First Draft, Ep. 84: Zan Romanoff
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 Zan Romanoff, debut author of A SONG TO TAKE THE WORLD APART, out now. Her second book, GRACE AND THE FEVER, is due out in Spring 2017. A real slouch, this one. Months ago, my dear friend and subject of First Draft Episode 23, Kate Hart, was raving on Twitter about A SONG TO TAKE THE WORLD APART. I read the description of the book: magical realism and a girl who can’t control the power of her voice, yes please! And then I checked out Zan’s Twitter feed: One Direction fanfiction, anxiety, and the beach? Also yes! And then I realized she was in Los Angeles. So, since this is the second biggest city in the country, of course it turns out Zan and I are practically neighbors, and for months we’ve been writing our respective Young Adult novels at the same coffee shop. Sometimes meeting new people is like merging on the freeway: fast and terrifying. And other times, people quietly and smoothly align with your life, bringing in new perspectives and sharper laughs, and a sense of understanding. My talk with Zan was so delightful it’s very likely going to be a long episode, but I assure you, as a wholly biased and outright fan of Zan, every moment is worth your time. So, temporarily close out the Taylor Swift relationship conspiracy story you’re reading, buy an overpriced iced latte, and enjoy the conversation.
ENNI: Okay, so hi! How are you?
Zan ROMANOFF: I’m good!
ROMANOFF: How are you?
ENNI: Good! Thanks for–I’m so good, I’m so happy to be seeing your place, and hanging out. You live really close to me!
ROMANOFF: I guess it’s not that surprising since we’ve now run into each other at our mutual favorite coffee shop.
ENNI: [laughs] Yes, not one, but both coffee shops that we’re both like…
ROMANOFF: [laughs] That’s true, both coffee shops!
ENNI: Um, so, actually, I would love for you to explain–your name is Zan Romanoff.
ENNI: But Zan is short for…
ENNI: That’s such a great shorthand for Alexandra.
ROMANOFF: Thank you! Yeah, it is, I always say it’s from the pig latin of my name, uh… [laughs]
ENNI: Oh my god, that’s great.
ROMANOFF: Right? When I was in like, the first grade, my friends and I were really obsessed with pig latin. And so, Lexandera-A, right, became Zandra, became Zan.
ENNI: That’s really how it–?
ROMANOFF: Yeah, that’s really how–oh yeah no, this was not like, my parents did not–I was Alexandra until I was like, six or seven, I wanna say?
ENNI: That’s funny!
ROMANOFF: Yeah, and then it like–
ENNI: It stuck.
ROMANOFF: It became Zan and it’s been Zan mostly, except for when I was starting middle school, I was like leaving my elementary school, going to a new school, as like… I really wanted to be like, a cute tomboy–like, Zan is kind of a weird name. I didn’t want to have like, a weird name.
ROMANOFF: So I was like, “I’m going to go by Alex,” like that seems more normal and acceptable. Um, I did not turn into a cute tomboy. [laughs] But really what happened was that then everyone who I was actually friends with would come to my house and meet my parents, hear them call me Zan, and be like, “That’s a way better name for you!"
ENNI: Than Alex, that’s so funny–they’re like, "Alex isn’t working.”
ROMANOFF: Yeah, they’re just like, “This just isn’t quite… Doesn’t stick in the same way.” So by the end of high school, I could sort of tell–it’s sort of nice, actually, I could really tell who like I knew and who I was close with.
ENNI: Mmm hmm.
ROMANOFF: Because they called me Zan, and everyone else called me Alex, so by the time I went to college I was like, “I think I’m Zan.”
ENNI: That is bad, okay, so that was a total tangent to start with, but I’m into it! But I would love to back up and just talk about where you were born and raised?
ROMANOFF: Yeah, um, I was born and raised here in Los Angeles.
ENNI: So born and raised in LA, how did reading and writing factor into growing up, what was that in your house?
ROMANOFF: So my mom’s a writer.
ROMANOFF: Yeah, she’s an amazing writer, she actually just finished her first novel, and is like revising it for an agent right now.
ROMANOFF: Which is so cool, and it’s been amazing to like, go through that process–like I was writing my first book sort of around the same time she started on this book.
ROMANOFF: Yeah, to like have someone to be like, “Oh my god! What is this?!” [laughs] Yeah, my mom and I have always had a really close relationship. Which is funny, because my book is a lot about like, a girl having a really bad, or a very intense kind of like, distanced relationship with her mom. But my mom and I are super super close, and always have been. But it has been–I think more it’s been really interesting for both of us, because we’re very similar, obviously, in lots of ways: the transition to taking our writing very seriously happened at sort of the same time. Or like, not that she didn’t take it seriously, but like, beginning to be more ambitious about it… has been sort of interesting, and I think–I think we’ve sort of helped each other, like, along that. Because we’re both naturally kind of like, “It’s fine! You don’t have to read it! Don’t–it’s–I don’t–! If you didn’t do it, don’t worry about it!” [laughs]
ENNI: Right, right!
ROMANOFF: She’d be like, “No, I’m sending this to an agent!” [laughs] “I think it’s good!”
ENNI: Yeah, “let’s do the thing!” What was she writing before she was writing novels?
ROMANOFF: She wasn’t writing novels, not as far as I know, um, she… Wrote short stories, I think mostly, some essays–I mean, she also, she of course came of age as a writer in a time where you couldn’t blog, you couldn’t like, e-mail an editor, you know? You weren’t like, meeting people on Twitter, like, getting published was SUCH a different thing. So whatever she was writing was a lot for herself, for a really long time–the whole time I was growing up, essentially. She’d been writing her whole life, uh…
ENNI: But I’m really interested on your perspective as someone who grew up watching a person write.
ROMANOFF: Yeah, I mean I think that’s really–that’s really the thing. Is that I grew up in a house where like, like it was very normal for an adult to sit in a room by herself making up a story. [laughs]
ENNI: Yeah, totally!
ROMANOFF: You know?
ENNI: And like, time that was spent away from you, that was valued, and you were like, made to respect it.
ROMANOFF: Yeah! She was a writer, so I–from the youngest possible age–you know, was very encouraged to sit down.
ROMANOFF: You know, write a story, tell a story, draw a story, like, whatever it was. So yeah, it’s always been part of my life–and it’s always been part of my life in a way that was very much like, and it can always be, you know?
ENNI: That’s amazing.
ROMANOFF: Yeah, I really appreciate that about my parents. And it’s funny, also, I think–so my mom was taking care of us, she also did some work, especially when I was very young. My dad had a full-time job, but he also like, loves photography, and was pursuing photography outside of that. So I very much grew up in a house that was like, “Yeah, you gotta pay the bills.”
ROMANOFF: But also like, “You should have creative pursuits.” Like, doesn’t have to be driven necessarily, like if you love doing it, you should obviously do it.
ROMANOFF: And also, both my parents are huge readers, so I grew up in a house with like zillions of books–a ton of BABY-SITTERS CLUB, like, crazy.
ROMANOFF: Like crazy, very formative–I was thinking about this actually, the other day, that I think if you’re like, a voracious young reader, it’s very hard not to get into genre books, because they tend to be series.
ROMANOFF: So you can kind of go like, “I already know I like this, I can just like, you know, blast through a hundred BABY-SITTERS CLUB books,” which was my claim to fame in elementary school.
ENNI: Was that you had read a hundred BABY-SITTERS CLUB books?
ROMANOFF: The first hundred BABY-SITTERS CLUB books.
ENNI: That’s amazing–no, I think that’s a really interesting point actually, because–it’s not that different now, I still get really energized by reading series now, and reading genre, but I do remember–and I think it’s important to keep in mind when writing for kids–like, I do remember being that age and like, when you found something that worked, like, “and now I’m going to read this into the ground.”
ENNI: And like, everything this person has ever written. And everything in which any of these characters appear, and like… Until it’s all over. And then maybe read it again!
ROMANOFF: Yeah, oh, I mean, that’s–it’s incredible for me to think about how often I re-read books, you know, the stuff that I liked. I was like, “I don’t care if I know how this ends,” like, and I think also, actually, when you’re a kid, you don’t necessarily want to be surprised? You want a world where you can figure out the rules, though. And so genre is very comforting in that way, often.
ENNI: Yeah, genre has–genre worlds, this is like, what we talk about a lot with like, what’s going on in the world right now, where it’s like, we are held to more strict standards of reality and realism and, quote unquote “realism,” and needing to be like, believable, than the real world is.
ENNI: So I can imagine having like–I can imagine, I was also this kid I think that was comforted by books where magic has rules, don’t break the rules–and you know what will happen.
ROMANOFF: Exactly, and like once you do know the rules, you can imagine how the story will end. And you know if it’s going to work out, it’s going to be awesome. So yeah, so I read BABY-SITTERS CLUB, all the fantasy I could–I mean Anne McCaffrey, actually, which in retrospect is not the most child-friendly thing in the whole world. [laughs] There’s a lot of weird like, older men seducing much younger women.
ENNI: Really, how interesting–but you are not the first person to bring her up as a series that you’d get like, lost in.
ROMANOFF: She’s also just incredibly prolific, and so you could just feed yourself Anne McCaffrey books forever.
ENNI: Yes, live in Pern forever.
ENNI: So you were a big genre reader?
ROMANOFF: Yeah, I was a big, big genre reader.
ENNI: Were you writing, and if so, what kind of writing were you doing?
ROMANOFF: I was definitely writing, I definitely remember being in elementary school and getting good grades in English or Creative Writing. I went to a really teeny elementary school, I think there were like twelve kids in my class.
ROMANOFF: I think maybe there were twenty of us at one point.
ENNI: I can see how “Zan” would take hold.
ROMANOFF: Exactly–there weren’t a lot of people there.
ENNI: Yeah, yeah.
ROMANOFF: It also wasn’t hard to get a reputation for something.
ROMANOFF: So I very much had a reputation as a reader and a writer. But yeah, in second grade we were supposed to write stories, and I wrote like–I think mostly to practice our cursive? But I remember I was like, “I’m writing a novel, a mystery”–I was also really into books about horses? ‘Cause I was an eight-year-old girl. I wrote a mystery story about three friends, it was like, one of their horses was stolen and they had to figure out who did it.
ENNI: Oh my god!
ROMANOFF: Yeah, I think it was probably like–ten like half-pages with illustrations on top, but it was twice as long as anyone else’s, and I was like, “I wrote a book!”
ENNI: That’s amazing! I’m interested in your like, getting then sort of feedback or positive reinforcement from your classmates.
ROMANOFF: Oh yeah, classmates as well as teachers, it’s really funny for me to think about now. So like, yeah, so always was getting good stuff–my classmates were like, “you’re a writer,” my teachers were like “you’re a writer, this is fantastic.” I sometimes took creative writing classes during the summer and teachers liked what I was doing… It’s when I left my very tiny, supportive, lovely elementary school where like I was a star. Um, and went to middle school at Harvard-Westlake, which is like a very intense private high school in Los Angeles.
ENNI: Oh, okay.
ROMANOFF: Where I was all the sudden one of like, 240 kids. And some of the smartest, and essentially the wealthiest, children of some of the most powerful people in Los Angeles, sometimes in the world, and that was a pretty shocking experience.
ROMANOFF: In ways I think that I really didn’t–still like, “Ohhhhh.”
ENNI: Picking that apart a little bit.
ROMANOFF: Yeah, what it was to be twelve and to go from being like, I hate talking about intelligence like there’s an objective measurement other–but certainly in the way it was being measured in elementary school, I was like, probably the smartest kid in my class. And then all of the sudden, it was like, “This is not special.”
ENNI: Right, right. And also, I’m super interested in this, like for you, you’re being forced to contextualize yourself in not only these 240 something odd kids, but the perceptions of power and middle school anywhere in the country, but then like, for real–it’s being reinforced by the world around you.
ROMANOFF: This is like, stories I always tell, like starting at Harvard-Westlake, I remember the first day seeing this kid, and thinking “Oh my god, he’s so cute.” And mentioning that to this girl, and she was like, “Oh yeah, he was in a Hot Pockets commercial.” [laughs]
ENNI: Oh my god.
ENNI: That’s so perfect.
ROMANOFF: I was like “It’s never going to happen–he was in a Hot Pockets commercial!”
ENNI: It’s the Hot Pockets guy, like, “I gotta set my sights lower!”
ROMANOFF: I mean to be fair also it turned out he was gay, so. It was DEFINITELY never gonna happen, but like… Beyond out of my league, but also there was this girl I went to high school with who was a couple of years older, who was like, one of the most beautiful people I’ve ever seen up close, which was really reinforced when she was featured in People’s 50 Most Beautiful Issue–not like as a, but she’s the daughter of a famous actress.
ENNI: So she gets to be in glossy magazines and you’re like “oh my god.”
ROMANOFF: She was like, the beautiful daughter of a beautiful actor, you know, the most beautiful daughter of famous people, it was like, Spencer Margaret Richmond, and I was just like–on the other hand it was sort of affirming that I was okay. It’s not just that I wasn’t the prettiest person at Harvard-Westlake, this is really on a much bigger scale.
ENNI: Right, but it would take a lot of work to get there. Like, I had to compare myself to Tony Stone in my middle school. And she was beautiful, but she was not in People Magazine.
ROMANOFF: People Magazine was not saying to you like, “No no no.”
ENNI: Yeah, like “Stop trying.” [laughs] Like, that’s a mindfuck.
ROMANOFF: It’s a huge mindfuck. And I really have mixed feelings about it, because I think on the one hand “traumatize” is too strong of a word, but like, it really set me back and closed me back in a lot of ways for a lot of years. I was thinking, “I can’t compete with ANYONE here,” you know, I can keep my head down, I can do my work, and that’s fine. But I’ll never be a star here, you know, that I shouldn’t try, and ultimately, I think it toughened me up in useful ways. I mean mostly also it got me to a place where it’s like, I’ve gone toe-to-toe in classrooms with very smart people, these people who were like so much richer and cooler than me–but they also went to high school, you know?
ENNI: Yeah. They had bad days.
ROMANOFF: Yeah, exactly, that like… I think I eventually came out of it much less easily intimidated than a lot of people I meet are.
ROMANOFF: But like, it was not, as my mother says, “the most easy way to come downstairs,” um, from like WINNIE-THE-POOH.
ENNI: Oh is it? That’s a really great line!
ROMANOFF: It’s like, Christopher Robin is like dragging Pooh down the stairs, he’s like going by the hand and sort of bumping down the stairs, at the bottom Winnie-the-Pooh thinks, “That was not the easiest way to come downstairs.” [laughs]
ENNI: I really like that!
ROMANOFF: It’s so useful, and I think about it all the time.
ENNI: And how did you cope?
ROMANOFF: I think by pulling in, pretty much, and I think also I didn’t notice it, because I had a relatively easy social transition.
ROMANOFF: Where I got lucky and made friends right away, and the academic stuff was difficult, and the creative stuff kind of disappeared.
ENNI: Oh really? Cause I was gonna, I was waiting for you to say you coped by writing, but no?
ROMANOFF: Oh oh, so we skipped a really important evolution in my life as a writer.
ENNI: Please, bring it on.
ROMANOFF: Uh, which is that when I was ten or eleven, Hanson’s “MMMBop” came out, and I was like, “this is like, the best thing ever,” actually, I didn’t love the song, but I had the CD and I loved the CD. They were the cutest boys I’d ever seen in my whole life, they rollerbladed, I rollerbladed.
ENNI: It was so relatable!
ROMANOFF: Yes! I was like, “This is it, I’m gonna marry Zac Hanson.” So I like, went on Alta Vista, and was like “Hanson” and it turned out like among the first fan sites on the Internet were Hanson fan sites, and they had fan fiction on them, and it blew my mind. I was like, “This is my dream. This is a community of girls that want to talk about my favorite band and make up stories about them. This is paradise.”
ENNI: Yes, and I wanna talk to you forever about this, because you do and think about one of my favorite things, which is fan fiction about real people. It’s like, such an amazing quagmire.
ROMANOFF: And actually, this is really important and incredible, so when I started writing Hanson fan fiction, and I told my mom about it expecting her to be weirded out–because even then I had sort of had the sense it was not quite the normal thing to do? And she was like, “Oh yeah, I wrote Beatles fan fiction when I was a kid.” And she had like, a BINDER with her hand-written Beatles fan fiction in it, which she gave me, which I got to read when I was twelve. It was incredible. That was huge.
ENNI: I love that!
ENNI: Because this really has been happening forever.
ROMANOFF: Oh yeah, so I started writing Hanson fan fiction when I was eleven or so, so I’ve been writing fan fiction–I think around the time I started middle school also, I was like, “this is not cool.”
ENNI: Oh, to be writing Hanson fan fiction.
ROMANOFF: Yeah, I was savvy enough to be like, “this is not a thing I’m going to like, talk about.” But so that was how I was writing at that point, and when I stopped doing it, I sort of lost touch with it, and I don’t think that I wrote much extra-curricularly.
ENNI: But also, it sounds like you had to focus on keeping up with school.
ROMANOFF: School was crazy. It was a challenging academic program–especially middle school, I feel like I was just figuring out how to swim. Part of how I figured out how to swim, also, was being a version of myself that wasn’t quite who I actually am.
ENNI: Tell me more.
ROMANOFF: I knew I was a nerd, I knew I was a very intense person.
ENNI: And you knew this because people told you that?
ROMANOFF: Yeah. I don’t think anyone would ever like–I was talking to boys and sometimes they’d be like, “You’re REALLY intense.” [laughs] Which I was, like, they weren’t wrong. But I was savvy enough to realize that that was the stuff I should pull back on. Like, don’t talk about Hanson, don’t talk about fan fiction, don’t talk about reading sci-fi books. Don’t talk about how much you love the scary challenge of school, love doing your homework, don’t ever say that. You know, just that I was like… Just like, what I thought to be a slightly more socially acceptable version of myself.
ENNI: Yeah. I’m super interested in this because I’ve been talking to a lot of people lately about the myths that we hear about ourselves, it’s striking me that when you were in that small program with the people who like–you were the writer, and it became like, the thing, and like your identity, and really like a comforting like, reinforced thing. And I think, yeah, when we get older we have to like, those myths that we thought were facts about ourselves get tested, and then you build your own myth.
ROMANOFF: Hopefully, yeah. I mean, but it does–and this is one of the reasons I love reading and writing YA, it continually brings me back in touch with thinking about the myths of things I didn’t have the bandwidth to sort out what was false and what was true.
ROMANOFF: When I was that age? And all the time I’ll be reading something and be like, “Oh my god! I thought that too, and that’s not true at all!”
ENNI: Right, right.
ROMANOFF: So I remember like, watching DAWSON’S CREEK, and seeing Katie Holmes’ character, Joey, who’s in love with her best friend, and he’s not in love with her. And I was like, “that’s me. That’s who I am.” And like, until recently, had this sort of unexamined sort of, just iron-clad belief of like, “I’m the best friend you eventually realize that you’re into, but I’m never the girl you just like, meet and want to date.” I was just like, “oh, that’s what it is, that’s where it comes from, that’s this thing I’ve never articulated to myself, but I’ve been believing since I was fourteen, because…” I heard that story and it seemed true to me, like there were only two ways to be in the world.
ENNI: Right! Because stories reinforced that. Especially like, DAWSON’S CREEK, this was the CW kind of like, as you’re learning to like, engage and exist in the world, those are helpful narratives to understand–but when you assign yourself one and feel like you’re stuck to it, it’s hard to un-learn.
ROMANOFF: Yeah, exactly, so I do think that continually sort of putting myself in the shoes of a teenager–first of all trying to write books that tell a different story, hopefully, about what kind of girl it’s possible to be in the world. But also, yeah, reading other people’s stories and seeing what the cultural narrative is around girlhood and…teenage-hood?
ROMANOFF: I think “adolescence” is the–
ENNI: There we go, yeah.
ROMANOFF: Is so useful and important. I went from being like, in elementary school, I was a writer, and part of it was, it was sort of like, “ugh, that girl always knows the answers in class–she’s exhausting.” [laughs] And then I really like, sort of in high school made friends with kids who were as excited to be smart as I was, and that changed the ballgame.
ENNI: Oh, tell me how that changed.
ROMANOFF: I think it was just like, “Oh, I can actually just be my actual self, and there are people who like it, and I like them better” [laughs] than like, everyone else. I really thought “Oh, to have friends, this is how you really have to be.” And I actually just read–Brenna Yovanoff, PLACES NO ONE KNOWS, I wanna say is about this? I read it in like, 24 hours, I was like, “This is exactly how I felt in high school.”
ENNI: Really? That’s amazing.
ROMANOFF: Yeah, that I was like, the wrong kind of girl, but I could fake being the right one, you know? And I was like, “well that’s fine, that’s just how it is.” And then all of the sudden like, I made friends with these people who were like, editors of the lit mag, and one of them was like, “You love to write, you should write something for the lit mag.” And I wrote at that point, the first piece of fiction I’d written in years. They gave me books to read–I read Don Delillo, fairly prematurely.
ENNI: Oh yeah, right.
ROMANOFF: But I read Don Delillo in high school, because they–it was just this, it was so–I really can’t say how much it changed my life to have friends who allowed themselves to be excited about things.
ROMANOFF: And specifically things like, yeah, even if they were nerdy, even if they were uncool, whatever, it was like, “But this is what we care about. Why would we not be super into it?” My intensity level, my interest in this stuff is like, not weird, it’s great. And it’s so much more fun to be this person.
ENNI: Yeah. I love that. So that’s when fiction came back?
ROMANOFF: So it started to, I wrote this very short story, and then started trying to expand it–I wrote this thing that I was like, “Maybe this will be my novel!” It probably was like, maybe 3,000 words.
ENNI: Yeah! But that’s interesting that it was in your head.
ROMANOFF: I mean, I think like I wanted to write a novel, but it wasn’t an actual ambition. I wanted to do it, you know, the same way I wanted to fall in love. [laughs]
ENNI: Right, oh my god, yeah. No, 'cause my memory of this, when I was probably 18, 17, I think–a long family road trip, and… I just had this memory of looking out the window and being like, “I’d be really sad if I didn’t write a book one day.” You know? That’s how it was. There wasn’t an urgency, and it still didn’t really feel attainable, it was just like, “Man, it would be a bummer if that never happened.”
ROMANOFF: Yeah. Right? You’re just like, “It’s on my life plan, for eventually.”
ENNI: You’ll get there, yeah. So that’s so interesting.
ROMANOFF: Yeah, so yeah. I think I also, you know, had been a little burned by previous, like I never finished those Hanson fan fictions.
ROMANOFF: Yeah, so I’d never–I’d failed to finish any of my chaptered fics, so I thought of myself as having trouble finishing.
ENNI: How interesting.
ROMANOFF: Again, the stories you tell yourself.
ROMANOFF: So I wrote like, I dunno, four scenes of this thing, and I fizzled out, and I got distracted.
ENNI: Right, right right. With life.
ROMANOFF: Yeah, and I was writing–I was blogging, I should say, I had a LiveJournal in high school. And then I had a Blogspot account–I’ve had a blog one way or the other since I was like, fourteen?
ENNI: That’s amazing!
ROMANOFF: Yeah, I forgot about that, I was blogging.
ENNI: That’s huge.
ENNI: I guess meeting these friends who were unapologetically smart helped lead you to Yale?
ROMANOFF: Yes, I mean… Yeah.
ENNI: It sounds like they were also like–like you could unleash your ambition.
ROMANOFF: Yeah, for sure. It’s funny, it’s hard to say what would have happened–'cause I did not think I wanted to go to Yale. I feel like, when you say “Yale,” people have this idea that that’s sort of how you were raised, they’re like, “You must’ve had crazy helicopter parents,” and like, you know… Especially if you’re in LA and you say Yale and Harvard-Westlake, they’re like, “Oh, I know who you’re family is.”
ENNI: Right, right right.
ROMANOFF: Both my parents super valued education, but did not come into my life being like, “Our daughter is gonna–” you know, “There’s one path to success, and she has to follow it.”<br />ENNI: Right.
ROMANOFF: You know, they happened to get one who was like, “There’s one path to success, and I’m following it.”
ROMANOFF: So I went to Harvard-Westlake really just because I felt like–because I was twelve and I was really excited about being at a challenging school.
ENNI: Totally, yeah!
ROMAOFF: Um, and for the whole time I was there I was sort of weirded out by the strive-y culture and the you know, drive toward the Ivy League. I thought I wanted to go to Columbia because they had a great books program that I was really excited about, I thought I wanted to be in New York–when it turned out that I hate New York. And part of what happened was that I spent a summer in New York–
ENNI: Doing what?
ROMANOFF: At a summer program at Columbia. So I spent a summer at Columbia, I was like, “I don’t think I like New York this much,” and a series of things happen, and also like, while I was there I was like, “Well, I’ll visit other schools.” And I visited Yale, and… I dunno, the campus was really beautiful, I really liked my tour guide, they had a similar great books program that I could do, I don’t–it’s hard to recall, really, the like, what the hell was going through my mind at seventeen.
ENNI: Part of it is walking on the campus and feeling something.
ROMANOFF: Yeah. And it was, it really was, I remember being there and thinking, “I really love this place. I just feel like I wanna be here.” I actually got waitlisted–I got deferred when I applied early, which was the most shocking thing that had ever happened to me.
ROMANOFF: Yes, I was like, you know, I mean–I had sort of grown out of the thing with like being the star of my elementary school, but I was still like–I’d never not gotten in somewhere. To get to be like, “I really want this thing, I worked as hard as I possibly could to get this thing, and I might not get the thing?!”
ROMANOFF: It gives you a sense of the level of difficulty I faced a bunch. [laughs]
ENNI: Well, I’m relating to it though, so I feel that. Okay, well now is where I want to talk to you about East Coast/West Coast.
ROMANOFF: Oh, yeah.
ENNI: How did this–Yale is like, for real, New England is not a fucking joke.
ROMANOFF: It is not a fucking joke. And Yale is so–I thought I knew rich kids, I thought I knew like, family–I mean, I thought I knew. Very early on, I had a crush on this guy, and I was like, talking to a girlfriend about it, and in the conversation she was like, “Oh, we’re both from New York, but I don’t know him.” A couple days later I see him posting on her Facebook wall like, “It was so great to get coffee with you,” like, “I’m glad we’re friends now.” I went to her like, “Hey, like, what’s going on? I thought you guys didn’t know each other, um, just curious?” And she’s like “Oh no no, it’s funny, as we’re talking about him I thought his name sounded really familiar–I looked him up afterwards and I realized our families are patrons of the arts together in New York.”
ENNI: Okay, what does that even mean?
ROMANOFF: Um, it means that like, there’s like, literally a wing of a museum with her family’s name on it, that like, his family has a gallery in. [laughs]
ENNI: Oh, got it.
ENNI: That’s crazy–so shit was just bananas.
ROMANOFF: It was bananas, it was really just, gut dropped. I thought I knew private school, rich kids, smart kids, all that stuff–and I just got dropped into a totally different version of it.
ROMANOFF: It was a transition, it got really overshadowed–this is a very dramatic story–there was a girl who I thought I was best friends with first semester freshman year, who tried to kill herself at the beginning of our second semester.
ENNI: Oh no.
ROMANOFF: And I was the person she’s–she’s alive, and fine now, and in part because she did not, and it part because she texted me saying “I just took a bunch of sleeping pills”–um.
ENNI: Oh my god.
ROMANOFF: Yeah. So.
ENNI: Whoa–so you were called to action, you had to handle this?
ROMAOFF: Yeah, yeah. So. I was like, “Why can’t I remember more about the east/west?” And it’s like.
ENNI: It was totally swamped by this craziness.
ROMANOFF: Yeah, that took over my entire semester, I was dealing with various pieces of the fallout from that. Um.
ENNI: Whoa, well, you’re trying to sort of settle yourself.
ROMANOFF: Yeah, I had a really bad–it’s funny, I personally had a very easy social transition, like, having been quite prepared for the academic work of college, like that stuff was all fine. But this thing with this girl happened, one of my friends was sexually assaulted by a Saferide driver in New York.
ENNI: Oh my god.
ROMANOFF: Which was insane, I can like… To be eighteen, to be on your own for the first time, and to have someone–have one of your friends call someone for help like, “I’m too drunk to come home, come pick me up.” And get assaulted. The level on which I was like, “Nothing in the world is safe. Nothing in the world is fine.” Like, “I am completely on my own.”
ENNI: Yeah, yes.
ROMANOFF: It’s weird to think about. It’s funny, at the time–I didn’t think about this at the time, but in retrospect I’m like, “College was SO dramatic.” Something like, crazy happened to me every year I was in school.
ENNI: Really, oh my god. Yeah, I think that’s true for me too. But you’re just like, because everyone is just like, running into each other full speed–like you’ve never been a grown up before, you’re just learning all the different ways your decisions can hurt other people.
ROMANOFF: Yes, yes, exactly. Exactly that. That is so exactly what it was. And I think especially at a place like Yale, it’s a lot of kids who are very smart who are super intense, um, who either have–in my case, I had cloistered myself to like, be doing homework all the time–or had been cloistered by their parents. All of the sudden, they’re on a college campus–and Yale in particular at the time had very lax drinking rules.
ENNI: Oh wow.
ROMANOFF: Yeah–I’m trying to think of a good answer to East Coast/West Coast though.
ENNI: Well, and my curiosity is so–and with you, I’m really interested in it because you chose to come back.
ROMANOFF: Yeah, so, I love the East Coast, I think if my family was there I probably would’ve stayed. I dunno. I feel like that’s really hard to say now. I lived in LA until I was eighteen, moved to Connecticut to go to Yale, was there until I graduated when I was 22, moved back to Los Angeles for a year–which was like, this was '09, the height of the recession, um, I was extraordinarily depressed, in part because I get depressed, and in part because I had been involved in a very bad romance.
ENNI: Oh wow, yeah.
ROMANOFF: Which we can talk about or not, um, anyway, so I spent a year in LA kind of working, um, and then I got a job at Yale and moved back to Connecticut for two and a half years. It was sort of at the end of that, that I realized sort of like, “Okay, I kind of have a job here that I love, at an organization I can stay at.” I had a boyfriend at the time, who I loved, um… You know. New Haven, I actually really loved New Haven, I was like “I could do this. I could stay here. This could be like, my life.” But I really missed California, I really love California, my family is all here and my family is very close. My grandmother was dying, and I was sort of like, “You know, I think if LA is ultimately where I want to be, now is the moment at which I need to just go back and be back.” And now that I’ve been back for almost four years, I’m never ever ever leaving. It’s so not negotiable.
ENNI: Yeah. That’s amazing. Um, that’s really… I mean, I don’t know if “brave” is the right word, but like, that’s intense, to be like “No, I know I need to do this thing,” and even though it’s like–even though it would be easier to stay, like, “I’m gonna go figure it out.”
ROMANOFF: Yeah, again, as so often I feel in my life, I guess in retrospect it was brave, at the time it was mostly stupid. Like, I really did not understand what I was doing. Like, I was like, I’d moved to New Haven and figured out my life there. And especially like, at this point, I’d gotten myself this job and this boyfriend and this great apartment, like, how hard could it be to do it again?
ROMANOFF: Super hard. Super, super hard, as it turned out. Which is actually the story of how I ended up having time to write this book.
ENNI: Okay, well that’s–thank you for walking through the door. Let’s talk about writing, college to that point.
ROMANOFF: Yeah, so, I was a lit major, was reading constantly, I wrote for a couple campus publications, but for like a very tiny magazine, and for–there’s the Yale Daily News for like, if you’re serious about writing, you’re like a YDN writer, and then there’s The Herald, which is sort of, if you’re a slacker-hipster. [laughs]
ROMANOFF: So I wrote for The Herald.
ENNI: Ah, that’s awesome! I like that there was an alt paper.
ROMANOFF: Yeah, it was a little more casual–but it’s not, the YDN publishes every day.
ENNI: Well yeah.
ROMANOFF: They’re so serious. So I wrote for like, for this like, little newspaper, um, but it was really non-ambitious. I’d been really burned by the experience of A) Harvard-Westlake B) Not getting into writing classes at Yale. So even when like, my editors were like, “You’re really good at this, this is great, please write for us all the time,” I was just like “Eh, they don’t really mean that.”
ENNI: The doubt was in deep.
ROMANOFF: I just didn’t think of it… I was sort of like, “This is good that I can do this because it’s useful to people.” But there was no sort of sense of like, “You should be ambitious about it. You should take time for yourself and take it seriously.”
ROMANOFF: So I graduated, loving to write, having no sense it was going to be a career, I’d been a sophomore working for the Yale Sustainable Food Project–now Program, Sustainable Food Program.
ROMANOFF: There was this little one-acre farm on campus, um, and now all this incredible extra-curricular and curricular stuff going on. I was like, “I love the sustainable food movement, this is what I want to be doing,” um, and “This is what I will do,” again, moved back to Los Angeles, mid-recession. There were no food-focused nonprofits at the time–if there had been, they were NOT hiring. Spent a year, actually ended up freelancing for The Jewish Journal, 'cause like, I knew someone who was an editor there, so I did some writing. And then the Sustainable Food Project hired me back full time, so I went back to New Haven.
ENNI: Got it.
ROMANOFF: And it was really there, like, while I had that job, and was living in New Haven, that I was like going to parties in New York all the time, and sort of feeling like constant seething resentment and envy. [laughs]
ROMANOFF: Of everyone who was doing the stuff that I wasn’t doing, um.
ENNI: So writing, even though you sort of hadn’t consciously…
ROMANOFF: I mean, I hadn’t pursued it.
ROMANOFF: At all, and… So it was totally my fault.
ENNI: Well, yeah, I think a lot of us–it’s totally, totally crazy the number of people I’ve done this with who are like, “You need ten different kinds of permission.”
ROMANOFF: And I kept waiting for someone to say to me, 'cause also, so, I’d been involved with this guy in college–the guy that broke my heart like, fifteen different times, uh. And he was a writer, and he was one of the darlings of the English department, who had taken classes and had helped from a woman who helped him get an agent right after he graduated, and I was sort of like, “Well, if I was really good, someone would have helped me get an agent,” like “Someone would have told me by now. I know that I’m like, pretty good, but if I was that good, I dunno.”
ENNI: Someone would sound the alarm.
ROMANOFF: And someone would help me, someone would’ve told me what to do next. And really the only good news in that is that no one told me what to do next, so I just did what I wanted to do, which was writing. And I think ultimately I’m glad, because it gave me discipline, you know? Even when I didn’t think anyone cared or anyone was going to read it, I was still like, “But I love this, and this is what I want to do, and I’m gonna find time for it.” I had this Tumblr that I started when I was 22 and living in LA that I was still writing in, and that was sort of how my friends in New York like, knew that I was a writer, and started encouraging me to like, to put stuff out there, to think more about it–and really a big, big turning point was I’d written this essay for a fashion magazine that my brother and his girlfriend were writing as a college project about Joan Didion in California, and a friend of mine read it and was like “Oh, Jenna Wortham,” who’s a reporter at The New York Times, and Thessaly La Force, who’s worked everywhere good, are putting together a zine called “Girl Crush,” like, “you should submit your Didion essay for it.” And I did, and they loved it, and they helped me edit it and get actually really good. And Thessaly had been a web editor at The Paris Review, and so she got it up on The Paris Review website, and I got e-mails from agents, being like, “Are you working on a book?”
ENNI: Wow, that’s incredible!
ROMAMOFF: I was like, “Wait, no, no one told me that I should write a book!”
ENNI: Right, right right.
ROMANOFF: Like, “What?! No!” I remember being terrified, I was like “Oh no, I don’t have a book, and this is it.” I fucked it up, that was my chance.
ENNI: Oh no, you felt like a window was closing.
ROMANOFF: Yeah, so I started, I was like, “Okay, I’m gonna write a book.” [laughs]
ENNI: I love that this is how it happened.
ROMANOFF: This is not how I ended up writing SONG actually, um, 'cause at first I was way too intimidated to write a novel, but was like, “Maybe I’ll write an essay collection.” And I wanted to write an essay–it was a good idea, I wanted to write an essay collection about guilt and pleasure, like guilty pleasures, 'cause again this was the point where I’d just started to really own like, “I love Hanson,” and “I love schlocky weird TV” and like I love everything made for teens, and I’m reading YA constantly, and like, I don’t care.
ENNI: Yeah, high, low, and examining that is always so interesting.
ROMANOFF: Yeah, exactly, and a little bit I think, it’s–again, one of the things I was super grateful to have the Yale diploma for, when people question my interests–not that it’s like, objectively meaningful to have a Yale diploma, but it shuts down a certain amount of conversations.
ENNI: Well for sure, for sure, I think an enormous amount of our adult life are putting things in place, like, “I’m wanna do what I’m gonna do, and I wanna be respected for it,” and anything you can bring to the table at that discussion, and allow yourself to talk about things you want to talk about is an asset.
ROMANOFF: And I think it helped me understand, I was like, “No no no, I am smart, and this is the stuff I want to apply that intelligence to, and that’s fine, that’s not like–”
ENNI: “Guess what, I got smart, and I didn’t stop liking Hanson.” They’re not mutually exclusive.
ROMANOFF: Exactly! And like, apply that smartness and that intensity and whatever to the stuff, is what I care about. And that’s much more exciting for me, that’s what I wanna do. But I was just sort of getting into that at that moment. So I was trying to write this book of essays–it did not go anywhere at all. But between that and like, a couple other short, smaller things that happened, by the time I left that job and moved back to California I didn’t have another job lined up, and I was gonna live with my parents while I did that, I was like, “Well, and I’ll take a writing class, 'cause I think I wanna focus on this a little more.” So I took a writing class through Writing Workshops LA, um, which Edan Lepucki runs, which I love and recommend very highly, and first took a fiction writing class where we’d read short stories and talk about them, the sort of second half of class, the teacher would give us a prompt, and we’d write for half an hour. It was optional to go home and finish it. I should say, I’d been writing essays and blog posts and things quite regularly, certainly from the time I graduated college up through then when I was 25, so like three years, I’d not really been writing fiction. But I decided I wanted to and took this fiction writing class, and wrote this short story that I really liked, that I again was like, “This could be the first short story in a series of short story,” and I started writing the second short story, and that became A SONG TO TAKE THE WORLD APART.
ENNI: That was NOT meant to be a short story.
ROMANOFF: No, it was supposed to be the prologue of a short story–like the first page of a short story.
ENNI: Funny! Oh my gosh, that’s really funny.
ROMANOFF: To give you an idea of my length problem.
ENNI: Well, that’s my favorite kind of story is when people are like, “This was supposed to be a 400 word thing,” and then it’s 400 pages. Some ideas are just…
ROMANOFF: It really did, it just happened to be–I started writing and it was like, “Oh, everything I really care about is in this story.” Like I could talk about everything.
ENNI: I do–I really wanna take just a second to like, when you were talking about your boyfriend being a star or whatever, it struck me that like, if at that time and at that age you had gotten the same treatment, I wonder what you even would have been writing.
ROMANOFF: Yeah, it’s super hard to know.
ENNI: Because–and the reason I’m bringing it up is because I feel such a kinship with your progression of interest and acceptance of interest and stuff like that. Like, oh my god, if I’d gone to a writing program in college and had been encouraged at that time to explore what I would’ve been looking at in fiction, like, I just would’ve been intolerable. And like, boring as fuck.
ROMANOFF: Okay, I’m trying to decide whether I’m going to tell this story or not, because it’s trash talking [indecipherable]
ENNI: He can be an avatar for all, white, young, male writers.
ROMANOFF: I think this is an instructive story in various ways. So, he and I had been long, on-off, miserable, nightmare, and we hadn’t spoken in three years, and he got in touch with me a couple years ago now, and we started talking. And I’d just gotten an agent for SONG, and I was so excited, and I was so excited because I hadn’t taken my writing seriously when we were together, and he had not taken my writing AT ALL seriously when we were together. So I was like, so thrilled to be like, “I wrote a book, I got an agent.” Like, “Fuck you, I’m a real–” like “I’m doing this.” And he was like “Oh yeah, I wrote a book and got an agent too.” I was like, “God damn it!” He literally didn’t even say “congratulations,” I was like, “congratulations, that’s exciting.” But so, we exchanged manuscripts, and he had written a thriller that was essentially the plot of John Grisham’s THE FIRM like, grafted onto Google.
ROMANOFF: Yeah like, Google and WikiLinks, uh, and his agent wanted him to revise it. And he was like “No, I don’t want to revise it,” and because this is how his life works, he just got another agent.
ROMANOFF: He just like found one and was like “No,” and got a different one. And uh.
ROMANOFF: Yeah, and I had done significant revisions before getting my agent, and we’ll get to this later, but I also did significant revisions before I sold it to my editor, like. Anyway, he didn’t revise the book, and the book didn’t sell.
ENNI: Yeah. Shocking.
ROMANOFF: But it was such a moment of like, you know, you believe that you deserve this, and you believe that you are the best arbiter of this, and like, you know.
ENNI: Well, and this is what strikes me as–I mean, there’s so much we can talk about this being like a constant in female life and the lives of women, but also that though it turned out in your favor, having that moment of not getting into Yale, having these setback things, moving, having to start over, I mean, those are really important things where you understand that you are fallible but that you can build better.
ROMANOFF: Certainly that you’re fallible, that you can build better, and that like, certainly that you won’t get things handed to you, and even if you deserve them, sometimes you won’t get them. And so yeah, to me it was this–truly I was so grateful every time someone read that book and offered me a suggestion. Again, all of this stuff–I’m not a big, sort of like–some adversity is just adversity, like some stuff that happens that sucks just sucks, but sometimes it does end up being good for you. And I think, especially in my case, I’m very grateful that I had to decide that writing was–and especially, also, 'cause once you get to the like, trying to get an agent trying to sell, which is like, utter misery of that process, you have to love it. And you have to have an extent to which you’re sort of at peace with yourself about like, “I’m gonna keep doing this because I’m gonna keep doing this.”
ROMANOFF: And I had developed that, you know, years prior.
ENNI: I mean, at that time–when you got into reading YA, you were still not writing yet…
ROMANOFF: Yeah, but it was sort of in my mind. I had a real moment when I was reading YA novels where I was like, “Part of the reason I’ve never been quite able to understand how I would write a novel is because I wouldn’t write literary fiction.” That’s just not what I’m invested in and it’s not what I care about. The way that it’s constructed is sort of opaque to me. I feel like literary fiction is always about like, an idea, people who are like, concerned with the structure of the novel. And like, I’m making a voice as if these things are dumb, and they’re not dumb. But I had spent a long time feeling like the fact that I didn’t care about those things, and that I cared much more about plot and character, and hook, and drama, made me dumb. And so like recognizing, “Oh no no, that’s just not the kind of novel I wanna write,” that really was also a huge shift. I was like, “Okay, if I wanted to do this, THIS is how I would.” And that made so much more sense to me. It makes so much more sense to attack as like a story about a person. That was, I think, what really changed for me when I started being able to write fiction and finish stories was when I understood that I was writing about a person.
ENNI: Not an idea.
ROMANOFF: Yeah, not an idea, and not like… I dunno, that’s something I have to come back to.
ENNI: I think maybe what you’re dancing around a little bit is what I struggled with recently is like, how do you define Young Adult?
ROMANOFF: Oh my god, this is–I’m actually going to write an essay for The Millions about this, um, because someone on GoodReads of course–I know I shouldn’t read GoodReads, whatever. [laughs] It’s not gonna happen. Um, someone wrote a really nice review of my book, but was like, “But this is YA for adults, I don’t understand why people do that.”
ROMANOFF: And I’m like, I’m still like, trying so hard to figure out what that means. Like, and what I think about it. 'Cause I think that’s a nonsense concept. I don’t know, but I also a little bit think the idea–this was a big thing when I was trying to get an agent for my book. So I sent it to a bunch of young adult agents, and about half of them were like, “This is great. It’s literary fiction. It’s not Young Adult.” So I started sending it to literary fiction agents who were like, “This is Young Adult.” [laughs]
ENNI: Funny! So you were really caught in the nexus there.
ROMANOFF: Yeah, it was in part, I will say, probably a voice problem, and one of the big things that happened like–Logan, my now agent, read the draft and was like, “This is fantastic, it has a voice problem. Before I would sign you, I’d want you to revise it.” She’s a genius. It’s so sticky, and it is fascinating to me, to read stuff that’s like, I just read GIRLS ON FIRE by Robin Wasserman.
ENNI: I have that in my house right now!
ROMANOFF: Oh, it’s awesome, it’s really, really good. And I understand content-wise why people wouldn’t want to put it on a YA shelf–I mean, it’s nothing I didn’t know as a teenager. I’m sure it’s nothing most teenagers don’t know. I understand why, for that reason. But I was reading it and I was like, “Alright, like, to what extent is this kind of a Young Adult novel.” You know? It’s fascinating to watch those lines get drawn–not that this is her fault, right, but like, if it gets categorized as literary fiction, it gets taken seriously in a totally different way.
ENNI: But then you have to like, jump in with the sharks of adult literary, which sounds terrifying to me.
ROMANOFF: Yes, oh no no, I’m very happy, I should say, this is not a complaint about being YA. First of all, because I’m like, “If you don’t take me and my books seriously, you can go fuck yourself.” Really, I spent so much time not taking myself and my writing seriously, like, I’m a hundred percent done with people who don’t want to do that. And because the adult literary world can be pretty masturbatory.
ENNI: Yup. Yeah it can.
ROMANOFF: I don’t think anyone consciously writes a book intending for it to be masturbatory, right, but I do think maybe when you’re speaking to an audience of what feels like your peers, it’s easy to imagine all of your peers are just like you. You know, in a way that it can feel hall of mirrors-y, sometimes, reading, this is a complaint of MFA fiction. Whereas, when you’re writing specifically for people who are not your demographic, it just forces you to consider from the get-go, “This is not for me.” Like “I’m reaching out to someone who maybe doesn’t have my experiences, and doesn’t have my understanding of the world. How can I get across to them this thing that I’m like, finding it urgent to say?”
ENNI: That is such an interesting point! I’m so intrigued by that, yeah, it’s so completely true, like… All of us who are writing this are not teenagers anymore, so that instantly puts you at this “other,” where it encourages empathy right out of the gate.
ROMANOFF: Hopefully. [laughs] And certainly, people write bad YA obviously, and people write like, stupid, whatever, all kinds of–but I think hopefully for me, one of the things I really value about it, is that it always puts me in a position of being like, “Okay, this is not… This has to reach out to people who are not like me.”
ENNI: Right. Right. Ooh, I like that. So, okay, let’s start talking about the specifics–let’s talk about A SONG TO TAKE THE WORLD APART, which I have read, and it’s amazing!
ROMANOFF: Thank you!
ENNI: It’s so beautiful and I love it. You mentioned, I think, a little bit of the genesis, but go ahead and back up and talk about how this came to be.
ROMANOFF: This is one of those books that has like, such a weird convoluted origin story that I keep trying to refine down.
ENNI: 'Cause you’re going to answer it on every panel.
ROMANOFF: Yeah, exactly. And I’m like, “Here’s ten minutes.” So I’d taken this writing class, I’d written a short story. I wanted to write a series of short stories that were about people–it was going to be all different people working on the same movie, and they were gonna like, come together in the end in some climactic way. But I also wanted them all to have magical powers. [laughs]
ROMANOFF: But magical powers, I’d been reading a ton of like, urban fantasy, and high fantasy, and all kinds of stuff, and I felt like I kept reading stories where girls would like discover–not only did they have powers, but they were the most powerful. The most special, or chosen, or whatever, and they were getting whisked out of their world into a magical one, and they had to save it, and they had a true love, and a destiny… And I, as the one who, especially at that point in my life was feeling like, “I don’t have a true love, I don’t have a destiny.” And had felt that way very much in high school, like “I’m not the heroine of a story.”
ENNI: “I’m Joey.”
ROMANOFF: Yeah, “I’m Joey,” I mean, who is, in fact, totally a heroine in DAWSON’S CREEK, but.
ROMAOFF: Yeah, but yeah, it was like “I’m not a heroine, and I’ll never be one.” Anyway, so I wanted to write a story about people who had magical powers who were kind of screwing up their lives. In like, really low-grade, annoying ways. So one of them was going to be about a girl who had a magically powerful voice, but it was too powerful, and she didn’t know how to control it. And it was sort of–she was trying to figure out like, “I have this power, but I don’t want to use it to get ahead,” and like, “How am I going to reckon with that?” And I wrote the very beginning was like, Lorelei was an adult, it was told through her bartender boyfriend’s point of view.
ENNI: Oh how funny.
ROMANOFF: Thank god I brought it into this writing workshop that I was taking, also through Writing Workshops LA, and one of the guys in the class was like, “If the story is about this girl, shouldn’t it be told from the girl’s perspective?” And I was like, “Yeah!”
ENNI: Yay, guy!
ROMANOFF: Right? Totally like a really good note. Um, and when I started writing it through her point of view, I was like, “Well, I’m gonna give a brief history of like, how she figured out how she had this power.” And as soon as I started writing that, it just… You know, all the sudden what was supposed to be the first page was fifteen pages, and then it was thirty pages, and I was like “Oh.” I sort of let myself say it was a short story for a while, 'cause I was really intimidated by like, admitting I was writing a novel.
ENNI: Okay, well, and, first of all–this Russian nesting doll of like, insanity that you were writing a story about a girl, you’re exploring the concept of not allowing yourself to be the heroine of your own story, and you end up telling it through a boyfriend’s point of view. This is like, breaking it down right now.
ROMANOFF: Yeah, it’s indicative. [laughs]
ENNI: Right, well it’s so interesting to me, 'cause I am totally loathe to–and I don’t ever really want to separate how we grow as writers from how we grow as people. So to me I’m like “Yay!” That’s a great thing to be able to recognize, and think about.
ROMANOFF: Yes, and it was–it’s so funny, he was just like, “Well why don’t you–” you know, it was a question in a writing class, you get a thousand questions in a writing class, but that one was the key to everything.
ENNI: Totally, amazing!
ROMANOFF: “Why isn’t this girl telling the story?”
ENNI: So it grew and grew and grew.
ROMANOFF: Yeah, it just kept growing, and I was just like, “Okay, this is like–” Yeah, it’s full of stuff I really cared about and was really excited about, so at a certain point–I was writing in Scrivener, and I had like, folders for the other planned short stories, and at a certain point I took it out of the–I was like, “Okay, I’m moving this document. It’s going to be its own Scrivener document.” So that was a moment–but really what happened was that also, I just went back to LA, I was living with my parents, and I could not get a job. I couldn’t get a job. And it was SO demoralizing. It would’ve been financially catastrophic if it hadn’t been that I had parents I could just keep living with, I mean, thank god, like, they were like “You can stay as long as you need–it’s fine!” So I had all this time to write. I was writing all the time, and I remember going into the workshop I was in one day, and mentioning–'cause we’d bring in like five pages a week–and someone asked me a question and I was like, “Oh, I’ve written this far but no further.” So I was ahead of what I was reading. And the teacher was like, “Wait, how much are you writing in a day?” I was like, “I dunno, 2-3,000 words?” [laughs] And he was like “Okay, how many words do you have?” And I think I must’ve been about halfway through, 'cause he was like, “You write 3,000 words every day, you could be done with this by the end of the summer.” And I just hadn’t quite–I was like, “Oh.” Somehow I was just like, “Oh, yeah, I could do that.”
ENNI: That’s so funny. I love that.
ROMANOFF: Just putting it in the mathematical terms like–also 'cause I’d been doing it at that point, I was like, “I can write 3,000 words at this day. I know what happens next.” 'Cause I pretty much did at that point. And really, having someone give me a deadline, because before I’d kind of been like, “Oh, I don’t know, like I’m writing this book, but I’m trying to get a job.” But it was like, “Well, you’re not getting a job right now, so.”
ENNI: Right, right.
ROMANOFF: So why don’t you just like, go all in, and write this book. So I did, and I wrote it relatively fast–I think I started it in April, and I was done by the end of August.
ROMANOFF: It was May–I had a draft, let’s be clear, I had a draft at the end of August. Um, I revised it on my own for a while, and then I sent it to my best friend, who at the time was an editor of adult literary fiction at FSG, and she read it and was like “This is great,” and she made some tweaks to the end, and I made some tweaks to the end, and sent it to agents, like, SO pre-maturely.
ENNI: Oh boy.
ROMANOFF: Yeah. I got rejected by a bunch of them and was like “Oh, okay.”
ROMANOFF: And then did a bunch more revising, and sent it out to a second round of agents.
ENNI: And that was Logan?
ROMANOFF: Yeah, that was when things started to happen–and it still had the voice problem, which she and a couple other agents identified, and…
ENNI: And voice meaning not enough voice…?
ROMANOFF: So this is the example I always give: it was just really overwritten in certain, so like, there was a sentence which read: “The lack of a microwave in the kitchen is the last vestige of Oma’s structures in the house.”
ROMANOFF: Which now reads, “They don’t have a microwave. Oma never liked them.” [laughs]
ENNI: That’s amazing. [laughs]
ROMANOFF: That was the voice problem.
ENNI: Yeah, oh, that’s so interesting.
ROMANOFF: It’s a whole long and unnecessarily complicated story, but I actually got offers from a couple of other agents first, and she asked for this voice revision, so I sent it to her, I was like, “I only did a chapter, I have other offers, if you like this.” And the other agents had not identified the voice thing, and so… But that was one of the huge issues I wanted to work with her, I was like, “She knows…” She knows what’s up. So I signed with her about a year after I finished that first draft. It was July. I did some more revision with her, we sent the book on submission at the end of that year, got rejected by everyone–as it happens, my current editor Katherine was the first person who got back to us, and she was like, “I love this–I don’t think it’s quite there yet.” You know, “If no one else buys it, I’d love to talk to Zan about doing a revision.”
ROMANOFF: No one else bought it, so… By the time we talked, I was wanting to revise it, we had the same idea about how it needed to be revised, it was very same-page, very lucky situation.
ENNI: That’s amazing.
ENNI: It’s like, better than anything when someone gets it.
ROMANOFF: Yes, I was like, “Yes, this is exactly what this book needs.”
ENNI: It’s sometimes tough, 'cause I wanna talk about SUPER specifics–it’s almost harder to interview people when I’ve read their books and I’m like “Tell me all the things!” But let’s talk broadly about what happens–because it is about um, a girl, who’s discovering a superpower that does complicate her life, but I totally read the superpower as “Congratulations, puberty.” Like female sexuality was all over that, and how complicated and scary it is.
ROMANOFF: Yeah, you know what’s really funny, actually–and this is how like, different my mindset was when I was writing this book, I remember bringing it in and someone saying to me like, “This is about sex.” And I was like, “Yeah.”
ENNI: Oh, it is.
ROMANOFF: Yeah, hadn’t quite gotten there. Once someone pointed it out to me I was like, “Oh, this is of course true,” and like, it makes a lot of sense. And something I was thrilled to be writing–it’s funny, actually, it’s so funny to know the sort of ghosts of the book that didn’t quite get written. 'Cause initially I wanted to write about the idea that the women in this family were also physically very beautiful, and men stop in the street, and come up to them, and since she was a kid this girl had been pursued–sometimes inappropriately by older men, and that didn’t quite make it. Even though I didn’t necessarily understand right away that it was linked to her singing, I knew that I wanted it to be about what it feels like to sort of come of age sexually–I don’t know, because, like, when you’re a girl you often come of age physically in a way that makes you feel perceived as sexual long before you come of age sexually yourself. And this is something like, I got my period when I was ten.
ENNI: Whoa. Wow, that’s hella early.
ROMANOFF: Hella early. So you can imagine, and it was not shocking like–I looked older, which meant that grown men started hitting on me when I was thirteen years old. Yeah, I think female sexuality, much like Lorelei’s voice, is something that like, you don’t ask for. Other people see it in you before you understand it in yourself. Again, and no one tells you how to use it, how to make it work for you. Because there are often–and certainly in terms of your sexuality–ways to make it work for you, there’s so many ways to make it work for you, and there’s no guidance as to what that is. Especially when you’re much younger.
ENNI: And when you’re someone like you who develops really early, there’s a lot of even people you would have wanted to confide in, there’s a lot of jealousy.
ROMANOFF: Yeah, or people who just don’t understand. They’re just like, “That didn’t happen to me.” That was definitely another thing I wanted to write about, is the weirdness. 'Cause it’s amazing, when you think about how much gets like, produced in our culture around the idea of pretty girls, and how little of it is from the perspective of how complicated and unpleasant it is to be a pretty girl. Not that I’m claiming I’m a great beauty, obviously, but you know what I mean? I don’t know, it’s sort of weird to claim that for yourself, but I feel like “pretty girls” is sort of a wide swath.
ENNI: It is, absolutely. Yeah, I definitely appreciate the difficulty you’re having–because it’s really tough to–this is another one of the binds we’re in talking about the subject: you can’t claim to beautiful.
ROMANOFF: Right, certainly not. It’s one of those things people can claim in you, and react to all they want, and the second you start saying of yourself, “Well, I’m a pretty girl, and this is how I see things”–everyone’s like “Oh, excuse me.”
ENNI: It’s so not done.
ROMANOFF: “How dare you.” And I guess, actually, this is what I mean: it’s less about how I feel about my face, right, which is like, frankly not that great. But I’ve lived in the world long enough to realize that the way people react to me is the way people react to a pretty girl.
ROMANOFF: And one of the things I want to write about is that there’s power with it–there’s all kinds of stuff that come with it, and especially if you feel it’s an undeserved power, I feel like people react to me in this way and I don’t understand why, because I don’t feel this way, like it’s just a whole complicated, uncomfortable set of things to navigate that’s super charged within yourself, and super charged in the way you handle it in the world. 'Cause also, nothing in the world makes a man angrier than when he tells you you’re pretty and you don’t respond well to that.
ENNI: Yeah, it’s like, the greatest gift they could possibly give you.
ENNI: And treating it otherwise, is…
ROMANOFF: Right, it’s like–and it’s happened to me on multiple occasions where a guy will be like “Oh, you’re so pretty,” and I’m like “Yeah, I’m doing whatever thing I’m doing, I don’t want to talk to you,” and they’re like “Oh, you’re not THAT pretty.”
ENNI: Yeah, oh my god.
ROMANOFF: I’m like “Oh, you took it away, there it goes!”
ENNI: Oh gee, oh, it meant so much, when it was there!
ROMANOFF: Right, oh no, my face was a thing, and now it’s a different thing! [laughs]
ENNI: So insane. It’s so funny to be like, a thirty-one-year-old woman and be like, “This book is for me!” Like “I’m dealing with these same shit,” like, I related to it super hard because Lorelei–she’s such a normal girl, and she’s feeling strong romantic feelings for kind of the first time, and then she’s struggling with–“this person is responding to me in this way, but why?” And it feels like it’s one or the other. Like, your body sort of subsumes any other reason–at least for me, I will say, my fear, super big, strong, scary, horrible thing to me is the idea that someone is only caught in a trap of wanting my body, and then it’s like, if my thoughts enter into it, my brain isn’t welcome.
ENNI: As part of that interaction. And that’s horrible.
ROMANOFF: Yeah, it’s horrible, and I think I certainly have an aversion of it, like I said I spent a lot of middle school and high school sort of like figuring out how to project a certain level of cool–whatever that means. I’m always terrified that the person who guides me to parties is–you know, she’s super cute and fun.
ENNI: Right right right, totally!
ROMANOFF: Like, but do you–and I think this is not uncommon, that everyone believes that one thing or another about them is tricking people into liking them.
ENNI: Do you think guys have that?
ROMANOFF: I don’t know! [laughs]
ENNI: I wanna ask a guy that, I wish there was a way to ask guys that that didn’t feel like a trap.
ROMANOFF: Yeah, right? I actually am really curious.
ENNI: I’m sure that that’s true for–because everyone has insecurities.
ROMANOFF: I think it is specifically female, though, 'cause there is this idea that nothing about you is real until a man has seen and validated it. So whatever they see and validate first is what they like, but whatever they haven’t seen yet is still such a risk, and such a scary thing, and who knows if they’re going to get excited about the stuff you don’t present right away, that’s not as exciting or whatever. Ugh, anyway, whatever. For me, I’m very concerned that I’m likable but not lovable. That I’m too good at being likable, and not good at being lovable.
ENNI: Interesting, and really all that I’m doing is inviting my therapist’s office into this conversation, so like, who knows–we’ll keep what is pertinent to your book, but this is like, totally shit I’ve been talking about a lot lately.
ROMANOFF: Yeah, and you know, I’m happy to talk about it.
ENNI: Yeah, and I think books like yours are extremely helpful framing of this.
ROMANOFF: I mean, I hope so, because again I feel like, whether or not the book provides useful answers to girls/women/people, these are questions that I didn’t even know how to frame until I was twenty five. I feel like I’m just figuring out how to understand–how to have a whole vocabulary to talk about it.
ENNI: So, something else that I wanted to ask about this book, and I might be really off base, so feel free to tell me to shove it if this is inappropriate, but you are Jewish, and this book seems to touch on a lot of issues of generational trauma.
ROMANOFF: Yes, no, you’re totally right. Writing this book is so fascinating, because I had no idea what I was doing when I was doing it. No idea. I had some ideas, but they were such shallow, surface ideas. Every time I read it I was like, “Oh, that’s what that was about.” It’s hugely about generational drama. And it’s funny actually, in my case, because there are two things that inform it–one of which of course is Holocaust stuff. As an Eastern European Jew–as a Jew of the 20th century, 21st century, like, obviously there’s just Holocaust stuff in the community. How it affects your family differs. In my case, my dad’s parents–it’s only my dad’s side of the family that’s Jewish–my mom converted, so she’s Jewish now, but my dad’s side of the family is Jewish. They came over from Poland between the World Wars, so that immediate piece of the family wasn’t affected by the Holocaust, all of their relatives were massacred. So I think, one of the big things in the book is this sense of sort of, a nebulous silence around the past. That something happened and the adults don’t want to talk about it. Those aren’t stories you can ask anyone to tell, and I think that’s huge, and separately from that actually is that depression runs in my family, on both sides, and especially, I feel like, I’ve been very affected as I’ve gotten older, hearing stories from my mom about how unhappy the women in her family were. I mean certainly, it’s in my dad’s side too, but it’s less–talking to my mom about this generational unhappiness, some of which has come up on its own, some of which was–you know, that they were really smart women who really wanted to have careers, and who loved to read, and who would have loved the opportunity to write books. And that wasn’t there for them. And what it would be like to be smart and ambitious, and literate and literary, and not be able to do that–and to be depressed and not have a therapist, you know, SSRI, like.
ENNI: You can’t even say you feel these things.
ROMANOFF: Right? I mean, I just… It’s so, thinking about it is so hard. I have an incredible relationship with my mom, she had a good relationship with her mom. I don’t want to sound like I’m saying “This is trauma passed down through generations of”–of necessarily bad parenting, but there’s certainly family dynamics that, when I think about them, make so much sense in terms of my family–and also in terms of how many women were raised by women who were raised by women who were raised by women who were unhappy, who were oppressed, who weren’t allowed to do the things they wanted to do. I think that’s just a specifically female inheritance. And it so informs the way women relate to each other–generationally and within our cohorts.
ENNI: Well, and the silence is so–that’s such an interesting way to frame this, because in the book I felt that it was not only–it was the trauma of dealing with the gift that these women have, but it was also what you were talking about with female sexuality and how you can’t talk about it, you know? To have a power and to not even be able to voice it. And it’s instantly scary.
ROMANOFF: Yeah, and you can’t talk about it, you don’t know if other people have it, you don’t know how they handle it. Yeah, and it also was no coincidence that this was the book I wrote when I was with living with my family for the first time in a long time, you know–again, not that it’s directly at all about them, but just like, thinking about having a family and what it means. And it was directly, I mean, my grandmother was dying, she was my last living grandparent, and so like, there was a lot of processing going on of those relationships, and just like, you know, what we all were to each other, and we had such heightened emotions, and all this stuff, the inheritances that no one tells you about and you don’t understand that you spend, I think a lot of your life trying to…
ENNI: Oh yeah, and while you raise new people who then will carry that.
ROMANOFF: Yeah, who then carry it on… Yeah.
ENNI: Ah! So: GRACE AND THE FEVER, second book, so exciting, how did this come about?
ROMANOFF: I actually wrote–when I started sending the first book off to agents, I did what you’re supposed to do, and I was like, “I’m gonna start writing the second book,” and I was still drawing from the short stories idea–so I did start writing a book about a guy who was a werewolf–it doesn’t matter, it wasn’t good. And I wrote like, a lot of it.
ENNI: Really, okay.
ROMANOFF: It was–I should say, actually, that like, this was–I’ve like struggled with anxiety and depression sort of intermittently in my life, I wrote that book during a year where I was super depressed. And super anxious. And it really gave a lie to the idea that being depressed and anxious is good for your art. It was extraordinarily bad.
ENNI: Whoa, man, yeah, okay.
ROMANOFF: I was miserable, but I was like, “I can get up in the morning and do this.” Like, “I hate this but I hate everything.” And so… Sort of around the same time, I finally got to a place where I’d written like three quarters of it, and I was like, “I can’t keep writing this, this sucks.” So I kind of put it aside; I went into therapy.
ROMANOFF: And I was sort of not writing anything, but I’d gotten really interested in OneDirection, and then writing an essay about Taylor Swift, and when 1989 came out and had like, looked up something about Harry Styles, and then discovered Larry Stylinson fandom, which people don’t know, is a conspiracy theory that Harry Styles and Louis Tomlinson, two members of OneDirection, are in a secret gay relationship, and have been since the band was founded like, six years ago now. And they’re being ruthlessly closeted by their management. Um.
ENNI: I just love it so much.
ROMANOFF: I was super fascinated by it, and I had sort of introduced some friends of mine to it, and they had gotten fascinated by it, and I was thinking a lot about that. I was thinking a lot about boy band fandom, which I’d spent a lot of time in, and two things happened: the first lightening bolt moment, I’d been reading an article someone had written that was like, “Are you in fandom on Tumblr? Here’s how you can put those skills you learned in fandom on a resume.” Right? Like, you probably know some coding, you know how to make gifs, if you know how to make graphics–all this stuff. And it’s really true. Girls in fandom, people in fandom, are learning tons of useful, fascinating stuff. And also, like, especially in a conspiracy theory fandom like, they’re crazy detectives, and they’re always checking to see what’s been photoshopped, checking the timestamps, figuring out all this out–they know everything.
ROMANOFF: And I was like, “They’d make crazy detectives.” So the very initial idea for the story is I wanted to write about a girl who believes a conspiracy theory about a boy band, and is very public about it. And like, is following them around, and accidentally stumbles on a real conspiracy theory, but when she tries to tell people this, everyone is like, “You’re a crazy fangirl, no one cares.” So she like, uses all of her detective skills. Which, I was like, “This is a great idea for a story.” I knew I couldn’t write it–I’m not a caper writer. I knew my skills. I had to be like, “This is not going to happen.” But I sent the idea to my friend Logan–I sent the idea to her and she’s like, “That’s genius, you gotta write it.” And I was like, “I mean, I can’t, I’m not going to.” And every like, couple of months, she’d sort of be like, “So what about that book you were gonna write me?” [laughs]
ENNI: “That you’re gonna write me,” that’s so funny.
ROMANOFF: Yeah, and I was like, “I’m not gonna do it; I’m not gonna do it. I’m working on my other werewolf thing.” And then the second lightening bolt moment was when Zayn left the band, like the day after, I saw this picture of him–he’s just at Heathrow, and he’s walking, and it happens to be captured in such a way, that he looks like he’s alone. And he’s wearing very different–you know, for the band, they’re always wearing sort of “fashion-y” outfits, and their hair would be done. And he just looked like, small, and tired, and casual, and uncertain. And I had this moment where like, my struggle with the book a lot–'cause I had thought about it a lot–had been sort of like, I couldn’t figure out where the girl would be that she would encounter them, and see a private moment. And all the sudden I was like, “Oh, no no no. She doesn’t find them–he finds her.” Like, he walks into her life. I remember looking at this picture, having this idea, and being like “Zan, you can’t do this right now. You’re writing another book,” like “Don’t be silly,” like, “Don’t get distracted from your project.” And I got in the shower, and I was like, “Well, as long as I’m in the shower, I can think about if I was gonna write this book, how it would go.” And by the time I got out of the shower I had like, the first three scenes.
ENNI: Oh my god, that’s amazing.
ROMANOFF: And I was like, “Well, I’ll just write them down, and I’m sure that’ll be the end of it.” And every day, I sort of–and this is the best thing about writing that book was I would like, I wrote thousand words of it or whatever and sent it to Logan, and I was like, “I’m writing your book!” and she was like, “What happens next?” And I was like, “Okay.” And so every day I would write and I would send it to her.
ENNI: That’s such a lifesaver.
ROMANOFF: Every day, having someone to say, “What happens next?”
ENNI: A zero draft.
ROMANOFF: This was fantastic, and it was so helpful, because instead of having an imaginary audience, I had a real one. You know? And it saved that draft. I mean, also, I knew a whole lot more about writing books at that point, because I’d written a good one and a bad one. But it really encouraged me to trim the fat. Because I was like, “She doesn’t care about my literary flourishes–she wants to know what happens next!” What happens next?
ENNI: Okay, and how it’s so, so literally connected to the chapter fan fic that you read.
ROMANOFF: Yeah, oh yeah yeah yeah. I mean, this was like, like I can’t–
ENNI: And you’re even writing it that way! Like, I love this.
ROMANOFF: I truly like, writing that book, I was like, “I can’t believe I’m getting away with this.” Every day I was just like, laughing. This is fan fiction! I mean, especially like, at that point the OneDirection stuff I was reading was largely Larry Stylinson, so it was about the two boys loving each other. But when I was reading Hanson fan fiction, it was always like, a normal girl meets Hanson and they fall in love with her. And I was like, “I’m writing Hanson fan fiction.” I’m writing like, the Mary Sue RPF, like. [laughs] You know, that I dreamed that I like–yeah, I cut my teeth on when I was twelve years old, but like, I’m doing it professionally now.“ It was such an incredible vindication.
ROMANOFF: My whole writing career is vindicating the stuff that when I was younger, people were like, "That’s a waste of time.” I’m like, “Oh, was it? Was it?”
ENNI: Yeah I–how you just phrased that now is super interesting to me because I love doing interviews this way, chronologically, and pulling people–the threads, because you see the threads that I’m wondering like, the way you just phrased it, though, is interesting, like, has it always been that you would end up writing that? Or are you writing that because you’ve always been interested in it? That’s like, semantics, I guess, but it’s interesting.
ROMANOFF: Yeah yeah yeah, yeah–impossible to say, right, I think it’s very clear to me that like, I’ve gotten stronger as a writer, and I’ve gotten more self-confident, and all this stuff–but also, the more I give myself permission to write about the stuff I truly care about, the more strongly people respond to it, always. Always. Like, you know, I mean, yeah. When I was trying to start writing sort of literary short stories in college, they weren’t good because I was nineteen and also they weren’t good because I didn’t care.
ENNI: It’s such a wonderful true-ism. Okay, and let’s talk about this–because I am beyond interested–one degree, one degree–OneDirection is, I find, one of the most interesting ways to talk about this, because they’re so prolific, and that fandom is so intense. But the conspiracy theory part of it, I mean, just like, talk to me about your feelings on this, because I will never get tired of this.
ROMANOFF: So this is–and I will say, I’m very curious to see what their reaction to the book is, because I both, I totally understand that it was myself, deeply compelled by that theory. I like, emotionally understand wanting it to be true so much. And also, I’m like, “Come on you guys.” Realistically–I understand why you believe it, but like, you’re wrong. And I really try to, in the book–and I won’t talk too much about what the book’s about–everything that I write about I try to toe that line between like, logically I don’t believe this, but I really understand and respect emotionally–and to an extent logically, why people do. So I think, in the first place, I wrote the book in a large part because Logan and I were both deep in a place. And I think I was trying to explain to both of us: why do we feel this way? We know this is crazy. But like, why is this so–just sucks you in.
ENNI: Something about it is so compelling.
ROMANOFF: It is! And to an extent I think it’s a little magic, 'cause I’ve explained it to lots of people and like, that’s fascinating, but I’ll show them videos, like I’ll go to YouTube and people are always like, “Oh, I kinda see this.”
ROMANOFF: I mean, I do think there’s something really compelling as a straight woman to watching men be affectionate with one another–it’s so rarely presented that it’s really tempting to project a different kind of tenderness onto that tenderness. Certainly for me, I don’t know if this like speaks for all straight women.
ENNI: Right, right right.
ROMANOFF: I think that’s in general, one of the hugely appealing things about OneDirection is how evidently they love each other. Or certainly how well they perform loving each other.
ROMANOFF: That you just like–oh, like, these are men with feelings.
ENNI: Yeah! That’s so interesting.
ROMANOFF: So there’s that component to it–I think, if you love a band, like feeling like you’re in on a secret with them, you know, that you’re privy to something that people aren’t otherwise is incredibly–the whole thing, the ongoing thing of the conspiracy is this belief that like, Louis Tomlinson runs a Twitter account where he takes pictures of a rainbow teddy bear in bondage gear–and there’s different things about the teddy bears that like, they give clues to what’s about to happen with OneDirection. But the idea that Louis Tomlinson is sending you secret messages, how could you not want to believe that?
ENNI: Wait, that’s real?
ROMANOFF: Yeah, that’s a real example, I did not make that up.
ENNI: That’s fucking amazing. I did not even know that.
ROMANOFF: RBB/SBB, don’t even worry about it. There’s also a really good theory now that every time Louis is going to have to do something with the baby, he takes a warning selfie–like every time he posts a selfie to Instagram, it’s a warning that he’s about to have to like, do a thing with his baby, which they don’t believe is real, and like, it’s–
ENNI: That the baby is real?
ROMANOFF: No. No.
ENNI: This is amazing.
ROMANOFF: Babygate, oh my god.
ENNI: I am so peripherally in it–and I’ll tel you why, because I am fascinated by the thing. I’m scared of getting into it though, because the ethical stuff is like, this crazy dome.
ROMANOFF: The ethical stuff is a crazy dome, I definitely will say–I’m worried both ways about GRACE, actually, that like, girls who are into that fandom, into Larry Stylinson, will find it offensive. I understand if they don’t agree with it. I really don’t want to offend anyone. I really don’t want to hurt anyone–especially someone who felt like, ashamed of and embarrassed by her fandom and her beliefs and whatever growing up. That’s really important to me. But I also don’t want to seem like, "Oh yeah, this is fine and normal.” And like, you know, because the character in the book is sort of… Middle ground, in terms of conspiracy theorists, there are people who have done a ton of incredibly inappropriate stuff. Anyway, all kinds of crazy stuff has happened to them. I don’t necessarily love speculating about this in particular, because Liam actually talked in an interview about how it’s affected them. He’s like, “Yeah, you know, it’s like sort of–for a while you’re like, 'oh whatever, we know this is not true.’” But it’s sad–they can’t touch each other at all in public anymore. They can’t give each other a hug or slap each other on the back, because that’s seen as a sign. But then also, of course, because it’s a conspiracy theory, when they don’t touch each other everyone is like, “'Cause they’re being kept apart.”
ROMANOFF: It’s so–once you get into it, it’s so hard to see–if you accept certain premises, you can’t get out of it.
ENNI: But then, it’s so fun!
ROMANOFF: Oh, this is–right? This is the thing. This is the thing. And this is the thing, it’s been so fun for me as like, a lot of my good friends were not in fandom when they were younger, and introducing to them to the unadulterated joy of getting obsessed with something, geeking out on it, reading the fan fiction, watching the videos, like–just loving something, and I think, in a way that like, again and again, like, the adolescent girls that get made fun of loving stuff that hard, and being like, “You know what, fuck it. I’m thirty, and I’m gonna yell about a boy band.” And I’m going to enjoy it! And it’s so fun.
ENNI: Yes. Then, let me put this to you, because what I found satisfying about the Taylor Swift part of this, which is like, all the theories that like, she’s not really dating who she’s dating, whatever, she’s secretly dating her friend who’s a model, in a long-term relationship with a woman–something like, all these things. There’s something compelling about the concept that like, reality isn’t what we’re being told, and that the person running the whole show is Taylor. And she is manipulating us, but it’s working, but when you are starting to sniff it out, like, you’re a part of it.
ROMANOFF: So this is so many things–A. One of the things I think is just so fascinating about modern conspiracy theory fandom is it’s kind of born of like, just kids being taught close reading in school, right? You’re taught, oh yeah, you look at the details, you figure out what the symbol is, it’s a one-to-one relationship. You’re like, “Oh, the author made this person’s coat red because they’re angry.” And if that’s true in lit, why isn’t that true in the world? Right, Taylor Swift wore a red coat to indicate that she was angry about being on a date with Calvin Harris.
ENNI: Yes, right!
ROMANOFF: There is an extent to which–it’s so comforting to believe that the world is legible as a book, and that there’s symbols and an orchestrator and a truth, and that you’re smart enough to see behind it.
ENNI: And that there’s an arc, and things make sense.
ROMANOFF: Yes, and I think it’s particularly compelling with celebrity culture, because we’re at a place now where we all know that we’re being lied to, right, certainly by the tabloids–but to an extent by celebrities themselves. And like, yeah, we are constantly being presented with these people, we want very badly to know them, we know that they’re being lied about–if we can come up with a theory that A. explains it and and like, tells us exactly what it is they’re up to, and also suggest that like, they’re the author and they’re reaching out to us to like, tell us that secret story. I mean, that would be like, “Oh oh, yes!”
ENNI: “Let me in!”
ENNI: But it’s also–I’ll use this as a framework: when I lived in DC, and the new seasons of HOUSE OF CARDS would come out, shit shut down. The city was dark for the weekend, and everyone watched all of it, and I am convinced it was because everyone in DC knew that nothing in DC happens for a reason, and it’s all chaos, and shit falls apart because someone wasn’t paying attention, and because that town is run by twenty six-year-olds who don’t know what they’re doing. And they have unreal amount of power, and no one knows what the fuck is going on. And watching Kevin Spacey know exactly what the fuck is going on, and puppeteer the whole town is deeply satisfying.
ENNI: And if we accept that, for celebrities, the narrative is out of their control, and everything is out of their control, and we’re being so a part of a loss of a huge part of their life–which is privacy, like if we accept all of that, then it’s like…
ROMANOFF: And this is–a huge other thing I think of it is like, if you’re in a conspiracy theory fandom, it allows you to reframe your invasion of their lives, you’re like, “No no no, they have a secret, they’re trying to tell us.” Like, “They’re trying to convey this; they need us to ferret it out!” Right? It’s not that I’m paying too much attention to their lives, they are trying to communicate in all of these ways, symbolically.
ENNI: Right, right, yes.
ROMANOFF: It’s so–oh my god, it’s so fucking fascinating.
ENNI: Yeah, I have taken up so much of your evening, so–is there anything else about GRACE–I mean, that’s pretty premature, so I don’t want to talk like, exhaustively about it.
ROMANOFF: Yes–it actually comes out in May.
ENNI: Oh fuck, it’s not that–great!
ROMANOFF: Yeah, GRACE comes out in May, which is insane.
ENNI: You’re having a hell of a year.
ROMANOFF: I’ve had a hell of a year–don’t ask me about the third book. [laughs]
ENNI: We’ll get back to that. Is there anything else about GRACE that you want to talk about?
ROMANOFF: No, I think that’s probably…
ENNI: I think that sounds amazing.
ROMANOFF: I’m really excited about it, I will say.
ENNI: I mean, it sounds like it came from a place of joy.
ROMANOFF: It came from a deep place of joy, and like–I mean, I love SONG, like SONG is incredibly important to me, I really feel like GRACE is the book I’ve been trying to write since I was twelve.
ENNI: Yeah, that’s huge. Hurray! Well, we like to wrap up with advice, so I’d love to hear–before you have to answer it ten thousand billion times.
ROMANOFF: Yeah, do I have any advice… It’s funny, I never feel–I mean, not that this question gets asked so often, but I read other people’s writing advice, and I’m always like, “Do I have any, like…” 'Cause I do feel, this is the last remaining sort of chip on shoulder, for my like, years of not taking myself seriously, is I do feel like I figured out how to write for myself. And I have no idea how anyone else does it, and frankly, every time I go to a conference or whatever, and someone else describes their process, I’m like, “That sounds horrifying, what are you doing?” Like…
ENNI: There’s no way that works. [laughs]
ROMANOFF: Yes! If someone made me do that, I could not–less so for writing more so for revisions, people have these elaborate, arcane revisions processes, and I’m just like, “I just read the book again.” [laughs] Start changing stuff.
ENNI: Yeah, which is good to know, too! Because when people tell you that they get index cards and that they do string between things, and it’s like, then you have this false sense that like, “Oh, if I just follow these steps, the book will revise itself,” basically.
ROMANOFF: Yeah, which it… Again, I’ve used index cards, to make it easier. I guess maybe like, my best advice would be that like, yeah, you can go to all the conferences and read all the books and like, learn all the techniques that you want. At the end of the day, you have to figure out A. what it is you most want to write about, and B. how to like, get yourself to sit in a chair and put the words on a page. Like, it’s just not… People have a lot of techniques for making themselves do that, but like, at the end of the day, that’s all that you’re doing.
ENNI: Yeah, okay, well, kind of related to that, I did want–this was a question I bothered to write down and I was going to ask it–and it is related to that because I feel like you and I are similar in that it sounds like you take a while to figure out what you’re really writing. For me, when I do figure out what I’m really writing, that’s when it kind of takes off, and the revisions–it gels, or whatever. But I’m curious about if that’s true for you, and also, does it bother you that you don’t know what you’re writing about? Or like, how does that play?
ROMANOFF: Yeah, it’s funny, this is the thing that I like, have kind of always known about myself, even when I was writing papers in school, I was a terrible outliner. You know what I mean? I can’t think that way. I can’t write two sentences per paragraph, I have to write the whole paragraph to know what the paragraph is going to be about. And I mean, luckily that pretty much works for me. Really luckily I write fast. And so I can write a full draft of something, and go back and change and move everything around. I mean, I’ve never, never at all been able to know what I was going to write before I sat down to write it, it’s become more frustrating for me. For a long time I was sort of like, “Yeah, that’s my process, and that’s fine.” And I enjoy the process of writing so much–some people are tortured about it, I’m not, I love writing. So I’m happy to sit there and like, futz around with a couple thousand words for like, two days, three days, whatever. But as–A. as I start taking a longer project it’s become very frustrating, it’s one thing to write a couple thousand word essay and be like, “Oh this needs to be scrapped,” or revised, or whatever. It’s very different when you have written, as I have, 55,000 words of a book, and then you’re like “Oh, no, this was never gonna be a thing.”
ROMANOFF: And also it’s frustrating in terms of like, now trying to sort of like, make money, and keep up with deadlines–self-imposed, largely, but like. Yeah. It’s frustrating. It’s scary, right now, to be in a place where I think I’m writing a book. I don’t know. I just don’t know. You know? 'Cause I’ve written this much of a book before and had it not turn out. And I’ve written this much of a book before and had to go back and change things.
ROMANOFF: Yes, exactly. That like–and generally, I’m fine with it as a creative process, as like a business and life process, it’s very difficult. And also, actually, I do think–it’s funny, like, when I wrote the first book I didn’t think I could write a book, so I–I mean, I just, I was like, “Well, I’m not really going to finish it, so it doesn’t matter.” And then I finished it. Right when I was starting to really freak out about not being able to write the second one, GRACE kind of dropped into my lap. And that book I wrote crazy fast; I wrote the first draft of that in two months, like while working full time. This is like–I knew it, I knew that book. And now I’m also at a place where I’m like, “Do I have a third book? What if I don’t have a third book? What if those were the flukes? What if that was what I had to say?” You know, if I had a more reliable creative process that more reliably allowed me to see what was out in front of me, it would be more comforting.
ENNI: Right, totally.
ROMANOFF: It would be really really nice. But instead, I just have my fun, instinctual like, feel-y way of doing things.
ENNI: Right, well dude, is there anything else you wanted to say?
ROMANOFF: No! I think those are all of my thoughts.
ENNI: I think we did it. I think we did it.
ROMANOFF: I feel drained of thoughts–I feel so excited to watch the Olympics.
ENNI: Yay! The best. Well thank you so, so much. This was a delight.
ROMANOFF: This was so fun.
[closing music plays]
ENNI: Thank you so much to Zan. Follow her on Twitter @zanopticon, and follow me @SarahEnni, and the show @FirstDraftPod. You can also check out the show on Instagram and Facebook, but for show notes with links to everything that Zan and I talked about, as well as a searchable archive of more than 70 previous episodes of this here show, check out firstdraftpod.com. I want to apologize for the long delay at the end of summer and beginning of fall, if you want to hear more about why there was a pause on new episodes, and hear more about upcoming shows, subscribe to the First Draft TinyLetter, which you can do by going to firstdraftpod.com and filling out the little thingy there, or going directly to tinyletter.com/sarahenni. Did you enjoy this episode? Are you a kind and generous soul? Then please do consider leaving a rating or review for the show on iTunes. Every five-star review brings me closer to my teenage dream of going to space with Lance Bass. It’s still possible. Thanks to Hashbrown for the theme song, and to Colin Keith and Maurene Goo for the logos. Thanks also to super intern Sarah DeMont, without whom this summer would have been a flaming mess. And, as ever, thanks to you rabid Larry shippers, for listening.
ROMANOFF: I’m just like, I have no idea.
ENNI: At this point, what would be the most insane thing, is if it was real.
ROMANOFF: Yeah, that’s true!
ENNI: If they just, genuinely loved each other.
ROMANOFF: They’re just like, “We fell in love and felt the need to express it with tank tops and temporary tattoos, and like, trips to Rome…” [laughs]
ENNI: And the weirdest staged pictures.
ROMANOFF: So right–the like, fucking thing on the–it’s so weird.
ENNI: At this point, if they were genuinely in love, I would be stunned.