First Draft, Ep. 105: Courtney Summers - Transcript
Date: April 26, 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 Courtney Summers, author of SOME GIRLS ARE, THIS IS NOT A TEST, ALL THE RAGE, and more. Courtney is part of the YA old guard. Her first novel, CRACKED UP TO BE, was released in 2008. She’s long been an advocate for the kind of realistic fiction where female main characters are unlikeable, because they’re human, and everyone can just [record scratching noise] deal with it! I really like that kind of realistic fiction, and Courtney’s books have always totally knocked me out.
Though Courtney and I have been friends online for many years, we’ve never gotten the chance to meet. She lives in the far north, in Ontario, Canada. But luckily, while I was tagging along as MC on Veronica Roth’s recent tour, we were able to visit Toronto, and Courtney oh so kindly hopped on a train to come hang out with us.
So, grab a super plush hotel room chair, a Supernatural Edition of Trivial Pursuit, and enjoy the conversation.
ENNI: So, hi Courtney, how are you?
Courtney SUMMERS: Good, hi!
ENNI: We are also here with Veronica Roth
Veronica ROTH: Heeeey!
SUMMERS: Don’t sound so happy about it, Veronica.
ENNI: That’s her attitude.
ROTH: I just wanted to do “super low voice”, to contrast with your [lowers voice] “super high voice.”
SUMMERS: A growl.
ENNI: We’re in Toronto!
SUMMERS: Yes, we are.
ENNI: Amazing! I’m so excited we could finally meet you.
SUMMERS: Yes, I’m so happy.
ENNI: We’ve been friends for a few years on the internet and now we’re meeting in real life. This is very exciting.
SUMMERS: Yes, it is.
ROTH: But you guys never met before?
ENNI and SUMMERS: No.
ROTH: Oh yeah, because you weren’t at YALLFEST last year.
ENNI: Yeah. No.
ENNI: So, as you know, we like to start at the very beginning, which is where were you born and raised?
SUMMERS: Geez, really?
ENNI: Yup! We’re going there. All the way back.
ROTH: David Copperfield stuff!
ENNI: All the way back.
SUMMERS: I was born in Belleville, Ontario Canada. Which is hours from Toronto.
ENNI: How was reading and writing a part of your childhood growing up?
ENNI: That I know! That book was huge for me.
SUMMERS: Yeah, see? It’ a good one! So, he did that and then I read this Little Mermaid novelization.
SUMMERS: And I thought, “Oh my god!” I was so excited about it because I liked the movie so much I was like, “I want to be more a part of that world.” I feel like that was the turning point with reading for me as a child. Just the reading a novelization of The Little Mermaid and getting as much insight as a little paperback book for a nine-year-old.
ENNI: Wait. How do you mean a turning point?
SUMMERS: Because that’s when I decided I liked stories.
ENNI: Okay. And you saw the movie and you were like, “I want to read the book because I want to know more?”
SUMMERS: Yeah. Because it’s like another level, which it wasn’t, really. But it felt like one.
ROTH: So, essentially, your love of reading developed as a result of fandom.
SUMMERS: Yes, I guess so. That happens a lot.
ROTH: I’m just saying because novelizations can be considered a fandom element.
SUMMERS: I love novelizations, they are awesome.
ENNI: Because they do have to provide more detail. You’re writing a whole book, you have to give some [details] like, “What was up with Triton?” Put a little more info in this book.
SUMMERS: “Why was he so angry at his daughters?”
ROTH: All the time! So angry!
ENNI: Where was their mother?
SUMMERS: And what was the deal with him and Ursula? Cause you know there was something.
ENNI: Oh, there was a history there for sure.
ROTH: Oh man! I want to read Ursula and Triton fanfic! I’m sure it exists.
ENNI: I’m a hundred percent sure that exists [chuckles].
ROTH: I’m might look it up right now while you keep talking.
SUMMERS: Oh god [giggles].
ENNI: So, you remember that book as being…
SUMMERS: Yeah, and then the BABYSITTERS CLUB. I was obsessed with the Babysitters Club, like, unhealthily obsessed with the Babysitters Club. I’m not kidding. I wrote a guide for it before the actual guide came out.
ENNI: You wrote a guide!
SUMMERS: In glitter pen. And I used to hand in my own school assignments in different handwriting from the Babysitters Club members. You know, Stacey dotted her “I”s with hearts and everything. I did a whole book report and I got docked points for doing that because the teacher found it hard to read.
SUMMERS: She wasn’t very good at her job.
ENNI: You got what points?
SUMMERS: I got docked points. I got like a B- instead of probably an A+ … I assume.
ENNI: Of course!
SUMMERS: Because of the handwriting. I was like: “Really? I don’t get something for going the extra mile?”
ENNI: She wasn’t gonna get it. This is also another fandom thing… studying their handwriting. That’s amazing.
SUMMERS: Yeah, Stacey was my favorite.
ENNI: Uh, Claudia was a hundred percent mine.
SUMMERS: Claudia was my next favorite because she was Stacey’s best friend.
ENNI: There you go.
SUMMERS: Yeah. Lots of people hate Stacey though.
ENNI: Yeah, people have feelings about Stacey.
ROTH: Why would they hate Stacey?
SUMMERS: Because they think she’s an uppity New Yorker.
ROTH: Mm, whatever.
SUMMERS: She’s triumphed over a lot of adversity, so, shut up!
ROTH: Okay, okay… wait!
ROTH: Disney villain wiki says: “Ursula was always liked a lot more than her sister, Morgana, by her mother. Though this was cut for time in the movies, Ursula and Morgana are King Triton’s younger sisters.”
SUMMERS and ENNI: What?
ROTH: [continues reading] “This is also the reason she and Morgana can wield his trident.”
SUMMERS: That was not the history I was picturing at all.
ENNI: Hang on now, what?
SUMMERS: No I feel wrong inside.
ROTH: This is from the Hans Christian Andersen novel.
SUMMERS and ENNI: Oh!
SUMMERS: But not the Disney thing?
ROTH: No, but I’m saying she’s his sister… yo.
ENNI: Naw. That’s not headcanon… reject.
SUMMERS: That would make everything I was picturing more FLOWERS IN THE ATTIC-y.
ENNI: Yes! [laughing]
SUMMERS: That’s disgusting.
ENNI: That creates problems.
SUMMERS: Thanks Veronica!
ROTH: You’re welcome!
ENNI: I want to get to high school, because I know you’re experience in high school is…
SUMMERS: Like my five-months experience in high school?
ENNI: Yeah, yeah. Do you mind sharing with us what that experience was like?
SUMMERS: Well, I started high school and then by the second half of grade nine – you guys call it ninth grade though – ninth grade, I dropped out because I didn’t like it.
ENNI: Tell me what led to that? Not everyone who doesn’t like school realizes that they can do something else.
SUMMERS: First I thought it was kind of cool because I liked a lot of movies like “She’s All That.” My high school prom’s gonna be dancing to that song. What was the song they danced to?
ENNI: Hm, She’s All That? Oh, my god, it was…
SUMMERS: Fat Boy Slim.
ROTH: Yeah! Funk Soul Brother.
SUMMERS: That’s not what it’s called though.
ROTH: Right About Now.
SUMMERS: That might be what it’s called.
ROTH: [Sings] “Right about now.”
SUMMERS: Yeah, who doesn’t want that experience? I thought that was what it was gonna build up to. It wasn’t.
SUMMERS: No. It was boring. It just felt like the thing that was in the way of figuring out what I wanted to do. It wasn’t like something that was gonna help me get there. It was like, “You are just really wasting my time.” And I hated getting up in the morning. That sounds so stupid, but I hated it so much. I like being awake at night. I like working at night. I like being alive at night. And it’s like, “I gotta sleep so I can go to school in the stupid morning.” I think a lot of the choice was driven by that.
ENNI: There’s a lot of research on this about people who are not naturally always morning people. And there’s so much research on how much we’re asking kids to do in a given day.
SUMMERS: It’s ridiculous.
ROTH: Too much, yeah.
ENNI: And school starts so early.
SUMMERS: Too early.
ENNI: Crazy early and then sports happen really late. I remember the feeling of getting home from practice, or a game, and being like: “I’m exhausted. I have an hour and a half to do a lot of homework. And that’s never gonna happen.”
ROTH: My high school had an incredibly good volleyball team. They went to State and all that. So, you were expected to play club volleyball. Which meant that after you got to school at 7:30, which meant you had to get up at six. Cause you gotta get ready and then drive. And then, because we’re kind of far from the school in the Mid-West.
SUMMERS: I got up at seven to be here, and that was still too early for me.
ROTH: Yeah, that’s so early. But then, you went to school until 2:40. That’s when our school day ended. Some people didn’t have a lunch break, because they wouldn’t take a lunch, they would take eight classes instead of seven. And then, you drive an hour to get to club volleyball, and do that for two and a half hours, then go home and do homework?
SUMMERS: And then die?
ROTH Yeah. I don’t know how anyone does it. And teenagers, all they want to do is sleep. It’s way too much. And all that for what? A volleyball scholarship to college? This is why I quit volleyball because I was like, “What’s the point of this?”
ENNI: Yeah, what’s the end result?
SUMMERS: Well, that’s the other thing, I was like, “It’s all going to college, and that’s more school I don’t want to go to.” I just didn’t like school.
ENNI: It’s interesting to me that you’re saying like, “I don’t feel like this is gonna help me achieve what I want to do.”
SUMMERS: It was so boring. I don’t even know how to describe [it]. I just knew I wasn’t where I was supposed to be. It was this profound sense of, this is wrong for me. Because it works for some people, but school’s not one size fits all. It tries to be, but it can’t be. And it just did not fit me.
ROTH: So, what did your parents say?
ROTH: Yeah, but, my parents would not have said that.
SUMMERS: Well, my sister kind of diverged.
ROTH: Oh, did you? So, you kind of paved the way?
Courtney’s Sister: Yeah. I left school part way through grade eleven… I think.
Courtney’s Sister: And I finished up through correspondence.
ROTH: Oh, so you kind of showed them that it could happen.
Courtney’s Sister: You could keep going to school, if you wanted to.
ROTH: But you could continue your education without actually going to school.
Courtney’s Sister: And that way too, I got to take stuff I actually wanted, and discover stuff that I was actually interested in that you didn’t get to do in the school.
ROTH: Man, I should have done this.
SUMMERS: You opened the door and I busted through it behind you. And then we tried to do correspondence… not correspondence. It was like at home learning. And I didn’t want to do that either. We brought in a retired French teacher [who] taught me some French. I think we did some math. Then I didn’t want to do that either. So, I didn’t do that. I don’t have a GED, or a high school diploma, so this writing thing has to keep working for me, basically.
ROTH: I think it’s all right. It seems to be sticking.
SUMMERS: Yeah, so far so good.
ENNI: I’m really impressed with the fact that you were aware enough of that feeling where you weren’t where you were supposed to be. I think teenagers are actively taught to not listen to that feeling. They’re made to do a lot of things that they don’t really want to do.
ENNI: Yeah, exactly. I feel proud of you and Courtney for being like, “No, this isn’t right.”
ENNI: So, you ended up bringing in other people for a while.
SUMMERS: Briefly, but I didn’t like that either.
ROTH: I don’t want to learn from no man!
SUMMERS: Pretty much. I just didn’t want to do it.
ROTH: But did you want to write? Or, did you have other plans?
SUMMERS: I wanted to tell stories. I thought I was gonna be an actor at that point. What actor needs high school?
ROTH: I mean, fair enough!
ENNI: That’s true. It’ the kind of job that you get by doing.
SUMMERS: Yeah, so I didn’t do much of it in my tiny little town. I became vice president of our local theater guild, and then I burned it to the ground, basically.
ROTH: Not literally.
SUMMERS: Yes… well, not literally. But yeah, it’s not around anymore.
ENNI: Explain yourself. What is going on here? What were you doing? When did you join it?
SUMMERS: Oh god. I have so many enemies at home [laughs]. The theater group started in the eighties and my dad was one of the founding members. And it had a good run [laughing]. And then I came in near the end and we were gonna put on a production and it went very badly. I wrote a letter to the newspaper about it. And then there was no theater group after that.
ENNI: [Laughs] What did the letter say? Talking about how dysfunctional it was or what?
SUMMERS: The actors in the starring role were not committing, so I just let the town know.
Courtney’s Sister: She was directing this play.
SUMMERS: I wasn’t really directing it though. I picked the play, I got them to agree on it, then I found a guy to front as the director, while I gave myself the part with the most lines.
ENNI: This is amazing. I love it!
SUMMERS: So, that’s the kind of person I was.
ENNI: You were also a go-getter. You’re like out there!
SUMMERS: Except I’m an introvert, but when I went for things, if they didn’t go my way I burned them to the ground, apparently. So, there’s no theater group anymore.
ENNI: So, you were acting. Were you writing at all too?
SUMMERS: Yeah. And then I thought I’d be a screenwriter. And that didn’t work out. And then I wanted to make movies so I bought a little camcorder. I went through a weird period where I just tried everything, and nothing stuck until I started a book.
ENNI: That’s really neat though. So, this was all your alternative education, is trying those things out.
SUMMERS: Yeah, basically. And by the time I would have been in college, I was trying to get an agent. And then I figured if I didn’t make that happen by the time that I would have graduated college, that I had failed horribly. But, that didn’t end up happening, thank god! I don’t know what I would have done after that.
ENNI: Okay, I don’t have it down chronologically, CRACKED UP TO BE was first though, right?
ENNI: Okay, I’m like swirling around a bunch of different questions, but the short high school experience that you did have, were there things that happen in CRACKED UP TO BE that you relate to that?
SUMMERS: Well, CRACKED UP TO BE was as close to my high school experience as it could be for someone who was in high school for five months. So, it took place in a Catholic school and there are a bunch of overheard conversations in that book, from school. Like the opening conversation about G-Spots, happened on the bus in front of me.
ENNI: When you started writing it, you’re exploring really difficult stuff in that book. A girl who’s really frustrated and obviously doesn’t feel like she belongs.
SUMMERS: I wasn’t projecting, I swear.
ROTH: None of us do… ever.
ENNI: Right, right.
SUMMERS: I wrote an adult book, and then I wrote… I guess it would be classified as new adult, early twenty-somethings. Then I wrote a YA novel that almost got me representation, and the agent flaked out on me. And then, all the feedback I got for that novel was that the girl in it was unlikeable. And I was like, “Well, I’ll show you unlikeable!” And then I wrote a novel out of spite and that’s CRACKED UP TO BE.
ROTH: Spite Novel!
SUMMERS: Yeah, I love spite. I do lots of things out of spite.
ENNI: That’s awesome!
SUMMERS: Well, when it gets done…
ENNI: So, this was the fourth book you wrote. How old were you when you finished CRACKED UP TO BE?
SUMMERS: Like, twenty-one or twenty. It got representation when I was twenty-one and I think it came out when I was twenty-two. Time all blurs together.
ENNI: Yeah, it does get hard to keep track. So, you wrote this spite novel, were you surprised? You got representation and it sold, were you excited about that?
SUMMERS: I was very excited. That was what I wanted, so I was like, “Yes!” but I didn’t really quite believe it. My favorite thing that I did is when it sold I told my grandma, I was like, “I can’t believe it.” And she goes, “I can!”
SUMMERS: I was like, “Grandma… I’m gonna cry now.” It was so nice, like, “Aw.”
ENNI: What was it like to write that book and spend time in your imagined construct of a high school? I mean, you had a real experience. And you were in high school, but you left high school and then, came back in this way.
SUMMERS: It’s not hard. I get that question a lot. If you left high school, how can you write about high school? High school is a place. Emotional experiences, the emotional core of it, is all universal. Lots of people know what it’s like to be lonely. If they don’t specifically experience it in high school, you can probably imagine what it’s like. So, it wasn’t difficult in that sense. It was sort of thrilling, at the time, because I think before CRACKED UP TO BE – before I wrote it – I decided if I didn’t make it work, I’d have to give it up for a while. And maybe try a traditional attempt at getting a job. So, it was nerve wracking, but it was exciting because it was full of spite. But scary too because it was like, “If this doesn’t pan out, then I don’t know what will.” But, luckily, it happened.
ENNI: I would love to talk about the fact that this girl… you didn’t want that book to be full of likeable people, you know?
SUMMERS: There’s nothing wrong with being likeable… it can be interesting, I guess. A novel’s success, to me, is defined by its conflict. You can put a likeable person in a bad situation and still have something interesting, but that’s not what interests me to write.
ENNI: I felt, when I read it, I related to it… a lot. I personally felt like that was the voice that I wasn’t allowed to indulge in, when I was in high school.
SUMMERS: Oh, cool. That makes me happy.
ENNI: It was very cathartic, in a way, to read it and be like, “Oh man, if I’d had the cojones in school to actually say what I thought, this would be more of my experience.”
SUMMERS: Well, it’s nice too, to write about a girl who gets to be mysterious, and the guy is like, “I’m into it.” Because it’s usually the opposite, and I’m tired of that.
ENNI: Yeah. So then, talk me through the rest. That takes off.
SUMMERS: Takes off… it gets published. It did okay.
ENNI: Yeah, you’re in it. You’ve got a foot in the door.
SUMMERS: Yeah, and then before CRACKED UP TO BE came out, my editor wanted to know what I was working on, and that was SOME GIRLS ARE. And it was an awful first draft, it was so bad. She acquired that, and we worked really hard on it. That was a really hard book to write. Not because it was about mean girls, but because of the ‘Sophomore Slump.’ I knew those words existed. So, then I did SOME GIRLS ARE, after CRACKED UP TO BE, and I was okay. It was good. I mean, it was okay.
ENNI: Talk to me about the ‘Sophomore Slump’. What was that like?
SUMMERS: I was scared I wouldn’t be able to live up to whatever. CRACKED UP TO BE wasn’t even out yet, so I don’t know why I was worried about meeting expectations that I hadn’t even experienced.
ROTH Yeah, but there were some people who had expectations, like your editor, and your agent, and family. Whoever else you let read it.
SUMMERS: Yeah, that’s true.
ENNI: I think a lot of it too is yourself. [After] the first thing you write that’s getting published, then it’s like, “Can I do that again?” Because it was the first time, so it’s harder to be like, “I can definitely write something that good, if not better, again.”
SUMMERS: CRACKED UP TO BE did not need a lot of editing, which, I don’t know how that happened. SOME GIRLS ARE needed all of the editing. It was a complete manuscript, and it was an entirely different book. I did it within the time frame that I was supposed to, because it came out within the next year. I don’t know how I did that.
ROTH: Do you think it resulted in a better book than CRACKED UP TO BE? What’s your opinion about it – CRACKED UP TO BE and SOME GIRLS ARE?
SUMMERS: I remember my editor, when she got it, she was like, “I think this is a better book than CRACKED UP TO BE.” She didn’t put it exactly like that, but that’s what she implied. I was like: “Oh really? That’s cool.”
ROTH: You don’t measure them like that?
SUMMERS: I can’t. It’s just… they’re just books. Well, not just books, but they are what they are when I wrote them. They were the best I could give of myself at the time.
ROTH: Yeah, but I guess I ask, because I’m wondering… I think a lot of writers, when they write a really rough rough-draft, are like, “Oh, what’s wrong with me?” And when something requires editing, because it’s someone else who’s helping you to get it to where it needs to go, somehow that’s a slight against you as a writer. Which I definitely don’t think is the case. Sometimes, I think the things you really have to fight for, those are the books that turn out better.
SUMMERS: I’m starting out like, the more I write the worse it gets. But the better it ends up.
ROTH: Her rough drafts are definitely horrible now!
SUMMERS: Oh, my god! They are so bad. And it’s like you can see it, how bad they are right now. I couldn’t have seen it as well back then. Not that I thought I was writing perfectly, I just didn’t understand as much about what I was doing.
ENNI: It’s the incompetence.
ROTH: Have you heard of this, The Competency Quadrant? It’s a leadership discussion about how people start out unconsciously incompetent. So, they don’t know that they don’t know what they’re doing. And then the next thing for them to become is consciously incompetent. So, they know that they don’t know what they’re doing, but they haven’t quite figured out how to fix it.
SUMMERS: When do I become competent? When?
ROTH: Well, the next one is consciously competent. So, you know what you’re doing, and you know that you know what you’re doing.
SUMMERS: That’s never gonna happen.
ROTH: And the end goal is, unconsciously competent, which is that you’re doing something really good, but you’re not even thinking about it.
SUMMERS: I don’t feel like these last two things can happen for writers.
ROTH: I think you are unconsciously competent. You’re good at things that you probably don’t even think are good, because they come so naturally to you.
SUMMERS: But then, you’re bad at other stuff.
ROTH: So? Just because you fall short of perfection doesn’t mean that you’re not competent! [Laughing]
SUMMERS: Yeah, but wouldn’t you be like, “All of these things, all of the time?” With writing, I can learn from the last book, and I’m better at some things, but because they’ve made me more ambitious and have broadened the scope of my writing, I’m ten times worse at the new things.
ROTH: Yes! Yes! I think that’s how it is.
SUMMERS: Right, but so, you’re all these things at once?
ROTH: Yeah, yeah.
SUMMERS: Okay, so it’s not like a progression, where I’m one day gonna end up competent. I don’t have that to look forward to.
ROTH: I think that paradigm, specifically, applies to leadership capacity.
ENNI: I was thinking more of that in tandem with what you are saying about the first drafts being bad. I don’t think that your first drafts are getting worse, I think you recognize more. You know what I mean?
ROTH: Oh, you’re becoming more consciously incompetent.
ENNI: You’re more able to recognize the huge flaws in them.
SUMMERS: Can I put that in my author bio?
ENNI: Consciously incompetent? Please. Yes. Do it.
ROTH: I do like that point, because it makes me feel better about my current rough draft. Because I look at it and I’m like, “Oh, god! This is horrifying.”
ENNI: And you can see more.
SUMMERS: I wish I could see how to fix it. That would be nice. Until it sucks, now what?
ENNI: [Laughing] Where do we go from here?
ENNI: I think that happens to everybody – the Sophomore Book – it’s so real, but that’s really neat that your editor had a lot of faith in you, and trust in the process.
SUMMERS: Yeah, she’s very good at that. And she’s like: “No. This doesn’t work. Fix it. And this is how we’re gonna fix it.” Gradually, and painfully, and then it gets done and it’s better… hopefully.
ENNI: Are you good at taking notes?
SUMMERS: I think so. I don’t know how to say this without sounding like a jerk.
ROTH: Just say it! Say it.
SUMMERS: I like when people talk about my work… at me. Tell me. Tell me what worked.
ROTH: Tell me more about me!
SUMMERS: Yeah, tell me.
ENNI: I think that’s fair.
SUMMERS: I’m not writing not show people my work. I’m writing so people will tell me how great I am.
ENNI: And if it’s not great, how can we make it better?
SUMMERS: No, I don’t need to hear that.
ENNI: [Laughing] Okay, then you’re in it. And you have a second book out. My questions for you are a little bit different, because you have a longer career than a lot of people I talk to. So, I’m interested in when you started thinking about it as a career. Third, and fourth, and fifth books… this all gets different.
SUMMERS: When I started, I knew I wanted it to be a career, because, like I said, the job prospects after that just got a little different. I always look at it as a long game.
ENNI: And with that seriousness.
SUMMERS: Yeah. I want to progress to the best of my field, but that yardstick always changes.
ENNI: And I think the perception of what success is…
SUMMERS: I want it all!
ENNI: But I think it changes from newer writers, what you would think you would see as the final goal.
SUMMERS: I feel like I’ve consistently wanted it all [laughing]. I’m not even kidding. I want it all. I want every good thing to come from my writing career. That doesn’t mean it will, but I want it. Which gives you a reason to write. Like… lots of fame and money…[laughs].
ENNI: [Laughing] Women. Fast cars. All the works.
SUMMERS: Exactly… no, old men and fast cars.
ROTH: [Laughing] Women, fast cars… bags of money.
SUMMERS: I’ve said that! I want a convertible full of money, with flying dollar bills behind me.
ROTH: [Claps hands while laughing] I want to swim in coins like Scrooge McDuck!
SUMMERS: Yes! Who doesn’t though?
ENNI: That was a pivot to the other books you are doing. Did you feel pressure to continue to write the same kind of contemporary stories?
SUMMERS: I’ve been really lucky in that I kept wanting to write about mean girls. That’s kind of what I feel defines my career to other people. Is that I write about unlikeable female protagonists. So, my interests in that haven’t wavered.
ENNI: Is that how you perceive them?
SUMMERS: My characters?
SUMMERS: I think they are a lot more likeable than people say they are, because they clearly like them. It’s a weird thing to say, “You write unlikeable characters, but I love her.” But I do hear more that people like these characters that I’ve specifically designed for them to hate.
ENNI: I feel the unlikeable thing is so tricky, because if somebody was saying that, my instinct is more to be like, “What about this character showed you something you don’t like in yourself?” That’s what we’re really talking about. And you projecting that shit onto my character, is it fair? This character is a human being who has feelings that we’ve all felt. If you find that unlikeable, then you need to think about why.
ROTH: Or, is it that there’s a difference between a character being unlikeable and a character being unlovable. They love the character… that doesn’t mean that they always like them.
SUMMERS: That’s true. Yeah, that’s true.
ENNI: That’s a really good point.
ROTH: I’m frequently screaming at books, “Why are you doing that?”
ROTH: “Arrrgh! You brought this on yourself!” But then I end of loving the characters.
SUMMERS: Yeah, that’s true. There is a difference between like and love.
ROTH: I think you had an interesting point about it showing you something you don’t like about you.
SUMMERS: See, that’s what I hope I do though. I read the Chocolate War and I was like, “These people suck in the way that I suck, and I like that.” Because you feel less alone in how much you suck.
ROTH: Right? I feel like this is my entire experience reading Flannery O’Connor stories. Which is that, I start them, and then I’m disgusted by everyone. And then, as I read, I realize that: “Yes. It is me. I am those people who are disgusting!” [Laughing] I’m not sure it makes me feel good afterward, but at least I feel like I understand myself better.
SUMMERS: [Laughing] Now what do you do with that, cry?
ROTH: No. I don’t know. Well, we’re getting into deeper territory than I’d like to get into.
SUMMERS: Tell us more, Veronica.
ENNI: No! That’s fair. I’m sorry, because I was trying to figure out… to make sure I had the chronology right, because then it was…
SUMMERS: SOME GIRLS ARE, FALL FOR ANYTHING, THIS IS NOT A TEST and then ALL THE RAGE. Oh yeah, I wrote a Zombie book.
ROTH: Can we talk about where that came from?
SUMMERS: I love zombies! That’s where that came from.
ROTH: I know, but everything else had been contemporary. You just went for zombies because you like them?
SUMMERS: Okay, I used to blog about zombies in the way that I tweet about Supernatural, now. So, it wasn’t a stretch to people who had followed me.
ENNI: And it was a video game, right?
SUMMERS: Yeah, it was… I loved Left 4 Dead. Have you ever heard of Left 4 Dead?
ENNI: I think from you, to be honest [laughs].
SUMMERS: I just loved it. It’s just campaigns where you’re one of four people. I don’t play with other people, you’re supposed to but [chuckles], “No thank you.” And you’re going from one safe house to another, with story all around you. The graffiti tells stories, the little biohazard signs tell stories the houses you go in you see things that were left behind. And when I was eleven I watched Night of the Living Dead. Have you both seen that?
ROTH: I’m so sorry.
SUMMERS: It’s so upsetting… the ending. Can I ruin it for you?
ROTH: Yeah, that’s fine.
SUMMERS: It’s one night of survival against the zombie apocalypse, basically. And the lone character survives by hiding himself in a basement. And he gets out, and he looks out the window, and they shoot him in the head, because they think he’s a zombie and he dies. I found the zombies so scary because they were relentless. They just want to eat. You’re gonna die by zombie. It doesn’t matter, it’s just a matter of when. And I was like, “You really did that, George Romero?” I hated him. I was so upset. I was like, “I’m never gonna watch another zombie movie again.” And then I was like, “Oh, I’m so upset in such a good way, that I’m gonna watch all of them.” So, then I did. And I really wanted to write about a zombie novel.
ROTH: Do you like slow zombies, or fast zombies better?
SUMMERS: I thought I hated fast zombies, but they’re scary. So, there are fast zombies in THIS IS NOT A TEST. That made some people mad.
ENNI: Fast zombies are way scarier!
SUMMERS: They are! See, I figure they’re as fast as they are new. The more they’re out there, the less they should be able to run.
ROTH: Yeah, cause they’re rotting.
SUMMERS: Yeah, they’re decomposing.
ROTH: I think slow zombies are scary en masse, because they’re just a force.
SUMMERS: Yeah, then you’re screwed.
ROTH: But, you can’t always have a big pile of zombies.
SUMMERS: Yeah, like, “Oh, there’s the same 20,000 zombies behind us again!”
ROTH: [Laughing] “They surrounded us again! How?”
SUMMERS: “How do we keep not seeing them?”
ENNI: There’s a book called THE PASSAGE.
SUMMERS: I have that, but I haven’t read it yet.
ROTH: Justin Cronin.
ENNI: You are gonna frickin’ love it. And in that book, they jump. They call them ‘jumpers’ and just imagining that was horrifying.
SUMMERS: Ew, that’s awesome. See World War Z when they’re all climbing up the… yeah, it’s awful. It’s wonderful.
ENNI: The thing that strikes me about zombies is that they’re not truly in contrast to contemporary stories. You know what I mean?
ROTH: They’re a genre fiction.
ENNI: They’re genre, but they’re all… they’re not all, that’s too broad.
SUMMERS: They have a very contemporary, real feel, because they’re people. Well, they’re not people, but were they people? Are they people? Could they be people?
SUMMERS: It’s like hyper-humanity, because when you get in a situation where you’re all trapped inside one building, you become the most amplified version of yourself. So, it’s like contemporary, ratcheted up ten thousand times, with cannibals. Undead cannibals.
SUMMERS: Stuff like that. Yeah, why not?
ROTH: I just have to say, THIS IS NOT A TEST’s world’s best pitch for me, was like, “On the day when she is planning to kill herself, she has to survive zombies.”
SUMMERS: Zombies. Perfect day ever!
ROTH: Sometimes people don’t get it. I’m like: “She wanted to die. And now she’s fighting to survive. But, why?” It’s like, “That’s the question!” Anyway, it’s just so great.
ENNI: That’s exactly what I was gonna ask next. To me, it’s such a smart book, I’m obsessed with that book. I love it so much. And that was a devastating premise, and so smart of you to have the zombies reflect… She wanted to die, and really the root of - and it’s not a spoiler because it happens right away - it was her abusive dad. [Who] then gets eaten by zombies and is taken care of, so she’s like, “Well, I guess that’s gone, but the world is a fucking mess.”
SUMMERS: “Now I don’t get to go to prom.”
ENNI: To me, it’s a book about depression, or choosing life… or not. That’s also a tough thing to write about, for a long period of time. What was it like to write that book?
SUMMERS: It originally started out as something much different. In the first draft, no zombies killed anyone, and all the kids in the school killed each other.
ROTH: I kind of love that too!
ENNI: That’s amazing!
ROTH: Just write alternate… THIS IS A TEST and just have them all kill each other.
SUMMERS: It wasn’t good though, it wasn’t good. It was very bad. And so, my editor was like, “No, no.” And then I dropped it. I was gonna write something else because I was having such a hard time with it. And then she was like, “Okay, well, figure out what you want to do.” And I’m like, “Okay.” And then I started writing it, in secret, behind her back. I was like, “Oh, I did it anyway.” She was like, “I’m so happy!” She was happy about it. It wasn’t hard to write. I don’t want to say I’m detached from that kind of thing, but it’s like, “This is me, and this is my work.” So, it can get upsetting, but I like making characters suffer.
Some people want to hear about writers sitting in front of their computer, crying. I don’t relate. When I think about how bad it’s gonna get, I’m like: “That’s interesting. I get to play with that. That’s fun! And it’s on the page, and nobody’s actually gonna get hurt.” Well, that’s not very nice to my characters, I guess.
ROTH: But they’re not real!
SUMMERS: They’re not real, yeah! So, it’s like, “Meh” [sounds like she’s shrugging her shoulders].
ENNI: Yeah, put them through the ringer.
ENNI: We’re not here to pull punches.
ROTH: I think some people truly occupy their character’s emotional space, in a way that I don’t either. So, people ask me if I’m sad to kill off characters, and it’s like, “Well, sometimes? But not in the way that you think.” But, I’m not chipper about it, the way you are sometimes.
SUMMERS: There’s a finality to it, and it’s a bummer to think that you cannot revisit that space again.
ROTH: Yeah. It’s the loss of that…
ROTH: Yeah, yeah. You’re closing doors for yourself, and that’s sad.
SUMMERS: It’s all about me! But, they’re dead. It’s sadder that I can’t do stuff with them living, but it’s not that they’re dead. I’m not sad I killed them.
ROTH: They were never alive, actually. I know that they feel real to people, and that’s great because that means you draw them well.
SUMMERS: I have characters like that. I get upset when they die. I get mad at the author, but as a creator, it’s like, “Meh.”
ENNI: I think that is what makes people upset. When readers get upset at how you treat the characters, it is sort of a lack of the possibilities then, of everything that they could have been… I don’t know. That’s why it’s sad when anybody dies. But also, as a writer, you’re like, “Well, I could bring them back to life if I wanted.”
SUMMERS: That’s true.
ROTH: No, though, no!
SUMMERS: I wouldn’t want to, but, I can’t really. Most, there’s no supernatural element in THIS IS NOT A TEST. Well, they could become a zombie. It’s not the same.
ENNI: Yeah, literally. Also, when you’re writing and revising, you’re like, “If it doesn’t work this person could…” you know?
SUMMERS: Oh yeah, you can always change your mind.
ENNI: What makes me feel separate from feeling that way about my characters, is that I’m like: “Well you used to be named Karen. I changed your name. I changed what you looked like. Three drafts ago, you lived in Zimbabwe. I control you so much, and you’ve changed so much, that you are now what the story needs you to be, instead of this thing that sprang out of my head.” That’s how it feels at a certain point [pauses]. Maybe it’s just me.
ROTH: No, I totally am with you. If you can change their name, and their physical appearance, and you can cut them from the book altogether. If you can mush two characters together, the way we do in a revision sometimes, then you kill them. They were a hundred-different people, and they were what you needed them to be. They do still live in other drafts, in the earlier parts of the story, which are still alive in the way that the end of the story is. If you don’t want the character to be dead, go back read from the beginning.
SUMMERS: Get over it!
ROTH: “Get over it! Says ALLEGIANT author, Veronica Roth!”
ENNI: Also, for us - I’m speaking for myself, obviously - but I want to hear what you guys think. I wouldn’t call myself a character driven writer, because to me, it’s thematic. The reason that I would bring someone back, or change, or combine characters, is because the book has a point, and the point isn’t that we learn the middle name of this character. The point is, what’s the journey?
SUMMERS: It’s like, how does the character best serve the point? Right?
ENNI: Right. I just loved that THIS IS NOT A TEST also had a sequel. Was that the plan ever? Did you think you were going to revisit those characters?
SUMMERS: I just finished ALL THE RAGE, and I just felt like I wanted to write more. It was never a plan all along. I think people think it is, because it’s such an open ending, but I was never gonna pick it back up again. And then I was like, “I want to write about zombies again.” So, I did.
ENNI: You felt like you wanted to go back to zombies.
SUMMERS: Yeah, but I didn’t want to commit to a full book, so I was like, to my editor, “Can we just do an e-book?”
ENNI: What was it like to pick those characters back up?
SUMMERS: I reread the book, and I liked it [chuckles].
ENNI: That’s good!
SUMMERS: Yeah, it was okay. I had post-its flagged all in the book for things that I might need to know later, and I needed none of it. Which was annoying. It was a lot of work I didn’t have to do. I just felt like going forth with zombies. Everyone says THIS IS NOT A TEST is not a zombie novel, because they’re not all over the pages eating people every second. So, the sequel has a lot of zombie action.
ENNI: [Sings] “Zombie Action!”
SUMMERS: That was basically it.
ROTH: I still think it’s a zombie novel.
SUMMERS: I think it is too.
ROTH: Because they are zombies. And the reason they are doing all the things they are doing is because of zombies.
ENNI: I think people misunderstand what zombie fiction, or television, or movies are.
SUMMERS: Zombie are always about the larger question of existence, and life and death. It’s not just about eating people.
ENNI: Or consumerism, or disease, or any number of horrifying things. But the point isn’t the zombie, the point is what we do in response to the zombie.
ROTH: [giggles] Is the word zombie losing meaning to everyone?
ENNI: Ha… Zombie!
SUMMERS: That was a big thing, trying to figure out if I was gonna use the word ‘zombie’ for a zombie novel. Because you don’t hear it in movies. I don’t think George Romero uses it.
ENNI: They have to deny the fact that their characters would have watched zombie movies and know something about what to do.
SUMMERS: Shaun of the Dead they obviously said it and it was a big deal. They don’t even say zombies in… THE WALKING DEAD fascinates me. Really? Not one zombie movie? They call them ‘walkers’ or ‘geeks’.
ENNI and ROTH: Geeks?
SUMMERS: Yeah, I guess because they’re carnival…
Courtney’s Sister: Oh yeah, people who bit heads off of chickens. That’s what geek were.
SUMMERS: I didn’t know that.
ENNI: What?! That’s crazy. I didn’t know that.
SUMMERS: That’s one of the things they call them. So, that is a creative struggle [chuckles].
ENNI: Interesting. I like that you had to think about that. That’s really cool. Okay, let’s talk about ALL THE RAGE. Which is another…
SUMMERS: Heavy novel. I don’t write happy things.
ENNI: Yeah. Can you talk about how that story came about?
SUMMERS: It’s sort of a response to being female now. And then while I was writing it, Steubenville happened, which amplified the anger that was already driving it. Because both SOME GIRLS ARE, and CRACKED UP TO BE, dealt with sexual assault, and I’m like, “Can I write this again?” And my editor was like: “I think, sometimes, it’s natural for writers to gravitate back to what they started with. And it’s all leading up to this book.” So, I feel like everything that I wrote before, well at least CRACKED UP TO BE, and SOME GIRLS ARE, are all leading to ALL THE RAGE.
So, it was almost there for a long time, cause yeah, I started after SOME GIRLS ARE. It always started on a road, with a girl who didn’t know what happened to her the night before. And I set it aside, and it was time to pick it up.
ENNI: And do you feel like you had to write those books?
SUMMERS: Yeah. I wouldn’t have been able to do it, at the time that I started it. I mean, I couldn’t. I was like, “No, this isn’t…” Of course, you never know that when you’re starting it. You think, “Of course I can do this.” And then you’re like, “No, I can’t.”
ENNI: But also, you’re so much older. And, the conversation and attitudes around sexual assault have changed.
SUMMERS: They’ve really changed.
ENNI: So, what was it like to dive back into that? It’s a political space.
SUMMERS: It was intimidating. It’s like what we were talking about before, you’re unconsciously incompetent? That would have been me writing ALL THE RAGE, then. I’m not saying I knew everything when I started it, and did complete it. But, you’re more aware of the conversation, and the fact that you can hurt people, having that conversation. You can do damage by participating in that conversation. And that you don’t want to, or mean to. So, it was more of going into it with the knowledge that whatever hits the page has to contribute to a larger narrative and not [in a] shitty way, basically. I didn’t want to do something terrible.
ENNI: Right, but also, be true to the character’s personal experience.
SUMMERS: Yeah, I don’t want to say that it’s a ‘message novel’ because it kind of is, but it isn’t. Because I don’t think I would have ever put the message ahead of the character. And that’s tricky too, because you want to be as true as possible to the character, but you’re also writing about this really loaded topic. It’s a tricky space to navigate. It took five drafts to write. It was hard. It was hard and intense. I almost pulled it a couple of times. The last draft that I did, was gonna be the last attempt. My editor was like, “If we don’t get it by now, we gotta move on.” That wasn’t at all terrifying [laughs].
ENNI: We’re talking about five drafts, do you mean starting a whole new document, and going from scratch?
SUMMERS: Yeah. The last draft was starting over. Each draft before that carried the draft behind it, which was really stupid of me, but I thought I was being smart at the time. And they got progressively worse. I don’t even think I showed my editor the fourth draft. I was like: “I read it. It’s not good. We can’t do it.” She’s like, “Oh! Let’s talk on the phone about this.” And I said the same thing, “No. We can’t.”
ENNI: Yeah, so then, you burnt it down.
SUMMERS: Yeah, I burnt it down and started over again. One last desperate grab at trying to do this story.
ENNI: That’s intense.
SUMMERS: Yeah, it was. It was not a happy time, writing-wise. I think that’s the least happy I’ve ever been writing.
ENNI: And how long are we talking? How long did it take to write?
SUMMERS: It sold in 2012, and it didn’t get finished until 2014, I think. I could be wrong about that, but it was something like that. I wouldn’t do it like that again. I’m not sad I did it, I would just do a lot of things differently. Like maybe, tell my editor when things were going sideways.
ENNI: Oh yeah?
SUMMERS: Yeah, I had a hard time admitting that. I’m better at it now. She’s like, “You gotta tell me before you finish the book that it’s not coming together.” And: “But why though? Why would I do that? I just want you to think I know what I’m doing all the time.”
ENNI: I was gonna say, it’ hard to be like, “I don’t know.” At some point, it’s so early in a writing process, that having outside opinions can be…
SUMMERS: Oh, I needed those outside opinions. I was too proud to show them. I was like, “No, I’m gonna get this.” Because it was so big. It was almost like, if I showed anything less than perfect to start with, but I’d already failed it. So… [pauses] What a time that was [laughs].
ENNI: That’s really tough! When you finished that process, did you take a break? What was the aftermath of that?
SUMMERS: I don’t know, I think I must have taken a break. I can’t even remember now. But I don’t think it was an actual break, I think it was just trying to write a book and not being able to.
ENNI: Yeah, that’s how breaks sometimes happen.
SUMMERS: Yeah, it’s like, “I’m just gonna keep writing stuff that’s not gonna be anything, but I have to feel like I’m doing something. But, I’m not really doing anything.”
ENNI: Did you feel, at the time, you were writing your next book? Or, was it like, “This is never going anywhere”?
SUMMERS: I was trying to find the next book. I knew that I would, but it wasn’t happening as fast as I would’ve liked.
ENNI: What’s that process like for you?
SUMMERS: Write, and hope that something lands. I don’t know. It’s like, I know when I know.
ENNI: Do you have a bunch of different ideas and then you try…?
SUMMERS: Yeah, I’ll have ideas, and then I run them by my agent and see what she feels about them. I want something to click. Usually what happens [is] I’ll find something I like, like a video game, or a television show, or a movie. And that will make me feel a certain way, and I’ll be like, “Okay! I want to capture that.” So, I need the book that fits around the feeling. That kind of thing.
ENNI: Yes! Sometimes I’ll be listening to a song… there’s thirty seconds of a Beck song that I spent four years trying to write the book for that.
SUMMERS: Yeah! You just feel it.
ENNI: And that’s why I think I say I am not a character… everything is about ending up with this feeling. And what are the themes that are attached to this feeling.
SUMMERS: And how do you make this feeling a book? Yeah, basically, that. So, I have to find the thing I like first.
ENNI: Ooh, that’s really interesting. I feel like it is a therapy experiment writing books. You get to a point where you’re like: “Oh. I’m writing about this again.”
SUMMERS: [laughing] “Again?!”
ENNI: Like telling myself something about it. After you wrap that up, it’s sort of like, “Well, it served its purpose in my life, and now I can move on from it.”
SUMMERS: I really never entirely move on from my books. I feel like there’s always some seed of the last one in the next one.
SUMMERS: Yeah, CRACKED UP TO BE was about one mean girl, and SOME GIRLS ARE was about several mean girls. And what was FALL FOR ANYTHING’s seed? FALL FOR ANYTHING was originally about a girl who killed her father. I don’t remember what the seed was there.
ENNI: Was it really?
SUMMERS: Yeah, it was. It didn’t end up that way though, at all.
ENNI: Interesting. And then you have the dad die and… [laughing]
SUMMERS: Yeah, [chuckles], geez!
ENNI: So, we’re caught up now to your new project, right?
ENNI: Okay, can you talk about where you’re at with writing, and finding this new project?
SUMMERS: I’m hoping to get done by April, ha-ha-ha [continues to chuckle]. Then, hopefully, I can start talking about when it will come out.
ENNI: At this point, with this many books behind you - you already mentioned that you run things by your agent - do you talk to your editor? Does your editor say things like, “I’d really love to see this kind of book from you?”
SUMMERS: I keep bringing things to her, so we haven’t actually done that yet. But, we might, after this one is done.
ENNI: Having a long-term relationship with an editor is a really miraculous thing too.
SUMMERS: Yeah, I’m still with the same agent and same editor that I started with. That’s not common, apparently. It just worked out that way. We’re all a good fit. I was my agent’s first sale and my editor’s first acquisition.
SUMMERS: Yeah, and that was my first sale too, obviously, so that was always kind of cool.
ENNI: That’s amazing!
SUMMERS: Yeah, I like that. So, we’ve all grown together. She started out as an editorial assistant, now she’s the editorial director of Wednesday Books, which is the new YA imprint from St. Martin’s Press. Because they are shuttering Griffin Teen. So, it’s strange to think about.
ENNI: And really cool that you have this level of trust [and] creative understanding there. You can cut through some shorthand.
SUMMERS: When you start out, I don’t know if it’s true for everybody, [but] you don’t want to rock the boat. So, it took four books before I was comfortable enough to start saying like: “I need help. What am I doing?” I just wanted to be the ‘good child.’ You know that feeling? So, I’m not like that anymore [laughing]. Now I’m the ‘bad child’.
ENNI: Well, there’s something to being a squeaky wheel, you know? Sometimes you just have to…
SUMMERS: Yeah, because if we don’t tell them, they don’t know. You can’t fault them for not being mind-readers.
ENNI: Yes. I’ve gotten mad at a lot of people recently for wanting other people to be mind-readers: “Just be a grownup. Say the thing!”
SUMMERS: “Why don’t you know what I’m thinking at you?”
ENNI: “Say the thing. Say the thing!” Okay… let’s talk about Supernatural.
ENNI: I think anyone who follows you on the internet knows that you like the show a little bit.
SUMMERS: I hope so.
ROTH: I’ll be awake for this part.
ENNI: Veronica’s back up. I’m mostly interested in hearing you talk about what you think about this series is so compelling to you?
SUMMERS: It’s the brothers. It’s the emotional center of the show. It’s a really good dynamic, and the writing is good. I know people argue with me whether or not the writing for Supernatural is good. I think it’s good. It’s not always perfect, but I think it’s good.
ROTH: I think they pull back emotions in places where they could load a lot on.
SUMMER: Me too!
ENNI: They almost pull punches a little bit?
ROTH: No, I think it’s good. They could melodrama the shit out of it, but they don’t, it’s subtle.
SUMMERS: And the tension is really good because of that.
ENNI: I feel like there’s a couple moments in shows, that I’ve had like that, where the subtle choices make it even more devastating, and realistic. And it’s wonderful.
SUMMERS: This relationship between them rises beyond some of the weaker seasons, because it’s had some, I guess. I’m very forgiving. I’m Supernatural positive!
ROTH: I mean, there was a lot of pretty rough seasons.
SUMMERS: Which one was that for you? Was it eight?
SUMMERS: Yeah, I’m watching eight right now. Re-watching eight right now. But, I really, really like that Supernatural has a bunch of male relationships that are emotionally vulnerable, super-tight, kind of subversive of hyper-masculinity, while still being very hyper-masculine. You don’t see that, often, on television. It’s like, “Look at all these men being so all up in each other’s face.”
ENNI: Yeah, vulnerable with each other.
SUMMERS: Yeah, they’re super vulnerable. And, closed-off and repressed when they needed to be.
ENNI: I would love to hear you talk, too, about… my Supernatural, is Parks & Recreation. I’ve watched it over and over so many times. When you watch it over-and-over again, and you get the subtleties, and you read into it.
SUMMERS: Yeah, I love that stuff!
ENNI: I think that’s such a helpful way to breakdown story. And you’re like: “What did I like? What was weaker? What was better?”
SUMMERS: Exactly. That’s what I get with stuff that I like. It’s not always Supernatural, right now – the last four years – it’s been Supernatural.
ENNI: But you’ve had phases of other stuff.
SUMMERS: I’ll do that with video games. And I’ll do it with other movies, like The OA was pretty close. I really liked that. With video games, I will replay them past the point of reason, just to break them down in my mind.
ROTH: What is it about this? [she exclaims from the background]
SUMMERS: Yeah, yeah. Alan Wake is this really good video game about a writer, and he can’t go out in the dark… well, he does go out in the dark. He shouldn’t though, because there’s monsters in the dark, and he fights them off with a flashlight. And his editor is like the ultimate darkness, and he’s trying to bring darkness to the world. It’s very good, and very interesting. It’s like Twin Peaks, Stephen King, a bunch of other weird shows. It really works. And, it’s linear. You can’t make new choices. All of the dialogue is the same. I’ve replayed it ten times, and I can’t do anything new in it, but I like the feeling it gives me. So, I’m gonna play it again and again.
ENNI: I’ve been talking about this a lot lately, because I feel like I troll my mom. I go to movies with her and then after we leave, I’m like, “Oh my god, let’s go get milkshakes and talk about how horrible that was!” And, “Blah, blah, blah!” I’m so delighted to spend literally twice the length of the actual film, talking about all the problems with it. And my poor mother is just like, “You didn’t like it? We didn’t have to go.” And I’m like: “No, mom! I’m having the best time right now. I just want to talk about all the things.”
SUMMERS: “I want to pick it apart.”
ENNI: “What were the choices?”
ROTH: This is why it was so great after Star Trek Beyond when we both hated it with a fiery passion.
SUMMERS: Is that the one with [Benedict Cumberbatch]?
ENNI: Yeah, oh no, no, no.
ROTH: That was Into Darkness.
SUMMERS: Oh, the new one.
ROTH: Yeah, we both hated it, but everyone else on the planet loved it and we were like, “I am taking crazy pills or what?”
ENNI: I started a tradition, with a friend of mine, going to see movies and then going to get drinks afterwards. And just talking about that movie, and what was successful about it? And what was not? And it ends up – I want to feel that this is okay as a creative person - to spend all of my time trashing things. Or, just bringing up minute [points], like, “The one tolerable point of that movie was this.”
ROTH: This is why I love How Did This Get Made? Because they’re both loving horrible movies, and trashing them, at the same time. If it was something I’d worked on, I don’t know how I’d feel about it, but… [open ended sentence with a shrug implied].
ROTH: So maybe I’d be able to hear that they have a fondness for it, you know? Especially with movies where it’s not really one person’s fault that something goes wrong, it’s like a lot of people contributing to that.
ENNI: That is the funny thing about movies, and TV, and anything besides a book, is that with a book you can say [that] the author made this decision. And we as writers can have ownership over our words. And with movies, it’s like, the editor makes a huge difference.
ROTH: Studio can put pressure for weird stuff.
ENNI: Ten people write scripts and it just becomes this thing. And in Supernatural wouldn’t be what it was if those actors were playing the brothers the way they were.
ROTH: They advocate for better things, a lot of the time.
SUMMERS: Yeah, they do.
ENNI: That’s amazing! Okay, I would love to hear your advice for new writers, or even writers who are a little into the game.
SUMMERS: [mock whispers] “Don’t do it!”
ROTH: “Get out now!”
SUMMERS: “While you still can! While you’re young before the wrinkles form!” Writing is hard enough so make sure that you love what you’re writing. You cannot please everyone, so the moment you stop writing for yourself is when you stop writing for everybody else.
ENNI: One of the questions that the kids asked today was: “Do you try to write what interests you? Or what’s new and different? Or, do you want to give audiences what they want?” And I was like, “Oh my god.” If you start thinking about your audience…
SUMMERS: You can’t please anyone. Who is your audience? Every time I think I’m gonna do something that somebody likes, that’s when I get the most crap about it. Like, why even try? That sounds awful, but why?
ROTH: It’s also like, people get resentful when you say that you can’t think that way when you create. Like you’re oddly rejecting the people who, quote/unquote, made you.
SUMMERS: But you’re doing them the biggest favor by forgetting about them for a minute.
ENNI: Plus, the rule is it takes the specific to be universal, right? So, if I found something – like the feeling you get when you play that video game, is a very specific feeling to you – so your point is to recreate that feeling, whatever it means to you, in the book. And it’s like if you just want readers to feel that thing, it’ll be like whoever relates to you is gonna get that, and everyone else isn’t.
ROTH: And we’ve all read that book that’s like, not that book, but a book, that’s so generic that you’re like, “Ugh. This is garbage!” So, I don’t know why people think that you can appeal to the masses by basically making no specific decisions.
ENNI: Right. And people being like: “You know? Why don’t you write something like Twilight?” It’s like, Twilight was also weird, and made crazy choices and sparkling, and Forks.
SUMMERS: Who knew I wanted sparkly vampires? But then I read it and I was like, “That’s what’s been missing in my life!”
ROTH: I was missing three paragraphs about you making enchiladas.
ENNI: A hundred percent! And the fact that I still know that they ate mushroom ravioli on their first date.
ENNI: Why do I remember that?
ROTH: And she drank two Cokes!
ENNI: Yes! Why? [laughing]. Okay, was there any other advice that you have? What about for people who are in the game?
ROTH: I could say what I’ve learned from you. How about that?
SUMMERS: Okay. Tell me so I can know.
ROTH: What I’ve learned from Courtney is that you have to actually believe in your work. That it’s okay to say, “I think I’m good at this.”
SUMMERS: I say that a lot.
ROTH: And that, sometimes, you have to remind people to give you things that you need for your book to succeed. It’s not going to happen just because it’s good. You need to get it in front of people, and they need to follow through on their promises to you.
ENNI: Yeah, it’s more of that mind-reader stuff. I will say, in my experience, I had a moment with my mom where she was talking about her job, and she was like, “Well, I think so-and-so is looking out for me.” And I was like: “You know what, Mom? The one thing I really have learned as an adult, is that no one is looking out for you, the way that you are looking out for you. And you can’t assume that everyone else is thinking about your needs, or wants, or is taking into account all of the work that you’ve done.”
SUMMERS: They should, but…
ENNI: They should, but you have to be your own advocate and you just can’t relent on that.
SUMMERS: There was this great article in the Harvard Business Journal, and I always share with all of my friends. “Who’s Got the Monkey?” And it’s for management positions, but it’s like, people will try to put the monkey on your back, so that you assume responsibility for them. So, you always have to make sure that the person who’s supposed to be doing their job for you, is doing their job for you. And not shifting that responsibility of the weight of their job to you. But then, you also have to be that person. You can’t expect them to work for you, if you’re not working for them like you’re supposed to. It’s reciprocal.
ENNI: I really enjoyed, and appreciate, you talking about writing. And the fact that you’ve always wanted it to be a career. I love talking to authors who are like: “I’m not messing around. This is my life, and my livelihood. And I’m taking it as seriously as anyone would take their job.” I think we get pressured a lot to be like, “Oh, it’s fun playtime.”
SUMMERS: “Oh, it’s just luck!”
ROTH: Yeah, people talk to you about it like you won the lottery, or something. It’s like, “You know I had to work for this, right?” Like, “I worked for a long time, and I didn’t get paid.”
SUMMERS: Let me tell you about the stress headaches [chuckles]. The eye-twitch. The heart palpitations. I love my work!
ROTH: It’ the best!
ENNI: Anything else?
SUMMERS: This was fun.
[Background music plays]
ENNI: Thank you so much to Courtney. Follow her on twitter @courtney_s and follow the show @FirstDraftPod and me @sarahenni. You can also find the show on Instagram and Facebook. But if you want to see show notes with links to everything Courtney and I talked about, as well as my favorite quotes from this, and all the one-hundred-plus previous episodes, find an archive of said one-hundred-plus previous episodes, and some transcripts, and a newsletter sign-up [pauses to inhale], well, then you should visit FirstDraftPod.com.
This weekend, April 29th, if you are in the greater Los Angeles area, you should head over to Yallwest at Santa Monica High School. I will be there moderating a panel, and appearing on a panel to support Because You Love to Hate Me, an anthology to which I contributed a short story. I will also be recording a special podcast there, so if you have silly and/or interesting questions you’d like me to ask your favorite authors, please send to them to me on Twitter @FirstDraftPod.
Also, for those of you prone to planning ahead, I will be in New York City June 3rd and 4th for Book Con. Schedule, et cetera, TBD.
If you liked what you heard today please subscribe to the show on iTunes and consider leaving a rating or review there. Every five-star review gets me one step closer to remembering which Dean is which, in confusing fandom conversations.
Thanks to Hashbrown for the theme song, and to Collin Keith and Maureen Goo for the logos. Thanks to super intern, Sarah DuMont, and transcriptionist-at-large, Julie Anderson.