‘New Girl’ writer David Iserson on his funny YA novel ‘Firecracker’
David Iserson is used to writing for TV, with credits that include “United States of Tara,” “Up All Night” and currently “New Girl”-- so he’s become accustomed to all the ribbing that’s built into the comedy environment.
That’s why the 35-year-old writer was half-prepared for some mocking with the release of his new YA novel “Firecracker,” out from Razorbill this month. He’ll be reading and signing “Firecracker” at Skylight Books at 5 p.m. June 2.
“Nobody has really made fun of me in a world where everybody makes fun of everybody,” he said with a tinge of astonishment when we spoke by phone. “I mean, the cover is basically a woman’s legs in colorful tights -- you’d think that’d get me some teasing. Perhaps behind my back...”
Instead, a troupe of TV comedy actors -- including Jack McBrayer (“30 Rock”), Max Greenfield (“New Girl”) and Jeff Garlin (“Curb Your Enthusiasm”) -- participated in impromptu readings of the book that were bundled into the book trailer (below).
The book centers on Astrid Kreiger, a spunky (and incredibly wealthy) 17-year-old who reluctantly finds herself attending public school after a cheating scandal gets her kicked out of her posh boarding school digs. In her quest to find the culprit, the sassy teenager must adjust to the banal new environment while attempting to do some good in the world -- a punishment, in her eyes initially. Oh, and she lives in a rocket ship, is the ultimate granddaddy’s girl and meets an awkward boy with potential along the way.
How does a married thirtysomething male find himself writing a young adult novel?
Ha! I thought you were going to ask how does a thirtysomething married man end up writing a novel about a girl.
That was where I was heading next.
Um, I like young adults. Wait. That sounds weird. But, no, I feel like in most of the stuff that I write, I’m sort of in some way reliving high school all the time. I like to write about adolescence. I feel like that is probably the only part of my life where I have enough distance and perspective on it that I have a sense of it. I feel like, whatever your insecurities or whatever weird stuff everybody was going through in high school just constantly manifests for the rest of life.
I feel like teenagers are still very similar to me, except that I think when you’re 16 or 17, everything feels like the end of the world. Everything feels so much more important. It’s exciting to write something where every single thing in your day-to-day life feels like it epically important.
Had you considered making the protagonist a male? The genre seems to be overrun with female protagonists. Is that just a symptom of who the genre appeals to in general? Do female protagonists make for more compelling characters?
I kind of started working on it and then asked myself that very question. I really like writing female characters. In the TV work that I’ve had, I’ve mostly written on very female-driven shows. For me, it becomes much more exciting to write people who exist outside myself and outside my own experience. I wanted to write someone who was fearless, full of confidence and not really hindered by insecurities. I think if I took a character that was more loosely based on myself, I would just have all of my baggage going into it. This character felt like the statesperson that existed so far outside myself, and making it female underlines how different she is from me. I’m sure there are hints of me there, but mostly as I was working on it, it felt like I was exploring something that was different from myself.
I never really thought of making this character a male. When I was a kid, the books for teenagers my age were also very girl-heavy. And so, I had no issue with that. Most of the books I read had girl protagonists because most of the books out there were by girl authors. Most of the boy books, at the time, were mostly about people who are good at baseball, or something like that. In a pre-Harry Potter era, publishers probably felt boys didn’t read a lot of books. The stuff that I read then had girl protagonist, so it was sort of a wheelhouse I understood.
I think when most people hear the term “YA novel” they assume it’s dealing with some sort of mystery or fantastical characters or the lifestyles of the rich and young. Talk about what you wanted to achieve with “Firecracker,” and how it sort of sets itself apart.
I don’t currently read a ton of young adult stuff, and I wasn’t really trying to figure out what was out there in the world before I set out with this. Just from what I saw, there was a lack of books that had a point of view that was funny and played with perspective and language -- just be funny. I was just trying to put myself in my own head of what I would want to read as a teenager. I loved reading funny books then, and books with a strong voice. I’m still not 100% up on what’s out there in the YA world. I know that my book is not totally what every other book is -- I would probably prefer that anyway. I’m just trying to appeal to the young reader who has a similar sensibility as me.
In reading it, it almost felt like parts could be broken up into different episodes. Was that intentional?
The TV writer brain of mine was probably working a little bit in that way. I also write screenplays sometimes. I was just trying to do something different -- not think as plot-heavy, not think in terms of what the movie story is. And so I didn’t outline very vigorously, I just kind of wrote and sought where it went. The voice rambles a bit and goes back and forth. That was sort of freeing to not know where she’s going. It does feel a little bit episodic, but it all coalesces in the end, and it’s all very specifically filtered through her point of view.
Did you have anyone in this demo to get feedback from -- like, “How long do you prefer chapters to be?” or “Do you prefer hunky love interests or nerdy ones?”
I did, but not for guidance on that. When I finished my first or second draft, I had my wife’s then-13-year-old cousin read it. She said she got in trouble in class for reading it and laughing out loud while reading it. And I was like, “OK, I’m on the right track.” I assume that most people, including me, don’t care how long their chapters are.
Were you writing this as you were working on “New Girl” -- and was it difficult to separate the antics of juvenile adults and the antics of actual juveniles?
Ha! I finished most of it before I started at “New Girl” -- I was working on it while I was at “United States of Tara” and “Up All Night.” I was able to compartmentalize. I did use my office space on weekends, just to have a different place to write. It was hard to work on it the same days I was writing for the shows. I did it mostly on weekends and Christmas vacation because, yeah, when you’re working on a show, you’re very much in the world of those characters and all you do is talk about the lives of these people. It would take a day or two to clear my brain before I could get back into the book and write it.
Let’s sort of get into your sweet description of public school, shall we? Astrid says paper there smells like herpes medicine and body odor; she also said the thought of it made her mouth taste like urine. What awful public school did you go to?
She hated it more than I did, I think. I went back to my old high school and I read a bit of the book. I went to Freehold Township High School in Freehold, N.J. It was only when I was standing at a podium in front of a class full of kids reading about how unflattering I described the school did I realize I may have gone too far -- to them, to their faces. No one probably wants the place they have to go to every day insulted to their faces.
And when I went back there, the place was so much nicer than in the filter of my memory. I was very much taken by the first time I walked through -- I think it was middle school -- I was taken by the smell of urine. I’ll always associate that with public schools. It’s like the smell of glue and magazines. And also, for someone like Astrid, who came from a place that was so wealthy and ornate, to be inside a large public school for the first time, she would see it more harshly than most people would.
Astrid breaks down the fourth wall a lot in the book. Talk about the decision to do that.
I just thought that would be fun. I made a character who I did not believably think read a lot of books. I wanted it to feel like she is literally having a conversation with the reader and, so, she does not get extremely hung up in descriptive phrases or grammar, even. I just think she is someone who would understand that she is talking to someone reading a book. And I remember reading a few books like that. I’m not comparing myself to Kurt Vonnegut, but I remember I was obsessed with Kurt Vonnegut when I was 17. In “Breakfast of Champions,” he broke the fourth wall. It just blew my mind. I was probably trying to crib a few things off of him with that.
And you make use of some curse words. Is that something the publisher was like, “Hey, maybe let’s stay away from doing that,” or does that give it an edge that would appeal to young readers?
I asked! I asked if it was OK. And they said, “Yeah, it’s fine. If it gets out of control, we’ll tell you.” And I was down to the copy editing stage, there were a few times they were like, “Eh, maybe take out a few of them here.” So I took out a few, I fought for a few. I think once I was allowed to curse in it, I just kind of let it fly. Because it’s naïve to ignore that teens don’t use that language. That is how they speak to one another; it was more true than anything else -- to have her curse when she needed to curse instead of finding a weird euphemism.
In the cluttered world of female protagonists, what did you want Astrid to be? Who did you want her to represent? I mean, she’s a girl that likes juice boxes! I would think she’d be guzzling the latest energy drink.
The juice box is the one thing that Astrid and I are most similar about. That was a weird quirk that I gave her that I had. Beyond that, I just wanted to explore what a teenager would be like without the anxiety of failure plaguing them all the time. If I think back to my own adolescence, you kind of walk into every interaction fearful of how it would end up. Astrid is just kind of someone who expects to prevail at all times. Even when she sort of loses her ability -- the book is about her overcoming the crutches she’s become used to. At the same time, I think that trying to see the world from somebody who ... she says, at one point, that when she looks at herself in the mirror, she’s pretty pleased to be the person that she is. It’s a great wish fulfillment to think about being somebody who goes through life not wanting to be anyone else other than the person that she is. I think that’s what makes her exciting.
How did you come up with the premise for the story? She lives in a rocket ship, but it’s not sci-fi. There’s a guy she comes to like in the book, but the focus is not a sappy love story.
I worked on it for a really long time in different permutations. I had this image of who Astrid was. I wrote it as a TV pilot, as a bunch of short stories, as a screenplay, and then finally as a book. By the time I sat down to write the book, I knew the character so well and was just trying to find the right place to tell her story. I was able to vomit out words at a much faster pace than I usually have before. Most of the revisions for this book involved editing it down, rather than expanding on too many things. Astrid’s world just became something I immediately got almost as soon as I wrote down her name. I knew who she was. The more I explored her, the more I understood the people in her family and what their voices would be. It was the one character that I’ve come up with that’s felt completely there, almost like she lived outside of me. We had this weird symbiotic relationship where I was writing stuff down, and she would probably despise me if she ever met me.
So do you hope to make it a book series, or is this a one-off?
I’m trying to figure that out now. It took so long to write this one, that I’m trying to figure out if by the time I put out the second one, if anyone will remember the first one. I would love a situation where I could write Astrid forever. I’m trying to figure out for myself whether I should and whether people will want me to.
Well, now that you’re currently working on “New Girl,” which of those characters would be most likely to write a YA novel, and what would they title it?
Well, Nick Miller is a writer, an aspiring novelist, but I don’t think he would write anything for teenagers. I think Schmidt would write a YA novel, purely for financial reasons, thinking it’s a segment of the publishing world that can be manipulated and utilized. And he would pick pieces from every successful YA novel out there and mush it into one sort of grand thing. Make a fake name or place himself Schmidt as some sort of gender ambiguous person and let the money flow in.
He would call it “Vampire Wizard Cash Grab.”
[For the record, 2:40 p.m. May 30: An earlier version of this post incorrectly put Iserson’s age at 36. He is 35.]
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