I just finished devouring Stephanie Perkins' sweet, sensitive, and funny-as-heck YA romance series that started with "Anna and the French Kiss," continued through "Lola and the Boy Next Door," and concludes on Tuesday with the release of "Isla and the Happily Ever After." (Scroll to the bottom for a chance to win all three books!) Featuring stories about an interconnected set of characters dealing with some of the most turbulent times of their lives, her books read like great character studies, and they're set in fun, awesome places like Paris (and Perkins' Paris is carefully researched, not a tourist approximation).
So when I had the chance to talk with Stephanie, of course I had to act on it -- because I love chatting with authors, and I was pretty convinced that an author who wrote such lovely books would be a really fantastic person. I wasn't wrong; we were on the phone for an hour and I felt like the time was rushing by as we talked about Twitter mobs, gardening problems, the difficulty of finding sour cherries these days, her favorite movies ("Shaun of the Dead" ranks high) beloved television ("Community" and "Orange is the New Black"), and, of course, her books.
Raised in Arizona, Perkins is currently living in Asheville (after a brief sojourn to the Bay Area shortly after her marriage), and in addition to being the author of this trilogy, she's featured in an upcoming series of holiday stories and she's working on a currently untitled horror novel, about which more in a moment. One of the things that struck me immediately when I was talking with her was how warm, bubbly, and outgoing she was -- although she swore that she was totally nervous and confessed that she was weeding while we talked because it helped her calm down on the phone.
Stephanie was writing contemporary YA before it was cool, but she chose a great time for a comeback. "I think it’s just kind of a natural cyclical nature of books as entertainment," she says of the tendency for genres to come and go. "We as a culture get interested in something for a while, we kind of overindulge, and then we want something new. It was just contemporary’s time again, and leading that pack was John Green, who already had such an immense presence online -- I really really like John and admire him, and he was one of the major reasons I wanted to work with my editor [both are edited by Julie Strauss-Gabel]."
"I wrote in this genre because I loved it and enjoyed it, and maybe there was a tinge of wanting to work in a genre wasn’t respected or exciting. I wrote it because I loved it, and I was shocked when people seemed to like it too. Thanks to John, and Rainbow Rowell, and Gayle Forman, they’re huge breakout successes, I feel like they paved the way for me to come back with this next one."
"I kind of feel like I owe them so much, they’re wonderful people and wonderful books. It’s their successes that are giving mine a little bit of attention, it’s all about timing. The market is sort of primed for this kind of thing."
Like me, she's totally into Rainbow Rowell and every single one of her books: "[They're] so good, filled with so much heart, and depth, and intelligence, and humor. I feel like when you read her books, you know she’s a good person."
Rowell's latest, "Landline," "punched me in the gut, big time" when she read it on a plane. "I spent the last third of the book with tears streaming down my face, and the minute my plane landed I called my husband to say I loved him so much."
For Perkins, writing isn't just about plot, and in fact, she feels like her books could be better characterized as being about the characters, not the story.
"Some authors are really good at plot, very much what-if authors, and I always kind of envy them, because plot is really hard for me. My stories are pretty simple and predictable -- the really interesting part for me, and the part I know how to write, is the journey itself. We all know how the journey is going to end, but how do we get there? My books are character studies, in a way. That’s where all my ideas come from," she says.
"I really enjoy writing about people who have a very defined passion and interest in life. It was one of the greatest struggles with my new book, 'Isla,' because she really doesn’t -- I kept trying to put all of these various interests on her, I kept trying to give her a thing, I spent a few years struggling and failing before I accepted the fact that she didn’t have a thing, and that was the story. It made me feel really scared. I didn’t really know what to do with that for a long time."
Her difficulties with Isla reflect the character's own struggles in a world surrounded by people who know exactly what they're doing with their lives, an issue that speaks to the transitional experiences many teens have, but not just teens: Adults, too.
As for her next book, which is a classic slasher-style horror, I asked her how it felt to be writing something that felt like the polar opposite of sweet teen romance.
"It is [different] on the surface," she says, "but when you dig a little deeper, I think I’ve always been a fan of horror novels and especially horror films, which is especially where the slasher shines, really, cinematically. It’s so B-level, which makes me love it more. I’ve always thought they’re really fun, and real key is that they tend to be self-aware, and funny, especially in the post-"Scream" era, it’s become a very self-aware genre."
"It’s got a lot of sex and romance and humor, it’s the funniest type of horror. It’s actually pretty similar to what I write now -- it’s really just adding a high body count. It’s fun getting to spend my days getting to kill some teenagers."
"I’m doing this terrible thing, plotting these horrible deaths by day and promoting this sweet, sweet series by night. It’s really fun, living that double life. My house is very much like that too -- on the surface it’s really cheerful and colorful, but when you look closer, there’s like a collection of animal skulls and whatnot."
Speaking of animal skulls and whatnot, we had a long sidebar about her transition from dog person to cat person, and the larger theme of writers and their cats. What comes first, the cat or the writer? (Perkins argues that cats, as introverts, go naturally with writers.)
"Well, you know, my cat is kind of a recent addition in terms of my general life -- I’ve always had dogs, I love dogs, and when I got married, we had dogs," she says. "A few years ago we got a cat for a very practical purpose, in that we started having mice in our house, and he showed up, and I didn’t really know what to do with him at first because he was so unlike a dog, and the first month or so I thought I’d made a great mistake. I had a creature in my house I didn’t understand...and he turned out to be this really charming, funny guy whom I really fell in love with, which was totally unexpected."
"Dogs are in the house all day too," she says of the divide between dogs and cats, "but always wanting something from you. I never used to mind it, until I got a cat. No one is more surprised than me that I turned into a cat lady, but it happened pretty rapidly, and it has only grown as the years have progressed. I feel like he’s my office mate, in a way. He’s the one I’m here talking to all day long."
"I wrote a good part of this last book with him on my lap. For the first time ever, I thanked him in the acknowledgements, along with the rest of my family. There was a part of me that felt so ashamed, but OF COURSE I was going to thank him, he’s been here every day! I felt so cheesy, but how could I not!"
One thing I love talking about with women authors is impostor syndrome, and the pressure put on women in the public sphere. Perkins, like many of the women I talk to, struggled with a good answer to the question of how women deal with it -- which is, in itself, a comment on how insidious impostor syndrome can be. As we chatted about it, both of us discussed how being open about these things and admitting that we're all stumbling in the dark can be a powerful message for women who may think they're going it alone.
"I don’t know! I’m still trying to figure that out!," she says, in response to my question about how she copes with impostor syndrome. "I mean, for the most part, I think a lot of it is in trying to tune out those negative voices and not respond to them, but then again there’s always that feeling of: 'that’s what women have been doing for years, is staying passive, so when do you say something? Teach me, wiser women!'"
"It’s hard, and it’s frustrating, and it’s gross, and it’s so outdated. I always really struggle with self-promotion, I don’t have tons of self-confidence, this summer talking about myself and my books a lot has been a little challenging, but I just remind myself that this is my job, this is what I’m supposed to be doing right now. I have to remember that my readers have been waiting for this book for a long time, and they want to hear from me too, which is a really nice thing. I have a lot of shame and guilt for sure, and my readers are so nice in reminding me ‘it’s okay!’...[I cope] by being more myself, by putting my interests and personality out there, that’s going to get people more interested than talking about the work itself. I guess I just want a more personal connection."
Perkins loves what she does, and the opportunities to interact with readers (her Twitter account is a great way to keep up with her cat pictures and general doings), and it's so exciting to see her career taking off again with her latest release. It was a pleasure talking to her, particularly to get her opinion on the great cake versus pie debate:
"Oooooh. Oh my gosh. I mean. I think for most of my life, I would have answered cake, but…I gotta go with pie. Like, I feel like since cupcakes have become such a commonplace thing, and we kind of get these treats all the time now, pie still reigns supreme in terms of the time that went into it, and feeling special. My mom has always been a wonderful pie baker, and she’s very much the inspiration of my second book ["Lola"], where one of the two dads runs a pie business. Mom only makes them for special occasions, and you can taste the love in every bite. Gotta go pie."
Now for the GIVEAWAY part of the proceedings:
The folks at Penguin generously offered to supply one lucky xoJane reader with a tote bag, a collection of nifty buttons, and, of course, all three books in Stephanie's collection for those of you looking for a fun, sweet read as summer rapidly draws to a close -- comment below for a chance to win. (Contest closes in ten days, and is US-only, sorry!)
You can also always order signed copies of her books through her local independent bookstore, Malaprop's.