This week we’re chatting with first time author Erin Jade Lange, who parlayed her work in TV news into an edgy, unexpected YA read. Butter is the story of an obese, tortured high schooler who decides to eat himself to death — and share it with the world via the Internet. In the process, he earns fame and popularity, which makes him not want to do it anymore. But if he doesn’t do it, well, you see his dilemma. A gritty, disturbing and ultimately satisfying read, the character came to Lange in a flash of inspiration — and she worked feverishly to get his story told. We caught up with the journalist-turned-author to chat about her process, creating the universal in the specific, and why sometimes is better not to know what you’re getting yourself into.
Tell us a bit about yourself and how you became a writer?
Before I became a writer, I…um…wrote. Ha! That is to say, I am a journalist, so I write facts all day long. I’ve always loved working with words, so I suppose it was inevitable that I would find two careers that allow me to do what I love. I am still working in TV news, but since that involves as much writing as being an author, I guess it’s safe to say I write full-time.
Can you give us a quick synopsis of Butter? How did you come up with the concept for the book?
Butter is about an obese teenager at the end of his rope. He creates a website and invites people to watch him eat himself to death live on the Internet. As the clock counts down to his last meal, he is suddenly popular at school, and he no longer wants to go through with it. But if he doesn’t, he could lose his new “friends.” The book is about his choice.
Butter’s story came to me in one of those flash-of-inspiration moments, but that flash was probably the culmination of years of writing news stories about childhood obesity, teen suicide and internet bullying. I see these stories weekly, if not daily, at work — and the reality is often so much worse than the fiction.
The character is obviously quite different from you. How did you approach this? Did it come naturally, or was there a heavy process to creating character here?
He’s different on the surface. I’m obviously not a 423-pound teenage boy. But I think his experience is universal. Substitute “too fat” with “too thin” or “too short” or “too poor” or just about any other quality that might make someone a target in their teen years, and I think Butter’s ride isn’t that different from anyone else’s.
What’s your process? What does a typical writing day look like?
My process is probably not typical. I do NOT write every day. If I get an idea, I work on it obsessively for weeks or months — putting off everything else, like chores or errands or time with friends — until it’s done. Then I give myself time off — again, weeks or months — before I start writing again.
Inspiration can come from anywhere, but I think it’s safe to say my writing is influenced by working in TV news. My next book, for example, isn’t quite as “ripped-from-the-headlines” as Butter, but it does take place in a depressed economy, which I’m sure is due to how much economic news I’ve been writing in the last few years.
What has your path to publication been like? What’s been the most surprising part of the writing/publishing process for you?
I came up from the slush pile. Thanks to help from peers at AbsoluteWrite.com, I had a pretty decent query, so I got requests from agents right away. But the book wasn’t ready, and most agents responded with feedback and an invitation to revise and resubmit. At that point, I found a great crit partner who helped me polish the manuscript, and one of the agents who invited me to resubmit took me on! The most surprising part was how quickly she sold the book. I was very fortunate to have a short submission process. I can’t believe it’s been two YEARS since that moment, because it suddenly feels like time has just flown by.
What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever gotten? What advice would you yourself give aspiring authors?
One of the best bits of advice I’ve heard is the same one I would pass on to other writers: FORGET THE RULES.
When I wrote Butter, I hadn’t heard yet that contemporary boy books were a tough sell or that swearing could make your book harder to get into schools or that any form of a prologue would make people roll their eyes. I just wrote what I wanted to write, and it worked out. The rules are generally good guidelines, but don’t let them stifle your creativity. The best book you can write is the one you WANT to write — not the one you think will get you published.
What was your favorite book when you were a kid/teenager? What are you reading now?
Charlotte’s Web was my first “favorite” book as a kid. I grew up with the Sweet Valley Twins and R.L. Stine and Christopher Pike, but if I had to pick one book that really stuck with me as a teenager, it would be Judy Blume’s Blubber.
I recently finished Push, by Sapphire — such a painful but important novel. And I just started Struck, by Jennifer Bosworth.
What’s next for you writing-wise (and otherwise!)?
I just turned in my first round of revisions for the next book, and I suspect more edits are on the way. That novel comes out next year, and I’m also getting married in a year, so 2013 is shaping up to be as exciting as 2012!
Do you believe in being part of a “bloc” of writers? Are critique groups and writing communities helpful to you?
I am a firm believer that writers need critique partners, but for me, too many opinions can muddy the waters. I prefer two or three solid crit partners to a big group. However, when it comes to support and advice, the more voices the better, so I encourage writers to get involved in online writing communities. I’ve met so many amazing people that way, and I feel very fortunate to be part of the vast internet tribe of writers.
Photo courtesy Bloomsbury