Gayle Forman's second young adult novel, If I Stay (Dutton), follows Mia, a 17-year-old cello prodigy, in the immediate aftermath of a horrific car crash that has left her teetering on the brink of death and unsure if she has the will to live. If I Stay has received five starred reviews.
I’ll bet you’ve gotten this question before: do you—like Mia, your main character—play the cello?
Not only do I not play the cello or any other instrument, but Mia arrived fully formed as a cellist in my imagination, and I was like, ‘A cellist? Really?’ I didn’t even like classical music, though I have gained an appreciation from having to learn about it in order to write this book. I had to do research to figure out what kind of music Mia would be playing at each stage of her development, and now I live in fear of actual cello players telling me how I got it all wrong.
Unless you are secretly an E.R. doctor, I guess you did some medical research as well. You must not be the type who gets squeamish at the sight of blood.
I have a good friend who’s an E.R. doctor! She helped me get those details right. I don’t know if I actually am good at the sight of blood. An accident on the street gets me very, very upset. It’s easier to write than deal with in real life. Writing the accident scene wasn’t hard. Actually, after I finished the whole book I had to go back to the accident scene and write it more in depth, not the gory part but Mia’s reaction to it. There had to be this moment where she just goes into shock at what’s happened to her parents so that she was emotionally, as well as physically, disassociated from the crash. Otherwise she would have spent the whole book crying. You know when something bad is happening and you keep telling yourself, ‘This isn’t real.’ That was harder to write than the bloody stuff.
Was there a real-life incident inspired that inspired Mia’s story?
There is but I don’t go into the specifics. There was a real-life event that raised a question that has haunted me: if something catastrophic happened to your family, and you were hovering between life and death, would you choose to stay? To keep living if the rest of your family was gone? That question had been kicking around in my head for a long time and many, many years later, Mia was going to answer it for me.
Did you ever write a different ending than the story has now?
I didn’t, but I didn’t know how it was going to end until about halfway through. I didn’t know what her choice would be. You could make an argument for either choice.
Was writing novels always your plan?
Not at all. I didn’t even start college until I was 21. I was an exchange student in England at 16 and after high school I took three years to travel, doing things like working as a maid in Amsterdam at a backpacker hotel. Then, as sort of a grand impulse, I decided I would go to college and study medicine so I could work with Doctors Without Borders. But after two trimesters I realized it was kind of too late in the game to be a doctor and that the science thing was not for me. I almost quit college at that point. I didn’t see the point of getting a degree. I was taking classes in short stories and pottery and one in journalism. And it was the second journalism class, the one that was supposed to be the big heavy-duty class that would make you drop the idea of going into journalism, that hooked me. I took it because there was this guy, Ben, who I had a crush on, who was taking it, and instead of it breaking me, I wound up loving the class.
After graduation, I wanted to work for Sassy, which I loved, but it had folded. So I wound up at Seventeen for three years on staff and two as a contributor and I wrote these great stories that nobody ever believes Seventeen does. Serious stories for teens about social justice issues—gun control, migrant farm workers. I was in Sierra Leone to cover the civil war for Seventeen.
And from there to novels?
Well, I knew I wanted to write, but the idea of not having parameters like facts, and interviews, and an outline, seemed too hard. So I wrote this travel book (You Can’t Get There from Here: A Year on the Fringes of a Shrinking World, Rodale) which had eight chapters, each of which had a lot of reporting, but was its own little narrative. Then I had a baby, and I didn’t want to do any more stories that took me away from home. That combined with having had three magazine pieces killed in one month and no way to pay the mortgage is how I backed my way into becoming a YA novelist. And I think that’s my calling. [Forman’s first novel] Sisters in Sanity (HarperTeen, 2007) is based on a story I had written at Seventeen. After writing it, a big light bulb clicked on. It was coming full circle because it was writing for teens again. That felt like coming home.
Is it incredibly exciting then to have your second novel received with so much acclaim?
It is especially exciting because I’m totally aware of what it’s like to have a book come out and nobody notice. In book publishing, you have only so many chances before nobody will publish you anymore.
And now If I Stay is being compared to The Lovely Bones.
I have heard that. I was concerned about the copycat charge but it needed to be written this way. It’s a lot closer to Lovely Bones than Twilight, which it’s also being lumped in with because of the movie deal.
Oooh. The movie deal. Tell us about that.
It’s been optioned by Summit, which is the company that produced Twilight, and directed by Catherine Hardwicke, who also directed Twilight, so it has created all these comparisons. I’ll be happy to be the next Twilight but the books really have nothing in common except the film stuff.
Will you have any involvement with the script?
The screenplay is being written by Shauna Cross, who is the author of [the novel] Derby Girl, and of the screenplay, Whip It!, that Drew Barrymore is directing. I’ve met with Catherine and Shauna out in California. I mean, the conventional process here is that you sell your book to Hollywood and they send you a check and say ‘See ya,’ but I have a sense it will be more collaborative. I know Stephenie Meyer gave notes on the Twilight screenplay and that seems unprecedented so I’m cautiously optimistic.
If I Stay by Gayle Forman. Dutton, $16.99 978-0-525-42103-0