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Gentle readers, I just finished reading "My Last Kiss," an amazing new novel from YA author Bethany Neal. It's got ghosts, betrayal, secrets, teenage angst, and a super-cool narrative style. Better yet, I managed to finagle a conversation with Bethany about her book and her writing process -- as well as, of course, her dessert preferences.
In "My Last Kiss," Cassidy Haines wakes up beside her dead body with no idea how she died. Worse yet, the last few weeks of her life are a haze. In a dual narrative, Cassidy's forced to retrace her steps through a series of flashbacks while watching people cope with her death in real time -- even though only one person, her boyfriend Ethan, can see her. Who was on that icy bridge the night she jumped, slipped, or was pushed to her death? And can she make things right with Ethan so she can cross over?
xoJane: I'm always curious to hear about working styles. Did you use a massive cork board of doom, or Scrivener, or notes on envelopes, or other tools for writing this? When do you write? What's your preferred writing fuel?
Bethany Neal: The method behind my madness involves everything from scribbling notes on scrap paper when I don’t have my trusty Idea Notebook with me, to what I call the “serial killer wall,” which is not as scary as it sounds -- unless you’re a guest in my house and happen to pass by my office and see it, then you might start looking for the nearest exit. I guess it’s similar to the cork board of doom -- I love that name! -- but includes note cards and Post-its that I stick to a designated wall and organize into four sections that represent the acts in the book (Act I, Act 2-Part 1, Act 2-Part 2, Act 3). It allows me to step back and see the bones of the story after I’ve written the first draft and decide what needs to move or be changed/cut. I’m a very visual thinker. I have to be able to see it!
My writing schedule has me inside my Writertorium (a.k.a. my office) six days a week from 10am-7pm. I might not be physically writing that whole time, but I am doing writing-related things that may or may not include Youtube-ing old episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I also have a daily 1,000 word count goal.
My preferred writing fuel is Sour Patch Kids. I may be turning into one, which would explain my erratic behavior…
xoJane: As I read "My Last Kiss," I found myself thinking about the similarities to "We Were Liars" -- is this a comparison you've been getting from other readers?
Bethany Neal: No, but I’ve heard great things about that book. It’s definitely on my to-read list.
xoJane: The narrative structure in "My Last Kiss" is totally fascinating. Was it a challenge to flip back and forth between timelines, and to remember who knew what at which times?
Bethany Neal: The nonlinear narrative structure came very organically to me in the first draft. I don’t outline before I start a project -- that comes afterward with the previously mentioned “serial killer board” -- so when Cassidy’s story started coming to me in these tantalizing, out-of-order flashbacks I ran with it. I did encounter a bit of a headache during revisions when I had to go back through all the flashback chapters to ensure everything matched up. And, yes, I frequently forgot who knew what at certain times! I had to make individual timelines for each character so I knew where everyone was and when. That was probably the hardest part about writing this book actually.
xoJane: One of the things I love about "My Last Kiss" is the moral ambiguity present in all of the characters -- over the course of the story, we learn that all of them were hiding things from each other, and none of them really come out smelling rosy. Given that, do you still have a character you sympathize with most?
Bethany Neal: I love that you noticed that! One of my favorite things is a character that lives in shades of gray. The easy pick is Ethan, Cassidy’s boyfriend, because he wasn’t really part of what went down and he’s so very adorable, but I sympathize a lot with Caleb too. He’s always trying to do what he believes is the right thing, but he lives in the moment and often can’t foresee the consequences of his actions until it’s too late.
xoJane: Unlike a lot of YA, parents are very real and present here, though sometimes they're wrapped up in their own business. How did you balance the story between the young adults who are the focus and their parents, who are an integral part of the storytelling as well?
Bethany Neal: I got some feedback during the editing process that Cassidy wasn’t missing her family enough. So I made an effort to go back through and make her parents more present. I guess it worked!
xoJane: Obviously grief, and how people deal with grief, was a huge part of the storytelling here. I love Cassidy's utter disdain for memorials, but her friends touch on a real issue -- how do teens deal individually and collectively with the death of a schoolmate? How can the adults around them support them?
Bethany Neal: This question hits home for me because when I was in high school my favorite teacher passed away. I remember school closing early the day of the funeral and mourning with my small group of friends, but I don’t remember a school-wide memorial of any kind. The trouble is that everyone grieves differently and it can get messy. I think about this a lot when I hear about school shootings on the news. I was in high school when the first mainstream shooting occurred at Columbine in 1999, and I’m baffled and saddened that we’re still dealing with this tragic epidemic.
How are we, as adults, helping teens deal with their grief after a loss and to heal? Maybe the answer is that we’re not because the number of school shootings has skyrocketed and everyone is focused on the guns issue when really it’s a mental health issue. Taking away the guns is a solid start, but stopping there is like sticking a Band-Aid on a sucking chest wound. Okay, I’ll get off my soapbox now.
xoJane: Which scene was the most difficult for you to write? The most fun?
Bethany Neal: The scene that gave me the most trouble was Chapter 26. It’s almost the end of the book, and the reader has finally learned the whole truth of how and why Cassidy died, but there are still loose ends that need to be tired up. It was hard not to make that scene feel rushed or melodramatic because there are a ton of emotions flying around. The scene that was the most fun to write was the chapter titled The Other Guy. Cassidy is at the peak of her bad decision making and Caleb stands up for himself for once and lays all his cards out on the table. They’re both in a lose-lose situation and neither of them does anything to help themselves because where’s the fun in that? I have such a grand time tormenting my characters.
xoJane: Finally, a key question for our readers: cake, or pie?
Bethany Neal: Oh, of course pie!
"My Last Kiss" hits bookstores on on June 10.