August 20, 2017

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Jenny Han and Jennifer E. Smith On Contemporary YA, Writing, and Winning the Lotto

Photo by Adam Krause

Photo by Adam Krause

Jenny Han, author of the “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before” series, which concludes with Always and Forever, Lara Jean (S. & S.; May 2), chats with Jennifer E. Smith about Windfall (Random; May 2). The two contemporary YA authors and friends discuss their writing process, the state of YA romance, and what they would do if they won the lottery.

Jenny Han: Jen, the first time I ever heard about you, I was at my old editor’s office at Simon & Schuster, and she was showing me the cover of your first book, The Comeback Season, because she was so excited about it. And even though you and I both lived in New York, we wouldn’t actually meet in real life for years. So fast-forward to now, 10 years and eight books later, and you’re one of my closest friends. So how does that feel?!

Jennifer E. Smith: To be one of your closest friends? Obviously, it feels like winning the lottery! But seriously, I have such a distinct memory of her telling me about your first book, too. She was so excited about it—it’s hard to believe that was 10 years ago. It seems like it just happened and then a million years ago all at once. I’ll never forget when I got a call that Simon & Schuster wanted to acquire The Comeback Season—for all of the crazy and incredible things that have happened since, I don’t think anything can prepare you for the moment when you realize you’re going to be a real author. It’s what I’ve wanted for as long as I can remember, and I just felt so, so lucky…and I still do.

And now I can’t believe Windfall is my eighth book. How does it feel to look back on your career over the last decade or so from where you are now?

JH: It feels so long ago, and the industry has changed so much. YA used to be teeny tiny—the shelf space at the store was really small; there weren’t as many authors or books. Now it’s huge with so many festivals and conferences and all these different ways to meet your fans. With my first book, social media was not a thing, and now it is, which comes with its own rewards and challenges. But the thing that I feel happiest about is how many amazing people I’ve met through publishing. My writer friends are so instrumental to my process now. We go on retreats together, brainstorm ideas, read pages for one another—like you and I did for these projects.

always-and-forever-lara-jean-9781481430487_hrJS: It’s just such a lucky thing that so many of my favorite authors and also happen to be some of my favorite people. Writing can be a very solitary job, so when you’re friends with other authors, it’s like having colleagues. I don’t know what I would do without that support system of being able to compare notes and ask for advice and vent, and process and just sort of help each other out. It’s been so important for me.

You told me that you were thinking of doing a third book, and I was so excited that it was hard to keep it a secret. But how does it feel for you to be coming to the end of a journey like this? Especially when you didn’t necessarily plan it this way from the start.

JH: It feels really lovely. I think because there was only supposed to be two books, so when I was finishing P.S. I Still Love You, there was a bit of sadness then. But now I think of it like we already had the meal and this book is the dessert that I just had to order. Just one more taste and then on to the next thing. It doesn’t even really feel like goodbye because the characters always sort of live on in my head, independently of me.

I wouldn’t say that Windfall is a departure from the other books, because it’s still very much a Jennifer E. Smith kind of book—realistic and hopeful and warm. But it’s also got a few heavier themes and feels a little bit different. It even looks different. Did it feel different writing it?

Jennifer Smith-7473-select-final.flatJS: Yeah, it really did. It was more of a challenge in some ways, because the story is a bit bigger in scope and explores some deeper themes than some of my previous books. But I really loved working on it; I’m so excited about this moment. I’ve been wanting to write about someone winning the lottery for a long time, just because I’m kind of obsessed with these moments in time that act as hinges, where there’s a really clear split between a before and an after. And that’s just such a perfect example, winning the lottery—your whole life shifts. Which, for me, is always the most interesting place to start a story, at that moment of intense change. So I loved writing this one, and I’m really, really proud of the book. The new cover design was just kind of the cherry on top. I really love it, and I’m excited for it to be out in the world soon.

JH: And you did a lot of research on lotteries?

JS: I did. When you’re writing about a young lottery winner, you have to ask: What happened to other people who have won? What is it like to win immense amounts of money at a young age? In a way, it makes you not want to win the lottery. It can be a bit grim, especially for young people. Their money often ends up disappearing in various ways. This book is a more hopeful version of that story, but I also wanted to be realistic about how much it can throw a wrench in your life.

Shelley Diaz: What would each of you do if you won the lottery?

JS: We’ve talked about this a lot, Jenny. I remember I was hanging out with you the day of that billion dollar Powerball drawing, so we had a long lottery talk.

Final cover.inddJH: I’m the kind of person who always thinks I’m going to win no matter what, so I have very specific plans. I’d get a beach house and a bigger New York apartment. I’d give some to my family, to Alzheimer’s research, and I’d start a production company and make the kind of movies I want to see—romantic comedies starring people of color, directed by women.

JS: As I’ve been talking about this book more and more, I’ve realized this is something everyone has thought of at some time or other—and it cracks me up how specific people are. I’ve talked to people who say, “I would give one eighth to this and one quarter to that.” I haven’t really mapped it out. I would travel a lot. I’d also want to buy a little cottage in Scotland, which Jenny told me was not practical. But I want to do it anyway. There’s another big theme in the book about charity and volunteering, which often goes hand in hand with the lottery. And I think, especially now, people have a responsibility to help others. So it would be a real privilege to have the means to make more of a difference.

SD: Can either of you share anything about what you’re working on next, or is that top secret?

JS: I’m working on something right now that I’m really excited about, but it’s still in the beginning stages, so it’s a little bit early to share. But it explores some of the themes that I’m always interested in—timing, chance, and serendipity.

JH: As for me, I’m working on something I’ve been working on for quite a while. I was working on this before I wrote Always and Forever, Lara Jean, and then I put it aside. There are a few projects that I’m juggling. I really only just finished Always and Forever, Lara Jean a few months ago, so it’s been a really short gestational period between revising and planning for the release in May. I really haven’t even looked at any other projects yet.

SD: With Sarah Dessen winning the Margaret A. Edwards Award this year and Nicola Yoon’s book getting so much acclaim, do you think that contemporary YA romance is finally getting its due?

JH: There have been peaks and valleys, but I honestly never really notice them while they’re happening. It always feels in style because there have always been readers who want to read these books.

JS: I think this is a subject that’s perennially interesting. But most YA books that are categorized as romance are about a lot more than that, too. Jenny and I would probably categorize what we write as realistic fiction more than YA romance because they’re also about family and friendship and big issues. And those are the kinds of stories that are always going to be important.

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Shelley Diaz About Shelley Diaz

Shelley M. Diaz (sdiaz@mediasourceinc.com) is School Library Journal's Reviews Team Manager and SLJTeen newsletter editor. She has her MLIS in Public Librarianship with a Certificate in Children’s & YA Services from Queens College, and can be found on Twitter @sdiaz101.

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