11:00 am EDT, September 9, 2014

Author Amy Zhang talks writing and the pressures of high school

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Amy Zhang is the debut author of Falling into Place, a novel that depicts high school struggles realistically and has a lot to say about the choices people make.

Tell us 5 random facts about yourself.
1. I have a problem with marathoning TV shows. Actually, I usually only watch shows that already have a few seasons, because I really enjoy curling up in bed with chocolate and not moving for a weekend.
2. I have toe thumbs.
3. I love ceramics. Throwing relaxes me like nothing else. There’s also something very satisfying about wedging clay, and throwing it around until your hands are raw. For me, the whole thing is almost hypnotic.
4. I sing in the shower. Loudly. Once, my neighbor even came over to compliment me. I think he was actually trying to tell me to shut up as nicely as possible.
5. I have really bad reactions to mosquito bites. A single bite can swell up to the size of my hand, so in the summer, I tend to look like an alarmingly red Pillsbury Doughboy.

Tell us about your journey to becoming a writer.
Sure! I moved from St. Louis, Missouri, to Sheboygan, Wisconsin, just before my eighth grade. I was lonely, I was unhappy, I was kind of pissed off at . . . everything, and I had an extra notebook. So I decided to open it up and write a book. It was a really crappy book. But I started realizing that life didn’t have to be as unbearably monotonous as public school had led me to believe, that passions existed, and that I had found mine. So I wrote another book. And another one. I hope to keep doing it.

Describe your novel in five words.
Every action is an interaction.

Liz is not a very nice main character. Where did you get the inspiration for her?
I think, in a way, Liz is a part of all of us. Everyone’s a jerk in high school. There’s so much pressure to belong, to fit in, to be normal, whatever the cost. My inspiration for her was the realization that you can’t define yourself in moments — either your best or your worst. The thing is, no one is likable at their worst, and Liz was always at her worst. By the time Falling into Place takes place, she’s made up entirely of horrible, spur-of-the-moment decisions, but they don’t define her, or at least, they don’t need to. We are not what has happened to us. We are not what we’ve done. As cheesy as it is, we are what we choose to be, and by coming to understand that, I was able to write the book.

This book explores some serious topics. How did you decide what to take on and was there any research you had to do to tell this story?
I’m always a bit caught off guard when people mention the serious issues, not because the issues aren’t serious — they definitely are — but because while writing Falling, they just seemed like a part of everyday life. These were things that people around me struggled with, things that my friends worried over, things that I cried about. High school is damn hard. When I started writing, I didn’t make a list of “serious topics” I wanted to include. I just wanted to tell the truth, and I hope I did.
As for research, I people-watched during class instead of taking notes. Oops.

The structure of your story is very non-linear. Was that always the plan from the beginning or did it unfold once you began to write?
To be totally honest, I don’t really remember how I decided on the structure. My first (of many — SO MANY) outline included flashbacks and snapshots, but I never really labeled it as nonlinear — I just thought of it as the way that Liz’s story had to be told. After that, everything just sort of . . . fell into place (ba-dum-tss).

You have a very unique narrator. Can you tell us how you came to this decision without giving too much away?
Falling into Place started as two short stories: one about a girl who committed suicide and left a note in terms of Newton’s Laws of Motion, and one about childhood told by a mystery narrator. For Falling, I needed to tell a story about growing up, I needed a voice with nostalgia and without petulance, I needed a spectator, and combining the two short stories turned out to be the perfect solution.

Do you have things you need in order to write (i.e. coffee, cupcakes, music)?
Definitely music. I spend a week or two before I start working on a project to tailor a playlist — I can’t write at all without it. I’m also pretty dependent on chocolate. I use it to bribe myself — one piece per thousand words.

Where’s your favorite place to write?
There’s this coffee shop back home called Paradigm that’s the best place in the world. They have amazing smoothies and these chairs that, like, swallow you. It’s full of vintage bikes and mismatched furniture and a rotating collection of art. It’s perfect. I’m also pretty homesick right now (I just started my freshman year at college), so my desk definitely gets a mention here. I paper-machéd it with old book pages and scribbled all over it, and I really miss sitting down to that old-book smell and being surrounded by quotes from Rilke to Coldplay.

What is easier to write: The first line or the last line?
For me, it’s definitely the last line. I usually have a last line in mind by the time I finish outlining, and for me, the end of the book is usually pretty easy to write because there’s already so much momentum by then. First lines, on the other hand, take forever. I rewrite and cross out and go back to old drafts and doubt everything.

What one YA novel do you wish you had when you were younger?
Well, since I’m still stuck in teenagedom . . . but if I could give my younger self one book, it would be Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, which isn’t YA but completely changed my life. Besides just being a freaking gorgeous book that highlights so many relevant issues, it taught me to have an opinion, and more important, not to be afraid of it. I think I’d probably also give myself Leila Sales’s This Song Will Save Your Life, because it so eloquently expressed, like, every middle/high school emotion ever to exist.

What are you working on now?
Right now I’m working a book tentatively titled This is Where the World Ends, which is about a boy who’s obsessed with apocalypses and a girl whose goal in life is to make the entire world fall in love with her. There’s spray paint and a coffee shop full of origami cranes and wings made out of dictionaries, and I can’t wait to share it with everyone!

Fill in the blank
If I weren’t a writer I would be…………an extremely ambitious but unsuccessful ninja.
If I could have one supernatural power it would be……………….flight.
My Hollywood crush is………………………….Tom Hiddleston. Benedict Cumberbatch. Jensen Ackles. Kit Harrington. Aaron Tveit. How many crushes am I allowed to list?

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