On Tuesday, Arthur A. Levine Books published I Now Pronounce You Someone Else, the debut novel from writer Erin McCahan, edited by moi. I'll let this week's terrific Publishers Weekly review speak to the story:
Offering sharp wit and plenty of romantic interludes, first-time author McCahan captures the excitement and panic of a teenage girl on the fast track to becoming Mrs. Somebody. Seventeen-year-old Bronwen Oliver doesn't feel like she belongs in her family (she entertains escapist fantasies in which she discovers she was switched at birth and is really "Phoebe Lilywhite"). . . . When an old acquaintance, Jared, re-enters Bronwen's life and sweeps her off her feet, Bronwen thinks she's finally found someone to whom she can relate. And she's soon confident that she fits into Jared's world better than she fits into her own. On her 18th birthday, Jared presents her with an engagement ring. After readily accepting his proposal, Bronwen is on cloud nine until realities about potential married life bring her crashing back down. Told in lively first-person narrative, this intelligent romance teaches a hard but relevant lesson about living dreams and letting them go.And that's exactly right -- it's an excellently Austenian romance full of moral development and funny observations, particularly about Bronwen's deeply, um, "eccentric" family. It's also a wonderfully Midwestern book, being set in suburban Michigan and focusing on marriage, which is not a subject that comes up much in coastal-set fiction for YA. (Which is one reason why I was so delighted by it -- my suburban Midwestern roots showing.) Erin answered some questions this week over e-mail:
Tell me about the first book you ever wrote. In elementary school, I wrote a novel – in pencil, in spiral notebooks – about my stuffed animals coming to life at night. I, of course, was the heroine of the novel, and, in it, I followed my stuffed animals one night down the clothes chute, which wasn’t a clothes chute but a portal to a different land consisting of a number of kingdoms inhabited mostly by fairies and wee folk who were forever on the verge of being overthrown by evil fairies. Naturally, I stayed to help these kingdoms defeat the evil fairies by uniting all the good people into one empire, and in the end they thanked me by making me a princess and giving me my own waterfall.
I think I read a paranormal romance with that same plot last year. What is your writing process like? For me, it’s like framing the canvas before painting the picture. I know where to start and where to end. I have a general idea of what the thing will look like, but it always changes along the way.
Are you a planner, or a seat-of-your-pantser? Do you revise as you go along, or only after you've done a huge chunk? Some of the best writing advice I ever got came from my creative writing professor at Hope College who said, “Never write with the intention that you will go back and revise later. Understand there will always be revisions, but they will be easier if you make every effort your best effort.” This very often results in my working on one particular scene for days and days and, occasionally, days.
You spent some time working as a youth minister; what influence did that have on your writing? Did you always intend to write for teenagers, or did/do you write for adults? When I was 27 years old, I wrote a mainstream, adult novel, found an agent for it and thought my life was set. My agent even optioned the thing to a movie producer, so – even better, right? Of course, it all came to nothing, so falling back on my college minor and also some graduate work in seminary, I became a youth minister. Did it for 10 years and loved it, and I discovered, actually, an innate ability to connect with teenagers, who kept me on my toes and made me laugh all the time. So, when I was ready to write another novel, I just very naturally wrote for the YA audience.
Where did this book start for you? This book began when three unrelated concepts collided. Well, bumped into each other, anyway.
- Years ago, I gave myself the alias "Phoebe Lilywhite" because it sounds English, which I wish I were for the accent, and it sounds like the name of someone, like me, who has never been tan in her life.
- I have a shameless fascination with weddings. Tacky. Elegant. Shotgun. I don’t care. I love them all.
- I always wanted to write something about my step-dad, who died before I ever told him how much I loved him.
Erin talks more about the role of "Phoebe Lilywhite" within the novel here:
Did anything surprise you about the way the characters or the book grew or changed during the editorial process? The entire editorial process surprised me. It’s fascinating. It begins conversationally, later involves e-mail and only then gets “down on paper” so to speak. Here’s what people should know and appreciate about Cheryl the Editor: She will not accept, “Well, that’s just the way she is,” as a justification for a character’s actions or thoughts. I tried to claim temperament once. (blushing at self) -- “She was born that way.” Ha! Throughout the editorial process, I had to defend – truly defend – my characters’ motivations, which wholly fleshed them out, and the result is – can I retell a compliment? – that one of the consistent praises I’m receiving from reviewers is that my characters are believable. Wouldn’t have happened without the comprehensive editorial process.
What was your vision of your Dream Wedding in high school? (In mine, all the girls were going to be wearing long, light pink dresses and carrying white flowers, and all the guys would wear gray tuxes with pink cummerbunds, bow ties, and boutonnieres. I have definitely grown out of this.) I think yours sounds too incredibly cute! Mine was going to involve some degree of royalty, so picture English gothic cathedrals, horse-drawn carriages and really dowdy shoes on the groom’s side of the church.
What was your own, real wedding like? I wish I could have bottled how I felt on my wedding day and sold or given it to future brides because my marrying Tim was all about marrying Tim and not about the wedding. It was important to me to be married in a church by a priest. Aside from that, nothing else mattered -- dress, colors, flowers, reception. Nothing. I didn't even want a wedding dress, kept telling my mother I'd just wear a suit I already owned, but we happened to be walking past a store in the mall one day that carried a line of wedding dresses -- eight, I believe -- and I picked the one I wanted from a catalogue, and they shipped it to my house. Didn't bother with a veil.
Tim proposed to me on Feb. 6th, 1999, and we were married the following April 17th. He told me, the night he proposed, that he asked me to marry him, not be engaged to him, and he asked my mother how quickly she could plan a wedding -- reasonably. She, Super Organizer Woman that she is, said eight weeks. We settled on ten weeks in keeping with a 17th theme in our lives. (Tim's birthday is August 17th; mine is October 17th.)
We were married at 11:30 in the morning on an unusually cold and drizzly April day. My brother, David, escorted me down the aisle. (Our father died young, and our step-father did, too.) And one of my funniest memories of the day is of David fairly yanking me back as I tried to bolt down the aisle when the music started. He was so calm and completely together as he set an appropriate processional pace.
Normally, I dislike being watched and was dreading the processional, but I remember feeling nothing but peaceful as I looked at Tim at the altar, and, once David adjusted the pace -- and we shared a near laugh -- I don't remember seeing anyone but Tim.
We each had one attendant, and we had eighty guests and a perfectly Episcopal ceremony and a perfectly Episcopal Brunch At The Club afterwards. We did the traditional cutting-of-the-nondescript-cake and fed each other small bites, and we drank champagne and laughed with friends, and it really was a lovely, simple day.
Bronwen feels strongly that she wants to wait for sex until after marriage -- an interesting contrast to a lot of YA books at present, where sex is a matter-of-fact part of teenage life. Where did you see this conclusion coming from for her? Bronwen is one of those girls who understands that sex is a huge deal. She hasn’t trivialized it to the level of a handshake, and she doesn’t buy the line that it’s special simply because her boyfriend says I love you or even because she says it. She’s smart. So is her best friend, and they see the flaw in the argument that sex is okay in a “committed relationship,” because there really are no committed relationships in high school. Agreeing to date only one person is agreeing to date only one person . . . until you break up with him or he breaks up with you. Which you do. You always do! Bronwen knows this and would rather not share the single most intimate and powerful act with a guy she’s going to break up with one day.
She also visits Jared at college twice for overnights and stays in a girls' dorm, which leads to some of the most fun scenes and conversations in the book. I'm guessing you had a good time at college? Staying up all night talking with your best friends? Few things are better than that.
How did you develop your ear for dialogue? This is such a nice question, thank you. I was a very shy, very quiet child who preferred listening to speaking. What I heard was often less interesting to me than how it was said. It still is, now that I think about it.
What have you been reading recently? Everything by Francisco X. Stork, Alan Bradley, and the 10ers.
Finally, Lightning Round! In the course of the book, Bronwen fills out a Roommate Questionnaire for college. How would you answer these same questions?
1. Do you consider yourself a: Morning Person Evening Person Morning. I’m up early, but I’m not coherent and chatty for an hour at least.
2. Do you usually keep your room: Warm Cool Cold Cool – by which I mean freezing – when my husband’s home. Otherwise warm.
3. Do you consider yourself: Shy Average Outgoing I am a shy person trapped inside the body of an outgoing, chatty person.
4. How often will you let your roommate borrow your clothes? Never Sometimes All the Time She can borrow my clothes, but they have to come back to me cleaned. Preferably professionally. Twice.
5. On weekends, will you be: On Campus Off Campus Well, what’s going on and where is it happening?
6. How many hours a week do you spend watching television or listening to music? Never Three or Four Five to Ten More Than Ten Five to ten – I watch the news morning and night and listen to music on the treadmill.
7. What word best describes the current condition of your room? Occupied.
8. What two qualities would you like most in a roommate? Good hygiene and a contagious laugh.
9. Do you have any allergies? No. There’s some family controversy over this, but no.
10. Do you have any special needs? Yes. At least once a day, I desperately need to be someplace where no one is talking to me.
11. Please list any hobbies or interests that would further help us place you with a compatible roommate. I will be compatible with anyone who likes animals. Doesn’t matter what our other interests are. (I realize this is not scientific, but it’s true.)