Arts and Culture Life!

Stephanie Perkins: Like an Open Book

Born in South Carolina, raised in Arizona, studied in San Francisco and Atlanta, and now residing in Asheville, North Carolina—here’s a writer who believes that “home” is  a person and not a place. She is that woman who fell in love with and married her best friend.

Meet Stephanie Perkins, author of best-selling novels “Anna and the French Kiss” and “Lola and the Boy Next Door.” “Anna and the French Kiss” was hailed as National Public Radio’s Best Teen Reads in 2010 and Cybils Award Finalist for Young Adult Fiction in 2011. This ginger-haired lady is a dreamer, pursuer, and an amiable writer who has lived different lives in the characters of her stories. Hers captures the struggles of a young woman searching for her place in the world. Hers is the read that makes you smile and cry with the characters at the turn of the page. Hers is that soup for the teenage soul we crave and seek in libraries and bookshops.

Shortly before meeting up with Cebuano fans at a signing event by National Book Store earlier this month, Stephanie opened up to the Play! pool about her characters being an extension of herself. It only takes one chat with her to understand that inside that carefree character is a person of depth and brilliance. This author is an open book herself.

Stephani Perkins

When did you start to consider yourself as a writer?
I guess it was after my first book was published. At least, I can call myself a writer in public. I was careful about whom I said it to before then, but I did kind of own it. A lot of writers are like… oh, I want to write a book someday. But they never do. And I really did want to do it. So when people would ask me, I would say it because I meant it and I wanted it to happen. I feel there’s   a little difference between a writer and an author. I felt like a writer before I felt like an author.  I  didn’t feel like an author until the first book was on the shelf. Once you get the first contract, it still feels like it  can be snatched away.

I have a friend, her name is Sara Zarr, and she writes wonderful contemporary YA books. She told me she didn’t feel like a real author until her third book was published. The second one is kind of notoriously tricky for everyone. It was for me, too. I feel more like an author now that my third book is done and is actually going to come out.

Did you expect all of this to happen?
No, no. Never. My first goal in writing was just to keep doing it and to write for myself. Write things that I wanted to read and hopefully if I wrote something that I was really passionate about, someone somewhere out there would respond to that passion in kind. When “Anna and the French Kiss” was sold, it wasn’t so hot. It was present but no one was really buying it and no one was expecting much. I certainly didn’t.

Paranormal books were big sold at that time. Well, I’ve always had pretty modest expectations and low self-confidence, to be frank.

So the moment when people did actually like it, it was really startling. I planned for everything but that.  So for it to happen relatively quickly, it was both wonderful and terrifying. I planned for everything but success! (Laughs).

Before that moment, it still felt like they could be like “Just kidding, haha!” or like “Oh, it wasn’t good enough, we canceled it.” It just felt so surreal because I was very fortunate that I got my dream agent, then I got my not-in-my-wildest-dreams editor, a woman I thought wouldn’t even read them on vacation, nevertheless, would want to buy them. Her name is Julie Strauss-Gabel—she edits John Green’s books and Gayle Forman’s books. She’s a phenomenal editor. So when she was interested, I found it hard to believe! (Laughs).

How did the passion to write find its way into you?
I was pretty young. It was my teacher in sixth grade that was really passionate about writing and he forced his students to write more creative works, short stories, poetries and such. We had a big creative writing unit. He  noticed that I took more interest in it than the other students, that I cared about what I was doing more. He once read aloud to the class something that I had written. That was the first time in all of my school years that I had been singled out for anything.

I was the quiet, shy, awkward girl. I was terrible at sports. So for a teacher to single me out like that… it meant a lot to me. I never forgot it.

Also, in high school, they had a creative writing class that you could take, and I took it and that teacher  was amazing as well. I had a pretty rough time in high school and there were a lot of really wonderful adults who kind of reached out to me rather than my peers. It was the adults who got me through it. She was one those who saw that.. A, I was struggling; and B, that I could do this thing.

What were your teen years like?
They were terrible! (Laughs). I hated being a teenager. I hated being in high school. I didn’t feel like my peers, didn’t have many friends. I had a couple of friends who also had that feeling of being alienated. So it was kind of like us against them. It’s no wonder we didn’t have many friends because we probably exuded a terrible vibe! (Laughs). I gravitated towards people few years older than me, or much older.

What’s your coping mechanism?
When I feel really frustrated or scared, I pick up a cheap spiral notebook and write on it. I just can’t write in pretty notebooks… I feel like I would have to put pretty words inside. So get the cheapest, ugliest notebook and I just go to town and get it all out. It’s very therapeutic.

Your blog is Natural/ Artificial. Why name it that?
It was named way before I thought I would be a published writer, otherwise, I would have come up with something more appropriate. (Laughs). All my life there’s been a lot of duality… me wanting this kind of all-natural-hippie kind of person, all-organic. And then the other side of me likes plastic jewelry and brightly colored hair. For a long time I actually felt kind of ashamed that I couldn’t be the one hundred percent hippie-earth-goddess kind of person. I have to realize that they are both important and that you can be both.

When you came up with Anna’s character or Lola’s or Isla’s, was there a part in them that is truly you?
Absolutely! All of my characters are, but in all my three protagonists at the most. If I want to relate to a character that is kind of antagonizing. I try to reach in and find some kind of honesty inside myself and deal with it on a page like that. I see myself in everyone but definitely it is most obvious in the main characters. Sometimes it’s as specific as something that directly happened to them happened to me.

Can you cite a situation?
Like Anna, the first real scene in that book is her being left behind at the school and she’s really scared, and not feeling very brave about it at all. She bursts into tears and the girl next door hears her crying, comes over and comforts her and becomes her first friend there. That’s directly pulled from my life when I went to college for the first time. Even though I have been dying to get away from high school, the moment my dad left, it was still frightening. I was in a new city for the first time.

How long did it take for you to get the hang of it?
Not long! (Laughs). It was that initial shock. It took Anna longer than it took me. I chose where I went whereas Anna did not. That’s the difference there. I chose to go to that school in San Francisco. The man who eventually became my husband was my boyfriend at the time, and he moved to the city a month later. So right away my boyfriend was there, so who cares about home and parents, right? The boy is here! (Laughs). He was my whole world and he still is. Probably the most quoted line from any of my books is the line from Anna about home being a person and not a place. That definitely is
because of my husband Jarrod.

Who else do you get support from aside from your family?
I have an amazing support system. I always have. I have a lot of close friends now way more than I had as a teenager. My cup is overrunning with friends, fellow authors. We kind of keep each other sane because we understand what the other person is going through. My agent is supportive. My editor is, too. There’s a two-and-a-half-year delay in my new book “Isla and the Happily Ever After” because I couldn’t get my act together and they were like “That’s OK. Just get it together however long it takes”.

What happened along the way?
I had a version of Isla that I could’ve turned in earlier but I wasn’t proud of it. I didn’t love it. It was good but it wasn’t great.

What’s the best part of being a YA fiction author?
There are different levels of “best.” There’s the personal satisfaction, like I did this really hard thing and I’m proud of it. There’s also satisfaction in big accomplishments. The biggest satisfaction I should say is getting to talk to my readers and connect to people whom I feel are seeing themselves in my characters. In that sense, they are seeing themselves in me at that age. I’m still not that different from a teenage girl. I’m still pretty similar, I think! (Laughs). It’s really satisfying to have someone come up to you and say that they connected something in your book or heard something put in a way that they haven’t been able to verbalize.

I wasn’t aware of this until very recently, that in “Lola and the Boy Next Door,” there’s a passage where she’s going through a bit of depression. I learned that it’s the most highlighted part on the Amazon Kindle where you check who highlights what.  People are marking it, going back to it. It is that part where I was talking about what it feels like to have depression. If you’re suffering from depression and to know that someone feels it too and understands it, it makes you feel less alone. Depression is such an isolating thing. If teenagers see me now, they’ll see an adult doing just fine and I hope that it gives them hope.

Of course, there are positive and negative reviews of your works.
When I write, I try to be as honest as possible. I write about these big happy-ever-after’s and this big love and really cool gorgeous guys who are into you and that’s awesome. But what’s making them connect with readers is that no character is perfect, that every one has a lot of flaws and the actual growth of the story isn’t the love story. It is the growth of the main character. That before she can earn this happy ending, she has to come to some realization inside.

What’s a typical writing day for you?
There has been a change recently. Up until a month ago, I was a night owl. It was really unhealthy and it’s a habit I’ve been trying to change for a long time and I’ve finally gotten into the rhythm a little bit of working in the morning. I like working at night because you’re alone and I love that feeling of no one being awake. But it’s not practical.

I can’t get some other things done in the morning, like make a doctor’s appointment or get a haircut or see my husband if we work on opposite schedules. So I’ll get up and have breakfast, something pretty light. I’ll go straight upstairs and work for about four hours. That is kind of my limit. I used to work 18 hours a day and I really pushed myself to it and couldn’t leave until it’s done. The longer you’re there and nothing is happening, the more you’re not producing anything good. You need that off-time to rest your brain. Other authors say four hours is also their limit. I think for most brains that’s how long we can really give full focus on something. So I put on the noise cancelling headphone so I can’t hear the traffic or even birds. I’m very easily distracted. I hide my phone after I text my husband like “Ok, getting to work. Don’t text me for four hours” and I turn it on silent. It’s healthy. I’m only working four hours and I’m getting so much more done. Amazing! (Laughs).

Stephanie with husband Jarod

Do you need to be in a certain mood before you can write or do the words just flow naturally?
I do the “sense of memory” thing. I’m always fascinated with that connection between smell and memory. When I sit down to write, I put on this very specific lotion. It’s rose-scented and I’ve been using the same scent since “Anna.” I just put a little on and by smelling that, it triggers something in my brain that’s it’s time to work. I tried a different scent in “Lola” but it didn’t work, so I’m kind of stuck with this lotion forever—they better not discontinue it! (Laughs).

Give us a glimpse of what your next book is like.
I’m working on a different one. It’s a slasher. It’s definitely a guy with a knife, killing teenagers. It’s very much inspired by the Fear Street books of R.L. Stine or Christopher Pike. I was just learning how to write in 6th grade and I loved those books. It’s a combination of that and the passion that came later in life. With films, it is more inspired by “Scream.”

If you were to write a book about your life, what would the title be?
Stephanie and the Super Amazing Fabulous Husband! (laughs).


TAGS: book, family, marriage, writer, Young Adult
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