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Interview: March 2011

March 2011

Abby McDonald is a screenwriting novelist whose latest book for young adults, THE ANTI-PROM, follows three unlikely allies who team up to turn their high school prom night into a wild evening that no one will ever forget.

In this interview with Teenreads.com's Donna Volkenannt, McDonald explains how she came up with the premise for THE ANTI-PROM, elaborating on her improbable heroines and the unusual series that helped bring her idea to life. She also reveals how she writes such incredibly successful novels, talks about her former life as a music journalist, and reflects on some of the issues teens must face today.

Teenreads.com: In your latest YA novel, THE ANTI-PROM, three very different high school girls abandon their prom and engage in a wild evening, with the intent of exacting revenge. What prompted you to write this book?

Abby McDonald: I've always been drawn to "one wild night" stories --- where characters have their whole lives turned upside-down within the space of just a few hours. I wanted to explore the idea that there can be one particular epiphany or moment of growth in your life, when things shift and never go back to the way they were before. You're choosing who you're going to be in the next phase of your life, and that's a major transformation, especially in high school, or after graduation.

When I was growing up, I adored a series by Caroline B. Cooney, which followed a group of girls through a certain school dance in each novel, and one day I was just struck with the idea that I could do my "one wild night" book at a prom!

TRC: Bliss is a social butterfly who is all about partying, fashion and gossip. Jolene is an outsider with a bad reputation and a bad attitude. Meg is a bashful, serious student who's afraid to take risks. The story alternates between each girl's point of view. Why did you decide to use the perspectives of three characters instead of just one?

AM: My debut, SOPHOMORE SWITCH, alternated between two POVs, and I had so much fun with it that I knew I wanted to use that narrative technique again. Taking on three perspectives this time around was definitely a challenge, but from the very start, all three girls were so distinct and vivid in my mind that I knew exactly who they were and how they would express themselves.

One of the interesting things I found was that it made outlining the book so much more important, because I used a set sequence of narration (Bliss-Jolene-Meg) all the way through, and I had to make sure that each event was being narrated from the POV that mattered most. For example, if two characters were off doing something crazy, I didn't want it to tell what happened from the perspective of the one waiting out in the car!

TRC: Your protagonists are vastly different, yet each is memorable. Did you have one character in mind first? Which was the easiest for you to write, and which was the most challenging?

AM: Thank you! With some novels, it takes time to get to know the characters and discover who they are, but this was really a matter of the girls arriving fully-formed in my mind. I wanted three girls who would be very different --- in terms of social circles, but also in their perspectives and attitudes --- so that readers could understand their unease at being thrown together and embarking on this crazy series of adventures. But they all have something to learn from each other, too, and throughout the book, we can see how their influence on each other slowly brings out the best (and the worst!) in each girl.

Although the book opens with Bliss --- and she's the catalyst for their adventure --- it was actually Jolene who came to me first, and she's the one who's nearest to my heart. She's spiky, defensive and far too jaded for a teenager, but all of her hurt was very real and vivid to me. She's used to being let down and abandoned, and she has gotten herself into a self-destructive pattern of delinquency because part of her believes that she's not good enough to be loved, or to deserve a better life for herself. Bliss's bubbly optimism acts as a counterpoint to that: She's grown up withprivilege, but she's not a dumb mean girl; she's actually worked very hard --- and she's had to be very smart --- to achieve her social status, and so when all that gets thrown into question, she's drawn to Jolene's "screw you" attitude and self-possession.

And then there's Meg... She was probably the hardest to write, not just because I was most like her myself in high school (and they always say it's the people who mirror you in some way that make you feel uncomfortable), but because she's such a withdrawn character that even I wanted to give her a good shake sometimes! But that's just what this night does for her: It offers a way for her to snap out of her routine. She's retreated into herself for so long, thatbeing confronted with Jolene's rebellion and Bliss's matter-of-fact optimism acts as a kind of wake-up call, forcing her to realize just how much of her loneliness and isolation is self-imposed; now she realizes she has a choice.

TRC: In addition to being entertaining, THE ANTI-PROM also weaves social issues into the storyline, like teenage sex, underage drinking, peer pressure, gossip, parental neglect, cliques and bullying. What do you hope readers will take away from the novel?

AM: I hope that the take-away from all my books is the same, regardless of subject or character: To be true to yourself, and to make your own choices; to become the person you really are, no matter how challenging that might seem. It's interesting that you highlight these things "social issues," because to me, they're simply a part of the fabric of modern teenage life.Because I'm (relatively) young myself --- I just turned 26 --- that experience is still very fresh in my mind, and I try my best to make all of my novels realistic, and acknowledge the truth of that experience so that my readers will feel connected to the characters and their journeys.

I don't mean to trivialize them, butthe drinking and sex references simply don't register as a significant element to me, especially because they're mainly background details, rather than part of the immediate, "on-screen" plot. I know from my own life that when you're 17 or 18, you're often surrounded by casual drinking and hook-up culture, whether or not you choose those things for yourself. I was probably thequintessential"good girl" in high school (more out of guilt and my conscience than out of virtuous ideals), but I still had experiences with underage drinking, shoplifting, illicit substances, etc. I deliberated over sex and my sexual identity, and by the time we graduated high school, most of the girls I knew had long since lost their virginity --- and these were part of the mainstream, student-council set who got good grades, not the outlier "bad girls" by any means.

So for me, when I'm writing for that same teen audience, I think I would be inauthentic if I didn't address these issues. As I said before, my message is always one of self-belief, and also self-awareness --- the importance of making choices because you believe in them, rather than because of the expectations of others, and because this is what you yourself feel like you ought to be doing.

TRC: The book cover shows the three main characters in their very unique prom dresses, but it doesn't reveal their faces. Did you have any input into the design?

AM: My only request to Candlewick was that it be "bright and shiny," and so the design team there really delivered! I'm really pleased with the cover: It has both the fun, upbeat prom feel, and it also has all three characters on the front. There was a lot of interesting debate last year about diversity in YA fiction, especially the under-representation of persons of color on bookcovers. Bliss is of Mexican descent, so I was really happy that the model who they cast as her has the same Latina heritage.

TRC: Your book BOYS, BEARS, AND A SERIOUS PAIR OF HIKING BOOTS is the winner of the Green Earth Book Award for 2011 in the YA category. Congratulations! What does receiving this award mean to you?

AM: I'm thrilled by the win. Anything that helps promote positive messages about youth activism and highlights my books to new readers is a plus for me, and I'm looking forward to accepting the award at the Children's Literature Festival at the University of Salisbury in April.

TRC: Growing up in England, did you experience a dance or a social event similar to an American prom, or did you research the prom experience with the help of American teenagers?

AM: Prom culture has only recently taken off in England, so I never got to experience the joys --- and the pain --- of my very own prom. It's probably why I was so fascinated by the subject. I've always seen prom as the bedrock of teen pop culture, a rite of passage. But when I talked to American teens while I was researching the book, I was surprised to find that many of them actually feel a lot of pressure about the event.From worrying about the cost of outfits, to struggling over the dating and partying side of things, prom equals a huge amount of stress.

Some didn't even feel welcome at the more traditional, school-sponsored events --- they felt like prom was just for the popular kids, and not for them. Listening to their stories, I was actually inspired to set up a website, PROMyourway.com, to promote a "prom positive" message and show that you don't need to buy into the stereotypical prom image to have a good time. There are stories from other YA authors about their unconventional prom experiences: articles on prom styling on a budget, hosting dress drives, fund-raising for your community, and even throwing your own inclusive, alternative prom event. Anything that would make prom meaningful for YOU. After all, in THE ANTI-PROM, the girls ditch their prom and have the night of their lives by going on a whole host of crazy adventures.

TRC: How have you adjusted as a transplant from England to California?

AM: Easily! I love it. The weather, the food, the beach...the only challenge is driving on the freeway, which for me is very much like that scene in Clueless (only without the comforting presence of Murray, a.k.a. Donald Faison).

TRC: Please describe your writing process. Do you plot everything out beforehand or plunge straight ahead?

AM: I'm very much a plotter. The screenwriter in me likes to structure all the books around the major emotional pivots a character experiences, and then I'll break each act down into chapter outlines once I reach that section of the book. That's not to say that a character won't go off in an unexpected direction --- they're always surprising me --- but unless I know where I'm going, I can't begin to figure out how I'm going to get there.

TRC: How has your background in music and entertainment writing helped you produce YA novels?

AM: My love of music and entertainment carries into my YA work, I think, because it helps me build worlds and stories that fit into the wider fabric of modern teen pop culture. My love of music, movies and teen-centric TV has shaped me as a storyteller, and I feel like I've learned as much from the work of Kevin Williamson (from "Dawson's Creek" and "The Vampire Diaries") and analyzing the Disney teen-pop synergy empire as I have from reading other authors. It's a world I love, and that I love to contribute to in my own way.

Beyond that, I credit my journalism and early music blogging with training me to write consistently for an audience. There's a big divide in attitude and energy between writing for fun --- and for yourself --- and writing professionally. You have deadlines and other people with expectations, and you have to learn to deliver on time and in a way that meets their standards. I learned early on about the business side of writing, which has been vital in allowing me to build my career.

TRC: Which books or writers influenced you when you were a teenager? Who are some of your favorite authors now?

AM: Caroline B. Cooney was instrumental to me in my adolescence, and in inspiring me to write the kind of realistic novels I do now. THE PARTY'S OVER, TWENTY PAGEANTS LATER, CAMP GIRL-MEETS-BOY...her work was often classified as romance, or juvenile, but it has such emotional truth to it, and I'll never forget what a comfort her books were to me when I was growing up. I also devoured the Sweet Valley High novels (which sparked my love of all things Californian) and those old Sweet Dreams romance novels from the ‘80s. Those books taught me that even the most deceptively "fluffy" or upbeat novels could have a big impact and unexpected depth, which is what I try to bring to my own work now: Crazy adventures and fun plot twists, but ones with emotional truth beneath the surface.

Some of my favorite authors now? Marisa de los Santos, who wrote the exceptional LOVE WALKED IN; Laura Dave, author of THE DIVORCE PARTY and LONDON IS THE BEST CITY IN AMERICA (and my most-anticipated of spring, THE FIRST HUSBAND). I love Emma Forrest's prose in any form, and I recently started working my way through Cathleen Schine's backlist, which is giving me a lot of joy.

TRC: What advice do you have for young writers hoping to become published?

AM: Slow down. I know that there's always that drive to become published right away. Believe me, I once thought I'd be a failure if I didn't have a book deal by the time I turned 20, and with the Internet, it's easy to read up on the latest 18-year-old wonder-kid with a six-figure deal. But the truth is, writing is a tough profession, and in all honesty, you're not ready yet. Treasure these years when you get to write for fun, to experiment and find your voice. Try short stories, try poetry, try journalism and song lyrics and blog posts. Read up on things that interest you, go out and actually live. And when you're ready to sit down and write that first novel, know that it will probably suck, and that's OK. Your next one will suck less. And the one after that, too. Writing is more of a craft you learn than a talent you're born with, but if you have the dedication and resolve to learn, you'll find success eventually --- whatever that success means to you.

TRC: What are you working on now?

AM: Right now we're editing my next YA novel, GETTING OVER GARRETT DELANEY, which is set for release in 2012. It's about a girl who has felt unrequited love for her best guy friend forever, and she decides that this will be the summer she gets over him --- with the help of her very own 12-step program. It's a lot of fun, and much more relationship-oriented than my other books have been, which has been a nice change for me. But there's still a whole lot of girl friendship issues and self-discovery, too!

I also have a couple of scripts I'm working on, and I'm promoting my debut adult novel, THE LIBERATION OF ALICE LOVE, which was just published in the States.

Thanks for having me!