Q+A with local YA author Stephanie Perkins

Photo by Rachel Scroggins
Photo by Rachel Scroggins

As Stephen Colbert said, “a young adult novel is a regular novel that people actually read.” So no need to feel guilty about indulging in Isla and the Happily Ever After, the just-published YA romance by local author Stephanie Perkins.

The summer before her senior year in high school, Isla (pronounced eye-la) bumps into her crush, cartoonist Josh. Unfortunately, Isla happens to be on pain killers after having her wisdom teeth removed, so says and does all kinds of crazy things. Even worse, every time Isla has bumped into Josh in the past, it’s been an embarrassing situation. So, Isla’s pretty surprised when she goes back to school and Josh actually seems interested in her, too.

Isla and Josh live just blocks from each other in New York City and are both students at School of America in Paris, a boarding school in the City of Light — the setting of Perkins’s debut novel, Anna and the French Kiss. Isla completes the trilogy (with Lola and the Boy Next Door in the middle) of sharp, witty contemporary books.

Together, Isla and Josh set out to explore Europe and their mutual love of art. They also deal with complications from family and friends. Isla’s BFF, Kurt, has a form of autism that makes him smart and loyal, but sometimes challenging to get to know. Josh’s father is a senator, a career that requires Josh to behave in ways that seem foreign to Isla. And Isla’s own relationship with her younger sister Hattie, a freshman at the boarding school, is tricky, too.

The stakes are high for Perkins’s lead characters. Will Isla throw away her own future to be with Josh? Does Josh really care about Isla, or is he just looking for a distraction from the school he hates? While these and other questions are laced with teen angst, there’s a universality in the search for self and purpose, for traversing friendships and family issues. Perkins manages to make it all as engaging as it nail bitingly tense and breathlessly romantic.

About the latter: this is Paris, after all. And there’s kissing. In fact, for being a YA novel, it’s sexually charged — practically wanton at moments. But it’s also a happy reminder of what it’s like to be young and in love, when nothing matters but the mattes of the heart.

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Mountain Xpress: Of the heroines in your three novels, Anna, Lola and Isla, is there one who is most like you?

Stephanie Perkins: I’m certainly in all three of them, but I tend to identify with whomever I’ve most recently written about. Isla’s major struggle is with self-confidence because I was struggling with self-confidence. But even more than her, I see myself in Josh, her love interest. He’s incredibly observant of other people, despite the fact that he rarely steps outside of his own universe. He buries himself in his room. In his work. That’s me, exactly.

You probably finished writing Isla a while ago — what’s it like to now launch a book tour and read from that novel a lot? Is it fun to revisit those characters?

It actually wasn’t that long ago! Only a few months. I’m a slow writer — and a nitpicky editor — and I push my deadlines as far as possible. (My poor publisher.) Usually, when I finish a book, I don’t want to think about it anymore. But I love this one. I’m proud of it. I still feel like I’m a part of its world.

I was surprised by how much sex there is in Isla and the Happily Every After. Not that it’s Fifty Shades of Grey or anything, but it also doesn’t shy away from sexuality. As a YA novelist, is it important for you to address that part of teen life?

Ha! I don’t think of it as having a lot of sex, but yeah, I suppose it could still be jarring. Books are a safe place for teenagers to think about sex. Their parents aren’t looking over their shoulders. They aren’t being judged. It’s crucial to publish YA books that cover the full range of relationships — healthy and unhealthy, sexual and nonsexual —in every combination. In this novel, I wanted to show a healthy sexual relationship. The characters are in love. They trust each other. And they live in Europe, and their parents are in America! Of course they’re having sex.

As an author, you seem really in touch with the immediacy of romance, crushes, breakups, etc. that young people face. How are you able to reconnect with those feelings? Did you by any chance keep detailed journals during your own teen years?

I only kept a journal my senior year of high school — it was required for my creative writing class — but, thankfully, that was the year I met my husband. It’s fantastic. Every day is either THE BEST EVER (we talked!) or THE WORST EVER (we didn’t). I confess, this isn’t far off from how I still think. My highs and lows run pretty extreme. It’s not much of a stretch for me to reconnect with those feelings.

As an adult, what do you most miss about being a teen, and what does writing YA books remind you of that you don’t miss?

I don’t miss anything. I wasn’t a happy teenager. Emotionally, I always felt older than my peers, so I never knew how to connect with them. And I didn’t really want to. I hated school, even though I was a good student. I was quiet and bookish and awkward. I only had two friends, and they’re still the only two people that I’ll talk to from that period of my life. High school was awful. It’s still awful to think about. My life got so much better after I graduated.

Being an author seems to involve a lot of travel for you. What has been a favorite book tour or convention trip/adventure?

I do travel a lot. I’m a homebody, so it’s tough. Because of this, it’s not so much about the places as it is about the people. I love getting to tour with my friends, other authors. And I love attending this big Harry Potter convention every year — the readers there are the friendliest, nicest, sweetest readers in the world. They remind me why my job is so special.

What are you working on now?

Earlier this year, I edited a holiday anthology, and it’ll be out this October. It’s called My True Love Gave To Me, and it’s filled with swoony, funny, smart winter romances from 12 bestselling YA authors. The stories are ridiculously phenomenal. I’m so proud of how it came out. My next novel will be horror — a teen slasher! Writing something so dark, so funny has been a blast. I’ve always had a dark side.

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About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts writer and editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs.

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