At the center of Emma Mills’s third YA novel, Foolish Hearts, is the evolution of a friendship between the mean girl at school, Iris, and Claudia, who suffers the full force of Iris’s wrath. PW caught up with Mills in Indianapolis, where she attends graduate school, for a discussion of mean girls in books and film, and why friendships are even more important than romance during high school. Though Mills is already working on her fourth novel with a fifth soon expected, Mills is also a fifth-year Ph.D. candidate in anatomy and cell biology, with about two years to go before she finishes.

What drew you to writing a friendship story?

For me, in high school my friendships were the most important thing, and romantic relationships were secondary. I love to read romances and I love to have romantic elements in my books, of course, but I also love to have a strong emphasis on friendship because friends are such an integral part of the teen experience.

I think the friendship between Iris and Claudia is the foundation of the book because they both learn a lot from each other.

Was there a particular friendship from your own life that influenced this novel?

I’m still friends with a lot of people I grew up with from elementary and middle school—I’m lucky in this way. In this book, the protagonist has a best friend and they drive around a lot and listen to the same bands. I have a friend like that. We used to drive around a lot and listen to our favorite emo bands. We’re still best friends and we still bond over our shared music love.

Which emo bands?

We loved Dashboard Confessional. It’s very angsty guitar music. In the book, the band is called Drunk Residentials. They’re a 2017 stand-in for Dashboard Confessional.

Iris is quite the mean girl at school. What led you to write a character like her?

I really enjoyed writing Iris. She’s one of my favorite characters—if you can have those in one of your own novels. Iris is very outwardly prickly, and her development over the course of the book was a really interesting journey. At the beginning, Iris can be very acidic, and she’s pretty mean to Claudia. She throws a lot of barbs at her. Iris really has an edge, and that was fun to write.

Do you think we’re too quick to judge the mean girl in culture and in YA, too?

I think the mean girl can be an archetype. I just watched the last 20 minutes of the movie She’s All That, and it has that archetype of the mean girl who only wants to be the prom queen and will go to whatever lengths to be the prom queen. That archetype can be a little two-dimensional and I wanted to get beyond that. I thought it would be interesting to start at that place, with that kind of mean girl, someone who is really prickly, to then get into what she is really like.

What about the “redemption arc” in this novel (as per Claudia’s other friend, Zoe)? Are you drawn to redemption arcs in your own reading and viewing habits? And have you always wanted to write one?

Iris and Claudia are trying to redeem the bad job they did on a project for class, but in a greater sense, Iris is trying to grow as a person. I do love redemption arcs in books and movies, if it feels earned. Do we think Kylo Ren from Star Wars could have a redemption arc? If he had one, would it feel realistic? I don’t know. Steve Harrington in Stranger Things had a great arc, with the way he changes over time. If it’s done well, if it feels genuine and not kind of shoehorned in there, I really like it.

What’s next for you?

My fourth novel is called Famous in a Small Town, and it’s a work in progress. It’s about a girl in a small town who is trying to get her town’s only claim to fame—a country western singer—to come back home and do a concert to raise money to fund the band’s trip to the Rose Parade. Hopefully it will be out in winter 2019.

When you finish your Ph.D., will you keep writing YA?

I started my first book, First & Then (Holt, 2015), in high school and finished it in college. I was querying agents when I was in college and I didn’t get an agent until I’d started graduate school. I sold my first book while I was already there, and it spun out from there in a delightful way!

Famous in a Small Town was sold with a fifth book, so I definitely plan on staying in YA for the long term. Even after I graduate!

Foolish Hearts by Emma Mills. Holt, $17.99 Dec. 5 ISBN 978-1-62779-937-9