One of my wonderful writer friends, Cheryl Tan, author of the delicious A Tiger in the Kitchen, tagged me in this interview series, which will give you a peek at my next book or a work-in-progress. And I admit that what I originally wanted to do was answer these questions about the novel I’m writing now, but since it’s a secret and barely anyone even knows what it is and it’s not even under contract yet, I should keep my mouth shut about it. (Not because it’s some hot property or anything—simply because I am very, very superstitious.)
So! I shall answer these questions about my new book that comes out this March. Maybe these answers will entice you to go grab it when it’s out, maybe perhaps? Here goes… the Next Big Thing in my writing life is THIS:
What is your working title of your book?
17 & Gone. That was always the title—it was the working title before a word was written and it was the title when it landed as a proposal on my editor’s desk and it got to stay the title up through to today. We never discussed changing it, but I did go back and forth about the ampersand.
I like ampersands.
You might think I’m a titling genius. I’m not. The book got its name from E. He’s a genius and I think the world needs to see that, but he’s mine and I am not sharing him with other writers, sorry.
Where did the idea come from for the book?
Before I started writing novels, I wrote short stories. I originally wanted to grow up to be a short-story writer. I don’t know why I thought I’d only write stories, to be honest, because I like to write very loooooong and it’s difficult to contain myself in a small amount of words. Anyway, so many of my stories were about disappearing girls. It’s been a lifelong obsession. So the original idea for this book was a collection of short stories about disappearing girls… and as I was writing, the narrative voice got stronger and stronger. Lauren, the narrator, made herself known to me—and as she did I realized this wasn’t a series of stories about girls who were gone, it was also about a girl at the center of the missing, the one who tied this all together. I remember emailing my agent and being like, “Michael, I think I’m writing a novel,” like he’d be disappointed or something. He seemed amused (or maybe he knew this would happen all along?).
What genre does your book fall under?
Can we throw out the idea of one genre and one box? This is part ghost story part mystery part coming-of-age story part psychological thriller.
One thing I can tell you is it’s not a romance. Or a Western. I don’t think there is one cowboy love interest in this story, I’m sorry.
This novel is YA, but I don’t think it’s just for YA readers.
Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?
Unknowns. Actresses you’ve never seen in anything before.
In truth, I never write with actors in mind. I see my characters. Not impersonators.
What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
Seventeen-year-old Lauren is haunted by a host of missing girls—all she knows is they are all 17, and all gone without a trace—but does seeing them and knowing their stories mean she needs to help them, or that she must be next?
(See above about writing looooooong. I realize the above is a long sentence.)
Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
Okay, let’s take a moment to agree that this is a ridiculous question. You can self-publish a book and still be represented by an agency. You can traditionally publish a book with a big publishing house and not have an agent (I did, for my first book). This question should be rephrased and I almost deleted it out of annoyance.
I am represented by an agent now, even though I wasn’t for my first book. His name is Michael. 17 & Gone is published by Dutton, an imprint of Penguin. My editor’s name is Julie. All that is to say I am not alone in this. I like not being alone in this.
How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?
This interview is making me sound really cantankerous, I am so sorry! Listen, I despise this question. It’s usually asked at author Q&As and book events, and I wonder if aspiring writers ask this in the hopes of hearing a magic answer: 24.5 weeks and you can have a novel of your very own, too! Or maybe it’s a competition. Maybe we’re in a race and I’m the one shuffling on the sidelines, refusing to play.
It doesn’t matter how long it takes to write a first draft. Every novel is different. Every writer is different. We each write at our own pace, and that is okay. Beautiful, even. Just stop looking at everyone else and comparing yourself. Write how you write and take how long you take. You know what you’ll find at the end of all that? Your novel. The one you wrote, if it took you one week or a hundred and seven.
But now you’re glaring at me because you want to know the math. Fine. I keep track of what I write in my iCal, like a little diary of sorts.
The idea for 17 & Gone came on February 5, 2010. I showed my agent a pitch on February 9.
Then I basically didn’t work on it for months.
I had about 50 pages and stopped writing the draft on May 6, 2010.
(Long pause while I was revising Imaginary Girls.)
About eight months later, I have a note in my calendar that says “FINALLY WROTE TO THE END!” on September 7, 2011. I officially turned in the first draft to my editor on September 9, 2011. I could have, maybe should have, taken another month or two to make the draft better than it was.
So basically, it took about nine months, in fits and starts, with the final four weeks full of near desperation, panic, and speed-demon crashes. Does it change anything that you know that?
What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
I can’t think of one. Can anyone else? Help me out here? …I’m not saying this to tell you I’m so original. I am just drawing a blank.
Who or what inspired you to write this book?
In a way, if you pick through the caverns of my imagination, I’ve been writing this book for almost twenty years. That’s not even an exaggeration. I was inspired by the lost and the missing. Ghostly shadows. Dark roads. Abandoned houses. Disembodied voices. And the vivid memory of being 17 years old, when I wasn’t always sure where I—or so many of my friends—would end up and if we’d all make it to eighteen.
What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?
How about an excerpt?
Girls go missing every day. They slip out bedroom windows and into strange cars. They leave good-bye notes or they don’t get a chance to tell anyone. They cross borders. They hitch rides, squeezing themselves into overcrowded backseats, sitting on willing laps. They curl up and crouch down, or they shove their bodies out of sunroofs and give off victory shouts. Girls make plans to go, but they also vanish without meaning to, and sometimes people confuse one for the other. Some girls go kicking and screaming and clawing out the eyes of whoever won’t let them stay. And then there are the girls who never reach where they’re going. Who disappear. Their ends are endless, their stories unknown. These girls are lost, and I’m the only one who’s seen them.
I know their names. I know where they end up—a place seeming as formless and boundless as the old well on the abandoned property off Hollow Mill Road that swallows the town’s dogs.
I want to tell everyone about these girls, about what’s happening, I want to give warning, I want to give chase. I’d do it, too, if I thought someone would believe me.
There are girls like Abby, who rode off into the night. And girls like Shyann, who ran, literally, from her tormentors and kept running. Girls like Madison, who took the bus down to the city with a phone number snug in her pocket and stars in her eyes. Girls like Isabeth, who got into the car even when everything in her was warning her to walk away. And there are girls like Trina, who no one bothered looking for; girls the police will never hear about because no one cared enough to report them missing.
Another girl could go today. She could be pulling her scarf tight around her face to protect it from the cold, searching through her coat pockets for her car keys so they’re out and ready when she reaches her car in the dark lot. She could glance in through the bright, blazing windows of the nearest restaurant as she hurries past. And then when she’s out of sight the shadowy hands could grab her, the sidewalk could gulp her up. The only trace of the girl would be the striped wool scarf she dropped on the patch of black ice, and when a car comes and runs it over, dragging it away on its snow tires, there isn’t even that.
I could be wrong.
Say I’m wrong.
Say there aren’t any hands.
Because what I sometimes believe is that I could be staring right at one of the girls—like that girl in my section of study hall, the one muddling through her trigonometry and drawing doodles of agony in the margins because she hates math. I look away for a second, and when I turn back, the girl’s chair is empty, her trig problem abandoned. And that’s it: I will never see that girl again. She’s gone.
I think it’s as simple as that. Without struggle, without any way to stop it, there one moment, not there the next. That’s how it happened with Abby—and with Shyann and Madison and Isabeth and Trina, and the others. And I’m pretty sure that’s how it will happen to me.
Now, I’m tagging five writers to take on these “Next Big Thing” questions themselves…
Christa, Christine, Heather, Kristina, and Merrie, you’re up! Can’t wait to read your answers to these questions!