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A lot of authors talk about “getting into their characters’ heads” when they’re writing, and “getting into a zone.” Is that what you do when you're writing? Absolutely. A writer first starts to develop a character, but it’s the character who’s got the story to tell. Some characters are interesting, but they just don’t have a novel in them, so to speak. Others are hard to keep quiet. I have to pick and choose who has a place in any book I'm writing, and how big a role they can handle. In the end, I want to give my characters the chance to say everything that's on their minds as long as it continues to drive the story forward, regardless of how it makes me feel.
There are quite a few controversial issues hitting the bookshelves in Young Adult these days. How do you feel about tackling tough ethical and moral issues in a novel? The great thing about taking on tough issues is that you get people thinking, and talking, about these issues. The moral, ethical and even religious questions that some novels surface aren’t meant to be answered with a “right” or “wrong” check mark. They’re meant to be thought starters to what I hope will be lively, if sometimes, uncomfortable conversations. Too often, teens aren’t invited into those types of conversations.
What's the secret for capturing the perspective of a teenage girl when you're neither a teen nor a girl?
I have a lot of nieces who I count on to read a few pages here, a chapter there, and keep me honest. They are quick to let me know with a text or email if I ever started taking a character somewhere she would never go.
Fortunately, they don’t have to steer me back on course too often. I’d like to think that that’s because I have a good ear for teenage dialogue, but it may be more accurate to say that what my characters are going through, the emotions they're feeling and the questions they're asking really cross over both gender and age.
I’m a reader, writer and lover of books - and it's been a lifelong passion. As a child, I was the subject of a Newbery-Award winning author's book. As an adult, I won a prestigious fiction contest for a story about a little girl who has to make a very grown-up decision. Writing is my life, and Troy, Michigan, is where we raised our son, Zak and where my wife and I live with our two cats, Simba and Peeve. (Yes, he really is my pet peeve...)
How do you come up with your ideas?
Ideas are everywhere. Turning them into stories is the challenge. Often, I have to let them simmer inside of me for a while before I start to write. I want to examine every angle and find out who my characters really are.
For a brief time I was a high school teacher. My students were in a state of nearly constant change. One day, open and outgoing, friends to everyone. The next day, moody and reclusive, shutting out the world. That actually proved to be an invaluable experience, because it taught me to not make assumptions about a character based on a single incident or day. Dig deeper. Ask questions. Don't guess. Do the hard work necessary to find out.
Who are your favorite authors? Wow - that's a long list! In no particular order... John Green is amazing for his ability to create unique narratives with characters you feel you've known forever. Jay Asher's 13 Reasons Why should be a must-read for every high-school student. I marvel at Sarah Dessen's ability to craft page-turning novels out of everyday occurrences. Nicola Yoon's The Sun is Also a Star and Everything, Everything is exactly, exactly outstanding. Kathleen Glasgow's Girl in Pieces is hypnotic in the way it draws you in. Jodi Picoult is well, what can I say about Jodi Picoult that hasn't already been said? For more, check out my On My Bookshelf page.