Monday, March 12, 2012

Interview with Freshman Year and Other Unnatural Disasters author Meredith Zeitlin

A few weeks ago, I got the amazing opportunity to interview author Meredith Zeitlin who wrote Freshman Year and Other Unnatural Disasters, a fabulous 2012 debut which I reviewed here. We got to talk about Meredith's school experiences, lesbians, "bad" teen behavior and the difficult choice between fudge or Swedish Fish. Meredith is a wonderful, hilarious and very kind author (who didn't mind me asking a bunch of nosy questions.) I highly encourage you to read this interview and pick up her amazing book Freshman Year and Other Unnatural Disasters!

Bold- Me/ Questions
Regular type- Meredith's answers

I need to know, was your freshman year (or entire high school experience) as disastrous as Kelsey’s? 

Well, yes and no. Most of Kelsey's disasters were based on things that actually did happen to me, but they didn't ALL happen to me in one year like they did to poor Kels. And also, because I was living it at the time, almost everything seemed like the end of the world just because I was so close to it. Looking back, I really did enjoy freshman year - and high school in general - but at the time there was a lot that was frustrating and scary about it, not least because I started at a brand new school that year. 

How difficult or easy was it to get back in to a high school state of mind to write Freshman Year? Was any character’s voice particularly hard to develop?

You know, I didn't really have to think too hard about it. Kelsey is based so much on me that I just sat down and wrote what she felt. I still remember so distinctly how intense everything was when I was a teenager, and how much meaning was imbued into everything that was happening - the smallest slight, the most minor mistake... feeling so sure that every eye was on you at all times. As an adult, I guess I'm supposed to have learned that most people are really only paying attention to themselves... but I still get tangled up in that web sometimes. As for the character voices, the most difficult challenge for me was making Kelsey's friends distinctive. Groups of friends tend to talk like each other, but I wanted it to be very clear who was who so the reader wouldn't be confused, especially since the girls are together so much. I hope I was successful!

If you don’t mind, tell me about one of your best high school experiences. 

Despite many disasters, I had a pretty great time in high school. I know you're not supposed to admit that, and I certainly wasn't the Prom Queen or anything like that, but I had a lot of fun and learned so much - way more than I did in college. Since you didn't specify a year, I'll choose something that happened when I was a sophomore. I played third-string lacrosse for two years - a sport I had never even heard of before I came to that school, btw. I am several things, but an athlete is definitely not one of them. I was terrible at it. I told the coach I thought I was coming down with appendicitis during every two-mile run. I practiced twirling my stick like a baton when the action was elsewhere on the field (that was actually my best skill by far). I was more the team mascot than anything else, ultimately. But it was FUN. And I really, secretly wanted to be good at it. I had never been on a team before, and had this delightful dream that, just like in a movie, I'd suddenly be great at it and win a game for the team. During one game, when I was joking around with the girl I was supposed to be guarding from the opposing team, a foaming-at-the-mouth forward came zipping down the field straight toward me. It was like staring down a train. I was supposed to be protecting the goal! She shot. I stuck my stick out - more as a reflex than anything else. And I caught the ball. 

It was a miracle. (We still lost the game, spectacularly.)

But at the Sports Banquet that year, which all players were required to attend, they finally got to the awards for the lacrosse team. And I was absolutely STUNNED when they called my name. I won the "Unsung Hero" Award (just like Kelsey). My entire team cheered their faces off. I have been very lucky to win a number of prizes in my life - mostly for theatre or writing - but this one will always be the most special, because it was the most unlikely. 

Why did you decide to make one of your characters a lesbian? Was there ever any opposition to or questioning of this choice? 

There was never any opposition, no, but she didn't actually start out as a lesbian. I wrote the original draft of the book long before I - or anyone I knew well - started getting involved with the fight for Marriage Equality. Once I learned about what was going on, it became really important to me, partly because I have many, many gay friends who deserve to get married if they want to and because I believe in equal rights as a fundamental principle. Anyway, during the editing process, a friend of mine from the voiceover world started talking about how her (gay) daughter was organizing a group from the NYC schools to go to the march on Washington for gay rights (this is a few years ago now). I said, "How can this be? I know your daughter! She's nine years old!"

Turns out this little girl had grown up while I wasn't looking... and was 16. And a proud lesbian. After I got over my amazement, I decided I wanted to help. I got all the info and posted about her cause on FB, and a friend of mine who runs a gay-rights organization got involved as well. We raised the rest of the money she needed, and the kids got their bus. And it was awesome. But it also got me thinking about the idea of being a gay teenager - I have absolutely no memory of that being taboo when I was the same age, and since I went to an all-girls' school there were definitely girls who suddenly "liked girls" to get attention... but otherwise it just wasn't really talked about much. And I while I think the fact that it is being talked about so much now is great, I feel like there's a lot of talking about it where it's a HUGE DEAL and everyone is getting upset. And suddenly one of the characters in my book stood up and said, "Hello? I am over here and I have a missing piece! This is it!" So I decided to write about someone coming out where it's not the focus of everything, but just another thing that happens. To show how normal it can and should be. And I wrote about it from the perspective of a friend who wants to be supportive but isn't sure what exactly to do. And guess who I consulted for accuracy? That same 16 year old girl!

There are certain “bad” typical adolescent behaviors in Freshman Year like smoking, drinking, hook-ups, bullying and betrayal. Was it important to you to portray Kelsey and all the other characters as “real” as possible? 

ABSOLUTELY. Of course I realize that "real" is going to be different for everyone based on their own experiences, but the world of the book reflects my own experiences and those of pretty much all the kids I grew up with. And also those of the girl I was babysitting at the time I wrote the book, who went to a school much like Kelsey's and lived in Park Slope. The reaction to the "bad" stuff has been interesting and surprising to me - some people think there is so much drinking. And of course everyone is entitled to their opinion, no question. But to me... that's flat-out what high school was like. Whether you participated or not - and not all of Kelsey's friends do, by the way - alcohol was omnipresent. Ditto smoking and hooking up and all that other stuff. And I wanted the book to reflect that. And also to show that, just like in real life, sometimes there are consequences to trying "bad" things, and very often there are not. That's just how life works.

Kelsey goes out for many different activities in Freshman Year to “make her mark”  like soccer, theater and having a run in with the school newspaper staff. What clubs/ activities did you join (or desperately want to join) in high school and why?

 Oh, I was quite the little joiner. My main interest was always theatre - I was in all the plays, both at my own school and the nearby boys' school, and I sang in Chorale and Chamber Singers (what my school called the select singers group. Sooooo elite, obv). I also worked for the paper, and was made the Editor-In-Chief my senior year. And of course, let's not forget my brief stint as a lacrosse star. I occasionally wrote for the Literary magazine, and one year I joined this club I can't remember the name of where you have fake debates that everyone takes very seriously. But that was honestly a ploy to go on overnight trips and meet guys - I never actually participated. I hosted the talent show for a couple of years with my friend Tawney, and we had a blast doing it. The only activity I never went for, but always secretly wanted to, was Student Government. I could never get over my terror that no one would vote for me. Low self-esteem is a curse that you can over cover up so much, I'm afraid.

One of the main parts of the book settles around a performance of The Fiddler and the Roof. Was there a specific reason you chose this play? Does it have a secret meaning that plays into the book? Or was it just too tempting to give Kelsey a beard?

 I wasn't kidding when I said Kelsey's experiences were based on my own. I don't want to give anything away, but I was in this play once - an all-girls' production of it... and I was the star. (And I don't mean Golde.) That scene where Kelsey gets her costume? Ripped from the headlines of my life. The um, finale situation? Not as big a deal as it is in the book (after all, it's supposed to be fiction, not an autobiography, right?)... but yep. Not good. A traumatizing event that has been waiting to be recorded on the page for many, many years now. ::shiver::

Has your drama background particularly influenced or helped with regards to your writing? If so, in what ways? 

Oh, yes. I think one of my strongest points as a writer is dialogue, and having read and seen hundreds of plays is an incredible tool. Learning how people speak, how they say things when they AREN'T speaking - it's all part of it. The rhythms, the patterns... I often read my scenes out loud or ask other people to in order to make sure they sound the way people actually talk.

There are equal measures heartbreak and humor in Freshman Year, how did you strike such a perfect balance between the two? 

Thank you! Well, this is meant to be a comic book, ultimately. I didn't want anything too serious to happen, so I was careful never to push the boundaries of danger or betrayal TOO far. At the same time, part of Kelsey's MO is taking everything to the highest-intensity place, so even small things become big things. I think that's where both the heartbreak and the humor lie, a lot of the time. Often simultaneously.

What is the piece of advice you most want to give to Kelsey and other freshmen like her? 

Don't try so hard. I know, no one wants to admit to that, and 14-year-old me would definitely tell old-person me to shut up and mind her own business... but it's true. If I had chilled out and really taken a look around, I've realized that no one besides me was really paying attention to all the stuff I thought was such a disaster. I probably would've had just as much fun and had to work waaaaaaay less for it. But then, that's also part of growing up - going through it.  

This or That lightning round!

Coke or Pepsi? Coke.

Zombies or Unicorns? UNICORNS!!!!!!!!

Musicals or Plays? Musicals. 

Wicked or The Fiddler on the Roof? Neither. Despite being a huge fan of Steven Schwartz's, I'm also in love with the actual book Wicked by Gregory Maguire... and I HATED this musical. Actually loathed it - they totally changed the story and it made me furious. And Fiddler, while a classic, scarred me too much because of my own experience in it. Also, they forced us to watch it every year in Hebrew School, and there's really only so much Zero Mostel a person can take in a five year period. 

Swedish Fish or Fudge? What kind of insane question is this!? I cannot be required to answer this one, as it is too hard. BOTH!

Give it up for Meredith Zeitlin everyone! *Claps, obnoxious whooping sounds.* Is she not the best for enduring all of my questions? Her answers were so funny and great. Now we know where Kelsey gets all her boundless energy and eternal optimism! Why don't you stop by her website and drop her a line or get more information on Freshman Year. I promise you'll have fun! 

Happy Reading, 

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