I came across Gayle Forman’s most recent novel, If I Stay, by chance thanks to the blogsphere. And, I’m so glad I did. I read this heartbreaking, funny and thoughtful YA novel in one day (a record for me). The story is about a high school girl named Mia who lives with her mom, dad and younger brother in a small town in Oregon. She’s a gifted cellist and has a boyfriend who plays in a band. Everything changes for Mia one day when her family goes out for a drive in the snow; If I Stay is about the choice Mia must make.
Intrigued by the story, the connection to my home state of Oregon and by Gayle’s gift as a YA novelist, I reached out to see if she’d be willing to have a virtual interview. Read on to find out more about her experiences writing this novel, her thoughts on YA and also key details about who she is — including her astrological sign! Gayle will be stopping by to respond to questions, so please be sure to post your thoughts in the comments for this post.
If I Stay is such a captivating story as well as an emotional one. What originally brought this story into your mind?
It’s partially based on a true event, a real accident, that left me wondering what would you do if your family had been obliterated in an accident like that, and you yourself were hovering between life and death and were aware of what had happened to your family. If you could choose to go with your family—to die—or to stay, what would you do? I thought about that for years and years and then out of the fog of that persistent question, one day, this 17-year-old cello player arrived to answer the question for me.
Did you always know what Mia’s choice would be, or did that change as you wrote the book?
I didn’t know until about halfway through the book what her choice would be. I knew when I started writing that her decision would be the point of the book, but I wasn’t sure whether she’d live or die until I was deep into her story.
What kind of research did you conduct to make this story as real as possible (e.g., did you spend time at a hospital, did you attend cello concerts, etc.)?
The majority of the research falls into two categories: medical and musical. I’m lucky in that I have a friend who is an emergency-room doctor, so I called her up a bunch of times and interviewed her about the kinds of injuries Mia would’ve sustained, how the medics would’ve talked, treated her on the scene, etc. How the surgery would’ve gone. I didn’t visit any hospitals, but I’ve spent time in enough waiting rooms and ICUs that apparently, I’ve absorbed those details. When Mia showed up in my head as a cellist, that required a huge amount of research because I know nothing about the cello or about classical music. All the indie-rock references in the book, those came naturally to me. Those are my tastes. My husband is a musician. Easy. But the cello I had to research. I mostly listened to a lot of music: Yo-Yo Ma, Alisa Weilerstein, Jacqueline Du Pre. I read basic, Idiot’s Guide To Cello type books, and watched cello concerts on the net. I didn’t go to any live concerts (not before the book was written anyway; I have since) because I wrote the book in such a frenzy that there wasn’t time.
Because I grew up in Portland, Oregon, I’m curious about the setting for If I Stay. Why did you select Oregon as the backdrop for this story?
I went to college in Eugene, and lived there for five years. I spent time all over the state and I guess Oregon implanted itself in my literary DNA. The main character from my first novel, Sisters in Sanity, was also from Oregon. I didn’t set Mia’s hometown in If I Stay in any particular place in Oregon; it’s sort of a pastiche of Eugene and Astoria and Corvalis and Ashland—and somehow about an hour’s drive from Portland. The hospital scene is Portland—it’s a stand-in for OHSU, where my doctor friend went to med school—and all the Portland references are real.
This is your third published book. How have you changed as a writer since your first book (non-fiction) was published?
I should hope so! I was just writing a blog post answering reader questions about query letters and how I can’t really read my first book without cringing. Partly I think that’s because I hadn’t found my genre. YA is where I’m meant to be. But we grow as writers, hopefully throughout our careers. But I think I’ve probably changed in that I’ve owned my voice, owned my genre, am writing to my strengths now.
Your career began as a journalist reporting on young people. How did you make the transition from journalism to fiction?
I learned to write a narrative by being a journalist. Because I wrote long-form magazine pieces, and because I wrote stories for young people, a large part of the reporting I did was telling people’s stories—and then providing the context for young readers to understand what those stories meant in the larger world. I don’t think I could’ve become a novelist 13 years ago when I first came to New York and started my career because I hadn’t learned how to tell a story yet. By telling other peoples’ stories, I learned to craft a narrative. When I was younger, I never thought I’d be able to write fiction. Without the parameters of facts, and interviews, etc. it just seemed too hard. Where did you start? Now, it’s liberating. As for writing for young people, I sought out to write for a teen audience; it didn’t happen by default. This has always been the demographic I was interested in talking to, whose stories I wanted to hear, to tell, whose language I could write in. So it was totally natural that when I started writing fiction it was for a young-adult audience.
What tips do you have for mother writers on how to manage the balance between motherhood and writing?
I only started writing fiction after I became a mother and it was because I could no longer do the kind of journalism I’d been doing and stay home with my kids. I didn’t want to be traveling one week a month anymore. But I had to earn a living. So I just started writing this novel and backed into my calling. It can certainly be hard to find the balance and the time and I think that I’m fortunate in that for me—especially compared to doing magazine work—the fiction feels like an escape, so whenever I get a spare moment, I eagerly dive right into it just like I dive right into a good book that I’m reading. You have to be disciplined like that, to steal the moments when you can, to let the laundry pile up, to take advantage of nap times—though that said, I don’t think it’s an accident that If I Stay was written when my first child started 5-day-a-week preschool and my second hadn’t arrived yet; I had time to dream. Sometimes, when I’m deep into a novel, I can be a little preoccupied with my kids. I’m with them physically but mentally I’m elsewhere. But you know what, I’m home with them, and this is my job so I try not to beat myself up about it. I have made a rule of no internet time after school until bedtime, though. Because that’s not work. That’s just time suckage.
Please share a little about your writing process. Do you use an outline? Do you have the end in mind when you begin your stories? How long does it generally take for you to draft a novel?
It’s a little different every time, but I don’t use outlines. I let the book take me where it needs to go and one of the great joys of writing is the process of discovery, the twists and turns and doors and windows you had no idea you’d find. With If I Stay, I had no idea I’d use the flashback structure until I wrote the first one, which I only wrote as a break from the intensity of the present-tense narrative. I do generally have an end in mind, even if I’m not sure of the particulars. But I know where I’m writing myself to. A draft of a novel generally takes me about two to three months, but the revision time can vary hugely. With If I Stay I had a relatively clean draft in almost three months and then it went through a batch of not very major revisions with my agent and then with my editor. The book I’m working on now, I have been revising on-again-off-again for more than a year and it’s with my editor now, awaiting her notes.
What has been the most important thing you’ve learned as a writer?
That you can take the wildest flights of fancy and make up crazy stuff but your story must have emotional authenticity or it will not resonate or ring true with readers.
What are the differences (if any) to writing YA novels versus novels intended for an adult audience?
I think those lines are getting blurrier and blurrier in terms of readership. Teens read Jodi Picoult just as avidly as adults do. Plenty of moms out there are reading Twilight. I get mail from 12-year-old girls, 50-year-old bachelors and 70-year-old grandmothers all of whom read If I Stay. I will say that I think, having recently read several YA and adult books in one gulp, I have noticed a couple of differences in writing, and reading YA: YA lit is much more streamlined. You don’t tend to get four-paragraph descriptions of what’s in the fridge or so much, I would say, extraneous, detail. And YA books tend to end with a sense of hope. Not necessarily a cheesy happy ending, but some kind of redemption.
Please share (if you can and wish) what you’re currently working on. (Side note: how exciting that Summit Entertainment has optioned the rights for If I Stay – congratulations!)
I’m staying mum on my current project until my sage editor has read it and given it her thumbs up. I’m being prudent because I already wrote a new novel that I thought would go next, revised it, turned it into my editor and after one conversation with her, realized it wasn’t the right next book. It might be a book for later, but not for now. So, until Julie speaks, I don’t. And yes, super exciting about Summit. If readers are interested in movie details, and about the next book, I should have some news about both in the coming month or two on my blog at gayleforman.com/blog
What question haven’t I asked that I should have?
Fake redhead but everyone thinks it looks real!
Many thanks to Gayle for sharing her thoughts, experience and insights with us here at Motherlogue.