I first met Chelsey Philpot when she joined the staff of School Library Journal as an assistant book reviews editor. Her zeal for young adult literature was quite evident then and continues on. Beside penning her debut novel, Even in Paradise (HarperCollins, 2014), she writes about books, culture, travel, and the arts for the Boston Globe, The New York Times, BuzzFeed, and many other publications. Philpot teaches writing at Boston University and lives in New England, and in fact, just a couple of weeks ago, broke her wrist while helping her father herd some cows on his New Hampshire farm. This must be especially difficult for a writer! Even in Paradise is getting a great reception from teens, and has already raked up a starred review from Publishers Weekly. Lucky for SLJTeen readers that Philpot was still able to peck out responses for this interview—broken wrist or not.
You’ve been working like a madwoman over the past several years, and writing a novel takes time. When did you first start sketching out and writing Even in Paradise?
I really need to come up with a coherent/less long-winded/intelligent response to this question, because it’s a popular one and covers something I desperately wanted to know before I became an author: How long does it take to write a book?
Have I been working on Even in Paradise since I started keeping a journal in elementary school? Or did I start after I read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby in high school? If that’s the case, I could just as easily say I began “sketching out” EIP when I was studying abroad in Scotland and an English neighbor insisted that I read Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited.
If you’re asking when I began really, really “writing” EIP (i.e., not just scribbling thoughtlets on scraps of paper), then I can pinpoint the exact day: August 16, 2011. The day I got back to New York City from the Postgraduate Writers Conference at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. I am forever indebted to my workshop group for reading what would become the first two chapters of my debut book and encouraging me to give fiction a try.
Charlotte seems to be in a steady state of amazement steering her way through St. Anne’s, a prestigious boarding school she is attending thanks to a scholarship. The dining hall reminds her of a fancy ski lodge, hair is worn in chignons, and yachts are docked and limos parked during Parent’s Weekend. But she seems to know where she comes from. Shortly after meeting her best friend Julia’s brother Sebastian and noting the make of his car, she states, “You own an Aston Martin, my dad works on them.”
Charlotte looks at the world from an artist’s perspective. Where most people would see broken glass, she sees the beginning of a sculpture. To her, dust looks like glitter and a cold morning can hold promise.
And while Charlotte’s certainly dazzled by the wealthy and powerful Buchanan family, she still finds beauty in the ordinary and familiar as well. She admires the Buchanans far more for the ease and confidence with which they navigate life than for the square-footage of their Nantucket summer home.
Charlotte allows herself to get wrapped up with the Buchanans through her friendship with Julia and her romance with Sebastian, but she never loses herself entirely.
It seems completely natural for the emotionally out-of-bounds and impulsive Julia to latch on to Charlotte, who is steady as a rock. But why does Charlotte let Julia take so much control of her life, even insisting that everyone call her “Charlie?” Nicknames (Oops, Boom) seem to be something special for the Buchanan family.
Julia’s declaration very early in the story that “Charlie” suits Charlotte better than her given name is indicative of the dynamic of their friendship, but it’s also the start of Charlotte’s induction into the Buchanan family—where everyone and everything has a nickname.
Like many large families, the Buchanans have their own language. When Julia challenges Sebastian to a game of “One Up,” he knows exactly what she means.
So much of the Buchanans’s world is not explained to Charlotte. She is invited in just the same because she gets “it”—whatever “it” might mean.
Sebastian observes, “You don’t judge people, do you Charlie? You just kind of watch them,” to which Charlie replies “There’s a lot to see.” Is that a reflection of you, the writer?
Yes? No? Maybe?
I cannot stay still for the length of a sitcom, but I can sit in an airport and people watch for hours. But just watching isn’t enough.
I think inspiration is strongest when I find a balance between observation and participation. You can’t write about what it means to dance by watching from the bleachers.
Tell us about contra mundum, the motto that Julia and Charlie share.
Using the Latin phrase “contra mundum” in EIP is another way I deliberately reference (and show my love for) Brideshead Revisited. (Seriously! If you haven’t read the book or watched the 1981 miniseries you are missing out.)
Julia and Charlie use “contra mundum” (roughly translated as “together against the world”) as a code. It comes to represent the depth of their friendship.
Charlie collects precious markers of life’s events in a memory box. The collection includes bottlecaps, notes, and pennies. What would be in your memory box?
I have always been a collector. Even as a kid, I was nostalgic for a past I hadn’t really yet accumulated.
My many, many memory boxes are filled with old journals, pennies that have landed heads up, and shells with the dates written on them in permanent pen. I keep love letters, postcards, wrinkled photographs, and trinkets from boys who have both broken and healed my heart.
I have corks from evening-long dinners and scraps of paper with writing I can no longer read. I still have art projects from kindergarten, stuffed animals, and Post-Its from my parents telling me they’re proud. I have T-shirts on permanent loan from my two sisters and a flannel I have no intention of giving back to my little brother. I keep evidence of impulsive decisions and tuck my secrets under cheap toys I win at boardwalk arcade games.
Your protagonist is surprised by an ongoing parade of gifts and offers of money and travel from the Buchanans. She later discovers that she is not the only one being “bought” by them. You attended boarding school yourself—is this type of behavior common among the upper crust?
Oh, goodness no!
Prep schools loom large in popular imagination, but the best boarding school novels (Curtis Sittenfeld’s Prep, Jenny Hubbard’s Paper Covers Rock, John Knowles’s A Separate Peace) challenge the clichés.
People are perplexing creatures—regardless of class. We often make terrible decisions not out of maliciousness, but out of love and confusion. We harm when we’re trying to heal and our actions don’t always reflect our hearts.
What kind of people does the Buchanans’s behavior make them? I’d say the complicated, flawed, and very human kind.
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