Sunday, May 06, 2007

Q&A: Lisa Yee, author of SO TOTALLY EMILY EBERS

Last month, Arthur A. Levine Books published Lisa Yee's latest novel, So Totally Emily Ebers, which was edited by Arthur and me. I invited Lisa to come over to my blog for a Q&A.

Q. What is your favorite part of writing?

A. Aside from seeing someone reading one of my books, my favorite part is when I write a great sentence. When the nouns and verbs and adjectives and adverbs and stars align just so. It is the best feeling, ever.

What's your writing routine? When is your best time to write? Do you work in longhand first, or do you do everything on the computer? Do you tend to complete drafts ahead of time, or work right up until the last minute? Does anyone read your work before you send it to me and Arthur?

OMG, is this one question?

I'm a night person and do my best writing after midnight. That's when the house is quiet, and it's just me and my words rattling around.

I would love to write in longhand first. But sadly, I have very bad handwriting and can't even read it. It was the only C I ever got in school. Penmanship. Sigh. Luckily there are computers! If we still had to use typewriters, I don't think I could an author--I make soooo many changes as I go.

I tend to (try to) complete drafts ahead of time. Then I overwork them to death.

I once asked my husband to read a manuscript, and he fell asleep in the middle of it. Neither of us has recovered from that. So now, no one reads anything before I send it to you and Arthur. Although, I do read passages to my family, especially to my teenager who enjoys pointing out my mistakes.

When did you start your LJ? What inspired you to do it?

I was inspired to start blogging because of a intense spiritual need I had to tell the world about my deep thoughts. (Snort!)

What really happened was that I belong to a YA Novelist listserv. A couple years ago, a bunch of people kept talking about this thing called blogging. It sounded weird/intriguing, so I thought I'd try it out. Now I'm hooked.

What writing communities/listservs/writing groups are you a part of? What is your participation with them like (e.g., do you share drafts, brainstorm, offer one another general support)?

I'm on LiveJournal and MySpace where I blog about writing and reading and Peeps and bad dogs and whatever crosses my mind at the moment. I also blog for AS IF!, Authors Supporting Intellectual Freedom.

As far as listservs, as I mentioned I belong to a YA Novelist one. It's been WONDERFUL. It's the on-line version of a water cooler. Writing is so solitary. But with the listserv we ask questions, share information, procrastinate, and motivate one another. We cheer great reviews and hiss at bad ones. It's quite a lovely support system.

What about the LAYAs? How did you get involved with them?

The LAYAs stand for Los Angeles Young Adult Authors. (Technically, it should be LAYAAs.) We formed when author Cecil Castellucci realized there was a group of New York authors who got together for Drink Nights, and thought we should have our own west coast version of the group. We don't limit ourselves to Drink Nights, however. We've sort of gone bowling (once we all arrived, we decided not to bowl), we've had a dinner/wine night that was sponsored by a wine company, we've been judges (and worn crowns) for a parade, etc.

You weren't initially interested in the idea of doing an Emily book. What made you change your mind, and what did you find to connect with in her?

I heard from so many fans asking for a book about Emily. Plus, my daughter wanted one. When I starting thinking about it, I realized she really did have a story to tell.

What really pushed me toward it though was one night I was having dinner with someone--an adult, actually. And he said, "I can't imagine an Emily book because we already know everything about her from Millicent and Stanford's novels."

And I thought, "No, no, no, nooooooo. You don't know her. She puts on a good front, but there is so much more to her!"

With Emily I tried to tap into her bubbly exterior, all the while being aware of the pain she carried inside. I think a lot of kids (and adults) do this. And it's the seeming happy ones who can have the deepest hurt.

I can think of only one other author who's juggled the same plot over three books starring the three same characters (Joyce Cary, an adult novelist, who wrote a trilogy beginning with THE HORSE'S MOUTH). What were the challenges and rewards of such an approach?

Oh! I didn't know about Joyce Cary. I think I did mention William Faulkner's SOUND AND THE FURY in my proposal, though. However, that was a single book with multiple POVs.

At first I thought, "Oh, it'll be easy to write these because I already know what happens." Ah hem. Wrong-O!

The actual overlapping scenes are only a small portion of each novel. The challenge was channeling the voices of each of the three characters since they were all written in first person. For example, even though Stanford and Emily appear in Millicent's book, Millie only recounts what she hears them say, not what they are thinking. So I had to develop backstories and really get to know each character--what makes them laugh, cry, worry, be scared.

In doing all this, I fell in love with Stanford and Emily. I really hurt for them and I laughed along with them. It was wonderful. What was not quite as fun was doing timelines and calendars and charts to make sure the correct scenes and lines of dialog overlapped. Eeeew. Luckily, I had YOU! Man, you are a whiz at detail. A couple times on the phone you'd say, "Blah, blah and then this happens on this day . . ." and I'd go, "Uh huh, yep." (But then I'd have to go look it up because I didn't remember the scene you were talking about!)

Do you have a favorite scene common to all three books? If so, which one and why?

I think I like the drugstore scene the best. It's where Millicent, Emily and Stanford are together for the first time--sort of like a collision. To get each person's take on the event is such a hoot. When I go to school visits, it's what I like to read to demonstrate POV.

Emily's father was a rock star with the one-hit wonders the Talky Boys. Who were your favorite bands in the 1980s? Any memorable shows?

Ooooh, you would ask me that! Let's see. I liked The Culture Club (Boy George has a great voice). And I loved the song, "Careless Whisper" by George Michael, who had been with Wham! I was a huge Madonna fan and I liked Spandau Ballet. Later, I found out that Princess Diana loved Spandau Ballet, and I thought, "We are so totally alike!" I used to go to a lot of concerts and I remember seeing Hall and Oates, and Earth, Wind and Fire, and George Benson, and Melissa Manchester, and Christopher Cross, and Michael Franks, and . . . hmmmm, I should probably stop now or we'll run out of space!

Maddie, Millicent's grandmother, plays a prominent role in all three books, and her humor and vibrancy makes her one of my favorite characters in the trilogy. Is she based on a real person?

Maddie is a work of fiction. So often adults are bad guys in books. I wanted one who was fun and irreverent and loving and kind, even if she did break the law now and then. It's surprised me how much Maddie has resonated with my readers. A lot of kids ask about her and want to know more about her.

A lot of the brand names in SO TOTALLY EMILY EBERS are code references to real people. Could you identify some of them for us?

Oooooh, there are SO MANY references to real people. Hmmmm, here are a few . . .

  • Mr. Kinnoin, who jumps on a desk and starts screaming/crying after he wins the lottery, is named after my friend Dave Kinnoin, who's a singer/songwriter.
  • AJ Shiffman, one of Emily's best friends from New Jersey, is named after a girl whose mom won the "Your Name in My Next Book" auction for a fundraiser for my kids' school district.
  • The Castellucci Collection sundress is named for my friend, author/playwright/musician/everything Cecil Castellucci.
  • The Mercedes Metz lawn gnomes are named after our middle school principal.
  • Dr. Seto is named after my doctor and JodiJodi clothes are in honor of my agent, Jodi Reamer.

Your current project, CHARM-SCHOOL DROPOUT, is a YA novel. At what point did you realize it was going in that direction? Did your thinking or process change at all writing YA vs. writing middle-grade?

It was actually quite liberating writing a YA. The book didn't start out as one, but the more I delved into the main character's life, things started happening that took me by surprise. I realized that the content was so much more mature than what I had done in the past, and hence it became a YA. It's quite dark in some places, but still very funny.

Finally, can you provide some of the lyrics to Emily's father's #1 rock smash, "Heartless Empty-Hearted Heartbreaker"?

Uh. Hmmmm, I never thought of this before. I used to write jingles, but they were mostly about food products. So let me give it a try. Off the top of my head . . .

You, you ripped my soul apart

You, you are without a heart

You, you're the one who brought me to my knees

For you, I'd be back in a heartbeat, if you'd just say pleeeeease . . .

Heartless empty-hearted heartbreaker -- whoooo, whooooo, whooooooo

Hahaha . . . I can't stop laughing. This is soooooo bad. On purpose, mind you!

For more on the Emily Ebers editorial process, see this talk and Lisa's LJ. And to buy So Totally Emily Ebers (hint, hint), visit this link or your local independent bookseller!


  1. Hi, I read your blog every so often, and I was hoping you could post about a dilemma I'm facing.

    I am graduating from college in December, and I was wondering what is the best way to approach finding an editing job? I already have an editing internship at a small press, but what is the next step?

    What is the best way to represent myself to future employers, and what will make a college graduate like myself, with one year of experience more marketable?


  2. Lisa is fabulous!
    When I grow up, I want to be Lisa...but first I must find a dog that chews EVERYTHING with absolutely no shame. (Right now I just have a couple of cats that do that.)

  3. You can tell through Lisa's interview that she is a really neat person, in touch with who she is as a person and a writer. That's too cool! Also-I think she shows promise as a songwriter..hee,hee

    Anna check out Cheryl's website and scroll down to letter to an aspiring editor here:
    Apologize if it's old news for you , thought it would help.

  4. Those song lyrics are fabulous.

  5. What about Louise Fitzhugh? Harriet the Spy, The Long Secret, and Sport.