The Nexus of Pop-Culture Fandom

Interview of Meredith Zeitlin, Author of Freshman Year and Other Unnatural Disasters

Written by: Beth Woodward, CC2K Books Editor

How did you come up with the idea for Freshman Year and Other Unnatural Disasters?

Well, I wanted to write a book that was sort of a response to the Gossip Girl/Clique/etc. craze – a book about a REAL girl in NYC, who isn’t drinking martinis at the Savoy while clutching a limitless platinum card and having X-rated affairs with half of her school, but who drinks wine coolers in her friend’s living room, has parents that drive her insane, and thinks everyone is having sex but her. A book with a cast of relatable characters like the ones I loved growing up, who made me feel like I wasn’t the only awkward bookworm in the world. And since I’m always getting into ridiculous situations that my friends find very amusing, I thought readers would enjoy a character who had a similar affliction. The idea for the book was always more about the characters than the plot… that sort of unfolded itself as I was writing.

Was your own freshman year of high school anything like Kelsey’s?

My freshman year was hard but ultimately really rewarding, so I guess the answer is mostly a yes. I started at a brand new school that year – and it was an all-girls’ school, which I was NOT thrilled about. I had to maneuver around a totally unfamiliar campus (it was made up of many different buildings and not just one like my old school) and make all new friends, which was especially tricky because many of the girls had been going to school together since they were babies. Suffice it to say, there were rock-solid cliques that had existed for years. And of course I missed my friends from middle school. But I actually ended up loving it – I did make lots of friends, and figure out where to sit at lunch, and got cast in a lead role in the school play, and somehow ended up on the lacrosse team – a sport I’d never even heard of before. (In a related story, I was TERRIBLE at it. But I stuck it out, just like Kelsey does.) And of course, there were plenty of disasters…

One of the things I liked about the book is how Kelsey’s voice and inner monologue sounded so authentic. How did Kelsey’s character develop for you?

You know, I didn’t really have to think too hard about it. Kelsey is based so much on me that I just sat down and wrote what she felt. I still remember so distinctly how intense everything was when I was a teenager, and how much meaning was imbued into everything that was happening – the smallest slight, the most minor mistake… feeling so sure that every eye was on you at all times. (As an adult, I guess I’m supposed to have learned that most people are really only paying attention to themselves… but I still get tangled up in that web sometimes!) And since most of the adventures in the book are based on my real experiences, all I had to do was comb through my memories for stuff to torture Kelsey with as the story got longer, and let her comment on it.

Most of the defining experiences of Kelsey’s freshman year seem to be embarrassing experiences. Do you have any embarrassing teenage moments of your own you’d be willing to share?

As I said, most of Kelsey’s embarrassing experiences were based on my own (though details have been tweaked slightly to protect the innocent)., so you’ve already read a bunch of them! The two MOST embarrassing moments of my young life, however, do not appear in this book. One happened on the first day of sixth grade… I always liked to wear a skirt to school on the first day, and my mom had gotten me this outfit I ADORED – it was a matching skirt and top and it was cream-colored and it had these blue bicycles printed all over it. (It was the early 90s, okay? Gimme a break.) After the morning assembly, I jumped off the bleachers to go meet my friends, and the skirt got tucked in on itself and completely exposed EVERYTHING. Luckily for me, another kid told me about it and as far as I know, no one else saw… but I was so horrified that it was months before I’d wear a skirt again. Even thinking about it now makes me want to cry. The other most embarrassing moment involves me, age 14, on a trip to the Busch Gardens’ Safari, a pair of lions mating, and my insane parents refusing to drive on and wanting to talk about it instead (in vivid detail) with me and my sister while a line of angry rental cars honked at us. That one might make it into a book sometime – free preview!

It seems like teenage behavior in books goes one of two ways: either toward full-on debauchery or 1950s sitcom clean. The teenagers in your book are somewhere in between. What are your thoughts on drinking, sex, and drug use in young adult fiction?

I wanted to write a book that was realistic, and to me that IS an in-between place. Teens explore alcohol, drugs, and sex in real life – that’s just a fact, though of course every kid has his or her own journey. I tried to show that in my story; each of Kelsey’s friends and Kelsey herself handle these tricky topics differently. Of course I realize that “real” is going to be different for everyone based on their own experiences, but the world of this book reflects my own experiences and those of pretty much all the kids I grew up with. And also those of the girl I was babysitting at the time I wrote the book, who went to a school much like Kelsey’s and lived in Park Slope. The reaction to the “bad” stuff has been interesting and surprising to me – some people think there is too much drinking. And of course everyone is entitled to their opinion, no question. But to me… that’s flat-out what high school was like, right from the start. Whether you participated or not – and not all of Kelsey’s friends do, by the way – alcohol was omnipresent. Ditto smoking and hooking up and all that other stuff. And I wanted the book to reflect that. And also to show that, just like in real life, sometimes there are consequences to trying “bad” things, and very often there are not. That’s just how life works. But every YA book is different – some kids aren’t ready to read about a “realistic” experience, or don’t want to, and that’s fine. Other teens are interested in reading grittier content, which is also okay. I think it’s great that there’s something for everyone out there. I know when I was growing up I read all kinds of books about all kinds of experiences, and it was important to me to reflect on how my own world was similar… or not.

What were some of the books that inspired you as a teenager?

I’ve always been an avid reader and nothing was off-limits in my house (literature-wise, anyway). I read everything from post-modern lit to my old YA faves to sci-fi and fantasy to romance novels… I just read and read, and everything inspired me, simply because I was adding new information to my impression of the world in general. Nothing has changed – I’m usually reading a few books at the same time, and always learning about the way people interact with each other or experience loss, love, other places, genius, history, fear, war, hilarity… reading is an adventure, always.

How did you get into writing young adult fiction?

I’ve always been drawn to quirky and/or funny girls in YA classics – like the Anastasia books by Lois Lowry, or Judy Blume’s and Paula Danziger’s novels. Years ago I babysat for a girl who was about 11 at the time, and I thought her YA books were kind of cookie-cutter and not especially well-written, not to mention almost exclusively about the kinds of things I mentioned above – super rich and sophisticated kids, or supernatural creatures. Both of which are fine… but ultimately fantasy. So I decided to write something of my own that was more like the books I had loved. I guess I’m sort of a young adult myself, still; I’m a person who spends a great deal of time in PJ pants, watching cartoons and dyeing my hair crazy colors, after all. And I have never forgotten how it feels to be that age, and all the insecurities and excitements that go with it. I still feel them! I connect to tweens and teens really easily out in the real world – better than I do with a lot of “grown-ups,” if you want to know the truth. And while I love books in general, there’s something about literature that’s both nostalgic for adults and relatable for kids that’s really appealing to me. So I think it’s a great fit for me as a writer.

The young adult market is hot right now. Are there any other YA authors whose work you really like or admire?

I just finished “Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children” by Ransom Riggs which was nothing like I expected and absolutely wonderful. I also love Cassandra Clare, JK Rowling, Meg Rosoff, Louise Rennison, E. Lockhart (who was kind enough to blurb my book!), Kathleen O’Dell… so many! I have to get my hands on John Green’s books; everyone is buzzing about his latest novel and I haven’t read any of the others yet! Of course, I still love my old school YA – the authors I mentioned above, plus my beloved Christopher Pike, Ellen Conford, Roald Dahl, Lois Duncan… I could do this all day.

What was your path to publication like?

Getting to the release date of this book was very challenging – mostly because of forces out of my control. Without going into too much detail, once I finished the initial manuscript, I sent the book out to a few agents and one of them signed me. She started sending it to publishers and one of them – Putnam – decided to buy it. After that, the struggle began. My first editor gave me a lot of confusing notes and asked for totally pointless and time-consuming rewrites that never got used. He was eventually let go, and the publication date got pushed back and back… it was incredibly frustrating. But I got picked up by a new and fabulous editor who totally got me and the book, and it’s been smooth sailing since then! Do you have any other projects in the works? I wrote a children’s picture book that I’m hoping will find a home soon, and a friend and I wrote a super-creepy horror feature. (So, some pretty different stuff!) I’m also working on a second YA novel. It’s not a sequel to Freshman Year…, but it takes place in the same world, so you’ll see some of the characters again – including Kelsey!

Thank you so much for your time, Meredith!

Thank YOU for having me on the blog! 😉