Thursday, December 18, 2008

Megan McCafferty on Jessica Darling

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Megan McCafferty is the author of sloppy firsts, a New York Public Library Book for the Teen Age. Its sequel, second helpings was also selected to the NYPL list, and was a Booklist Editor’s Pick for one of the best novels of 2003. charmed thirds was an instant New York Times bestseller and a NYPL pick. fourth comings also hit the New York Times, USA Today, Publisher’s Weekly, Booksense, Barnes and Noble, Borders and other national bestseller lists in its first week. Her fifth novel, perfect fifths, is scheduled to be released in April 2009.

Thanks to Taren for help with the interview. (Again.)

If you're a fan of Megan's books, you should know that when she got back to me with these she said, "You're getting quite the scoop." I'm just saying. You might wanna read :)

When and how did you get the idea for the Jessica Darling books? How did it go from there to publication?

I started making up stories as soon as I learned how to talk. My first creative writing notebook was from my first grade teacher and had the words I LOVE TO WRITE on the cover. I kept a journal between the ages of ten and twenty five. By my late twenties, I had hundreds of pages worth of short stories, non fiction essays and other uncategorizable writings about growing up on the Jersey Shore. Whenever I read these stories aloud in creative writing sessions the whole class would laugh and tell me I needed to turn it into a book—even those who came from backgrounds totally unlike my own (or Jessica Darling's). Positive responses from such a wide range of readers gave me the encouragement to push myself, to try to make something of all this stuff. After a lot of disciplined editing and re-writing, those hundreds of pages of unstructured writing turned into the first thirty of so pages of Sloppy Firsts. That was enough to get an agent, who urged me to write the first half of the book, which I did in six weeks of eight-to-twelve hour marathon writing sessions. (I had quit my job in magazines at this point—this novel was my full time job.) Four months after I had secured an agent, she got me a two book deal with Crown based on the first 150 pages of Sloppy Firsts.

Were there any notable changes from the first drafts of any of the books to the published manuscript?

My editor has always made suggestions that improved upon my first draft. However, I can't really remember what those specific changes were! I think that's a good sign. I actually like diamond-in-the-rough revision phase much more than the first draft phase, which always feels so much more daunting and difficult.

What experiences, if any, did you draw from in your own life in order to create Jessica? Is there anything in the books that happened exactly the same way in real life?

My stock answer to this question is that I began with the truth and then started lying my ass off. I definitely draw upon my own life experiences—especially with the first two books. But as the series progressed, Jessica and all the characters really became their own people, to the point that I actually cringe at some of the things they say and do. And I can honestly say that the only event that is true to book and true to the life is my/Jessica's depiction of the Glam Slam Metal Jam in Charmed Thirds. A few years ago a group of us saw a line-up of Poison, Warrant, Quiet Riot dressed like spandexed hair-band groupies and were the only eight people out of a crowd of several thousand who had thought to do so.

Just for trivial knowledge: Are you as fanatic about the 80s as Jessica is?

Sort of. I've got too many interests and too little time to be fanatical about anything.

For further trivial knowledge: Did (do) you use alliterations as much as Jessica does in your own journals? (If not, what was the idea behind that?)

No. I wrote more plainly. I think the alliteration came from my years in working for women's magazines.

Do you view Jessica as someone girls can relate to or someone they should aspire to be?

It's risky whenever anyone starts assuming “role model” status. But readers seem to appreciate that Jessica isn't perfect. She can be judgmental, bitchy, rude and selfish...but that doesn't make her a bad person. She redeems herself by learning from her mistakes and growing up. Her sense of humor helps too.

I have seen two reactions to your books among my friends: One loved them right from the start and immediately identified with her. The other hated her until she realized Jessica was exactly like her. Do you think there’s a bit of Jessica in every girl? If you had to guess, what would you say it is about your books that relate to your many readers?

I think everyone can relate to feeling like an outsider...even if you really aren't. I've heard that Jessica articulates common feelings in a way that makes readers feel like she has gotten inside their heads. That's a HUGE compliment because that's exactly how I feel when I read fiction that moves me.

This series in general is very frank and more risqué than most other YA fiction. Have you ever had any negative feedback because of this? Do you think it’s important for there to be honest books about sex, friendship, etc available to teens?

I disagree with you. I think there's plenty of YA fiction that is as risque—if not more—than my books! I think it's important to be frank and honest about sex without being exploitative.

In a genre populate with perfect, cookie-cutter males, Marcus is a unique characters—particularly in Sloppy Firsts, in which we see his transition from Krispy Kreme to reformed male-slut, as Jessica puts it. Were you ever worried that he would be disliked by your core readership?

Well...I knew that making him more flawed and human in Charmed Thirds and Fourth Comings might wreck the fantasy ideal established in Sloppy Firsts and Second Helpings. But did I worry about it? No. I hope my readers understand that no one loves my characters more than I do and that they trust me to know what I'm doing.

You chronicle Jessica’s progression from adolescence to adulthood realistically and effectively. How did you develop her change in your own head?

Each book had to change in form and content to reflect where Jessica was at that particular stage in her life. Sloppy Firsts and Second Helpings are the most similar because because she's still stuck at Pineville High. Charmed Thirds is set over the course of three years instead because I wanted to show how college and New York City shapes Jessica's identity over an extended period of time. Fourth Comings comes down to Jessica stalling for a week as she tries to figure out how to tell Marcus something she knows he doesn't want to hear. And Perfect Fifths is told in third person to reflect--I hope--a sign of Jessica's own awareness of others beside herself. It also gives readers a chance to see things from Marcus's perspective for the first time—which I thought was crucial for this final book in the series. It's also a very intimate book—the whole thing takes place over about sixteen hours or so—because I wanted it to focus on the two most important people in the series: Jessica and Marcus.

Speaking of change, there’s a big difference between Second Helpings and Charmed Thirds. Some fans didn’t react didn’t react so positively to University Jessica. How did you feel about that? Did you view all her actions—erroneous or otherwise—as necessary for her growth? Conversely, were there things she did that you didn’t approve of? What about the other characters?

I knew going into Charmed Thirds that some readers would not like the direction that Jessica—and the series for that matter—was headed. You said it perfectly: Her mistakes were necessary for her growth. And as a writer, it's important for me to grow as well. I have no interest in doing the same thing over and over and over again. Following Jessica through the years required me to think and write in a different way with every book, as we all think and write differently at sixteen and eighteen and twenty two and twenty-six.

What are your views on Jessica and Marcus’s relationship? In many ways, it’s a unique one in YA. Do you view it as a positive or a negative?

I think their relationship is positive because of all its negatives. (That sounds like something Marcus would say, doesn't it? And Jessica would call it bumper sticker wisdom!) It's more real that what is often depicted in fiction for teens.

Given Jessica’s colorful use of language in the books, I was more or less ordered to ask you this: What’s your favorite swear word? :)

Whenever I'm in physical or emotional pain my reflex is to launch an F-bomb. But I don't curse as nearly as much as Jessica does in her journals. I have a six year old son who is an expert mimic—I need to watch myself.

Okay, so it is my understanding that you’re a great writer...and a talented singer. Should we be expecting a CD any day now?

Tragically, no. This is why I have to bribe readers to request songs at my events.

Your work is largely referred to as chick lit. What are your thoughts on that label? Do you agree with the allegations that it is anti-feminist?

I never set out to write chick lit. I thought I was writing a series of comic coming of age novels. Chick Lit a marketing term that makes it easier for publishers/booksellers to promote and sell books. Conversely, I think that it negatively affects sales by turning off anyone who assumes that centers around shoe-shopping and Cosmopolitans. In Fourth Comings I had fun taking many chick lit conventions and turning them around. Like, Jessica works in publishing, but it's a crappy job in publishing at an obscure journal no one reads. She has a great apartment, but it's in a neighborhood for breeders and she has three roommatest. She has to borrow all her most fabulous clothes because she's heavily in student loan debt and cant' afford to shop for herself. She gets the marriage proposal from her soulmate but...

You started out as a YA writer published by an adult house. Can you give us some information on how that happened? What were the benefits to this arrangement? Also, has your editor (or publisher) ever been in opposition of any of the content in your books as they take on an increasingly more adult tone?

We pitched Sloppy Firsts YA houses who loved it BUT thought it was too mature. We pitched it to adult houses to said that they loved it BUT thought it was too young. I didn't want to dumb down or overdramatize the story so I waited until I found the right place. We were lucky to find an editor at Crown who totally got what I was going for—a sort of millennial twist on John Hughes type storytelling—teen angst told with intelligence, humor and heart. We all understood that it would appeal to teenagers still in high school as well as twenty-and-thirty-somethings who graduated long ago. Crown has totally supported my vision for the series and has let Jessica grow old gracefully—if imperfectly. My publisher realizes that I'm doing something pretty unusual--a positive thing in a competitive market.

Recently, we’ve been seeing a lot of prejudice against YA writers. What do you have to say to this?

There's never been a better time to be a YA writer. Some of the most moving and imaginative writing is happening in this genre.

I understand you’re now working on the final Jessica Darling book, Perfect Fifths. How’s that going? What can you tell us about it?

I'm finishing revisions. It's scheduled to go on sale April 14th, 2009. In addition to what I've already said, I can also tell you that most of the story is in third person. The two parts that aren't in third person are told entirely in dialogue and poems exchanged between Jessica and Marcus. Finally, I can tell you it's a love perfect in its imperfection.

What can we expect to see next from you? Will you be going with YA or adult fiction? Any series in the works?

My next book will be a dystopian high school sex comedy. I can't wait to start working on it!

And finally: Does writing YA rock or what?

Yes, it does. Even though I'm not technically a YA writer, I am proud to be considered one!

Thanks, Megan!

Girl Week is a week-long event here on the blog celebrating strong YA heroines and feminism. Find out more about it here.


Caroline said...

Oh wow. Quite the scoop indeed!
I'm so excited for perfect fifths to come out.

ALSO, I blogged about Girl Week.

Do I have to go back and say that on every contest I entered, or does that count, like, as a blanket?

Sarah Woodard said...

I loved the interview. Marcus and Jessica... I hope they end up with another.

the story siren said...

awesome interview! I really enjoyed getting to know Megan and learning about such a great series!

donnas said...

Great interview.

Anonymous said...

Fantastic interview. I love the books and can't wait for the next one.

Rowena said...

Wow, what a great post, thanks for this. I'm really enjoying your Girls week posts, they've been really great and this is another one of many great posts and interviews, I am definitely going to check this series out.

Anonymous said...

Love the Jessica Darling series! Great interview! Perfect Fifths *squee*
I think I first read Sloppy firsts when I was 13/14 haha.
XD and I've reread it many times since (along with the others)

Amee said...

I love the covers for this series. I plan on starting the first tomorrow. Now I'm all amped up to read it after this interview. :)

Unknown said...

LOL @ "again". I was glad to do it. That was fun, getting to read her answers after all this time!

Anonymous said...

I love the titles of these books. Definitely looking forward to reading this series.
Great interview! =)

Emily Marshall said...

Great interview. I LOVE these books and am really looking forward to the last one.

Alea said...

Yay! I read the first two books in this series one summer during summer school. I remember being so happy i only had a class at night so I could spend the day reading these books! My friend told me I just had to borrow them from her and after a few pages I knew why!

Anonymous said...

"a dystopian high school sex comedy" I don't think I've ever heard of a cooler book description! I will be on the look out for that.

Leigh Purtill said...

Great interview! Megan is truly an amazing writer and woman. I admired her from the first book and was totally tongue-tied when I finally got to meet her!

Keri Mikulski said...

Love Megan! Great interview!!! Thanks. :)

Alessandra said...

Fantastic interview! You always ask the best questions.

jocelyn said...

This is a great interview! Can't wait to read Perfect Fifths, she makes it sound SO interesting.

Anonymous said...

I loved reading this interview! I think Megan has provided a character that isn't meant to be a heroine; she's human. Throughout high school, Jessica Darling was there when I wanted to laugh and also to remind me that I wasn't alone as the odd girl out in a Pineville-esque town in New Jersey.

Anonymous said...

OMG!!!! I so wanted Jessica and Marcus to get together in the end of the 4th book- I think they are like soooo perfect for each other!! I CANNOT wait for the last book to come out-I hope they get together AND STAY TOGETHER!! This series Rocks!!!!!!!!

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