Tuesday, April 19, 2016

A Conversation with Anna Breslaw, author of Scarlett Epstein Hates It Here

I've talked on here before about how there needs to be more humor-based YA, how while teen life does have its serious issues, it can also be fun and funny, and YA should better represent that.  That's probably why I enjoyed Anna Breslaw's SCARLETT EPSTEIN HATES IT HERE as much as I did.  It's a hilarious and much needed addition to the YA landscape, full of pop culture references and Scarlett's own twisted view of the world.  Below is an interview I did with Breslaw about her novel:

Me:  First off, a writer test--you have exactly 50 words to introduce yourself.  Go!

Breslaw: I’m Anna Breslaw. My middle name is Stacy, unfortunately. (Anna Stacy—why not just go for Anastasia, right? Only my parents have the answer to that.) I am 28 years old and live in Manhattan and write freelance for websites and magazines as an especially fun “day job.” Bam. Fifty!

Me:  Your author bio reads like a writer’s dream list--you’ve written for Cosmo, New York Magazine, Jezebel…how, if at all, did your approach to writing Scarlett Epstein Hates It Here differ from writing for those publications?

Breslaw:  When you have 800 to 1,000ish words max (which is often the standard with women’s magazines), you want the first draft you turn in to be as clear and polished as possible. With the book, I felt a lot more freedom to throw shit at the wall and have fun and let other people like my agent decide what stuck, although I definitely went back and cut/changed stuff myself beforehand.

Me:  SEHIH is a pop culture junkie’s paradise.  Did you have rules for what references you’d include?  Did you ever worry, “No kid born in the 2000’s would understand this reference”? 

Breslaw:  I should’ve thought about that more! Ha. Oh well. Buffy was my main touchstone for the fake show Scarlett loves, and judging by the treasure trove of Tumblr gifs, teens are pretty familiar with Buffy. I also know that there are tons of twentysomething-and-up folks who read YA, so I guess I just stuck with what I knew, mostly, and hoped most of the references would be understood. I picked my battles, also. Like there’s a Se7en joke in the book that was purely for my own gratification.

Me:  What really pleased me with your novel was just how funny it is.  I think a lot of YA takes itself very seriously, like all teens want to read is about heavy issues.  Scarlett is dealing with serious issues, yes, but it’s written in such a way that there’s a levity to how she sees the world and approaches her problems.  How did you approach writing about her life and problems with humor, while being respectful of those problems?

Breslaw:  I tended as a teenager to see things and/or deal with problems in a similar way to Scarlett, so that made it pretty easy. Oh! Kind of a related story: When I was in college I wrote a short story in creative writing class, and I was really intent on making it all ~*~* serious and heavy~*~*~ or whatever, and I didn’t intentionally make it funny at ALL. But when I got it back, the professor had written something like, “The humor makes it sting. A+” and I was like... oh, maybe that’s what I do. Obviously there is a place for super-dark-and-non-jokey YA novels, and I’m sometimes jealous of people who have the ability to write them, but I’m just not that kind of writer.

Me:   Where does your sense of humor come from?  Are there specific writers and comedians who influenced your humor?

Breslaw:  Everybody in my family is funny, my mom and dad and two little sisters—like, whip-smart New York Jewish funny—so it’s pretty clear to me that’s a big part.

And, yes, I’ve seen a ton of standup, and comedy in general, and that’s definitely influenced me in kind of a complicated way, in that it’s made me think a lot about the idea of “punching up” (jokes/material that targets powerful, evil, usually ruling majority forces of some kind) versus “punching down” (jokes/material about individuals you’re judging as “dumb,” “trashy,” “shallow” or whatever). There’s something incredibly Slytherin to me about picking on people who you consider low-brow or intellectually inferior because often it’s just a condescending way to be classist, racist, sexist... it’s lazy, I guess. 

Being funny is like having a power, and it’s up to you to decide how to use that power, and I definitely abused it when I was younger, kind of like Scarlett does. Her arc sort of echoes mine, in terms of how someone uses their talent/sense of humor or whatever. She goes from a punching-down funny girl—i.e. her target is “my slutty dumb mom” and “that slutty dumb popular girl”—and maturing into a punching-up funny girl—i.e. her target is pretentious white dudes who love Jonathan Franzen. 

Me:   Okay, I have to ask--Was Ruth, the pot smoking, grandmotherly friend of Scarlett’s based on Ruth Gordon of Harold and Maude fame?  Because man, that’s who I picture das I read the book!

Breslaw:  In my first draft, totally. But by the end, I was thinking of her more as a stern, no-bullshit Fran Lebowitz type, in menswear. That felt like more of a boss feminist role model to me.

Seriously, you need to see Harold and Maude
Me:  Now the obnoxious fan question--what’s next?

Breslaw:  I’m working on my second thing—another first-person YA book—which is darker than my debut in terms of subject matter, and definitely requires more research and thought, but hopefully it’ll be even funnier too, in a black-comedy way.  

Me:  Lightning round time!  I’ll give you five questions you don’t need to overthink or explain.  Think of this as a way for readers to get to know things about you they probably won’t glean (vocabulary word!) from other interviews.  And since your novel is filled with pop culture references, all questions will be centered on popular culture.  Here we go:

Breslaw:  Scarlett’s identity is tied to her fan fiction and the following she’s gained online. If you had a secret online identity writing fan fiction, what show, book, or movie’s characters would you love to write about?

I wrote fic in my youth: Harry Potter and Buffy, mostly. Lately, I’ve been binge-watching You’re The Worst, and writing fic for that show would be really fun. Lindsay (Kether Donahue) is my favorite character, so I’d probably write about her.

Me:  You’re in need of a good cry.  What movie or TV show scene gets the waterworks going every time?

Breslaw:  This is incredibly random, but you know that SNL digital short Sad Mouse, with Bruno Mars? The end gets me every time.

Me:  You’re in a bad mood and need to laugh right NOW.  What online clip makes you laugh every time?  (Bonus points for the link!)

Breslaw:  This. It's so dumb, but it kills me every time.

And this is not a video clip, but I laughed harder at this Mallory Ortberg piece than I have at anything lately.

Me:  You’re about to embark on some sort of adventure and need to feel inspired.  What movie, tv show, or book moment gives you goose bumps every time?

Breslaw:  Such a great question. The first thing that comes to mind is the “I Have A Message For Germany” scene from Inglorious Basterds.

Me:  Dinner party time!  Anyone you invite must attend.  What one rocker, one writer, one actor/actress, and one miscellaneous person are you forcing to show up?  (And yeah, they must be alive because dead people are buzz killers.)

Breslaw:  Carrie Brownstein, Carrie Brownstein and Carrie Brownstein.

A double threat: She can rock your face off or make your throat bleed from laughing.
Essential Breslaw Links:
Twitter: @annabreslaw

Buy Scarlett Epstein Hates It Here:
Barnes and Noble

Friday, April 1, 2016

A Conversation with Robin Reul, author of MY KIND OF CRAZY

Robin Reul and I have become good friends over the last year because not only do we (almost) share a release date for our debut novels, but because we share a publisher and a love for all things snarky.  When I get confused or irritated or stressed about my book release, she's who I email.  Her debut novel, MY KIND OF CRAZY is everything I want in a YA novel--It's damn funny, fast-moving, honest, and, stealing from the title, kind of crazy.  It had better find a huge audience because it deserves it.  Robin and I swapped interviews, and here's the one I did with her.

Oh, and here's one she did with me!  

Me: Okay, since you’re a debut novelist and not an infamous criminal or celebrity--least as far as I know--you should introduce yourself.  You get 50 words.  Go!

Robin: There was that one incident with a stolen grape pixie stick when I was a kid, but it broke in my pocket, so…karma. I’ve been writing since I was a kid. I grew up on film sets and dabbled in acting, film and TV production but now write full-time.

Me: Okay, before we continue, we have to talk about the growing up on film sets thing because you’ve posted great pics on Facebook.  So go ahead, name drop!  What rich and powerful people were you best friends with?  And yes, I will ask for photographic evidence later.

Robin: I have been fortunate enough to meet lots of different wonderful actors and actresses as a result, and had some enviably cool experiences, to be sure. So to answer your question, I wasn’t best friends with any but have had the pleasure of meeting, and in some cases getting to know many.

My favorite, by far: When I was five, my father worked on a film called SILVER STREAK with Gene Wilder. Yes, as in Willy Wonka. Gene and I instantly became friends, and we would hang out. He even baby-sat me a few times so my parents could grab dinner. We kept in touch for years, exchanging letters back and forth. I looked forward to visiting my Dad at work on the 20th Century Fox lot because then I could visit Gene. He had an office just down the hall, and he would always welcome me in to hang out. I still have all his letters and reassure them, though we haven’t talked since I was in my mid-twenties. I feel lucky to have had that kind of a unique childhood experience.

For the most part, they were just normal people to me who flitted in and out of my life. But the one who left me star struck? Hands down my teenage crush come to life when I met him on the set of the Karate Kid: Ralph Macchio. Random trivia: It still says “Robin loves Ralph 1984” in the sidewalk in front of my childhood home.

Me: See, and since we both write YA, if this was a novel and we were friends back then, we could have teamed up to split up Ralph Macchio and Elisabeth Shue, his girlfriend in Karate Kid.  That’s your new novel idea right there, free of charge!

This is such a perfect representation of the 80's for countless reasons.
Did growing up in an entertainment environment nudge you toward becoming a writer?  Are there lessons you learned in your time in “the business” that you’ve carried over to your writing career?

Me: I’m sure it probably did, because I grew up with entertainment and story as the center of my world. My writing tends to be very cinematic and dialogue driven. When I’m crafting a scene, it’s literally playing out like it’s a movie in my head. I’ve definitely learned several lessons from my time growing up and working in the film industry that I’ve carried over into my writing life. First and foremost, pay it forward. Take all you’ve learned, remember the amazing people who you met along the way who mentored you and showed you the ropes and opened the doors, and be that person for someone else. Also, make sure every scene serves a purpose. Less is more. Unless a scene is furthering the plot or establishing a character, no matter how beautifully written, consider eliminating it. And last but not least, be nice and don’t burn bridges. Cultivate friendships, not contacts.

Kurt: See, I think that’s why I liked MY KIND OF CRAZY so much, you don’t waste the reader’s time.  Everything is there for a reason, and you don’t go on long, introspective ramblings by your characters, which personally always bore me.  Less is more, as you say.  Did the book start out this way, or did you end up cutting back significantly after your first draft?  What was the process the novel went through?

Me: I think a first draft always goes on too long. Yes, there were definitely places that had to be condensed and cut back, but the overall story is largely intact as it was originally written. Altogether I think this book had about eight drafts. The earlier ones had more to do with developing story, and the later ones focused on amplifying character development. The first few went just to trusted beta readers, then about draft four it went to my agent where we worked together to craft the draft that ultimately went on submission. Once the book was acquired, it underwent three additional drafts: overall, line edits and copy edits.

I love, love, love the sparkler-fonted title!
Kurt: The novel itself takes a serious turn halfway through that I found surprising…not in a bad way, just in an unexpected way.  Was that your intention all along?  You keep a good portion of the tone and mood light, but it’s not the fun and games it started off as.  Did you ever second guess this choice?  Did you get any pushback on it?

Me: Great question. I did know I wanted the tone to get darker, I just wasn’t sure how I was going to do that when I set out writing. The twist honestly came for me as it does for the reader. I didn’t see it coming until I started working on the scene and that’s what flowed out and I liked it. I didn’t second-guess it, because I knew the characters needed something of that magnitude to propel them in the directions of where they needed to go by the end of the story. The pushback I received during submissions was more subjective and had more to do with an individual’s feelings or moral compass about the choices Hank and Peyton make when things turn serious. To me, that’s what makes the book more realistic and honest, and I wouldn’t want to change that. I’m grateful my editor shared my opinion and I didn’t have to compromise it.

Kurt: Okay, to wrap it up with the lightning round.  5 questions you can answer however you want--with explanation or without.  It’s a chance for your readers to get to know things about you they wouldn’t normally know.  Here we go:

1. Hank makes a disastrous promposal at the beginning of the novel that sets everything in motion.  Thinking back on your high school life, what’s the biggest screw-up you made?


2. Hank and his friend swear that one day they will take on the eating challenge of the How High Burger in a local restaurant.  What food do you think you could eat the most of to the point of explosion in one sitting?

Robin: Sushi. Which is ironic because if you ever told me even five years ago that raw fish would become my favorite food I would be amused. But I could eat my weight in salmon sushi and tuna sashimi.

3. At one point the kids sneak into a strip club.  What’s a place you snuck into?

Robin: Wow, I am so boring, because I think the most risqué place I ever snuck into was probably a movie theater to see another movie after the one I’d paid for was finished. Sometimes I’d do it two or three times in the same day. I was never particularly daring.

4.  Video clip time!  Watch this video, which is fitting to your novel, and tell me your reaction: 

Robin: Oh wow. All the feelings. My heart went out to both of them in different ways. You work up the courage to put yourself out there, and the worst thing is when it doesn’t go as planned. It cuts like a knife and you feel so vulnerable. But when the girl realized what was going on, it was so raw and real knowing how she’d hurt him. You could practically see her beating herself up. I’m just glad she said yes! I’m a sucker for happy endings!

5.  Dinner party!  You can invite one rocker, one actor/actress, and one miscellaneous person.  Who are you inviting?  (All living, please.)

Robin: Musician: Alanis Morrissette (Gotta find out the person she wrote YOU OUGHTA KNOW about), one actor/actress: Kevin Spacey (I could watch him read the phone book and be elated), and one miscellaneous person: William Shakespeare (I would think he has some pretty great stories)

Kurt: Very nice!  And to really wrap it up--I was lying before--I’ll give you the last word.

Robin: I’ve been accused of the need to have that before. Ha! My last words here are just thanks. Writing has brought me so many wonderful things: a creative outlet, amazing friendships and a community of people I am so honored to be a part of, and with the release of MY KIND OF CRAZY, the fruition of a life’s dream. If you really want something, you have to work hard for it, and faith is half the battle. I am so grateful for everyone who ever pushed me to work harder, think bigger, and believe. Some day, I would love to buy you all an overpriced caffeinated beverage of your choice.   :)

Check it out on:

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DON'T GET CAUGHT Released Today!

I'll try not to get too sappy about this, but yes, my debut novel, DON'T GET CAUGHT is being released today.  I'm a bit freaked out about the whole thing, and it also has me feeling a bit nostalgic.
The book at a B&N on Long Island, the first sighting (two days early!)
Here's the short version of how I ended up here: I started writing back in the summer of 2002 as part of the Ohio Writing Project, a program at Miami University where I was starting work on my Master's degree.  Lots of people were writing personal narratives, but I quickly ran out of drama in my life to write about, and turned to writing horror short stories instead.  A couple of years later I ended up at Tom Monteleone's Borderland's Writing Workshop in Maryland, fell in with a great group of writers who helped and pushed me, published a handful of short stories, moved on to writing a novel which didn't sell, and then onto something much more me -- DGC, a novel of over-the-top pranks, anti-authoritarianism, lots of juvenile humor, and hopefully some laugh out loud moments.  I think most people will dig it.
Eric Smith's dog, Auggie, territorially hugging my book.
And before I get too far into this, I'd better offer up links to buy the book, right?  So here you go:
Indie Bound
Barnes and Noble
Lydia Day Penaflor's picture literally made my mouth drop.
The last few months have kept me busy with writing guest blog entries and doing whatever promotional work I can dream up.  Mostly, I've been breaking most of the good advice writers gave me by checking and rechecking my sales rankings, my Goodreads' reviews, and Googling my own name.  I've been fortunate in that (most of) the reviews have been very positive, and nothing has made me want to put my head in the oven.  At least not yet.

Brooks Benjamin's hilarious note in a DGC arc.
If anything, I've struggled with the lack of control I have over the whole thing.  The book's finished, the promotional materials have been delivered, the arcs out and reviewed, and at this point, the stores have their copies.  I have an extreme case of "Now what should I do?" which is hard because the answer is nothing.  At this point, I can just hope that people like the book, tell their friends about it, and that it catches on.  And if it doesn't, that's fine, too.  I've published a novel, something most people will never do.  I need to enjoy this moment, enjoy the day, enjoy next week's signing, and move on to the next book.
Cows on the book, inside the book, and now, outside the book, too.
I have a hundred people I could thank, and most of them I hit up in the Acknowledgments at the end of the novel.  I've also met a bunch of wonderful writers and people in publishing in the last two years who have become good friends.  And a final thanks to all of the reviewers out there who have promoted the book and have given it a fair shake.  This book would be dead on the vine without you.Mostly though, I'm thankful for my wife and kids who give me the time and space to write, and put up with my moods when the writing's not going very well.  I'll be spending the day with them and celebrating the novel's release probably by visiting a couple of bookstores to see the book and then getting pizza or something.  Nothing fancy, just family time and whatnot, the way I like it.

Items definitely necessary for the final prank in the novel.
If you've bought the book, thank you!  I hope you enjoy it.  If you feel the urge, drop me a line and I'll send you a button or a bookmark or whatever promotional items I have around until I run out.  I appreciate the support more than you can know.