Have you ever wished you could live in a different place? A different world? How about inside your favorite book? This is precisely the concept behind Between the Lines, a fantasy novel co-written by Jodi Picoult and her daughter, Samantha Van Leer. However, this is not just a lighthearted fairy tale; readers quickly learn that “happily ever after” isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
Off the Page – a companion novel to Between the Lines – will be available soon in bookstores everywhere. I was given the opportunity to ask Samantha Van Leer about her experiences and goals as a teen author.
When did you decide you wanted to be a writer?
I don’t think I ever formally decided I wanted to be a writer. When I was little I used to tell my mom I wanted to be like her when I grew up, but since my childhood I have named many other jobs I aspired to have. However, I have been writing poetry and short stories for as long as I can remember. I think I was just born with writing in my blood and somehow found myself in the career of a writer. I still don’t even consider myself an author. I feel like a really lucky girl who has somehow managed to get a lot of awesome people to read her work.
What draws you to the fantasy/fairy-tale genre?
I’ve always loved the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen’s original fairy tales because they aren’t the sanitized Disney versions – they are brutal and dark. The idea of a fairy tale filled with so much suffering and strife makes the concept of “happily ever after” that much more desirable and that much more incredible if it is attained. I try to reflect that in my books. I don’t want my characters to just be given their happily ever after; I really want them to earn it.
How do you balance writing with school and other activities of being a teen?
That is a very good question. It isn’t easy. This year I’ve managed to jump out of classes into cars to go to New York City for an interview, or a meeting at Random House, or a photo shoot, and then drive back to school that night to be up and ready for my 9 a.m. class the next day.
My sanity comes from amazing friends and a meticulously mapped-out schedule. I feel like I can get anything done if I plan out every second of my week. As long as I stick to the schedule, nothing can go wrong! My friends are incredibly supportive and loving. They’re great at getting me out into the happy college zone after a long week of work.
What do you consider to be the hardest thing about writing?
The hardest part of writing is actually sitting down and writing. I could name 500 other things I could do at any given moment instead of writing, but I have to ignore them and take the time to focus and simply write. My mom always says, “You can edit a bad page; you can’t edit a blank one.” It’s true. It’s better to work with a total mess than to have a wordless page at the end of the day.
How does having an acclaimed author as a mom give you a unique perspective into the life of a writer?
I think I’ve gotten to see how informal the writing process can be. It’s not as if authors sit in their business clothes, in their fancy offices, typing out their novels till their fingertips burn off.
The truth is that authors wear their pajamas. They write between watching episodes of “Grey’s Anatomy.” And when they’re stuck, they eat candy and stare into space. It’s not a beautiful job. It creates a beautiful thing, but by no means do you look great doing it.
I also learned that publishing means a lot more than just the writing of the book. There is so much that goes on to promote it – from interviews to Q&As like this one – so that readers actually know your book has hit the shelves.
Writing isn’t just about sitting down and typing. It involves the planning that makes a great story, and it involves the promotion that gets that story read.
Writing books together is a very collaborative process. How did you and your mother divide up responsibilities?
We honestly split the work 50/50. We sat beside each other for eight hours a day, writing. We would talk back and forth while my mom typed. She might say a sentence, and then I would jump in with the next one. Sometimes we said the same exact sentence at the same time, which was both awesome and totally creepy.
Who is your favorite author?
I think the queen of teen-girl YA is Sarah Dessen. She just gets all those dramatic teen-girl feelings and perfectly bottles them into a single book.
Which character’s point of view did you enjoy writing from the most?
I loved writing scenes that involved Seraphima. She is a hilarious spin on the classic Disney princess. She was born and bred royal, but she has no actual skills to keep herself alive on her own. As for the three main narrative voices, I liked writing Oliver the most. It was really fun to imagine what trouble he’d get into in the real world.
Were any of the characters inspired by actual people?
Some. The science teacher, Mrs. Brown, was inspired by one of my teachers in high school who also had an addiction to self-tanning. Many of the names of the characters in our story are also pulled from reality: Delilah is named after one of my donkeys; Oliver is named after one of my dogs. And Mr. Elyk, the math teacher, is named after my brother Kyle, who is also a math teacher.
What advice do you have for aspiring teen writers?
Finish your work, even if you get bored by it. One of the hardest things in writing is getting to the end of your story, poem, etc. Even if you have other ideas popping up in your head, you should try to finish the piece you’re already working on, or else you’ll end up with a hundred half-told stories.
This piece is also available on teenink.com and has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine. Come meet Samantha Van Leer and Jodi Picoult in Mission Viejo this Saturday, May 23rd, when they speak about their latest book… Prince Oliver will be there too! More details here.