For her new YA novel, Stay Sweet, Siobhan Vivian serves up a blend of feminism, friendship, history, romance, work ethic, and—oh yeah—ice cream. In the book, 17-year-old Amelia, Head Girl at the all-female-run Meade Creamery, finds her true passion while navigating relationships and trying to emulate the legendary ice cream stand’s impressive founder, Molly Meade. We spoke with Vivian about the tasty research she did for the book, her high school summer job resume, and how her discovery of creative writing partly inspired the story.
What’s your favorite summary of Stay Sweet so far? How are you describing the book to people?
I think it was on my ARC that somebody called it Mystic Pizza meets The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants and I thought that was such a fun ‘this meets that’ for the book. Though the connotation of The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants is these magical pants, the mystery and the magicalness of the pants goes away and it’s really about the relationships of the girls. And I love Mystic Pizza too. You have the great relationship between three girls working at a small business and an older woman making the pizza, who has the secret recipes, and wondering if she will pass along these recipes to the girls. I’ve kind of loved that pitch. Those are two nice comparisons to the book, I think.
To me, it’s a story about a girl falling in love with work, falling in love with the thing she wants to do. It kind of mimics my own experience discovering creative writing, feeling really adrift and then finding this thing that doesn’t feel like work in the way that I always thought work was supposed to feel. It felt just wonderful. When people, particularly my husband, see me around deadline time, unshowered after hours spent cramming to get my draft together and turned in, I’m sure from the outside I probably look like I might not be enjoying myself. But the truth is I’m so happy being at my desk chest-deep in my story trying to wade my way through. And I wanted to write about that experience.
Was that self-discovery about your passion for writing part of what sparked the idea for this book?
I think sometimes the magic of a book coming together is like several experiences dovetailing under the umbrella of the story. But the real impetus of this book came to me following a library visit in rural Ohio. As I was leaving, some of the kids there told me, “You should make sure to hit the ice cream stand down the road. It’s really great, the spot in town.” So, yeah, of course, I’m definitely doing that! I traveled a bit down the road and there was this roadside stand with not much around it, except some picnic tables. And there’s a line, even though it’s kind of an off time, maybe 2 pm on a Saturday afternoon. I get up to the window and there are all these girls working in the pit of the ice cream stand making their cones. It’s a really small space but they’re almost like dancers, gracefully moving about the stand with cones and getting the job done.
However, I did notice that the girl who was helping me was wearing a t-shirt, like a uniform, that said, “Hot Fudge Hotties.” And I thought, that’s weird; that’s kind of a strange saying. And so I asked her, ‘What’s the deal with the t-shirt?’ She sort of rolled her eyes at me and thumbed towards the back of the stand, where I saw a young man, probably college-age, on the phone with his feet kicked up on the desk, like the lord of the castle, and he wasn’t wearing the shirt, he wasn’t a hot fudge hottie. So I just took my cone and went and sat at the picnic table, and from that experience, this thing just started to pop inside me like popcorn, all different kinds of ideas about what that meant, what that kind of workplace would be like. Here are these girls working so hard but they have these shirts on that are demeaning, and here’s this guy looking like the alpha male with all these girls in his charge.
This thing really festered and sat inside me. And during recent times, certainly during this past [presidential] election, while watching women really come into their own as leaders, all that started to percolate in there too. It kind of became this perfect storm of issues of female empowerment and girls being strong with other girls. How do you manage your peers? How do you remain likeable while being a manager? All of this was churning together when I sat down to write the book.
Your books have been critically lauded for their portrayals of realistic, strong girls. Have you always seen yourself that way? And, how does it feel to be a champion of feminism when, in many ways, women are having a moment, their voices re-invigorated?
As an extroverted person, I am oftentimes one of the loudest voices in the room. That said, I really struggle with my peers and wanting to maintain likeability, and I have some trouble with confidence or projecting myself as somebody who is a leader or in charge. I often default to jokester, or a person who doesn’t take herself seriously and I like to disarm people sometimes in that way. And I recognize that that is not necessarily putting me in a position of strength. I read an article in the New York Times a couple of years ago about a leadership academy where girls can go and act out ways to project confidence, because oftentimes confidence comes off as being unlikeable. What a trap that is. There were girls in this article who were saying, “we don’t like to be picked to manage a project at school because delegating work to our peers makes us come off like we’re mean.” And I thought, oh my gosh, how difficult it could be to be a strong woman, a woman who’s in charge, if you feel like you can’t execute basic responsibilities of leadership. That somehow makes you fear being unlikeable, just having expectations of people. God forbid somebody doesn’t live up to those expectations. Then what do you do?
Personally speaking, this is something I have struggled with and continue to struggle with, and seeing that it’s something that contemporary teens are struggling with, it sets up a difficult path to success, for women to really embrace roles of leadership. Certainly that question of likeability came out plenty during the election, with a woman who was arguably the most prepared, experienced candidate. Her articulating that success, and being comfortable with that success was judged—women included in that—as unlikeable. That is really sticky for the future. We need to be talking about that more.
You’re a mom and your daughters are still very young. But are there any ways that you consciously think about addressing these issues with them?
It is something I think about. It’s sort of half fixing my own issues with it. How can I model this behavior for my daughters if some of these things are things that I struggle with? I can see that my younger daughter, especially, is praise-driven in a way that I am, and I can see down the line where that sort of thing can become an impediment to being self-possessed, being self-motivated, being strong. My hope is that I get to address those shortcomings in myself and in tandem try to steer my daughters toward a stronger, more self-possessed place.
What kind of summer jobs did you have when you were a teenager? Did any of those experiences make their way into Amelia’s story?
My very first job in high school, I worked for a local pharmacy. It was kind of in the waning days where a mom-and-pop shop could survive. The Rite-Aids and the Walgreens hadn’t moved in so hard into our town. It was a very small store that had once had a soda counter that was then repurposed into storage. And I always liked the idea that this place had been around for a long time and you could see that history in the space.
And then, after that, I worked all through high school and into my college years at my local Pier 1 Imports. It sounds so funny, but we had such a cool crew of young people who worked there and we got along so well. I would work the early shift, the stock shift, to unload the trucks. It was 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. and we were sort of left to our own devices. We worked really hard but we also had so much fun. I remember one time where we expected a large truck to come and we unloaded it so quickly that the five of us ended up climbing into the pillow wall until the store opened for the day. This is many, many years ago now but I’m still really friendly with the five people I used to work that shift with.
In addition to sharing behind-the-scenes information about the ice cream world in your book, you include [ice cream stand founder] Molly’s diary entries from her business’s earliest days during WWII. What kind of research did you do?
In the ice cream half of that question, Pittsburgh [where Vivian lives] has two very well-known ice cream artisans here. There are two women who own a small business called Leona’s, and they make ice cream sandwiches. And we have Millie’s, which is more of an ice cream scoop shop. I reached out to both of them and both were incredibly generous with time and access, and answering my questions. I got to go into the production facilities of both of these ice cream makers and watch them do their stuff. At Leona’s, they do everything they need to do with one big Emery Thompson ice cream machine and it’s really astounding to me that you could have such a small footprint and have such incredible output. I got to sit there in the factory space watching them make ice cream and have them talk to me about what happens if you do this or that, how things can go wrong, what the machinery looks like. They take it very seriously. The ladies at Leona’s went through the Penn State ice cream program which is super rigorous and I wanted to get in the weeds with them. They really helped me with unwrapping what Molly’s secret recipe could be in the book. We talked about things that we could flavor ice cream with if sugar wasn’t available [due to wartime rations, for example]. Just to have them as a sounding board for that was incredible and a real gift to the writing process, because certainly, those details I wanted to get right. And they definitely made that possible.
With the historical stuff, that had really evolved from draft one of this book. When I decided that I wanted to do a deep dive into the story of a woman [from Molly’s era] also struggling to have her aspirations taken seriously, it felt like a nice counterpoint to the modern-day story, and was also a way to look at—how far have we really come? The first person I reached out to was Judy Blundell, who won the National Book Award and has written a lot of historical fiction. And I said to her, “You know, I only remember half of my history lessons from high school, where do I start with this?” She suggested tuning in to Turner Classic Movies to get the cadence down of the speech of the time, and, she said, you can find magazines from that time period, and those are really helpful too. I went on to eBay and started digging around and [found] these Seventeen magazines from the time of WWII. I ordered seven of them and started to flip through them and they were amazing.
The war is so central to everything—this idea that the boys are off, and the war is going on, and times are different, and it’s good to be a patriot. The lipsticks from the time are named things like Victory and Winning Red. Then you also have this awakening of women at the time about what they might want to do and what things are important to them counterbalanced against advertisements for wedding dresses—which is unbelievable to think that Seventeen magazine would have advertisements for wedding gowns! It was so remarkable. And there was even discussion of race relations then. I remember reading a letter to the editor that was written by a woman who said, “I don’t think you paid enough attention to the girl who won the contest that you featured because she is black. And I’m writing an upset letter to the editor to say that.” The activism and awakening that was happening during this time seemed unreal. It was a treasure trove for me. I would sit and read these things cover to cover and would find so much that I wanted to use.
There’s also some romance going on in Stay Sweet, too. Did you enjoy writing that?
I had a lot of fun with this romance and I think one of the reasons is that I wanted my main character, Amelia, to really blossom in the love of her work and the love of figuring out that this is something that she loves. And it was nice to have a character react to that change in her, watching her come into her own, and find that so incredibly attractive. That was balanced against Amelia, who was feeling, well, yes, there is this really cute boy in the room and she likes being around him and thinks that he’s smart. The real love is figuring out what she wants to do and realizing that she’s good at it, and it clicks for her. I almost feel like I got to write two love stories, and that felt great.
What kinds of things will you be doing to promote the book? Will you be hitting the road?
Yes. I’ll be going out on a national tour just before the book comes out for a full week of stops. And every event is going to feature ice cream or sweets of some kind. My Pittsburgh event is going to have an ice cream truck parked out in front of the bookstore [White Whale Bookshop], and at my New York event I’m having a full-service sundae bar [with ice cream from Brooklyn’s Ample Hills Creamery] at the bookstore [Books Are Magic]. We’re really trying to take the theme and run with it, all while supporting local businesses.
And, finally, I have to ask: What’s your favorite flavor of ice cream?
Easy. I always go coffee ice cream, chocolate sprinkles. And a sugar cone; sugar cones are my favorite. That’s my go-to.
Stay Sweet by Siobhan Vivian. Simon & Schuster, $17.99 Apr. ISBN 978-1-4814-5232-8