Saturday 18 January 2020

‘It felt like I'd never be able to write again’ – New York Times bestselling author Gayle Forman

The author of 'If I Stay' which went on to become a movie starring Chloe Grace Moretz reveals the struggle she faced writing her latest YA novel, I Have Lost My Way

Gayle Forman
Gayle Forman
Aoife Kelly

Aoife Kelly

Gayle Forman has been thrilling her many fans with an almost yearly release of a new young adult title since 2007, but the author of the New York Times bestseller If I Stay admits she struggled with her latest offering.

The aptly-titled I Have Lost My Way was published in April, almost three years after her first foray into the adult market (with Leave Me) and an eternity for her fans. 

It charts the intertwining stories of three young strangers - Freya, Hurun, and Nathaniel - who are thrust into each other's very different lives one fateful day in Central Park, and who are are each struggling with issues ranging from parental abandonment to lost first love. It's a poignant and emotional yet uplifting read about the power of friendship and being true to who you are.  Forman has a knack for fully inhabiting the heads of her young characters whose lives are played out in high definition in modern day New York.

However, a period of writer's block and some 'existential' wrangling ensued before the main protagonist, Freya, arrived fully-formed on the page. 

Gayle Forman
Gayle Forman

"Yes, it’s true," she tells Independent.ie of that her struggles. "Though writer's block makes it sound like I couldn’t write anything when in fact I was working feverishly, starting, and abandoning seven different book projects.

"So it felt more existential than that. Like I could not write anymore. Like I’d never be able to write again. I’ve always made sense of my world through writing, and now I support my family with it, too so it was terrifying on many levels. I kept thinking, 'I used to know how to do this and now I don’t. I’ve lost my way'. And after a few months of this, I heard someone else say she’d lost her way. It was Freya. I wrote it down and went from there."

Gayle and her husband have two young daughters who, she says, inspired the character of Freya, an up and coming YouTube star who has lost her voice and is terrified of losing her fans and her future in the music business.

"Freya is absolutely a mix of my two daughters - one is my biological daughter (and white) and the other is adopted from Ethiopia - and the relationship between Freya and her sister Sabrina is a reflection of the complex love/rivalry I see with my girls," she says.

"I started writing novels after I had children (this is maybe one reason why parents always feature so prominently in my work; I refuse to write myself out) and I think that has made me write about young people in a different way."

Has being a mother given her a deeper empathy for her characters? 

Chloe Grace Moretz plays injured cellist Mia in If I Stay
Chloe Grace Moretz plays injured cellist Mia in If I Stay

"I don’t know…I spent a lot of my teens and early twenties traveling and then traveled more as a journalist and I think that experience more than anything taught me to at least try to inhabit someone else’s perspective. Which is handy training for writing fiction," she reveals.

Forman took three years off to travel before college and has been to more than sixty countries.  Her first job was at teen mag Seventeen in the US, but she has also written for Cosmo and Elle among many other publications. 

MAKING MUSIC TOGETHER: Chloë Grace Moretz as Mia and Jamie Blackley as Adam in teen tearjerker If I Stay
MAKING MUSIC TOGETHER: Chloë Grace Moretz as Mia and Jamie Blackley as Adam in teen tearjerker If I Stay

Given her love of travel it's not surprising that her first book was a travelogue, You Can't Get There from Here: A Year On the Fringes of a Shrinking World, published in 2005.  However, it was in YA that she found her groove, first with Sisters in Sanity, published in 2007, followed by If I Stay two years later. The Just One Day trilogy released across 2013 and 2014 and I Was Here was published in 2015.

The experience of having If I Stay adapted for the big screen was, she says, "both surreal and totally natural".

"When I wrote the book, I had no idea it would become a film. It was nonlinear and interior and didn’t necessarily feel like a book, so when I got on set and saw all these people there to help make something because I’d written a book, it was like, woah," she adds.  "But then I was so involved in working on the script and being on set and seeing the editing process through that when I saw the film, it seemed like a natural growth of the book. Which probably speaks to what an authentic adaptation it was."

However exciting it is to have a book optioned, Gayle admits she was skeptical about the idea before it actually happened.

"At first, I was like, 'never going to happen'. And then when it was optioned, I was like, 'obviously it will suck'. But then I saw the script and it was good, and that’s when things get dangerous, because that’s when you start to get invested and care and not want it to suck," she reveals.

"Plus, the story was so personal. It went through a lot of ups and downs and twists and turns and there were points when they were taking it in a direction that I had misgivings about and would rather have not seen the film made. But luckily, it landed with RJ Cutler as director and I knew from the first time I met him, he’d take good care of the baby. And then he came aboard as an executive producer and got more involved so I was pretty confident they wouldn’t ruin it."

The first time she watched her big screen baby was alone, in an editing bay.

"I cried a little. Then I got in my car and drove to a theater where RJ was getting ready to screen it for the first test audience and we watched it on a big screen together, and I cried a lot," she says. "Then I watched it with the test audience and I sobbed. There was something of a communal experience there and hearing other peoples’ sniffles upped my own."

The ability to write from the POV of a teenager when you're a decade or two beyond those tumultuous years is a particular skill but its a mindset the author has always inhabited.

Gayle explains, "When I was in journalism school, I set out to work at the groundbreaking feminist teen magazine called Sassy. It died by the time I got to New York so I went to work for Seventeen instead. I spent years there and then became a freelance writer for 'adult' publications, but I still wrote mostly about young people. When I finally wrote Sisters in Sanity, it was like backing into a calling that in retrospect seemed so obvious."

Staying immersed in what life is like for teenagers today, given the added pressures and difficulties they face thanks to ever-advancing technology and social media, is something Gayle finds comes easy.

"I have a 14-year-old daughter and my job forces me to be on social media so I’m pretty aware of how addictive it is and how it skewers how you interact with the world, particularly if you are a known entity," she says.

"This really informed how I created the character of Freya. I knew when she came to me she’d gotten famous on YouTube but when I started to do a deep dive of how people get famous on YouTube and how they leverage their online popularity for income, it really informed the character. I’m also interested in how performative social media is. How it presents a curated snapshot of life and how harmful that can be."

As a teenager, Gayle says she was a "sensitive, passionate, political, music-loving, yearning, weirdo. So basically, the same as I am now, but with more dramatic swoons."  She adds that her teen years "were difficult but I also remember the thrilling exhilaration of discovery, of feeling the world grow larger. I was an exchange student in England when I was 16 and that year changed my life."

As her novels deal with tough themes - I Have Lost My Way sees a young Muslim man struggling with sexuality, and touches on depression and suicide - Gayle says she does feel an extra pressure of responsibility in doing so for a young adult audience.

"I want to make sure I tell the truth, that the experience feels authentic, even if it’s not something I’ve experienced personally," she says.

"And by nature, I like to tell hopeful stories, which means even though I take my characters to some dark places, I’m interested in seeing how they cope, how they rise to the occasion, how they find hidden pockets of strength in themselves and support from surprising sources. And I’m careful when I am writing about certain issues not to glamorize them. Not just because it’s dangerous for younger audiences but because there’s nothing glamorous about pain. Pain sucks."

These themes resonate with her fans and one which has particularly struck a chord is Allyson's journey in Just One Day.

"Just One Day was probably my least favorite book to write but I have heard from so many girls who were sheltered and 'good' like Allyson who decided to go traveling by themselves after reading that book," she reveals.

"As someone who believes, passionately, in the transformative power of travel, that is deeply humbling But I also feel responsible. I want to make sure they have a good trip. Like maybe I should start a travel agency for Just One Day travel."

Gayle Forman and Brian Conaghan will be at Eason on O'Connell Street, Dublin for a Q&A and signing of their books I Have Lost My Way and The Weight of a Thousand Features at 6pm on Tuesday July 31st.

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