Leila Howland

8/2/16

The original post for this episode can be found here.

Sarah ENNI: Welcome to First Draft with me, Sarah Enni. Today I’m talking to Leila Howland, author of YA books NANTUCKET BLUE and NANTUCKET RED, as well as the middle grade series THE FORGET ME NOT SUMMER and THE BRIGHTEST STARS OF SUMMER. Leila ended up in Los Angeles as part of her acting dream, and stumbled backward into writing sweet summer stories about sisterhood, friendship, first loves, and clam bakes on east coast beaches. Leila is as kind and delightful as her funny, poignant stories, and I was so happy when she invited me over to her lovely house to chat. So, get on your sun hat and grab some ice cream with jimmies, and enjoy the conversation.

[music fades]

ENNI: Um, so, how are you?

Leila HOWLAND: I’m good! 

ENNI: Is—so is it Ley-la or Lee-la? 

HOWLAND: Lee-la.

ENNI: Leila, okay, it is so nice to—thank you for inviting me to your house.

HOWLAND: Yeah!

ENNI: It’s nice to be able to hang out! So, well, let’s start at the beginning

HOWLAND: Okay.

ENNI: —go way, way back to where were you born and raised? 

HOWLAND: Rhode Island, Providence.

ENNI: Okay. 

HOWLAND: Yes.

ENNI: So definitely east coaster. 

HOWLAND: Yeah, yeah yeah!

ENNI: Were you born and raised all in the same…? 

HOWLAND: Yes, I was born and raised in Providence. 

ENNI: Yeah, okay and—which is the capital, right?

HOWLAND: Yeah, oh yeah. Capital of a very small state, yes.

ENNI: Yeah! I’ve driven across Rhode Island once, and it was just like–

HOWLAND: It takes like, forty-five minutes.

ENNI: Yeah, so fast!

HOWLAND: You have to try to make that like, an hour’s journey, you have to like… 

ENNI: It was very beautiful.

[both laugh]

ENNI: Um, how did reading and writing factor into growing up?

HOWLAND: My mom gave, had like, saved this box of stuff from when I was really little, and there was something from when I was in kindergarten that said that I wanted to be a writer.

ENNI: Really?!

HOWLAND: Yeah, so, that was just—it was just always something that I wanted, like I don’t remember having that desire that young, but there was like— 

ENNI: That’s so funny.

HOWLAND: I think it was kindergarten, maybe it was like first or second grade, but it was really young.

ENNI. Yeah.

HOWLAND: And then… my dad actually read aloud to me a lot— 

ENNI: Oh cool!

HOWLAND: —like, full novels. 

ENNI: Really?

HOWLAND: Through like, third and fourth grade. 

ENNI: That’s really…

HOWLAND: So I feel like that was, that really developed my love of novels, like the long form.

ENNI: How—what kind of stuff was he reading to you?

HOWLAND: The classics, you know like STUART LITTLE, and A LITTLE PRINCESS, and THE SECRET GARDEN, and HEIDI, and… those are the ones I remember.

ENNI: Yeah, those are really good ones. 

HOWLAND: Yeah.

ENNI: It’s funny, when you said “classic” I was like, “that could, actually that means something different to everybody.”

HOWLAND: Right? That’s so true.

ENNI: Based on what similar experiences, ‘cause I talked recently to a couple of—this might have just been coincidence—but a couple of guys where their dad had read THE HOBBIT aloud to them—

HOWLAND: Oh, yeah!

ENNI: —when they were super young, so they have this like, you know, total affinity for all things Tolkien because of that.

HOWLAND: That’s so funny, and I—those were all realistic books. 

ENNI: That’s true!

HOWLAND: And that’s what I read and what I write.

 ENNI: That’s so interesting!

HOWLAND: Yeah, he never… I feel like, THE WIND IN THE WILLOWS, he like, tried to get me into it, and I was like, “no.” I don’t—

ENNI: You’re like, “what?”

HOWLAND: Like, people, I want people. I want real people.

ENNI: That’s so interesting! Do you feel like you still have an affinity for being read to or audiobooks or things like that?

HOWLAND: Yes. No, I do love being—well, I don’t know that I do it that often, but I’m like, yes! I mean it’s something that, as a librarian, that’s something I did with—it was my first year as a school librarian, and um, the woman who had the job before me was all into like, information science.

ENNI: Okay.

HOWLAND: Which, I actually, I’m not trained in that. And the principal of the school was so, like, kind of, “follow your heart and teach what you love.” And, uh, I mean, there’s a lot of guidelines and everything, which she was kind of like “do your thing.” 

ENNI: Yeah.

HOWLAND: And, so, I did a lot of reading aloud, and it was so… surprising, at the end of the year, this was like with the eighth grade.

ENNI: Yeah.

HOWLAND: And I was never at ease with the middle—with like, this school goes from like pre-K to eighth grade, and with the middle school I was like, never quite at ease, like, “Do they like this? Are they into it?”

ENNI: Right, right right.

HOWLAND: And I did it, you know, different things with them, and at the end I was like, “What did you like?” ‘cause I’m trying to like, refine and grow as a teacher, they were all like, “The reading aloud! That was our favorite thing! Don’t change it! We loved that!” And I was like, “You did?”

ENNI: That’s so interesting!

HOWLAND: Yeah, they loved it! They really loved it.

ENNI: Well, it’s funny at that age it’s such a, um, you know, like, what are you leaving behind? What are you eager to do as a grown up? And stuff—some stuff falls away, being read to, I think, falls away and like, like the reason I’m asking is that personally I like, love being read to, I find it like, this deep comfort, like crazy comfort. But for them it’s like, “No one does this anymore!”

HOWLAND: Right, and they’re like, it’s a pretty intense academic school and they’re just headed straight into more like, into high school, and to like—

ENNI: Intense stuff.

HOWLAND: —intense stuff, so I think it is like a different part of the brain. 

ENNI: Totally.

HOWLAND: That like, you can, it’s like a communal experience. 

ENNI: Almost like meditating.

HOWLAND: Yeah, but it’s also sort of private, because you’re imagining what you’re imagining and um, no one is like, telling you what to imagine, you know? I don’t know, it’s, so it’s like a very unique thing.

ENNI: That’s really neat, so, so when you were growing up— 

HOWLAND: Yeah.

ENNI: —so where was writing in all of that?

HOWLAND: Oh, I had a great creative writing teacher, Jane Ship is her name, and it was just my favorite class.

ENNI: In like, high school…? 

HOWLAND: No, in lower school! 

ENNI: Oh wow.

HOWLAND: Like really young, I’m like thinking, we wrote a lot of poems, we did… We didn’t write like, short stories, but there was a lot of like, we had like a creative writing time, and I had a wonderful teacher.

ENNI: That’s really cool!

HOWLAND: And so, that’s when it started, and then, when I got to middle school I was more like keeping a journal, and I wrote a lot of poems in my journal, you know, the usual stuff.

ENNI: Totally.

HOWLAND: And then same thing in—probably the same thing in high school, and then I didn’t start, I didn’t have the desire to write a novel until I was out of college.

ENNI: Okay, so that was like, it wasn’t kind of being pursued with that seriousness, like in high school you weren’t like, going to—

HOWLAND: No, no no, I was like, I was more interested in poetry.

ENNI: When you went to school—to college—were you thinking about creative writing as…?

HOWLAND: I was an English major. 

ENNI: Okay.

HOWLAND: So… 

ENNI: So kind of. 

HOWLAND: Yeah! 

ENNI: Okay.

HOWLAND: That, I didn’t know what I wanted to do or anything, but I, you know, wasn’t sure, but I was definitely like, “what do I—alright, well I gotta be an English major, obviously, like that’s where all the classes I want to take are in the English and like, Fine Arts department,” and like… But I wasn’t sure exactly, you know.

ENNI: Yeah, and did you look into whether creative writing was like, an option for majoring, or anything like that?

HOWLAND: I didn’t… Wait, say that again?

ENNI: Like, ‘cause I, I did the same thing. I went into English Lit and then later was like—I didn’t even look at the Creative Writing program, like I never thought about it that way.

HOWLAND: I didn’t, we didn’t have one, I went to um, Georgetown, and there wasn’t, like, a Creative Writing track. But it wasn’t like, the creative writing wasn’t the… It wasn’t presented as an academic, like, a path to follow.

ENNI: Interesting.

HOWLAND: But there were fun classes in it, you know?

ENNI: Yeah, what were, how did you find D.C., after Providence?

HOWLAND: Oh, you know, so I went to—my last two years of high school were in a Catholic high school.

ENNI: Okay.

HOWLAND: And I’m not Catholic, but everybody wanted to go to Georgetown.

ENNI: Really?

HOWLAND: So I was like, “Well, I better apply to Georgetown!” And I was one of like, two people in my class who got in, and I was like, “Well, I better go!”

ENNI: Oh my gosh; that’s so funny!

HOWLAND: But I didn’t, I mean, applying to college was like a totally different than it is now, back when I was applying to college. I feel like, from my point of view, I was like, “I should just go to like, the best possible school.”

ENNI: Right.

HOWLAND: I wasn’t looking at departments, I wasn’t thinking about like, my passions. 

ENNI: Right, right.

HOWLAND: I was like, “What’s gonna look good on that bumper sticker?” [both laugh]

ENNI: Well, you picked a good one for that!

HOWLAND: I was like, “That’s the best bumper sticker!” 

ENNI: Totally!

HOWLAND: “So, that’s where I should go!” 

ENNI: That’s so funny.

HOWLAND: Like, meanwhile there were probably schools that would have been, you know, a lot better suited to me.

ENNI: Right.

HOWLAND: But I was—I was in a bumper sticker mentality, so.

ENNI: Yeah! You know, that’s interesting, because I do think there’s something though, to be said for… Of course, it’s like amazing when people know what they want to do, and they can find something that suits them, but there’s also something to be said for going to a big school, where like, if you change—

HOWLAND: Right.

ENNI: —you can find, like, what you need there, which is useful. I went to like, an enormous school.

HOWLAND: Really?

ENNI: And it was like—it was great, because I could pivot and know that there was something there for me.

HOWLAND: I was sort of pivoting—I was sort of in a circle, and I was like, “I don’t know!” So it was always a bit of a mismatch, because I was always just, pretty obsessed with politics.

ENNI: The cultures is intense—

HOWLAND: Yes, the culture is different, I never really fit into the culture totally, I guess my point was that I feel like it’s so hard to get into college now, that you have to…

ENNI: Yeah.

HOWLAND: Be more specific. 

ENNI: Right, right.

HOWLAND: In order to get in. 

ENNI: Yeah, that’s true.

HOWLAND: I don’t know, it just seems so much harder, seems much more competitive now.

ENNI: I think it is, well and I think there’s more like, resources to overwhelm yourself with—

HOWLAND: Right, right. 

ENNI: —how hard it is.

HOWLAND: Now, I filled out my college applications like, on a, this is totally dating myself but I don’t really care, like, on a Brother Word Processor—like on a typewriter. 

ENNI: Yeah, yeah yeah!

HOWLAND: I remember like, wiping spaghetti sauce off the front. 

ENNI: [laughs] That’s so awesome.

HOWLAND: My parents weren’t really like—they weren’t looking over my applications.

ENNI: Right.

HOWLAND: It was totally, like, I don’t know, I like didn’t study for the SATs, like it was just a…

ENNI: It’s just different.

HOWLAND: Anyway, I don’t know why I’m going on about that. 

ENNI: No, it’s really interesting because, because especially…

HOWLAND: Like, how I ended up at Georgetown was through my own misguided—I mean it’s an EXCELLENT school; I’m not putting it down—but a real mismatch and because I was like, I was guiding my own ship, which was…

ENNI: Right, and at seventeen, like, who knows— 

HOWLAND: At seventeen, yeah.

ENNI: Well, okay, you said you didn’t want to write a novel until after college.

HOWLAND: Yeah.

ENNI: But, so, during college you were taking English, writing, that kind of thing, what were you thinking… So, yeah, I was gonna say, when did acting come in?

HOWLAND: So, I did theatre, I wrote a lot of plays… 

ENNI: Oh, okay.

HOWLAND: And I did this great, like instead of going abroad for a semester, I did this semester at a theatre in Connecticut, called the Eugene O’Neill Theatre Center, and I, like, that’s where I met the people I probably should have been going to college with— like from Brown and Vassar—and I was like, “Oh! These are my people!”

ENNI: Right, right right!

HOWLAND: Like, “I feel so at home, like taking playwriting, and directing, and like, movement, and voice.” I was like, I never felt so at home—

ENNI: How interesting.

HOWLAND: —as I did in this like, semester abroad program, even though it was in like, Connecticut. And… I was like, “No, like this is my world.” And this is a theatre world.

ENNI: Yeah.

HOWLAND: And this is where I feel—

ENNI: And a creative world.

HOWLAND: And a very—yeah, very creative world, I love—I was so happy, and I was like, “I better go into theatre, because that’s where all my people are!”

ENNI: Yeah.

HOWLAND: So that was my, like, after college I was like, “I just want to get back to that, like, continuous, creative life.”

ENNI: Yeah, what were the, so you wrote plays that semester during that semester or like, over the course of like…?

HOWLAND: Oh, in college, throughout college, yeah. 

ENNI: What were they about?

HOWLAND: Most of them were… Okay, so. I did a lot of feminist theatre stuff, and more like performance art. I wrote, actually, we like reconnected on Facebook several years ago and now we’re like, Facebook friends, but with a friend of mine… We wrote this play that was like, it was like fairytales sort of deconstructed.

ENNI: Yeah, yeah yeah!

HOWLAND: You know, sort of a very popular theme. But we wrote some like, plays, that we like, deconstructed the fairytale of like, told them from a feminist point of view. And then, at the theatre program I wrote like, a more like, traditional play, you know. 

ENNI: I was going to say, the deconstructing and the looking at it through different lenses is like, it’s also kind of a literary way to think about a play.

HOWLAND: Yeah!

ENNI: Was it fun, I mean, did you feel like writing plays was…?

HOWLAND: Oh, it was so much fun, oh yeah! It was really—I loved it, um, and yet, I wasn’t really drawn to playwriting professionally, but I… I don’t know. It was sort of like, I was into the creative process.

ENNI: Yeah, were you more, was it more, I’m curious about that, with plays was it more that you were interested in performing what you were writing, or, were you thinking about it that way…?

HOWLAND: I think both, like hard to pull it apart. Hard to separate them. So it wasn’t just writing so I had something to perform, it was both the act of writing and the performance of it.

ENNI: Yeah, and just ‘cause it’s so different from writing, or like writing novels.

HOWLAND: It is!

ENNI: But, when you’re writing a novel, you are performing it, and you’re kind of performing all the roles… Like, I keep coming back lately, to the idea of the novelist as like, a total control freak. Because in something like a play, there’s an element of trust once you are done writing it—trust of yourself to perform it, trust of someone else… 

HOWLAND: Right.

ENNI: Trust of all the people that are involved in putting a play together.

HOWLAND: Right.

ENNI: That can be really, really amazing, like you’ve experienced, like, a community, but it can also be like, nerve-wracking if it’s not really your vision at some point. 

HOWLAND: That’s true, I, so… When I had like, the transition to writing novels, that’s sort of where we’re going, it became clear just like, flashing forward, that it was very difficult to do both, to pursue both writing and performing. And I needed to kind of—like, throw a day job in there. 

ENNI: Right.

HOWLAND: And you can’t—like, you’ve gotta make some choices. 

ENNI: Mmm hmm.

HOWLAND: And I wanted to pursue writing because I felt like acting, sort of was so hard on my psyche, like the auditioning process, and the actors in the position of someone else giving them permission to do their art, and I couldn’t… So, back to the control freak thing, I was like, “I want to be able to do this without anyone giving me— hiring me to do it.”

ENNI: Yeah, yeah.

HOWLAND: Just, because, I need to express myself! 

ENNI: Mmm hmm!

HOWLAND: So, um, I made the decision to like, pursue writing. And, for a while I was doing screenwriting

ENNI: Okay.

HOWLAND: And then I realized I was more interested in the internal narrative than the art of making everything visual.

ENNI: Yeah, which is so distinctive. 

HOWLAND: Very different.

ENNI: Yeah.

HOWLAND: Very different kinds of storytelling, and I felt much stronger at the other one. So, at being like, going on a sort of internal journey. And there’s a lot more latitude, in my mind, with language, with novel writing than with screenwriting.

ENNI: Yeah.

HOWLAND: So that’s the whole—that’s like how I went from here to here.

ENNI: So I’d love to hear you just, pick apart some of the details, like, what was it like to move to New York?

HOWLAND: It was crazy, scary… I think slightly damaging. 

ENNI: Really.

HOWLAND: Like, I think it was slightly traumatic, like I am… Like going straight from college to trying to be an actress in New York, I would not recommend that to like, my worst enemy—I have enemies.

ENNI: Really?

HOWLAND: I learned a lot, but I thought it was like, it’s easy to kind of like cutesify the experience and be like, “I was a young actress in New York and like, I was taking it on!” 

ENNI: Right.

HOWLAND: But really the day in and day out of that life was SO hard. And very like, a very high level of difficulty and a very low level of nurturing and support.

ENNI: Is that what you mean by damaging, like there was no—there were no people there to like help you; you’re kind of…?

HOWLAND: It was like, it was, maybe “damaging” is too like, victimizing—I don’t think of like, “victim” me, ‘cause that’s not how I feel, it was totally my choice, and I kind of emerged from it as almost a different being. It was just kind of crushing to move to a huge city with a very like, vague plan, and not a big support network, and no idea how—like this huge, expensive city, and sort of no idea how to survive. It was really like throwing myself into the most difficult situation possible.

ENNI: Right, I think everyone, when they leave college goes through a pretty rough, like—

HOWLAND: Yeah, it’s true.

ENNI: —“being introduced into the real world” like process— 

HOWLAND: Yeah.

ENNI: And what you’re saying is that, that happened in the most intense way that it could possibly happen.

HOWLAND: Yeah, exactly.

ENNI: And place that it could possibly happen, really. But it’s so funny, I’m so interested in hearing about—

HOWLAND: “Damaging” might have been too strong a word. 

ENNI: No, I know—

HOWLAND: It was just very difficult.

ENNI: Yeah, I mean, I don’t think that’s wrong, because there’s—we all get roughed around in that time of life.

HOWLAND: Yeah, so true.

ENNI: Um, but I love talking to people who live in New York, but don’t stay.

HOWLAND: Yeah.

ENNI: Because I could never live in New York, and we’ve all heard a bunch of stories of how it’s the best place on Earth.

HOWLAND: Right.

ENNI: And they are very good at selling themselves. 

HOWLAND: Right.

ENNI: But it’s also like, one of the loneliest places.

HOWLAND: Yeah, I got into this theatre company that made the whole thing worth it, because it was that it took, like two years to find it, and for that to be my life, and… That saved the experience for me, because it was the most—it was such an amazing group of people, and artists, and I grew so much, it was FANTASTIC. There was like, a very heavy price to pay to get to that.

ENNI: Right.

HOWLAND: Like, that’s what people pay for in grad school, and I had to pay it in like, hard knocks.

ENNI: [laughs] Yeah. Yeah, yeah yeah!

HOWLAND: And then I—you weren’t—I wasn’t paid to be in it, so I still had to support my life. But that was the grad school sort of experience that I was looking for, and I couldn’t have gotten it anywhere else, I don’t think. And I’m so glad I had that experience. It’s not meant to be… This particular theatre, that I was a part of, at that particular time. You’re supposed to like, get what you can out of it, put yourself into it, and move on.

ENNI: Right.

HOWLAND: It’s not some place you like, settle down in forever. So once I’d like, cycled through, I spent another maybe, year in New York, and then I was like, “I am OUT.” I’d like—I got what I could get, and now I am DONE. It was time to go.

ENNI: And… What do you mean by “go”?

HOWLAND: Um, leave—I was like, I just had to get out of the city, because I wasn’t really—I wasn’t sure… If I wasn’t going to be an actress in New York, I wasn’t sure what I was. It’s like, no place to like, to discover yourself. Or like, take a breath. Or take a beat.

ENNI: It’s hard to be wishy washy in New York, because you have to pay an enormous amount of rent.

HOWLAND: Yeah.

ENNI: You can’t really like, sit back on your laurels, when all that is expected of you. 

HOWLAND: No, you move at an incredibly fast pace, and when you’re kinda confused, it’s hard to keep up that pace.

ENNI: Yeah.

HOWLAND: So I was like, “I am super confused,” and like, I’ve moved now like, I started off like, in Manhattan and I was like, slowly moving out, and then I was like, WAY out in Queens.

ENNI: Oh yeah.

HOWLAND: And I was like, “What the hell am I doing here anyway?! I’m just going to like, back all the way up now, and just… Bye.”

ENNI: So at this moment, you were thinking you maybe still wanted to act, or you were like “I’m done with all of this”?

HOWLAND: No I, I was like, I’m done. I’m done. I got what I was looking for.

ENNI: Yeah.

HOWLAND: I loved being a part of that theatre company, I felt like that was SO unique, and such a high point in my life.

ENNI: Yeah.

HOWLAND: But I didn’t think I was in acting for the long haul, because I’d seen and experienced the side of it that was just like, rejection after rejection after rejection, and the superficiality of it, and I… I didn’t know how to make a meaningful life with that as my like, milieu, I don’t—

ENNI: No, and that’s, what’s so interesting and such a good point, tying back to what you were saying about—so you were sort of looking for like, a sustainable creative life.

HOWLAND: Yeah.

ENNI: And books are so much easier to do every day.

HOWLAND: Yeah, you don’t need anyone else. You don’t need a sound guy. You don’t need a million dollars. You don’t need to fund it on Kickstarter.

ENNI: Yeah, you don’t even need to look nice doing it! 

HOWLAND: No!

ENNI: You can just roll out of bed and make writing happen. 

HOWLAND: Yeah, that was, and I was like, “Oh, and I LOVE this.”

ENNI: So, so, by that time, which—how old are we talking about when you’re…? 

HOWLAND: Twenty…six?

ENNI: Okay, so—and I was going to guess that for some reason, because that seems like one of these ages—

HOWLAND: Yeah, twenty-seven. Twenty-six or twenty-seven. 

ENNI: By then you were already starting writing novels?

HOWLAND: I moved home for a little bit, to Rhode Island. And I got a waitressing job, at that point I had like, a REALLY hot waitressing resume, like any restaurant in Rhode Island was going to like, snap me up.

ENNI: [laughs] That’s awesome.

HOWLAND: I just needed to like, chill, for like, a little bit, and I got this idea for a book. And like, it worked, it was like moving home, feeling nurtured… Taking the pressure off, I got—I started to get this idea for a book, because an actor got this job waitressing near Brown University, and a lot of famous people’s kids go to Brown, and a lot of famous people, like—

ENNI: Emma Watson went there.

HOWLAND: Yeah, tons of—yeah. And, um, this actor—Peter Boyle, was in the restaurant, and I was chatting with him like, I said, “I loved YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN.” And he was so hysterical! And he started telling me about like, all the—I was like, “I used to be an actress, I guess I’m always an—I don’t know.” You know? And he was like, so warm and receptive, and telling me about all the jobs he’d had. As… when he was like, struggling to pay the rent, and he worked at a post office, was the one. And I was like, “What a fun idea for a book, to like, talk to a bunch of actors about some of the jobs that they had.”

ENNI: Yeah.

HOWLAND: And then I was able to get some interviews, like, once I had the idea I was like, “Alright, I’m ready to put my energy towards this.”

ENNI: Yeah.

HOWLAND: So it was non-fiction.

ENNI: Yeah, that’s so interesting!

HOWLAND: I made like—I bought a book about how you write a book, and I sent out— I wrote a proposal, I wrote sample chapters, and I sent it out to a bunch of agents, and the agent who responded is my agent today.

ENNI: Really?! 

HOWLAND: Yeah!

ENNI: On this non-fiction proposal—

HOWLAND: On this non-fiction book, and this is… 

ENNI: That’s so interesting.

HOWLAND: Many, many years later. 

ENNI: That’s…fascinating. 

HOWLAND: Yeah!

ENNI: Okay… so, where does that project go? What happened with that?

HOWLAND: It didn’t work! It was like, she was like, really young. We both were the same age, and she was a foreign rights assistant. But she was on her way up, and, um… 

ENNI: What’s her name?

HOWLAND: Sara Crowe.

ENNI: Okay—oh yeah! Of course.

HOWLAND: I was like, “Oh, I love her name, she sounds like she should be my agent!” 

ENNI: [laughs] That’s amazing.

HOWLAND: And I met her in New York, and I was like, “Are you my agent now?” And she was like, “It’s up to you!” And I was like, “Then you’re my agent!”

ENNI: Oh my gosh.

HOWLAND: And so we went out with this book, and um, we didn’t… It just didn’t quite work, because that’s like a whole different skill, interviewing.

ENNI: Oh yeah.

HOWLAND: And I don’t… [laughs] I was afraid to make anybody uncomfortable!

ENNI: Yeah, yeah yeah!

HOWLAND: I just wanted to be really sweet, and nice… 

ENNI: Yeah.

HOWLAND: And somebody said—some, actually, big to do in publishing, I can’t remember. I remember his first name was Eman but I don’t remember his last name, was like, “It’s her voice that’s really working. The rest of the book isn’t working, but her voice is really great!” And Sara was like, “That’s a really big deal. Maybe you should just write this story using your voice, and like, forget about the interviews.” And I was like, “Oh, okay.” And in the meantime I had a middle grade, like, idea—or no, at that time it might have been a picture—it started off as a picture book idea, so we were just like, growing together.

ENNI: Yeah. 

HOWLAND: You know? 

ENNI: That’s so amazing!

HOWLAND: Yeah, and then I went out to do—after a while like, nothing seemed to pan out, I tried screenwriting for a while and then realized, like, I was better at the other thing, but went back to the other thing with like, all the screenwriting knowledge.

ENNI: Yeah.

HOWLAND: And then NANTUCKET BLUE was born, and Sara—I like e-mailed Sara after, you know, like a four-year hiatus.

ENNI: Right, right right.

HOWLAND: As she like, shot up the stratosphere. 

ENNI: Yeah, she’s like, a really big deal.

HOWLAND: She was like, um, “Oh yeah. This is it.” And we sold it in like a week. 

ENNI: Really?! Oh my gosh.

HOWLAND: Yeah, so like, however, I don’t even want to mention how many years later, but so many years later.

ENNI: That’s amazing. 

HOWLAND: Yeah.

ENNI: Okay, so, so let’s talk about NANTUCKET BLUE, how that came, well like, you opened a bunch of different threads I don’t want to miss. Um, how did the idea for NANTUCKET BLUE—well, I don’t want to not talk about screenwriting, because I think it’s really interesting, and also like, what you—mentioning bringing the screenwriting stuff to writing, there’s so much that applies, that’s really helpful. 

HOWLAND: Right.

ENNI: So what would you say were some things that you DID enjoy and wanted to bring to novel writing, from the screenwriting?

HOWLAND: Just the structure, like how to actually structure a story, ‘cause I hadn’t thought about that much.

ENNI: Right.

HOWLAND: I’ve never ben somebody who’s obsessed with movies—my husband is OBSESSED with movies, and he’s AMAZING with structure because he’s watched so many movies, and written a lot of movies that it’s—it’s like second nature. But in college I was reading like, Milan Kundera or whoever—I don’t think there’s a lot of structure there to internalize.

ENNI: No, yeah.

HOWLAND: And I was really obsessed with poetry, which was like, the poetry that I was obsessed with was not structured poetry. Like, it was… So I didn’t really have… I hadn’t paid that much attention to it, and screenwriting forced me to pay attention to it. 

ENNI: Yeah.

HOWLAND: It was another like, really important learning experience.

ENNI: Yeah, that’s—that’s something I keep learning, just like, talking to screenwriters and stuff like that, it’s like “Wow!” Just the way that they think about it is helpful when you’re stuck. You can be like “Oh, well there’s—there’s this thing that can help me—it’s called a plot, and I can figure that out!”

HOWLAND: Right, I also think it has its limitations. It’s really refreshing to come across that doesn’t feel like it was written with SAVE THE CAT right next to it, being like, “Okay, I’m on page 24 which is—” You know?

ENNI: Yeah.

HOWLAND: Even though I love SAVE THE CAT, there are moments when I’m like, “Oh god, it’s a SAVE THE CAT thing.” You know?

ENNI: Yeah. [laughs]

HOWLAND: Um, so I think it’s like really amazing to like go totally in that direction, and fall back from it a little bit.

ENNI: Yeah, and free up a little bit, you kind of let the air in. 

HOWLAND: Yeah.

ENNI: Because screenwriting also has to be airtight, like, REALLY, what was the movie I saw recently—CLOVERFIELD LANE, where I watched it and it was really like, “Whoa!” It was so smart, so fun, so like, nonstop. And then at the end I was like, “There’s very little room to breathe in that, though.”

HOWLAND: Right, right.

ENNI: Because it was—because everything mattered and it was so important all the time and it was like, well, you know, sometimes it’s just like, THE GODFATHER wedding scene, and you’re just like panning across weird people’s faces, and, so yeah, it’s really interesting to kind of compare those.

HOWLAND: Right.

ENNI: But, okay, so you decide that novel writing sounds—seems better.

HOWLAND: Yeah.

ENNI: Then, was NANTUCKET BLUE always a novel idea that had started the screenplay?

HOWLAND: No, and now that I’m like—sorry, now I’m going back in more detail, and there was another book in between that I had contacted Sara about, that was like our reconnection. And she did try to sell it for a while, and it didn’t sell, and then NANTUCKET BLUE was next.

ENNI: Okay.

HOWLAND: And so—and how could I block that out; that was like, several years of that novel.

ENNI: [laughs]

HOWLAND: It’s just been a lot, like— 

ENNI: Yeah.

HOWLAND: —I’m covering a lot of green here. 

ENNI: Oh yeah.

HOWLAND: I’m covering a lot of territory.

ENNI: It’s rare that someone asks you to chronologically go through your life; I understand that! [laughs]

HOWLAND: And then, she was—that, that novel was for adults, and it never occurred to me to like, I was like, “Oh, I really liked that agent, why would I go elsewhere?” Even though that wasn’t necessarily—she was such a specialist in YA.

ENNI: Right.

HOWLAND: I mean, she does other stuff, and does it well, but she was like, “You really have a voice for YA.”

ENNI: Yeah.

HOWLAND: “I really think that the next one should be YA.” 

ENNI: Interesting!

HOWLAND: And, um—because I wasn’t reading YA on my own. 

ENNI: Okay.

HOWLAND: And then she made some recommendations, and I was like “Oh my god! Oh my god. This is what I should be writing.”

ENNI: Do you remember what some of those books were, that…?

HOWLAND: Yes, the um, DISREPUTABLE HISTORY OF FRANKIE LANDAU- BANKS. When I saw it I was like, oh my god, Kristin Tracy’s book. I’ve got it; it’s such a good book. I love Kristin Tracy’s voice. Um, but it was E. Lockhart, really.

ENNI: Yeah.

HOWLAND: I was like, “Oh, ugh, perfect!”

ENNI: Yeah, that’s so great! Um, so then, that’s so interesting that yeah, young adult—so, she was kind of saying that that was sort of the right voice.

HOWLAND: Yeah, and then I had the screenwriting stuff and I was like, “Alright, what’s a good—” And then I had had like, a personal experience with a friendship falling apart. And NANTUCKET BLUE is like, the heart—beating heart of it is a friendship falling apart. And I thought like, on a personal level I really needed to explore that phenomenon—

ENNI: Yeah.

HOWLAND: —of losing a best friend over an inappropriate, like, in the book, it was, the main character speaks, uninvited, at her best friends’ father’s memorial service. And it was—it’s like, so, like, such a crossing of the line.

ENNI: Right.

HOWLAND: That was so, really well-intentioned, and that moment, like, having like, I had sort of had a parallel experience as an adult, that was—filled me with so much shame and feeling every time I remembered it. A very well-intentioned misstep. That I knew that there was like, a lot of fire there, and I wanted to write about it. 

ENNI: So in your experience in real life, you were Cricket, you were…?

HOWLAND: It was me; yes, that was the experience. And then, it was a different— totally different circumstances, but, it was a—yeah, it was a similar emotional experience.

ENNI: And how old were you when that happened? This was not high school, right? 

HOWLAND: No, this was like… thirty-two?

ENNI: Okay, because, yeah, the female friendships books exploring that are, you know, super fascinating, because they’re very unique relationships, and very uniquely kind of intense relationships.

HOWLAND: You know, what’s interesting is that… When I wrote NANTUCKET BLUE, I couldn’t find books about it. It was all romance. I could not find—and I maybe A) wasn’t looking very hard or B) it started to trend later. Because I feel like now there are lots of books about female friendship falling—like, female friendship. But in 2011, or, when I started writing NANTUCKET BLUE, I was so desperate to read about that experience, or see a movie about it, or… And there was nothing, and now there’s so much! This was like, pre-BRIDESMAIDS and pre…

ENNI: Right, right. 

HOWLAND: You know?

ENNI: Which is amazing. It’s great to see so much more. 

HOWLAND: Yeah, it is!

ENNI: To see it explored more.

HOWLAND: That was another reason why I wanted to write it.

ENNI: Well, and I was going to say, and also great for you to say like, “Well, I’m not seeing it, so I’m going to write it!” But scary!

HOWLAND: It didn’t feel scary—it felt inevitable. And, that sounds really pretentious, but I felt like I had to do it. It felt like, “This is what I’m doing. This is how I’m going to get through this.”

ENNI: So it was, you were writing it… I’m interested in sort of like, the confluence of it, you both are given this idea of writing for young adults, and sort of young adult events. 

HOWLAND: Yeah.

ENNI: And is that like, while you’re currently dealing with the friendship fallout, or…? 

HOWLAND: Yeah.

ENNI: Okay, so it kind of just like all came together.

HOWLAND: Yeah, and I was like, oh I, you know, I was really reading um, just like devouring—Elin Hilderbrand writes books that take place on Nantucket, and that’s all she writes, for adults. And I was like, “Oh, that’s such a great setting for young adults!” 

ENNI: Oh!

HOWLAND: Like, I was like, there are a couple of women who’ve made their like, huge careers out of writing about Nantucket for adults. And I was like, this was, nobody— again, maybe I’m sure I didn’t do enough research, I’m sure I’m like leaving something out—I hadn’t read or seen anything about it.

ENNI: Yeah.

HOWLAND: Actually, Josephine Angelini I think had written like, a high fantasy that was Nantucket based.

ENNI: Yeah.

HOWLAND: But nothing that was contemporary/realistic. And it’s such a perfect setting for young adults, because it’s like, young adults have the run of the—young adults, like young people have the run of the place.

ENNI: Yeah.

HOWLAND: Like, parents are doing their own partying, and the kids have—are kind of free to roam. It felt like, perfect and delicious.

ENNI: Yeah, yeah, well I was—because I was going to ask if there—if you had done any, like, if you summered in—

HOWLAND: I had spent one summer there. 

ENNI: You did?

HOWLAND: I spent one summer—yeah. 

ENNI: In Nantucket?

HOWLAND: In Nantucket. 

ENNI: Okay.

HOWLAND: Working as a—as a chambermaid.

ENNI: Oh my god, really?! So that was based on real life? Wow. Oh my god—that’s amazing.

HOWLAND: And I was like, “Oh, this is perfect!” And then I ran the idea by Sara and she was like “Oh yeah, yeah yeah, that’s good, that’s really good.” And then, um, she like—I didn’t realize this before I presented the idea to her, but she grew up spending her summers on Nantucket.

ENNI: Really?

HOWLAND: Yeah. She’s like “Oh, yeah, yeah, that’s good.” And when I sent her the first draft she wrote—this is so fun to relive this moment, because there were many years of like trying different artistic pursuits and not getting a lot of feedback. And Sara was like, my one shining like, whiff of like, hope for the future. She wrote back like, the next like, “I read it overnight.” Like, it was like a dream.

ENNI: Oh good!

HOWLAND: A dream e-mail to get, I was engaged, I think I was engaged at the time to my then fiancé, my husband now, I was like, “She was into this! She loved this!”

ENNI: That’s so great! 

HOWLAND: Yeah!

ENNI: And especially great to get that kind of feedback when something is so personal. 

HOWLAND: Yeah, there were a couple of threads there, she was like, “I think we can take out that storyline,” and I was like “Okay…”

ENNI: [laughs] But that you were on the right track, and it was really like, working, that’s so cool!

HOWLAND: Yeah, yeah!

ENNI: The, okay, I do want to—so, I love that that’s how you came to writing about Cape Cod and Nantucket, because I feel the same way when I think about those kind of stories, like that it’s so, almost, it’s almost like writing about a fantasy world.

HOWLAND: Yeah.

ENNI: Because it is such a place unto itself, and its whole like feeling and everything, it’s so interesting. And also the idea of writing summer stories.

HOWLAND: Oh yeah.

ENNI: That’s also this very interesting kind of world within a world, and like a heightened time of life, I mean, did you always know you wanted it to be over one summer, or…?

HOWLAND: NANTUCKET BLUE? 

ENNI: Yeah.

HOWLAND: Oh yeah, I was like, “Perfect, okay, I can handle that.” [both laugh]

ENNI: So it felt like a manageable…

HOWLAND: The novel I had written before that had been over the course of a year, and it was like… epic, you know? I was like, “Oh GOD, we’re only in February?!” You know?

ENNI: [laughs] Yeah, yeah, yeah—it was like the HARRY POTTER problem.

HOWLAND: So, yeah.

ENNI: So, it was kind of, was that what was driving it, or did it come to you like it could be this summer romance?

HOWLAND: Oh, well I knew it was going to take place in Nantucket. 

ENNI: Right.

HOWLAND: And so, in high school you’re only there for the summer. 

ENNI: Right.

HOWLAND: So, there you go. 

ENNI: How interesting! 

HOWLAND: Problem solved.

ENNI: And it’s a good way around all of the like, what class are they in, and whatever— like it’s kind of challenging to write a book in a high school, because it’s so structured that there’s not a lot of room for kids to be running around the halls unsupervised. I kind of want to wrap it into, like, what I was going to ask you a little about like, themes, because, not only is the NANTUCKET BLUE and NANTUCKET RED series, um, takes place, but the FORGET ME NOT SUMMER, and the BRIGHTEST STARS OF SUMMER.

HOWLAND: Yeah.

ENNI: Also similar, um, similar stories in the same area. And it seemed to me that summer was sort of, has come to maybe serve your stories in like a catalyst, or like… You seem to be exploring moments where people’s lives change.

HOWLAND: Yeah.

ENNI: And that—like the summer story is a good way to make that all-encompassing, in like a moment.

HOWLAND: Yeah, I think that tends to be a, like a transformative time for kids, because there’s a break in their structure, and there’s a chance to go to a different world, whether it’s summer camp, or a vacation community, or just a break from school. You know? Where you have… An opportunity to kind of be someone else, or grow in a new way, because you’re not so, um, directed. Or you’re in a new place, and you have an opportunity to go in a new direction. They both started as standalones, and luckily I had the opportunity to turn them both into series.

ENNI: Oh good!

HOWLAND: So, that—I did write two standalones in the summer, not expecting that I was going to always writing in the summer. 

ENNI: Yeah, yeah yeah!

HOWLAND: But that’s how it…

ENNI: How it ended up; that’s really neat, though! Was it—did you say like, “Oh, I have this idea if you want another one?”

HOWLAND: For the middle grade? 

ENNI: For either, I guess. 

HOWLAND: Oh… No.

ENNI: So they were like… 

HOWLAND: They were just like— 

ENNI: “We could do with another?”

HOWLAND: Yeah, “Let’s do three!” And I’m, I’m like, “Alright, let’s do it!” 

ENNI: That’s cool!

HOWLAND: I’m not going to say no! 

ENNI: Yeah.

HOWLAND: So yeah, that’s how that worked out, and I’m very—very happy about that. 

ENNI: Yeah, that’s really…

HOWLAND: The next, my next book coming out, I was like “This is not taking place in the summer,” if only because I need to vary my publishing gates.

ENNI: Oh yeah, I totally agree.

HOWLAND: Instead of having every… being on the same cycle, I mean I need to stagger my…

ENNI: Yeah.

HOWLAND: Yeah.

ENNI: [laughs] Okay, um, let’s, okay, let’s talk a little bit about the middle grade, and then I definitely want to talk about the new project, too. The—so the, I love that NANTUCKET BLUE like, felt so personal and it was kind of like, barging into a new career and everything, and then what was behind the choice to try a younger audience? 

HOWLAND: Uh, I was so immersed in the YA world that I wanted to zag a little from it. I mean, it’s such an amazing world, and—I mean, I read some middle grade, and I felt like it’s more of an outward facing—I know it’s not a genre, it’s an age group, whatever, for lack of a better word.

ENNI: Yeah.

HOWLAND: I know it’s not a genre, but that’s how I’m using the word. I’ve been corrected on that, like on panels. So, um, anyway, it’s a more outward facing genre rather than inward, and there was something very appealing about like, exploring a sense of wonder at the world, which is more natural for that age group. And I was craving more of that rather than an internal-facing, YA tends to be more…

ENNI: It’s navel-gazing. 

HOWLAND: Yeah. 

ENNI: Yeah, yeah yeah.

HOWLAND: So, that, that’s what I was like, drawn to that, and I, I don’t know—I needed to do something a little different.

ENNI: Yeah, and how did the idea of writing about sisters come about?

HOWLAND: Oh, well I was—she’s not a little girl anymore, the young woman who, what’s her name—she plays Sally Draper.

ENNI: Oh, yeah yeah, I don’t know her name, but I know who you’re talking about. 

HOWLAND: Kiernan Shipka, she lives in this neighborhood, and I was seeing her at like the farmer’s market and I was like—at the time, she looked about twelve, and I was like, what must it be like to be that put together, and sort of in this middle ground of famousness at such a young age, and then I thought like, even more interesting, what would it be like to be her spazzy younger sister, who doesn’t have the same poise or physique, what would that relationship be like? And it seemed this character emerged— the sister, that, and it, a friend of mine told me this story, she’s—her mom is this like, willowy blonde, and she’s like “I just take after my grandma on my dad’s side,” who’s like this short, stocky, like wiry, frizzy haired lady. And I’m… I feel, she’s like, “I was very aware of this difference growing up,” and so, that to me seemed very comical for some reason.

ENNI: Yeah! That is interesting. And of course, pulling from your life as far as someone who’s acting, or drawn to that, and contrasting with like, the, whatever we look like, like the inner part of us, the part of us that’s like, “Ughhh,” like…

HOWLAND: Right, exactly! It’s more about the internal, and like the sense of, “I want to be someone else,” like, “I want to be her.” And I did grow up with—I had an older brother, and we have a really harmonious—always had like this super harmonious relationship, and then I had a younger sister, and we had a more fraught, but very like, lovely relationship. And um, she copied me so much growing up, and I felt her infringement on my identity. And it drove me crazy. And in response, I could be a little mean. Like, even though I was just trying to preserve this identity that I was, had, was carving out for myself. So I was interested in looking at that, from both sisters’ point of view.

ENNI: Yeah, that’s fascinating to me! Uh, because I only have a brother, and we were so far apart that it was like, not the same at all.

HOWLAND: Yeah.

ENNI: So when people are talking about sister stories and sister relationships it’s like, that stuff is so interesting, and so, I mean, it’s just like complex female friendships, you know?

HOWLAND: Right.

ENNI: It’s like, everyone’s different, and there’s so much of comparing and loving, and the line between love and hate, and all that stuff.

HOWLAND: Right, right right. 

ENNI: It’s fascinating.

HOWLAND: I felt there was a lot to mine there. 

ENNI: Yeah, and then with their aunt, too like.

HOWLAND: Yes.

ENNI: Like the aunt relationship is so different from the mom, and like…

HOWLAND: Right.

ENNI: That’s so fun— 

HOWLAND: Right.

ENNI: —and kind of adorable.

HOWLAND: There was a—I had a—grew up with a really wonderful great aunt who was like, who’d been a science teacher, who was SO sage, just so wise, and so important to me growing up that I guess I wanted to bring that character kind of, back to life for myself. It was like a… I don’t know, act of love.

ENNI: So it’s almost, almost in memory, kind of?

HOWLAND: Yeah, yeah, but in this way it feels kind of—I don’t know, she’s her own person in the book, but she, her friend, my great aunt’s friend and coworker lives in Nantucket, and she’s now in her 90s, and she showed me around Nantucket while I was doing research for my book. And she reminded me of my aunt so much, and I just was like, “Augh,” she brought her back to my memory so vividly.

ENNI: That’s so cool; that’s really special. 

HOWLAND: Yeah.

ENNI: It’s like, amazing, what you’ve been able to put in, so many kind of diamonds and the—like, I like that of bringing a, bringing someone you love into the book, and making the book feel better.

HOWLAND: Yeah.

ENNI: With their presence as a part of it. 

HOWLAND: Yeah.

ENNI: That’s really cool, well, this is kind of a silly question, but really quick before we talk about the new story: is that, summer is also in these Nantucket stories and east coast summer stories always make me feel conflicted feelings, because it’s such a romantic thing for people from the east coast, and I’m not from the east coast. So I feel this like, contrarian inside of me that’s like, “That’s not what summer feels like!”

HOWLAND: Right.

ENNI: But it is for like, so many more people. Um, do you feel like writing about summer in Cape Cod was a way for you to just like, like is that what summer is to you? 

HOWLAND: I think so. I mean, yeah, that I—well, yes. It’s a little bit of like, wish fulfillment is the, I don’t know. A part of me wished, you know, like Cricket wishes that she got to have a house on Nantucket.

ENNI: Right.

HOWLAND: And she didn’t, she was a chambermaid, and I’m not trying to make myself be like, “Poor me!”

ENNI: [laughs] Right.

HOWLAND: Like I grew up in Rhode Island, and I lived an east coast life because that’s where my family was from, but I didn’t have that summer house experience, and I wanted it SO badly. So, part of it is like, living out that childhood desire of that east coast fantasy with like, the old house, with like a family house…

ENNI: Summering like a Kennedy.

HOWLAND: Yeah, exactly! I mean, I just didn’t have that. As much as I wanted it, growing up.

ENNI: And I think that’s part of like, what’s so fascinating to me about it, it is this pull, because it’s an American myth, really.

HOWLAND: Yeah.

ENNI: This kind of like, “well we’re summering,” and like, whatever. 

HOWLAND: Right.

ENNI: And it’s just, it’s like, it feels so—it’s like written in our bones culturally, in some way, which is so interesting.

HOWLAND: Right, right!

ENNI: So it’s fun to see you play with it and have you be the chambermaid! It was just hilarious. Um, okay, the new project—which I just read the Goodreads description of, so I don’t know too much about it, but it is…

HOWLAND: Oh, I haven’t even read—I haven’t seen the Goodreads description!

ENNI: It’s up there! It’s like “UNTITLED,” but it says an eighteen-year-old girl who can’t get into college, because of…

HOWLAND: Oh yeah!

ENNI: So, do you want to give us the way—kind of the rundown? 

HOWLAND: Yeah, sure! So the title, it’s called HELLO, SUNSHINE

ENNI: Awesome.

HOWLAND: And, um, it’s meant to be a little ironic, it takes—the title—because it takes place in LA, where as we both know there is like, endless amounts of sunshine, but there can also be sort of a darkness to that relentless sunshine. And I was talking about how hard it is to get into college now, and I heard about a girl who slipped through—she actually didn’t slip through the cracks, but she almost did.

ENNI: Okay.

HOWLAND: And I was like, “Oh, that’s a great idea,” for a girl like who, is privileged enough to be like, on track to just like, “Oh yeah, I’m going to college, it’s like, what everyone does.” And she falls through the cracks.

ENNI: And what do you mean, “falls through the cracks”?

HOWLAND: Um, doesn’t get in anywhere. 

ENNI: Oh, okay.

HOWLAND: But not because of any huge flaw, sort of like, she had like one black mark, one sort of like, suspension as a sophomore, and that was enough to give schools like the opportunity to put her in the “no” pile. And… I think that a lot more girls apply to colleges than boys, so colleges get a lot of like, girl applications, it’s—there’s a lot of competition.

ENNI: Yeah.

HOWLAND: If you are like, a pretty good girl, like, a lot. That’s like a very saturated market.

ENNI: Yeah.

HOWLAND: So she doesn’t get in, and she’s like, really deeply ashamed, and embarrassed. And in an effort to like, prove everybody wrong about—for feeling sorry for her, she moves to LA where she tries to make it as an actress.

ENNI: Amazing! 

HOWLAND: Yeah!

ENNI: Okay, so I want to talk about this in the context of you also moving to LA, and then moving now—you’re sort of creative endeavors to LA, what was it like to move here, and what are you exploring about that in writing about it?

HOWLAND: Um, I was—I loved moving here, it was such a like, refreshing, um, I mean. First I wanted this book to take place in New York. 

ENNI: Really?

HOWLAND: Yeah, um, but I felt so removed from what New York is now, because when I lived in New York, it was pre-9/11, and those are all my memories. And I just had had a, I was pregnant when I started this, and I was like, “I’m not going to be able to do research trips for this,” like I did with NANTUCKET BLUE, where I like went back on my own, and like. And I thought, you know that story of like, girl with a dream moves to New York, I have to—you have to make that really, really fresh in order for it to feel good. And I thought it would be more fun to do that in LA, where I have intimate knowledge of like, what life is like in LA. And if I don’t, I can explore it in my car. My initial instinct was to set it in New York, and then like practical stuff set in, and then I realized how much like, I hadn’t really written about LA, and that felt like a fun thing to do. Being an artist here has been so much, I don’t know if it was a function of my age—it not being a first like a crash into that world, but it’s been a much more pleasant experience. Or a more forgiving experience, I should say.

ENNI: Yeah, yeah!

HOWLAND: Her world is not forgiving, so, it’s her first experience with the real world, and even more so because she’s only eighteen.

ENNI: Right. Are you—so do you feel like you are sort of mining your experiences, your post-Georgetown experience, but just kind of putting it here?

HOWLAND: Yeah, and then—but then it’s just the emotional experience. 

ENNI: Right, because everything has to be a little…

HOWLAND: Everything has to be different, and in order for the writing to feel fresh. It has to be. It has to be different. Yeah. And I did use some of my experiences—like I’d lived in this like crazy building when I first moved to LA. Um, not the one I was telling you about earlier, but my first like, actual lease was in this place in—that I set the book, basically.

ENNI: Oh, okay!

HOWLAND: Yeah, where it was like, all studio apartments that—and it had like a very grand name, and it was really rundown, like it should have been condemned.

ENNI: [laughs] Wow.

HOWLAND: But it was so cheap! But there was no parking, no air conditioning, no heat. But like, you could—I could like pull it off.

ENNI: Yeah, yeah, totally. There’s a lot of that here, I think, because most of the time it’s fine.

HOWLAND: Right, it’s like, it’s fine!

ENNI: But when it’s hard you’re like, “Ahhh, I wasn’t counting on this!” So what was it—did you feel anything about, then, when you were writing about where you live, that writing is less of an escape? And I feel like, these four books that you’ve written so far are like, going to spend a summer in Nantucket, was that a different experience to have something that was present and like, around you all the time?

HOWLAND: Uh, it was—I think LA is so expansive, that it’s like, “Oh, I gotta set a scene in Malibu!” And that’s an escape, which is why I love this city so much like, in New York to escape you have to have a different lifestyle. Like, it’s going to be several hundred dollars to rent a car and escape, like, it’s a different. If you want to escape the city to me, it’s like, maybe I wasn’t creative enough or something, but it felt like I needed to be in a different income bracket. Whereas in LA it’s like, you can just get in your beat-up Honda Civic or whatever, and you can be on… A dramatic beach that makes you feel like you’re in the south of France in like, in an hour.

ENNI: Yeah, that’s true.

HOWLAND: And… or you can go see some incredible architecture, I’m thinking of Barnsdall Art Park, you know, I mean, there are so many ways that you can escape. 

ENNI: Yeah.

HOWLAND: That I don’t think—I just think that it’s the nature of this, and it tends to be a place that like, draws people who want to escape.

ENNI: Totally, yes!

HOWLAND: So I did get—I didn’t feel like, a big difference.

ENNI: Oh good, yeah, that’s, it’s just really interesting because I also write—I write two other places, so I haven’t written… Actually, I believe the minute I move away from someplace is when I get the idea to set a book in there, because it’s like, I think it’s processing leaving a place, too. But the idea of writing where you live is kind of exciting in that way, like your city, you can walk outside and get inspired!

HOWLAND: I think it was harder, though, in a way, it was a little more—oddly, strenuous, but I just didn’t have enough material to draw on, the material from New York, was so old—out of date.

ENNI: Right, right right! That’s so funny. And like, yeah, going and spending a month in—you just can’t, like.

HOWLAND: It is not possible! 

ENNI: [laughs] Yeah.

HOWLAND: But in the end, I was really happy it was here, like I said, it would have to be really… I would have to NAIL it, in terms of like, making it feel fresh.

ENNI: Yeah.

HOWLAND: If it was in New York. My friend, Kayla Cagan, is doing that with her… Yet to be, it’s like a sequel of a book that hasn’t even been published yet, but she’s setting it in the art world of New York, and that’s so specific, and kind of like a world that isn’t often seen in YA, or…

ENNI: Yeah.

HOWLAND: I don’t know—it’s kind of a unique take on that, that it does, like, she’s doing it! A girl moves to New York and like, takes on the city, and it feels really different, and really fresh, and I just didn’t feel like I had the world for that, since like, being a theatre actress in New York feels like a 1970s, like…
ENNI: [laughs] Right. It’s like that pendulum swing of thing where like, we need, it’ll be fresh again but like, for now it’s a little bit. Like one day we’ll all read vampires again, but it’s not tomorrow, you know? Um, that’s so interesting, so okay, I know you have to go.

HOWLAND: Yes.

ENNI: Like now or shortly—can you give advice really quick the—we kind of wrap up with advice, kind of general advice and maybe also for people who are—have come from other creative backgrounds, like what you would tell them about exploring writing? 

HOWLAND: Well, I feel like, with just general advice, someone told this to me—a playwright actually, in a playwriting class said, starting with um, something you’re obsessed with. Like, even if it’s something—this sounds very negative, but it’s the most vivid example coming to my mind, and there’s a lot of material in it, even if it’s something like the thing about yourself that you can’t stand—there’s a lot of material there. I don’t know, starting with an obsession, or something like, “Why does this always happen?!”

ENNI: Yes.

HOWLAND: “Why does it seem like, I can’t get a boyfriend?” Or partner, or whatever, like, whatever it is and just things that are really relatable are questions of like, “Why is it always that these types of people are always the types of people who do this type of thing?” Like something that’s driving you a little crazy, like exploring that is something that I find is—usually that means there’s like a hot button there for you.
ENNI: Totally.

HOWLAND: So if you can find a character living that, then it seems like, it’s a recipe for something with some real lifeblood in it.

ENNI: Yeah, I think that’s a really good—that’s a really good way to think about it. I’ve had a couple people on the podcast talk about making lists of things that preoccupy you, and it’s like, well, you’re interested in those things for a reason, whether it’s obvious to you or not. Try living with that stuff for a little bit, and see what comes up, it’ll be… Definitely, uniquely you.

HOWLAND: With NANTUCKET BLUE I was like, I really, in my own life, have made this like, gaff, you know, and I… Every time I thought about it, I was like, [gasps] and I think that feeling of like [gasps] can lead to like, a lot of creativity. A lot of momentum. 

ENNI: Yeah, it’s a strong feeling.

HOWLAND: And then um, oh, people coming from other backgrounds, like other artistic disciplines, I just feel like the more, like whatever—I read this book, and actually reviewed it for the LA Review of Books last year. Um, why is my memory failing me. The author was a painter, and you could feel that talent brought to the page. 

ENNI: Really?

HOWLAND: Juliana Romano is her name, anyway, I feel like bringing any talent— whether it’s like, for coding or like—this woman like, her images of LA were stunning. Like, I was like drooling and getting the chills. They were so good—because she was a visual artist. And so I think that can be a huge strength um, coming from a different artistic perspective that—like, not to be afraid to bring it full on, whatever…

ENNI: Yeah, that’s—I love that, and then of course it’s already about writing being something you can do without a tremendous amount of money or opportunity. You can just make it work.

HOWLAND: Or even time, you can even do it—one of my favorite, favorite quotes, is from a poet, Robert Hass, and it’s something to the tune of like, “You can do your life’s work in thirty minutes a day.”

ENNI: Oh interesting!

HOWLAND: And I think that’s true—I think you can, you can um, do your soul’s work in thirty minutes a day. So not being like, “Oh, well, I can’t take like six months off to write a novel.” But can you take a half hour?

ENNI: Yeah, yeah. Like it is funny, the people’s perception of like, well not a lot of people are taking six months out of their whole life to write a novel, like that isn’t really how it works. Um, dude, well thank you so much, this was so fun! And we should just talk again soon before—before the next one comes out.

[closing theme plays]

ENNI: Thank you so much to Leila. Follow her @LeilaHowland, and follow the show @FirstDraftPod and me @SarahEnni. You can also find the show on Facebook, and for sneak peaks at future guests, check out the show on Instagram. For show notes, including links to all the things Leila and I talked about in this episode, as well as notes for all previous episodes, and my favorite quotes from this and every conversation, check out firstdraftpod.com. If you like what you heard, subscribe to the podcast on iTunes! And/or think about leaving or rating or review there. Every five star review brings me the thrill of a summer romance. And thanks to everyone who filled out the First Draft Listener Survey. The answers were so great, and it’s got me thinking of a lot of ways to make the podcast better. Also, it inspired me to start a TinyLetter newsletter for the podcast to keep interested listeners up to date on what interviews to look out for, other podcast recommendations, news about upcoming live events, etc. etc. So, if you don’t mind getting an email from First Draft at most once or twice a month, check out the link to subscribe to the newsletter on Twitter, and the web site, and the Facebook, and everywhere. Thank you to Hash Brown for the theme song, and to Collin Keith and Maureen Goo for the logos. Thanks also to Sarah DeMont, the most amazingest intern there ever was. She’s been working on getting the First Draft archives looking all spiffy, so check out the website if you want to deep dive into the back catalog—it’s much easier now than it was. And, as ever, thanks so much to you, teen beach queens, for listening. 

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