When we met debut author Gwendolyn Heasley at one of David Levithan’s monthly teen author readings, we totally inspired by her story: having graduated at the height of the recession, the jobless and living with her parents wannabe journalist turned her broke-in-the-city angst into a fun fish-out-0f-water tale, Where I Belong. Gwendolyn paused from penning the book’s companion story to chat with Teen Writers Bloc about the arduous publishing process, nabbing her dream job and characters that talk to her — in a good way!
Tell us a bit about yourself and how you became a writer?
I was in school for about 21 consecutive years. After I finished my Master’s in Journalism at the University of Missouri, I moved to New York City with the hopes of a magazine job. I didn’t have any visions of grandeur; I realized I’d be fetching coffee for people with fabulous and glamorous jobs rather than landing a fabulous, glamorous job myself. But I did think I would get a job!
But I also moved to New York City the same month the stock market crashed (October 2008) and all of sudden everything was about the recession. Journalism budgets were slashed and tons of entry-level positions were cut. All of sudden, getting any job seemed extremely difficult. So instead of the single girl in the city with the studio apartment, I was living with my parents and frantically searching for jobs!
As a young girl, I had wanted to be a fiction writer not a journalist. But as I got older, working for a magazine (and having health insurance and a steady paycheck) just seemed more logical.
In order to keep my brain working while doing an unpaid internship and searching for jobs, I signed up for a YA fiction-writing course with Mediabistro — and put my recession tales into narrative! With a lot of luck and good timing, my manuscript was sold to HarperCollins. My dream (although long forgotten) became a reality!
I love being a writer because you get to make everything up. In journalism, there wasn’t that creative license (for very good reason), but I love the freedom that fiction allows. I do not write full-time, although I am realizing how it is very hard to balance multiple jobs. Depending on the semester, I teach between one and three college writing classes, which I love doing. I teach both freshmen and adult learners, and I have learned a lot about life and writing from them.
Can you give us a quick synopsis of Where I Belong? How did you come up with the concept for the book?
Where I Belong is about a teenage Manhattanite Corinne who is about to head off to boarding school with her horse and her best friend. But then the recession hits and her family loses their money, so she heads to Texas instead to live with her parents and attend public school. It’s a riches to rags story that hopefully makes you laugh and cry.
The inspiration was the recession. I wrote it during the very height of the recession when I couldn’t find a job. I didn’t want it to be completely depressing, so I created a humorous, spoiled character who only thinks her life is over because of the recession. In some ways, the recession isn’t her enemy; she’s her own enemy. I think the recession forced me (and many others) to reevaluate my life and I know I found lessons in the recession just like my character Corrinne does too.
Can you also talk a bit about the real currency of the book — these hard economic times and how you turned your own experience into Corrinne’s? Can teens relate?
I think teens (whether they are affected by the recession or not) can relate because it is a book about change and how difficult change can be. I do think many teens today have learned tough lessons about money because of the recession, and I think they are rightfully called “the silent victims of the recession.” Money issues are very stressful for families (no matter the family’s socioeconomic status, and I think the novel taps on that.
My next novel is about Kitsy (the Texan friend) coming to New York and entering a world that’s a lot bigger (and richer) than Broken Spoke, Texas. The novel is going to be about how you find your confidence and place, no matter where you are. I love Kitsy, so I am excited to write a first-person novel about her!
What’s your writing process? What does a typical writing day look like?
I write from home sometimes. ( I don’t live with the parents anymore.) I invested in a desktop, which makes writing easier. But I also get cabin fever, so I have spent a lot of time at the PATH café in the West Village.
I like to write when it is light out because darkness makes me sleepy and lazy. (Of course, deadlines don’t make this always possible.) It might sound weird, but my characters truly tell me the stories and I listen. I am not saying this in a voices-in-my-head way. What I mean is that I think a lot before I write, which I think helps tremendously.
What has your path to publication been like? What’s been the most surprising part of the writing/publishing process for you?
I had a lucky and quick path to publication due to the timely nature of my book. The extensive editing process amazed me! You do some much work in editing, and your editor contributes so much to your novel as well. Editors deserve more credit.
What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever gotten? What advice would you yourself give aspiring authors?
The best writing advice I’ve gotten is to write for yourself. If you love it — even if no one else does — that should be enough.
My advice to other authors is patience. You don’t know when you are born or when you will die or get married or any of those other milestones. So you also don’t know when you will be published, but I believe that it can happen any time and it will if you keep trying.
What was your favorite book when you were a kid/teenager? What are you reading now?
The Baby- sitters Club. Hands down. I love those girls! I am reading Delirium right now, and I just finished a Sara Zarr reading marathon.
What’s next for you writing-wise (and otherwise!)?
I am working on a companion book to Where I Belong. After that, I want to keep writing YA!
Do you believe in being part of a “bloc” of writers? Are critique groups and writing communities helpful to you?
My mediabistro class was very helpful to me. I think feedback is great! I am not part of a critique group right now, but I might join one soon!
Thanks Gwendolyn! Your story is super-inspiring!
Images courtesy Elizabeth Cryan/HarperCollins