Andrea Portes is the author of two YA novels, Anatomy of a Misfit (HarperTeen, 2014) and most recently, The Fall of Butterflies (HarperTeen, May), as well as two adult novels, including Hick (Unbridled Books, 2007), which was made into a movie in 2011 starring Blake Lively, Alec Baldwin, and Eddie Redmayne. Anatomy has also been optioned for film, by Paramount Pictures. Portes recently sold a new YA spy series, Liberty (optioned by 20th Century Fox) and a middle grade series, Henry & Eva, to Kristen Pettit at HarperCollins (“I’m basically married to Kristen Pettit,” Portes joked). PW caught up with the writer at her home in Los Angeles, while she was in between trips.
Your YA novels are both humorous and tragic. Why the mix?
I have a bit of a gallows sense of humor. My grandfather was a World War II pilot and he would say the most dry, hilarious things. I’d like to think that I got my humor from him.
And when I was growing up things weren’t very good for my family. We had to move from place to place and back and forth. Our childhood was the worst. It was really hard. You can’t imagine how insane this life was. And that laid the foundation for looking at the world in a certain way. You can either laugh about things or cry about them or maybe both, but I almost don’t have enough patience for sorrow. I can only stay in that place for so long. A lot of the humor in my books is a way of coping, and there is heart there and beautiful things, too, but I acknowledge that there is tragedy.
I heard that The Fall of Butterflies, for example, was based on your time at Bryn Mawr, and Anatomy of a Misfit was based on your experiences in high school. What was it like to go back and transform your memories into a novel?
Butterflies is set up in a high school prep school, but it’s based on my college experience; a girl from a farm in Nebraska goes to Bryn Mawr, with literally no money and thrift-store clothes. I’d play it off because that was the look. Even if I’d wanted to be snobby with L.L. Bean clothes I couldn’t have. When I got there I was kind of adopted by this person from the old Manhattan elite social world. I don’t know why I was adopted by this person. The character Remy from Butterflies was an amalgamation of this person and another friend from L.A. It was very glamorous to be friends with these people, it felt like almost being famous and that they were almost famous. But then, they were heavily into drugs, and as time went by, the cracks in their world and their lives began to show. And as life has continued on, years and years later, I’ve really been able to see how all the addiction took quite a toll.
Then, in Anatomy, the villainous girl in the book, Becky, is based on a real person. Obviously that’s not her real name. But she Facebook-friended me after the book came out. She had no idea that Becky was her. And the place where Anika, my protagonist works, is based on where I worked in high school. I worked at a Runza Hut. We had to wear hilarious outfits. Kelly green shorts and lemon yellow polo shirts, and banana yellow LA Gears, which were these high-top sneakers that you’d wear with chunky socks.
The character of Logan from Anatomy was based on someone you knew in real life, wasn’t he?
Dylan (the person on which Logan is based) was my ex-boyfriend. I broke up with him for stupid reasons. In real life, what happened, was that his father killed his daughter, his son, his wife, and then drove to get his other son at military school – and it haunted me. It was strange that it happened in Nebraska. But at the time – in the 1980s – it wasn’t like it is today. It was this thing that got swept under the rug. People didn’t talk about it.
For Anatomy, I knew that I had to tell Dylan’s story because it never left me. And then it was just time – I was ready to tell it. I had to tell this story as YA because YA was the way the story wanted to be told. It was very cathartic to write it – it was hard, too. There were a lot of tears. Even when I was selling the novel to Paramount it was hard. People I’m friends with on Facebook from high school have written me because of Anatomy and told stories abut Dylan. It felt like everybody in my high school starting talking about him. It almost became this opportunity for all of us to acknowledge what happened, when we hadn’t when it actually happened.
I’m really glad that I can honor this person.
You’re from a small town in Nebraska and so is Anika, your protagonist in Anatomy of a Misfit. And Willa from The Fall of Butterflies is from Iowa. Will all your characters be influenced by your Midwestern heritage?
No. For instance, in my upcoming spy series, Liberty, the protagonist is raised in Berkeley and her parents are Berkeley hippies. And my second novel [for adults], Bury This (Soft Skull Press, 2013) takes place in Michigan. I’m not going to keep making everybody from the Midwest. For Hick and for Anatomy and Fall I felt like I had to start there. They were so close to home in the way that they were autobiographical.
Anika gives a speech at the end of Anatomy. It’s part cheesy and also awesome in that classic high school movie way. Was this you writing your fantasy high school movie speech?
It’s really what I wished I’d said, but I didn’t ever do anything like that. The very next day after graduating from high school I left Nebraska and went to New York City to be with my sister because she was living there. So I never got to do a big speech like that. But the nice thing is that when you write, you get to do things you wish you’d done.
Before you started writing YA, you were writing for an adult audience. Do you see these two efforts as very different than one another?
Obviously there are differences, but the most consistent thing and the most important thing is being honest. The world is so dishonest about so many things in so many ways and it’s manipulative, that when you’re truthful and honest, it rings out like a bell. And that is true if you’re 11 or 16 or 35.
Speaking of different audiences, you’re also working on a middle grade series, Henry & Eva. What’s behind your desire to write for even younger readers?
I know! I’ve written adult literary fiction and then YA and now I’m writing middle grade for the Harry Potter crowd. It’s a bit goofy and supernatural and the series is very much like Lemony Snicket.
When I was little we lived in South America for a while, in Rio de Janeiro. It was in this place that seemed like a castle. In my memory it was a cold, dark castle, with my brother and me shivering in the corner all the time. But I’m sure it was probably just a big house. That was the inspiration for Henry & Eva.
Several of your books have been optioned for film, and Variety reported that you’re setting up Henry & Eva to be a movie franchise. How have you managed to be so successful at this?
I live in L.A. and I’ve lived here for a long time – since 1990. I came here off and on since I was 17. A lot of the people I know are now movie producers or agents. Also in L.A., you kind of can’t swing a dead cat without running into a movie producer, and they’re always looking for books to option. It’s a lot easier to sell something that’s been a book because it already has a stamp of approval, as opposed to just a script.
I feel really grateful and really lucky to be able to go around and sell things here. You also don’t know if something will get made. If it sells, great, but if it gets made, like Hick, which was turned into an independent film, it’s even better.
The Fall of Butterflies by Andrea Portes. HarperTeen, $17.99 May ISBN 978-0-06-231367-6