If you’re looking for contemporary YA novels with fresh storylines, relatable characters, realistic relationships, and plenty of quirky humor, Leila Sales delivers. The author of Mostly Good Girls and Past Perfect has just released her third novel, This Song Will Save Your Life, and it’s already receiving rave reviews.
Leila sat down for a virtual lunch with YARN editors Kerri Majors and Diana Renn to dish about her new book . . . as well as writing vs. editing, YA trends, finding your passion, and, of course, chocolate. Lots of chocolate. Please enjoy this transcript of our lunchtime chat, and if you want more of Leila’s wisdom and humor – and news about her upcoming book events — check out her website, “like” her on Facebook, or follow her on Twitter!
After a bit of technical difficulty, we all managed to get online together for our lunch breaks. We thought it would be fun for you to see the discussion and how it unfolded as naturally as possible, so we haven’t monkeyed around too much with the order of comments. Sometimes that means the discussion threads criss-cross, but we think it’s worth it, since those moments reveal a lot of personality. And without further ado…
Diana: Leila, meet Kerri, Yarn Editor-in-Chief – Kerri, meet Leila!
Kerri: Hi, Leila. Pleasure!
Leila: Hi Kerri! Thanks for inviting me.
Diana: And welcome to our lunchtime chat! Leila, we so appreciate your giving up part of your lunch hour to hang with us! We have an abundance of virtual food here, and some meaty questions!
Leila: Ho, ho, ho. Clever pun.
Kerri: Speaking of lunch, what are you two eating?
Leila: I will be eating some tofu that I made last night… not so meaty.
Kerri: Ha. I have Thai left-overs.
Diana: Leftover noodle kugel, made by my husband. Good 3x a day. I live on it.
Leila: Wowww I want your lunches.
Kerri: We’ll get to the chocolate (questions) later.
Leila: I am trying to learn how to cook. It was one of my New Year’s resolutions. As a result I am always jealous of other people’s lunches.
Diana: So for appetizers, we have some easy questions to get us going! We thought it’d be fun to chat informally because the three of us all juggle writing and editing.
Diana: Leila, you’re a full-time editor at Viking as well as a YA author. (Ah, and now, I have just learned, an aspiring cook!) Do you find the editing work you do helps your writing? And vice versa? How do you juggle these roles?
Leila: I definitely find them mutually beneficial. As an editor, I have to be very in-tune with what the YA market is doing right now (and what it will be doing two years in the future.) … Thanks to my job as an editor, I can see patterns in YA that I think are getting overdone, so I can try to avoid those. Or I can see areas in the genre where I think there are holes and try to fill those….
Meanwhile I think being an author makes me a little more sensitive to, and empathetic toward, my authors. (Diana can correct me if I’m wrong here, since she is one of my authors!) Being a writer who has received many rejection letters definitely drives me to write kinder, more in-depth rejection letters to agented manuscripts. I have experienced how bad it feels to get a letter that says, basically, “Thanks, but no thanks,” and I feel terrible when I have to do that to other writers!
Kerri: That is so true for me, too–especially when it came to drafting the YARN rejection letter! I wanted those rejected writers to feel…cared for somehow
Leila: Exactly. Because we ARE them. I am STILL them, even though I’ve had three books published.
Leila: It’s not like you sell a novel and boom, everyone loves everything you write from here on out. So, I empathize!
Diana: Having worked with you both as editors, I can definitely see the writers in you in your responses . . . I think you both have the ability to respond with critical insight yet be a cheerleader…
Kerri: You have both those qualities, too, Diana. You take such good care of the writers to submit fiction.
Leila: I don’t know how famous you have to be to not get rejected anymore.
Kerri: That is something I think many writers don’t realize–that even after you get published, the rejections don’t stop!
Leila: Like I assume J. K. Rowling no longer experiences it. That’s about it.
Kerri: Except JK can look forward to more bad reviews unless she pubs under male pseudonyms.
Leila: That’s true. Even if publishers will publish anything you write, some readers will still hate it!…
Kerri: Do you ever fear those market factors influencing you in negative ways? Sometimes I feel overwhelmed at the trend-chasing-or-dodging.
Diana: And speaking of trends, I’m really interested in this ability you have, Leila, to anticipate overdone trends . . . can you let us know of one, or a trend you are weary of?
Leila: I guess it depends what you count as a trend. I’m talking about something more broad than “vampires” or “dystopias.” Because yes, trying to dodge or fit into a trend like that does seem exhausting; I don’t know how you’d get the timing right. I’m more referring to patterns that I see of, like, “inexplicably moody protagonists” or “mysterious new guys to town who immediately fall for the female protagonist” or “mean girls who seem to have no personality or goals other than being bitchy.”
Kerri: Ah, yes….
Leila: Diana, a trend I’ve been seeing a lot of recently are “girls who blame themselves for the death of a sibling.” But then at the end you realize it wasn’t really their fault. I think people submit novels like that to me because I write contemporary, realistic, relationship-driven novels. So that’s why I get a lot of them as submissions.
Kerri: Makes sense.
Diana: That’s fascinating. I just read three YARN short story submissions this week on that exact theme: blame for the death of a sibling.
Leila: Yes! It’s not just me!
Kerri: It’s NOT just you! Diana and I have talked about similar kinds of trends in YARN submissions. But speaking of that writing-editing connection…How do you mentally shift gears between editing other people’s books and writing your own? And how do you manage your time?
Leila: It’s hard! I have a few tricks. One is having different physical spaces for the two types of work. I edit books at the office. I write at home. I try never to bring one sort of work to the other space. And I impose a break between the two. In the warmer months I bike between work and home, and that half-hour ride gives me exercise and fresh air and time to clear my head.
Diana: That’s great. I love the idea of having both physical and psychological separation of the work. I find that after I’ve been editing other people’s stories for awhile, I start looking at my own work more critically, as if I’m still wearing the editor hat. Sometimes that’s a good thing, but other times, like early in a draft, maybe not so good—you want to be somewhat free to write.
Kerri: I have always been bad at physically separating works, since they all occur in my home. Sometimes in the same 2-hour space.
Leila: That sounds challenging, Kerri.
Kerri: I often eat as a break. In the winter, do you use chocolate (perhaps hot cocoa?) as your break? I ask only half jokingly, since in addition to writing novels, you also write a great blog about chocolate (for which I thank you!).
Leila: Hehe, no. I use chocolate while I’m writing. ALL THE TIME. I won’t write without knowing that chocolate is nearby. In the summers I go on a writing retreat with some of my author-friends (Lauren Oliver, Rebecca Serle, Jess Rothenberg, Courtney Sheinmel, Lexa Hillyer). They always bring wine and I always bring a bag of chocolate chips.
Kerri: Geez, that list of writers sounds almost as good as the chocolate…
Diana: Wine and chocolate chips. Wow. (Tosses leftover noodle kugel out the window.)
Leila: We keep a fridge of rose and a freezer of chocolate chips. The freezer is basically just me, though.
Leila: Yes. Writing is serious business.
Kerri: So is chocolate! So… your ideal writing environment involves chocolate. And?
Leila: Fresh air. Windows open, if I can’t actually be outside. A comfortable chair, or else my back starts to hurt. NO OTHER PEOPLE AROUND. I get very anxious and it’s hard for me to focus if someone else is in the room and I know they could just start talking to me at any moment.
Diana: I’m fascinated by the idea of writing retreats. I hear of people going on these and they sound fun. (And impossible for me, as a parent of a small child.) Do people really get work done? Leila, do you find a retreat helps you make that big separation from editing work and your own books?
Leila: Wow, now I sound like a prima donna! I’ll write anywhere. But that’s my IDEAL writing environment.
Kerri: Not at all.
Diana: (Follow up to my above q—how do you get that feeling of solitude while on a retreat?)
Kerri: When I wrote my book, I locked myself in my office while my daughter played with her babysitter
Leila: Diana, I guess it depends who you go on the retreat with, and how focused they are, and what they are trying to get out of it. I’m a big procrastinator and can spend two hours at a computer NOT writing. The nice thing about a retreat, or any other full day devoted to writing, is that eventually you wind up producing SOMETHING. No matter how good a procrastinator you are, you can’t actually waste nine hours without getting some words down on paper.
Leila: Yes, go for it!
Kerri: Char is a fascinating male character – he is complicated, dreamy, and kind of a jerk all at the same time. He is not just the dude Elise kisses a few times. As a reader, you want to trust him, you even like him, but there is this element of, “He is fishy. There is something off about this dude. I can’t trust him, but I want to.” As a writer, how do you let your main character get involved with a character like Char? Do you ever feel parental” toward your characters, wanting to protect them?
Leila: Great question. A lot of us date people like Char. Right? Especially when we’re young, and we’re not looking for, like, “The man who would be the best life partner and responsible father to my children!” No. We’re looking for someone hot and interesting who has similar interests to us and makes us feel good about ourselves. Char is all of that for Elise (at least at the beginning). I don’t feel parental toward my characters in quite that way… I’m okay with bad stuff happening to them as long as good stuff comes out of it.
Kerri: I DEFINITELY dated my share of Chars.
Leila: In reading blogger reviews of THIS SONG WILL SAVE YOUR LIFE, I’ve been surprised by how divisive Char’s character is. Some readers actually like the book less BECAUSE they don’t like Char. To me this says something about the level of love/romance we’re accustomed to expecting in YA. If the romantic interest is, as you said, a little fishy, hard to trust, then I think sometimes we feel like, “I didn’t come to YA lit for this! Where’s the Edward? Where’s the Four?”
OK, I’ve said my piece on the Char angle now.
Kerri: Oh, gosh, SO TRUE about romance in YA. (There’s a blog in that!)
And (if you have time!): Elise has a difficult time embracing how differently wired she is than others – when she is interested in a subject she dives in head first and stays there. Other people her age are alienated by her focus and results. What advice would you give to young people who resist plunging because they are afraid of how others will react?
Leila: Sure! Quickly… This is a hard question because a lot of teens do experience what Elise does in the book. They get punished for being too passionate about something, too committed to success, too intense in their perseverance. As Elise observes at one point, it’s not cool to care so much. But what you come to realize is that being cool is not the be-all and end-all of life. At the end of the day loving something (be it music, reading, writing, or something else entirely) will give your life more meaning than being cool could ever do.
Diana: Wise words. I love that idea.
Kerri: I suspect all 3 of us felt that way about writing.
Leila: For sure.
Diana: I certainly did. Wrote passionately in grade school and kept it under wraps in high school. I regret that.
Kerri: That’s so cool, Leila, thanks. But Diana—Really?
Leila: Thank you!
Kerri: I wore my geekiness on my sleeve in high school.
Leila: Diana, I’m glad you finally got to go out there and show the world your talent!
Kerri: Me, too!
Diana: Aw, thanks guys.
Kerri: Leila, I think you need to get going now, right?
Leila: Yes, but thank you both for having me!
Kerri: Thank YOU.
Diana: Yes we should let Leila go, much as I’d love to linger!
Leila: I am off to edit some books! And eat tofu.
Kerri: Have fun!
Leila: And chocolate, duh.
Diana: Enjoy! We’ll let you know when it posts, and happy release day!
Leila: Thanks, Diana! So excited. Bye!