In this version of twenty questions, I send a list of questions to a willing
victim author and they choose their own interview by choosing which questions, and how many questions, they want to answer! Leslie Stella’s Permanent Record has one of the most wisecracking, distinctive, and authentic teenage voices that I’ve come across in literature this year. Here is what Leslie had to say about reading, writing, and finding her home in YA.
Would you give us a bit of introduction and let my readers know who you are, how you got started writing, and what kind of books you like to write?
In the 1990s, I was a founding editor of a counter cultural magazine here in Chicago called Lumpen. Although our main focus was politics and pop culture, we published some short stories too, and one of my jobs was editing the annual literary supplement. I was inspired to begin to write short stories of my own and, most notoriously, fake interviews with celebrities who had outlived their fame. In fact, the first piece of mine that was ever anthologized in a book, and for which I received actual money instead of being paid in scones, was a made-up interview I conducted with Fabio and Yanni. Writing short stories and essays gradually led to writing longer fiction.
My first novel, Fat Bald Jeff, was adult fiction—it was published by Grove Press, and it told the story of a disaffected copy editor who hatches a plot to bring down her employer with the help of a disgruntled tech support guy. My second and third novels, published by Crown, were also adult fiction, and they were also light, comic novels. But I had lost interest in that kind of writing and wanted to try something different, something more meaningful. The first drafts of my current novel, Permanent Record, were adult fiction too, but they never came together right. So I tossed them and retained the only parts of the manuscripts that I liked: the teen characters, and that’s when I realized, Oh, this is YA that I’ve been trying to write. And that’s where I feel I belong.
I am often struck by the different ways writers respond to the process of writing a book. Linus’s Blanket refers to my use of reading and other activities as a means of escape and comfort, can you share with us any routines, food or recipes, or favorite books or rituals that help you thorough the writing process?
I am a mother of two school-age children and I work part-time too in addition to writing, so I have learned to be productive under the most slender of circumstances. Get up at 5:00 and write for an hour and a half before everyone gets up? Okay. Put in a couple hours after they go to bed? Sure. I’ll also snatch a few hours each Saturday and Sunday to go to the library to write while my husband entertains the kids—whatever it takes. So my routine is … no routine! Now that I have kids, my brain works differently, perhaps even more efficiently, now that the demands on my time are greater.
I would not say I depend on any particular ritual, books, or food to help me through the writing process—but I’ve never met a cookie I didn’t like.
People live in stories, we are surrounded by them. What was it about this the story that made it the one you had to tell at this time? What impact did telling this story have on your life? Did you find that it had changed you?
As I mentioned before, the teen characters stuck with me from the get-go, particularly Bud, the protagonist. He embodies the qualities I love best in heroes: he struggles between his innate good nature and a reactionary thirst for revenge when he gets pushed too far. He treads that gray area—a good person who does bad things, a bad person who does good things. He is so human, and he wants to be “a good kid,” but he fears that he doesn’t have it in him. I wanted to create a character that could sometimes be difficult to root for because you see him slipping and you want to shout at him, “No! Don’t do it! You’re better than this!” When the reader becomes that invested in the hero’s conflict, it’s much sweeter when he overcomes it.
Did you know what you wanted the title of the book to be? How involved were you in choosing the name of the book?
It was difficult to come up with a title. The first several drafts had different titles that related to motifs in those versions that were eventually scrapped. As I kept writing and throwing out, writing and throwing out, I had to sit back and look at what was standing out as the ultimate message. My editor had suggested “Collateral Damage,” which I didn’t like because it made Bud seem like a terrorist or something, an aggressor who didn’t care who he hurt. Though he may have had flashes of anger, that wasn’t his true personality at all. Permanent Record more accurately reflects his problems: that what he does now will affect his future, and he better choose the right path, and that doesn’t necessarily mean following all the rules.
Do you ever look back at your early work? How do you feel your writing style or approach to writing has evolved since you first began?
I detest reading over my early work. It’s torture, and I avoid it. But when I think about those books or stories, I can so clearly see my horror of writing likeable characters, it just makes me crazy. Don’t get me wrong; I love comedy and there will always be a place for it in my novels, but never again at the expense of the story.
As a published author, what’s been the biggest surprise about life after the publication of your first book?
That nothing really changes. This is my fourth book, and it never gets any easier. I still stress out and cry over my career!