First Draft, Ep. 104: Lauren Strasnick - Transcript
Date: August 2, 2017
The original post for this episode can be found here.
[Theme music plays]
Sarah ENNI: Welcome to First Draft with me Sarah Enni. Today I’m talking to Lauren Strasnick, author of 16 WAYS TO BREAK A HEART (out now!) and THEN YOU WERE GONE, NOTHING LIKE YOU, and HER AND ME AND YOU. Lauren was one of the first dozen or so young adult writers I met when I moved to Los Angeles, and she made quite the impression. A group of us met for happy hour and sat on a balcony overlooking a hilly East LA boulevard. We were drinking champagne, and Lauren sat next to me wearing a breezy outfit letting her wild curls fall where they may, and asking very sweet, very good questions. She was a delight.
I jumped at the chance to sit with Lauren at her apartment, have tea, and talk about contemporary books, feeling the pull of the west coast, and some of the wide array of pressures that come when your debut book is in the rear view. So, bust out your copy of WEETZIE BAT steep some black tea until it’s strong enough to numb your tongue and enjoy the conversation.
ENNI: Okay, you feel ready?
Lauren STRASNICK: Yeah!
ENNI: So, how are you doing?
STRASNICK: I’m good, how are you?
ENNI: Oh, my gosh. I’m doing so well. Thanks for having me over to your house.
STRASNICK: You’re welcome.
ENNI: This is like the most beautiful LA winter day.
STRASNICK: I know, it’s gorgeous.
ENNI: As you know, I like to start all of these interviews by asking: where were you born and raised?
STRASNICK: I was born in Boston, Massachusetts and we moved to Connecticut when I was two. So, I was raised in Greenwich, Connecticut.
ENNI: Okay, so born and raised in Connecticut which to me, feels like Babysitter’s Club, this All-American… [laughs] How did you like it?
STRASNICK: It was fantastic. I grew up in a commuter town of Manhattan, so I had the city really close. And Greenwich isn’t rural but it feels more rural than suburban. It was ideal. I love going home, but I feel repelled by New England in a way that I can’t even articulate. I don’t want to live there as an adult, but I feel so appreciative having had that experience.
ENNI: That is so interesting! New England is so specific, so when you say repelled do you mean as far as living there? Or, does even being there make you uncomfortable?
STRASNICK: No, being there doesn’t make me uncomfortable. I don’t understand, but maybe it’s a feeling of I’ve just outgrown it. There’s a stuck energy that exists. New England feels so old and I like the energy out here a lot better. That sounds pretty woo-woo, but it’s true.
ENNI: No, I think if you have any woo-woo in you, then the call of the west is a real thing!
STRASNICK: [laughing] I have a ton of woo-woo!
ENNI: How did New York, being that close, [was it] an escape for you as a teen? Did you run away and make mistakes in New York?
STRASNICK: Oh god, I was such a good kid. I made mistakes but I didn’t make super sexy mistakes, you know? [laughing]
ENNI: Good ol’ run of the mill mistakes. [laughing]
STRASNICK: Yeah, yeah. But New York… it was incredible having it there. I think from fourteen on, all of us were allowed to take the train in and go to the city. That was a really big part of being a teen for me.
ENNI: I spent high school pretty close to San Francisco, so there were days where we would go shopping. But San Francisco isn’t New York. New York is so… it’s the whole world! So, it’s interesting that it was accessible in a safe way for you.
STRASNICK: My dad worked in mid-town for thirty years, so that was a big part of just going into the city and visiting my dad at the office. And I love New York, but I can’t get down with that city in any sort of a real way. It’s super exhausting.
ENNI: It is, it’s pretty non-stop. And hard to find places to rest.
STRASNICK: Yes, yes! Especially when you’re visiting, like when I go back home and I don’t have a place to rest, so you’re just running around.
ENNI: Non-stop. And when someone’s gracious enough to give you their couch or their spare room… that’s not real rest either. It feels pretty draining, I agree. So, growing up, how did reading and writing factor into your childhood?
STRASNICK: It was a big part of [it]. I’m sure everybody says this… I was a crazy reader. I devoured books and I loved teen fiction before I was a teen. I loved it. And then I just never outgrew it as a love. When I was in college, when I was still technically a teenager, I would go to bookstores and go to the YA section – which was in the children’s book section at the time – and I would bring a stack of YA books to the register and I would ask them to gift wrap them because I was so mortified! [laughing] I felt like I was too old to be reading YA. Now it’s so different, there’ so much cross over, and adults read YA. But I had so much shame that I hadn’t outgrown that love.
ENNI: Okay, for not only that reason, but then also imagining you going home and unwrapping [both laughing] it’s actually kind of amazing!
STARSNICK: I know, it’s sweet, right? Well, it was a gift to myself, you know?
ENNI: Now I’m gonna ask for my books to get gift wrapped just so I can be like, “Ooh!” [excited squeal] What were some of the titles that you remember? It’s interesting to hear you talk about loving YA when a lot of people say, “Oh, it wasn’t really there for me.” But it sounds like you always knew.
STRASNICK: I hear that a lot and I don’t relate. I feel like there was a ton of stuff when I was growing up. I read a lot of – I’m looking over at my bookshelf – well, Judy Blume was huge. And her more adult stuff like DEENIE and FOREVER and Beverly Cleary and Norma Klein. And then I read Christopher Pike and all of that kind of horror…
ENNI: All of the serial, wonderful stuff.
ENNI: To me she is in this category of adult writers, like Stephen King, where it just feels inevitable for people - that we know anyway - that they were discovered and devoured pretty early on in life. There’s something about V.C. Andrews… it just is for teens because she’s exploring those [worlds]. There are teens in the book, even though her themes are very adult, it’s also like, “Well, teens are adults in these ways.”
STRASNICK: And it’s interesting that you say that because she is writing about teens, not always, but she mostly is though. If you think of FLOWERS IN THE ATTIC, and there was one series that she had written the first book… and then she died. They hired somebody to finish out the series, but I can’t remember which series it was. She’s writing about teens, but she’s writing really adult-themed stuff.
I don’t know that I’m writing stuff that’s that sensational. All of her stories were rags to riches stories, or riches to rags. They all involved incest.
ENNI: All of them.
STRASNICK: Yes. And really dark shit, you know?
ENNI: She didn’t shy away from much.
STRASNICK: No! Poisoning her children!
STRASNICK: But I do feel I write pretty adult-themed teen stuff.
ENNI: I think she’s a great example for that kind of thing, where it’s like, “Though if your goal is to write for teens, it’s best not to forget that.” Also, that really doesn’t put that many restrictions on you. When people who don’t do this talk to me about it, there is an assumption of like, “Oh, well can you not do things?” And I’m like, “No.” Besides, I have had to remove some swear words, but that’s about it.
STRASNICK: I know, it’s always the question.
ENNI: It’s really how my writing comes out anyway.
STRASNICK: I know, me too.
ENNI: Okay, I’m really interested in that you loved reading and writing so much, because I think you went to school to study film?
STRASNICK: I did.
STRASNICK: Yeah, that was a mistake.
STRASNICK: So, I was always writing. And I’m a really big TV and film lover. And when I was in high school, I was writing plays.
STRASNICK: Yeah, I wanted to find a dramatic writing program. I applied to a few schools and I ended up going to – I was a really, really, really terrible student in high school – so, I got rejected everywhere. Then I got into Emerson College on academic probation. I had submitted a huge packet of work, and I was hoping at the time – I’m sure now they have a screen writing program – but at the time they didn’t have one, and so I majored in film and I minored in creative writing. But it was a really production heavy program. Essentially, I was in a production program. It was really wrong.
ENNI: Really? Okay, wait. I want to unpack a few things about this [laughing]. So first, let’s back up to not being a great student. What do you mean?
STRASNICK: I was a terrible student. I don’t know, I just really wasn’t interested and I had super chill parents who were like, “You be you.” And that was the extent of it. I didn’t do homework, I didn’t engage in class. I mean, I did in the classes that I found exciting, like my writing classes or my art classes. But no, I was really horrible. I did terrible on my SAT. I’m pretty sure I just filled in the bubbles on the Scan-Tron in a pretty design…
ENNI: Oh, my god! That’s amazing!
STRASNICK: I have issues with authority, you know?
ENNI: I was gonna say, what is the root [of this]? That’s really different from a lot of YA writers. I consider myself to be too much of a gold star person, so I did school too well and then going into the real world was a bit of a shock [chuckles].
STRASNICK: It is interesting. And when you came in and we were talking, and you said that a good day for you is when you go to the coffee shop and you write two thousand words in three hours. That is the mark of someone who is a straight A student. There’s so many of you in the YA community that are like machines! And I am so deeply lazy!
STRASNICK: I really am! I’m a really responsible human being and I’m a good worker. I think I’m a good teacher and I get my work done and I meet my deadlines, but I really value pleasure and down time.
ENNI: It’s funny because you say lazy, and I don’t feel like that’s the right word. I like that thought, that you actually are more forgiving. I would definitely say that I can be unforgiving of myself and I’ll look up and be like, “Oh, my god. I haven’t left the house. Or, seen someone recreationally. Or, not talked about writing…” All of these things. And I’m like, “I need to give myself a break.” And that’s not advisable.
STRASNICK: But I mean, that’s my experience as well. You can’t finish a book if you’re not having… When I’m writing, it’s horrible and it’s super isolating. And you don’t leave the house for days. But I think the way I balance that is, I’m never gonna write all day and then take a break and come home and then keep writing. I’ll write for six hours and then I’ll go take a walk, and then I’ll see friends.
ENNI: Yeah, and be done.
STRASNICK: And be done. It’s just more important to me.
ENNI: My brother - who I love and adore, and who is super smart, and obviously, I love him - school… not his bag! It just wasn’t motivating to him. The thought of getting a bad grade just didn’t rile him up. And it was a hilarious contrast. I think my parents were just whiplashed between the two of us, because it was so different. But also, it doesn’t mean that he ended up in a different place than me, you know? It’s just [that he] cut a different path, which I loved seeing that. So, I’m drawn to this. That you just knew yourself and that that wasn’t important.
STRASNICK: I guess so. It’s really weird because I had a very similar experience with one of my best friends. We were in our early twenties and we were both – I worked in TV for seven years before I started doing this – and she and I were both on a show at the time. We were both assistants. We were living in the same apartment together. And we had this conversation where… I was so bad! I failed math twice to the point where I had to repeat it in summer school – two years in a row.
I would cut class constantly. My mother would call me in [laughing], she was very cool. But my friend that I was talking to, was much like you. I’m sure a straight A student and really dialed in, worked really hard. I went to a good school, but she went to a fantastic school, and here we were. We were at the same place.
ENNI: Yeah, isn’t that funny?
ENNI: And it is kind of affirming. I am interested in there being more discussion about that. I hate that we make kids, or people, feel like they’re wrong for not being motivated by this really rigid structure that’s not for everybody.
STRASNICK: Or learning in a different way even. And actually, the most interesting thing [is], so I told you I did really poorly on my SATs, and I was hired to write fiction for the reading comprehension portion of the ACT.
STRASNICK: Yeah. And I remember being like, “This is so crazy!” It just goes to show you how…
ENNI: Kind of nonsensical.
STRASNICK: It’a nonsensical… standardized testing. How somebody who could do so poorly on a standardized test, could later in life, be hired to…
ENNI: Create that test.
ENNI: That’s so wild. I love that. I’d love to hear more about writing plays. What do you think made that the medium that you were drawn to?
STRASNICK: I don’t know. I was really drawn to the theater community at my school and I wasn’t an actor. I think dialogue has always come really easily to me. For me, I see a book in scenes. So, I think it was just that’s what came out first…maybe?
ENNI: The dialogue… that makes total sense. And also, it sounds like you were definitely watching a lot of TV and movies.
STRASNICK: So much, yeah. This is another thing. I watched so much television growing up. So much! I was just really enamored with that box. I feel like it really helped give me a good feel for how to construct a story. I think a lot of people would say, “That’s pretty shitty to let your kid watch that much television growing up.” But I feel like it helped. And it shaped me as an artist.
ENNI: Certainly, throwing shade on TV is a little bit old now because we all know how great it can be.
STRASNICK: Well now, right. Now, because it’s so fantastic. And I think I never understood that. It’s just a medium, it’s just a storytelling medium. And what’s better than getting to invest – I mean movies and TV goes on.
ENNI: All of these other avenues of writing, they’re all really collaborative. You were drawn to the theater community, that’s how you could participate with that community. TV and writing rooms, this is all a different kind of storytelling.
STRASNICK: It is, I know. I feel very jealous of television writers and playwrights. Less so with screenwriters, because I feel like it’s a pretty similar experience to novel writing. But I love the creative freedom that I have. I think that’s why I never pursued a career in television, not that I wouldn’t happily, happily, happily take a job in TV now. But, I think when you’re starting out, I got inside and then I saw what it was, and I saw that I likely wasn’t gonna be writing… it wasn’t gonna be my perspective and voice.
So, I made another choice. And I’m happy with the choice I made. I feel creatively satisfied, but it’s a struggle financially. And my friends who write television… it’s just a whole other life.
ENNI: Yeah. So, talk to me a little about production. You go to college. You think you’re gonna be, more or less, screenwriting. And you end up being a film crew. [laughs]
STRASNICK: Yeah, I hated it! It was miserable and I ended up taking a ton of creative writing classes. And I loved it. I just fell in love with fiction. I’d grown up, obviously, reading it and writing it. But, I fell in love with everything surrounding it. Like workshop and I met so many kindred spirits. So, I never changed my major, I don’t know why. [chuckles] Laziness, probably. I stayed in film and my last semester, Emerson had a program where you could move out to LA for a semester. They put everybody up in the Oakwood Apartments in Burbank, which was surreal and depressing. And then you would find yourself an internship and you’d get school credit and you’d take a few classes.
So, I interned on a show and they ended up hiring me. And then I just stayed. And that was it. And I never looked back.
ENNI: So, talk about getting the internship and what’s that actually like. I feel there’s not a lot of people who know what that ground-level – for TV writing – is like. What was that process?
STRASNICK: You mean getting the job?
ENNI: Getting it and what it entails.
STRASNICK: So, I wrote a very enthusiastic letter to a television show that I loved. And I said, “Please hire me. I’ll work for you for free.” That was pretty much the extent of it. I think it might be different today. Especially the way TV has blown up. But, there’s also so many more shows on the air.
ENNI: There’s four-hundred TV shows on the air. Isn’t that crazy?
STRASNICK: Seriously? [whispers in awe] God, yes! Then I worked in the production office. It was really, really hard. It was a ton of grunt work, and running around, and long hours. But I would walk over to the writer’s office and I would talk to the assistants in that office, and I loved them. It was so calm in there and quiet. I built a relationship, and a friendship, with these girls. And they had a writer’s PA [personal assistant] who was working for them that season, and I think they weren’t that crazy about him. So, they didn’t ask him back for the following season, and they hired me.
ENNI: Do you mind saying what the TV show was?
STRASNICK: No! I’m gonna reveal my age, but it was Party of Five.
ENNI: [Gasping] You worked on Party of Five?
STRASNICK: I did.
ENNI: Get out of here! Oh, my god.
STRASNICK: And I loved that show so much. It was an incredible experience. It was an amazing company. Everybody was so nice. I was there for two years. I was the writer’s PA that first year, which meant it was honestly like working in service. I went grocery shopping and I fed them all snacks, and I delivered scripts late at night. I’m sure that’s all done electronically now. That’s how I learned my way around LA. I would drive all around and drive scripts to actor’s houses.
ENNI: Wow, that’s so interesting. For what they were gonna do the next day, right?
ENNI: That’s so delightful to think about.
STRASNICK: And I would listen to books on tape. It was super fun. The next year there was a spin-off, called Time of Your Life, starring Jennifer Love Hewitt. And I was the writer’s assistant on that show.
ENNI: I can’t believe you worked on Party of Five, that’s so amazing! [A little bit of envy in voice] So, at the time, were you writing still in your spare time? [Sarcastic] I’m sure you had so much spare time.
STRASNICK: It’s weird, you don’t have any spare time, but you have a ton of down time at work. So, you’re never home, and you work crazy hours, but there’s a lot of time when you’re in the office and you’re doing nothing. So yes, I wrote a ton on the job. That’s what I did. And that’s what’s really good about those jobs. You get to sit at a desk, in front of a computer, and if you’re a writer it’s fantastic for that.
ENNI: Yeah, that’s an invitation! [both chuckle] During that time, what you were writing was fiction?
STRASNICK: It was fiction.
ENNI: So, you’re actively working in TV. But still, when you have your own time, that isn’t what you are doing?
STRASNICK: No. I worked on a bunch of shows and I got super burned out. I went back to grad school. I graduated and I went back to TV and the last show I was on was Law & Order. That was fun too. It was a lot of really good, nice people. One of the writers said to me, at one point, he was like, “Lauren, just spec something. We’ll help you.” And I was so stupid! I think about myself, and I’m like, “Thanks. Thanks.” And I just… didn’t! I just didn’t try.
I’m really myopic and I was so focused. And I really just wanted to sell a book.
ENNI: That’s kind of delightful! You just knew what mattered to you, what you wanted. I think that’s pretty great… and, pretty funny! [laughs]
STRASNICK: I know, and now I think like, “Oi!”
ENNI: It is what it’s meant to be, right?
ENNI: I’d love to hear you talk about deciding to go back to grad school. Obviously, you were realizing that TV isn’t your bag.
STRASNICK: I teach in an M.F.A. program, but I also teach at a place called Writing Pad in Los Angeles, which is like community classes. Frequently, my students come to me and say, “What do you think? Should I get an M.F.A.?” And I will say, it has helped me get teaching jobs, but I feel like you should only do it if you’re doing it for the experience. I think that is the only reason to get an M.F.A., because you don’t need it to publish. And I don’t think I learned anything there.
STRASNICK: No. I went because I wanted to find… I think working in television and living in LA, I felt like, “Is this all this city has to offer?” It’s an industry town, and I just hadn’t found my community yet. And that hurt my soul a little. For me, that’s basically why I went back to school. I wanted to be around people who were readers, and who were smart and engaged, and who were interested in writing from a craft perspective. I wanted two years where I could just write and I wasn’t answering phones and getting coffee.
ENNI: Which is also huge. You needed to find your people.
ENNI: And there are a lot of book people in LA.
STRASNICK: It’s incredible. It’s there’s an amazing community here. And I did. I went and I found my people. Some of my best friends came out of that program. It was one of the best decisions I ever made.
ENNI: That’s great, yeah! I’m glad.
STRASNICK: I’m in crazy debt still! I have not paid off any… I just pay the interest, and it sits there. But it feels worth it to me, it changed my life.
ENNI: It’s impossible to put a number on that. The fiction you were writing, was it always young adult?
STRASNICK: No, I mean, my voice is pretty authentically teen. But at the time, this was when I was in grad school before the YA boom, I read a lot of YA fiction. But I also read a lot of fiction about teenagers for adults. Books like PREP, and there was a book called TWINS by Marcy Dermansky. There was a lot of stuff being published at that time, that wasn’t for the fourteen and up crowd. I think I fall somewhere in the middle. Even now I think with my career… I think it’s a struggle. Because I don’t know that my books always land with that solid teen readership. I think I still don’t know what I’m writing.
ENNI: Really? You’re still figuring it out you think?
STRASNICK: In terms of from a marketing perspective and standpoint. What I write is what I write. But sometimes I feel like I write teen book for adults.
ENNI: Ultimately, when you’re writing your books, do you feel like you are just writing them for you and then seeing what happens? Or, do you keep a teen in mind?
STRASNICK: I think I write my books for me. Sometimes that’s problematic. I have a book coming out called 16 WAYS TO BREAK A HEART, but in my first draft there was a character with mental illness that’s no longer in the story. But because I wrote a character who was battling an issue, but she was super unlikeable. And for me that felt, and I say this as somebody who struggles myself with anxiety issues and things like that, I don’t think it’s always that fun for the people around you in your life.
So, I felt what I wrote was a pretty accurate portrayal of mental illness. My editor… I turned in my first draft and we had a conversation, and she said, “Okay, we need to have a conversation. We need to talk about the way we’re representing mental illness in this book.” And I got it. I just ripped out that thread because it wasn’t working. I think that’s something that I struggle with writing teen, is I think you do have to be more mindful of audience. And I’m more interested in mimicking life.
ENNI: That’s an interesting tension.
STRASNICK: Yeah, I’m interested in humans. [Pauses] That’s it. I think people are really messy and really complicated.
ENNI: That ties in to what I thought was interesting about your background in TV and plays. It seems like for you, character and dialogue must be so interconnected.
STRASNICK: I feel like character is everything. I think character is what drives story. I suppose I’ve never thought about it in relation to my dialogue, but for sure. I read this Joan Didion quote once where she talks about, “I’m also very jealous of actors.” It just feels [sighs heavily], I just secretly wish I was an actor.
STRASNICK: Yeah, it just feels like play. Getting to be somebody else, and then getting to play without all of the hard work. And I don’t know if there’s an actor listening to this, I’m sure they would be like, “It’s so hard!” I have friends who are actors, and it’s really challenging in different ways. But writing is so hard. It’s just such hard work. And I find it to be a real slog. So, I think of acting, and I think of it as being all of the fun of creating character, without any of the shitty stuff that goes along with it when you’re a writer.
There’s this Joan Didion quote where she talks about as a kid, she didn’t want to be a writer at all, she wanted to be an actor. And then when she got older, she realized that it was the same impulse. And I feel similarly. I write exclusively in first person. I’m not saying that I’ll never write in third or second at any point in my life. But that’s the perspective I feel the most comfortable with. I feel it’s because you become someone else.
ENNI: Mm-hmm, you’re embodying. I think also what you’re getting at is the idea that an actor, it almost feels like they can embody a character, and they’re allowed to be with that character in the moment. And our job is to…it’s like we’re grinding it into the ground, and reworking and reshaping. Even the thought of writing a script, and working for a year on it - and the actor gets to come in and breathe life into something - when you’ve been the one, in your house, being this gremlin, rewriting the same thing over and over.
STRASNICK: A gremlin? That’s great! That’s what it feels like.
ENNI: Yeah! There’s very little romance to it at that point.
STRASNICK: There’s no glamour in writing. I’ve talked to other sorts of artists about this where I feel like [they] really enjoy their practice, like painters or sculptures - any fine artists - [who] really get into a zone and it’s enjoyable. I feel like for actors it’s similar. I know so many writers who don’t enjoy the process of writing.
ENNI: Oh, my god, it’s painful… most of the time. Mm-hmm!
STRASNICK: That kind of adrenaline rush, that thrill that come with writing, I feel like that’s ten percent.
ENNI: Yeah, it’s being done with it is like eighty…
STRASNICK: Oh, my god, yes. I think you get that rush once it’s over, having written [it]. And if you read it and you’re pleased, you get a momentary rush, but that’s it. And when you’re a novelist and you’re living with a project for – it depends on how quickly you write. It sounds like if you can sit down and write two thousand words in three hours – then you could probably get through a draft pretty quickly. I’m a really slow writer. I’m a really slow reader. I do everything really slowly. I write very short books so I don’t even know why it takes me so long. It can take me a year to get a draft out.
ENNI: And the fact that you would say that you were lazy, but this is the path that has called to you your whole life, which is the more arduous, Sisyphean way of going about being an artist.
STRASNICK: I guess, but I don’t want to do anything else and I can’t do anything [else]. I’m not a good actor. I don’t have that impulse. I don’t like being [pauses] looked at… a lot. I don’t have the impulse to perform. I feel the impulse to play.
ENNI: A whole other tangent on that, but I do want to be sure we get to your books. So, when you are writing on the job and going to grad school, at what point does your debut book come into it?
STRASNICK: So, I wrote a book while I was at Cal Arts and it was a novel. I didn’t know whether it was a YA novel, or just a novel about a teenager… she was a freshman in college. So, I went back to work after I graduated, and I spent that year, after graduation, subbing this book that I had written as my thesis. I got a lot of really encouraging rejections. I was noticing a pattern. It was a lot of, “You can write but you have no sense of plot.”
So, this agent [that] I had developed a little bit of a relationship with, she ultimately ended up saying, “I don’t feel like I can sell this book.” I was devastated and I cried for a week, and then I picked myself up off of the ground and started writing something else. It was perfect timing. My boss had left the show - I was the show runner’s assistant on the show – he had left and they kept me on, to be nice I think? For a couple of more months.
ENNI: Was this Law & Order?
STRASNICK: This was Law & Order. So, they employed me for a couple of more months, and right before the season ended I had a conversation with the president of the company, and he said, “What do you want to do?” And I said, “I would really love it if you could lay me off so I could write!” He was awesome! They laid me off and I collected unemployment for a few months, and I wrote a draft of something in six weeks. Which I had never done that before and I’ve never done that since. I’m sure for you that’s doable, but for me that was some sort of insane miracle.
I spent twice that time rewriting it. The whole process took four months. I contacted all of the agents who had been responsive to me the previous year, and I said, “Will you look at this again?” And that agent that I had had that relationship with, very quickly offered representation.
I graduated from that program with no knowledge. I didn’t have any understanding of plot or structure. And I push that very strongly on my students, because it was something that I didn’t get that I had to teach myself. I think that that made all of the difference.
ENNI: I think what people think of when they think of the M.F.A. experience, is [an emphasis] more on sentences.
STRASNICK: Yeah, language. But my program was quite strange. It’s super experimental. I went to a writing program in an arts school. So, it’s more like language as art. I loved it. I loved every minute of it, and I would do it all over again. But I don’t feel it was necessarily the right place for me in terms of what I was wanting to do. I’m more of a traditionalist.
ENNI: So that was NOTHING LIKE YOU?
STRASNICK: That was NOTHING LIKE YOU, yeah.
ENNI: So, you asked to get laid off…
STRASNICK: Yeah, and they laid me off and I collected unemployment and I wrote that book.
ENNI: And you wrote your debut novel. That’s kind of amazing!
STRASNICK: Yeah and she sold it pretty quickly, and then I went and started temping. I think once I got that deal, I stopped working for a while and I just wrote. And that was very problematic [both laughing]. I quickly ran out of money.
ENNI: Yeah, that’ll happen. Do you feel like your ideal would be to just have writing be your job? Or, do you think you need other things?
STRASNICK: I don’t remember how long I did that for, but I didn’t love it. And I really love teaching. I don’t know what shape my life is gonna take in the future, but writing is really isolating and it’s really lonely. We’ve talked about this, you work out in coffee shops and you work with friends. I think that’s amazing! And I can’t do that. I don’t get work done. I don’t get work done around other people. So for me, if I want to get shit done, I have to be alone in my house.
ENNI: And having only that be…
STRASNICK: That’s so depressing.
ENNI: Yeah. I like that you found outside ways to bring people in. Especially when your background up to that point, your background almost exclusively… professionally, had been in these really collaborative environments. So that’s a really stark contrast.
STRASNICK: Yeah, it’s really different.
ENNI: So, let’s talk about NOTHING LIKE YOU. I think it’s interesting, looking at this book, the idea of the other woman. For me, in thinking about it, it’s so interesting to think about the struggle of how much do you conceptualize yourself through the eyes of, at least for me, men – because that’s who I’m attracted to - and how their perceptions of yourself become your reality. You aren’t able to see yourself as clearly because you’re so focused on that. Do you feel like that was part of what you were exploring in the book?
STRASNICK: It sort of like seeing yourself reflected in the eyes of, not even a partner, just the object of your affection… or the object of your desire. Just so your listeners know what the book is about, it’s about a girl who has a secret sexual relationship with a guy who has a girlfriend. And then she becomes really enamored with his girlfriend and develops a friendship with her.
That book was a lot. For me, writing is so much about collaging. And it was the perfect storm of a lot of stuff that I was thinking about at the time. Infidelity. And my mom had died right before I wrote that book, so I was thinking a lot about losing a parent. And I had just come out of, in some ways a great relationship, and in some ways not so great of a relationship. And when I was that age, when I was Holly’s age, I had a really shitty relationship. That had been my experience. I’ve had that experience of becoming really preoccupied with, and obsessed with, the women who have been with the men I have been with. And not in a romantic or a sexual way, but in a “are they better than me” way.
ENNI: Oh yeah, interesting!
STRASNICK: I don’t know, I think that was just something I was really interested in exploring. And then I was also really interested in exploring it from the perspective of the other woman. Trying to find a way to make her relatable and likeable.
ENNI: Right. I do love that humanizing the concept that we have of the other woman. That’s so interesting. Okay, so, thinking about the other woman and comparing yourself to them, that’s such an impulse and a constant like, “I’m like this, they’re like that.” This kind of thinking that’s not necessarily helpful.
STRASNICK: And it’s rooted in nothing.
ENNI: Well, it’s rooted in his perception, right?
STRASNICK: Exactly. I think we’re talking about essentially the same thing. It’s just a different way of it.
ENNI: It was striking to me because it was like, “Oh, I know this feeling.” It’s all about how does he see me, versus how he saw her. And it’s all this guessing game of, “Who the hell knows?” And you just twist yourself up into knots trying to be this person that you can never understand. Which is most devastating when you’re a young woman because it’s like, “I don’t even know who I am, and I’m just gonna trust that someone else knows more than me?”
STRASNICK: I know… and a teenage boy.
ENNI: [blah!] Yeah… which at the time, it’s like, “Oh, he just knows!” I was drawn to really confident ones, so I was like, “This guy seems to know what’s going on.” Like, “I’ll let him tell me what’s up.” And it was a huge mistake.
But also, by the way, I’m so sorry that you lost your mom.
STRASNICK: Oh, that’s okay. I mean, it would be better if she were here, but yeah, thanks.
ENNI: That can never not be in your writing, right?
STRASNICK: Yeah, it’s kind of always in my writing, I think.
ENNI: That was one of the things I was gonna talk about. There’s a theme of definitely loss in a lot of your books.
STRASNICK: I guess, yeah. I think a lot of times we don’t know what we’re writing, do you know? I think it’s sort of like not having a ton of perspective on yourself. I like to think of myself as a fairly self-aware individual, but I don’t understand myself most of the time. So, who the hell knows what I’m writing. You’re probably picking up on things that I’m not even [aware of].
ENNI: Do you feel like at any point in your writing, or revising more likely, do you get to a point where you’re like, “I think I know what this book is about”?
STRASNICK: I feel it’s probably different with every project, where the themes start to float to the surface.
ENNI: For me, it helps when that happens. I’m like, “Oh!” It helps hone the revision process.
STRASNICK: For sure, and then you can go back in and make sure that you’re threading that theme throughout every storyline.
ENNI: So, it’s not character exclusive, this is the plotting that we’re talking about, right? Having to explore the character and then be like, “Oh, but this is what’s driving…”
STRASNICK: It’s true, but don’t you feel like that all arises from character?
ENNI: Yeah. I think I write first drafts that are attempts at plot, but it’s mostly like, “Who are these people, and how are they interacting with each other?” And then it’s like, “Oh, now I get it.” Because plot can change but characters ultimately become more of themselves, I think.
STRASNICK: And I also feel like plot is all about character desire. That’s what’s driving your plot.
ENNI: Well, HER AND ME AND YOU and NOTHING LIKE YOU, there was a quote from another interview with you that I read. You said, “I’m interested in why people choose who they choose.” And to me, both of those books seem to be considerations of that. And do you want to contextualize HER AND ME AND YOU a little bit for the [audience]?
STRASNICK: Okay, so I honestly have very mixed feelings about that book. That book is about a girl whose parents split up. She moves to a new town with her mom, and she gets involved with these twins. She kind of develops a little bit of a flirtation and a romantic relationship with the boy twin, and the girl twin is quite jealous. Honestly, that book for me, I [pauses] “Ugh!” I don’t love that it’s out there!
It was the second book in a two-book deal. I felt like I wrote it really quickly. I was struggling with it. I think conceptually, it’s a book that I really wanted to write. And I feel like maybe it could have been good, had I had more time. And I don’t feel like I ever got there. I don’t feel like I found the right in with it.
So, it’s a funny feeling to have a book out there on the shelf that you’re not satisfied with. And what’s really strange is it’s my best reviewed book. Not in terms of reader reviews, but in terms of my trade reviews, which I think is really strange. And I also have a lot of writer friends who have read that book, who it’s their favorite. Which I also think is quite strange. To be so unsatisfied… we’ve all stalked ourselves on GoodReads, and that is the book that I think people are like, “What? What is happening?” And I’m like, “I feel ya.”
It’s a really strange thing, I think, when you start publishing. Because this ends up happening, where sometimes a book goes out in the world, and you may not be happy with it. And it’s just there, and you’re sort of growing publicly as a writer.
ENNI: And the fact that you feel like it’s unfinished… it’s so challenging to think about that. Because it’s done. And it’s just what it is.
STRASNICK: It is. It is what it is.
ENNI: I thought about that a lot this year. Kanye released that album where it was not done. He was editing and revising and changed it a bunch of times. And I was like, “What a wonderful thing to try.” And if we could be like: ‘The paperback, which now has three different chapters,’ that would be so amazing.
STRASNICK: But it’s also interesting that you mention music. Because I’m not that comfortable with that book being out there. However, the way I comfort myself is, I think about musicians who have had long careers, and sometimes they put out an album and you’re like, “What the fuck is this?”
ENNI: Yeah, “This is like a big turd. What happened?”
STRASNICK: Yeah. And that’s okay. The hope is that you have a long career and you can mess up sometimes and be imperfect and it’s okay.
ENNI: And you can have these lost years almost. Because I think actually, musicians that’s a really great way to think about it. Because it seems, at least as though their process times up with ours in a good way, a year to three years for an album. And then you can say, “Well Beck, you tried. But I’ll just catch you on the next one.”
STRASNICK: Exactly. And he’s great too because he’s always doing something different.
ENNI: Always trying new things. Although, the most disappointing albums are the ones where you’re like, “I already bought this album.” [laughing]
STRASNICK: I know, I know.
ENNI: And Beck is the one where I’m like, I’m so satisfied with being a long-term fan of his. Not because I love every song, but because I’m like, well, the next thing he does is definitely gonna be new and interesting, and I want to hear him talk about it.
I love that. I think that’s great advice to people who are writing. Within the last year has been one of the first times that I heard people speak candidly to me about books that they were like, “I just have to meet this deadline.” It just happens when you’re a professional. It’s this whole other layer [and] you just don’t always get that satisfaction.
STRASNICK: No, and there’s always that moment. I had that kind of feeling of completion with NOTHING LIKE YOU. I had it with THEN YOU WERE GONE. I have it with 16 WAYS. But then there’s another thing that happens, where you just feel like you’ve outgrown a book. So, HER ME AND YOU, that was a special experience. But I think that what you’re talking about, at some point you just have to call it. You’re working on a book, and you could work on a book forever. And you just have to be, especially if you’re a professional, you have to meet deadlines. And at some point, you have to be okay with it as is. And then know that three years down the road, you’re gonna look at that book and feel like, “Oh, my god. What did I write?” And it’s out there. But that’s growth.
ENNI: And one of the key parts of when I interviewed Rachel Fershleiser [listen to her First Draft interview here], she had this great line where she’s like, “You’re an author not a book.” And I think about that often.
STARSNICK: Oh, I love that.
ENNI: Yeah, right? That’s such a great key to forgiveness. It’s like, “Well that thing doesn’t define you.” [chuckles]… thankfully! We don’t just get to do one thing that becomes us. And if that ever happened it would be like a whole other mind warp. So, thank you for talking about that, because that’s an experience that a lot of people have. In a lot of mediums, like you were saying. I’m sure there’s a lot of musicians who would take back that country album they wanted to try and do, or whatever. Oh, my god [both laughing].
Did you want to speak to that quote? “Why people choose who they choose?”
STARSNICK: I think about this so much in terms of partnership and attraction. And I probably feel differently now than I did when I said that, because it’s still something that I think about. Lately I’ve been thinking that attraction, and love - romantic love - is so much about recreating what love felt like to you as a child. And I think that’s the good and the bad.
So, it’s about picking partners who make you feel good and loved, in the ways you felt loved when you were young. But then also in the ways that you felt bad. So, in that way, when you think about attraction and partnering up with people - of course it’s about connection and love - but then it’s also about this other thing. I think it takes the sting out of missed connection and rejection. Because I think so much of that is beyond our control and it’s not personal.
ENNI: There was this article in the New York Times that was called, “This Is The Reason You Will Get Divorced.”[Actually called, “Why You Will Marry The Wrong Person.”] And was, as you can imagine, a real heartening tale. But people mistake familiarity with happiness and they turn away what could make them actually really happy. And, of course, I immediately sent it to my therapist and was like, “We have to talk about this forever.”
But that was its whole thing. People just want what they know, and that includes all the ways that it makes them bristle. But it’s those tensions that you know. You get into the script, and you know that script, and it’s really challenging to break it and see the new ways that you could be happy. Which is a lifelong journey, right?
ENNI: So, I definitely, definitely hear what you’re saying. I’d love to hear how 16 WAYS came about, but also in timeline sense, when did you start teaching? And how did that correlate with your writing?
STRASNICK: Oh, well I started teaching almost four years ago. I was talking to a friend of mine, Grace Krilanovich, she’s an incredible writer. And she taught a one-off class for Writing Pad - Marilyn Friedman – and she said, “She’s looking for a YA writer to teach a workshop, do you want me to hook you guys up?” And I said, “Absolutely, yes! I’m terrified, but I would love to do that.” I taught a one-day workshop for her, and then I taught a five-week novel class.
It went okay. And then she just kept giving me classes and it just grew. I started developing relationships with my students. I’ve had the same crew of students that I’ve been working with. And I have new ones that come in, and they’re incredible. I’m obsessed with them, and in love with them. I’m very invested in all of their projects.
So, I do that. I teach some on-line classes for them as well. And then my friend, Francesca Lia Block, was teaching at Antioch. They have an M.F.A. program, a low residency M.F.A. program. And she called me one day and said, “They’re looking for somebody in the writing for young people program. Do you want to try for it?” And I said, “Yeah.” So then, that came.
ENNI: What itch do you think that is scratching, teaching?
STRASNICK: Honestly, especially since I spend so much time on my own, it’s so nice to be invested in other people’s work. And to give back. It feels good. And also, I don’t get to workshop anymore, you know? And I get to workshop. I’m not a student, but I get to workshop. And I love workshop. I think there’s nothing better than sitting in a room with a bunch of smart people talking about story.
ENNI: I agree with that. It’s a writing room.
STRASNICK: Yeah exactly. Maybe what television writers get to do when they’re all in a room.
ENNI: It’s pretty cool.
STRASNICK: Yeah, it’s awesome.
ENNI: It sounds also, like you are somebody who says “yes”.
STGRASNICK: Uh…. Yesssss! Yes. Yeah in those cases, one-hundred percent for sure! But I’ve struggled with that in the past.
ENNI: That’s a tricky thing. How much do you want to be open to a lot of different opportunities? And how much is it like, “That’s gonna take away from the primary objective, which is writing my own work.”
STRASNICK: It is a balance you have to strike, and I think it all comes down to time and money. And also the opportunity, and whether you feel like it’s gonna be good for your soul. I feel lucky because there are drawbacks, but for the most part – overall - I feel very positive about all of those [opportunities].
ENNI: So, 16 WAYS TO BREAK A HEART, what is this book about?
STRASNICK: Basically, it’s about a couple who have… It’s an epistolary novel. It’s told in letters, and G-Chat transcripts, and texts. And then half of the book is in traditional narration. There are two main narrators, Natalie and Dan. Natalie is writing letters to her ex-boyfriend. Dan is responding in real-time to her letters. They broke up a few weeks before the book opens, and Natalie is very, very angry and wants Dan to know why.
So, there are 16 letters. That’s the structure of the book. And it’s a flip-flopping of loyalties. You read, and you’re not sure who to trust, at least that’s the intention. It’s a peak into this super passionate and really toxic relationship between these two teenagers.
ENNI: Like forensic examination of a relationship is never not fascinating!
STRASNICK: Yeah! That’s all I want to write about, and explore, and read about!
ENNI: In this still burning rubble… seeing what’s there.
STRASNICK: For sure! The shit is still on fire… so, mm-hmm!
ENNI: I love that you’re doing alternative ways of telling a story, and having G-Chat… I love that. It also seems like it’s really dialogue heavy.
ENNI: So, it seems like you’re cutting out the middle man. Like let’s get some…
STRASNICK: In fact, I kind of struggled. Those G-Chat sections were [hard]. When it’s exclusively dialogue? Your dialogue really has to be strong. I would just pound those out, and then have to go back and make sure every line mattered. With the letters, Natalie’s letters, that was so incredibly freeing for me. In terms of really just an exercise in voice, and writing from a new perspective. I really enjoyed writing her letters. It flipped a switch for me, and made writing feel fresh and new again.
ENNI: That’s really exciting! Earlier you mentioned not finding a way in to a story. Do you feel that served as a way in for you?
STRASNICK: Oh yeah, one-hundred percent. I struggled a lot more with Dan’s narration in the beginning. He took a lot longer [for] that voice to come to me. It’s partially because I’ve never written from the perspective of a dude before, so it took me a lot longer to understand him. But also, because that was traditional narration and it wasn’t as exciting.
ENNI: Well there’s a block to the immediacy inherently to that.
ENNI: And also, the fact that Dan is responding. She’s instigating it.
ENNI: So, she’s sort of free from everything, and you had a lot more…
STRASNICK: That’s so true! Yeah, yeah, yeah! He’s receiving, right? And she’s the aggressor.
ENNI: It’s almost like several exercises within a book.
ENNI: Kind of keeping it interesting.
STRASNICK: And just because structurally this book is really different than anything I’ve ever done, and it was a little like doing a math problem. Do you know? It was a lot to manage, but it was also really exciting for me.
ENNI: I find myself thinking about math with structure a lot. It’s like “Tetris-y”, and very functional. And it feels soothing to think about it in that way. It’s not just this creative like, “Blah!” It has to fit the form and that gives you some kind of structure. It feels really nice.
STRASNICK: Yeah, for sure. And with this too, there were so many dates, and everything had to line up and, I mean, that was…
ENNI: That is definitely… logistics!
STRASNICK: Oh yeah, yes!
ENNI: And I told you before we started recording, your cover is so gorgeous!
STRASNICK: Yeah! Thank you.
ENNI: And it strikes me as so beautifully, wonderfully, exuberantly, Los Angeles.
STRASNICK: Yeah, I know. Speaking of Francesca, it reminds me a lot of early Weetzie Bat covers. I think also because the 90’s are so on-trend right now, it feels very 90’s to me. And I love that.
ENNI: In this Party of Five kind of way! [giggles] Aaaamazing!
STRASNICK: Yes, totally! But, I’m really happy with it. I think they did a really nice job.
ENNI: So, you’ve given a whole bunch of great advice on the way, but is there anything you would say, maybe, to newer writers? Or, what is some of the advice that you’ve seen be really helpful to your students?
STRASNICK: I suppose from a business perspective, I would just say to be really persistent. You just have to be so persistent. You can’t send out one query and then get discouraged when you get one rejection. Because, as we’ve talked about, this business is so subjective, and it’s just finding a person that connects with your work. And you have to have a tough skin.
I say that to my students as well. At every stage in the game, in this business, you have to have a tough skin. You have to have a tough skin in workshop. You have to have a tough skin when you’re querying. When your book comes out into the world. With reviewers. And then with reader response. You really have to find your center in all of that.
ENNI: There was a great quote on the internet recently with somebody saying… oh! I think it was Zan Romanoff [listen to her First Draft interview here]. She’s so smart and funny, and she was saying, “Some people call writing brave, when really it’s just being foolhardy and persistent.” I was like, “That’s about it!”
STRASNICK: Yeah, she’s totally right!
ENNI: If something inside of you won’t rest until this happens, then you just have to do it.
STRASNICK: You’re compelled to do it. I think that’s it.
ENNI: I think that’s really good advice and I like having a professional perspective on that. I think it’s helpful. I think a lot of people who listen to this are aspiring, so that’s good for them to know.
STRASNICK: I hope so.
ENNI: Thank you so much!
STRASNICK: Oh, my god. Sarah, thank you so much. This was very, very sweet of you to have me, so I really appreciate it.
[background music plays]
SUBSCRIBE TO FIRST DRAFT WITH SARAH ENNI
Every Tuesday, I speak to storytellers like Veronica Roth, author of Divergent; Linda Holmes, author and host of NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast; Jonny Sun, internet superstar, illustrator of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Gmorning, Gnight! and author and illustrator of Everyone’s an Aliebn When Ur a Aliebn Too; Michael Dante DiMartino, co-creator of Avatar: The Last Airbender; John August, screenwriter of Big Fish, Charlie’s Angels, and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory; or Rhett Miller, musician and frontman for The Old 97s. Together, we take deep dives on their careers and creative works.
RATE, REVIEW, AND RECOMMEND
How do you like the show?
Please take a moment to rate and review First Draft with Sarah Enni in Apple Podcasts, Google Play, or wherever you listen to podcasts. Your honest and positive review helps others discover the show -- so thank you!
Is there someone you think would love this podcast as much as you do? Please share this episode on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, or via carrier pigeon (maybe try a text or e-mail, come to think of it). Just click the Share button at the bottom of this post!