrando
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This is the first of six interviews with authors of MTV Books for teens. Please check back every day this week for another interview with another author!
Earlier this year, I read The Pursuit of Happiness by Tara Altebrando. From the first sentence, I was hooked. I had the opportunity to interview Tara shortly thereafter. A few months later, I asked Tara if she thought the other authors of MTV Books would be interested in interviews. Her encouragement led to the MTV Books and Interviews Blitz you see here this week. I of course wanted to follow up with Tara as well.
How long did it take you to write the actual book?
I wrote the opening pages years ago -- probably almost a decade ago! But at the time I wasn't really sure where to take it from there; since the material is really close to my own experience of losing my mother when I was a teenager, I think I wasn't quite ready to write the book at that time. Once I heard about the opportunity to write for MTV Books, I revisited the idea of the book and found that I suddenly knew what kind of book I wanted it to be and where it should go. Once it clicked in my head, I pretty much wrote it one summer. One very busy, crazed, obsessive, summer.
Was your book written before or after you landed the book deal? Did you or your agent approach MTV Books or vice versa?
I'd worked with the editor who was acquiring fiction for MTV Book on my adult fiction. It just seemed natural that we would try to work together on this book. I signed the contract after showing them about 100 pages.
Why write for teens? Did you write your book specifically for the teen fiction shelves?
I did have a teen audience in mind when I was writing and I've just always felt like it was a market I wanted to get into. Over the years I've written essays for Seventeen and I guess I feel a little bit like I'm still a teenager at heart. I think that's why I enjoy writing for teens so much. It allows me to revisit my own adolescence but on my own terms.
What age range or grade levels do you feel your book is suitable for - or not?
I've been asked this question a few times and never know for sure what to say because I think it depends very much on the teen. My main character is a virgin at the beginning of the book AND at the end, but there's one scene where a guy comes on pretty strong and there's some drinking. I believe (and reviewers have agreed) that the scenes and scenarios in the book are very true to life and that anyone from 8th grade on is probably savvy enough to get it. Protective adults might disagree.
What inspired the title of your book?
I originally submitted the idea for this book as "Colonize This!" and was told that yes, they wanted to buy the book but that I'd have to change the title. And thank god for that. What was I thinking? Since the main character works at a colonial reenactment village, it made sense to try to have a title with some kind of colonial allusion so I turned to the Declaration of Independence and there it was!
Do you watch MTV?
Sure, not fanatically, but over the years I've watched it for a variety of reasons. I've seen more than a few seasons of The Real World. I watched "Daria" pretty regularly back in the day. Currently, I'm a little bit morbidly fascinated by My Super Sweet Sixteen and also by the Hills. But I actually remember when MTV started and I used to watch it for actual music videos. Hard to believe now, but it's true!
Who are your favorite authors?
Ann Patchett. Richard Russo. John Irving.
What are some of your favorite musicians, actors, or TV shows?
Well, I refer to the Flaming Lips in my book and they are currently one of my top favorite bands. Back when I was a teenager I was probably most obsessed with New Order and Depeche Mode and The Smiths. Current favorites are less angsty: Eels, Tegan and Sara, Built to Spill. I'm also going through one of my sixties pop kicks, where I'm listening to the Zombies and the Left Banke almost every day. I'm a passionate but fickle person when it comes to music for sure.
Would you ever write a sequel for your book?
A lot of readers of Pursuit have asked for a sequel but I left those characters in a good, hopeful place and I'm ready to move on. My next book won't overlap with Pursuit at all; in fact, it's set in Las Vegas, which seems like pretty much the antithesis of a colonial village.
For the second part of this interview, Tara provided me with such fantastic answers that I didn't need to edit a thing. I just let her speak for herself.
The working title of my next book is The World in My Eyes.* In it, a Vegas teen comes home from an amazing trip to Europe with her family and finds out that something bad (which I'm not going to reveal) happened while she was away. I thought it would be neat to take a girl from Vegas -- who has already seen the "Eiffel Tower" and "New York" skyline -- and send her on a trip to Europe so that when she comes home she sees her hometown quite differently. It's gonna rock. Trust me.
To be a good young adult novel, a book also just has to be a good novel -- with a great story, well drawn characters, compelling prose. But I think that teen readers are especially sensitive to being condescended or preached to, so a book really need to feel authentic in order for it to succeed.
What else is there besides books and music? Well, MOVIES, of course. But I guess lately I've become one of those people who's into home improvement and gardening. My husband and I have been fixing up our house, which was in desperate need of fixing up, and I find great satisfaction in projects like our current one, which is replacing all the hollow, nasty brown interior doors with nice solid woods ones that we're going to paint white. Together we also take great joy in throwing parties of all shapes and sizes, so I've gotten much more into cooking and entertaining in general. Does that make me sound old? Oh, and travel travel travel. In the year and a half that we've been married, the husband and I have been to Belize, Hawaii, California, Italy, and Ireland (twice). I've got my eye on Iceland for our next trip.
I've read a bunch of cool books recently: Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist by David Levithan and Rachel Cohn was great. Made me wish I was a teenager again so I could have a night like that. I also just finished The Wonder Spot by Melissa Bank who, as far as I'm concerned, blows Curtis Sittenfeld out of the water (despite Curtis's notoriously scathing review of Melissa in the NYTimes). I devoured Kelly Braffet's Josie and Jack in about three days and am really looking forward to seeing what she does next.
I'm really not sure what I hope to accomplish with my writing, I've just always felt a very strong need to do it. I guess it's a way of trying to plug into the world, really. You put your stories out there and you hope that someone -- anyone! -- likes them and then you feel like you're not crazy for being who you are and thinking the things you think. I definitely use writing as catharsis, or have up until now. I think a lot of writers start out that way, and then eventually you start moving outside of yourself and have bigger and bigger stories to tell.
* The World In My Eyes was retitled and released as What Happens Here.
Learn more about Tara at taraaltebrando.com
Related Posts at Bildungsroman
Review: The Pursuit of Happiness by Tara Altebrando
Review: Love Will Tear Us Apart by Tara Altebrando (as Tara McCarthy)
Review: What Happens Here by Tara Altebrando
Review: Dreamland Social Club by Tara Altebrando
Review: The Best Night of Your (Pathetic) LIfe by Tara Altebrando
Interview: Tara Altebrando (March 2006)
Interview: Tara Altebrando (November 2012)