Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Author Interview: Jessica Park & Giveaway

[my review]
Jessica Park

Website | Book Site | Twitter | Facebook | Goodreads | Amazon

Flat-Out Love is a warm and witty novel of family love and dysfunction, deep heartache and raw vulnerability, with a bit of mystery and one whopping, knock-you-to-your-knees romance.

Something is seriously off in the Watkins home. And Julie Seagle, college freshman, small-town Ohio transplant, and the newest resident of this Boston house, is determined to get to the bottom of it.

When Julie's off-campus housing falls through, her mother's old college roommate, Erin Watkins, invites her to move in. The parents, Erin and Roger, are welcoming, but emotionally distant and academically driven to eccentric extremes. The middle child, Matt, is an MIT tech geek with a sweet side ... and the social skills of a spool of USB cable. The youngest, Celeste, is a frighteningly bright but freakishly fastidious 13-year-old who hauls around a life-sized cardboard cutout of her oldest brother almost everywhere she goes.

And there's that oldest brother, Finn: funny, gorgeous, smart, sensitive, almost emotionally available. Geographically? Definitely unavailable. That's because Finn is traveling the world and surfacing only for random Facebook chats, e-mails, and status updates. Before long, through late-night exchanges of disembodied text, he begins to stir something tender and silly and maybe even a little bit sexy in Julie's suddenly lonesome soul.

To Julie, the emotionally scrambled members of the Watkins family add up to something that ... well ... doesn't quite add up. Not until she forces a buried secret to the surface, eliciting a dramatic confrontation that threatens to tear the fragile Watkins family apart, does she get her answer.

Describe Flat-Out Love in five words or less.

Romantic, heartbreaking, quirky, strong, witty.

I loved the Facebook statuses as well as the messages and chats between Julie and Finn. They made the story current, relatable, and entertaining! Did you know from the beginning of your writing process that you wanted to incorporate Facebook/online messaging?

Yes, FB updates and online chats were part of my original idea for the book. I thought that the FB updates would be a good way to show parts of Julie, Matt, and Finn’s personalities. Aside from the fact that they were just fun to include, they really go along with the theme of presenting oneself in one way publically/online and differently in real life. The hitch came along when I actually tried to write them… My own FB updates usually have to do with making fun of celebrities, current events, stuff my kid says, etc. But those wouldn’t work for a book because I needed updates that were not grounded in time, ones that would be funny ten years from now. So I went around FB stealing awesome updates from strangers. Okay, I didn’t do that. My friend Dave was kind enough to let me scroll through two years worth of his updates and pull out ones for Flat-Out Love. (Which I don’t recommend you do all at one time like I did, because you may get really freakin’ dizzy and feel a little ill from all that scrolling.) He is awesomely funny and has plenty of status updates that do not have to do with Lady Gaga or Charlie Sheen. (He’s on Twitter as @whatdoiknow if you want to follow him.)

Celeste is such a wonderful, endearing, and quirky character. What or who inspired you for writing her character?

Aw, I’m so happy you liked her. Once I had decided on the idea that she would have Flat Finn ( ), I knew that she’d need to have a personality that fitted with someone who would have a cardboard cutout of her brother. So, you know… not entirely normal. I wanted her to be extremely odd and quirky, but also endearing. It was important that Julie (and readers!) really like her because Matt and Julie, in particular, spend a lot of time with her and handling issues around her. Their relationship and Julie’s relationship with Finn are both very much entwined with her.

I knew right away that I wanted her to be extremely smart--intellectually gifted—and it seemed fitting that she struggle tremendously socially. I mean, it’s kind of damn hard to have any sort of vaguely normal social life when you’re attached at the hip to a lifesize cutout of your brother, right? Being a preteen is hard enough, but Celeste really made things harder on herself… And I have no idea where the idea for her to speak, “like someone from the Victorian era,” as Julie says, came from. I started writing her like that from the minute that she opened her mouth, but it works so perfectly for her, I think. My favorite Celeste scenes are the ones where she is particularly agitated, and her speech patterns get even more ridiculous. (For those of you who have read the book, the hinge chapter comes to mind.)

Coming from my own dysfunctional family (aren’t all families dysfunctional in some way?), I could relate in some ways to both Julie’s and Matt’s family life. You tackled some difficult issues; do you have a background in psychology?

I do. I studied a ton of psychology in college and have a master’s degree in social work. More than those influences, though, is the fact that my father is a clinical psychologist. I grew up with dinner parties populated by Cambridge, Massachusetts’ crème de la crème of therapists. I knew more about family systems theory by the time I was ten than any kid should. But I loved being in on those discussions. Psychology fascinates me, and I love bringing that interest into my writing. Characters need to have real substance in order for readers to really connect with them. It makes their words and their actions much more layered if we understand them on a more complex level.

I was so excited to read a story with such a loveable nerdy character like Matt! Even though some of his ramblings even made my engineering eyes glaze over, I loved and appreciated that he wasn’t a typical dreamy hot guy you usually find in YA novels. Who or what inspired his character?

I like rooting for the underdog! I’ve always kind of loved the geeky boys… the Seth Cohen’s of the world. The excessively talkative, socially awkward boys with weird senses of humor. They’re endearing. Plus, the seeming emotional unavailability because they’re constantly deflecting real, meaningful conversation makes the moments that they do reveal bits of their feelings even more powerful. And who doesn’t love smart? I think it’s hot.

There is less tension when a lead male is so obviously sexy and emotionally pulled together. It’s too easy. Those guys can definitely be fun to read about, but there is less opportunity for their personality to develop or be revealed during the course of the story. A book with a guy like that is often more about plot, which is fine. But I just wanted another layer to one of the male leads… that mysterious, guarded something that the reader wants to get behind. Matt is clearly incredibly bright academically, but he’s equally stupid when it comes to dealing with people. And yet… there is something so wonderful behind that intellectually-obsessive nature. I like seeing his progress over the course of the Flat-Out Love year.

Flat-Out Love made me fall in love with Boston all over again. Being my favorite US city, I appreciated all the references and how the city was like another character in the story. Did you know from the beginning that Boston would be the setting? Did you spend time in Boston while writing Flat-Out Love or is it based on your memories of living there?

I didn’t specifically go back into Boston (although I’m only about an hour away now) for book purposes, but I know the areas I wrote about like the back of my hand. I worked in Harvard Square (in Cambridge) for a number of years, plus spent tons of free time there. It’s just got such a fabulous, unique energy. There is such a strong intellectual air there because it’s obviously Harvard University territory, and yet it’s an incredibly comfortable, freeing, jubilant place to be. The houses on Brattle Street are spectacular, too, and completely suit the Watkins family. There are lots of nooks and hidden side streets, cobbled areas, busy squares and quieter spots. Plus, there’s the Charles River; always beautiful and able to carry any mood.

Do you have a favorite character in Flat-Out Love? If so, was the character(s) easier or more difficult to write?

I’m so torn between choosing Matt or Celeste. I mean, of course I grew so attached to all of the characters, but those two really got to me. They’re similar in the sense that they are both masking struggles, and so their outward personalities become somewhat exaggerated parts of themselves. And those parts are entertaining (hopefully!) and add a layer of both humor and complexity to their dialogue and their actions.

I could write dialogue for both of these characters at the drop of a hat. It’s a little creepy, actually. But I could put either of them in any situation and could tell you exactly how each one would behave and what they’d say. They’re just… well, they’re part of me. Matt in particular would keep me awake at night… I’d tweak his language and mood, tap into that softer side that he hides…

It felt like a real loss when I finished writing the book. I was in tears. It had been a wonderful but draining experience to write the book, and I was absolutely exhausted when I hit those last chapters. But I couldn’t stop. As much as I wanted to write those last scenes, I didn’t want to say goodbye to any of the characters. All of them had been with me in this fabricated, intense little world and losing them was sort of crushing. Of course, at that point I’d forgotten that I was headed for about 60 rereads while I proofed and edited, so I got more than enough time with them again.

I am a bit shocked that Flat-Out Love hasn’t been picked up from a major publisher. What is the most challenging part of being self-published?

Yeah, well not getting picked up is mostly a good thing. Some damage to the ego, but that’s okay. I mean, who doesn’t want to hear, “You’re good enough!” Although not getting a NY publisher has nothing to do with being good enough. It has to do with business. But it doesn’t feel particularly good to pile up rejection letters. If you want to hear me rant about the publishing industry, Google “Jessica Park” and “@#%#$@.” A number of links should come up.

This might sound silly, but formatting issue are just the pits. I’m a writer, not a computer or font genius. (Matt from the book is, however he was totally useless.) I can’t tell you how long it took me to solve some hideous margin errors I was having when I did test uploads to kindle. There were large chunks of the book that were all indented, and I nearly tore out all of my hair trying to deal with these. I blame Microsoft Word for these issues, BTW. Eventually I solved my problem, but I do have a few FB updates that are not justified the way others are. But I learned to pick my battles… I have to do yet a separate formatting for Smashwords, and they can be a total nightmare to get right. A publisher would take care of all of this for me, but self-publishing means that I do everything myself. So I take the good with the bad.

I also have to proofread like crazy. Much more so than I would with a manuscript that I knew a publisher would be in charge of. I do have a few great copy editors that I use, but there are always things that I miss. Someone just caught a FB update where I had written “Julie Watkins” instead of “Julie Seagle.” Nice Freudian slip… And a friend pointed out to me that Waiting for Godot is a play and not a book. Which I know, but I screwed up. The good thing is that I can upload updated versions anytime that I want to. But this is all stuff that is a ton of work.

Truthfully, though, I really enjoy most aspects of self-publishing.

Jessica Park is the author of the young adult novels RELATIVELY FAMOUS and FLAT-OUT LOVE, five Gourmet Girl mysteries (written as Jessica Conant-Park) and the e-shorts FACEBOOKING RICK SPRINGFIELD and WHAT THE KID SAYS (Parts 1 & 2). She grew up in the Boston area and then went to Macalester College in frigid St. Paul, Minnesota. During her freshman year, there was a blizzard on Halloween, and she decided that she was not cut out for such torture. So she moved back to the east coast where, she'd forgotten, it still snows. Oops. She now lives in New Hampshire with her husband, son, bananas dog named Fritzy, and two selfish cats. When not writing, she is probably on Facebook , pining over 80s rock stars, or engaging in "Glee" activities. Or some combination of the three. Probably with a coffee in hand.

Thank you so much to Jessica for indulging me and taking the time to answer my questions! If you read my review, you know that Flat-Out Love is one of my favorite books of 2011. To share the love, I'm giving away an ebook copy of Flat-Out Love!

Contest details:
  • To enter, fill out the Rafflecopter
  • Contest is open internationally
  • Contest ends at 12:01 AM on August 22, 2011
  • Entrants must be age 13 or older

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