Shortly after booking a national ad campaign, thirteen-year-old aspiring actress Olivia breaks out. Big time. And it doesn't go away. It's full-blown acne. Between doctor visits, Olivia has to deal with teasing at school and the possibility that she'll lose her current acting job. She has some harsh truths to face and some difficult decisions to make. She may not be able to wish the zits away, but she can follow her heart and see where it leads.
Though Zitface is a work of fiction, it was fueled by some of the author's real-life experiences as a child actress and an acne sufferer. As part of the Summer Blog Blast Tour, here now is my interview with writer Emily Howse, in which we discuss drama, dermatology, the Dodgers, and Dallas.
How old were you when you had your first major breakout?
I had occasional pimples when I was a teen, but at 22 - an age where I figured I'd escaped the dreaded acne plague - I broke out big-time. For years I had periodic bouts, and took various antibiotics. I didn't have tons of zits, but the ones I did were big, red, and noticeable. I felt self-conscious around people, especially when on dates, frantically reapplying concealer in restaurant bathrooms. Wish I could say I've outgrown the habit, but I still carry concealer on me 24/7, to cover the occasional spot.
Acne medications and recommended treatments have changed quite a bit over the years. Do you have any recommendations or tips for your teen readers?
Find a good dermatologist! One you like and trust, and who doesn't try to sell you every skin product sold in their office. My advice: don't bring out the 'big guns' right away. Start with milder medication and go stronger, as needed. People respond to meds differently; it's trial-and-error. Homeopathic treatments and/or dietary changes might be worth considering. I don't know if they produce significant or speedy results, but these days I'm leery of overdoing meds, so I'd discuss all possible avenues with a doctor.
Olivia, the protagonist of Zitface, finds success in commercials. How old were you when the acting bug bit, and what kind of work did you like the best? Do you still act?
The acting bug hit me when I was nine, and starring in school productions (a small Catholic elementary school in the San Fernando Valley). My family moved to Dallas soon after, to my great dismay. Signing on with a local talent agency lifted my spirits. Only I auditioned more than I acted - I was in one commercial, did some newspaper modeling, and made a screen test for ABC (they were conducting a national talent search). Unfortunately, nothing came out of it. I haven't acted since junior high, but I wrote for TV GUIDE post-college, so at least I got to interview actors!
What drew you to journalism?
I've always loved to write; journalism seemed a practical way to make money doing it. I read many "chick mags" growing up, and figured I should work for one. Right before college graduation, I interviewed for a job at Seventeen magazine…and learned the salary was $15,000. My parents promptly informed me they wouldn't be financing my life in the Big Apple. I certainly didn't blame them. I loved the idea of living in New York , but not the reality of being dirt poor. So I went to L.A., worked at Ann Taylor to pay my bills, and landed the TV GUIDE editorial assistant gig (through a temp agency) months later.
Nice path! Congrats! You have a short story entitled Seeing Ellie in the YA anthology Not the Only One. Do you prefer writing short stories or novels?
I wrote eight short fiction stories for the now-defunct 'TEEN magazine in the 1990s, and I loved the tidy structure: a beginning, middle and end in only 16 double-spaced typed pages. I cranked them out often and easily, and gained confidence in doing so. It was a great start to my writing, but having said that…there's no satisfaction like sinking your teeth into writing a novel, caring deeply about the story, characters and words, and seeing it all come together.
Rumor has it you're working on another novel, a companion to Zitface. Care you share a little something about it?
I'm writing a story with some of the same characters, but the protagonist in this tale is Wendy, Olivia's frenemy. Sure, the girl's got some issues, but I'm a licensed counselor so I can't help but explore them! Also, I find Wendy oddly refreshing. She can be selfish and thoughtless, but she's her own person and doesn't apologize for it. In this semi-sequel, Wendy faces a few demons, forcing her to grow and mature as a person. I just have to hope that she grows on my readers.
I look forward to reading it. Back to you: You are a licensed mental health counselor. What inspired you to study in that field? Did you work with all ages, or specifically with adolescents?
In my mid-twenties, I worked as a research study coordinator at the U.C.L.A. Institute for Social Science Research. I interviewed teens for a large-scale depression study, and found it fascinating. That job experience triggered my decision to obtain a master's degree in counseling at Loyola Marymount University. I've since worked at three schools; luckily, all with middle- and high-school students. That age range particularly interests me...young kids and adults, not so much!
You have studied and lived in both Texas and California. What was your favorite place in each state?
In L.A.: Dodgers Stadium, Runyon Canyon, and the Hollywood Bowl.
Northern California: Muir Woods, the wine country.
Texas: I live in Dallas, and this may sound sad, but there's no one special geographic place. I love being with family and friends, but long for more scenery. My husband and I hope to move to Colorado in the next year. We both love the mountains.
Back to Zitface: One of your supporting characters, Theo, has juvenile rheumatoid arthritis. Do you have personal experience with this
I have rheumatoid arthritis. It runs somewhat in my family, so I wasn't shocked to be diagnosed with it at age 36. I've been fortunate, in that it's well-controlled. I take minimal medication, and I live a pretty healthful lifestyle: exercise most days, eat organic produce, take anti-inflammatory supplements, etc. Being very familiar with the topic, I didn't have to research it, but I read up on juvenile arthritis.
And finally: What are your ten favorite books of all time?
Tough one! I read about six books monthly, of all different genres...too
many for a top ten list. Generally, I like memoirs best—stories about regular people facing what I consider interesting circumstances. But here are some books that have influenced me, over the years:
Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret (Judy Blume): When I read this book at age ten, I knew I wanted to be a children's writer.
Gone With the Wind (Margaret Mitchell): This 1000-plus page tome was the first real adult novel I read, during a Hawaii family vacation. I was so riveted, I barely left the hotel room.
Sister Carrie (Theodore Dreiser): This classic novel is a cautionary tale. Carrie, a young, poor woman, becomes a famous actress - thanks mostly to a married man who's besotted with her. As his star fades, Carrie's rises...but she finds only emptiness in money and fame.
The House of Mirth (Edith Wharton): In a similar vein is the sad story of Lily Bart, a woman who covets material wealth, but also wants a marriage that's rooted in love and respect. This desire is so strong, she forfeits all chances for a "financially advantageous" marriage, sinks beneath her social class, and dies young, poor and alone. (Yikes.)
The Daily Show with Jon Stewart Presents America (Jon Stewart): On a way more upbeat note, I couldn't stop laughing when I devoured this book. Seriously - I was spending the Christmas holidays with relatives, and they kept asking me to "pipe down."
To learn more about Emily, please visit her website.
Check out the other interviews on today's SBBT:
Wednesday, July 13th
Sarah Stevenson at Chasing Ray
Emily Howse at Bildungsroman
Ashley Hope-Perez at The Happy Nappy Bookseller
Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich at Hip Writer Mama
Click here for the full week's schedule.