Today, I have a real treat for you all. An interview with the incredibly funny, fantastic, and talented author Maureen Johnson (not the real estate agent Maureen Johnson). Maureen is the author of such wonderful books as Suite Scarlett, Girl At Sea, 13 Little Blue Envelopes, The Bermudez Triangle, and others. She also keeps a hilarious blog. In short, she’s awesome, and she had great answers to my interview questions, so here they are!
Some of your books have travel in them (such as 13 Little Blue Envelopes and Girl at Sea), and you go to England quite a bit. What’s your favorite place you’ve ever been? What is your most memorable trip or moment traveling?
I think one of the best trips I ever took, and probably the one that most fueled 13 Little Blue Envelopes, was the summer I lived in London with the person who is now my agent (known as Daphne Unfeasible on my blog). That entire summer was an event. The memories come in flashes: hiding under a bridge to escape a cast member of Riverdance, taking a 5 AM boat to France after a night spent throwing Pringles into the Thames, breaking in to our own apartment through the window over the trash cans because we couldn’t get the door open . . .
You often write in the company of many other fantastic YA authors, like Scott Westerfeld and Libba Bray (and you’re sometimes lucky enough to get sneak peeks at the books fans would give an arm and a leg–I say that figuratively, I hope–to read early!). Do you think that having this circle of writer friends has influenced your own writing?
The YA community is unbelievably supportive. And it really is a community–the friendships are real and strong. You get a little crazy and wall-eyed when you’re in the middle of writing a book. It’s a fantastic experience, but you go through it alone. So it’s been a huge help to have people to turn to at three in the morning, when your brain has gone all wobbly and you have covered yourself in cryptic post-it notes and you would seriously considering EATING your manuscript rather than letting anyone see it.
It’s also just an exciting time to be in YA. There are a lot of exceptional writers around. I feel very, very lucky. And getting the books early? Yeah. That IS excellent. I won’t deny it.
Also, Scott asked me if I wanted to go on a zeppelin ride with him and Justine in Germany. I mean, how often do you get offers like that?
What’s your writing process like?
I start with a rough sketch of what I want to do, which usually gets tossed once the book is sort of on its feet and toddling around a little. After that, I start tracking the plot by means of a series of notes or cards, which I used to put on a wall or floor. I use Scrivener now, which has a built-in bulletin-board feature with little notecards. This is perfect for me! I can bring my little wall of notes with me wherever I go!
When I start writing, I don’t go in order–I write sections from all over the story, which I sew together bit by bit. I move things freely throughout the whole drafting process. Because of all of this, it’s completely impossible to read one of my drafts until its done, just because it’s in so many pieces.
Suite Scarlett is going to be the first of your books to have a sequel! Why did you decide to write a second book about Scarlett and not any of your other characters?
Scarlett showed up in my head with several books worth of story. It’s never quite happened that way before. This may be because she didn’t show up alone. She arrived with three siblings–Spencer, Lola, and Marlene–all three of whom have a lot going on. (Spencer alone could fill a book.) There’s also Mrs. Amberson, and the hotel itself. I just had a lot of story, right from the start.
Also, Suite Scarlett (and the Subsequent Scarletts) are based, not exactly on real experience, but on a kinda/sorta version of my real experience. I like the scrappy New York of actors trying to get a break, broke writers, insane survival jobs, the mix of rich and poor. It’s also a magical New York, where you can see things just before they go supernova. Anything can happen. That’s where the awesome is.
If one of your books (you pick) were to be made into a movie, who would you have in mind to play your characters?
I really have no idea. I think the characters are so set in my head that I have a hard time snapping them loose and dropping them on to an actor or actress–it’s not a mental exercise I do. HOWEVER, if a movie is ever in the works, I will certainly bend my mind to the problem.
If you were stuck on a deserted island and could bring one book, what would it be?
How to Get Off a Deserted Island for Dummies.
You have many now-amusing stories about your time in Catholic school (although some of them may have been less amusing at the time). Would you share one with us that you haven’t told on your (often outrageously hilarious) blog before?
To get into my high school, you had to take a test, and if you did well enough on the test, they called you in for an interview. I got called in for one, and I showed up at the front step of the school for the first time on a bitterly cold and dark January night. I was thirteen years old. I had never spoken to a nun before. I wasn’t Catholic. I was generally a little freaked out by the whole process, but was going through with it anyway.
So there I was, on the front step of the school. The school is half convent, half classroom building. The convent part is housed in an old mansion. This was the special front door, the one you never use again until you graduate. When you are an actual student, you use this industrial door in the bunker-like annex, where the classrooms are. But I didn’t know that then. I went in through the fancy door, which opened on to a marble hallway, lit by candles. The throughway doors were all open, so I got a clear view straight in to the chapel, which was ornate, frescoed, and full of statues of tortured saints. I turned to speak to the nun who was checking us in, and I noticed that above her there was a massive oil painting. The painting was of a group of nuns standing in a line . . . in front of a mass grave . . . being mowed down by Nazis with machine guns. Really.
I felt myself starting to wobble. I gave my information, got my folder, was assigned by student escort, and walked a few steps deeper into the gloom. Then I turned again to look in through an open door, to a completely unlit room. In the shadows, I saw nuns in various habits lingering in the dark, as if ready to spring. This room, I would discover soon after, was the “stuffed nun room”–a small museum about the order, full of mannequins in various states of repair. But that night, it was just pure, unadulterated terror. Pretty much the last thing you expect to see as you bumble through life is a dark room full of nun mannequins in action poses. It was all I could not to scream.
I went to my interview white as a sheet, with a “please don’t kill me” look on my face. I am pretty sure that the docile state I was in helped quite a lot to secure my admission. That was the start of high school for me.
You live in New York City–a dream of small-town teenagers everywhere (like myself)–and your latest novel, Suite Scarlett, is set there. What’s your favorite place in New York or your favorite part of living there?
I’ve always liked cities. When we would drive to see my grandmother, who lived in a not-very-nice section of Philadelphia, I would stare out the car window in absolute wonder, looking at the graffiti and the sneakers hanging from the telephone wires . . . and I would say to my parents, “I want to live here! In the city! It’s pretty!” And my parents, who intentionally left the city because of these kinds of things, said, “Of course, small, dim child of ours. Whatever you say.” Then they took me to New York for my seventh birthday, and I was done. Done. I knew where I wanted to live.
I don’t have a favorite part of New York. I love the city as a whole. I never get tired of living here. And I decided it was about time I wrote a book that featured it.
You have a well-known love of zombies. What’s your favorite book or movie with zombies in it?
Without question, Shaun of the Dead. Shaun teaches us both to fear and love our shambling, undead friends.
I hear you have a book coming out that is a collaboration with John Green and Lauren Myracle. What can you tell us about it? How was it to work with two other great authors?
I do! That’s Let It Snow, which will be coming out in (I think) September. The book is a collection of three novellas, each one taking place in the same town, over the same sequence of days. My story opens the book on the 24th, John takes over early on the 25th, and Lauren ties it all up on the 26th. The stories are all about separate groups of people trying to make it through one monster winter storm, but we worked together to cross the stories. So you’ll see all of our characters walking around through the whole book, in the town we worked together to make.
We had a lot of fun creating the problems in this story–the crashes, the swarms of rabid cheerleaders, the miniature animals. A tiny detail in one story may be the thing that sets off a disaster in another. The reader will know what’s going all over town.
John I know well, and I got to know Lauren while working on the book. Having done this book, I can now see why multi-author books are so much fun. I laughed a lot writing this book with them.
How is the second Scarlett book going?
Very well so far! There are some big surprises in store. It’s a little pointless to even hint at these, since the first book is just coming out right now. So I have to sit on all this information. I even have gossip on book three . . . but that’s REALLY useless right now.
Thanks so much, Maureen!