So, what happens when your mom discovers your dad is cheating with another guy and she drives you from your home, boyfriend, and collection of pals you affectionately call the Leftovers and takes you to New Hampshire where you have to start your life from scratch? Sarah Tregay, in “Love and Leftovers,” manages to tell—from beginning to end and in a collection of poems–what it’s like when one girl is picked up and shaken loose–what it’s to love, grieve, doubt, start over, and go back different. She graciously agreed to tell us what it’s like telling stories in the form of poems.
ST: Yes. When I started writing from my main character’s point of view, her voice came out in poems. I’m a huge fan of verse novels and I was on the lookout for a story idea that fit the format, so I ran with it.
YARN: You say on your website that your two degrees in graphic design help with formatting poetry on the page. Can you say a little more about how your visual background influences and informs your writing process?
ST: Graphic design is about organizing information on a page or a screen and making it accessible to the reader. One part of design is breaking ideas (such as headlines) into two or three logical thoughts instead of one long, rambling idea. My poetry uses “thought breaks” in a similar fashion, grouping and organizing ideas on the page.
A large part of graphic design is white space (think paper). The same goes for verse novels, open one and you’ll see a lot of white space. This white space is part of the poetry and careful choices about how it’s used can add structure to the poem, aid reader comprehension, and add meaning.
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?
ST: I am a seat-of-my-pants writer, so I don’t outline. Although, I do formulate the big-picture idea for a piece of writing before I start. For “Love and Leftovers,” I started with an overarching idea—that my main character would make a mistake—and a list of bad things that happen to her. With the idea and list, I started writing poems. I wrote the poems in no particular order. Then I put each poem on a 3 x 5 card and arranged them so that they formed the plot. After that, I filled in the blank spots in the story arc and began my revisions.
My favorite part is writing the poems and digging up all the emotions that went with them.
My least favorite step of “Love and Leftovers” was editing the poems in the final layout. (Gasp! The graphic design part.) The poems looked great in Microsoft Word, but looked horrible on the smaller book-sized pages. (My ARCs were printed with the words scattered willy-nilly on the pages.) I did a lot of rewriting at this stage to make lines fit and not wrap to a second line.
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?
ST: I get stuck all the time. Sometimes I have to put a manuscript in the other room and shut the door for a few days. Taking a break helps me clear my head. When I come back to it, I find I can approach it again. Authors, like students, have due dates and sometimes you may only have time to put it away for an hour or two, but it’s worth a shot. A walk around the block helps, too.
I also do free writing when I get stuck. I’ll write to a prompt (like a song or poem) and let myself write whatever comes to mind—even if it doesn’t fit in the project I’m working on. Writing about something else often helps me get my brain back in writing gear.
YARN: The poems in “Love and Leftovers” are very spare. They say a lot with a few words. Like William Carlos Williams, you cut back to a minimum. Why did you choose this type of poetry?
ST: The spare poems were part Marcie’s voice and part my writing influences. On Marcie’s half, she is writing poems in her journal for herself, so she knows what happened that day and doesn’t need to include every little detail. On my half, I enjoy reading verse novels because of their economy of words. It feels like each word has been chosen with purpose and diligence and that you are reading the essence of the story.
YARN: Obviously, one of the differences between conventional novels and novels in verse is the line breaks. How do you use line breaks?
ST: Like I mentioned earlier, I use line breaks to organize my thoughts for the reader, but I also use them for emphasis. A word surrounded by white space is so much more important than one buried in a stanza. Occasionally, I’ll use a line break to build a concrete poem or to create a play on words, like if you read one line by itself it will mean one thing, but if you keep reading to the next line it will mean something else.
YARN: You use the metaphor of a series of dominoes that knock each other down in a chain reaction to show what has happened to Marcie’s parents’ marriage. What was it like writing about Marcie’s struggle to understand her father’s decisions?
ST: I hadn’t experienced anything like this in my own life—my parents are happily married—so I had to put on Marcie’s shoes and see where they took me. They walked me into a mud puddle of emotions, including doubt, confusion, hurt, and anger, but also love. (Marcie is a Daddy’s girl.) I wrote poems about each of these feelings, wading through times in my past where I had felt the way, or if I was having a bad day, I’d use it to my advantage and channel it into an angry poem in Marcie’s voice.
YARN: Verse novelists often talk about how difficult it is to include dialogue in their work. You use dialogue throughout “Love and Leftovers” and it seems very natural. But was it difficult to incorporate a very traditional non-poetic device in poetry? Are there other parts of telling Marcie’s story that were difficult because of the limitations of verse?
ST: For me, poetry literally has a voice—a sound and rhythm that is heard when it is read out loud—so maybe it was my naiveté, but the dialog in “Love and Leftovers” felt like just another part of the poems. For it, too, was meant to be said out loud.
Logistics, like where and when an event in the story takes place, are often a challenge when writing in verse. They can make a poem clunky. Readers will see that I often snuck the details into the titles of the poems, like “Saturday at the Laundromat” or “Today at the Bus Stop.”
On YA and Other Books/Stuff
YARN: Woah! You were raised with no TV. How does that background color the way you view YA as a category of literature, with so many books being translated to big and small screens?
ST: My TV-less upbringing left me with books as my only form of entertainment in the house (playing Monopoly with my older brother wasn’t fun) so I have always been very thankful for YA literature—I’m not sure I would have made it to adulthood without it. I love a good teen story in both print and on the screen, although there’s nothing like a good book where you can be inside the character’s head and know exactly what they are thinking.
YARN: There aren’t many novels in verse for adults. What about novels in verse is especially suited to the Young Adult readers–or, for that matter, to telling stories about teens?
ST: Novels in verse find homes on YA bookshelves because they tap into characters’ emotions in short bursts and focus on one moment at a time. They’re like fiction without the fat—you won’t be reading about our hero’s eyes or our best friend’s perfect figure for the next 750 words like you might in prose. You’ll be reading the heart of the story, the heartbeat of the characters’ emotions, the pulse of the action. And isn’t that what we love about YA, anyway?
YARN: Do you predict the novels-in-verse trend will continue?
ST: Storytelling in verse has been around since Homer, so I think we’ve got the ball rolling. I’ve seen a few ebbs and flows over the years, but with talented debut authors tackling the format and established authors continuing to write in verse, I see the trend lasting a long time. After all, novels in verse have made the New York Times bestseller list (Ellen Hopkins), won both the Newbery (Karen Hesse) and the National Book Award (Thanhha Lai).
Verse novels are a perfect for poetic souls and wonderful option for reluctant readers and readers who are reading in a second language, so teachers and librarians play a big part in keeping the trend alive every time they help a reader find that perfect book. Thanks!
YARN: Thanks so much, Sarah! We can’t wait for the next one…
Sarah Tregay, in her own words: Raised without television, I started writing my own middle grade novels after I had read all of the ones in the library. I later discovered YA books, but never did make it to the adult section. When I’m not jotting down poems at stoplights, I can be found hanging out with my “little sister” from Big Brothers Big Sisters. I live in Eagle, Idaho with my husband, two Boston Terriers, and an appaloosa named Mr. Pots.
My debut novel, LOVE AND LEFTOVERS, is ALA 2013 Best Fiction for Young Adults pick and an Eliot Rosewater Indiana High School Book Award 2013-14 nominee.