Way back in the day, when I was just starting out in journalism, I worked briefly with Aimee Agresti, who was then an editor at the since-shuttered but always fabulous Premiere magazine. So when I heard that Aimee was releasing her first novel, the hotly-anticiapated Illuminate, the first in a trilogy, I knew we had to nab her for a quick chat for TeenWritersBloc.com. Thankfully, she graciously agreed! Herewith, Aimee!
Tell us a bit about yourself and how you became a writer?
Hi there! Thanks for having me! Before Illuminate, I was a writer firmly entrenched in the world of facts, so the leap to fiction has been a great new adventure. I majored in journalism at Northwestern and spent years writing for entertainment magazines, which was just as fun as it sounds! Most recently I was a staff writer for Us Weekly, a fabulous place full of great people. But I always dreamed of writing novels. I grew up reading everything in sight so writing Illuminate and seeing it on the shelves now has all been such a thrill!
Can you give us a quick synopsis of Illuminate? How did you come up with the concept for the book?
Sure! Illuminate is about a teen angel who’s forced to battle a pack of gorgeous, soul-stealing devils and ends up falling in love with one of them. But, of course, there’s so much more to it than that! Illuminate is a wonderful stew of so many things I adore. The first germ of the idea came from my love of The Picture of Dorian Gray. I thought it would be fascinating to update it and kept thinking, What would you have given your soul for when you were in high school? Then I added a few twists, some angels and devils, and, most importantly, a strong heroine. I grew up on Nancy Drew mysteries and loved Nancy’s fearlessness and confidence. I wanted my protagonist to be a girl who didn’t necessarily start out so sure of herself, but who became a force to be reckoned with by the end.
The book is set in a hotel. How did you decide on that for the setting? And you’re writing about angels and devils — did you dig into the canon on this?
I went to college in Chicago and I always knew it would be the perfect place to set a mystery. I loved its wild history — Capone, prohibition, and all those amazing tunnels beneath the city. What better place to serve as a backdrop for all sorts of sinister goings-on?
To get access to those tunnels AND to give my characters a fun place to call home, I decided to resurrect the Lexington Hotel — which is no longer standing. I liked the glamour element that came with living in a hotel. Dorian Gray is full of beauty and luxury, he lives in a pretty posh pad, so I wanted the setting to be special. I did look at old pictures of the Lexington but, since it no longer exists, I gave myself carte blanche to modernize it and make all sorts of changes. Illuminate‘s Lexington is a newly renovated version. (Capone sure didn’t have a spa when he lived there!)
As for the angels and devils: I wanted my characters to be angels because I thought learning to fly was a great metaphor for growing up. Since these are my particular angels and devils, I created some new myths and legends and history for them. I’m hoping readers come to the book ready to watch a whole new world unfold!
If I’m not mistaken, Illuminate is the first in a series. Can you talk about the challenges of planning ahead for books two, three, and so on?
I always envisioned Illuminate as the beginning of a trilogy. There are three tests these characters need to complete to earn their wings, so each book represents one of those tests. I’ve, of course, never written a series before, so I have a whole new appreciation now for all those authors who have done it so well!
There’s a lot of planning involved. I always need to map everything out, that’s just how I roll, I tend to outline like crazy before I start writing. But even so, there are certain little bits that I had planned for Book Two that went into Illuminate. And now, as I’m working on Book Two, there are certain bits that I was saving for Book Three that I can’t resist using now. Even with so much planning, you still have to let a book lead you sometimes!
What’s your writing process? What does a typical writing day look like?
Good questions! When I’m in Total Writing Mode, I have to admit, I become a little anti-social! I tend to stay tucked away in my apartment pretty much chained to my laptop from morning until mid-afternoon and I try to stay off of email, too. At some point, to prevent from becoming a complete recluse, I’ll emerge for a coffee break. And when I need a change of scenery, I’ll head to a museum to write. I live in DC, surrounded by the Smithsonians, and I absolutely love to write in the courtyard of the Portrait Gallery.
I tend to stop working in the late afternoon/early evening, but if it’s going especially well then I’ll pick things back up again at night, which can be the most wonderful, peaceful time to write.
Of course, this is my schedule in theory. It doesn’t always go so smoothly! I’ve had to amend it a little bit while working on the sequel to Illuminate because I had a baby boy a few months ago! He calls the shots!
What has your path to publication been like? What’s been the most surprising part of the process for you?
The most surprising part of the process has probably been how well-cared for I’ve been. My editor is absolutely fantastic and I’ve learned so much from her. My agent is actually a friend of mine and she’s been so wonderful guiding me through every step of the way. And the whole team at HMH has been tremendous — from the fabulous cover designer to the publicist, who has been such a true champion of the book. I’m a lucky girl!
What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever gotten? What advice would you yourself give aspiring authors?
Write, write, write! The great thing about writing is that the more you do it, the better you get. I wrote so many unpublished stories before this, but I know that all of that work made me better. And I like to think that every time I sit down at my laptop, I continue to get better.
What was your favorite book when you were a teenager? What are you reading now?
The Catcher in the Rye was my all-time favorite as a teen and it still is. I still reread it all the time, I love Holden Caulfield! But I had so many favorites as a kid: Alice in Wonderland, Little Women, the entire Nancy Drew series, Roald Dahl’s The Witches, so many!
Right now, I have a towering to-be-read pile and I’m always hopelessly behind. I just took a tiny break from YA to finally, finally, finally read The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. (I know, so late, forgive me!) And now I’m back to YA and just started The Catastrophic History of You and Me by Jess Rothenberg. A girl who dies of a broken heart?! Such a brilliant premise.
What’s next for you writing-wise (and otherwise!)?
I’m working on the sequel to Illuminate right now. It should be out next year! You can keep tabs on it at aimeeagresti.com!
Do you believe in being part of a “bloc” of writers? Are critique groups and writing communities helpful to you?
I love writers supporting each other in any way or form — whether it’s championing each other’s work in the blogosphere or whether it’s actually taking a critical look at something before it’s a finished product. For me, I find it comforting to connect with folks who are sharing an experience, and, though it isn’t any formal group, I’ve been lucky to have a few individual writers I go to to compare notes on navigating the world of publishing and to talk about our work. We tend to share our writing before it’s out in the world, but after we’ve done a good amount of revising and feel it’s in pretty good shape.
When it comes to getting real, solid constructive criticism on early drafts, I turn to my trusted first reader: my sister, Karen! She’s extremely well-read, has a sharp eye, and is honest. She’ll tell me if certain things aren’t working. She’ll pinpoint what I need more or less of. She asks great questions and gives me the kinds of notes I need to hear. I listen to her, and I’m always glad that I do! Our deal is that she reads a draft, prepares her notes and then I take her out to dinner and we talk about it all. It’s a good time!
Thanks Aimee, for taking the time to chat with us! We’re so excited to check out the series!