An avid writer since childhood, Carol Weston published her first article in Seventeen magazine at age 19, when she was a student at Yale. A decade later, she wrote Girltalk: All the Stuff Your Sister Never Told You (Harper & Row, 1985), which has been published in 12 languages and is currently in its fourth edition. Since 1994 Weston has penned the “Dear Carol” advice column for Girls’ Life magazine, and wrote several additional nonfiction books for girls before delving into fiction with The Diary of Melanie Martin (Knopf, 2000). Three subsequent Melanie Martin books followed, and now the author introduces two new heroines in Ava and Pip (Sourcebooks, Mar.), a middle-grade novel about an outgoing, wordplay-loving girl and her painfully shy older sister. Manhattan resident Weston spoke with PW about this latest chapter in her diverse writing career.
What was it that inspired you to begin writing – and publishing – at a young age?
I’d say I was sort of a natural writer as a kid. I come from a very warm family of word nerds – and I mean that in the best possible way. My mother was the gardening editor of House & Garden and my dad wrote documentaries for TV. I always kept a diary, and though I loved reading all kinds of books, at bedtime I was more likely to write in my diary than read. I remember writing about everything – even what I had for lunch that day in school.
At what point did you decide to try your hand at fiction?
I love writing my advice column and nonfiction books for girls, but I’d always wanted to write a novel. I was a little bit intimidated by the thought of trying fiction, though – I didn’t know what I would write about. So I decided I had to give myself some advice and give it a try, and that’s when Melanie Martin was born.
And now you’ve given life to Ava and Pip. What inspired these characters?
Well, they definitely come from someone who’s had a long career as an advice columnist. I hear from girls in crisis – girls who are dealing with issues like cutting and anorexia – but I also hear from many girls who have issues like Ava’s and Pip’s. Ava feels as though her mother isn’t paying enough attention to her and focusing all her attention on Pip. Ava feels sorry for her very shy sister, but also gets mad that Pip is sucking up all the family energy. That can really take a toll on siblings. My fictional world is realistic, and this is a very real issue. I wanted Ava to find her way and no longer feel invisible.
You have daughters in their mid 20s. Did their relationship as adolescents influence Ava and Pip’s dynamic?
Not really. My kids have had typical sibling rivalry over the years, but they are definitely not Ava and Pip. I had two older brothers, and as the competent third child, I didn’t get as much attention as they did, and I got a little bruised thinking that no one was paying attention to me. When kids are overlooked, they sometimes have to ask for what they want. I didn’t learn that early on, but Ava does, and reaches out to her father for help. I want this novel to speak to those kids who want to feel more visible.
And of course Ava and Pip tackles another issue that affects many adolescents: extreme shyness.
I’ve known shy young women, and my heart goes out to them. They just aren’t able to speak up, and that can be a real social disability. I’ve had many, many girls write to me about this problem, and I give them the same advice that Ava gives Pip about how to initiate a conversation: give someone a compliment. If you give a compliment, that person will be nice back.
That’s good advice for anyone, shy or not.
Yes, it is. With my novels, I set out to write wonderful fiction and not a message book or a book of pointers. But I do want to write a book that’s helpful as well, and I hope shy kids find this novel. I would love it if a shy girl wrote to me and said she followed the advice Ava gives Pip and it worked. That would be wonderful. Mostly, I hope that readers have fun reading Ava and Pip – that in itself is a victory for me. I don’t need them to take away much more than that, except the importance of being kind and thinking about the potential impact of their words.
Both the Melanie Martin series and Ava and Pip are written in diary format. What do you like about this technique?
Since I was a young diary keeper, I think it’s a bit more comfortable for me to write in diary form. The words flow a little more easily. For readers, it’s appealing to be invited right into the character’s head, and not just into the character’s world. I like making inside jokes, like having a protagonist write, “I’m so glad no one else is going to see this – I’d be so embarrassed!” It’s me winking at the reader.
At the beginning of the novel, Ava realizes that the names of everyone in her family – Mom, Dad, Ava Elle, and Pip Hannah – are palindromic. Does that sort of wordplay especially strike your fancy?
Well, my husband, Rob Ackerman, is a playwright and also writes for Saturday Night Live, and we both like to use wordplay. My youngest daughter’s name is Emme, and years ago, when a friend of mine first met her, she remarked that Emme’s name is a palindrome. I think maybe that’s when the seed for the story was first planted. Then as I was writing the novel, it was sort of a breakthrough moment when I knew that Ava was into palindromes. I let her run with it, with a bit of reigning in.
Will we see more of Ava and Pip?
Yes, I just finished a second book, Ava and the Taco Cat – Taco Cat being a palindrome, obviously! I don’t yet have a plot for a third book, but I am hoping to have the opportunity to write one. I’d love to keep following Ava and Pip around and seeing what they’re up to. I really do enjoy their company.
Ava and Pip by Carol Weston. Sourcebooks Jabberwocky, $15.99 Mar. ISBN 978-1-4022-8870-8