Hi, J.C.! Welcome to The Novel Approach; I’m so glad to have you here with us today. :)
A. Very excited to be here! Thanks for having me.
Let’s just start right off by having you tell us a little bit about yourself.
Q. Is there any one person you’d credit for influencing you to become a writer?
A. Probably my second-grade teacher, Mr. Daniels. He was so awesome. He was this snarky bearded guy who drew caricatures of himself on your papers if he liked what you did, and he had real love and respect for kids. He had us keep a journal, and I hated it at first. I remember thinking okay, I’m seven. NOTHING EXCITING ever happens to me. “I ate Corn Chex and went to school and did my book report and my guppy died and I watched Little House on the Prairie and went to bed.” I used to start off every single entry with “Today was a normal day” until Mr. Daniels got fed up and wrote in the margin, “When do you have an ABnormal day?” I looked up abnormal in the dictionary. Then I retooled my strategy. I started writing these intricate stories about my mysterious “pet,” who was eight feet tall, green, and liked popcorn, midnight dance parties, and backyard campouts. I was scared Mr. Daniels would call me out for tall tales, but instead he started sketching bearded smiley-faces on my journal entries. I was pretty much hooked.
Q. When did you decide that your writing was something you wanted to share with others rather than something you kept to yourself?
A. It took a long time. I’m a natural introvert, and it’s always been tough for me to share my writing with anyone besides my parents (who are terrific and supportive) and a few close friends. Writing’s always been like this secret lover I visit at night. I’d do it no matter what, love it no matter what. I’d submit something to an agent every now and then, but it wrecked my nerves and my heart was never in it; I was happier using my spare time to write new stuff. But then this year I grew a pair and confronted myself, like “what are you doing? Are you seriously going to write in a vacuum your entire life? MAKE SOMETHING HAPPEN.” My husband—who’s also my copy editor, because we’re crazy like that—passed me this article on indie publishing just when I’d officially had it with the hermit-writer routine. I spent a few more months doing one last merciless edit to this book, and then I closed my eyes and jumped in. And it’s been awesome. The fact that people are finding, reading, and enjoying the book I wrote on my couch in my flannel PJs is. . .I don’t know, whatever word is stronger than “thrilling” but doesn’t sound cheesy. Plus the indie YA community is huge and friendly and generous, and I’m proud to be part of it.
Q. How did you come up with the idea for How to Repair a Mechanical Heart?
A. Well, I’ve been involved in one fandom or another my whole life; when I was a little kid I fangirled over Star Blazers and Sesame Street (totally shipped Bert & Ernie), and I’ve followed tons of online fandoms, starting with X-Files in the mid-90s. So I know and love the world, and I knew I wanted to write a YA novel about it.
In one of my fandoms a few years back, there was some hotly debated real-person shipping going on, and I started thinking about how bizarre it would be to find yourself on the receiving end of that—especially if you were a regular kid just a few months earlier and rocketed to fame on a reality show or something. That’s what sparked the idea. I toyed with writing about two teen reality stars with a rabid fandom trying to push them together, but then I thought it would be funnier to do it on a much smaller scale: like, two regular boys with some dinky vlog that’s attracted this unlikely little cult following. I also thought it would be interesting if they themselves were anti-slash; the first thing I imagined was this horrific moment where they’d stumble across the fan community and see all the slash written about them, and they’d just go fluorescent with embarrassment.
I knew right away that this would be a love story, and the boys would both be gay and nursing a mutual attraction. I didn’t want to make one of them straight and force an unrequited-love thing. I had this idea that they’d be fans of a sci-fi show, kind of Star Trek meets Lost. And I knew one of the guys would be super-comfortable with himself and use fandom in a fun, lighthearted way (the way I use it now), and the other would be dealing with the aftermath of coming out and rely on fandom as a lifeboat (the way I used it as a teen). The rest of the plot elements—the roadtrip, the bet with the Cadsim fan community—fell into place pretty fast once the basics were down, though weaving it all into one cohesive story was kind of a challenge.
Q. Was it always going to be a Young Adult novel, or did it begin as something entirely different?
A. It was always YA. I’ve tried to write a few books for adults, but it never really works. Most days I still feel like I’m seventeen inside. There’s so much about the adult world that baffles me, but that feeling you get when you want to kiss someone but your hands are sweaty and you’re scared they’ll turn away at the last second? I get that. That sense of terror and discovery and possibility. I’ll be writing about stuff like that until I’m seventy.
Q. How long did it take you to write the book?
A. I worked on it off and on for a little over two years, pausing at regular intervals to bang my head against the keyboard and vaporize entire chapters. There was a lot to juggle, and it took some trial and error.
Q. I have a very personal passion for Brandon’s struggles in the story. What made you decide to bring his family’s faith into the plot as a point of conflict for him?
A. I kind of backed into it. I didn’t start with that intention, but as I thought about Brandon’s character, it reached up and smacked me and I was like, “oh crap. He’s an angsty Catholic boy, isn’t he?” I knew I was taking a risk, because a plot element like that is bound to turn some people off, but it made a lot of sense for his character. I gave myself a talk before I started writing. Like, “okay, you can make this a part of his character, but you can’t drench the whole thing in angst, and you have to play fair. No fire-and-brimstone villains, no cheap shots.” I’ve seen a lot of “evil priest” characters, and I didn’t want Father Mike to come across that way. I wanted to make it clear that he had a big impact on Brandon not because he was some raging bigot, but because he was otherwise friendly, gentle, caring, and intelligent. When a person is all of those things, it’s harder to reject what they’re teaching you.
The Catholic thing is personal for me, too. I want to acknowledge up front that I’ll never have specific firsthand experience with what Brandon’s going through—I’m a girl married to a guy, so my particular situation isn’t comparable. And my parents are wonderful, much more open-minded than Brandon’s. But I was born with this nervous, introspective streak, like Brandon, and adding Catholicism was like splashing gasoline on my natural anxieties and lighting a match. I mean, sexuality? Forget it. I wasn’t comfortable with my body until I was into my twenties, and I’m way too familiar with the kind of superstitious dialogues Brandon has with himself. Like, “if I do X, then something bad will happen.”
I know that won’t resonate with all readers, and I’m glad; I wouldn’t wish my old neurosis on anyone. My goal wasn’t to slam religion as a whole or ridicule people who use faith for good. But a lot of young people who find themselves at odds with religion start locking horns with their families as they reach adulthood, and I think it’s always a good question to grapple with in a YA novel: How do you secede from your family’s belief system while maintaining a relationship with the people who love you?
Q. Okay, I simply have to ask this. If you were going to slash any two well known characters, literary or otherwise, who would it be and why?
A. Jeeves and Wooster from P.G. Wodehouse’s novels (though that might be my Hugh Laurie love talking), and Dylan and Brandon from old-school 90210.
I’m totally serious about Dylan/Brandon (Dyldon?). I just rewatched that episode where they meet and that first scene between them is crackling with sexual tension—there’s like an obscene amount of smoldering going on. This would have been so much hotter than the Kelly vs. Brenda drama and Brandon’s revolving door of girlfriends. Plus they would’ve cancelled out each other’s worst qualities. Brandon would tell Dylan to admit he’s 35 and stop James Deaning all over West Beverly, and Dylan would tell Brandon to knock it off with the hair gel, cut the self-righteousness in half, and quit kissing like he’s devouring a person’s actual face.
Q. Have you always written M/M romance? If not, how did you find your way to it?
A. This is actually my first time writing M/M, but probably not my last. I usually come up with a basic story idea first and then start developing characters. This concept lent itself naturally to an M/M pairing, but I loved writing Brandon and Abel so much that I’ll probably go back to M/M at some point. I’ll always do whatever feels natural for the characters. They’ll let me know early on if they like boys or girls.
Q. Which would you say is the most difficult part of a book to write: a great beginning or ending?
A. Neither—the middle is what kills me every time. I love writing beginnings. It’s like the blissful first bites of a big banana split. And then halfway through you start getting a stomachache, and your mind starts to wander, and you get SO FREAKING BORED with ice cream that you start craving corn chips, pickles, ANYTHING else. About eight or nine chapters in, I always hit a wall and consider “cheating” on my book with a bright shiny new idea, and that’s when I have to shove aside writing for a while and recharge. I read books I admire, pick up some great nonfiction. Then I’ll come back with fresh perspective, and that helps me address stuff that’s not working and power through to the end. I stress out over endings, too, but I like writing those.
Q. If you could trade lives with any one fictional character, just for a day, who would it be and why?
A. Tyrion Lannister (Game of Thrones). Just once I want to know what it’s like to have a flawless quip ready the second I need one.
Q. Have you ever read something and thought, damn, I wish I’d written that? If so, what was it?
A. Oh, it was probably something by Zoe Heller or Ian McEwan. Or Francesca Lia Block, who’s one of my YA heroes. The imagery she comes up with makes me almost dizzy sometimes; punk music that’s like black roses on fire, a broken heart that’s like a giant bee sting, descriptions of food that make me so hungry I want to zoom off to the nearest farmer’s market and buy everything. It’s like, I can’t even envy her because I never get the sense that she’s showing off—these lovely words just radiate from her naturally. Whenever I’m feeling burned out, I’ll grab one of her books and soak up four or five chapters before bed, and I’ll wake up kinda loving words again.
Other than that—well, there are tons of authors I admire who write better books than I ever will, but I wouldn’t trade places with any of them. I’m glad to be me, writing exactly these stories.
Q. How would you describe your sense of humor? What makes you laugh?
A. I never know what’s going to make me laugh. I love dry wit and wordplay, and I also love when someone wipes out on waterskis. My five-year-old makes me laugh. She told me the other day that she didn’t like rhinos because they lolled around all day “like they’re too heavy for themselves.” Maybe I’ll ask her to write my next book.
Q. Do you have news of any works-in-progress you’d care to share with us?
A. Yeah! The book I’m working on right now is actually a revision of the novel I wrote before this one. It’s still YA, but it’s really different from HTRAMH—it’s about a guy and girl who fall in forbidden-love with each other and try to “reengineer” their emotions with this crackpot self-help program. It’ll probably be out late spring/early summer.
I’ve got about a half-dozen other book ideas in my head right now. It drives me nuts that I can’t work faster. I’m an awful hypochondriac and I’m always terrified I’ll die before I write everything I want to. However long I last, I hope people who enjoyed HTRAMH will come along with me for the ride!
Q. Where can we find you on the internet?
Q. Would you consider sharing an excerpt from How to Repair a Mechanical Heart with us?
A. Sure, you can sample the first 2 chapters on AMAZON. I’m not supposed to post excerpts anywhere else for now, but you can read a nice chunk of it over there and see if you might enjoy it.
Thanks again very much for being here today, J.C. I hope you’ll come back and visit again soon! :-D
Thank YOU for inviting me! It was a pleasure.
Make sure to check back on Friday, November 16, 2012, for your chance to win a Kindle copy of How to Win a Mechanical Heart!