Megan McCafferty is a very busy woman. A teen mag veteran (CosmoGirl!, Seventeen, ELLEgirl, Twist), she is the author of the wildly (and deservedly) popular Jessica Darling novels, Sloppy Firsts and Second Helpings. While waiting for inspiration to finish the highly anticipated third in the Darling series, Charmed Thirds, she edited the short story anthology SIXTEEN: Stories About That Sweet and Bitter Birthday. For those who can’t wait for the next McCafferty book, her new story, “From This Moment,” can be read in the Girls’ Night In collection (all the proceeds from the book go to War Child, a relief organization). The story is about a wedding band singer, who may or may not be the protagonist in her fourth novel.
After handing in the first draft of Charmed Thirds, Megan found herself with some time on her hands – which the PopGurls happily filled up. She breaks down her writing methods and influences and gives a sneak peek into what’s to come for Jessica Darling.
1. You worked for a number of teen magazines – what is working for a youth-oriented publication like? And do you miss Sassy as much as we do?
Sassy was my bible in high school. There has never been a teen magazine like it, before or since. It made me want to work for teen magazines. As a senior in college I was an intern there when it was shut down and everyone lost their jobs. This was very, very depressing to say the least.
Working at a teen magazine can be fun because your boss encourages what would otherwise be considered questionable behavior, such as designing a mural devoted to your celebrity crush. (Mine was Matthew Perry.) But too many decisions about form and content are determined by what will make the advertisers happy. (Something Jane Pratt at Sassy did not do, which is the primary reason why it folded.) And that gets old after a while. I felt like I had a greater opportunity to express myself through fiction.
2. Both Sloppy Firsts and Second Helpings have been cross-promoted in both the Chick Lit and YA sections of bookstores and libraries. Did you foresee that happening? Have you noticed that your readers range far older than the typical YA target audience?
I always wanted to reach both teens and adults. That’s why I went with an adult publisher (Crown) and not one that is known for publishing YA. (Plus, that gave me more creative latitude; I could get away with more.) Though it takes place in high school, Jessica makes it clear from page one that Sloppy Firsts isn’t Sweet Valley High revisited. I knew that if I wrote an intelligent, honest coming-of-age story, it would challenge teen readers who are turned-off by babyish YA, and charm older readers who (like me) are suckers for anything in the teen angst genre.
3. Did you ever think you’d end up writing three books about Jessica Darling? What’s the best part of getting to do that? Is there a downside to it?
Three, no. Everyone (my agent, my publisher, and most of all, my fans) wanted me to write a third, right after I finished Second Helpings. But I wasn’t so convinced. I liked where I left Jessica, Marcus and everyone else, and wasn’t sure if I had anything else to say about them. I didn’t want to agree to a third book out because I felt pressured to do so.
So I had a baby. And I worked on this other novel about a singer in a wedding band (mentioned in the bio on the jacket for Second Helpings). And I edited SIXTEEN.
Then, one morning, I woke up from a dream in which I was telling my agent that my next book was indeed going to be about Jessica Darling. I told her the title, Charmed Thirds, and what it would be about, and why I wanted to write it. It was such a vivid vision that when I woke up, I sort of thought that this conversation had actually taken place! I took this as a very clear sign.
The best part about revisiting these characters is that I know them all so well. They take over sometimes. The hardest part is living up to the expectations of my devoted fans. I was petrified that they would hate Second Helpings because it couldn’t possibly outdo Sloppy Firsts. Double that, and you get an idea of how nervous I am about the reception of Charmed Thirds. There’s a lot more at stake.
4. What was the hardest scene to write in Sloppy Firsts? In Second Helpings?
Starting is difficult. I reworked the opening scenes of all three Jessica Darling novels several times. I think of the browser in the bookstore who might open up to the first page. I have that first paragraph, or maybe only the first line to suck that person in.
5. What’s your favorite scene in Sloppy Firsts? In Second Helpings?
Hm. This is a toughie. It’s not like I crack myself up as I’m typing. I like the talent show scene in Sloppy Firsts. I like the Ecstasy scene in Second Helpings. And there’s a scene involving Jessica and Marcus and a giant pink poodle costume that I like in Charmed Thirds.
6. If you could go back and make changes to either of the books, would you? And if so, what would you change?
In Sloppy Firsts, I wish I had used the word “crustache” to describe Scotty’s pathetic facial hair. (I used the term in Second Helpings.) And I wished I had used a crasser T-shirt slogan when she talks about the boardwalk. (Something like “Zero to Horny in Six Beers” or something.) That’s about it. The book that was published was the book I wanted to write.
Second Helpings, much to my mortification, has some typos that drive me insane. I went into labor more than a month early with my son, so I was unable to make sure that the typos I had caught in earlier read-throughs had been corrected. For whatever reason, they weren’t. Fortunately, these mistakes are being removed in subsequent editions.
7. Did you always intend to write a second book, or did the idea for it occur to you during or after you’d written Sloppy Firsts?
I had a two book deal with my publisher, so I always knew there would be a sequel. As I said, it’s the third book that I wasn’t sure about. I only wanted to do it if I thought there was a story to tell. I needed about a year and a half after completing Second Helpings to collect my thoughts and consider what was going on in the world before I figured out that Jessica did have more to say. And even then, it had to come to me in a dream.
8. If you were casting the movie version of Sloppy Firsts, who would be your picks for Jessica Darling and Marcus Flutie?
Oh god. This is probably the most controversial topic on the LiveJournal community devoted to my books. I think I’d like the actors to be unknown, like Claire Danes and Jared Leto before My So-Called Life.
9. Jessica, Hope and Marcus all have an obsessive love for 80s movies.
What is your favorite 80s movie, and who was your secret 80s movie star boyfriend?
Sixteen Candles is by far my favorite. I have seen it fifty times (at least) and there are parts that still make me laugh. There is real humor and heart in that movie. Whether you were popular in high school, a nerd, or somewhere in between, I think we all feel like Samantha Baker does – at odds with an insane world. I wanted to imbue Jessica with her same mix of angst and hope.
Not surprisingly, I lusted after Jake Ryan. Everyone else in that movie looks ridiculous fashion and style-wise, but man oh man, Jake Ryan transcends the test of time. And I was also oddly attracted to Bender in The Breakfast Club. Physically, he was kind of gross to me. Not my type. But there was just something about him. He was just oooooohhhhhh sooooooooo baaaaaaaaaaad. Jessica has that similar lust/hate thing for Marcus.
10. Like Jessica and her running, what are the personal things that you do in your life simply because they make you happy?
I need to exercise to feel balanced and happy. Not a hardcore workout at the gym (I have a chronic back injury that prevents this kind of fanaticism), but maybe just a long brisk walk or hike in the woods. If I’m inactive for too long, I start to feel sluggish and depressed. Plus, as the mom to a toddler, I don’t get much time to myself. So it’s kind of a meditative mind-clearing thing too.
A less healthy thing I love to do is read trashy checkout tabloids. (I embrace some aspects of low culture fully and enthusiastically.) You give me a fresh issue of The Star, some commercial-free 80s music and a glass of wine and I am a very happy woman indeed.
11. In many YA novels, sex is treated as something with horrific consequences. Do you think that current trend is backing away from this concept, and what was in your mind when you were outlining Jessica’s views on and experiences with sex?
Some YA books have gotten racier, but even then there’s something kind of precious about it. It rarely, if ever, comes across as genuine to me. Either the language is off, or it’s too soft-focus in the details, or there’s a big Afterschool Special-like message attached to the act. I don’t blame the authors, I know the pressure comes from the publishers, who get pressure from the booksellers, who get pressure from the parents or librarians or teachers who’d rather have teens read books about how they wish life was instead of how it really is.
I think Jessica’s attitudes about sex are more honest. She talks frankly about sex as an observer, but when it comes to her own sexuality, she can’t find the right words to express how she really feels. One reason I chose to make Jessica’s virginity one of the main plot points in Second Helpings is because I was tired of the brainiac virgin cliche, as if only skanks have sex and only good girls going to college are virgins. I wanted to show that yes, even those good girls are having sex, and yes, it is possible for it to be good, or even great sex if it’s with someone you love. I think that’s a more realistic message than screaming, “DON’T DO IT! DON’T DO IT!”
12. What’s the biggest obstacle you face when writing? That is, what gives you the most trouble? Conversely, what brings you the most joy?
The toughest part about being a writer is the isolation. When I’m writing my books, I really have to shut out the outside world in order to get anything done. I turn into an antisocial hermit, which can make me a fairly difficult person to deal with for months at a time. Another downside to the job has more to do with the nature of writing itself. I sometimes have trouble coping with self-doubtâ€¦.that my writing sucks and I’m going to be bashed by the critics and my fans and no one will buy my books and I’ll never get another publishing dealâ€¦etc. etc. etc. So far, reality has not even come close to resembling my darkest fears.
For me, the writing itself is my favorite part of the job. When I’m several chapters into my novel and things are really flowing, an entire day at my laptop can fly by without my notice. I love knowing that my work has positively affected others. I am reminded every day how lucky I am to be making a living out of what was once just a hobby.
13. Do you find writing full-length novels to be easier or harder than writing short stories? Do you have the same approach to each?
They pose their own challenges. With a novel, you have to sustain the readers’ interest over 100,000 words. There’s a lot of room to screw up. Conversely, short stories are all about the economy of words. It’s very difficult to develop fully-realized characters and a compelling plot in only 2500 words. As a result, there are a lot of half-assed short stories out there. In fact, I finished my first novel before I wrote my first decent short story.
14. What was editing the short-story compilation SIXTEEN like, as opposed to writing a single piece by yourself?
Overall, the best part of working on SIXTEEN was getting a chance to collaborate with some of my favorite authors. But I was dealing with 15 different sets of egos, agents, and lawyers, so there was a lot of negotiation involved – far more than I had anticipated. I definitely didn’t enjoy the business aspects of putting the book together.
On the creative end, I had a tough time telling others how to write their stories. I did my best to respect their visions, and gave suggestions when I could. Some thanked me for my notes and took them willingly because they felt that they helped make their stories better. I truly enjoyed the give and take relationship I built with those particular authors. Others rejected my notes, believing that their opinions were the only ones that mattered. Fortunately, no story was such a mess that I had to kill it.
15. What’s your writing process like? Do you start as soon as you get a moment/scene or do you wait for the whole story to form before you start writing?
I have to have an idea of how the book begins and ends. With all three of my novels, I wrote a skeleton version of the final scene very early in the process. That way, it’s kind of like getting from point A to point B, with each scene getting me closer and closer to the conclusion. It’s a mental trick, one that makes the idea of writing a whole book less daunting.
As for the day-to-day writing, I need some idea of what I want to accomplish before I sit down. But the specifics work themselves out as I write, with the characters themselves often leading the way. It certainly keeps things interesting.
16. Do you write and then go back and fix things that need work later, or do you write and rewrite as you go along?
I edit as I go along, so my first drafts tend to be pretty polished. The revisions help deepen and strengthen what I’ve already got. That stage is the most fun for me. The hard part is over, and it’s all about making a good story a great one.
17. Do you have other people read your work while you’re writing, or do you like to wait until the story is finished?
I’m pretty protective of my writing. I don’t show anyone until I’ve finished the first draft. The first reader is usually my agent, who always gives me very useful, very constructive criticism. More often than not, I take her suggestions, then give it to my editor, Kristin Kiser. Her notes are almost always exactly what I need to hear. I don’t want to ever become one of those writers who think that their words are sacred and can’t benefit from someone else’s eyes. At the same time, I don’t feel the need to share it with a million people because I have a very clear vision.
18. What authors have influenced your writing? What about other media (music, movies, etc.)?
Authors like J.D. Salinger and Judy Blume have inspired me in the sense that I wanted my books to move others as theirs did for me when I was young. But I haven’t really been influenced by anyone’s writing style, per se. (Not intentionally anyway.)
I always wanted my books to be a literary equivalent to the best teen movies from the 80s, like Sixteen Candles and The Breakfast Club. These movies still make people laugh, cry, and cringe, 20 years after their original release. They’re funny, yet serious. True, yet total fantasy. I don’t think any modern teen movie has come close to capturing that same chaotic spirit of high school.
Music is hugely influential on my writing. I always listen to music as I write, and I tend to listen to the same stuff over and over, becoming the de facto soundtrack for the book. It shouldn’t come as any surprise that I listened to a lot of 80s movie soundtracks and Barry Manilow as I wrote Sloppy Firsts, or a lot of The Strokes and The Clash during Second Helpings. For Charmed Thirds, I listened to The Smiths, The Cure, and Depeche Mode but also newer stuff by Coldplay, Franz Ferdinand, and Jet.
19. What YA authors writing today do you enjoy reading? What adult authors writing today do you enjoy reading? What’s the last book you read?
I like authors who push the boundaries of teen fiction; whose books are so well written that anyone can appreciate them. M. T. Anderson (Feed, Burger Wuss), Laurie Halse Anderson (Catalyst, Speak), Carolyn Mackler (The Earth, My Butt and Other Big Round Things, Vegan Virgin Valentine). Daniel Handler wrote a dark and hilarious novel called The Basic Eight, but is better known for The Series of Unfortunate Incidents books that he writes under the pseudonym Lemony Snickett. Humor is very hard to pull off, so I admire anyone who does it well. The nonfiction writer David Sedaris (Me Talk Pretty One Day, Naked) usually makes me laugh until it hurts, though I was kind of disappointed by his last book.
I’m currently reading Colors Insulting To Nature by Cintra Wilson. It is a brilliant satire about the myth perpetuated in our culture that anyone can be rich and famous if only you work hard enough, want it bad enough, dream big enough. It explores similar themes that I want to write about in the wedding band book (if I write it). It’s the right mixture of laugh-out-loud humor and devastating sadness. It’s the first book I’ve read in a long time that I highly recommend.
20. Aside from delving into her first year of college, can you give us a hint about something else that Jessica will be dealing with in Charmed Thirds?
Actually, this book’s structure is different than that of the first two books. It covers each summer and winter break after her freshman year at Columbia. So the twelve chapters span three years instead of one.
Why? Looking back on my college years, I didn’t realize how much school had changed me until I returned home. I felt like a lodger in my own house (maybe because my mom actually turned my bedroom into a guest room!). My parents had the nerve to try to impose the old high school restrictions on me when I’d been living by my own rules for the past nine months. My new rhythms and rituals (drinking beer with my roommate until 4am, waking up for class at noon) didn’t mesh with their 9-to-5 world, and I spent the whole summer feeling completely out of synch. I wrote at length in my journal about feeling more alienated than ever from my parents and my hometown, something I’d hardly had time to even think about during the school year. I thought that these types of tensions – the shift from high school life to college life to “real life” – would be more interesting if explored over a longer period of time.
Charmed Thirds is about Jessica’s need for love, and a sense of purpose in life, and looking for them in all the wrong people and places. Yes, Jessica is a little older, and hopefully wiser, but she is still the same flawed, acidly-funny, angst-ridden person she always was, and, I imagine, always will be. Of course, the next phase of the Jessica/Marcus relationship is certainly the primary draw for many fans, and their always-complicated courtship is depicted in a way that builds on the tensions established in the first two books. Things will not be easy for them, but love rarely is…
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