Saturday, October 6, 2012

Author Interview: Marisa Calin

I had the opportunity of interviewing the brilliant author, Marisa Calin, who wrote Between You & Me. I read this novel a month ago and absolutely LOVED it. As I'm sure I mentioned in my review, as a Screenwriting student, I appreciated the fact that this novel was written in screenplay format; it motivated me to want to write a novel in screenplay format as well. Although I picked and prodded her for answers, You's identity was still never revealed! It wasn't for my lacking of trying though; she was sworn to secrecy, and I respect that! See for yourself how hard I tried. Lol.

Q. What inspired the plot for this novel?

My love of writing (versus acting, which I trained in), is that you can explore situations that have the most personal resonance. So my first inspiration was to write a novel that might have helped teen me feel less alone in the challenge to fit into the same perfect picture as everyone else, and might also validate and normalize similar feelings that a reader has experienced.

I felt there was a space to fill in similarly themed YA fiction. Characters in books that I've read facing questions about their sexuality tended to be brave enough to make definitive statements about themselves and their feelings. I wanted to explore the confusing reality of finding your own fluid identity in a story that reflected my experience of never being able to tell anyone how I felt, and never expecting the reciprocation that some characters find. Reality is less exciting than fiction, so it felt important to highlight how our emotional lives at Phyre's age, especially when it comes to unrequited crushes, can be a lot more eventful than what really happens. The experience, for me, never became the dark story that some writers have explored, so I tried to acknowledge the struggle whilst keeping the focus positive.

Q. What inspired the format of this novel?

Ideas have always come to me in snippets of dialogue and moments between characters. I started writing plays and screenplays and my notes always took shape in play-like present-tense scenes. I often realized that those notes described more than a play or screenplay allows (as they leave space for the actor's interpretation), and less than classic prose. My ultimate story-telling goal became to explore the freedom of a novel with a script as the final piece of the creative picture. Thematically, it seemed like the perfect fit for the characters in Between You & Me. Filling out the prose to be more like a novel felt inorganic for their story, as if it was there because it was expected to be, so I embraced the theatrical hybrid format that came naturally. Phyre, aspiring actress, sees her life in this sometimes self-consciously cinematic way, so it was a fun point of view, to show her subjective reality with just glimpses of a wider perspective. I stepped out of the screenplay framework to use a first person narrative because an unrequited crush is the most insular experience, and from any other perspective there isn't a story.

Q. Would you ever write another novel in screenplay format?

Ideally, I would love to. It was an amazing experience to use a style that felt exciting, natural, flowed easily and combined elements that I felt painted the most evocative picture of what my character was experiencing. I love the vivid immediacy of a screenplay which allows the scenes to be as present as possible for the reader, as if they're really watching the moments unfold. And I also love language, which isn't ultimately a feature in screenwriting, so this was the perfect marriage between enjoying how you can use language to create a visual picture in the fewest words, and the concise, punchy delivery of a screenplay. I think the style needs to thematically serve the story, but if I could always write in a screenplay format, I certainly would.

Q. What advice would you give to someone who wanted to write a novel in screenplay format?

Good question. I think that structurally the balance is to make sure that everything that needs to be said is there. A screenplay, being only visual not emotional, is the inspiration and starting point for something that needs to become the last piece of the puzzle and not the first as it would usually be. There are no more phases of interpretation so you have to break the mold of a screenplay and make sure you're able to paint a complete picture and fully realize each moment. So, I'd say that getting the balance between the character's inner monologue and the action is key. For me, it was definitely the trickiest part. I chose to write this novel in the first person, so I had one primary set of emotions to convey. I've written in the third person too which was a really fun challenge and I'd recommend it. My final piece of advice; trust your reader. They can connect a lot of the dots, you just have to send them in the right direction.

Q. Did you already know that Phyre's friend, You's, gender would never be revealed before you started writing it?

Yes, I realized early on that You's gender was something that I couldn't reveal if I didn't want it to be the focus of the book's conclusion, so I knew never to include any details that would give it away. I didn't want to risk people being able to instinctively put Phyre in a box as in the midst of "coming out", or explain away her crush as a phase if she were to return to the comfort of hetro-normality. So as not to make a commentary on who we should end up with in our lives, I was just as interested to write about finding real love (versus imagined love), and not about with whom. I knew who YOU was for me, but this way I could let the reader decide for themselves.

Q. If you read the novel as opposed to wrote it, would you read You as a male or female?

What a great twist to the question. I completely agree with the sentiment I've heard that readers would rather not have known at the beginning that the gender could have gone either way. My editor, when she read the manuscript for the first time, didn't realize that I never specified. She assumed that YOU was a girl, and never questioned it. I would like that to have been the reader's experience because it really highlights the stereotypes and conclusions we unknowingly jump to. Ideally I would have wanted to have that chance too, to see if, beyond the individual references, I came away with an overall sense of a gender. So which would I have read YOU as? Its hard to strip away consciousness we already have, so I don't think I could answer that even if Bloomsbury were to let me. I'm just excited that the choice has provoked people to think about their own preconceptions.

Q. What is your process for creating a character for your novel?

I tend to start with an emotion or a point in a relationship between two characters and ask myself who is experiencing that feeling and why. I don't write in a linear way with a plot. I have vivid moments that come to me and I fill out the character's stories. With this novel, I also had a general goal of wanting to avoid the stereotypes and cliques that you find in high-school fiction. They of course exist, but we are shaped in part by our surroundings and I think people so like to fit in that those traits become heightened, when really we're so much more varied than we sometimes have the chance to be.

I like to think that all the characters we write are a tiny piece of ourselves. Even if it's under extraordinary circumstances and we are pushed to the breaking point, a small piece of every character is how we would react or want to react if the situation was right and we were free to respond without consequence. Each moment of anger, meanness, jealousy, insecurity, superiority, happiness, compassion, love and attraction is in you, you just have to look.

Q. Do you have a writing ritual? If so, what does it consist of?

I write best at night. (90% of my writing happens in pajamas.) It's peaceful and quiet. I'm the only person awake and there's nothing else to do so my focus is at its best. I find I can picture scenes most vividly at about midnight, when it's dark except for my computer screen, and I can write for hours without noticing.

Q. What book are you currently reading?

It's a soon-to-be-published manuscript that an editor friend is working on which she thought I might like. She described it as a YA Truman Show in which a teenager can have a virtual perfect high school experience. I've only just started it, but I'm loving the premise.

Q. What can your fans expect next from you?

I definitely hope to write more that will challenge people's assumptions and the way they relate to each other and the real world. I'm playing with a character who is reality's counterpart to the heroines of fantasy novels, focusing not on escapism, but bringing our aspirations to be like the characters we read into the realm of possible.

Q. How do you, as an author, deal with negative reviews?

Mmm, interesting. I think a part of us will always hope that we can write a book for everyone, that we'll tell a story that feels real to enough people. But there is such a spectrum of tastes that you'll always resonate more with some people than others and you have to be able to say 'it wasn't for them'. I think if you write a book that is close to your heart and says something important to you, no one can take away the validity of that. There's nothing a review can say that makes the story I choose to tell less real for me, or hopefully for the people who enjoyed and related to it. So remembering why you write and the people you write for is always a help. I also think it really helps to entertain the possibility that the negative ones come from lunatics with no friends.

Q. If "Between You & Me" were a movie, who would play Phyre and Mia? Do you have an ideal person for You also?

I love the question because my perspective is a very cinematic one, but I am having the hardest time thinking of an answer that feels right. I understand why I've heard a lot of writers with movie adaptations in the pipeline say that they'd like to see an unknown be cast because their characters take on such an identity of their own that it's hard to put a familiar face to them. There are so many actresses I love and admire who would be amazing as Phyre or Mia, and it comes down to that great quality of being able to say a lot with your face and your presence without saying very much at all. As for an ideal person for You? Sneaky! As I mentioned, I promised Bloomsbury never to give away YOU's gender, but again it's a trait I would look for, to cast someone who can inhabit and contain all that emotion without giving it away.

Q. What is your ultimate goal as an author?

What a great question to be able to answer. My goal is to make people feel understood. I'd like to reflect pieces of the reader so they can feel joined in their experiences. If I've felt it, then someone else has, and maybe they'd like to know they're not alone. In this novel I felt motivated to mainstream a character's struggle with a same-sex crush as something that doesn't need to be life and death. So a goal going forward will be to continue to try and normalize feelings so that more teens can acknowledge and experience them without thinking that any one struggle needs to change or define them. Everything we feel, the spectrum from love to anger, is just pieces of who we are. And along the way, I want to paint pictures of moments, people and feelings in the most evocative ways I can think of, so that the reader feels present and invested.

Q. What is your favorite part of the writing process?

Ooh, I love that question too. Getting a single sentence just right. I love finding just the right words so that when I read them back later, I am met with the very image I was trying to evoke, as if it materializes in front of me. I see the colors, hear the sounds, and feel the moment that I intended. That's my very favorite thing in the world, writing a sentence and feeling that I couldn't have evoked the picture I was trying to paint more vividly.

Q. What is your advice to aspiring authors?

How lovely to have an opportunity to pass on some of my creative optimism! My advice would be to trust that you have something to say that no one else does. No one has your point of view or your experiences, so there's always something that you can say that is valid and true and unique. I think if we can go into any creative project with the feeling that we have just as much right to give our emotional input to the story as anyone, then we'll be at our best. Try never to imitate - be as true to what you know and have felt as possible. Even if you're writing about an imaginary place and time where you've never set foot, start with how you think you might react so you have a kernel of truth at the heart of your character, and then take it from there. Remember, you are entirely unique, so your perspective is unique, and that in itself is a great place to start.

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