Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Talkin' It Up with Claire Zulkey, Writer Extraordinaire and Author of 'An Off Year'

Congratulations are in order for 'According to e' readers Laura, KristYn from CALI, helkatmat, Dee, Virtual Jon Daniels and Alisha Rene, all of whom won signed copies of my friend Claire Zulkey's recently published young adult novel, An Off Year. (I've heard from everyone except Laura... so Laura, if you're out there, send me a comment with your email address -- I won't publish it -- so that I can contact you about mailing out the book.)

Now the rest of you need to go buy it! Remember, you can do so here or here or at your local bookstore.

What's that, you say? You want to learn more about the book first? Well, whattayaknow, I just so happen to have interviewed Claire a few weeks ago and have all the background info that you'd ever want.

But before I share our chat, I need to tell you about how I came to be friends with Claire in the first place. In early October 2007, not too long after I had bid adieu to The Man, I attended a panel on freelancing in Chicago, and Claire was one of the speakers. I thought she seemed like a cool chick and so I emailed her a few days afterward to see if she'd be up for having lunch and sharing more of her freelancing know-how with me. I must not have come off as too stalkerish, because she agreed, and has been nothing but supportive of my writing career ever since.

Claire is truly an inspiration, not only because she's published a novel (as well as contributed to The Onion A.V. Club's latest and sure-to-be-genius book, Inventory, out October 13 -- pre-order it here!), but she's also written for many of the most awesome publications and web sites around. Some of the biggest include The L.A. Times, The Onion A.V. Club (duh, I just mentioned their book), Glamour, The Daily Beast, The Huffington Post and The RedEye here in Chicago. On top of that, Claire was one of the earliest bloggers -- you know, waaay before everyone and their brother was doing it -- and her site,, rocks the house. Because of it, she has achieved the highest of high honors and my ultimate goal in life -- to be mentioned by none other than Anderson Cooper. You know how I love me some AC!

e: I should probably start off by saying that yours is the first novel I’ve read in a long, long time that doesn’t revolve around magical beings, mythical creatures, or some ridiculously outlandish scenario. So thanks for helping to remind me that there are books about plain ol’ human beings doing normal things that I can enjoy just as much! An Off Year focuses on Cecily, who arrives at college ready to begin her freshman year... but then decides to turn around and go back home, much to her and her father’s surprise. Now, I know you went to college, but I also know that you started writing this book ten or so years ago, so I had to wonder whether or not Cecily’s story was drawn even just a teensy bit from your personal experience. Did you have second thoughts about school back in the day? And if not, where did the inspiration for An Off Year come from?

Claire: The thing that's funny is that my personal experience was so different from Cecily's--my parents would have absolutely locked me in my dorm room and driven off if I tried to do what she did: taking "a year off" is practically against their religion, not that I judge them in any way for that. I applied to ten schools, I took the SAT's twice, I had a private college counselor. So you could say the book is about me exploring an alternate reality but really the whole nut of the book came from Cecily herself and not so much her journey. I read a book a long time ago called "Celine" by Brock Cole and it still stands out to me as having such a strong-voiced, unique, funny, don't-give-a-damn YA protagonist that I essentially started out seeing if I could write a book in a similar tone. I don't know if Cecily is necessarily all those things but I sort of had the character first before I knew what to do with her.

e: So how much of Cecily’s personality was based on your own or perhaps someone you know? I ask this because by the time I finished the book, I felt like I thoroughly understood her character and was impressed by how “real” she seemed. What I mean is — from her witty banter with her friends, family members and various counselors, to her internal musings, to the ways in which she decided to spend her free time — she didn’t seem like a character in a book, she seemed like an actual person who exists somewhere out there.

Claire: On the one hand, while I feel like Cecily embodies a lot of my own insecurities from that age, she's much more outgoing and generally cool about certain things than I ever was. I think I was a lot more neurotic about what people thought of me as a person than she is. I also wanted avoid certain cliches--I decided purposefully to make her a little more jaded about drugs and alcohol and a little less obsessed with body image, just because I thought it would be nice to move past those things, to some extent, that girls her age seem to obsess over and get to another matter. But overall I think Cecily felt a lot more comfortable with the high school experience than I was: she was cool with her social lot in life by and large, and was more worried about college whereas by the time I was done with high school I practically wanted to burn the place down. Well, not really but I was definitely ready to move on to college where I could get to know a new crowd (which was terrifying too). At any rate, I wanted to make sure that I gave Cecily plenty of flaws and even made her a little hard to like at times--I think that makes her much more real, especially since her problems aren't very clear-cut so I didn't want to make her a clear-cut kind of girl.

e: True to its title, the book takes us through a year in Cecily’s life after she decides to return home with her dad instead of starting at Kenyon College as planned. When you came up with the idea for this book all of those years ago, how much of that year did you already have mapped out in your head? Did you know how Cecily’s story would ultimately end?

Claire: I had very little of it mapped out initially since the year off didn't actually hit me as a story until I had been working on it for a while. The only part of her journey that I had established early on was Cecily's campus visit up to Madison to see her brother Josh. I went on a few of those myself and it's just funny that you're expected to get an idea of whether you like a school or not based on absolutely no point of reference. You visit a campus for a day or two, but how do you have any idea what your life would be like there? I'm not exaggerating that it probably helped that I visited Georgetown, my alma mater, on a beautiful sunny day whereas I never felt that bad about not getting into U Penn since it was such a crappy, foggy day when I visited there. As if that's indicative of how life as a student would be.

Spoiler alert! (Highlight the next paragraph with your mouse if you'd like to read Claire's thoughts on the book's ending.) I did know that Cecily would go back to school. I just didn't see her going forward without any college experience, although maybe it was also just me being reluctant to write about something that I know nothing about (IE not going to college). I also did know that I wanted her Dad to be a little reluctant to let her go at the end.

e: I loved the relationship Cecily had with her father. I don’t think it’s spoiling too much to say that when Cecily tells her dad she wants to go back home, he doesn’t flip out... he simply takes her back home. However, when my husband was just a few pages into the first chapter he commented, “Man, if that was my kid, I’d say, ‘You’re here, you’re staying, deal with it!’” My response to him was, “Yeah, but that’s kind of one of the sub-plots of the book... why didn’t Cecily’s dad do that?” Did you ever consider a harsher reaction from Cecily’s dad, or did you know from the outset that the intricacies of their father-daughter relationship wouldn’t allow for him to go berserk on his youngest child?

Claire: That definitely was a part of the story I had mapped out early-on. To me while I love Cecily's relationship with her Dad, it's also a tiny bit odd, maybe just because in my family while there was a lot of love and respect and fun and laughs, there was never any question who was the kid and who were the parents. I feel like Cecily gets both the best and worst of her traits from her father but as she grows older it's just inappropriate to stay so closely identified with him.

e: What was the toughest part about writing An Off Year?

Claire: Oh lord. Sticking with it? It literally took me over ten years from start to finish and it's funny because I used to read that about other authors and thought "Those suckers. I can write faster than that!" Well, obviously not. But I didn't know what it would be when I started it. I started it for fun, tinkered with it, let sit around for a few years, tinkered with it again, toyed with it as a novel, put it away some more, then thought about YA. That's when the ball started rolling more but even then that took another four or so years. The thing was like a time capsule. I remember in an original incarnation somebody looked something up in the encyclopedia and one of my editors was like "Wouldn't she use Wikipedia?" Wikipedia didn't exist, or not the way it does now, when I started it. It's funny because I'm working on the second book right now and draaaaagging my feet on it and the thing that's annoying is that I know the writing is the "easy" part! Let's just pretend it gets so far that my editor works on it--say you designed a building, and she says "I hate the second floor, can you add three more floors, put the fifth floor on the top, tip it on its side and paint it pink?" I'm so happy with the book, half because I'm proud of how it turned out and half that it just happened!

e: Let’s talk about the cover for a minute. It’s totally adorable. I know, however, that authors don’t always get much—if any—input when it comes to book jackets. Were you involved with the creation of yours?

Claire: I was! My editor and I both had the same idea at first--one of those magic eraser wipe boards that college students put on their dorm room doors--but then she sent me a mockup of what you see now, except that the initial version had lizard or dinosaur-type slippers. There was a little issue about whether they looked enough like slippers so I had this fun assignment of looking up a ton of silly slippers online. I think I still wanted something like bear feet, something not-typically-cute, but my editor assured me that everyone in the art department went gaga over this particular version and I knew that I am the rookie here and that they know best. I actually wrote in the little detail of the pink carpet into the book since it wasn't in there to begin with. The cover's gotten such good feedback (based on my self-obsessed Googling) that I've even read one comment online from a person who said that the cover is better than the book which kind of stings but hey, at least they like some part of it!

e: Despite the fact that there’s a whole lotta pink on the cover, I strongly believe that Cecily’s thoughts and actions are relatable to guys as well — in fact, I happen to know a few members of the male persuasion who’ve read your book and have enjoyed it just as much as I have. Further, even though An Off Year is classified as a Young Adult novel, I’m thirty-something and could clearly identify with Cecily’s story. Maybe that’s because I found her struggle to make a decision about college very comparable to how I felt when I decided to up and leave corporate America two years ago. My point is, I believe anyone — of any age — who has ever wrestled with a significant life change (and hasn’t necessarily felt comfortable with following the status quo) could sympathize with what goes down in this book. Does that surprise you to hear? Did you consciously set out to write this story for a particular demographic or was your hope that its universal themes might attract an audience outside of the YA genre’s typical readership?

Claire: It pleases me to hear that but if it doesn't make me sound too cocky, I am not that surprised--as I said above, it definitely didn't start out as a YA book. And also, my favorite YA books, like Celine and Island of the Blue Dolphins and so on were about thoughtful teens, not teenage thoughts. Of course I liked The Babysitter's Club and whatnot but I wanted to avoid things that were super timely and trendy. I had an experience a few years ago where a publisher had already sold a YA book--they had everything set in stone, the plot, the characters, everything, but they just needed someone to write it. I tried out for the job and I remember one of the main critiques I got was "Can you work in more name brands?" Now I love that kind of stuff as much as anyone but that's for my closet and my magazines. I honestly can't say that I'll be able to accomplish this if and when I write other books but I do stand behind my book in that it's something I like reading. I credit my editor, Julie Strauss-Gabel, with most of that. She was great at cutting away the unnecessary and helping me figure out what needed to be filled in. Moreover a lot of Cecily's concerns were concerns I had when I was her age, and even though they've diminished as I've gotten older, some of them are still underneath the surface, which maybe is somewhat identifiable to other people too--who doesn't freak the slightest bit with each new life stage?

e: So obviously I’m a fan of the book and feel like there’s something in it for everyone, but I do have to call out one passage that I think is particularly relevant for anyone in their final years of high school or early years at college. At one point Cecily is having a heart-to-heart with her brother’s girlfriend, Angie. Angie (a sophomore in college) relays how she was kind of depressed because everyone kept telling her that her college days were supposed to be “the best time in her life,” but she didn’t feel that way at all. I was so happy that you found a way to cover this fallacy in the book, because I’ve been guilty of saying the exact same phrase to several of my young cousins as they went off to school, and then felt really guilty afterward when I learned that they struggled to find their footing a bit during freshman year. I’d made it out to be all happy-happy-joy-joy... but when I really stopped to think about my first year in college, I recalled being down in the dumps a lot, too. The reality for many people is that it’s not actually until you’re done with school that you can fully appreciate that time in your life. On this note, I saw that a college advising dean was one of the people who provided a quote on the back cover of your book. Did you find yourself needing to do any research with high school counselors or people in similar positions in order to capture the many conflicting emotions teenagers go through during this tumultuous transition period?

Claire: Guess who that college advising dean is? My freshman year roommate from Georgetown. No joke. Of course when we first moved in as strangers I think we eyed each other somewhat suspiciously. She wanted to be a dentist, not a college counselor. If I plotted out Cecily's college life I'd hope she'd have a roommate like Liz, who one day essentially told me "You're so funny but you do know have this thing where you pre-judge people, right?" She helped me appreciate myself more and be a more outgoing person. Now she's a dean at Columbia (where I would have gone if I didn't go to Georgetown) and last year she was in my wedding. Funny how those things work out. Anyway! Other than having Liz weigh in on what it's like to be a college counselor (whose point of view I could trust having been a college student WITH her), I also ran Cecily's conundrum past my friend Nora, who is getting her PhD in child psychology and who is both a very matter-of-fact yet compassionate person. I have a little experience, like Cecily, being the patient in a cognitive behavioral therapy situation but I wanted to make sure that the things she was going through and the advice she was getting matched up--thanks to Nora, Cecily went to work and went to school, which she hadn't done before that.

As to your other point, yes, I feel like that whole "best years of your life" in college thing is a total fallacy and I wanted to put that out there. I think college has way more going for it than high school but things just get better as you get older and get to know yourself and what really makes you happy. I don't trust anyone who says they have all that figured out by the age of 20. That's weird.

You have to go to the site to learn the deal with the kangaroo.
e: What’s next for you? Is there another book in the works? If so, can you give us any hints as to its plot?

Claire: Yes, I'm working on the next YA book, in addition to a bunch of other abandoned projects that I occasionally pick up. I have discovered an unsettling trend wherein I write 50 pages of something and then let it sit around for several years and then come back to it and see how it measures up so it looks like I'll never turn anything out quickly. So I have a couple other things in the works but the next book, tentatively, is a YA book in an office setting, based on my various years of summer jobs, although if it takes as long to get done as the last one did, it might end up being set on Mars or something.

Thanks to Claire for taking the time out of her busy schedule to share insight about her book and her writing process with us... and congrats again to the contest winners!

- e

1 comment:

Joanna said...

Wow--I love the cover and the book sounds wonderful! Congrats, Claire!!