For her latest thriller, opera singer-turned-YA novelist Joelle Charbonneau has crafted a contemporary social media nightmare. In NEED (HMH, Nov.), an anonymous social network claims it can fulfill the deepest desires of its users in exchange for the completion of several seemingly benign tasks. For most, the network aids in their quest for material gain, but protagonist 16-year-old Kaylee Dunham has asked the faceless creator to find her younger brother a kidney donor. Charbonneau spoke with PW from her suburban Chicago home, just before embarking on a nationwide book/birthday tour – “All tour stops should have cake!” jokes the Testing trilogy author, whose birthday falls the day after NEED’s release. Here she explains her unstructured approach to writing and jokes about the online search histories that may have put the FBI on alert.
NEED is such a diabolical social experiment, but perhaps the scariest part is how easily teenagers could get sucked in. What real-life social networks and online trends did you look at while you were writing the book?
Well I studied a lot of online behavior and, funny enough, not just kids. I saw a lot of adult reviewers saying, “I see how kids could get trapped into wanting things,” but you see it happen to adults all the time, like “click here for a free Disney trip.” Everyone’s so willing to believe that if they see it on social media it’s true. Adults are willing to say that kids don’t understand what they’re getting into it and fooling themselves that they believe they have control. Adults really do believe that we have ownership over it.
Twitter is a little less scary, but the mob is quicker to come after you. It happens in a heartbeat, especially to authors, if you say the wrong thing on Twitter and before you know it some people are sending a Google Maps picture of your house and a message that says, “I’m coming to get you.” Yeah, the Internet is scary. You get in there and it’s the wild West.
In NEED, your characters go through some major transformations while blindly following the site’s directions. One student turns into a mercenary. Others wind up dead. Obviously, this is a work of fiction, but do you think something like the NEED network could happen today?
It’s amazing what people can talk themselves into, and you see that mentality online all the time. With the wrong person behind a social network, something bad could really happen. We already see online how easy it is for people to start mindlessly bullying somebody. There have been suicide pacts on Facebook. It’s just that I think if enough people look like they’re doing it, you automatically think it’s OK.
Why did you want to write this story? Were you trying to make sense of it yourself, or were you hoping kids would get something out of it?
I wrote it for me to explore my own problems with online media. I am a little intimidated and terrified by the Internet on so many fronts and I’ve always been fascinated by the difference between a want and a need and how we use certain words that don’t mean the same thing but we use them interchangeably. It was right around the time my son was using “I need this” a lot – I think he was just going to be five – so there was that trigger. Around that time online I was watching some of my friends who are really, really good people and the things they were saying online. They would never say these things in conversation, but when they’re online they’re completely different people. The words they use are so hateful or, you know, you’re just taking it wrong because it’s online. How desensitized are people really?
And that’s when I started to explore this idea. How far would they go for something they claim that they need? How quickly can these things take on a life of their own?
I wrote some books for adults. They were goofy and funny. I don’t know what happened when I started writing YA. They became dark and issue-driven. It made more sense to write it as YA because new social media is typically targeted at younger people. Parents really do think they can keep on top of their kids and their social media. I think that’s a lot like people taking off their shoes at security in the airport. Nobody taking off their shoes in the airport is keeping people safe. We’re just doing it because it’s a thing that makes people feel like they’ve done something.
Where do you see technology moving in the future?
I don’t think we’ve reached the tipping point. I would very much like to go into a restaurant and not see two people on a date on their phones or you walk into a room and the kids sitting there are texting each other. In the same room! I’m hoping there’s a change at some point where it’s not so much technology changes but we grow so we’re not so technology-dependent. I don’t think it will ever go away but I’m hoping there will be a time when people will be more apt not to sit in their room online, but actually go out and make contact for real. It will take one major social media blowup for that to happen, like for NEED to happen. But kind of like with 9/11, they’ll all be really nice to each other for about five minutes, then go right back to how things were.
You sound a little hopeful for the future. Are you optimistic about social media?
I’m optimistic about all things. We as people are better than we let ourselves be displayed on social media. It would take just a concerted effort, and I’m not talking “There’s too much negativity so I’m going to post a Disney princess or a flower.” Those are fun but perhaps not really helping the negativity that’s out there. Let’s just try to look at the way we’re posting, let’s try not to be negative. I think social media could be a tool used to show the best of us. There’s a lot of schools out there now starting online civics classes for sixth and seventh graders to show how what we say and post online echos. I think kids are way more savvy than their parents in understanding that these things live far longer than they do. They don’t want to look back and think, “wow, I was the biggest jerk.”
How was writing this book different from your previous projects?
This one was really complicated for me. I don’t outline when I write, which makes writing something from multiple points of view really tricky because they have to feed into the same story. I didn’t know where the story was going so that made that really tough. More often than not I needed to backtrack. That was juggling a lot of balls in the air.
Can you talk a little more about your writing process?
With NEED, I started with the very beginning; that always seems to be the way. That opening image or idea is what ends up being on the first page. This time it was the difference between a want and a need and the website spelled it out for you. I started out with Kaylee because I really wanted someone who needed something, someone flawed who has made a lot of mistakes and done some things that are borderline illegal. She herself has been a bully. How far would she go to get her brother a kidney?
And then I made a list of various personalities that I remember most in high school because I think every school still has the same archetype kids. You have those specific people that we can all identify with. There was that one smart kid who refuses to go along with it but for most, they think it’s a prank, and they’re willing to play. That’s where it started and I didn’t know who was truly behind NEED. When I was in college I didn’t even have an English class and I hated writing fiction in seventh grade, so I write like I read. I like to find out what happens next.
Kaylee is such a strong, tough heroine who really doesn’t get weighed down or distracted by romance, which is refreshing when so often young female characters are tasked by their authors with saving their friends and family. Was that a decision you made early on for her character and was it something you had to fight for during the editing process?
Yeah, I’m bad at that part (laughs). I’m incredibly logical when I think and that comes out in Kaylee a bit. When there’s something bigger than you that you’re fighting for – hello, people are dying! – we don’t need that romance. It’s also a really compressed time line. You can’t really get a great love story in three and a half days. I actually felt like I should put something in since she has a best friend who’s a boy.
In YA especially I have learned the heroine must not only be crazy for some guy, but you also need to imply that they’re going to get married and stay together in the future. With the Testing trilogy, I don’t have an epilogue. It doesn’t actually say what’s going to happen to them because I don’t know, she’s 17! If the guy happens to be going her way, OK, but there are bigger, more important things to do. You can’t get away from relationships or romantic entanglements – it’s part of what connects us – but especially in high school there’s a social obligation to be romantically involved, so I’m lucky that nobody forces me to make it a thing in the book. My editor [Margaret Raymo] is brilliant and incredibly logical. My agent [Stacia Decker of the Donald Maass Literary Agency] is the same way, so we’re like Team Logic.
Even after the villain is unmasked, NEED still has some surprises in store for readers and of course social media is continuing to grow and change. Has there been any thought about a sequel?
I haven’t wanted to do a sequel. I think the story explored what it needed to explore and I’m satisfied. There are people who say yes, it’s open for a sequel. The Internet doesn’t go away. There’s always an opportunity for something else to happen. The movie studio actually does see it as a series, kind of like I Know What You Did Last Summer, but in book form it would be almost the same story. And there’s lots of creepy things that I want to explore and if I wrote another social media book, I would probably never go online again.
You mentioned a possible NEED film, which got some interest from movie executives months before it hit the shelves. Does that make you more or less nervous about the book’s launch?
Way more, which I didn’t think was actually possible! I keep thinking book launches should be easier and it gets worse every time. I used to be a stage performer and opening day made me nervous but you got to be on stage and there was the audience, and you could automatically feel how it was going. Book launches happen sort of in a black hole with a lot of expectations attached. The book got optioned back at the end of January and it does make it more nerve-wracking and yet it’s incredibly flattering.
For Testing, Paramount had the option but the project got stalled and now it may actually be a TV series. In that way probably not having an epilogue is kind of a bonus. They can keep going after graduation day and with all the dystopian films out there it’s a very cluttered field. I would love some day to see what someone else sees when they read the book and the only way to do that is with a movie or series, but this way readers get to enjoy their journey as opposed to some director’s.
Are you going to have a hand in adapting NEED for the silver screen?
I sure hope not! When it came to Testing there was some talk of it and in that respect I was kind of fascinated in doing the screenwriting for something that’s one narrative. For NEED, the studio is actually talking to screenwriter/directors. They very much feel like whoever writes the script needs to have the filming in their mind for how it’s going to work. I love that idea! They will chat with me, obviously my ideas will be welcome. I’m not sure I’m qualified to be able to write the screenplay.
You took a very interesting, circuitous route to become a bestselling author.
I’ve lived a very unfocused life! I did my undergrad in musical theater, so that’s what I intended to do. I got my master’s in music for opera performance so I learned how to do more singing and for years I did operettas around Chicago, dinner theatre, I even sang for President Clinton right after 9/11. That’s nerve-wracking, to have a president sitting 10 feet away from you. You’re fairly certain you’re going to forget the words to the national anthem. There’s a movie about teenage aliens that come down and sing and dance – The Ghastly Love of Johnny X – and I’m on the theme song. It’s one of those films filled with actors that you don’t quite remember their name but you can remember 20 things they’re in. I also have taught acting and singing at the college level and from my home studio.
When I had my son I stopped having time to perform eight shows a week and since my husband is also a musician, it’s a little bit harder to juggle that kind of schedule with a small person around.
How did that turn into a career as an author?
I started writing because I got rejected from a show! The part of acting that prepared me for writing was the rejection. There are just so many people out there and they’re casting one part. I was doing another show and after multiple callbacks I found out everyone else had been cast except for me. That one, for whatever reason, stung. On the way home for the very first time I had an idea for a book in my head about women in theater. It was horribly bad. My mother read it; my poor husband read it. He’s earned me forgiving him all things for reading that book. But I was fascinated with the process. Even when [the final product is] bad, it’s hard work! Around that time I met a romance author who was local, Susan Elizabeth Phillips, and she was very supportive even when I felt totally inept. I did try to write romance for a while... perhaps that feeds into why I don’t have it in NEED. I just need to kill people (laughs). That’s when I started sending out more books for publication. It never in my mind was going to be my job. Becoming an author was totally unintentional. It’s kind of like, “Wow, there’s a mountain! I think I should climb it.”
What are you working on next?
The next book that I’m working on I pitched as The Breakfast Club meets Die Hard. It’s amazing how many blueprints of high schools you can find online. Creepy, too. I’m telling you I must have an FBI file a mile long for the things I Google and the things I know.
I’m sort of playing with two things at the moment, but this next standalone thriller is called Time Bomb currently and it’s written from five points of view. It takes place in a high school the week before school actually opens. People are getting new IDs and the football team is practicing. People are there but they’re not really there and they’re not necessarily people who would associate with each other normally, including a Muslim boy who is trapped between his religion and the culture he’s now a part of, and a very popular football boy. It’s a diverse cast, both gender-wise and religiously and ethnically. That can be challenging for a lot of people. There’s a big push for diversity, but when it’s a white girl from the suburbs writing people go, “what?” I’m doing my very best to make sure I don’t totally screw up, so I’m keeping my fingers crossed.
And I’m also working on another fantasy thriller. It’s me exploring the suicide of a kid in Colorado who invited his friends to the cafeteria and then shot them and himself and left a note that said, “Hey, I’m sorry but I couldn’t die on my own.” I don’t know yet whether it will work.
NEED by Joelle Charbonneau. HMH, $17.99 Nov. ISBN 978-0-544-41669-7