Jenny Han’s debut novel, Shug, came out in 2006; her new novel is The Summer I Turned Pretty. In it, Isabel, aka “Belly,” spends the summer at the beach house with her family and some family friends, as they have done since before Belly was born. But this particular summer changes everything. Bookshelf spoke with Han about her new book, and the approach she took to writing the first in a planned trilogy.
So what is it about summer and love? They seem to go hand-in-hand, don’t they?
I think so too. School’s out and there seems like there are more possibilities. In school everyone is in their routine and caught up in things, and summer just seems like more possibilities. It’s hot, and people are wearing shorts and bathing suits. There is more time on your hands to think about things.
The main character in your new novel has a memorable nickname, just like in your first novel. Were you given an interesting nickname as a child?
Not really. My name is Jennifer and when I first went to school, my kindergarten teacher called me Jenny and from then on I was Jenny.
How is writing a second novel different from writing a first novel? Did you feel any pressure while writing the The Summer I Turned Pretty because Shug had been well received?
I don’t think I felt pressure because it’s been a few years since Shug came out. This new book came really easily for me. It came to me organically and it was a lot of fun to write. I mean, a summer house, the beach, boys. All that stuff is fun to spend time with.
Originally I was interested in following a girl’s life in summers, with each chapter being a new experience, like a first kiss, and then on until she is an adult—from ages 12 to 18 all in one book. But as I started to write that book, it became unwieldy so I asked my editor [Emily Meehan] if I could write two more books because with more room, the story could be richer.
How did you approach the writing for this story, in which flashbacks played an important role in the storytelling?
I didn’t write it sequentially. I write whatever feels right to me at the time. I get scenes in my mind and I tend to get bored if I go in order. It’s more exciting as a process to do things out of order. It was hard to paint it all together, though.
At first I didn’t think there would be flashbacks because of how I thought the story would be told summer by summer, but after that concept was changed, I had to figure out how to incorporate the flashbacks organically. My editor and I talked about how we should do that and if they should be in order, but we realized that in real life, memories aren’t triggered in order. What made the most sense was when my editor said to start with the summer of change and go from there.
How did you get the idea for this book?
It started with a memory I had—I don’t even remember what memory it was now—but I just started writing about the memory and then I saw a whole life take shape.
As a child I spent a lot of summers going to the beach with family friends. You always wonder about things like who would be there, and you’re aware that you’re wearing a bathing suit and feeling self-conscious. You think about how a summer house can feel so different from your real life, and how nice that can be. I wanted to explore those feelings in this book.
There is tension throughout the whole book, with feelings being revealed slowly and carefully. Did you know what you wanted to reveal about each character as you started the book, or did all of that unfold as you began writing the book?
It unfolded as I was going on. Up until the end, even I didn’t know who Belly was going to end up with. It felt like such an important decision for her to make. In the end it came down to the fact that you can’t stop thinking about that one person you’ve been in love with your whole life. The exciting part is in the catch. The one you don’t think you can get—it’s what you fantasize about, the person who is out of arm’s reach.
I think most girls have that moment when boys they’ve known their whole life see them in a different way. The fun part is that girls think all of these exciting changes will happen, but they don’t see all these little things and mix-ups that could happen along the way.
Can you tell us anything about the next book?
The second book in the trilogy is due to my editor in a week. It’s coming out next May. The second book starts out a year after the first book ends and the question will be if they all go back to the summer house. And there will be flashbacks to what happened during the year.
I’m going to try to spend as much time at the beach this summer, just sitting in the sand and gathering all those details for the third book. I was finishing up the second book this past winter, and it was pretty tough to write a book about the beach when you’re in 10 layers of clothes.
Do you know how the third book will already end, or will that unfold as you write?
I sort of see how book three will end. I have a picture in my head, but I don’t really know for sure. To me, it’s more fun this way. All my writer friends outline their books and I find that hard. It doesn’t feel inspired to me. I get bored with that and really I just want it to be fun.
Will you be touring for the release of the book?
I will be touring a little bit. I’ll be doing some stuff in Washington, D.C., next month and I’m from Virginia so I’ll be doing some signing there and in North Carolina. I’ll also be going to R.J. Julia in Connecticut.
For book signings, you’re nervous to know if anyone is going to come out to see you. For my last book, I was at a Borders in Murray Hill [in New York City] and there were 50 chairs set up, and it was pouring rain out and no one came to the event. But it’s great to meet the people who do come out to meet you.
The Summer I Turned Pretty by Jenny Han. S&S, $16.99 ISBN 978-1-416-96823-8