First Draft, Ep. 111: Robin Benway 2.0 - Transcript
Date: October 12, 2017
The original post for this episode can be found here.
[Theme music plays]
Sarah ENNI: Welcome to First Draft with me Sarah Enni. This episode is brought to you by THE WEDDING DATE by Jasmine Guillory, due out in February 2018, which is just exactly the kind of delightful rom-com I need in these oh so troubled times.
Speaking of what we need in troubled times, I’m so excited to be announcing this week that First Draft is going to be working with Misfits and Daydreamers the writing advice newsletter [sign up now] run by New York Times Best-Selling YA author Susan Dennard [author of the TRUTHWITCH Series, as well as the SOMETHING STRANGE and DEADLY Series]. Susan has been doling out priceless writing advice for years, and now more than 5,500 people are signed up to get bi-weekly tips, tricks, and inspiration from Susan.
As part of our partnership, subscribers to Misfits and Daydreamers will get some bonus content from First Draft interviewees. That means transcripts, or audio of the author answering questions from Susan or her readers. And Susan will be giving some writing advice to First Draft listeners in special episodes, the first of which will be coming out this week. So, be sure to sign up for Susan’s newsletter, I’ll post the link in show notes and on the First Draft Twitter and Facebook, and stay tuned to the First Draft special episode with bonus advice from Susan… yay!
Okay, now on to this week’s episode. This week I’m talking to Robin Benway, author of many books including AUDREY, WAIT! and EMMY & OLIVER. Her newest, FAR FROM THE TREE was named finalist for the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature for 2017. Robin and I have sat down before, so please be sure to check out her first interview to learn more about how she became a writer.
For our follow-up interview, we met once again at Robin’s kitchen table, windows open to a warm Los Angeles day. Her co-pilot, Hudson the dog, snoozing on his bed. The year leading up to the release of Far from the Tree was a trial-by-fire for Robin and I’m so thankful to her for sharing her story with such honesty. I think you’ll find it relatable and inspiring in equal measure. So, grab a stack of post-it notes, don’t leave behind your cup of coffee, and enjoy the conversation.
ENNI: Okay, so, how are you?
Robin BENWAY: I’m good, how are you?
ENNI: I’m so good. We are back at your table in your apartment.
BENWAY: Round two [at the] kitchen.
ENNI: This is the second time we’re talking, so I’m gonna link in the show notes to our previous conversation where you talk about your childhood and growing up, and how you came to writing.
ENNI: But we have a whole lot to talk about with your new book coming out.
BENWAY: Oh yeah.
ENNI: Far from the tree. It’s so exciting. First, before we get anywhere else, I’d love for you to pitch Far from the Tree and give us a sense of what the book is about.
BENWAY: Sure. So, it opens with sixteen-year-old Grace, and she is pregnant. And the first scene she is giving birth to her daughter who she has decided to give up for adoption. No spoilers there.
ENNI: It’s real fast, I was reading it last night and I was like, “Wow, we get to a lot in five pages!”
BENWAY: Yeah, by the second page you’re like, “Oh! She’s giving birth.” But she’s really struggling with that decision. She knows it’s the right choice for her daughter, who is now someone else’s daughter. She’s chosen a couple to adopt the baby, but she’s really struggling with that loss. And in doing that, Grace herself has been adopted, and she wants to find her birth mother. In looking for her birth mother, discovers that she has and older brother, Joaquin, and a younger sister, Maya. The story is told from all three of their point-of-views.
They all grew up very differently. Maya was adopted at birth as was Grace, but Joaquin wasn’t. He wound up in foster care. Joaquin is seventeen and Grace is sixteen and Maya is fifteen. It’s about how they all come together, and in that sibling way, their lives start to intersect and blend and the choices that one of them makes start affecting the other two – like family does.
ENNI: Mm-hmm. When we talked last it seemed like [there is] this pattern, that your book ideas come to you out of the clear blue sky.
BENWAY: [Laughing] Unfortunately, yes, that’s the pattern.
ENNI: How did this idea come to you for Far from the Tree?
BENWAY: Out of the clear blue sky, literally. I tried and tried to write a book follow-up to Emmy & Oliver. I just couldn’t nail down an idea. I wrote about fifty pages of the same book and it just wasn’t right. I was writing words to write words to meet a word count. But I was just filling space, I wasn’t actually putting together a story. My agent was finally like, “I don’t know if this is the idea for you.” It felt good to hear someone else say that.
So, I finally had an email with my agent and my editor, Kristen Pettit at Harper who was my editor for Emmy & Oliver. I just said, “I don’t have any ideas. I need to walk away for a while and just figure out what that is.” A week later, I was in a parking lot at Costco and a Florence & the Machine song came on [Cosmic Love] and I heard the first line which was, “A falling star fell from your heart and landed in my eye.” That’s the very first line of the song, and I was like, “That’s adoption.” It made me think of a mother’s love being transferred to a baby even though she doesn’t get to keep that baby.
Immediately, I was like, “This girl is sixteen and she goes looking and she finds her siblings.” All three characters came so vividly, so fast. I mean, literally, the song was still playing, the song wasn’t even over yet. I sent an email right there in the car to my editor, and it was this long stream of consciousness like, “This is the story. This is the idea.” And she wrote back immediately and was like, “This is an idea. This is a good book, you should start working on it.”
ENNI: That’s super interesting because you said that that’s how Audrey, Wait! Came to you.
BENWAY: Yes! And I have to say, Audrey and this book – Far from the Tree – both came to me that way. Emmy & Oliver came to me, but it was a much slower [process]. I had an idea, but then figuring out who the characters were was tricky. These characters, I knew them right away.
ENNI: They just showed up.
ENNI: That’s so wild.
BENWAY: Yeah, so… good thing! [laughing]
ENNI: I want to talk a little more about that because even imagining writing that email – I have to walk away for a while – that must have been really difficult to do.
BENWAY: It was very difficult. In the time that we’ve spoken, three years ago, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking, “Am I still a writer?” I am a writer, I will always be a writer. “Am I an author still.” Even once I figured out the idea for Far from the Tree, my book was a year-and-a-half late. It should have been out in summer 2016 and now it’s publishing in October of 2017. It was a really hard book. It was hard for me to figure out how to tell the story. I knew it, but I couldn’t figure out how to tell it. And I wasn’t sure that I was ever gonna get to that point where I could actually write this book even though I knew it.
ENNI: I want to differentiate between the time you spent writing the wrong book, and then the time you spent with Far from the Tree, because it seems like there were difficulties on two fronts.
BENWAY: Yes, yes.
ENNI: Maybe you were in a non-writing place for a while.
BENWAY: Yes, that’s exactly [right]. The way I explained it to myself, to make peace, was that I had been an author for a long time and I needed to go back and be a writer. So, I left social media for five months. I walked away... not walked away, it wasn’t like I had a thousand promo opportunities, but I stopped promoting all of my other books. I walked away. I just took a big step back and I read and reflected on, “What do I want to do?” Because at the end of the day being a writer is more important to me than being an author, if that makes sense. I will love to write books. I will write books for as long as people let me. But if I have to pick between publishing books, and being able to write just for myself, I will always pick writing.
ENNI: That seems like a really big thing to have to choose.
BENWAY: Yeah. It got to the point where I was like, “I might have to choose between these two things.” I feel very grateful for all of the wonderful reception Far from the Tree has gotten, because it was born out of a lot of anxiety and uncertainty. With publishing, you just don’t know what’s coming. You could get a fabulous email and the next day you could get a terrible email.
So, I really had to figure out, “If I am going to write this book, I need to make sure it’s a good book. And if that means walking away for a while, then that’s what I need to do.”
ENNI: You are a full-time writer, but also people who are in this know that doesn’t mean that you have security or that there’s a consistency to your life [laughing].
BENWAY: [Laughing] Exactly! It’s so funny, I’m obviously not denigrating nine-to-five jobs, but for me I always wanted to have a different kind of life and I wanted to have a different kind of job. I definitely went through a period where I was like, “You know what sounds amazing? A nine-to-five job, where you get paid every two weeks [chuckles], and then you get health insurance and a 401K.” I definitely went through that phase. I still do not at all regret becoming a writer, obviously, I’m very happy with my life. But, there was a dip for a while where I did feel like, “Did I make the right decision?” After five books, I was like, “Am I done?”
ENNI: I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately. I’ve talked to a lot of people who have had this sort of hitting bottom in a way, and then the book that comes from that is this “meant-to-be” kind of thing. Looking back where you’re like, “Oh!” Obviously, you had to go through that in order to write, maybe, the best book ever – that you’ve written to date.
BENWAY: That’s what I kept telling myself. I’m like, “This has to be for something.” Right before I wrote Audrey, my first book – which is gonna be ten years in April that it was published, which is insane – but right before that period, I went through a really difficult time of sickness and loss and death and uncertainty, and from that came the start of an amazing career. So, I kept telling myself, “Everything has a crest and a trough, and if this is the trough then that means the crest is coming.” That’s sort of what I clung to when I was deep in it and not feeling great. I was like, “This is a career. You have ups and downs and uncertain times.” I had to keep telling myself that.
ENNI: Yeah, that’s a lot. And you wrote three books in three years. You had been on this crazy pace that isn’t sustainable.
BENWAY: I think for some people it is. Some people work really, really well – are high functioning – at that level. And I think I am… at times. By number three, I was like, “Oh. I’m just burnt out.” I was just burnt out.
ENNI: A book a year, which is a lot of people who are making their careers writing for young adult, talk about that being what publishers want as an ideal. And so, I think that’s kind of understood, or that’s a goal a lot of people have. But, I’ve never heard someone mention that in a way where they’re like, “This is great and easy! I can’t wait to do one book a year… what a cinch!”
BENWAY: Your personal life is soaring right now because I’m working at this pace.
ENNI: So, it seems like something we maybe all need to be talking about like, “Is this acceptable?”
BENWAY: “Is it sustainable?”
ENNI: Yeah. It seems like that is a very difficult thing to ask.
BENWAY: I think it’s hard to put that expectancy of results on every author. It’s just impossible. Because again, some people can do that and then they have to take a couple of years off, like me. And some people can producer four books in a year because they’re writing middle grade and picture books, which is wonderful. I’m so glad that people can produce at that rate, but I don’t think that’s a fair thing to put… to be fair, it’s not like publishers are like, “You publish a book a year or nothing!”
ENNI: It’s not like a publishing gulag.
BENWAY: [Laughing] No, no! “You’re out!” But, at the same time, you do feel that pressure to produce at the level that everyone else is producing at. Not only in quality but in quantity.
ENNI: One more brief question about the book that wasn’t. I think I remember you’ve had false starts before, or you’ve had some ideas that didn’t end up coming to fruition. What do you think it was about that idea that wasn’t working? When you think about that book, where does it sit for you?
BENWAY: There were two versions of the book. One involved two girls and one involved a girl and a celebrity. I think the celebrity thing, I just felt like I did this with Audrey. I explored the concept of celebrity. I think it would have been different, and maybe it still will be a book one day. I loved the pages that I wrote and they got a very nice reception. But it just, personally, didn’t feel right. And then it’s also that thing of, “Do I want to talk about this book for the next three years?” You know? “Do I want to Tweet about this? Do I want to sign the paperback set?” It’s not just writing a book, you have to really be behind the book that you’ve written more than anything.
ENNI: Live with it.
BENWAY: And to live with it. And I thought, “Is this the book I want to talk about?” And I thought, “This isn’t the right book for me right now.” I just didn’t feel right. The same concept but with two girls, two friends as the main characters, I just couldn’t figure out what their story was. And, I think more importantly – because I couldn’t figure out the main character’s story in Far from the Tree either – but I wanted to. And with these girls, I wasn’t interested enough to find out. I was very happy to walk away every time I was done writing them for the day. I wasn’t curious to find out more about them.
I thought, “Well, if I’m not, what is gonna make anybody pick up this book and read it, if I’m not interested?” But it was really hard because it was like, “Okay, if I let this idea go - these two concepts - let them go, there’s nothing left. I don’t have anything.”
ENNI: And this is so interesting to talk to writers who have different processes like this, because you are not someone for whom there’s like a bank vault of a million ideas.
BENWAY: [Laughing] In my dreams I have that vault of ideas where I can be like [liltingly], “I’ll choose you today, and write that book.” Yeah, that’s just not how my brain works.
ENNI: In coming back to this, it was a super act of bravery to be like, “I just have to have nothing for a while.”
BENWAY: It was really, really hard. I mean also, as a writer, you don’t get paid unless you have something. So that was really hard too. It was an incredibly difficult time both emotionally and financially too, to be able to say, “I don’t know quite what I’m doing. And I’m not sure what is going to happen.”
ENNI: I love that you write this really difficult email and you come to this conclusion and then a week later… [starts laughing]
BENWAY: Oh yeah [laughing hard]
ENNI: You’re at Costco and you’re like, “Okay!”
BENWAY: I just felt like it was such a good idea. You know as a writer, you have some ideas where you’re like, “Maybe I can flush this out.” And then this idea came and I was like, “Oh! I can do so much with it.”
ENNI: Like, “I have to turn the car around and go do this right now.”
BENWAY: That’s exactly what happened. Yeah. It was this feeling of relief more than anything else. Like, “Oh, I’m not done. It’s not over. Let’s do this.” And of course, writing that book was a really, really difficult process. But, at the same time, it felt good to work. As a writer, it’s really hard not to write and to not work.
ENNI: Very hard. And very hard to accept that that’s part of the process. That doesn’t seem like an equal part because it doesn’t give you anything to show people.
BENWAY: No, no.
ENNI: And then you’re like, “Am I gonna be able to go back to that other part? I don’t know.”
BENWAY: It’s also that feeling of, if everyone else is running ahead, can I catch back up too? Not to say that it’s a competition, but will readers still be interested if this book comes out four years after Emmy & Oliver? Will there still be an interest? All of those readers are now four years older, have I missed my window?
I’ve done a lot of thinking in the past couple of years. Like my friend’s kids say, “They have big feelings.” I was having some “big feelings” about this.
ENNI: Seriously. To talk specifically about Far from the Tree, what time of year was it that you had the revelation? When did you start writing the book?
BENWAY: It was July 7th. I just looked at the email - I just posted that email on Instagram the other day – and it was July 7th 2015, right after Emmy & Oliver had come out. So, not only was I riding the wave of Emmy & Oliver but then also trying to come up with an idea after having already tried these other ideas that weren’t working. The emotional feeling of, “I have a book out and I’m so excited about it! But I don’t have another one, and I can’t talk about another one.”
ENNI: Yeah, because at the end of every interview it’s like, “What are you doing next.”
BENWAY: Yeah, “What are you working on next?” So, you’re like, “It’s a secret.” So, that was the middle of 2015 and I would get to the first one hundred pages and I just couldn’t move past them. Originally, Grace – the character who opens the story who has the baby – narrated the entire book from a first-person perspective. So, she was telling all of the stories. And I got to page one hundred, after she meets her sister Maya for the first time – at Maya’s parent’s house – and I couldn’t get them past. And that was the first time I’d written Maya. I was like, “What is your problem?” She was so negative in those opening pages. And I was like, “Why is she being like this?” I couldn’t open past those pages. And again, it was that feeling of, “Oh, I thought this was a good idea. Is this not a good idea?” It was me trying to write past page one hundred and I just couldn’t do it.
It got to the point where my editor called me a couple of days before Christmas and was like, “I’m checking in.” Not like, “Where’s our book?” But, “Are you okay? Is there anything I can do?” I was looking at that point at – I think we had a February deadline at that point – for 2016 and it got moved to May 15th. I was like, “Okay. I’m looking down five months to write this book.” And I just didn’t know how to do it. I just couldn’t figure it out.
ENNI: It seems like you’re having a Russian nesting doll of problems, when you can so easily go, not to “This is a plot problem. How can I change the plot?” But to still, you’re in the headspace of like, “Am I even supposed to be doing this? Am I fooling myself?”
BENWAY: Yes! Exactly. “Am I still a writer?” Like, “If I’m not writing, am I a writer?” And I know in my heart of hearts I am, because I can go write something just for me and it would be fine. But, “Can I still publish books? Or, am I done?”
ENNI: Still having trouble at a hundred pages with just Grace, how did the revelation come to be multiple POVs?
BENWAY: I was having a lot of lunches with my friend, Gretchen McNeil [listen to her First Draft interview here], who is a wonderful writer and an even better friend. And it was just me sort of lamenting, “I don’t know what I’m doing. I don’t know what I’m doing.” I was telling her about the book. And Joaquin, who is one of the siblings, has spent his whole life in foster care. And he has been told that he is half Mexican. He assumes that’s what he is because he’s been in foster care his entire life, he doesn’t have any documentation on that. And he is in foster care, and my friend Gretchen said, “You should talk to my friend. He has adopted two boys who are Mexican out of foster care. And they are now his sons.”
At this point, I was doing a lot of interviews. I had talked to an adoption attorney in the valley. I had talked to a friend’s friend who had adopted her daughter privately through a private adoption. And she talked to me all about the experience and the commitment that that was and the cost of it. So, I was like, “Okay. I would love to talk to your friend.”
So, I went out on Saturday afternoon and I met the boys and I met their dad. And they were lovely, so wonderful. The kids went to a karate class and the dad and I went and sat in the park and he told me everything. What the boys had experienced. What he had experienced and the process he went through. And the boys were so lovely and so charming. After they left the karate class, we were all walking back to their house and they’d each gotten a piece of gum. It was like a, “Good job in karate class today.” The little one was like, “Do you want half of my gum?” And I was like, “Oh no sweetie, you earned it. You get to keep it.”
And so, he doesn’t say anything… and a second later this little hand comes up in front of my face holding half a piece of gum like, “Are you sure you don’t want it?” And it was so charming, and I had this moment and I was like, “I know how to tell the story now.” And the problem is, Grace cannot tell her siblings stories. They have to tell it. And I was like, “This book is gonna be from three points of views… oh shit!” [laughs]
ENNI: Yeah, that’s a lot.
BENWAY: I came home and I ran into my neighbor, he was out walking our other neighbor’s dog, and he’s a painter. So, we were just chatting, and he’s like, “How’s your book going?” He knew I had been struggling. And I was like, “I think I figured it out, but I have to rewrite the entire thing.” And he goes, “Well, that sounds really hard.” And I was like [laughing], “It’s gonna be pretty hard.”
It was sort of that relief of being like, “I know how to fix this book, but can I do that?” Another really big thing that really scared me and sort of held me back was, “Can I tell the story of a half Mexican in foster care?” And Maya, the youngest sister, is gay. She has a girlfriend. “Can I tell that story?” And she has an alcoholic mother, I don’t have an alcoholic mother. Can I tell those stories? A) Do I have the right to tell this story? And B) How do I tell it so I can encapsulate this person’s experience and make sure that it is as three dimensional as possible to show? And that’s sort of when I fell into interviews and research like crazy. It was probably around February or March – with a looming deadline of May 15th.
ENNI: Wow, oh my god. I do want to touch on that because I think a lot of people are feeling that now. Do I have the right to tell the story? I think we all have ideas that are, at times, beyond our capabilities, at times beyond our comfort zone, and that sort of align between the two. So, when you had that feeling, how did you go about making yourself feel comfortable that this was your story to tell?
BENWAY: I think part of it was that I couldn’t shake these characters. I couldn’t shake the idea, especially Joaquin. The way I was able to easily let go of that other book, with those different characters, was because they left. We parted mutually and we were fine. But these characters stuck around and I was like, “Okay. I’m gonna pay attention to that.”
I also just fell into research. I read studies. I read blogs. I read first person accounts. Blogs are fantastic because people are so honest in them. It’s different when you’re writing something down on the internet to send out into the world, versus having a face-to-face conversation, I think. I read studies about generational differences in Latino and Mexican and Hispanic families. If you identify let’s say as Latinx, and you don’t speak Spanish, does one generation view that differently than let’s say a younger generation.
Joaquin has no cultural experience. He’s been in seventeen foster homes. Some speak Spanish and some don’t. All of those things, when you think about your culture, they tend to come from family, and community. Like what religion? And what are the festivities that you’re participating in? What holidays do you do? Sunday dinner, do you do that with your family? What are your stories? What’s your background? Where are you from in Mexico? Joaquin doesn’t even know where he’s from.
And it’s that kind of thing. So, I was like, “Okay. I need to figure out how to tell this.” And also, somehow, to say that this is what this kid is missing. Not only is he missing his mom and dad and a family – I read a lot about bi-racial kids, a lot of first-person accounts – and the thing I kept reading was that they were too much for one, and not enough for the other. Let me clarify… I don’t think that’s true at all, but the feeling they were getting from certain people sometimes was, “You have to pick a side.”
So, Joaquin feels that intensely as a foster kid, because as a foster kid you’re sort of a data entry sheet: Name, Date of Birth, Age, Gender. You have to identify as a gender. You have to know all of this stuff. For him, he doesn’t have a toe-hold in any of these worlds and it’s really difficult for him.
I also interviewed some of my friends. One is from Mexico and one is from Costa Rica. And my friend from Costa Rica is a professor of Chicano studies at CSUN, Cal State Northridge. So, I took them to dinner – the three of us are good friends – and I was like, “This is what I’m trying to do. Can you help me do it?” They were phenomenal. They beta read the book for me. They gave me beautiful notes. They let me use some of their personal stories that are in the book that Joaquin experiences. Whether it’s racism or uncertainty, everyone I’ve spoken to has been incredibly gracious and honest and my friends really helped me a lot with that.
I also told them, and I told myself, “If this book doesn’t work, I’m not publishing it.” Like, “If I cannot make this character feel real, and do it in a way that’s both honest and respectful, then I’m not publishing this book. I’m not going to make another kid feel that.”
ENNI: I think that talking about research and the resources you found and things like that are super, super important.
BENWAY: I mean [chuckles] I read a whole book about trans-racial adoption. Because in the opening of the story, Joaquin is in a home with a lovely couple who want to adopt him – the foster parents. And the dad is Jewish and the mom is what I’ve said is “Wiki-lite”. She goes to a drumming circle when it’s a full moon. But they’re white basically. And so, the way they experience wanting to adopt Joaquin is very different than the way Joaquin is experiencing wanting to be adopted by them. They have to bridge that gap in terms of how people look at their family. And how the parents are viewed as [opposed to] how Joaquin is viewed.
ENNI: You’ve talked a lot about interviewing [for] Joaquin but there is also, as you mentioned, Maya is dealing with her own challenges of having an alcoholic parent and being gay. How did you even approach researching that?
BENWAY: It was really important to me that… I always said that the book before would have been Maya’s coming out story, and the book after is Maya going to college. Not to say there’s a book after or before, but theoretically. Maya’s experience going to college and maybe experiencing a less liberal way of life. But in this book, she is with two parents who, despite her mother’s alcoholism, they love her very, very much. They are so proud of her. She comes out to them and they’re like, “Fantastic!” Her dad puts a pride sticker on his car. So, I really wanted to see this young character be supported. That was really important to me to see her be able to come out and be comfortable with it.
It was also important to me to see her in a relationship and not have it be a difficult, tortured relationship. And to not have it be roses and butterflies and totally romanticize it. I just wanted to see her in a relationship, and struggle with the idea of being vulnerable for the first time. She’s kept so many secrets about her mother’s alcoholism. And suddenly, she’s in this relationship with Claire - her girlfriend - they love each other very much. But Claire is trying to get to know Maya on a much more emotional level. And Maya is putting up wall after wall because to confide in Claire means to admit a lot of secrets about her family. And she’s not even sure where she fits into that family. So, it’s really hard.
ENNI: It’s kind of a touchy thing to be able to talk to someone who would talk about that experience personally.
BENWAY: I did talk to a couple of people. They’re not thanked in the book. They did not want to be thanked. I also read a lot of Al-Anon stuff. It was interesting, because when the book starts, Maya doesn’t have any friends. She has her girlfriend and her sister Lauren, who is their parent’s biological daughter. They adopted Maya, and three months later found out they were pregnant with Lauren. So, there’s a lot of push and pull with the two sisters.
And I was like, “Where are your friends Maya? Why do you not have any friends?” And I’m like, “Oh geez.” She’s so close with Lauren, and they have this secret. They would just be really close the whole way. But suddenly – they’re a year apart, basically – so Maya goes to a new school. She goes to high school. Lauren doesn’t. And suddenly Maya’s on her own for the very first time.
You can’t have slumber parties when your mom’s an alcoholic. You can’t invite friends over. And that can really isolate you. Again, I’m not speaking from first person experience. This is all research and intuition and empathy and talking to people. She’s never struggled with her sexuality, I don’t think. She’s been given such a safe place to come out, it’s not a tortuous experience for her. I think she’s very comfortable with who she is based on the fact that her parents have given her so much room to be comfortable with who she is, and have supported her so much.
But suddenly she’s in a space where maybe not everyone is as supportive. And she finds it hard to act like other straight girls who take a lot of things for granted in a way that she suddenly can’t. And she feels a little isolated. And that was a really interesting thing for me to read, because I was like, “Oh. Okay.” And I had not thought of it that way before.
And I’m sure not every fifteen-year-old lesbian feels that way, but I’m sure some do. One does… Maya does! [laughs]
ENNI: It’s so interesting to think about her life is one that has – there’s so much literature out there and discussions about when you’re gay, you don’t come out once. You come out over and over and over for your whole life. Because it becomes this thing that at some point, you have to be like, “Okay. Well, here’s the thing about me that you need to know for some reason.” And there’s the push and pull with that.
And it’s similar with… now here’s the time where you’ve reached the threshold of wanting to talk to me about my home life, and there’s this lurking thing. And now here’s the point where I need to talk to you about the fact that these aren’t my birth parents. All of these, like you said earlier, the secrets waiting to be reckoned with. Or shared or not shared. That’s a lot to take on.
BENWAY: When she tells Grace and Joaquin that she’s a lesbian, she just kind of says it like, “Yeah. I’ve got a girlfriend. Do you want to make anything of it?” That kind of thing. So, she’s on guard. And of course, Grace and Joaquin are like, “That’s great. We’re happy for you. Your girlfriend sounds nice.” They’re not fazed by it. But also, Joaquin and his experiences in being in foster care, has seen the discrimination against gay kids, transgender kids, LGBTQ kids and what that means for them and how much more unstable their lives are because it’s hard for them to find a safe place to be. Whether in foster care or group home or whatever.
He sees Maya, and he’s relieved in a way that she has this safe place. And he tells her the story of about how, “I used to have a foster sister. She was gay. But she got kicked out because she was gay. She had to go back and find another foster home.” He says it without even thinking, and it shakes Maya up a little bit. He’s very protective of her because he’s seen the discrimination first-hand, ironically, in a way that Maya has experienced but her home life has never been at risk. She’s never been afraid of that.
Another thing I also told myself when I was doing all of this research is, “I cannot represent every foster kid. Joaquin cannot represent every foster kid, every kid who identifies as Latinx. Every seventeen-year-old boy. And I cannot write Maya in a way that every single fifteen-year-old lesbian will identify.” I can tell their stories as authentically as possible, but I can’t tell everybody’s story. Not everyone is going to relate to these characters. And that’s fine because if you were to sit twenty writers down, I probably wouldn’t identify with most of them in terms of how they work.
ENNI: Right. I think what you’re talking about too is doing enough research. Doing enough due diligence to honor people’s experiences and things that you couldn’t possibly anticipate about the realities of adoption, or any of these as a writer, any of these things that you’re trying to represent that you may not know about. But then, it ultimately comes down to accurately portraying feeling, and character. And that is universal.
BENWAY: Mm-hm. It’s empathy. At the end of the day, you’re trying to be as empathetic as possible. And every time I wrote a different character’s perspective, I tried really hard – even though I’m not like any of them and I have not experienced the three things that they experience throughout the book – I could think, “How would I feel.” Not only as this character but let’s say as their mother or sister or whatever the situation was. I think feelings are pretty universal. And I had to tie that back into the situational experience. But then also, I would feel really bad if whatever happened to Joaquin happened to me, you know? Or Maya.
ENNI: The challenge is really, really losing yourself in that and allowing yourself to think like, “What would this feel [like]?” And the whole exercise of creative writing.
BENWAY: Yeah, exactly. How do you make this a real thing? How do you make these characters feel real and also represent real things within the fictional process?
ENNI: So, you wrote that in three months?
BENWAY: I can say it now because the book’s almost out, but I didn’t really advertise this. But I wrote the last two-thirds in about two weeks.
BENWAY: Yeah. I remember [chuckles], I’ll never forget, I was with Maurene Goo [listen to her First Draft episodes here and here], at our little café, and I was working. It was the very first day I was gonna write Maya’s perspective and I was gonna write Maya’s very opening chapter. And I was like, “Let’s just see how this goes.” And I sat next to Maurene, I was at the counter, and I just [makes a quick typing sound] wrote three thousand words in an hour. It just came pouring out of me. And Maurene was like, “What is happening over here?” [laughing] Like, “What are you doing?” And I was like, “Don’t talk to me, I’m writing so fast! I’ve been waiting a year to write like this.”
I would just go to my little café every day, Dinosaur. I thanked them in the book. Every day and I would write three to four thousand words. It came so fast. I had a bullet point list of, “This happens and this happens and this happens.” This isn’t great for the podcast cause you can’t see it, but behind you, you can see how I mapped out. A couple of post-its have fallen. But I just had to see how each plot point for each character lined up.
ENNI: Yeah, there’s post-its for every character with different colors.
BENWAY: And then all of their different plot points.
ENNI: As they progress.
BENWAY: And to see when something happens to Grace, what happens to Maya and Joaquin in that time table?
ENNI: I did this on a whiteboard. There was one main character in my book, but two side characters who are very important. I had a whiteboard and I just bifurcated it into four acts and what everyone was dealing with in each act. It was a visual thing like, “That’s how the plot goes.” And it was so helpful.
BENWAY: It helps you so much and for me… I love less. And if I can be Like, “Joaquin goes to school.” Scratch that off! One plot point down, one plot point down. It feels good to watch not only the page count rise - the word count rise - but the bullet list to get smaller and smaller.
ENNI: I have found that if you are in a writing session and the actual what happens, the hard and fast plot, is not really your question it’s like, “How do they feel moving through these?” Like, moving across a room, I only have to think today, right now, about how to express how she feels while she’s moving across that room. And that’s more helpful, I think.
BENWAY: And, it gets you to the next scene. It gets you through. So, as I was researching these characters, I had read [stops to chuckle] I had read an interview with Oscar Isaac – just because it happened to come up on-line and I was like, “Well… research. Click! I want to hear what Oscar has to say!” But, he was talking about acting, and he said, “A character always has…” This is how he viewed it, “A character has something they want to project to other people. And something they’re keeping secret. And when those things start to conflict is when the story gets good.” And I was like, “Oscar Isaac just helped me figure out my plot problem! Thank you!”
But I was like, “That’s exactly what these three characters are doing.” When they meet, they’re trying to put their best foot forward because they’re three siblings meeting for the first time and it’s awkward and uncomfortable. And Grace is sort of hiding her baby and the adoption, and Maya is hiding her mother’s alcoholism, because she’s been hiding it for years. It’s sort of this unspoken agreement in her family.
And I was like, “Well, what’s Joaquin hiding? What is his secret?” He’s not hiding foster care because that’s not something he can keep secret. That’s when I started doing more research about foster care and adoption and reading all of these articles. Eventually, I read something in the Daily Beast. It was a big article about how people can adopt kids from foster care, and then give them back. You can undo the adoption. I spoke with a social worker who was a friend of my moms, and she was like, “Yeah. You can do that. We’ve had that happen.”
And that blew my mind. Because I thought adoption was a legal - you adopted this kid - the way you can’t give back your biological kid. I thought this was the deal. And you can give them back. When I read that I was like, “Oh, my god.” And then I was like, “That’s the secret Joaquin was keeping.” That was it. It was that horrible thing of A) as a writer being like, “I figured out the plot.” And B) As the writer of these characters who I’d become very attached to, it broke my heart. I was like, “Oh, Joaquin. This is so sad.” The trauma that he experiences from that colors all of his experiences – especially with his sisters – because they had both been adopted and not given back.
ENNI: That’s fascinating. The other thing I love about you talking about all of this research is that, I think some people are hesitant… I’ve heard some people say that they don’t want to read stories about it really happening, because they don’t want to steal someone else’s story. And that’s just not how it goes.
BENWAY: No. I think, for me, I don’t think anything that happens to Joaquin is made up. If that makes sense? His first adoption does fall through. He does experience a wide variety of foster care situations. Some of them are terrible and some are wonderful. But I think that reflects a lot of kids experiences in foster care. So, I don’t think any of his experiences are based on – except for my friends who explicitly gave me permission to use some of their anecdotes – but I think it’s a pretty universal story but narrowed down into this one kid and all of the things he experiences.
ENNI: And using specifics, you’re never going to [pauses] I don’t know, it’s interesting. It’s like, “Don’t be scared of knowing specifics and then repurposing part of them, or whatever strikes you, and turning around and using it to make your character more real.
BENWAY: Yeah, I agree. My biggest fear in writing this book, was that – granted, I didn’t want to get anything wrong. I didn’t want to be pilloried on Twitter. But I’m a big girl I can take my lumps - My biggest fear was that I would get it wrong, and some kid who experienced what Joaquin experienced would say something to the effect of, “This book… it’s wrong.” And that scared me the most. I didn’t want to hurt a reader.
ENNI: Right, that’s a big burden to carry.
BENWAY: Yeah, it was. But as I kept writing, the story kept unfolding itself, and the plot started coming together, and the bullet-point list was getting shorter, and I could see literally the lineal passage of time and how the characters were not only coming together but finding themselves as well. That’s how I felt like, “Okay. I’m doing something right.” Like, “I’m not stalling-out the way I was the past year-and-a-half.”
ENNI: Yeah, literally.
BENWAY: Oh, my god [chuckles] you’ll never meet a happier writer than me in that café just knocking out words. At a certain point, I was like, “I don’t even know if this is good but I’m just gonna keep doing it.” And I was like, “Someone will tell me if it is or if it isn’t. I’m just gonna keep working on it.”
ENNI: So, that brings me to the other part of the book that I want to talk about which, of course, is [that] it was nominated for the National Book Award. Congratulations! And at the time that we’re recording this we don’t know – the long list is all that’s out there. But congratulations for at least that.
BENWAY: Thank you! What a phenomenal day that was.
ENNI: So exciting! And I want to talk about, not only the whole experience of finding out about that and all of that interesting stuff, but also what that meant at the end of this being such a journey personally, and such a journey with the book. We so rarely get outside validation like that.
BENWAY: It meant – I’ll probably start crying – it meant so much. Reviews are lovely, great reviews are lovely. Having people read the book and respond is always the best. But to have – especially those five judges who I have so much respect for, who I think are phenomenal writers – to have them say, “We think this book is one of the ten best that we’ve read.” [Stammers] I’m a writer. I don’t even have words. I don’t even know how to express… Especially on the heels of so much difficulty getting to that point. To have people respond in such a positive way? It felt like a relief more than anything else.
ENNI: Our friend, Brandy Colbert [listen to her First Draft interview here], when she finished LITTLE and LION – which is brilliant and has gotten tons of amazing, great reviews – she was like, “I don’t know, is it good?” So, it struck me that you must have been in a similar position.
BENWAY: Mm-hm! When you spend so much time with a book, as I always say, you finish it and no writer’s like, “This is an amazing first draft!” You’re like, “Please take this and fix my book.” And then you keep editing and editing. You’re focusing so much on what’s wrong with it. Which is good cause you’re trying to make it better. But then you do copy edits and you feel like an idiot because you have no idea how much you didn’t know about the comma and the end-dash.
So, you do your copy edits and then they’re like, “Great. We’re gonna publish it.” And you’re like, “There’s no way this book can go out, it’s terrible!” Because all you’ve noticed are the bad things. And you’ve spent so much time with it you get such tunnel vision you lose all perspective.
ENNI: And you know every version of that book, so it’s like, “What is even…”
BENWAY: “What did I do?”
ENNI: “What is the experience of someone reading this without all of those previous drafts?”
BENWAY: That’s what scared me too, because I was like, “I can’t do a bibliography explaining all of the books, and articles, and interviews that I did.” I thanked the people who were willing to be thanked in the back, in the acknowledgements, who I interviewed. But, other than that, I can’t site my sources. So, I was like, “Will that come through? Will that research come through in a way that resonates for the characters and for the reader as well?” Like, “Will it feel seamless?” I didn’t want it to feel like a text book, but at the same time, I wanted to show – in some cases – that these are actual stories.
ENNI: How did you find out about it? Tell me the whole story.
BENWAY: I was at my mom’s house, she was moving that day. So, I had gone down to help with a few things. And I had to get on the road around ten am. So, I got up around seven and I had my coffee – always first thing – and I went on Twitter because I was like, “Oh, I want to talk about…”
It was three weeks out from publishing date for Far from the Tree and I was like, “Okay. I want to Tweet a little about Far from the Tree.” Just remind people that there was an e-book sale for Emmy & Oliver, so I wanted to Tweet about that. And I was like, “I want to get this out of the way because I know I’m gonna be busy for the rest of the day, so I need to Tweet now.” And as I Tweeted and was looking through my feed. Lisa Lucas – the executive director of the National Book Foundation – put up the link and was like, “The long-list for young people’s literature is now live!” And it was a link to the New Yorker article.
I’m like, “Oh, cool! Let me see if I know anybody.” I didn’t even know I had been submitted for the award. I had no, no idea. I mean, you always think of those things like [drops voice], “Maybe I will be?” But never an honest-to-god, this is an actual possibility. Like, “Maybe I’ll win the lottery? That kind of thing where it’s all theoretical.
So, I click on the link and it’s alphabetical by author, and I see Elana Arnold’s name [listen to her First Draft interview here] and I’m like, “Oh, my god! Elana. Oh, my gosh! I’m so happy for her!” And then I see my name and I just [pauses] I just whited out. I made a sound, I don’t even know what it was, but my mom just came running. She was like, “What? Are you okay? What happened?” I was shaking. I just kept saying, “Mom. Mom. Mom.” And I’m shaking. And right then my phone started to blow up.
What was so sweet, is I was getting texts from people from my former publishers, and my friends, just immediately. And I could see my Twitter feed and all of the notifications where like… it was like watching a slot machine. The number kept going up and up. I get chills just thinking about it now. I worked so hard on this book. It was so hard. Emotionally, it was one of the worst times of my life leading up to this book. So, to have people recognize it, and to have my friends be so happy for me.
To have so many people in publishing, both my friends and publishing people, respect that was just… I don’t know what to say. I just felt so happy. I felt like, “Okay. This is the crest.” That was the trough. That was the hard time. At one point when I was writing Far from the Tree, I called my mom at five in the morning and I was sobbing. I was like, “I’m gonna lose my apartment. I can’t do this. And I’m gonna have to give back the money. And I’m gonna lose my apartment.”
And my mom just kept saying, “No. You are not. You’re gonna write a book.” She was like, “This isn’t gonna happen.” She was so sympathetic and so supportive. This book would have never happened without my mom. It just wouldn’t have. So, to be with her – I just happened to be there when the long-list came out – was so wonderful. She was texting my brother and sister-in-law. And they were like, “This is a big deal!” And my mom was like, “I can tell it’s a big deal because you keep leaving your coffee.”
I just wandered in and out… I was supposed to be helping her pack the final stuff, and I literally just wandered into a room and set my coffee down and wandered out. And then I would go look at Twitter because I was trying to keep up with it. For some reason, I was really focused on acknowledging everyone’s nice words, and I just couldn’t keep up. But I wanted to keep seeing it. And, oh my gosh, I’m still on a high. It was two-and-a-half weeks ago and I’m on such a high.
ENNI: Of course! I’m getting emotional hearing about it. I knew how hard the year was for you. And there was such a weird – even being approximate to it – I was like [exclaiming], “What? Oh, my god! That’s my friend!” You just want to walk outside and be like [exclaiming - again] “Do you guys know? This is my friend Robin!”
BENWAY: It’s so funny, in LA everyone’s like, “What’s that?” Whereas I’m sure in New York everyone’s like [exclaiming], “National Book Award!”
ENNI: People are in their cubes all over New York refreshing the page. Then you walk around here and you’re like [shrugs shoulder and raises eyebrows like what?].
BENWAY: Yeah. In LA, everyone thinks you’re a screenwriter. Which is totally fine. It doesn’t matter. But also, to be on that list with those authors. That blew my mind as well.
ENNI: It’s such an insane list this year.
BENWAY: It was such a good list. And just to be there and to see my book cover there. I can’t imagine what would happen to feel better than that. I feel like everything I went through was worth it. Not to say awards matter, but to be on that list – with those books- and to be chosen by those judges; was not only one of the best publishing days of my life, but one of the best days of my life. It felt so good.
ENNI: We so rarely get…
BENWAY: Oh yeah, [laughing] a happy day.
ENNI: Well, yeah, and in any endeavor in life - this is like weddings, births – we so rarely get moments where you’re like, “Stop. Reflect. This is a marker of time. This is a way to summarize an achievement.” They’re far and few between. And in our field, which is so wild and subjective, there’s a lot of nebulousness around what we do. So, to have something hard and fast and it’s like, “This is a sticker that will be on your book!”
BENWAY: That is the number one question from people, “Do you get the sticker?” Like, “I don’t know! I have never experienced this before.”
ENNI: I went to the website and it has your cover with the little sticker on it and I was like, “Yay!”
BENWAY: We shall see. Yeah, everyone wants to know about the sticker.
ENNI: I love that we’re like, “We know that!” There’s swag involved here.
BENWAY: But I think it’s also so rare to be just surprised by something.
ENNI: Pleasantly surprised.
BENWAY: Okay, that’s fair. Unpleasantly surprised happens all the time. But pleasantly surprised that way was so much fun. Everyone was like, “Did you know? Were you sitting on this?” And I was like, “No!” Nobody knew. My agent didn’t know. My editor didn’t know.
ENNI: That is one of the interesting things about it. As an outside observer you’re always like, “There must be something.” And it’s like, “No.”
BENWAY: Nuh-uh. No idea. Which is fun. It was a fun day. It was a good day.
ENNI: Just right off the top, do you feel like Far from the Tree is the best book you’ve written so far?
BENWAY: Yes. One hundred percent. Yeah. This is how I knew, I’d felt really good about it but I’d sent the book to my brother, who the book is dedicated to because he is my brother and the book is about siblings. And he’s obviously one of the best people in my life, and I sent it to him when it was a pdf file. I hadn’t even done copy edits yet. That’s usually when he reads it.
So, I sent it to him and he called me one night, it was like nine-thirty, or ten. And he was, at the time, engaged. And I was like, “Oh, my god. Something’s wrong. The engagement…” I had no reason to think that, but you know? The thing about the call late at night from your brother? He goes to bed super early because he has to wake up super early for work. So, I was like, “Oh. Something’s wrong.” So, I answer and he was crying. He goes, “I just finished your book.” And we both… he was crying. I just burst into tears. It was that moment of [pauses] he was like, “You did it. You really did it.”
ENNI: That’s so sweet.
BENWAY: Yeah, to have him say that, I was like, “Okay. This is something special.” Because he’s read all of my books. All of them. My family is lovely that way, they all read my books. I think it’s the only fiction they read actually! [laughing] And he knew the saga of writing this book and he’s known my career for ten years, so to have him respond that way, and just to see people’s response to it, has been really good.
But I know, for me, I feel very – I don’t want to say confident [chuckles] - I never feel confident about it. But I feel like I did the work that I could do and I did it to the best of my abilities. And that was only possible because I’d written five books before this. And each one has made me better. I always hope the next book will be better than Far from the Tree. But I do feel Far from the Tree was something very special. Not only in how the idea came to me, but the writing of it and the process of it. I feel so close to these characters. I haven’t been able to shake them. I thanked them in the acknowledgment. They’re not even real people! I’m like, “Thanks guys! Thanks for picking me to tell the story.”
But it was such an emotional process and it really resonated with me. Not only on a writing level, but on an emotional level in terms of researching these characters.
ENNI: It seems like, when I was looking back at your career, Emmy & Oliver felt like this step – a transition to this new phase of career. I’m saying that’s how I see it, but I’d love to hear how you think about it.
BENWAY: I agree to. I think part of the thing that not only I was concerned about but my agent and my publisher were concerned about is, “What’s a worthy follow-up to Emmy & Oliver?” I was very happy with Emmy & Oliver. But, what is the next step? It didn’t feel like I could go back to something like Audrey, Wait! Or the spy series – which I love those books, and I’m very proud of them – but it didn’t feel like I could write a fluffy rom-com.
And I love fluffy rom-coms. I love to write them and I love to read them. I’m not at all denigrating the genre, but I just felt like, “Okay.” And I really like writing family. I love writing about families. I love writing about parents and that transition from going to a teenager to being an adult and how that affects the family dynamic.
ENNI: I don’t necessarily have a pointed question about this, but the feeling of – not only is the award a big moment just for this book alone - but I feel it represents a pivot. Or it could. How are you thinking about this phase of your career? And going forward? Where are you at in that process right now?
BENWAY: That’s a really good question. I honestly don’t know. At this point, when we’re talking, Far from the Tree isn’t even out yet. I don’t even know. But I feel I’m just trying to enjoy it right now. I don’t have another book idea right now, I don’t. Which is what I said when we talked three years ago and now look at where we are. I look forward to three years from now when we talk again!
ENNI: I know, seriously.
BENWAY: This whole experience has reminded me, or underscored for me, to trust my instincts. That if a book isn’t right, don’t write it. I’m not good at it? No one else is gonna want to read it. It’s told me to follow the characters that may seem difficult or hard to write because maybe those are the ones that are gonna be the most dynamic. And the ones that will give me a book, basically, and help me write something about them.
I’m really glad that I chased these characters – or followed them – for so long. And tried to figure out who they were because it ultimately has paid off. More than anything, it’s taught me to trust my instincts. Also, when I was writing Far from the Tree, I took a big social media break. I just disappeared for five months. I cannot recommend that enough. It’s reminded me that you can go off-line and things will still happen. I’ll know about the news stories.
ENNI: The world will go on.
BENWAY: The world will go on. It’s taught me to learn how to protect not only my writing process but myself - my emotional process – and how to walk away from things. And to be able to have hard conversations and say, “I don’t have a book right now. I don’t know if I’m going to.” And that’s really hard.
ENNI: I think social media can, in some ways, contribute to [the] fear of taking on certain kinds of projects.
BENWAY: Yes. I agree.
ENNI: I think that you are right. That you did yourself a favor by stepping back and you just need time to examine what a story is gonna be. It’s almost like you gave yourself time to just be in that phase – in that inward phase – because the outward phase is when you have all kinds of questions. Where you worry about how people are gonna feel when they read the book. Which is a very legitimate phase, but you can’t take that burden on when you’re…
BENWAY: No. You have to keep it for you, and try to write the best book. I agree. I think there’s so much validity to saying, “You’re writing someone who is not like you.” Again, you’re writing for a kid who’s not like you. So, you need to make sure that you respect that and don’t do a disservice to them, and I completely agree with that.
But I also think that you need the space to figure out if you can tell that story. And then also find the people who will tell you if you can or cannot tell the story. Tell the story and then see if it works. I gave the book to my friends, the one who was a professor at Cal State Northridge, and then our other friend. I was like, “Tear it apart. Tear it apart. Tell me what is right and what is not.” And they had wonderful notes and I was like, “This was great. Thank you.”
I gave it to Brandy Colbert who blurbbed it for me. And I was like, “If anyone will tell me that this book isn’t right, Brandy will.” And I told her, “Don’t be my friend right now. Be a friend to me in that, tell me if this book isn’t working, and if it’s not working we’ll figure it out.” She said the loveliest things about it. I saved her email and I still re-read it every now and then just because, when I’m doubting myself, to see Brandy’s words. Because I knew that she would be someone who would be very honest with me, as a friend. And she had wonderful things to say and I was like, “Okay. I feel like I did…” It sounds weird to say, but I feel like I did my job. Like, “Okay. I am comfortable with this book going out.”
ENNI: I don’t think it’s wrong to say you did your job. That’s definitely the way to think about it. I’m trying to avoid saying “permission” because that’s not what we’re talking about but. It is the fact that you could talk to people who are not even writers, people who are just, “Does this pass the sniff test for you as someone who has experienced this in some way, shape, or form?” People who may be trying to tackle subjects that make them nervous. That’s so powerful.
BENWAY: A big thing for me was in taking it to these people. I was very upfront with my friends and everyone who beta read the book. I was like, “You know what? I am a white woman from Orange County, California. I have wheelbarrows full of white privilege.” I was like, “I will not be upset if you tell me this book is wrong. I do not want to misrepresent anybody in any way possible.” I also was very conscious like, “I read a book about foster care. I get it now.” Or, “I talked to my friend who identifies as Latina and I understand it. I got it.”
I wanted to be very honest about… I did all this research but it doesn’t mean that I haven’t been immersed in that life. And that was the other thing too was, do I have the right to tell this story, even with that acknowledgement?
So far, the response has been really good, so I hope that means yes. This is my personal feeling… you have to acknowledge what a big responsibility it is. And again, not for your own sake, but for the sake of the readers. And also try to clear a path for other people who don’t have that privilege to stand alongside you.
ENNI: Huge! I love that. We did talk a little bit last time about your career in publishing – working in the publishing industry – you were a publicist. You worked as a publicist and event coordinator for a bookstore.
ENNI: We don’t get to hear from them very much. It’s kind of a mysterious part of publishing. What does that job entail? What did it entail for you then? And what do you think – there are many challenges now that you didn’t have to deal with [then].
BENWAY: I was a publicist basically before we had the internet. I don’t mean to sound like I’m a thousand years old, but there were no blogs. There certainly wasn’t social media. It was probably fifteen years ago that I was a publicist, so things were just starting in terms of the idea of a blog, or entertainment, or putting stuff on-line. There wasn’t even You Tube.
ENNI: There was no book-tubers.
BENWAY: No! Oh, my gosh. I can’t even imagine being a publicist now. I probably could do it, but it feels like, I would say, it’s a young person’s game now. It’s a twenty-four-year-old’s game, because they’ve grown up with social media in a way that I haven’t. I think I enjoy publicizing books and talking about them and social media. But I don’t think I could do it. The things that they come up with, and the things they think of, and the work they have to do across so many different mediums? I’m like, “Oh, my god.”
And then you’re still reaching out to traditional media too like, NPR, morning TV, whatever the book is, you’re still trying to get newspapers. But, does that resonate the way that a book-tuber does? The game has changed so much. If you get reviewed in the New York Times, does that affect sales as much as having a popular book-tuber talk about your book? Does it, or not? We don’t know. I don’t know. I’m sure someone knows somewhere.
But it’s an interesting thought. So, as a publicist it would be very interesting. Obviously, you want both. You want everything to come. But how do you pick the different mediums for the different books?
ENNI: How do you, as someone who used to do this for a living, if you are an author trying to promote your own work, where do you begin conceptualizing? How do you think about that, how to sell your book?
BENWAY: It’s very interesting because I think at a certain point you also are selling yourself, especially in YA. This is what I do; I try to infuse humor so it doesn’t feel so much like [quietly shouting], “This is my book. It’s great! This is my book! It got nominated! This is my book! You guys should read my book! Have you heard about my book?” I love Instagram, and I am such a big proponent of photo-editing and filters. Make yourself look the way you want to represent yourself. Whatever that entails for you.
But I feel, especially in YA, this is gonna be my feminist rant. Get ready! Because it’s so many females in YA - not to say everybody, but the majority of us are female writers - I think it’s considered a hobby. The way people look at is as a hobby. It’s not a job, it’s a hobby. The male writers have a job. We all have a hobby because it’s expected that our spouses and husbands really do make the money, and this is fun.
Not to say that anyone is saying that to me personally, but I think it’s an overreaching concept in publishing. So, that’s why when I do videos or Instagram I take it very seriously, in that I want it to look as professional as possible. As much as I can make it look professional as an unprofessional.
ENNI: Now we have a whole lot of powerful, free or next to free, tools.
BENWAY: I think it’s really important to represent it as a job, even if other people aren’t viewing it that way. And again, that will vary from every single author in terms of how you A) are willing to promote yourself. What you’re willing to put out there. And B) How you want to be represented in your best light. I think it’s different for everybody.
ENNI: As you know, we wrap up with advice. I would love to know if the advice you gave last time… if you would change it? Or, if there’s something you’ve learned in the last three years specifically?
BENWAY: I wouldn’t change it because I think the advice I gave was about people wanting to get into publishing, and so I still stand by all of that. I listened to our podcast yesterday. I feel like my advice would be - and this is what I’ve learned from Far from the Tree - is trust your instincts. If something isn’t working, don’t take it out there. If you think something’s working, chase it down, keep following it. If it’s not right, it’s not right. I’ve learned that so much.
And another thing I have learned from Far from the Tree is, if you don’t know the plot, learn the characters. Because eventually they will tell you what the plot is. In terms of finding out about Joaquin’s experiences, or Grace’s experience, or Maya and her mother, all of these things in the book. I learned what the plot was, because I learned about the characters. I learned how it unfolded because I learned about who these characters were.
I struggle with plot all of the time. I love characters. I could write four characters in a room for three hundred pages – no problem. But, you need a plot for a book, unfortunately! That’s something I learned and I’m going to try to remember for whatever the next book may be.
ENNI: I’ve been struggling recently with… I feel like I, for the last year, I’ve gotten plot. It’s been easier. And then I get in and I’m like, “Why doesn’t this feel like anything?” So, being reminded that character is primary is a good thing.
BENWAY: Yeah, I think so. What fun is it to go on a journey if you don’t like the people you’re with? I’m not even saying they have to be likeable, but you want to know what’s gonna happen with them.
ENNI: You want to understand them.
ENNI: And it seems like also with Far from the Tree – not only trusting your instincts – but it seems like at some point you kept reminding yourself that you could walk away.
BENWAY: Yeah, absolutely. That was my out. It wouldn’t have been my favorite option, but at the end of the day I was like, “I can just walk away from this.” I still remember this anecdote, oh my gosh it was years ago, but it was Kari Russell talking about Felicity. Apparently, J.J. Abrams said, “We’ll send a car for you every day. You don’t have to drive yourself to the set. We’ll have a car pick you up and take you home.” And she said, “No.” Because at the time, the show was so immersive and she was in every single scene and it was like crazy days. And she said, “I like having a car parked outside that’s mine, so I know if I want to, I can just get in and drive away.” She didn’t need to, she wasn’t going to, but just knowing that she could leave gave her the reason to keep going. I think that was sort of the same thing with writing this book. Me just saying, “I can walk away” gave me the option, and I didn’t feel trapped in knowing that I could just keep going forward, knowing that I could always back out at any time.
ENNI: It’s a relief, I think.
BENWAY: Yes, oh absolutely. It’s granting yourself permission, which is important too as an adult.
ENNI: I have a lot more to say about that, but again, we can’t talk forever as much as I love to. So, Robin this has been so fun.
BENWAY: This was really good. Thank you so much for asking me these questions. I haven’t really talked a lot about Far from the Tree, so this was really cathartic.
ENNI: This was so fun. Thank you.
BENWAY: Yeah, thank you!
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Thank you so much to Robin. Follow her on Twitter @robinbenway and follow me @sarahenni and the show @firstdraftpod. You can follow the show on Instagram and Facebook too, but for links to everything Robin and I talked about in this episode, as well as a searchable archive of previous interviews, and to sign-up for the First Draft newsletter be sure to check out FirstDraftPod.com. Again, look out for the First Draft Special Episode this week and if you continue to have any questions you’d like to hear me, and or some author friends address, please send them over in an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. If you liked what you heard, please leave a rating or review on iTunes. Every five-star review makes me feel like I’m at Dinosaur spitting out three thousand words in an hour. Whew!
Thanks to Hashbrown for the theme song, and to Collin Keith and Maurene Goo for the logos. Thanks to super intern Carter Elwood and transcriptionist-at-large Julie Anderson. And, as ever, thanks to you discerning readers of young people’s literature, for listening.