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The traveling sisterhood of 'How to Be Bad'
Usually when I go out to interview authors, I don't feel as if I've stumbled into a slumber party. As soon as I turned up in Duke's Coffee Shop on the Sunset Strip to meet Emily Lockhart, Sarah Mlynowski and Lauren Myracle to talk about their joint novel, "How to Be Bad" (HarperTeen: $16.99, ages 14 and up), I was immediately immersed in a discussion about the relative sexiness of men of different nationalities, just because of my Dutch last name.
Lauren: Are Dutch men sexy? I've been trying to decide about a character in a new book.
Emily: Oh, any guy not from here.
Sarah: No! Isn't it better if it's the boy next door, and she has to learn to love someone close to home?
Emily: Any guy not from here. You know hormones are my department.
Sarah: [Remembering they're being interviewed] My department's plot.
Lauren: And mine's emotion.
The three authors, well known for their previous (individual) work, set out as a lark to write a novel together -- without really knowing each other beforehand. The result is a fast-paced story of a road trip taken by three girls -- two friends and one who wants to be -- told in three voices with alternating chapters. Vicks, the character voiced by Emily (nom de plume "E.") Lockhart ("The Boyfriend List," "Fly on the Wall") is the wild girl; the purpose of the road trip is to pay a visit to her wayward boyfriend, who's gone off to college in Miami and isn't staying in touch. Vicks' best friend, Jesse, the character voiced by Myracle ("ttyl" and other popular books that make literature from e-mail speak), provides the car and enough Christian values to put the brakes on any truly bad behavior -- unless it's her own issues inspiring the bad behavior. Mel, the character voiced by Mlynowski ("Bras & Broomsticks"), is the pretty outsider with the credit card and a desire to belong. The three authors have such good chemistry, it was fun just to sit back and listen to them talk.
Sarah: We did not know each other when we started this book. I'd met Emily a few times. I started a MySpace teen lit discussion group and invited people to join. We started with eight people; now it's 14,000.
Lauren: These two were like rock stars to me . . .
Emily: Right, and she's the New York Times bestselling author!
Lauren: . . . and Sarah had asked, "What are you reading?" So I posted that I was reading "Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist" [a 2006 collaborative novel by well-known young-adult authors Rachel Cohn and David Levithan], and I wrote, "I want to do that one day."
Emily: I saw her post and posted back, "Any time, baby!" I could have e-mailed her, but I put it in a very public forum. I posted it. I just threw it out there. Writing a book together is like getting married, and I treated it like a date!
Lauren: I saw the post. I was thrilled and scared. I know I seem really friendly, but I'm a closet introvert. You know when you're a kid, and you like a guy, and he smiles back at you? Emily had just smiled back.
Sarah: Well, I saw the posts and said: "No way are they doing this without me." I had met Emily a few times -- we had the same publisher -- and [to Emily], I had read your books. I felt like I knew you.
Lauren: We all had other books going and other book contracts. It was foolish to jump into this.
Sarah: That was part of the appeal! It was an excellent procrastination tool!
Lauren: If you haven't figured this out, Sarah is the "yes" person.
Emily: She fears nothing. We would never have gotten started without her.
Lauren: And our agents might have talked us out of it! We all had different agents and editors. We didn't even tell them right away. When we finally went to them [with the first chapters], my agent said, "What have you done? You're overcommitted already!" We ended up not selling the book to any of our own houses but auctioning off the first 100 pages.
Sarah: The editor who bought it had been the editor on my adult books, who had moved to HarperTeen.
One of the greatest difficulties in the collaborative process, the three agree, is trying to establish some consistency, even with different characters speaking.
Sarah: Lauren came up with the rules.
Lauren: We had to love and respect each other. We could not consider our work to be stupid, our own or anyone else's, even if it was just a crappy first draft. We each had one week to write a chapter and pass it on, no matter what else we were working on. And every chapter had to move the plot forward.
Sarah: We thought of a book that was something like "The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants."
Lauren: But we wanted the girls to be together, we wanted to know what Jesse was thinking about Vicks and Mel.
So they hit on the notion of having a single story that is told from shifting points of view.
Lauren: We thought it was pretty good when we were finished. After all, we had three sets of eyes on it. But the editor really did some work on it. Remember the chapter about Vicks' flatulence? The editor's the one who said it would be funnier told from Mel's point of view.
Emily: Yes, she was a lot more aggressive than I thought she would be. She didn't respect the ownership of each character the way we had done. We met for the first time [after selling the first chapters] to plan out the rest of the book.
Sarah: I always work from an outline.
Lauren: I thought the unpredictability was good, I thought we'd just keep working that way, but Sarah said, "Yes, that was good for the start, but now we need an outline."
Sarah: Emily and I were going to Florida for a conference and we invited Lauren to come with us. We had never met her! I asked her to share my room with me.
Lauren: I was shy and scared; it was a leap of faith for me. There is a safety in e-mailing. But I loved Sarah right away.
Emily: I'm harder to love right away.
Lauren: No, you're not! But you're very smart, and you use these big words. I know the words, I just . . . don't use them.
Emily: Anyway, we had a great time together. We did interpretive dances, we sat in hot tubs, we went to Epcot and Gatorland. [The tourist attractions of Florida, especially the out-of-the-way ones, figure in the plot of "How to Be Bad."] There were these big alligators, and they dangle chickens over them, and the alligators leap at them. People even hold their small children up so they can see better, and you're thinking, "Get that child out of there!" Those alligators can move fast.
Sarah: When you go on vacation with people, you learn a lot about them.
Lauren: Did you hear that Gatorland burned down?
Emily and Sarah: No!
Lauren: Yes, I read about it. They had to move it or something. And I also wanted to go to Holy Land, because Jesse, my character, is a Christian, but it was closed on Sunday! Can you believe that? The book might have been completely different if we had visited Holy Land. Actually, I was worried readers would find Jesse off-putting because she's Christian. She's not really exactly me, but my brother is a minister.
Sarah: Mel's character is Jewish.
Emily: There was originally more discussion about religion. We ended up cutting a lot of it, just for pacing. They would sit around for pages and talk. I liked those differences between the characters. I haven't gotten to explore differences like that in my other books. We did decide not to make them privileged characters. They all work at a Florida waffle house, which really is a chain restaurant.
Privileged or not, all the kids have cellphones, of course, without which no plot about contemporary teenagers would stand up. There's a pivotal scene in which a lost cellphone is used to reveal secrets.
Emily: The cellphone is not my friend.
Sarah: My cellphone calls random people.
Lauren: Kids use cellphones in all kinds of complicated ways. They call each other using someone else's cellphone, so the person won't know who's calling. We used that because we needed Jesse to find out information accidentally.
Emily: One of the ideas in the book is that we have all this technology to keep in touch, but Brady [the college boyfriend] won't call Vicks, and Jesse won't call her mother. There's an expectation about keeping in touch, but we resist it.
Lauren: But on the road we escape those connections and reconnect with one another in a human way . . . that's brilliant! I never thought of that!
Emily: But we wrote it.
Censorship is on the minds of the three authors, especially since Lauren's book "ttyl," was recently named to the list of the 10 most challenged books in 2007 by the American Library Assn.
Emily: Books are meant to open doors. If a parent reads a book in which teenagers pick up a hitchhiker or drink at a party [both things happen in this book], wouldn't you think it's an opportunity to talk about it? To ask, "What would you do in that situation?" If you just take it off the shelf, that says to your kid: "Never talk to me about anything!" It closes the door between parents and children.
Lauren: We didn't write a guidebook to bad behavior.
Emily: It's a guide to finding your badassness.
Sarah: Your bad-BOTTOM-ness!
Lauren: My editor told me, "Lauren, you're wired in such a way to remember what it was like to be a tween, but you have the life experience to give some perspective on it and put it into words."
Emily: People seem to think young-adult authors put in sex to increase sales, but by and large, sex inhibits sales, because a lot of libraries won't buy your book. And let's face it, if you want to be edgy and glamorous, you don't write for this age. Do you think it's glamorous at literary parties to say, "I write for kids"? You only do it because you love the audience.
To read about the authors' road trips -- the one they took for writing inspiration and the one they're on now for book promotion -- check out the many online sources:
E. Lockhart's website: www.theboyfriendlist.com
Sarah Mlynowski's website: www.sarahm.com
Lauren Myracle's website: www.laurenmyracle.com
Also have a look at the publisher's site, www.harperteen.com, and "How to Be Bad" on www.myspace.com/how_to_be_bad.
Sonja Bolle's Word Play column appears monthly at www.latimes.com/books.