Stephanie Tromly is the author of the Trouble series, which kicked off in 2015 with Trouble Is a Friend of Mine. Tromly was named a PW Flying Start author for her YA debut, a contemporary screwball mystery featuring friends Zoe Webster and Philip Digby. The final book in the series, Trouble Never Sleeps, is out today from Penguin’s Kathy Dawson imprint. We asked Tromly and her editor, v-p and publisher Dawson, to interview each other about the trilogy and their collaboration.
Tromly: Hey, Kathy, we’ve known each other for four years this month! It seems simultaneously like a lot of time and not very much time. I mean, it’s been a year since I finished the third book and I still wake up from stress dreams in a panic, thinking, “I’ve missed my deadline.”
Dawson: We did raise the managing editor’s blood pressure several times, didn’t we? I knew I was asking a lot of you with that second book especially. For me, book one set the stage for a very specific book two—in terms of the romance between Zoe and Digby as well as the connections between them and the “Scooby Gang” of Sloane, Felix, and Henry. You had written so much plot—multiple competing plot threads, and it got very dark—but I was like, wait, where’s the love/hate banter? How is Felix going to save the day? What’s up with Henry and Sloane? Digby was letting his anxiety issues turn him into an island. I wanted a point where Digby and Zoe kissed again, and where they were all together again, working toward a common goal. I think I sent you a laundry list of things that I thought readers would want to see—which, now that I think of it, must have been scary as hell.
Tromly: It was so scary. I was very aware of your trying to give it to me softly but it was undeniable: I had to throw away almost every word of the first draft. I’d been around enough failed rewrite situations in my old job to know how much of a disaster it would be to try to fit what you (correctly) pointed out was missing into what I’d already written. And of course, you were right. I didn’t want you to be right but I knew you were right… and the fact that my second attempt came out of me so quickly proves that you were right.
Dawson: There was never a point where I doubted you could do it—not after having met this crew on the page, joked with you, and brainstormed with you.
How was the process of writing Trouble Is a Friend of Mine different from Trouble Makes a Comeback and Trouble Never Sleeps?
Tromly: Everything about the first book felt like a gift. I’d just had a kid, in the middle of a classic Winnipeg winter, we couldn’t go outside, I couldn’t work on my dissertation because I was nursing pretty much every hour. I was trapped in bed, constantly awake. Two weeks in, I propped a notebook on the breastfeeding pillow and started writing. And then, after sitting in silence and darkness for two months, the weather finally broke and I was able to start leaving the apartment. I’d hang out at the food court in the mall for hours, absorbing the energy of “real speech.” Nothing makes you more invisible to young people than a baby, so I just sat near them, eating donuts while my kid napped… taking notes.
I’d written other things before but this was my first attempt at the novel form. The structure baffled me but it was such an awesome relief to have something other than kid-related worries to think about. To get a book deal at the end of that... like I said, it was a gift.
Book two, Trouble Makes a Comeback, was harder. Like, many orders of magnitude harder. The mind doesn’t like second acts—we want the rush of premises and climaxes. I most certainly felt the pressure of the deadline, and missing my first one felt like a death. My own death. But once you finally pried the book out of me, I felt so... grateful.
Book three, Trouble Never Sleeps, felt smooth—it’s a weird word, I know—coming out. I wasted less time chasing dead leads, the characters felt propelled by their narrative destinies. Everything felt driven by itself.
Dawson: In retrospect, now that the whole series is done, is there anything you would do differently?
Tromly: I would take better care of my body, for one thing. I never realized that writing would take such a physical toll. I basically sat down for months at a time and all my muscles turned into goo.
On a more positive note, now that I’ve managed to complete a long narrative, I spend less time anxiously working my outline over and over. I feel more confident that as long as I have solid characters and a clear understanding of where they end up, I’ll be able to write the material in the middle. I used to lose entire nights fretting.
Dawson: That’s what it all comes down to: trusting your characters. In every submission, I look for characters the author knows inside and out. Your cast was so completely clear in that first draft I read of Trouble Is a Friend of Mine. Plus they were characters that I wanted to spend a lot of time with—they made me laugh out loud on the subway.
Speaking of which, you recently wrote me an email saying something like, “Given the messed-up state of the world, I don’t think I can write anything as funny as the Trouble series today.” Do you still feel like that? Have there been tangible changes in your writing?
Tromly: I don’t think I’m the only writer out here who feels driven insane by the spirit of the times, but I’ve been trying to keep the anger out of the writing while not suppressing too much of myself.
I must say, though, that a lot of positive things have also happened in the past few years. I do feel like diversity is on its way to becoming a reality. I mean, I’ve been hearing the word “diversity” since college orientation in the ’90s but lately, I find myself daring to hope it becomes part of the new normal.
Dawson: I think we could talk more about that. How do you feel as an Asian woman writing in today’s market?
Tromly: I mostly feel great. Social media is often blamed for bringing out the worst in people but the fact is, social media has also helped make marginalized voices and their allies be heard. It’s been heartening.
That’s not to say I haven’t had a few weird moments on the job. One reviewer said Felix (one of the Asian-American characters in my books) was too much of a stereotype because I wrote him as a book-smart but naïve grade-skipping nerd. Because I write under my married name, there was no way the reviewer could have known that I myself was Asian and that, like Felix, I was a grade-skipping nerd obsessed with reading comic books while my much older classmates were already dating. I was initially shy about people seeing my photograph but I remember putting it out there after that day.
Dawson: I imagine it’s a constant balance—putting yourself out there so your fans can “meet” you and still respecting the shy part of yourself. Hey, speaking of fans, is it just my perception or are your fans particularly awesome?
Tromly: The people I’ve met have been so, so great. I’m always sad that I’m not able to “be” the books’ characters for them because I think, to a certain extent, that’s what they’re hoping to see in me as a person.
Dawson: Steph, I know you won’t believe me, but seriously, you are every bit as funny as your characters. You had me in stitches from that first “beauty contest” phone call when I was still praying you’d pick me to be your editor.
Tromly: I’m not just shy, though, let’s face it. I have a major problem with social anxiety. Social anxiety as a disorder was sort of fresh on the scene when I started dealing with it but now, there are a lot more people who have come out, especially on social media, to say they have to contend with it, too, so I’ve been letting go of the shame I’d always attached to my feelings.
That’s one of the problems I hadn’t anticipated when I started out: I somehow thought the books would do all my talking for me. I mean, now I read back what I just typed and I’m laughing at how naïve that is. I think I started out believing what David Lynch said about people asking him to talk about his movies: The film is the talking. Now, though, I see that what Andre Gide wrote a century ago about writers promoting their work is more accurate: He said, “Each one of us, even without knowing it, works on the pedestal for his bust almost as much as on the bust itself.”
Dawson: Stephanie, you have got to write that dissertation! But maybe after you send in the next book….
Trouble Never Sleeps by Stephanie Tromly. Penguin/Dawson, $17.99 Apr. 24 ISBN 978-0-525-42842-8