First Draft, Ep. 85: Tahereh Mafi — Transcript
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 Tahereh Mafi, author of the New York Times best-selling Young Adult trilogy, SHATTER ME. Tahereh lives a hop, skip, and a jump from the boardwalk at Santa Monica, California. [Latin guitar music] It’s a place filled with a special kind of magic, roller coasters and elephant ears on a wooden pier, standing above the glittering blue pacific. Everything in Santa Monica seems to be in technicolor, including Tahereh’s home. It’s filled with brightly-colored objects, warm, natural light, and of course tons and tons of books. It feels oh so right for a woman who, with her first middle grade book FURTHERMORE, built a world where color is currency. But nothing is as vivid as Tahereh herself. We’ve been friends for many years since way back in the days when we would write TWILIGHT spoofs on our respective blogs. She was then, and remains still, one of the most kind, encouraging, and thoughtful people I know. We ended up talking for well over two hours in what was one of my very favorite conversations I’ve ever had for this podcast series. She is one smart cookie. So, without further ado, I urge you to make a delicious latte, curl up on a jewel tone sofa, and enjoy the conversation.
ENNI: Okay, so hi, how are you?
Tahereh MAFI: I’m good, how are you?
ENNI: Good, thanks for having me over!
MAFI: Thank you for coming all the way over here!
ENNI: So, as you know, I like to start these by going way back to the beginning, which is where were you born and raised?
MAFI: I was born in Connecticut, and I lived in Connecticut until I was about eleven, after which I moved to Northern California for a couple years, and then moved down to Southern California, which is where I’ve been ever since.
ENNI: So, I forgot that you were actually in Connecticut for so long!
ENNI: That’s a long time.
ENNI: Do you–what was it like where you were living? ‘Cause I think there was a bunch of different ways that Connecticut can be.
MAFI: Yeah, I [laughs], well it wasn’t great, I… Grew up in West Haven, Connecticut, which is right next to New Haven, Connecticut, which is–at least the last time I checked–the most dangerous city in the country. So, I grew up in a pretty dangerous area. It was far from ideal. We moved because my mom was like, “I have to get you guys out of here.”
ENNI: Like, “Done.”
ENNI: Are you the youngest of the siblings?
MAFI: Yeah, I’m the youngest, and I have four older brothers.
ENNI: Oh my gosh!
MAFI: So, yeah. It was quite an upbringing.
ENNI: And then to move all–I mean, that’s not across town, that’s…
MAFI: Yeah, my mom had a sister in Northern California–I think she’s still in Northern California, and she was just like, “Okay, that’s my north star. I don’t know anything about this place, but we’re going to pack up our life and drive across the country and hope that we’ll find something better on the other side.” It was a great move. It was hard and difficult, but it was really important and I think it totally changed the trajectory of our lives. So, that is how I came to California, and then Southern California happened because my mom’s company got bought out and they moved to Southern California, and they just took her with their company, and we came too. And so we landed here, and it’s so, so different here. I’ve had a lot of really interesting experiences, and my child was certainly very interesting.
ENNI: I’m totally gonna harp on this because I moved from Texas to California when I was twelve, so like, I feel like I’m really interested in this particular, moving at that age is so crazy, and moving that far, and to someplace that has such romantic connotations and like… Do you remember, or what do you remember of like, the feeling leading up to it? Like, knowing you were gonna move, and thinking about what this place was gonna be?
MAFI: That’s such an interesting and cool question, and I do–I do also want to say that you’re so right about that age, like, that eleven/twelve-year-old time of your life is like, it’s so critical. It’s like, everything is going to happen, and nothing is going to happen, and it’s all happening at exactly the same time. And it can change your life. It was like, the beginning of a new chapter in my life, and yet, at the same time, I don’t remember feeling excited. I felt kind of like, I guess, “We’ll see what happens.” And I wonder if I felt that way because we had moved so much already, I moved around a lot as a kid, and my parents are immigrants to this country who, you know, fought tooth and nail to be able to build a better life, and do so much more, and a lot of that included trying again. Starting over. And things happen, things fall apart and you have to rebuild. And so with that came the relocation of an entire family every time, and I had gotten used to letting go of things–of packing and moving and packing and moving and saying goodbye a lot, and I feel like I was just sort of like, “Okay. We’ll see what happens now.” You know? So I didn’t know what was waiting for me on the other side.
ENNI: Yeah, I feel like when you grow up like that, you’re resilient, but maybe too nervous to get too excited about something. Understanding, so young, how temporary place and people can be in a life, that’s like, kind of tough.
ENNI: It’s a different way to learn about yourself, with that as a background.
MAFI: Yeah, it’s really interesting for me to speak to people who have lived in the same place their whole lives, or they know people, they still keep in touch with people they’ve known since they were children, and I’m like, “Wow! What a luxury, what a privilege to be able to stay in one place for so long.” And to not have had the upheaval of life to uproot you constantly, and to move you to new places, and to be able to keep in touch with people. So, I don’t know anyone, really, from my childhood, or from elementary school or middle school–I don’t keep in touch with anyone from high school, you know? I barely keep in touch with people from college. And I think that’s because it’s just like how, I just always got used to saying goodbye, and sort of closing that door, and it’s very foreign to me, the keeping in touch thing.
ENNI: All of these things have good sides and bad sides, but I think what I’ve learned from having a similar experience was like, it’s easier for me to say goodbye when people–and I don’t mean this to sound callous, but when people have outlived their purpose in your life, I’m better able, I think, to recognize like, “Oh, this isn’t making me feel good anymore.” And it’s totally possible, and survivable to start over. And that’s really hard for people to learn when they’re fully grown adults, where those decisions have enormous consequences.
MAFI: Right, I think that is such a wise, wise and self-aware realization, because it’s so true and so important to know, that people, too, can be shed from your life, and it is survivable. And in fact, not only can it be survivable, but it can be the best thing for you. It’s like, a skin that you outgrow, you know, and sometimes people serve a purpose, like you said. And I don’t think that’s callous, at all, sometimes certain people are in our lives for a particular period of time, and that period of time was important and formative, and you know, informed who we are. But then you grow up. You have been affected, and now it’s time for you to move on. Sometimes those people can’t come with you.
ENNI: And it’s like… I think what we’re dancing around is this feeling of a bittersweetness–I’ve been trying to explain this to people, because I feel like for me it’s a feeling that I keep coming back to in what I write, like I keep trying to, and I think I feel like I’ve read this in your books, too, but I don’t want to put that on you. But when I’m writing, I’m looking at the exact crossroads, it’s a bittersweet and a poignancy because it’s like, beautiful to realize that something magical has happened to you, but you can only realize that when it’s ending, and then it becomes a memory, and you can never hold it again. So it’s this very ephemeral, you know, that’s what life is. These series of those kind of moments. So I feel like I keep trying to write to those moments, because I feel like they dominated my childhood. I think constantly having to say goodbye makes you put your life into chapters.
MAFI: Yeah, wow. That was really… You just tied that together so well. So, did you move around a lot as a kid, too?
ENNI: A bunch, yeah yeah yeah. I’ve still never lived anywhere longer than six years.
MAFI: Me neither.
ENNI: Yeah. What’s your longest?
MAFI: [laughs] Maybe five years, maybe. But I don’t remember that time. I was so little. So, yeah, no, I have always, always been moving. And I am so ready to stop moving. I’m so ready to just… The idea of planting myself in one place sounds so nice to me.
ENNI: So, anyway, I feel like that kind of sets the stage for a lot of what I’m going to talk to you about, but I do think, most particularly for those of us who write for young adults that exact age–I love how you said, actually, that everything is happening and nothing is happening. Because you’re so powerless, and at the same time you’re being shaped as an entire person. So it’s the kind of thing that we can and do spend our lives re-examining a little bit. I’d love to hear you talk about how, in growing up, how reading and writing was a factor for you.
MAFI: Oh my god it was my savior. Not the writing, I never really wrote much except to write poetry. I wrote a lot of poetry. Really dark, very, very sad poetry.
MAFI: I was an extremely angry, unhappy child.
MAFI: Yes. Because life was hard, it was really, really hard, and we moved a lot, and people were super racist, and it was like starting over, constantly. You know, it wasn’t like I ever had a support team that I could fall back on. Like, people are racist, and you sort of figure out which ones are racist, and then you find your friends, and you kind of, you know, huddle until it’s over–until school is over and you become an adult. I had to keep ripping off that bandaid and starting over again. So I got to experience racism in many, many, many forms. All over the country, from all different kinds of people: young, old, and everything in between, from all different religions and walks of life, and ethnicities and cultures, and it was fascinating, because everyone’s sort of got their own way of doing it.
ENNI: Their own unique brand!
MAFI: They bring something special to the table. And it was really hard, because I felt like there was no sanctuary, no safe space, I could never get comfortable, I could never find my people, my place, my tribe. The older I got, and the more powerless I was, the more difficult it became.
ENNI: How do you mean getting more powerless as you grow up?
MAFI: Because when you get older–I think at that age, when you’re about twelve, you really begin to feel deeply, and powerfully. Not that you don’t before then–I remember feeling deeply and powerfully even as a seven-year-old, five-year-old. But there’s something about this growing self-awareness that makes it more difficult to deal with this growing sense of powerlessness in your life, because you become so much more self-aware, you know who you are, or you’re beginning to understand who you are. And if you think you’re a human being who has any kind of self-worth, it becomes harder and harder to take other people’s garbage. And yet, you have no power. You have no means of running away, of leaving, of having agency, of speaking up to your teachers, who are horrible and racist and awful to you.
Like, you can’t do anything. All of the people in charge are your enemies. It just feels so crushing. And the older you get, the more you feel, but are still too inarticulate to confront that difficultly, and so you feel yourself sort of filling up with all of these unspoken hurts, and all of this–which is actually a line in FURTHERMORE, “unspoken hurts” – you just feel like you can’t control your life. Like you’ve lost all agency in the narrative of your own life. And I think it makes it so hard to get through the day when you feel like there’s no hope. And even though I had, you know, an amazing family, I was at that age where I kept everything inside of my own body, and my own head, you know, I wasn’t going to tell my parents. Like “Oh, school’s hard, people are mean.” My parents were fighting their own fights, they were fighting a much bigger struggle.
ENNI: Well, and, for you, your brothers didn’t have the same experience that you did.
ENNI: Not that they didn’t struggle on their own, but you were female, wearing a headscarf, looking this way, it’s different.
MAFI: It is different, I mean, they certainly went through hell majorly, but different. Not to say that one is worse or better than the other, but…
ENNI: But you couldn’t turn to them and say, “How did you deal with this particular thing?” There wasn’t a model for you.
MAFI: So it was like a… I was a really unhappy teenager, who, I mean–you know. You don’t know how to deal. You don’t know how to deal when someone wants to kill you, it’s like, that’s like a real problem. You’re a teenager, and it’s tough.
ENNI: So, a lot of the time, when people look to undermine teenagers, or underestimate them, they’re doing what you’re saying, which is like, they’re projecting onto teens this helplessness. People put so much on young people, and without remembering that they have literally no ability to do anything. They barely know who they are, and then you’re putting like, a lot of history onto them, and all of these things that, at that age, it’s like, you’re just catching up, and every part of your life and your heart and you can’t like, be responsible for that. But you have to.
MAFI: Yeah, you’re a teenager, you don’t–at a certain age, as a teenager, you can’t get a job, you can’t drive, you can barely leave your house. You can’t run away, they’ll return you to your parents.
ENNI: Your money is not technically your own.
MAFI: Nope. And when you read books about teenagers and like, so many readers who have this problem of like, blaming an angry teenager, or having undue expectations of a teenager, and I’m like, “Do you not remember what it was like to be a teenager?!” You feel everything, everything you’re experiencing is the worst thing that’s ever happened to you, or the best thing that’s ever happened to you, because it’s the only thing that’s ever happened to you. And yet, you have no power, and you can do nothing to truly save yourself, except turn to your friends, or turn inward, or do something reckless.
ENNI: Act out just to feel something, or to feel like you’re making a mark. Teenage rebellion is just like, “I can do something, even if it is destructive and not helpful–it’s something and I did it.” People talking about what characters should have done is like a special kind of torturous thing, because it’s like, not only are you saying that this sixteen-year-old should have had the very adult perceptive qualities that you want them to have, but also, that’s not an interesting story! Of course she shouldn’t have done this! But guess what, like, I’m writing a book here.
MAFI: Right, well, do you want to read a story about a person who did everything right and nothing wrong and lived a great life?
MAFI: Nobody wants to read that story, it’s so boring!
MAFI: But I just realized that I didn’t answer your original question, which was whether or not books and writing had a place in my life. The arts definitely had a place in my life, and books were the only other thing I ever did. So in my spare time I created things and I read things, and that was–god, if I didn’t have those two things, I would have been the saddest person on the planet. But books were my best friend. I especially loved contemporary novels, which is funny because I don’t write those books, but I love them. And I loved them growing up, because I never lived the typical American life that I read about in books like BABY-SITTERS CLUB and SWEET VALLEY HIGH and like, you know, those FULL HOUSE novels–god, I LOVED those TV shows! And those books, and those movies! Because I was always like, “Wow, what was that like?” To have that experience.
ENNI: So it was fantasy, in a way.
MAFI: It was my fantasy, in the way that most people escaped into LORD OF THE RINGS or whatever else, STAR WARS, my fantasy was the dream high school life. I loved reading those stories about what it would be like to be like, a pretty girl, who’s able to fall in love with the cool jock or whatever, 'cause that’s NEVER going to happen to me, so this is so definitely fantasy. I found it fascinating.
ENNI: That’s so interesting. Were any of them books that you feel planted a seed of like, “maybe I could write”?
MAFI: I never, ever thought I could be a writer. Ever. Now, I will say, this is the obvious thing that I discovered HARRY POTTER and fell madly in love, and those books were my lifeblood.
ENNI: Were you reading those at the age where like?
MAFI: Yes. Yeah. So I grew up with those books.
ENNI: And those characters.
MAFI: And those characters, yeah, and they carried me through for so long, and it was just–it was so wonderful. And they were so expensive.
ENNI: The books?
MAFI: The books, they were the only books my mom would buy for me, because they would come along every couple years or whatever, and they were so expensive, and it was such a luxury, because I never owned any books except for the HARRY POTTER books, the other ones I always read at the library, or I did the bad thing of like going into bookstores and just reading. I would just browse for a little too long.
But the HARRY POTTER books were so special, and I remember my mom getting really frustrated with me, because she’d buy the book and it was like, twenty dollars or something, something absurd, like ten years ago or fifteen years ago or whatever it was. I would read it in the same day. And my mom would just get so frustrated, like, “You’re done?! That’s it?! I spent all this money on this book and–no, you have to go read it again!”
ENNI: I love that! [laughs] Read it again!
MAFI: Read it again and get my money’s worth! And I would be like, “Gladly.” So that was a huge, huge part of my life. But I never, ever, was moved or inspired to be a writer, never.
ENNI: Although you were doing poetry.
MAFI: Yeah but that was like an outlet for my feelings, or something.
ENNI: And the reason I’m pushing on that is because I did the exact same thing, but then I was going through these notebooks I found at my mom’s house, and I literally had not looked at them since I wrote these things. And I opened them up and was like, “I was REVISING these.” It was pages and pages of me doing the same poem over and over again and making it better. But no memory of that, nor did it ever register to me that writing was even like, possible. Authors were just like in a white tower somewhere, and they were not real, and they were so amazing.
MAFI: Yes. Like, I also, if I look back on my life, I will see that, oh my gosh, I’ve been writing forever, in many different ways, and I used to keep a journal. I remember religiously journaling for a while, every single day, until my mom found my journal, she didn’t read it. And I know she didn’t because if she had I would not be alive today.
ENNI: [laughs] Kudos to her.
MAFI: But she found it in my room–she decided to clean my room as a surprise–don’t EVER do that to your teenager, EVER. But she was being so nice and she just wanted to clean my room, and she found my journal, and she was like, “I found your journal by the way, and I didn’t read it,” but like, “Aww, that’s cute.” And that night I sat down and ripped every single page of it into a thousand pieces, and threw it into the trash.
ENNI: Are you serious?
MAFI: And I never have written down a single diary entry ever since.
ENNI: That breaks my heart, oh man.
MAFI: Just like, “No one can ever find this.” And I made sure that that would never happen.
MAFI: I know.
ENNI: That’s crazy.
MAFI: Yeah, so.
ENNI: It is–I’ve been talking to a bunch of people about lately, just the looking back and seeing patterns that at the time were not obvious. But, so what did it take for writing to actually–when did you think of that as a creative outlet
MAFI: Not until after I graduated from college. After I graduated from college, I was working full-time, and it was like I had taken a year off to think about what I was going to do. I was thinking of diving straight into a PhD program, I was just going to study for the rest of my life. And I always knew that I had a great love of literature, and that was what I was planning on pursuing, but I was sort of burnt out and I was offered a full-time job working at my alma mater, where I had been working as a student, and I decided to take it. But I found that I was just bored out of my mind. And I missed all of my books and lectures and papers and having things to read and discuss, and people to discuss them with, and at the end of the day I didn’t have any homework or, you know, exams to study for.
So I started reading for fun again, because I went to a liberal arts college where my focus was in the humanities, I was studying literature and philosophy and all these old, dense, historical texts, and onion-skin-thin pages, and everything was about analysis and critical theory and it was all very high-brow and we all took ourselves so seriously, and I had kind of turned my back on those books that had encouraged me to fall in love with literature to begin with. I’d not only turned my back on them, but I also began to judge them as lesser, which is what happens, I feel, it happens to so many people when we get to college, when we’re suddenly like, "Oh, children’s books, that garbage.” Which, I think, is the actual garbage–that thinking is such garbage, because those are the books that brought us here. And anyway, YA was having this major resurgence at the time, and Young Adult was coming back in a way that like, it had never been when I was growing up, all I had was Judy Blume and HARRY POTTER, and god bless them both, but um… I was like, “I wanna be here, I wanna know what this is, and I want to read these books,” and that was when everything changed for me. I just devoured everything in the YA section, and I realized, “Oh my god,” I had forgotten entirely what it was like to read a book for fun, and just get lost in a story, or in an adventure, and to, you know, embark on a journey with a stranger, and go off into these like, unknown worlds, and just have fun and not have to study it or examine it or analyze it for a paper, just to like, love the story. And that was when I thought, “I want to live here, in this place, for the rest of my life.” And I didn’t know if I could do it, but that was the first time that I thought maybe I could do this.
ENNI: That’s amazing! All writers are people who just miss homework so much. [laughs]
MAFI: [laughs] Oh my god, that’s so true. That was actually exactly what I did, I gave myself homework. 'Cause I was working full-time as I pursued publication, and I just didn’t sleep for two years. I’m not kidding–I actually didn’t sleep for two years.
ENN: Well, actually, okay, because this is what I wanted to talk about next, is the process of getting to SHATTER ME, because there were a lot of books before SHATTER ME.
MAFI: Right, there were, I think five manuscripts before SHATTER ME.
ENNI: Which is crazy, because was that really only two years?
MAFI: I wrote those five manuscripts in like a year and a half.
ENNI: I’m picturing you reading so many books and then just sort of letting out steam, almost.
MAFI: Well you know what it was, I wonder if it wasn’t just like, a lifetime of never having had the chance to write, and not knowing it was in me, that was suddenly like unleashed. When I decided to write, I knew I wanted to be published. It wasn’t going to be a hobby. I wanted it to be a career. So I knew I had to approach it in a very businesslike way. I knew that if I wanted it to happen, I knew I had to work really hard. So I committed to writing 5,000 words every single day.
ENNI: What?! Are you serious?!
MAFI: Every. Single. Day. I wrote 5,000 words.
MAFI: And like, no exceptions. The only exceptions were if I wrote more than 5,000 words. So, I was very, very committed, and I–that’s what I mean when I say I didn’t sleep. Like, I was at work, I’d be up from like six in the morning until six in the evening, I’d get home, and then I spent all my lunch breaks at the bookstore, I spent all my spare money at the bookstore, I bought books, I read books, and I studied books. I went to the bookstore to learn about imprints and editors, I read acknowledgements to learn about agents, and people in the industry, I read the spines to learn about imprints, that was where I learned about the business. And I read everything I could get my hands on. And everything online. Every blog I could, you know, devour, AbsoluteWrite forums were a godsend, and just… I devoured all of the information I could. So, when I got home in the evenings, it was about writing and researching, and I started blogging.
ENNI: Which you also did every day.
MAFI: Every day, yeah so, I remember–and I say two years, because after I got my book deal, I was still working for about, I think six months or so. And for two years I remember every time someone asked me how I was doing, my answer was, “I’m tired.” And, um, I remember once meeting up with my friends for dinner, and I fell asleep in my soda, and I just remember being poked in the eye with the straw, and it just went right into my eye.
But yeah, that’s how–so I wrote those five manuscripts, and they were awful. But each one taught me how to write a book. I never had formal training. Like, the first book taught me that I could write a book. Complete a book. The second one taught me how to edit it a little bit, like to make sure it wasn’t this unwieldy, large crazy thing, and to make sure it had a plot. [laughs] The third one taught me how to do all of that, but better. And the fourth one taught me how to do that much better. And then, so with each iteration of that manuscript I was learning how to write, and I think with the last manuscript I wrote, I finally figured out how to write a regular book. And that was the book that got me my first agent. SHATTER ME was the book that I wrote when I decided I had learned how to write, and now I was going to break the rules.
ENNI: Oh, interesting.
MAFI: So I needed to know how it was done. But in order to write a book that was authentic, I had to write it the way it needed to be told, and then I had to do it differently.
ENNI: I love that you kind of put yourself into an MFA program, like in two years of like a self-styled program.
MAFI: When you say it like that it does sound like maybe that’s what happened.
ENNI: I think it is, and I think you were more rigorous, perhaps.
MAFI: Yeah, that’s probably true!
ENNI: Especially by incorporating so much industry side. It’s so interesting to think about in the context of what you were talking about as a kid, and your experiences growing up, because I think you were–at least for SHATTER ME, you were an instinctive writer. You weren’t outlining this or coming up with a huge plan.
MAFI: Not for the first book, no.
ENNI: Because Juliette’s voice is so distinctive, and her challenge is so like, I feel reflecting of the anger you were feeling and the isolation that you were feeling and all of these things, and then over the course of the series, your life also changed in a whole other way, like profoundly. Do you feel like Juliette and her voice and her story–how much of that was directly mirroring what you were going through at the time? Was it like a therapy exercise, or do you think about it that way at the time?
MAFI: So, it took me a couple of–five books to get to SHATTER ME, so I feel like I actually–I worked out a lot of the… Very autobiographical things in the beginning. A lot of people say that the first book you write is like, so autobiographical, especially if it’s told in first person, and I–or at least, it’s like wish-fulfillment, it’s who you wish you could be. And I certainly do think I worked out some of those kinks in the first couple of books that I wrote. So when I got to SHATTER ME, I feel like I was finally able to take real experiences and mesh them with the fantastical, paranormal, and turn it into a story that felt like it carried an authentic voice–a fictional story that carried an authentic voice.
So there was a great deal of my teenage hurts in that story, and teenage pain, and feeling such isolation and ostracization, and being the other, the outsider, the forgotten, you know, sort of neglected young person who was totally misunderstood and only ever wanted to try and do good, and connect with people, and reach out, but was constantly rejected. And so much of that was inspired by my experiences growing up. But the story itself, the growth of Juliette, I feel like when I was writing her I had already become who I wanted her to be, so like I had already grown up into a person who was no longer afraid or heartbroken constantly. I was not that teenage girl anymore. So I knew who I wanted her to be. I knew that story, you know, I knew she needed to grow up. She needed to fight through that and become someone new.
But the major change in my life happened after I finished the series, where I actually feel like the new book that I have coming out, FURTHERMORE, is a middle grade novel and it is the story that I wrote after I finished the SHATTER ME series, and… The SHATTER ME series and FURTHERMORE were sort of divided by this really, this earthquake in my life that sort of separated one from another.
ENNI: Before and after.
MAFI: Before and the after. When I was writing SHATTER ME, I didn’t realize how unhappy I was in my own life. And I don’t think I realized it until I finished the series. And it was something that I kind of looked back on and realized that, though I had always known the journey that Juliette would go on, and though I thought that I had already completed that journey in my own life, there was still more growing up to be done. And shedding of skin to be done, and shedding of people to be done. And when I finished writing those books, I also closed the door on my first marriage. And it was like, when I finished the first draft of the third book, it was like everything suddenly came together at the same moment, to implode. It was the craziest. I cannot even begin to explain how it all came together. But it was like, the craziest kind of kismet.
ENNI: Well, and the reason I’m asking this question, because I again – so like, our lives are mirrors. And I’m asking you questions so you can explain me to myself, because looking back at SHATTER ME, like, I feel so personally attached to that series because I feel like it’s–it acted for me, in a way, that was important. And thinking about it, and thinking about how your life changed after that, it was like… I also didn’t realize for so long how bummed I was, and how dark the world was, and how alone I actually was, without realizing it. And that it must be profound to be able to look back and be like, “Oh, I was telling myself about this in 300,000 words.”
MAFI: Yes. It was immensely profound, it was so strange. I feel like I had completely Freuded myself. It was so weird. But I didn’t get it until I wrote FURTHERMORE, which is why I mentioned FURTHERMORE.
MAFI: Because when you put the books side-by-side, they are like, night and day. They’re very different. And those–the dark and the light exist inside of me, that’s who we are as human beings, I have felt great pain in my life, and I have felt great joy in my life. As have all people, I hope, because it’s what makes us these incredibly interesting people. But SHATTER ME was about this girl, who was so, so alone. And sad. And trying to find her way, and breaking out of this emotional prison she was in, and by the end of it, she had grown up, and I had too. And I had–I looked at that series, it was so dark and bleak and difficult. And FURTHERMORE is just this explosion of color and light and joy and adventure, and it’s so interesting because so many fans of the SHATTER ME series are disappointed that I didn’t write another YA novel, that’s just like SHATTER ME, and there’s no kissing in it, and it’s not a romantic story. I always say that I find it fascinating, because I feel like FURTHERMORE is the most romantic story I have ever written, because it was the book I wrote after I had met Ransom. And it was like… Everything had shifted, and I had been kind of, like, that love brought my life into hypercolor. It was like living in HD. And it’s so creepy, how we writers are like unconsciously working through stuff in our work, but of course I didn’t realize this until after I’d completed all of these books, and I looked back and I was like, “Whoa.”
ENNI: And it is like, alarming how considered and revised and dwelled-upon and obsessively–I mean, books don’t happen by accident. But our own minds like–our blind spots are so intense. That, I hate to generalize with this kind of thing, writing isn’t therapy–therapy is therapy. But, man. I’m a better human because I write books, and that’s for sure. Like, it’s frustrating and beautiful at the same time.
MAFI: Yes, yup! Mmm-hmm, absolutely.
ENNI: That, um.
MAFI: Well, I was going to ask you a question.
ENNI: Oh, sure.
MAFI: I was just wondering, like, have you ever–when you write, have you ever written a scene so intense that it’s made you cry?
ENNI: Oh for sure. One hundred percent, in public. [laughs] Actually, I started to–so after I got divorced is when–I was thinking about this today, actually, for some reason, about how really lonely it was. The whole time I was in DC I was so lonely. And just did not realize it. And I had great people there and I was doing things, and had an interesting job and all this stuff, but then like, when I split up with my husband, there was a month where like, no one in my life that I saw everyday knew about it. And there was like, no one to know. So weird. And then I was a person that was very protective of my feelings and was like, felt like it was a weakness or whatever. And then instantly forced myself into this position where I became someone who cries all the time! [laughs] And like, with people, and out of empathy, and like, unabashedly, because as you are seeing I cannot cry without being obvious, I have these big…
MAFI: Beautiful eyes.
ENNI: …Total crazy eyes, and so it’s like, really changed me, and changed my fiction like, bananas. So, now it’s gotten to the point where when I have a scene where I want someone to cry when they read it, I have to write it until I am crying, and only then am I like, “Alright.” Then you send it to beta readers and they let you know. They highlight it and they’re like, “This was really powerful.” It’s like, “Well thank god! 'Cause I spent five hours at a coffee shop getting myself really there.” And it’s funny how it’s just words, but somehow you get to a place where you’re choosing words that are different, and they make people go places with you.
MAFI: But that’s just it, isn’t it? It’s not just words. You know, you change lives with the right book. I’ve been changed by great books.
ENNI: Since we’ve brought up Ransom a little bit, I’m interested in how professional creative partnership and personal partnership–where the lines are. Because I’m someone who has had a hard time sharing work with like – my mom is reading my book for the first time, which is crazy!
MAFI: Oh, oh my gosh! How is it going?
ENNI: I don’t even know. I haven’t even asked her about it, because I’m like –I’m too scared to know. How early like, what part did both of your creative works play in getting to know each other?
MAFI: Oh wow, that’s an interesting question. You mean like, did we read each other’s books before we…?
ENNI: Or did you read them after or… I’m interested in how, because you met in the context of knowing each other were professional writers, and then it’s like –is it nerve-wracking to read his work after that?
MAFI: No, because we were just friends for a long time. So when we first met we didn’t know anything about each other except that we were both writers in the larger community, and we became friends. Just sort of casual friends, because we lived in LA and we had Kami Garcia in common who used to, you know, do these big, like, writing days in L.A. A group of us would get together and we’d write together, and that’s how we all became friends. I thought he was a really nice guy, and he was just, you know… A person that I knew, and I thought, “Okay, I should read his book.” And so I read his book. I sort of took the initiative of reading his book.
ENNI: It can be nerve-wracking to read–when you really like someone.
MAFI: But there was no pressure! I didn’t–I wanted to like it, you know. I was rooting for it to be a book that I liked, and I didn’t have to work too hard, because I thought it was so wonderful and I was genuinely impressed by his writing. But then he was a very talented writer–like a very elegant writer, so I was really excited to tell him that I really liked his book. And it was great! He was like, “Oh, thanks!” Like you do when you have a writer friend and you’re like “Hey I read your book and I really liked it!” and they’re like “Thanks! That’s so nice!”
ENNI: Then did you–
MAFI: So then he read my books.
ENNI: I was going to say.
MAFI: And I was like, “Oh no.” [laughs] Well especially because I always get really stressed whenever anyone–friend or acquaintance or family member says that they are considering reading my book, I always say, “Oh my god, there’s no pressure, you really don’t have to read my book.” Because my books are so polarizing. You either really love them or you really hate them. And I’m okay with that, I just don’t want to hear about it. And I always say that, I’m like, “You don’t have to read them, but if you read them and you hate them, please don’t tell me about it!”
ENNI: Yeah yeah yeah, I don’t need to hear about it.
MAFI: We don’t need to discuss it. And because I had just read Ransom’s book and I really loved it, I was, you know, I really admired him as a writer, I was like, “Oh god, he’s going to read my books and really hate them, and think that I’m like, a total hack. And then this friendship is over.” And um, either he is a very good liar or he actually liked the books, one way or another, it went pretty well. So um, I would say that if I did not like Ransom’s writing, and he did not like mine, it would be very difficult for us to be married.
MAFI: Because it would be so hard to have to lie for the rest of your life.
MAFI: That would be so hard.
ENNI: I feel like the odds are so low that you would fall in love with someone whose creative work you didn’t respond to. As important as it is to separate your work from yourself, to some degree you also cannot do that. Nor should you have to hide your work or be embarrassed about it with someone who’s closest to you–closer to you than anyone else in the world. No thanks.
MAFI: Right, yeah, yeah.
ENNI: Then I’m interested in like process-wise, now that you guys are together, married and live together obviously, both are professional writers so, work from home. How has, or has, your writing process changed at all like, have you guys started to mirror each other in the creative way? How has that gone?
MAFI: Yeah, it’s been really interesting, and I think we’ve both changed a little. Maybe I’ve changed more, because before I met Ransom, I wrote in these really unhealthy, obsessive stretches of time, these bursts of time where I would just ignore everything but the story.
ENNI: You weren’t sleeping.
MAFI: I would not sleep, I would not eat, I would not answer the phone, I would not leave my house. And then even after I quit my job and was working as a writer full-time, actually afterward it became worse because I really never left my house. And, um, like I would write–I would draft novels in a week, you know.
MAFI: It was–if I was really like, in the zone, as they say, I would write from morning until night. Morning until night. Like, I would wake up at the crack of dawn, and I would write until I collapsed, and then I would sleep for a couple hours and dream about the characters, and then wake up and write until I collapsed.
ENNI: Oh my goodness.
MAFI: And it was really bad–before we got married, and we were sort of consolidating our lives, Ransom used to visit me at my house, and I’d be working, and I would have eaten nothing but like, six gum balls. [laughs] And he would find me sitting at my computer with a little, you know, tumbler of gum balls next to me, and I would be just popping them in my mouth.
ENNI: Oh my god.
MAFI: But, you know, now that we are married and we live in the same house and we like each other, I don’t like to go days at a time without speaking to my husband, or, you know, getting up from my chair, or making him eat alone. Because we both work from home, so we see each other all the time. So I have made a great effort to try and normalize my writing process and take breaks and stop for lunch and go for a walk in the afternoon, and that sort of thing.
ENNI: It’s kind of interesting that you had to make that adjustment, because I think, no matter what, you would have had to, because that’s sort of unsustainable. But let’s talk about FURTHERMORE, which came after.
MAFI: After the darkness.
ENNI: After the darkness! However, my first question is going to be about how it’s kind of similar. I got the chance to read FURTHERMORE, and I just read it so, I don’t want to be spoiler-y at all, but it is–I wrote “so so different from SHATTER ME, but so the same.” Um, in that it is about a girl seeking a sense of being in a world that still sees her as – she’s very patently different, obviously different from the world around her. So she does still feel lonely and not fully understood. So kind of starting from similar places.
MAFI: I think, again, the older I get the more obvious I become to myself, and the more self-aware I become, and the more I realize that I am so drawn to stories of outsiders. To the other, to that aliened, the different person who doesn’t quite fit in. Because of course, as I’ve mentioned earlier, that was and continues to be my life story. And I think that’s why I haven’t been able to let it go, because even though I have grown up and become my own person, with my own place and my own life, and I now have agency and now have ability and power where I didn’t before, I am still very much an “other.”
ENNI: Well, and the themes we come up with when we’re young–writers have themes, and it’s part of my favorite thing of mine when I’m interviewing writers is being like, “Do you know that you write about this one thing all the time?” And for you it’s a lived experience, it’s not just something philosophically you find interesting, it’s something that you have to–you daily are living this theme.
MAFI: Right, it is my everyday struggle, and I can’t get away from it.
ENNI: Was there anything more you wanted to say about–about how Alice is different?
MAFI: Well, so, Alice’s story is also the story of an outsider–in FURTHERMORE color is magic, and color dictates everything. If you are a colorful person, you are presumed to also be a very magical person.
ENNI: Right, and powerful.
MAFI: And powerful. And if you do not have much color in your hair, in your skin, in your eyes, you are presumed to be a very non-magical person with very little power. And Alice is an albino child, born to parents of color, and she is struggling to find her place in her family and in her world. And it’s about her finding that magic within.
ENNI: So, uh, so we wrap up with advice.
MAFI: Well, my advice to aspiring writers is always the same, because it was the most powerful advice I could have ever given to myself, and it’s what saved me every time I wanted to give up, which is: never give up. It is the only way to succeed, because life has proven, time and time again, that there are many talented people in this world who will never be successful. I have watched them fail, over and over and over again, simply because they gave up too soon. And that time is the only difference between a successful and an unsuccessful person. That has proven to be unequivocally true to me. That if you just hang in there, and you work at it. Hang in there and work at it, and you will be successful. It’s just the time. If you’re willing to wait, and put in the hours, put in the years: it will happen.
ENNI: Uh, best advice ever, so let’s wrap it up there! Thank you so much, dude, this was so fun.
MAFI: Thank you Sarah, thank you for talking to me for so long.
ENNI: Yeah! Oh my gosh…
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