Interview: Jenny O'Connell
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This is the second of six interviews with authors of MTV Books for teens. Please check back every day this week for another interview with another author!
Plan B by Jenny O'Connell features Vanessa, a high school student who has always been a do-gooder and a planner. In other words, she has a few itsy bitsy neurotic tendencies and the need for order. When her parents tell her that she has a half-brother close to her age, she is surprised. When she is told he is Reed, a television actor who is popular with her peers, she is shocked. When she discovers that he's coming to live with her family and attend her high school, her entire world turns upside down.
In the past year, there have been many novels that feature a hip, famous teenage actor trying to live a "normal" life. Plan B by Jenny O'Connell could have been just another of those stories - been there, read that - but thanks to a storyline that was more about family than fame, it is memorable and meaningful.
The first three chapters just took a few weeks, and then once it sold it took me about four months to finish PLAN B.
Was your book written before or after you landed the book deal? Did you or your agent approach MTV Books or vice versa?
PLAN B was sold on the first three chapters. My agent sent the chapters out to several publishers and when more than one said they were interested the book went to auction. MTV "won" the auction.
Why write for teens? Did you write your book specifically for the teen fiction shelves?
My agent was approached by an editor who asked if I'd be interested in writing teen books in addition to my adult books. I'd thought about it, but not seriously. I immediately went back and read all my favorite books from high school to see if it was something I could do. Then I had the idea for PLAN B and started writing.
What age range or grade levels do you feel your book is suitable for - or not?
I don't call my books "YA" because they deal with topics and situations that I think are more appropriate for teens. I didn't want to have to screen out what I thought a teenager would do or say for fear of it being inappropriate for a younger audience. I just wanted to write Vanessa in a way that I thought was honest given who she was. So, in PLAN B, Vanessa is having sex with her boyfriend and does a few other things that some parents may not want younger readers reading about. I'd say seventh grade and up would be a good reading age for PLAN B.
What inspired the title of your book? Who named it, you or...?
I knew the title right away, a few pages into the book. It just seemed perfect given Vanessa and her situation.
Do you watch MTV?
I watched MTV way back when they actually showed videos all the time. I even remember the first time MTV hit the air, and the commercials with the astronaut planting the MTV flag on the moon.
Who are your favorite authors?
I don't really have any favorite authors where I HAVE to get everything they write. I like to find new books and see what's out there.
What are some of your favorite musicians, songs, actors, or TV shows?
Here's where I admit that I don't actually go to see movies - I haven't seen a movie for "grown-ups" in a theater since 1993. I'm just not a movie person. And I don't watch TV until later at night, so they're pretty much hour long dramas. I do love Grey's Anatomy, it's always a nice way to relax before starting the week. That said, I don't have any favorite actors. As for musicians, I'm partial to women - Alanis Morisette, Maria Mena, Corinne Bailey Rae, Melissa Etheridge. I'm also a HUGE Van Morrison fan.
Would you ever write a sequel?
I've had a lot of requests to write the sequel to PLAN B, and I know exactly what would happen to Vanessa, Reed and Taylor, but there's no plans to write a sequel yet.
What are your favorite books of all time?
This is hard, but I'll give it a shot:
The Women's Room by Marilyn French
Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner
The Awakening by Kate Chopin
The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton
Playing Away by Adele Parks
It's Okay If You Don't Love Me by Norma Klein
The Carrot Seed by Ruth Kraus
The Girlfriends Guide to Hunting and Fishing by Melissa Bank
I was addicted to Norma Klein books and used hers as my "inspiration" when writing PLAN B. All of Ms. Klein's books had intelligent girl characters who were flawed without being melodramatic, mature without being unrealistic. They always did things that seemed "real," like having sex with their boyfriends, trying drugs, having ambivalent feelings about the people and things going on around them, but it was treated in such a "normal" way without any sort of judgement placed on actions or thoughts. There was never really a lesson to be learned but there was definitely something to think about.
Your next YA work, The Book of Luke, is due out in April 2007. Who is Luke, and what is his story?
Actually, it's not Luke's story, it's Emily's. Emily has pretty much been a girl who did what was expected of her, the "nice" one who never created waves - although that in no way means she's boring or uninteresting. So when a series of events conspire to throw her for a loop, she decides there isn't any benefit to being nice. And she decides to prove she is just as capable of being mean as all the people she feels have screwed her - it just so happens that all the "people" happen to be male. And that's where Luke comes in. Emily decides she should write a handbook for guys, an instruction manual that teaches guys how to treat girls, something that they can use as a reference guide to avoid all the glaring Guy Don'ts so many of the guys in her school seemed to have mastered.
So when her friends decide that the nice girl is the one who should test out the Guide (after all, who would ever suspect the girl voted most likely to be nice would have ulterior motive), Emily has to prove she can change Luke Preston - the guy who embodies everything she despises about the opposite sex (he even devised the "jiggle scale" to rate the breast size of Heywood's female population. Emily's still wondering where she rates). This isn't just Emily's chance to not be nice, it's her chance to get even.
Of your adult novels, which do you think PLAN B's readers should pick up next?
I'd probably say OFF THE RECORD because it's a fun look at what happens when a nice, normal girl becomes the center of attention - and that's the last thing she wants.
You've had a great deal of success writing modern romantic comedies. Are there any fiction genres you've yet to tackle that you'd like to write in the future?
The phrase "chick-lit" - love it or loathe it?
When people ask I say I write women's fiction, not because I'm offended by "chick lit" but because I think chick lit has come to mean shopping, shoes and single girls desperate for a guy. None of my books have that in them. But I'm not embarrassed to write what I write, which is stories of contemporary women and all the things they're dealing with, and if someone wants to call it chick lit, I won't argue with them. So, I don't love the term, but I don't loathe it either.
Congratulations on the purchase of your next book, Insider Dating! Will you tell us a little more about it, please?
INSIDER DATING is about Abby Dunn, a Boston-based financial whiz who decides to take her penchant for asset management to the next level by setting out to do for relationships what Morningstar did for mutual funds, creating a secret underground society where women share information on the riskiest investment of all - men. (Coming out in May 2007.)
You contributed an essay to the anthology It's a Wonderful Lie: The Truth About Life in Your Twenties, which is coming out in January 2007. What is the basis of your piece, "The Best Laid Plans," and how easy or difficult was it to revisit that experience or time period?
As soon as I was asked to contribute to the anthology I knew exactly what I'd write about: that first relationship that you think is "the one." As in, the one you'll spend the rest of your life with, the one you can't live without, the one you imagine walking down the aisle with. It was very easy to go back and remember when I was in that place with the person I thought was "the one." Now I see it through a different lens, one with lots of humor, and I just want to smack myself and tell other 22 year olds to mellow out. Having your life planned out is not necessarily the best thing in the world.
Last but not least, let's talk about Everything I Needed to Know About Being a Girl I Learned from Judy Blume, the anthology coming out next year. What inspired the idea, and how did you get it sold? Are you the editor?
I am the editor and I got to pick the authors who contributed. Many of them are my friends so it was a lot of fun to work with people whose writing I really enjoy and who are just fun people to laugh with. One day I was just thinking about Judy Blume and how every girl in my generation couldn't wait to read her next book, and I just thought, "everything I needed to know about being a girl I learned from Judy Blume," and a book was born. The essays are amazing, I loved reading every one of them.