A lawyer turned author, Julie Buxbaum moves between writing for adult and young adult audiences. Her newest novel for young readers, What to Say Next, chronicles the burgeoning relationship between Kit, mourning the sudden loss of her father, and socially awkward David, whose blunt but sincere kindness offer a refuge. Buxbaum spoke with PW about her tendency towards themes of love and loss, depicting a character on the autism spectrum respectfully and responsibly, and the ways in which her legal background affects her writing.
How did you come to writing, particularly for teens?
I was writing adult novels, but felt like I was pretending to be a grownup. Like I was just playing one on TV. In my head, I was actually a kid playing dressup. I’d moved from London to New York to Los Angeles, I had a house, a second child, and was on the PTA when it occurred to me that I was officially a grownup. I packed lunches and carried Cheerios in my bag for my kids. This left me feeling devastated instead of liberated; I missed being a teenager with wide-open options. As an adult, I know what my future entails, it’s mostly set in stone. So, I started writing YA to open my world again, to revisit that feeling of possibility in a non-dangerous manner.
How has your training as a lawyer affected your approach to storytelling?
I think it makes my language more precise. Legal writing has to build; A builds on B which builds on C. You can’t just say something because it sounds good or run away with words. This makes my writing significantly less flowery; I justify every choice and word choice.
Do you think this attention to detail affects the speed at which you write?
I think it’s easier. I have no problem killing my darlings. I just don’t invest in the same way. It’s still opening up a vein and bleeding on the page—all writing is.
In addition to your two novels for teens, you've also written two adult novels. Does the intended audience affect your writing process? Do you feel more drawn to writing for a particular audience?
I don’t write any differently depending on audience. I believe it’s really important not to underestimate the YA audience. It’s composed of really, really sophisticated readers and I’d be doing them a disservice to approach writing YA differently. The only difference is that my YA characters are in high school. I’m a little more careful about using profanity, too, because that rings differently depending on the audience. If I use profanity, it’s for a specific reason.
Have you found any differences in your engagement with YA vs. adult readers?
Engaging with YA readers is so much more fun. YA has a really active fan world; they show up for you. This level of interaction doesn’t exist as much in the world of adult publishing; YA feels more personal. There is nothing better than meeting a 16-year-old who is excited about your story and characters.
Do you recall any particularly special interactions with YA readers?
Occasionally readers will hand me fan art. They show up again and again to hear my dumb jokes and laugh a second time. I’ve received really heartfelt emails from readers who have lost parents, too. Meeting teens who have also experienced that loss and connected is absolutely mind-blowing and magical.
Your first book for teens, Tell Me Three Things, was inspired by an anonymous email. Can you talk about that a bit?
I once received an anonymous email that changed the course of my life. It was basically a secret admirer-type email that came at a time when I was at a personal low, working a new job with 80-hour work weeks. Out of nowhere an email arrived that was the encouragement I needed. I had never thought of myself as someone to be noticed. I still don’t know who the secret emailer was.
We’ve all experienced that overwhelming feeling of wanting to be seen and recognized for who we are. The anonymous email gave me a dose of encouragement; it wasn’t a demand, nothing was asked for. The sender was purely reaching out to give me a gift.
What inspired your most recent novel, What to Say Next?
It all started with David’s voice. Once I realized I was writing about a character on the spectrum, I knew I really had to do my homework before digging in. Kit came second. The story is ultimately about two people who find a connection in the place they least expect, just when they need it the most.
Kit and David match in unexpected ways; they naturally give what the other needs. David tells Kit the truth; he has an underlying sincerity. I recall going back to school after my mom died; I have a clear memory of the feelings I experienced as people either avoided me or offered very fake cloying hugs. It’s a very isolating experience. I wanted Kit to meet a person who can just say the right thing.
Both of your YA novels have themes of love and loss, particularly regarding the loss of a parent. Why do these specific themes appeal to you? Why are they important to include in YA?
When I wrote my first book, I was working through my own feelings [of losing my mother at age 14]. I was finally brave enough to unpack the feelings I hadn’t acknowledged at the time of her death. I keep circling around to my endless fascination with first love and first loss, which are both profound experiences. I like to explore highs and lows, finding humor in the darkest moments and balancing the two. There’s nothing bigger than the death of a parent when you’re a young adult. I’m writing books I wish I had when I was 16; my life experience is reflected on the pages of my books.
What to Say Next features two points of view, Kit and David. How did having dual points of view affect plotting?
I’ve mostly written linearly with one voice, so this is my first time writing from the perspective of a boy and a girl. The perspectives pick up where the last left off, so I had to keep track of what the other saw and knew to move the story forward. I also had to be sure both stories had a natural arc. To do this, I sometimes read one voice all the way through, then the other voice. So writing two points of view was slightly more technically complicated, but not much.
David’s voice was always clearer. Most of my female characters feel like a slice of me—either a distorted or better version, but with a kernel of me—while David feels like my child. I love him in a protective way. In the same way that you love your children more than yourself.
David is on the autism spectrum, having Asperger’s Syndrome. What type of research did you conduct to ensure David was portrayed in a realistic, truthful way? Were you concerned with inaccurate representation?
Yes, very. My number one goal was responsible and respectful representation. I read a lot of own voices narratives and watched documentaries and YouTube videos, looking for real voices. I wasn’t as interested in parent perspectives. I tweaked David’s voice, letting go of my own preconceived notions. It’s important to remember that when you meet one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism. I would never claim to have represented more than one experience.
What kinds of books do you gravitate towards in your own reading?
I read pretty much everything; I like to keep lots of things going at once. I read a lot of adult literature, YA contemporary fiction, and adult commercial fiction. I buy a lot more nonfiction than I actually read! I also listen to a ton of audiobooks. I recently read and loved When Dimple Met Rishi by Sandhya Menon. I am currently reading Fall Down 7 Times Get Up 8 by Naoki Higashida, an own voices narrative of a man with autism who doesn’t speak. It’s part memoir, part short story and amazing because he is articulating himself on paper even though he doesn’t speak aloud.
What are you working on next?
I’m currently in revisions for my next standalone contemporary YA, which features dual narratives again. It’s a little more serious than What to Say Next.
What to Say Next by Julie Buxbaum. Delacorte, $18.99 Jul. 11 ISBN 978-0-553-53568-6