Emmy Laybourne spoke with Hypable about gaining, losing, and finding out what really works in her new YA novel Sweet.
Interview with Emmy Laybourne
What was your initial inspiration for Sweet?
After a lifetime of sugar addiction, I finally managed to kick the habit in the fall of 2012. It wasn’t easy, but once I got the white junk out of my system I became suddenly aware of how much sugar was around me all the time. There was sugar on hand at the drugstore, sure, that was to be expected, but also at the DMV and at the dry cleaner and at Petco. I felt a bit like a paranoiac having her suspicions confirmed — sugar was trying to get me! It was everywhere and people were eating it all the time.
I think the germ for Sweet came from that feeling — suddenly seeing it as a poisonous, dangerous substance. And then I started to wonder about a “super-sugar,” something that would make people feel all the symptoms of addiction I had myself felt with sugar — but intensified to an unbearable degree.
How did you settle on Laurel and Tom as your protagonists? What makes them stand out for you?
I like the way you phrased it — “how did I settle on them,” but the truth is that it always feels much more like a character is finding me than the other way around!
While Sweet crosses genres quite a bit, it’s a romantic comedy at heart. I know I wanted to create two characters who were as different as could be from each other (the less alike they are, the farther they have to go to reach each other). Tom Fiorelli is a former child star, beloved to the masses for his work on a dorky family sit-com. Now that he’s all grown up, he’s booked the job of being the sole media correspondent on the Solu Cruise To Lose. He’s tan, well-groomed, highly professional and charming to an almost smarmy degree. He’s also very lonely. His only friend is his trainer, Derek, and half the time, they’re talking about Tom’s meal plan.
Laurel Willard is a Fort Lauderdale local who’s been dragged on the cruise by her wealthy best friend. Laurel is pale, plump and a classical guitarist. She’s sensitive and honest, and is as unlike a media starlet as one could possibly be. To cover up for her softness inside, she wears boots, all the time. I liked it that Tom and Laurel were so poorly suited for each other, and the way I knew that I’d built them correctly was that they kept surprising me as I was writing.
How do you approach writing villains and antagonists?
Without getting into spoiler territory, I’ll say that a villain must have a very good reason for what they are doing. I’ve found that a history of psychological damage is quite handy when writing a villain. It seems to be that people who do evil things are broken inside, usually by a bad environment or something that happened to them as a child. So you have to build out a past that is painful. Wrong or cruel action comes from pain that’s festered and turned into something that needs release.
How did you construct the world and tonal environment of Sweet?
It wasn’t until I went on an actual luxury cruise to do research that I was able to really get a handle on the world of Sweet. It was, needless to say, the most enjoyable research I’ve ever done, and likely ever will do. I honestly couldn’t have clearly described the incredible attention of the crew and staff to the desires of the passengers. Nor could I have imagined [the] gorgeous facilities. Honestly — go on a Regent cruise if you can possibly afford it. (I couldn’t — my Dad took me!)
But the best thing I got was a sense of the close quarters everyone lives in on a small cruise ship. It helped me to understand how a disaster like the one in Sweet would spread throughout the space.
In terms of tone, Sweet feels to me like a pop song with a dirty, gritty drum-line. It makes you feel good and compels you to dance, but you can feel something kind of heavy pulling at you. I had the song “Givin’ ‘Em What They Love,” by Janelle Monae with Prince on repeat as I wrote the nitty gritty scenes toward the end. And I’m woman enough to admit there was a lot of One Direction, playing too — especially for those first light and bubbly scenes.
Sweet deals with a lot of important and (pardon the pun) sticky topics, such as weight obsession and celebrity culture. How did you balance these issues with developing story and character?
Yes, there are some sticky topics at play in Sweet. I like to say that it’s the only YA romantic comedy/Action/Horror/Issue book set on a luxury cruise you’ll ever read!
I think it’s right for there to be some serious moments of reflection on weight issues and addiction in a book set on what’s essentially a glamorous weight loss cruise. And while most of the passengers are eager to lose weight and many suffer from a real hatred of their fat (and the fatness of others), it was important to me that I show two balanced, healthy people in the center of the drama. Laurel is content with the body she has. She’s plump, yes, but she’s confident that she will be loved just the way she is. And Tom has worked hard to free himself from food addiction so he has a very healthy, eat-to-live relationship with food.
As for the celebrity culture aspect of the book, I’m not sure I treated it with quite as much respect! As a former actress, I know what it’s like to be on the lens-side of the camera. I’ve met famous people and worked with them. And while I do get a little googly eyed about celebrity, I also see that celebrities are regular people — people who are gifted, charismatic and who work hard for the success (and notoriety) they earn.
I will say that one of the things I enjoyed about the way Sweet plays out is that Solu acts as a great equalizer among the humans on board the ship. Everyone who takes it winds up in just as much trouble as everyone else…
What has it been like to step away from the world of Monument 14?
I found myself feeling downright giddy to be writing about champagne and crushes and ballrooms after having been writing in the dark, post-apocalyptic world of the Monument 14 series for four years. When you reach the third book in a trilogy, you are lugging around so much history. It was exciting to write brand new characters — and have them meet for the first time! Sweet also came very fast to me, much faster than any of the Monument 14 books. Some mornings I would wake up and I could hardly get my fingers on the keyboard before the dialogue would come rushing out.
Like Monument 14, Sweet includes hyperreal and scientifically-supernatural elements. How do you work on this aspect of the story? Do you approach it differently from realistic elements like the kitschy celebrity cruise?
I strive to make everything I write feel very realistic. The science, the relationships, the choices that the characters make — I want it all to feel grounded. The questions I’m frequently asking myself are: “is that really how it would work?” and “what would he/she really do now?” With specific regard to science, I’m always going for plausibility! My main asset when it comes to this is my friends. I have several terrific beta readers (Kristin Bair and Wendy Shanker — I’m looking at you) who are good at poking their fingers in story holes.
How has your writing process changed between beginning Monument 14 and writing Sweet?
I have come to value routine and consistency more and more. When I’m drafting a novel, I want to be at my desk at the same time each day — and I want to work for as many days in a row as I can. Six days a week is ideal. The momentum builds and I find that a part of my mind really lives the story, even when I’m not writing. I have to keep a lot of note cards around, because ideas will start coming to me at odd times. If I’m writing helter-skelter, grabbing a few hours here or there, that momentum doesn’t build.
I’ve become more discriminating in the kinds of promotion I do for my books. (Interviews on Hypable? YES. Rafflecopter giveaways to build a Twitter following? NO.) I do the most promotion I can do without wearing myself out and/or feeling like a creep. It’s a hard line to walk, believe it or not. I’ve found that I really enjoy connecting with readers on social media — so I do a lot of it. But there are other things that I don’t enjoy so much – so I cut back on those.
What is your writing environment like? Is there anything you need in order to write?
Oh! I have a charming little writing studio that I rent from a local teacher’s college and I just love it so much! It’s decorated with a colorful, eclectic jumble of mementos and found objects. I have a lot of respect for people who are able to write at home, but it doesn’t work for me. Too much laundry around! Too many closets to organize!
Let’s see, I guess there are other things I need in order to write besides my studio. I need to eat three solid meals a day with lots of protein. I need to get good sleep. Back when I was an actor, the cliché was, “Your body is your instrument.” Well, it was true then and it’s still true! I can’t produce if I’m exhausted and hungry. I can’t get at the good stuff. So I take care of myself.
And: Would you rather be a book — or a computer?
Mmmmmmm. I’ll go with a computer. Because a book, as lovely as it is, will always be a book. But a computer? Why, within twenty years a computer could be a sentient being! Also, there are all those kitten gifs to consider. They would sustain me for a long time.