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Little Willow

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Interview: Gabrielle Zevin

Presenting an interview with Gabrielle Zevin, in which the author shares her writing process, mentions astronaut ice cream, and quotes passages from some of her favorite books - which are some of mine as well.

I once knew a boy who survived a vehicular accident and had almost a completely different personality afterwards. Naomi's story was, in part, inspired by your grandmother's struggle with Alzheimer's Disease. How much research did you do while writing Memoirs of a Teenage Amnesiac?

Naomi started out a secondary character in a different book I was writing. The book I thought I was writing was about a girl's reformatory in 1940s New Orleans. I started researching amnesia because one of the characters in that book had or was feigning amnesia. For a variety of reasons, I decided to put that book on hold. But I kept reading about amnesia/head trauma - I already had the research material, after all - and little details about the book that would become MEMOIRS OF A TEENAGE AMNESIAC came to me as I read. For instance, I discovered that people with head traumas can be sensitive to light and experience heat as cold. So, I saw a girl wearing sunglasses though it was overcast and a heavy coat though the day was mild.

In general, I read and learn everything I can about a topic BEFORE I start writing. And then, I never look at it again - until copyediting, of course. I guess I want the research I do to feel like an organic part of my books, if that isn't too pretentious to say. We have Wikipedia for facts, right? (Sigh.)

And also - and I always say this to young writers - living is research. For instance, I was temporarily living in LA at the time I was writing MEMOIRS, and I suspect that's where a lot of my James material came from. But, my point is, I think writers sometimes get the idea that researching is writing. But researching is just researching. I can never know everything about amnesia (or any other subject) so I don't try to.

I love the cover of Memoirs of a Teenage Amnesiac because it not only fits the character (who was found as a week-old baby in a typewriter case in Russia) but also because I wrote some of my earliest stories on typewriters. Rumor has it you did as well. Do you still employ typewriters, or do you prefer computers or longhand?

Thanks. I love the cover, too, though I can't take any credit for it. The typewriter keys were my editor Janine O'Malley's idea. The question mark was the inspiration of jacket designer Jeffrey Jenkins.

Alas, I do not use typewriters any longer. The only typewriters I currently have are a pair of bookends that Janine gave me two Christmases ago. Like everyone else on the planet, I'm a computer girl though I do jot notes in a little notebook. But I loved my typewriters! I used to blister my fingertips from hunting and pecking so hard.

Memories are a big part of both Elsewhere and Memoirs. What is one of your favorite memories?

When I was thirteen, my best friend and I got separated from our school tour group in Washington D.C. I was freaking out, but my best friend was pragmatic about the whole thing. "They lost us; they'll have to find us," she said with a shrug. "Now, let's go get astronaut ice cream." I've found this to be good advice for life and for writing. There are pleasures to being lost when you have a reasonable assurance that you will be found.

If the opportunity presented itself, would you return to your high school days?

In a way, I get to return every time I write a fourteen to eighteen year old character. And because of that, I have no desire to actually return.

Did you plot out timelines for the lives of Liz, Naomi, and other characters first, or did you dive right (write) in?

I usually outline before I start, but not always. The truth is, I used to be very rigid about the way I worked. Notecards and outlines and all that, but now I realize that the best processes allow for a certain fluidity. The act of writing changes the plan, and it should. The one thing I always do is allow a story to exist in my head a while before I try to start writing it down. I used to be a bit terrified of not constantly producing as a writer -- a sort of relentless drive to fill the blank screen - but what I've come to see is that the times when I'm not writing are incredibly important, too.

Do you know the endings of your books before you begin to write them?

I like to think that I do. Which is to say, I have to convince myself that I do in order to write at all. I get anxious if I don't know where I'm going. But the truth is, the endings of all my books have always changed as I wrote. I truly truly write for characters (not plot), and what I've found is that characters tend to not care about my initial ideas of where a story should go.

In Elsewhere, Liz can easily communicate with her dog. I've always wished I could speak feline. Does your dog help or hinder with your writing?

Help, definitely. Writing, when you're in the thick of it, can be awfully solitary. The dog makes it less so.

How did you get your first publishing deal?

In point of fact, MARGARETTOWN was my second publishing deal; I sold ELSEWHERE first. Due to the vagaries of publishing - children's book tend to have a longer pre-publication lead time than adult books - MARGARETTOWN was sold three months later than ELSEWHERE and published three months earlier. So, regarding ELSEWHERE? I knew nothing about publishing when I wrote it, and I think this was a tremendous advantage. I didn't worry about the marketplace or who would sell it or anything like that. I just had this story I wanted to tell, and I gave myself a month (she said with a laugh) to do it in. It ended up taking around five months to write the book, and I remember thinking to myself, What in the world do I do now? Well, it ended up being pretty simple actually. I had a manager for screenwriting at the time, and he worked with another manager, and this other manager had gone to summer camp with a William Morris literary agent, and the William Morris agent (who was the first and only agent who ever saw my book) said he would sell my book, and he had an honest face, so I believed him. The first publisher who read it was Farrar, Straus and Giroux, and they also bought it. From the day I started writing to the day ELSEWHERE sold was probably seven months. But I know I've been very, very lucky.

You are also a screenwriter. Tell us about Alma Mater and Conversations with Other Women.

ALMA MATER was a student film that my partner (director Hans Canosa) and I made while we were both on leave from our respective schools - Harvard College for me, and NYU Graduate Film School for him. The story takes place in Cambridge, MA in 1963, and it's about a college professor, his wife, and his gay lover. I wrote it because I wanted to take advantage of the resources I had at the time - basically, access to Harvard. The professor in the story was the former roommate of President Kennedy, an idea which came from the fact that, as a freshman, I lived in the same dorm room as Kennedy. In any case, I was very inexperienced as a writer and certainly as a producer (if you look on IMDb, you'll see I was also the production designer and costume designer), and the whole thing got somewhat out of control. Probably the most notable thing about ALMA MATER is that it features the screen debut of John Krasinski (from The Office) in a very small part.

Now, cut to five years later. CONVERSATIONS WITH OTHER WOMEN (also directed by Hans) was maybe the seventh or eighth screenplay I'd written (and optioned), and the first thing I really had produced. The movie stars Helena Bonham Carter and Aaron Eckhart, and is a very adult love story. Probably the weirdest thing that happened to me during that project was that Aaron Eckhart ended up taking my author photo. And I got to do my first press junket in Japan, which was surreal.

Are you working on anything presently?

I'm working on adding all my books to Library Thing. It's taking a while. And I'm finishing another novel for the grown ups. This, too, is taking a while.

Care to list ten of your favorite novels?

In lieu of giving my ten favorite novels, I'll give you my ten favorite last lines from novels. A dirty secret is that I always read the last line of a book first. I've always done this - my reasoning (shoddy perhaps) is that if I don't generally like where a book ends up, I won't read it. Some of the books that these lines are from also happen to be my favorite books. (Not all.)

1) I shall keep asking You.

2) "To lose the earth you know, for greater knowing; to lose the life you have, for greater life; to leave the friends you loved, for greater loving; to find a land more kind than home, more large than earth-Whereon the pillars of the earth are founded, toward which the conscience of the world is tending-a wind is rising, and the rivers flow."

3) Charlotte was both.

4) It is enough, it is to be blessed enough, to live from day to day and to hear such music - not too much, or the soul could not sustain it - from time to time.

5) Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?

6) And this is the only immortality you and I may share, my Lolita.

7) If you surrendered to the air, you could ride it.

8) You plan the wars you masters of men plan the wars and point the way and we will point the gun.

9) So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly to the past.

10) If you do, you start missing everybody.

11) Told her that it was as before, that he still loved her, he could never stop loving her, that he'd love her until death. (Translated from the French)

12) On the screen, Rebecca's face appeared, merry and open and sunlit, and she saw the she really had been having a wonderful time.

13) He knelt by the bed and bent over her, draining their last moment to its lees; and in the silence, there passed between them the word which made all clear.

I could go on, but it seems wise (and awfully lucky) to quit at thirteen.

Oh, wait. Since I'm at Bildungsroman, I ought to add my favorite YA last line:

14) I don't know where there is, but I believe it's somewhere, and I hope it's beautiful.

Recognize the endings? Feel free to leave a comment below with your guesses, or learn the answers.

Visit Gabrielle Zevin at

Tags: books, interviews

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  • Red Hands by Christopher Golden

    A new Christopher Golden book is here, and I can't wait to get my hands on it! Here's the jacket flap summary for Red Hands: In bestselling author…

  • Annual Book Fair for Ballou High School

    It's that time again! Colleen Mondor has once again organized a book fair for the students of Ballou Senior High School. This time, the books are…

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