I adored Paula Yoo‘s debut novel, Good Enough. It was fresh and honest and funny and well-written, and, well, just plain awesome! Today, we are lucky enough to have Paula here for an interview, and she has some awesome things to say about the book, her non-writing-and-music-related dream job, writer’s block, and more.

How much of Good Enough is autobiographical? What do you and Patti have in common?

Wait a minute, you mean Good Enough is fiction?! What? OMG! Oh no! :) Haha! Just kidding. Yes, I admit quite a bit of my first novel is based on my own life. Like Patti, I play the violin and I was Concertmaster of my All-State Orchestra and I did perform the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto with my youth orchestra. I even had a bad perm that burned my ear! But Patti’s way more sarcastic than me. She’s also much smarter than me (I was horrible at math, so I made Patti a straight-A AP Calculus student!) and she plays the violin WAY better than me! Although a lot of the book was inspired by my life, it IS fictional because I took what happened in my life and wondered, “What if…?” and that’s where the fiction kicked in. It was interesting, however, when I attended my 20th high school reunion this past Thanksgiving and met some of the real-life people who inspired many of the characters, including the real-life version of “Ben Wheeler.” Fortunately, they all liked the book… phew!

What was your favorite scene in the book to write? Which one was most difficult?

I’d say my favorite scenes were with Patti’s youth group, especially when she snuck out of church to go to a rock concert with Ben. I grew quite fond of Patti and her little circle of uptight square friends, and I loved how they all lived vicariously through her rebellion! As for the most difficult, I would say the ending was very, very hard to write. The original ending had Patti joining the track team to impress Ben – it was a funny ending but it lacked depth… it felt like a very superficial “sitcom” ending. My editor suggested that instead of making Ben the main focus of the story, I concentrate on Patti’s relationship to her parents and learning to stand up for herself. That led to a much more poignant and “deeper” ending. I would also say the scene where Patti witnesses her father being the victim of prejudice especially difficult to write because of my own family’s personal experiences.

Besides Patti, who was your favorite character to write? Who was the most difficult?

I had a crush on Ben Wheeler! I also loved how Samuel Kwon, the most uptight of Patti’s friends, learned to loosen up the most in the end. The most difficult characters were Stephanie and Eric – I didn’t want them to come off as cardboard stereotypes, which is why their character arcs ended the way they did (Stephanie trying to apologize to Patti and Eric being suspended from the graduation ceremony)… I tried to show that despite their flaws, they were human beings who simply made mistakes based on their environment and family influences. It was difficult, however, to keep them from becoming stereotyped Evil Villains, so I would say it was most challenging to make them as three-dimensional as possible.

Who are your biggest writing influences?

That is a tough question! How much room do you have in your blog? haha. Seriously, I have many favorite writers, because I was an English major in college. I loved the American “realism” movement, and I’m a huge fan of poets like Wallace Stevens. I had a thing for Japanese authors like Shusako Endo (loooved his novel “The Samurai”) and Junichiro Tanizaki (loooved his novel “The Makioka Sisters”) Currently, I love the author Tom Perrotta – he masterfully balances humor and poignancy, which is something I strive to do in my writing as well. And I’m reading “Then We Came to the End” by Joshua Ferris, and it’s HILARIOUS. I’m also a Stephen King/horror fan… as for YA authors, my favoritest all-time books are “From The Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler,” “When She Was Good,” “Bridge to Terabithia,” “Charlotte’s Web,” and “Tuck Everlasting” and everything by Judy Blume and Laura Ingalls. Hmmm. Like I said, this answer could go on and on and on…

What do you do to beat writer’s block?

I no longer believe in writer’s block. I think there is “left brain” writing and “right brain” writing. For example, there are days when you can’t stop me from writing. I’ll write 10,000 words in one day if I’m that inspired! On the days when I’m not in the “mood” to write, I usually use those days to do other forms of writing – research, revising/editing what I’ve written, or reading new novels or re-reading the classics. I strongly believe in reading as much as possible because reading helps you become a better writer. Sometimes I’ll play my violin or play some video games or watch a lot of guilty pleasure TV, especially Food TV, and let my brain wander. I also believe in taking breaks – sometimes your subconscious has to solve some writing problem, so it’s best to do anything NOT related to writing…. then the next day, bam! Writing problem solved. On some days when I’m not ready to write, I will brainstorm new ideas or work on outlines for other ideas I’ve been developing.

If you couldn’t write or play music, what job would you have? What other jobs have you done in the past?

I used to be a journalist and an English teacher and a music teacher, and I’m still a freelance musician between writing jobs, so all my jobs have involved either music or writing. If I had to do a dream job that had nothing to do with writing or music… it would be to host my own cooking show on Food TV. I am ADDICTED to cooking shows. I’m such the foodie! I even have a title – “Are YOO Hungry?” hahaha. I would love to have a Rachael Ray type show where I toured the country, eating at great restaurants and talking about the food!

You write for television, you have written picture books, and Good Enough is a young adult novel. What is the same with all types of writing? What is unique to writing a YA novel? How has your other experience in writing affected Good Enough?

Writing for television, writing picture books, and writing novels are three totally different experiences. They’re like apples and oranges! With TV, you are working with a limited number of pages – most drama TV show scripts are no more than 60 pages and obey a strict four-act plus a teaser structure. So with TV, you’re constantly finding shortcuts to have each scene reveal as much new information as possible plus move the story forward. It’s all about the dialogue, and any stage directions must reveal character or push the plot along. Less is more in TV writing. With non-fiction picture books, less is even more! You’re supposed to tell the life story of someone famous in about 1,500 words, tops. Every word has to shine, it’s almost like you’re writing poetry because every single word has to count, given how little text you’re allowed in a picture book. Novels, however, can be as long or short as you want – the freedom and the “looser” quality can overwhelm most writers, which is why everyone can start a novel, but not everyone can FINISH a novel. I found that my TV and picture book writing experience helped me structure my novels and to make sure the plot clipped along at a quick and interesting pace. But as a novelist, I learned to slow down and really reveal the inner workings of my character through inner monologue and point of view perspectives.

You are a musician as well as a writer. Who are some of your favorite musical artists?

Every musician listed in Good Enough! My iTunes has everything from the Sex Pistols to Shostakovich, from Radiohead to Ravel, from Bill Frisell to Journey, and of course, Duran Duran. I grew up on ’80s new wave and old school punk and college radio gloomy alternative music, so I’m very happy to see that the ’80s are back in fashion! But being a classically trained musician, I also love all types of jazz, blues, old school rock ‘n roll (Zeppelin!), Broadway, the list goes on and on. I just like music that’s got a good beat, a cool melody, and an interesting structure. It could be polka or Prokofiev or Paula Abdul, I don’t care, if it’s got a great melody, I’m happy!

How long have you wanted to be a writer?

I’ve wanted to be writer from Day One. When I read Charlotte’s Web in the first grade, I knew instantly that I wanted to become a writer. I began writing short stories as soon as I finished reading Charlotte’s Web. I wrote my first “novel” – a 50-page hand-written manuscript – in the 2nd grade and actually submitted it to Harper & Row Books because they published “Little House on the Prairie,” which was my favorite book series at the time. I have never not wanted to be a writer – I have never wanted to be anything else but a writer since the first grade. I feel very lucky and honored to have achieved that dream, and I don’t take it for granted!

What are you writing now?

As a working TV drama writer, I have to work on a new “spec script” for the upcoming staffing season in the spring – this is when the networks decide what shows will air in the fall season. They read sample scripts from TV writers and if they like your script, they hire you for a show! So I need to write a new sample script for staffing season. I’m also researching and writing my next YA novel, and I’m doing revisions on my next picture book. And I’m always brainstorming future ideas – I have a little notebook that I carry around with me all the time to jot down new ideas. It’s a great way to kill time while waiting in line at the bank!

Now ask yourself a question! (And answer it.)

PAULA’S QUESTION: Why is https://teenbookreview.wordpress.com/ so cool?

PAULA’S ANSWER: Because they promote reading for young people and offer balanced, fair and very insightful reviews of the latest YA novels and they encourage young people to read, read, read! I am honored to be included in their website!
Thank you so much for the kind words, Paula, and for doing this interview!

I’m very pleased to be a stop on Sara Zarr’s blog tour for the release of her latest book, Sweethearts. She is also the author of the 2007 National Book Award Finalist Story of a Girl. Both books are amazing, and, if you haven’t read them, go and do so! Now! Anyway, without further ado, here is my interview with Sara.

How long have you known you wanted to be a writer? What was your path to publication like?

I’ve known I wanted it to be my career since I was about 25 (12 years ago!), and I enjoyed writing and stories long before that. My path to publication, like so many, was pretty rough. Every year from about 1996 to 2004 I thought, “This is it. This is my year.” In 2005, it finally was. Those who want to write for publication have to have a lot of patience. You’ve got to wait for your skill, your voice, your stories, the right agent, the right editor, the right market to all converage on the time/space continuum. It takes a lot of faith to believe that will happen.

How has the experience of being a published author been different from what you expected?

I’m surprised and disappointed that I’m still as insecure as I always was! Sometimes, maybe even more insecure. Writing hasn’t gotten any easier. There no sense of arrival. I’m surprised and delighted by the enthusiasm of fans. Their emails mean so much, and always seem to come at just the right time. The support and general wonderfulness of peers in the YA world and the people at my publisher (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers) have been great, too.

What was your inspiration for writing Sweethearts?

While casting about for ideas for a next book, my old childhood sweetheart got back in touch and we had this cool, surprising bond. I let my imagination wander and started asking those “what if” questions that are always the beginning of a good story.

Are you like Jenna (or were you at her age)? How?

A little, yeah. I never trusted my place in my social circle and always felt surprised whenever it would dawn on me that my friends actually cared about me. Like Jenna, I turned to food when stressed or lonely or bored. I had this boyfriend once that I thought was too good for me and I imagined other people asking themselves, “Why is he with her?” Little things like that went into Jenna’s personality.

In Sweethearts, you tell two stories about Jenna and Cameron–one from their shared past, and then the story of their present. Was it difficult to tell both stories simultaneously, without giving up either one?

It was a bit of a technical challenge. Dealing with flashbacks or stuff from the past is always a trick. You don’t want a giant info-dump at the beginning, but you also don’t want to annoy the reader by withholding too much for too long. I’m still not convinced I hit the perfect balance but I tried to space the flashbacks out in a way that made sense. The story from the past was important for understanding the story of the present so I didn’t want to give it short shrift. That was something my editor and I worked on quite a bit.

Why do you write for a young adult audience? Do you, would you like to, or do you plan to write for other audiences?

Really, I don’t think about the audience much while I’m writing. Selfishly, I try to write a story that I would love to read, and those seem to mostly involve teenagers. I’ve always been a fan of YA and think the YA category is one of the richest and most interesting in publishing right now. I do hope to have a long career in which I get a chance to try a lot of different things. Lately in my dabbling time I’m trying to figure out how to make short stories work. Everything I start feels like the beginning of a novel.

What jobs have you done in the past? If you weren’t a writer, what would you most like to do?

I have had major job ADD since I first entered the workforce at 16. It’s a good thing I’m a writer, because my “day job” resume looks awful—I rarely lasted anywhere more than 18 months because of boredom or impatience with a work situation. I’ve been a file clerk, a cook, an office manager, a church secretary, an account rep with a printing firm, an indexer, a corporate trainer, a data entry cog, a receptionist…anything to pay the bills while I pursued writing. I honestly don’t know what I’d do with myself if I weren’t a writer. The things I’m seriously interested in would require a lot more education and I don’t know if I could do (and pay for) college again. I wouldn’t mind making a movie some day!

What are you writing now (if you are okay with sharing that)?

My main job is writing my third YA novel for Little, Brown. Some of the ingredients are: a pastor’s daughter, a small town, a crime, an older man, a parent in rehab, an excruciatingly hot summer.

You do a wonderful job writing realistic characters and capturing the relationships between them. Do you have any advice for aspiring writers struggling to do the same thing?

Thanks! I think the key is to work from the inside out. For instance, if you’re writing about a mother-daughter relationship you might start out thinking, “I want this mother and this daughter to have communication issues” (or trust problems or anger or disappointment or whatever the thing is) and try to layer that on top of the story like so much spackle. That doesn’t work, though—for me, anyway. I have to know the characters a bit and get a sense of their story and then go in and really think about where those problems might come from and how they would manifest in small, subtle ways. Human interaction is so much about the tiny ways we miss each other or manage to connect, the little letdowns and minor triumphs. Being aware of those things in your own life definitely helps when you’re trying to get them into a story.

Now, the ask-yourself-a-question question! What’s a question I didn’t ask you that you’d like to be asked (and the answer)?

I love to cook, and when I used to subscribe to Bon Appetit I always enjoyed the last page where they’d interview some celebrity and say, “Name three things in your refrigerator right now.” And so: leftover turkey loaf, a bag of red potatoes, and some buttermilk I keep forgetting to use in my baked goods.

Thanks so much for doing this, Sara!

Thank you!