Young adult books that talk about serious teen issues like child abuse, STD’s and drugs can be very sad but the lessons learned from these novels are priceless. Some teens only have the characters in their books to relate to. Authors take advantage of their ability to reach those young teens and help them survive their tough times.
Jessica Verdi adresses a very serious topic in her debut “My Life After Now” and she answers some of our questions about her journey writing and publishing her novel.
Hmm… let’s see. I can’t whistle or do a cartwheel. But I can do a heck of a somersault.
How much research went into writing MY LIFE AFTER NOW?
Quite a bit, actually. Lots of reading, documentary-watching, and interviews. I even went to New York City’s free clinics and went through the STI testing process, so my character’s experience would be as authentic as possible. One thing that really surprised me was that there were so few books written about the topic of HIV/AIDS as it pertains to children and teenagers. Even though My Life After Now is fiction, I hope it will help fill that void, at least a little bit!
MY LIFE AFTER NOW talks about a serious topic. What message do you hope your readers take away from your debut?
I hope My Life After Now will encourage readers to start thinking and talking more about HIV/AIDS. It seems people aren’t talking about this issue as much as they used to (probably partially due to the fact that people aren’t dying of AIDS as rapidly as before, thanks to medications), and therefore it’s become almost a “forgotten” problem. But young people are still contracting HIV at an alarming rate, so hopefully this book will do its small part to remind teenagers that HIV/AIDS is still a very real problem, that it can happen to anyone, and that they should always be careful to protect themselves.
How has your experience in musicals made its way into your writing?
I was an actor in New York City for ten years after high school, and have loved theater, music, and musicals my entire life. When I was first writing the book, I knew I wanted my main character, Lucy, to be your typical teenager, a girl who is passionate about something and has big plans for her future. I figured, what could be more perfect than incorporating my own experiences with theater into Lucy’s life? I know that world so well that it just made sense. Theater plays a huge role in the book – even the chapter titles are the titles of songs from musicals.
How do you deal with writers block?
When I have writers block, it’s usually because I’m exhausted or feeling so overwhelmed with “real” work that my “creative” work suffers. When that happens, I curl up on my couch and lose myself in a TV show marathon. Usually The Vampire Diaries or Gilmore Girls or Buffy the Vampire Slayer. These shows are so well written and their characters are so multi-dimensional that it’s a perfect reminder of the magic of storytelling. Then I get all inspired to tell my own stories, and sit back down in front of the computer.
We can imagine how writing MY LIFE AFTER NOW could have been very emotional. What was the hardest scene to write and why?
That’s a great question. The hardest scene to write was probably the scene where Lucy finds out she has HIV. I had to put myself in her shoes and really feel what she was feeling. She goes through a million different emotions, but one of them is a sense of extreme bleakness. And I had to figure out a way to get that emotion onto the page in a ways that wasn’t flat – even though the character is feeling flat in that moment. It was incredibly tricky to pull off – I hope readers’ think it worked!
Some authors collect personalities, some collect sentences people say and some collect characteristics. During your writing journey did you find yourself collecting/compiling anything that helped your writing?
I knew I wanted the chapter titles to be song titles, but I also knew I didn’t want to use more than one song from any particular musical. So as I wrote I found myself listening to a LOT of musicals and compiling massive lists of song titles. Then after I wrote the first draft, I went back and filled in the chapter titles, pulling the best-fitting songs from my giant list. This process also helped me submerge myself deeper into Lucy’s world. She’s surrounded by theater all the time, and so was I as I wrote.
If you could choose 4 songs to soundtrack your book what would they be?
Ooh, there are so many. Let’s see.
– “Will I?” from Rent
– “Fifteen” by Taylor Swift
– “Being Alive” from Company
– “Three Little Birds” by Bob Marley
I actually wrote a couple of complete novels before getting this one published. My advice to aspiring authors is to keep at it, and don’t rush yourself. I know how exciting it is to type “The End” on a manuscript and immediately want to start querying agents. I would say, wait. Congratulate yourself on finishing your draft, and celebrate with a glass of wine or a donut or whatever, and then work to make the draft even better.
We all become better writers the more we write. Join a critique group, give the manuscript to a trusted friend, get feedback any way that you can. Get it professionally copyedited if you know that grammar isn’t one of your strong points. Outside observers will always find things about your book that can help improve it. Getting that second, third, fourth opinion is crucial. Revise, edit, and after you’ve gotten to the point where you truly believe you can’t make it any better, then start querying.
For me, getting my MFA in Creative Writing (concentration in Writing for Children) was a major step in the road to publication. Before I started that program, I really had no idea how the publishing business worked. But I met people, made connections, learned a ton, immersed myself in the genre, and by the time I was ready to start querying agents, I felt like I knew what I was getting into. I was lucky enough to land an amazing agent, and we worked together to revise the manuscript before sending it out to editors.
Finally, what would you like to say to your readers before diving into MY LIFE AFTER NOW?
Thank you so much for taking the time to read this interview and for your interest in my book. I hope you enjoy reading Lucy’s story as much as I enjoyed writing it!
Jessica Verdi lives in Brooklyn, NY and received her MFA in Writing for Children from The New School. Her favorite pastimes include singing showtunes at the top of her lungs (much to her husband’s chagrin), watching cheesy TV, and scoring awesome non-leather shoes in a size 5. She’s still trying to figure out a way to put her uncanny ability to remember both song lyrics and the intricacies of vampire lore to good use.