Jennifer E. Smith has penned several YA love stories, including This Is What Happy Looks Like, out this month from Little, Brown’s Poppy imprint. In her new novel, a young Hollywood heartthrob accidentally sends an email to a smart, small-town girl, and a relationship blossoms – but a deep family secret threatens to snuff out the romance. Here, Smith talks to Bookshelf about the unusual inspiration for her story, why she likes to stay busy, and the themes readers can expect to find running through her work.
What was the inspiration for your new novel?
This Is What Happy Looks Like was actually inspired by my own e-mail address. I suffer through a lot of e-mail mishaps – anyone with a common name can relate. I started to wonder what would happen if the person who gets half my e-mails actually wrote back to somebody. Fate and serendipity play huge roles in my books. My favorite thing to do is take very different characters, put them together in a situation and see how it plays out. I also really like taking potentially cheesy situations and trying to write them in as un-cheesy a way as possible.
You’re also an editor at Ballantine. How do you negotiate between this job and your writing?
It’s helpful that I edit on the adult side and write on the children’s side, because there is a nice separation between the two. I used to set aside a full day of writing, and then if I was editing, I was editing. But it’s gotten a lot more mashed together over the last year or so.
Other than the obvious issue with time management, I think the two jobs inform each other so much. I feel like I am such a better editor for being a writer. I am much more empathetic to the authors on my list. On the flipside, I don’t think I would have written these books over the last few years if I hadn’t had the experience of being an editor and working in the industry. I have an understanding of the process.
Also, having a day job is actually a nice thing for a writer, because when I have time to write I have to do it. And I don’t have as much time to worry about why my editor hasn’t emailed me back. I thrive on being busy and I feel very lucky. There are so many people who don’t even have one job that they love, and I have two jobs that I am really truly passionate about.
You’ve written several romantic love stories, but you did delve into fantasy with The Storm Makers. What inspired that book?
I said I would never write for boys, write middle grade, or write fantasy. But my sort of third job is teaching therapeutic horseback riding for kids with disabilities, and I work with a lot of boys who are seven, eight, and nine. After working with them for a few years, I started wondering what it would be like to write a book that they might like, since they’re not really into the teen love story.
It’s obviously very different than my other books, but it was fun to write. As much as it has a fantasy element to it, it’s rooted in reality in other ways. Readers won’t necessarily find it totally unrecognizable from my other books. I really like the idea of exploring family relationships, and I think that’s in all of my books. The Storm Makers is about the brother and sister relationship, and it’s about being true to yourself and finding yourself, and hopefully includes good messages.
Sounds as though your interests as a writer are pretty consistent. How about as a reader? What kinds of books did you like to read as a kid?
I am going to tell you the books that I loved and you’re going to think I am such a sad sack. My favorites were Bridge to Terabithia, Where the Red Fern Grows and Tuck Everlasting. I always loved stories that were sweet and sad and hopeful in a way. Recently, I was at a reading, and when I named those three books everyone in the room looked stricken by my choices. I was a really happy kid, so I don’t know why I liked all these really sad books. But those were definitely my favorites and I still try to revisit them here and there.
Can you talk about what you are working on right now?
I have a new book due really soon. It’s called the Geography of Us and it’s another YA love story that will be out next spring with Poppy. It’s about two teens who meet when they get stuck together in an elevator during a blackout. It is based loosely on the 2003 blackout in New York City, even though it takes place now. Afterward, they go their separate ways: one goes to the U.K. and one ends up moving to the West Coast. The book is about how they find their way back to each other again.
Do you always know where your stories are going?
I’m not a great outliner – I wish I were better. My favorite quote is what E.L. Doctorow said about writing: “It’s like driving a car at night: you never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” I know generally where I am going, and what the next chapter is going to be always, but there are always surprises, twists, and turns on the way there that I don’t anticipate when I first start.
This Is What Happy Looks Like by Jennifer E. Smith. Little, Brown/Poppy, $17.99 Apr. ISBN 978-0-316-21282-3
To read PW's review, click here.