Ann Brashares is the author of the bestselling Sisterhood of the Traveling Parents series, several adult novels, and the newly released The Here and Now (Delacorte, Apr.), the story of Prenna James, a girl from the future whose community travels back in time to the present day with the hope of saving the world from a devastating plague. There she meets Ethan and falls in love, though a relationship with him is expressly forbidden. Though Brashares’s newest novel traverses the borders of sci-fi and dystopia, her story maintains the realistic feel of contemporary YA. PW caught up with the author at home in New York City to discuss writing about the future, love across time, and what her writing life is like post-Sisterhood.
How does it feel to have a new book on the horizon?
I’m excited. It’s a little intimidating and a little overwhelming right when the book is about to be published because I want to do all I can to support it, but I’m a little bit shy, too, so I have to gear up for it. I’m not a naturally extroverted person.
You’ve been publishing novels for adults for some time now. Why did you return to YA?
There wasn’t a whole lot of planning. The last three novels I did were for adults, actually, and then one day, I was like, Wow, I haven’t done YA in awhile, and I’d been meaning to get back to it.
These distinctions between YA and adult are a little tricky for a writer, I think. For publishers these distinctions make sense because they determine how a book is marketed, and the publicity around it. But as I write, these distinctions don’t make much of a difference. The protagonist determines the story, really, and I do love writing about characters in their mid-teens and 20s; mid-20s is really far as I’ve gone at this point in terms of age. I’m fascinated by late adolescence and early adulthood so I kind of just stick with that. It’s a great time to write a novel about because it’s such a great time in life. I think, with The Here and Now, I just wanted to go back to a younger age, a character in her teens and with more of a teenage worldview. On one level, Prenna’s worldview is that of a 17-year-old, but she’s also a strange 17-year-old because she’s seen so much. So her age is only one of her many facets – though, I guess age always is only one of a character’s many facets.
So what inspired The Here and Now?
I’m trying to remember exactly what inspired it. The first idea I had was of a girl who’d lived some time in the future – not really, really far away in the future, but a girl from an imaginable, plausible future distance, and she comes back and has a connection with a person who is living now. There was a little bit of Summer of My German Soldier [written by Bette Greene, 1973] that inspired it actually. The book didn’t make a huge impression on me that I recall, but it jumps to mind as connected. Summer of My German Soldier is a YA classic about a Jewish girl in Arkansas during World War II who has a German soldier hiding in her attic. I liked the idea of all the secrecy – Prenna and the people she came back with are really hiding in the world – but for The Here and Now I flipped the genders. The person with all the secrecy and shame in this case is the girl, Prenna, and Ethan, the boy, is the one keeping her secrets.
What sparked your turn to sci-fi/dystopia, as opposed to contemporary YA?
Maybe it’s just the fun of bending reality, of giving yourself more variables to play with – not that reality has a dearth of them. But it just seems fun to me to imagine time-bending scenarios. Tomorrow I could just as easily imagine wanting to do something much more naturalistic and reality-based. I feel like this book is realistic, too – I wanted the premise to give the story and the character an unusual perspective on us and our time, but I also wanted it to represent Prenna’s life and experiences and her love story as contemporary YA. In the last decade or two there has been so much more interest in playing with the elements of reality. But we may be coming off of that. I didn’t consciously think I want to be part of some zeitgeist, but I have this idea of wanting to try a lot of different things and these are the kinds of stories that seem most intriguing right now.
Your adult novel, My Name Is Memory, is also about love across time. What interests you about this topic?
I seem to gravitate toward writing a love story that’s bigger than time, or that isn’t somehow confined to time and space. Maybe that’s a very romantic ideal, taking romance to a Platonic level, to its purest state, beyond all limitations. That makes me sound like a huge romantic and that’s probably fair to say. At the same time, I’m trying to investigate the nitty-gritty of the subject of time itself. I’m interested in what happens if you go back in time, if you have this perspective of someone who lived in another time and then comes to our world and has a perspective as an outsider but then forms a bond with someone here. I like thinking about all the paradoxes and possibilities.
In The Here and Now, the future of humanity is grim because of a plague caused by climate change. Do you worry about this happening for real?
Part of my premise was that there would be a colony of immigrants, and built into that was the question, well, why would they come back from the future? What was the character of the immigration of these people? I wanted the decision to immigrate to be a bit of a desperate maneuver on their part, which accounts for all of their secrecy and the way they are bound to their rules. They didn’t immigrate for fun. Things are pretty grim and the options are few for them.
From a storytelling point of view I was interested in history going backward a bit, in dealing with how we’ve used and abused what we’ve got here. It’s not that I wanted to be pessimistic, but I wanted to tell this particular story and as it unspooled for me it spelled out a pretty dire situation for the planet.
Will there be a sequel?
I don’t know. I didn’t write it as part of a series. I just wanted it to be what it is and to stand alone. After I finished it though, like with any other book I’ve written, there’s was this feeling of I wonder what is going to happen next? So I can imagine wanting to write more about Prenna and Ethan, but I don’t have plans to.
How are you celebrating the release of The Here and Now? Will you go on tour?
I’m doing an event in New York City where I live, on the date of publication [April 8]. I’m doing touring, too. I’m going to the west coast for a week, then I’ll take a break, then I’ll do a Midwest mountain sweep. I have kids and one of them is pretty young, so I try not to spend too many nights away, but I want to get out and read from the book and talk to people about it.
I’m appearing at several teen conferences, which I’m really excited about – TeenBookCon in Houston, and the Rochester Teen Book Festival in Rochester, New York. They represent the incredible change in YA publishing since I first got published myself. There didn’t used to be [a] community of YA writers when I first started; there simply wasn’t anything like there is now. Having taken a bit of a break from YA and the community of it, I feel so thrilled there is so much going on, so much attention, so many writers, and so much talent.
Can you describe what your writing day is like?
I tend to be either immersed in a book and writing a lot, or I’m not at all and I’m busy trying to find my way into something new, or I’m doing a lot of interviews and meetings and I’m teaching a bit. There are certain periods of my life when I’m deeply immersed in a book and I’ll write many hours a day and at night, too. The book I’m working on will be where I live for a while. It’s not really that sustainable a place because, well, there’s the rest of my life! But there are other times when it does take a lot of discipline to sit down and make myself write.
The early parts of a project tend to be the hardest for me. Pushing my way in to a new story and figuring out what I want to write about and who I’m writing about is a slow process. I spend a lot of time figuring this out – this is also probably called procrastinating! But once I’m in, I’m really in. If you catch me during one of those times, I’m probably writing six to seven hours during the day and a few more hours at night.
For example, I wrote Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants alarmingly quickly. And when I was working on The Here and Now, I got a lot of help with the kids because I was writing so much at that point. I tend to not sleep for a period of time when I’m writing like that, and then I catch up when it’s over. I’m not a moderate person, I’m afraid.
What’s next for you? Will you return to contemporary YA or stay with sci-fi/dystopia?
I’m not certain exactly. I’m in that period of trying some stuff out right now. My head is more in YA and not in adult lately – it’s where I seem to want to be hanging around – so my strong guess is that it will end up being young adult.
Do you ever miss the Sisterhood girls?
Well, I’ve written about them a lot. Someone asked me to write about friendship recently and I did have pangs of nostalgia. I’ll never say never, though – should the spirit move me, then who knows? I might write more!
Click here to watch a tongue-in-cheek interview with Brashares, conducted by Saturday Night Live alum Ana Gasteyer.
The Here and Now by Ann Brashares. Delacorte, $18.99 Apr. ISBN 978-0-385-73680-0