With Strings Attached, Judy Blundell has to follow her own tough act: her first foray into YA, What I Saw and How I Lied, won the 2008 National Book Award. She spoke to PW about her inspiration, and why one of her 39 Clues collaborators may still not be speaking to her.
Your NBA winner began with an image that came to you while asleep. Did this book start with a dream, too?
Not a dream this time. This one started with several threads at once. While I was researching What I Saw (which was set in post-World War II Florida), I came across a lot of stories about teenagers at work. There were so many more after-school jobs because during the war jobs opened up. Teenagers had much more adult responsibilities. I found teenagers who were working, not just in factories, but as dancers or actors, kids who would save up what seemed to me like a pitiful amount of money and get on a bus or a train and go to New York. That must have been an extraordinarily scary and thrilling thing to do. From that, I got the image of Kit Corrigan [Strings Attached’s heroine] in a really bad musical. That became the first scene in the book.
She’s in the chorus of That Gal from Scranton! Even the title suggests flop.
Broadway was roaring back then but it wasn’t like it was today. You didn’t have to have millions and millions to stage a show. There were all these cheesy musicals around so I put Kit in one of those.
One of the things I like about Kit, which you don’t see very often in YA novels, is that she is, unabashedly, an indifferent student. She chucks the books first chance she gets. How’d you do in school?
I was a pretty good student, which is why I like to create characters who have different ideas about school. It’s the same reason I love writing the 39 Clues books (Blundell wrote volumes 4 and 6 under her pseudonym, Jude Watson). I am a physical coward so to write about adventure is really fun. I never come out and say this [in Strings Attached], but in my head, Kit has a little dyslexia. She never became a reader so she never clicked at school. She poured everything she had into dance.
Speaking of Jude Watson, do you still have time to write any of the media tie-in books that first made you a bestselling author?
I’m still writing for middle-grade but the next Jude Watson will be an installment in Cahills vs. Vespers, the next 39 Clues series. I love writing adventure stories and I love writing for boys. I’m not willing to give it up quite yet.
Another unusual feature of Kit’s story is that she is a triplet. You don’t see that often in YA fiction either.
Well, this is the thing about research. It often takes you down roads that have nothing to do with what you’re working on. I had happened upon stories about the Dionne quintuplets and they just fascinated me. They were taken away from their parents and lived in a compound called Quintland. You could go on a tour. It was insane. That led me to the idea of being exploited because you were part of a set. Multiple births were much more rare back then and in Kit’s case, the father has no money. This is the only way he knows to keep his kids fed. If you think about it, it’s a very modern concept—the precursor to reality TV.
Kit hails from Providence, which has a reputation for corruption, so it feels perfectly natural that she falls in love with the son of a mob lawyer. Is that why you chose to place her there?
That was one reason. The other is that I know the city really well because my in-laws live there and we visit often. It’s a deeply corrupt place but it’s also a quintessentially American city, founded on the principles of religious liberty, a port city where factories sprang up then moved out, leaving the economy in ruins. It has a fascinating history. Adding that criminal element to the story allowed me to write what is really a Faustian tale. I think for young adults sometimes the worst devil you meet is the one you know and that’s what happens to Kit. He’s wearing such a nice suit she doesn’t recognize him for what he is.
How has life changed for you since winning the National Book Award?
One thing I learned was that I had been very comfortable with my anonymity. Writing under a pseudonym gives you a lot of freedom. I never had to worry about reviews. So at first I felt a little exposed, but it turned out to be a wonderful thing. A curveball, yes, but you do what you have to do. I used to be afraid of public speaking and getting on planes and I’m not now. And it’s been great to meet librarians and booksellers and readers. I feel lucky this got thrown at me. I had to learn how to enjoy it.
Is it a question of doing enough public speaking so you get comfortable? Do you have any tips?
I don’t know if I could give out tips but what I told myself looking out an audience is these people are here because they want to be. They could be somewhere else. They are not going to throw cold potatoes at me. They’re here in support of books. This is a business that’s so troubled right now but here’s a room of people who care about it.
After winning a big award like that do you feel more pressure to produce another book of high literary quality?
There is additional pressure, of course, but you have to set that aside and just write the story that’s clamoring to be written. I don’t worry about reviews when I’m writing. I worry about them when I’ve turned the story in.
Did you enjoy the collaborative process of writing the 39 Clues books?
I did, although there’s not as much collaboration as you might think. The authors don’t talk to each other when they’re writing, but we did a lot of appearances together and that was really enjoyable.
Did you find yourself as anxious to find out what happened next as many of your readers did?
I was always dying for the next episode. That is the fun part. And we try to write them so you are setting up the next author, to make it easy for them to pick up the threads and keep going. However at the end of book six I had Amy and Dan on a deserted island, in their pajamas, with no way to get off and... a volcano erupting. I don’t know if Peter Lerangis has forgiven me yet.
Strings Attached. Judy Blundell. Scholastic Press, $17.99 ISBN 978-0-545-22126-9