At what point do you think you “became a writer”?
I’ve been writing since I was small (I used to dictate stories to my babysitter when I was little), but I think I really became a writer about eight years ago when I decided to put in the time regularly—when I started writing three to four hours daily. I knew it was going to take a lot of work for me to become a good writer and I knew I needed to get serious about it.
How did you come to write for teens (rather than adults)?
I started writing right after I stopped teaching high school. For me, it was a really natural thing to want to write for young adults—I loved working with them and missed it, and I also love reading young adult literature.
Does your experience as a teacher affect the way you write?
Not in any concrete way, but I’m sure it does in that I had a lot of experiences while teaching that shaped me as a person, and therefore as a writer. I do feel that I want to write something worth reading—something I would have been able to hand a student and say, “I think you’re going to like this!”
How do you get into the mindset of your teenage audience? Is it ever hard?
For a long time, I either taught high school or lived as the house mom in a sorority back East, so I was always surrounded by teenagers (the girls who lived in the sorority were mostly nineteen). I loved it, and I think that helped, to be continually in those environments. However, I don’t really find it hard to be in that mindset—it’s almost like it’s my default to feel eighteen or nineteen—which is probably why I was drawn to teaching high school and writing YA. I think a lot of us writing YA feel that way.
When you were a teen, what kinds of books did you read? What kinds of books do you read now?
When I was a teen, I read a lot of Agatha Christie, Anne Tyler, Wallace Stegner, and Barbara Kingsolver. I still love those authors and read them often, but I also count Marilynne Robinson, Elizabeth Strout, and Ann Patchett among my favorites as well. I did (and do) read a lot of adult fiction, but of course I adore young adult fiction too. Some of my favorite authors in that genre right now are Ann Dee Ellis, Grace Lin, Carol Lynch Williams, Shannon Hale, and many, many more.
You’ve mentioned some of my favorite Utah-based writers. Do you feel like there’s a writing community here? How much does living in Utah affect your writing?
There is definitely a writing community here. The first five years I was writing/publishing, I lived in upstate New York, and so I felt very isolated—since not many people in upstate New York were writing LDS young adult fiction, which is what I was writing at the time! It is kind of ironic that I wrote LDS YA while I lived away from Utah and now that I’m back, I write national market fiction.
Living in Utah affects my writing in a lot of ways, but perhaps mostly geographically. I don’t know how you could grow up in such a beautiful place and not feel inspired. I grew up in Southern Utah and that geography always resonates with me.
Besides being a writer, you are the mother of three sons. How do you balance the demands of these two roles?
Not very well! I always joke about how bad I am at multitasking. I can’t write well when the kids are awake because I get too worried (my children are very small—the oldest is seven years old). What I usually do is write when they have gone to bed or during naptime. And this means that my house is kind of a disaster!
In the last five years, you have published four books for Latter-day Saint young adults (Being Sixteen and the Yearbook trilogy). How does having such a specific audience affect your writing?
For me, it affected my writing in that I could use phrases and situations that are unique to Mormon culture without explanation (like FHE, going on missions, etc.). It also meant that I could explore faith without having to defend it at the same time. The characters’ religion could be an essential part of the story, but their being Mormon also didn’t have to be the story.
That’s a thought-provoking distinction. Will you ever write anything where “being Mormon” is the story?
Who knows! I never thought I’d be writing dystopian fiction and now I am.
Has writing about Mormon characters and settings led you to any insights about your faith and culture?
Absolutely. When you are writing, you try to be clear about how and what and why a character feels the way they do. It makes you examine your own faith and culture and say, “How does my character feel about this? Do I feel the same way? Why or why not?” Most of my family is not religious at all, and so I have always been very conscious of the intricacies of faith and culture and how they play out in families, communities, etc.
Matched, your newest book, is a different genre from your previous novels. Tell us about your experience writing in a whole new genre.
It felt great! I loved writing contemporary YA, but it was also very freeing to write something in a made-up world set in the future. It was fun to create not only new characters, but also a new setting and ideology.
In Matched, your main character, Cassia, lives in a dystopian world. Did your Latter-day Saint beliefs affect the world you built for Cassia?
Yes, in that the book focuses very heavily on the themes of free agency and choice and accountability. But there is no religion in Cassia’s world, so there aren’t any LDS characters, etc.
Tell us about your experience breaking into the national market. What was the process you went through?
I knew that Matched would not be a good fit for Deseret Book—they don’t publish any dystopian fiction! I had to start over. I didn’t have a literary agent, and I knew I would need one if I hoped to publish Matched nationally.
So I did a lot of research online and sent out queries to about twenty-five to thirty agents who represented young adult fiction. I had plenty of rejections, but there were also several offers of representation. I was over the moon!
We ended up at Penguin/Dutton with Julie Strauss-Gabel and it has been an absolutely wonderful experience working with Julie and with everyone else at Penguin Young Readers Group. I still have moments where I think, “Did this really happen?”
Are you working on a sequel to Matched? What other projects can we expect to see in the future?
Yes! There will be three books in the Matched series, so that’s where my focus is right now. I have lots of ideas for what I might write next. I do seem to be leaning in a dystopian/sci-fi direction these days, but I have a few ideas for contemporary novels as well.
You say that you’re leaning towards dystopian and science fiction. Why do you think that is?
I think it’s very fun and very freeing to create your own world and your own rules. They have to ring true and make sense—which is the hard part—but it does feel very creative and exciting.
What advice can you give to aspiring writers, specifically those hoping to write for young adults?
Believe you can do it, and then put in the time. Write for several hours each day. Let yourself write a terrible first draft.
Pay attention to the genre—read what’s out there for young adults!—and pay attention to teenagers. And give yourself time to grow as a writer. Don’t put pressure on yourself to be amazing right from the start. ❧