Where did you get the idea for your latest book, Just Listen?
I was at a private school, waiting to speak, so I picked up a yearbook. There was this one picture of three senior girls, all blue-eyed blondes, on a diving board. They were gorgeous. My immediate reaction was those girls have it made, but then, of course, I immediately realized what an assumption I was making. That planted the seed: what would it be like on the surface to have this idealized life but, in fact, have it be very different than it appears. And I wanted to address the issue of confrontation. I, personally, have had trouble sticking up for myself. I think girls are taught to be nice, and it's hard to be nice and assert yourself.
All these terms Owen uses—R&R ("rephrase and redirect"), I-Lang (for "inflammatory language")—are those from some real anger management program?
Oh, no. I made all that up. I didn't even want to read a book about a particular theory because then if I didn't follow it precisely, I could be held accountable for not having presented it correctly.
Is Lakeview entirely made up?
It's definitely based on this town [Dessen is a longtime resident of Chapel Hill]. I moved here when I was three, so I'm constantly crossing and re-crossing my previous self. There are certain places that crop up in several of the books—the Lakeview Mall, Milton's Market. I put these little overlaps of places and people in every book, thinking no reader will ever find them, and they're on the Internet immediately after the book is published.
It seems like you had a lot of fun making up names for pop stars and bands in Just Listen.
A person can be really relating to the story and if you mention some band they don't like, it's over. So it was much better to just make it up. Ten years from now the bands that are popular now will likely be long gone anyway. At UNC [University of North Carolina] when I was a student, we had an assignment just to make up the names of bands. So I've had a lot of practice.
Your books are almost like cultural studies. We could use them 100 years from now to find out what life was like for the suburban American teen at this moment.
Some of the highest praise I get is from readers who tell me, "This is just like my life. These are just like my friends." While so many things have changed since I was in high school—the violence, drugs—so many things are exactly the same. There's still the guy you're madly in love with who doesn't even know your name, and the friend who is intensely appealing even though she treats you like garbage. High school was like that before I was there and will be ages from now.