The more YA becomes part of popular culture, the more people will try to create “the formula” for a great YA novel. But as soon as you begin reading the works of Margie Gelbwasser, you’ll see she completely demolishes your concept of what a YA novel can or should be.
Her two novels, “Inconvenient” and “Pieces of Us,” are utterly different—tthe former is about understanding and managing one’s cultural heritage while stimulating maintaining the family intact, while the latter tackles four different, raw, and emotionally dense (even draining) narratives. Her novels embody the ever-evolving, ever-unpredictable genre of YA and its readers.
YARN is so excited to share our conversation with Margie Gelbwasser right here and now, finally!
YARN: Your first YA novel “Inconvenient” came about as a result of trying to write an adult novel. How did you know it was time to move on? Was it a difficult decision to make? How much of the non-fiction material were you able to re-purpose in the novel?
MG: The adult book was about three generations of one Russian-Jewish family, and it was based on my family. The problem with it was that parts were too close to what really happened to my family, and I tried hard not to deviate from the truth (even though in fiction you have to deviate), and it ruined the book. However, the teen character’s scenes in the book were least based on fact and probably why they worked the best. When it came time to write “Inconvenient,” I used the idea of a story about the Russian-Jewish culture as backdrop, but nothing else from the original. But, now that I know what the problem was with that first book, I think I’ll try to write it again one day. Only, I’ll probably not use much of the original either.
YARN: We wouldn’t be giving anything away to say that your second novel, “Pieces of Us,” is about four seriously troubled teens and the emotional and sexual havoc they wreak on each other. Can you tell us where the idea for this heavy-duty novel came from, and what you were hoping to accomplish in writing about it?
MG: When I was in high school, some kids spread rumors about me, and it hurt me. This was before cell phones or the Internet, and when I look back I consider myself lucky because today’s teens have it much worse, due to social media. I thought of the damage so many endure when rumors and slurs go viral, and when I thought about what Katie (one of the main characters) was trying to escape, the story came together. I hope this story gives teens who have been abused and bullied a voice and lets them know they can seek help and not to be ashamed. Often, in bullying situations, teens keep silent or continue to do what the tormentor wants either out of fear or in hopes that the abuse/bullying will stop. I want those teens to know that breaking their silence is the only way to stop the bullying and abuse and that it’s not their fault.
YARN: You’re a mother, and a writer of honest, extremely forthright books for teens. Does the mother part of you ever get in the way of the writer part? How do you handle the mother in you when you’re writing?
MG: I like this question. When I write, I feel for my characters, but I separate my life from theirs. On a related note, the mother in me hopes that the teens who are experiencing similar issues as the characters in my books feel less alone after reading them. And I hope my books give them courage to talk to someone.
YARN: What does your writing process consist of, from the idea to publication? Do you outline, draft, revise? What is your favorite part it? Your least favorite?
MG: I don’t outline on paper. However, in my head, I have an idea of the characters and the story’s flow (beginning, middle, end). Then, I make a very loose outline—just a summary—on paper. The way I figure out where my story is going is by writing it. As I write, the characters’ stories reveal themselves to me, and the more I know, the clearer picture I get of what’s to come. About a 1/4 of the way in, I then reassess where the book is going and write another summary of key plot points and do this yet again another 1/4 of the way in and so on. My favorite part is first getting an idea for a new story—either by hearing a character’s voice or focusing on a storyline that just won’t leave. My least favorite is the anxiety I get each time I get stuck and have to dissect the story again to see what happens next. I always get scared I won’t figure it out!
YARN: Have you ever felt “stuck” in your writing? What advice can you give teens who might be struggling with writing assignments and need to get unstuck before the due date?
MG: Oh yes! Definitely! Usually, when I can’t figure out what to do with a story, I write scenes that are of interest to me and take it from there. A lot of the “stuck” feeling is anxiety that I can’t/won’t be able to produce something. So, by writing little by little, I slowly make the feeling go away. I would suggest the same to teens. The hardest part is what’s in our heads—how we psych ourselves out and make ourselves believe we can’t do it. To get past that, one needs to just begin writing.
If teens are working on an essay or research paper, they should do a paragraph a day. It’s important to push through the anxiety and just get words on paper. It doesn’t matter if the words will be changed later—it’s a draft; most likely they will be. What matters is breaking through the fear and just putting anything down. If students do a paragraph or even a few sentences each day, eventually those sentences and paragraphs will grow into a full assignment. By doing a little each day, it’s not only less overwhelming, but helps block out the notion that we can’t do something. Those sentences prove otherwise.
YARN: “Inconvenient” stems from a very personal place: your Russian-Jewish background and all it entails. Does that mean–that for first novels perhaps–you think it’s a good idea to “write what you know?” Or are there just as many hurdles (or even more) when writing from such a place?
MG: You know, I’m not sure. I think there are positives and negatives in starting with the familiar. On the positive side, it’s easy to envision setting, etc. On the negative side, writing what we know sometimes makes it harder to let our imaginations go places we didn’t imagine they could. I loved “Inconvenient” and am very proud of it. However, “Pieces of Us” was not based on my life and I felt the result was a level of writing I didn’t know I was capable of. It just took on a life of its own, and that’s not somewhere I could have gone if I was only focusing on what I knew.
YARN: Your first two novels are firmly realistic and directly address difficult issues. Your forthcoming novel is a real departure, in the dystopian genre. Why the shift? Why does this genre appeal to you? Anything tantalizing you can tell us about the next book?
MG: I didn’t set out to write a dystopian. I was working on another contemp novel, when I got stuck and couldn’t figure out what came next. I had this other idea brewing for a long time, but never tried writing it because I had myself boxed in (in my head) as a contemp writer and didn’t think I could do anything else and was afraid to even try. I was then brainstorming with a writer friend of mine (hi, Elisa!) and told her about this new idea, and she asked why I wasn’t writing it. When I told her I didn’t think I could do it, she laughed and said I was a good writer and of course I could do it. So I took a breath, began writing, and now I’m over 45k words in. I would love to tell you more about it, but I’m a little afraid I’m going to jinx it. Sorry.
YARN: “Pieces of Us” was super intense. What was it like to write such a disturbing book? Did it ever put you in a bad mood? How did you compartmentalize?
MG: I’m really good at separating my characters and novels from my real life. There were times I’d be tearing up and writing at the same time, but when the scene was done, I was able to put it aside. As writers, we know our characters at such intimate levels, that I think it’s easier to accept what they’re going through. We also know that, in the end, they’ll be okay.
On YA and Other Books/Stuff
YARN: You offer a variety of workshops on your website for schools. Why do you think they are an important part of developing as a writer? Did you ever attend a workshop that altered your perspective of the writing process?
MG: I love workshops because I always learn so much. Unfortunately, I don’t have much time these days to go to them myself. However, over the summer, I was one of the authors at the PAYA Festival in PA, and some other authors and I discussed the writing process with aspiring writers and critiqued their pieces. I really hope the writers got something out of what we said because I sure did! Listening to other writers talk about their process (like using Pinterest to tack photos to help with setting) really inspired me. Workshops help writers remember the basics as well as learn new techniques from each other. I hope the workshops I conduct help writers move their stories forward, and working with them reminds me how to do the same.
YARN: In an essay you wrote in 2009, you asked yourself the question, “So what it is YA?” You go on to say the answer is not so easy or simple. 3 years later – Do you have a better definition of YA or is it ever-elusive, evolving, and/or even undefinable?
MG: LOL Nope, don’t have a better definition, especially with some people saying “Pieces of Us” shouldn’t be read by teens. However, I do have something I can add. On Flux’s Facebook page, under Mission, it says “Where Young Adult is a Point of View, Not a Reading Level.” I think that’s a great thing to think about when discussing YA.
YARN: You were at this year’s NYC Teen Author Festival and had the opportunity to meet a large number of fellow YA authors. So it must be asked: Who did you geek over the most? Why are such events important not only for YA readers but YA authors?
MG: Wow, there are so many YA authors I love to read and just admire as people, too. I was also psyched to meet new debut authors (like K.M. Walton) whose works are really powerful. So, I can’t really pick just one, or two, or three as there are so many wonderful authors! These events are terrific because it feels so good to be in this community of writers. Each time I attend the NYC Teen Author Festival, I just feel a part of something so special. It is amazing of David Levithan to organize this. There is something magical about readers and authors coming into a room and discussing books and bouncing off ideas and questions. I always want to write, write, write after this festival and it’s when I get most centered and grounded in my writing.
YARN: Thanks so much for talking to us, Margie! We can’t wait for the next one to come out.
Margie Gelbwasser’s first YA novel, “Inconvenient” (Flux 2010), a story of a Russian-Jewish girl coping with an alcoholic mother and the impact the Russian culture has on the alcoholism, was named a 2011 Sydney Taylor Notable Book for Teens. Her second novel, “Pieces of Us,” was published by Flux in March 2012. It is told in four points-of-view and deals with cyberbullying, sexual and physical abuse, and how one teen’s actions affects the other three. When not writing, she likes hanging with her hubby and adorable five year old son.