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:
IndieBound
Barnes and Noble
Amazon

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