AMY had it easy. Her introduction to the literary world did not come as a sudden idea or a vivid scene fully formed in her head awaiting birth onto a page. No eureka moment. No quiet spells from the muses. Here she tells us it was assigned. Her novels began in the most unexpected form. Once
upon a time, it started in the classroom with her teacher. It was a typical day but a defining one.
Meet Amy Zhang, the youngest Young Adult author who wrote “Falling into Place” about a Liz Emerson putting Newton’s Law of Motion to practice by steering her car into a tree. Back then as a teenager, Amy didn’t know that the short stories she had written for her English class were to become parts of a larger one. It opened the gates to scenes and characters all crowding in at the helm waiting for their turn to be heard, to be written and to be explored and taken further.
The thing about Amy is that she did not wait for the right moment to write or the right writing experience. A young adult fiction novel would’ve been the last thing on her mind. The little pieces of Amy’s experience and encounters seemed to be falling into place and led her to where she is exactly meant to be—the beginnings of successfully published endings.
Now at 20, she speaks with a vibrant energy and yet such is the evident contrast to “Falling Into Place,” and her recently released novel, “This Is Where The World Ends” about best friends whose friendship is more destructive than it seems. Following a nonlinear narrative of flashbacks, Amy reveals just how close her characters really are to her and explains how her friendships, and the defining moment with her teacher have shaped the writer that she is today.
How young were you when you wrote the book, “Falling into Place?”
I was 15 and I was 16 when it was sold. “Falling into Place” starts as two short stories. I wrote both for my English class and I really liked them. I combined them and wrote a novel.
Would you say there is a bit of Liz in you?
I feel like I put a lot of myself into Liz and to the rest of the characters. I think Liz exhibits what we all have within us. Everybody does things they’re not proud of in high school. I generally did things that were unkind and I watched people do unkind things and didn’t say anything, and I watched my friends do unkind things and didn’t say anything. Liz came out from a place of guilt and unhappiness.
What kind of student were you back in high school?
Back in high school I was really a straight A student. I really cared but not so much now. (Laughs). I was a fairly happy kid. I had a great group of friends. I really liked my friends. I was confident in my classes. I liked high school.
What’s the worst memory you have of high school?
I don’t have a specific worst memory but 8th grade to freshman year I made a group of friends who weren’t particularly good for me, and I wasn’t particularly good for them. We weren’t really similar people. I don’t think they helped me grow as a person. I don’t think we had that much in common. I made a group that I didn’t really get along with. I drew on that a little bit to write Micah and Janie–having a friendship that’s more useful than helpful.
Freshman year, I was transitioning—friend groups. That wasn’t good for me either. I guess being in between friends isn’t really fine. Later on, I fell in a group that I finally got along with. I’m so close to all of them.
And your favorite memory?
Favorite memory is anything that we’ve done like since then! It was five of us and we were very ridiculous! We thought we could do whatever we wanted. We did well in school and got along well with our teachers. There was this one time when we locked our teacher out of the classroom because we could! No good reason for it. Young and dumb. (Laughs). We didn’t get in trouble for it. We were doing a project we didn’t want to do and our teacher wouldn’t listen to us when we said we didn’t want to do it. He was annoyed but we didn’t get into trouble for it. (Laughs).
I hated physics. I didn’t like my physics teacher. I took it when I was younger so it wasn’t particularly fun for me. Also, I was never really strong in the sciences. None of them were fun for me. (Laughs).
And yet you wrote about it.
I did! The very, very basic—fourth grade physics. That’s about all I can do!
What did you want to explore when you used the concept of physics in the story?
I think Liz wanted physics to mean more than it did. She was so unhappy. She struggled to make meaningful connections with people. The only person who showed interest in her was her physics teacher so the subject had such an impact on her. I don’t think it would have otherwise. For me, physics was a way to tell the story. For Liz, it was the one connection that tried to make with her.
Was there anything in the book you wanted to change?
No, but only because I’m really afraid of that feeling. Once I turned in my last draft, I never opened the book again so I don’t think about it. I haven’t read “Falling into Place” since 2013. (Laughs). I’m sure there are a lot of things I want to change but I just can’t think of that.
Tell us about the new book, “This is Where the World Ends.”
It’s about this two best friends, Janie and Micah, who have known each other their entire lives, who have grown up together and have known about everything. There’s no two people in the world that know the two of them better than themselves. They have this really close friendship. What I wanted to explore was how terrible that can go. I was fascinated by the idea of two people loving each other so much that they end up hurting each other. It’s about Micah waking up in the hospital having no memories of the last three months and Janie has disappeared. He was so alone in the world he didn’t know what to do. Alternating with those chapters are Janie narrating before the few months of her disappearance and then come in together to reveal what actually happened.
What made you write it?
I was in a dark place when I started writing it. I just moved from St. Louis, Missouri—a big city and diverse—to Sheboygan, Wisconsin with a population of 2,000 and an abundance of fields and cows. (Laughs). Everyone in school had known each other since kindergarten so it was hard in my last year of middle school. I left all my friends behind, and I was mad at my parents. I was unwilling to make new friends because I wanted to go back to my old friends. Writing was my way of dealing with it–my way of escape.
It was also an act of rebellion because my parents didn’t want me to write. They wanted me to be in math and science, so writing was like me saying, “Whatever. I hate you. You make me move.” (Laughs)
How does that work for them now that you’re a successful writer?
They’re very supportive now though my dad is worried about my financial well-being! Dad prefers lawyer, engineer, finance, something stable! (Laughs). My mom is so great and supportive and she has been all along. I’m much more close to her.
The book used a nonlinear narrative. Was that something you planned or decided on at some point?
They were very much coincidental. I didn’t mean for either of them to be nonlinear. I didn’t think of nonlinear when I wrote “Falling into Place.” I wrote it that way because that was how the story looked to me in my head. I knew there had to be parts where Liz was in the hospital, and I knew there had to be months before the accident. I knew how these pieces had to come together. That was how the story was meant to be told. I didn’t even think of it as nonlinear until my editor pointed it out to me.
As for “This is Where the World Ends,” it didn’t start out as a nonlinear thing. It started with just Micah and I finished that and it just didn’t seem right that Janie didn’t get to tell her story so I went back in and wrote Janie’s sections.
Your books have a dark and tragic feel to them. Where do you draw this from?
After the book, “This is Where the World Ends” came out, my roommate from my freshman year of college texted me. She said, “You know I’m having a difficult time picturing Janie as a redhead because in my head she looks like you.” I was like, “I don’t think that’s a compliment!” (Laughs).
I mean, I put a lot of myself into my characters such as the way they think is very similar to the way I think but in an exaggeration. I think everyone has felt sad and lonely at some point and very unhappy with the state of the world. That’s something I feel too. This is “Where the World Ends” came from a place of frustrations like how the world treats women. I definitely have these feelings. Also, I feel like writing has made me grow so much as a person. On hindsight, I deal with things a lot better than I did when I was writing those books. Obviously, I had my own problems in high school but I was never in such a bad place.
How do you think anyway?
The relationship I have with my friends is in my place because we like talking to each other about things that don’t necessarily matter to other people. My best friend and I live together and we stay up until three or four pretty regularly just talking about things. Those are the things I find meaningful in friendships and in life. Conversations like this make me want to write books.
Are your friends somewhat amazed now that you’re a writer?
It’s not new to them. The conversations we have are very much about the things in my books.
When did you realize you wanted to be a writer?
I guess when “Falling into Place” came out, I said to myself I guess I’m writer now. (Laughs). No, I guess when I had the contract for “Falling into Place” and knew it was going to be a book and be published, I knew then that being an author is something that I really wanted to be. My parents are both very deep into math and science fields. My grandparents are as well. My mom is an Actuary Science and my dad does Nuclear Engineering. It never occurred to me that I’d want to be a writer until I had actually done it. I thought maybe I could be an engineer or be a lawyer! I never thought I’d be more on the creative side.
How did you juggle being a writer and a student?
My normal day just doesn’t include writing! (Laughs). But while I was writing “Falling into Place” back in high school, I thought of everything at four, wrote until six, then went to school. After school, I went to tennis practice or whatever activity I had that day, and hang out with friends for a bit. I’d come home and eat dinner, do homework and go to sleep.
Literary figure you look up to?
Margaret Atwood. She completely changed my life, my feminist being. I’m in love with her works. My favorite book of her is “The Handmaid’s Tale.” Also, Markus Suzak.
You seemed to have enjoyed doing yoga in Shangri-La as shown on your Instagram.
I did tripod yesterday and I got some really weird looks. There was this old couple sitting on the side maybe thinking, “What is she doing?” (Laughs). I really like doing tripods and headstands. I like playing around in wheels. It feels nice. I like power yoga. Every Tuesday and Thursday, I just need to do it!
Who is Amy Zhang as a person?
I find it so exciting to be here doing all these things and then I’m going back to my tiny apartment in New York. I guess Amy Zhang is someone who is just try to have a positive attitude about the world.