Jenna Evans Welch has made a name for herself writing books about teens tackling big issues while traveling abroad and falling in love. Her newest novel, Love & Olives, follows a girl named Liv as she reconnects with her estranged father on Santorini in Greece, where he is working on a documentary about Atlantis along with his charismatic protégé. Welch spoke with PW about the importance of setting, the place of romance in YA, and her journey to publication.
This is your third armchair travel romance for teen readers. What inspired this series of companion novels?
When I was 15 my family moved to Florence, Italy, where I lived for two years. I had grown up in a bubble in Salt Lake City, so moving to Europe expanded my world in such huge ways. It was so exciting to me to see the world and how much I didn’t know. [This growing awareness] is something that I really like to bring to books for teen readers because I think they’re already in that mindset: excited about what their lives could look like.
How did you develop the idea for your new book, Love & Olives? What comes first: the destination or the main character?
Definitely the destination! It’s funny... with this third book, I knew I’d be spending a mental year in whatever place I chose for a setting. Italy was an easy one and Ireland, too, but this time around I wanted to choose somewhere I’d never been. I ended up doing a Google search for cool places on Earth and found a little bookstore called Atlantis Books on a Greek island called Santorini, in this tiny village called Oia. It was so charming and immediately captured me. I ended up going to Santorini without even knowing what my story would be about. I wrote two books, one of which was based on the bookstore, but wasn’t quite right. It wasn’t until I started to dig into the Lost City of Atlantis that I really found my story.
What is your process like when you go to a place in search of inspiration for a novel? What are you looking for?
There are a lot of writers who can write a place without being there, but I’ve never felt like I’m one of them. What I’m really trying to do is figure out how to create this place for a person while they’re sitting at home. I feel like you can research a lot, but it isn’t until you’re there that you know what it truly feels like, sounds like, and smells like. When I travel for research I take a designated assistant—my best friend or my husband—and they navigate and figure out details while I’m hunched over my notebook scribbling as fast as I can. With this third book especially, I asked myself what teenagers would do on Santorini and then did all of those things: cliff jumping, trying new foods, and petting stray dogs. It was so fun to put myself in those shoes. I’ve been lucky to also find teenagers from each of the settings in the books to help me, too.
Do you have any favorite memories or experiences?
So many! One of the things Santorini is famous for is its sunsets. I thought, how different can its sunsets be from anywhere else? But, as the sun sets, everyone gathers in silence to watch because they’re so stunning. The second the sun disappears, there’s this cool breeze and everyone just bursts into applause. I don’t know the science of why that whoosh of cold air happens, but having that experience with a group of strangers is really incredible. There are several sunset scenes in Love & Olives!
How do you find the balance between romance and the serious issues that you explore in your books, like difficult familial relationships and mental health, and ensure that the romance never diminishes the more serious topics?
I never want a character to be saved by a relationship. I think it is important for teenagers to be developing this understanding of themselves as complete and whole on their own. I rewrote a big portion of Love & Luck for that reason. I think putting relationships in their rightful place is critical, meaning an important part of a teenager’s life, but not all of it. This is kind of a funny image, but I think of my books as a little bit of a trick. I want them to taste like a delicious cupcake, complete with frosting and sprinkles, while mixing in some bran and banana that will stick with and nourish my readers, informing how they make decisions and see themselves. I feel a strong responsibility to be writing for this audience because it’s an honor.
In addition to European settings and conflicted main characters, all of your books include a romantic plotline as well. Why have you chosen to write love stories for teens?
I think it’s easy for adults to look down on the relationships we form as teenagers as a simple or small thing, but I think those early [romantic] relationships are important. We learn a lot about ourselves through them. I decided that I wanted to write for teenagers when I was 11 years old because, when I was ready to read teen books, I went to the section and was disappointed. There was a tiny little shelf and I remember noticing that half of the books were about cheerleaders. There’s nothing wrong with cheerleaders, but I’d gone from these books about magical worlds, secret gardens, and spies and suddenly, the magic was gone, and it was all about popularity. I wanted adventure and magic and kissing, too.
So, you knew from a young age that you wanted to be a writer. What was your journey like?
When I got to my 20s, I floundered. I’d known for so long that I wanted to write for teenagers, but, at 23, after writing my first draft of Love & Gelato, I was devastated. There was no plot at all, and it was so difficult to write. I think, when you’re starting out, your pace and your skill level can be really mismatched, which is frustrating. I knew what kind of book I wanted to write, and I knew what good books were, but I couldn’t do it yet and I couldn’t figure out how to fix that. I tried for a couple years, and then I just put it in a closet. Then, lucky me, I came into publishing in an atypical way.
My father is a writer who has been publishing since I was very young. I was working with him on his books for six or seven years, helping with research and editing and a scene or two, and all along the way he kept asking where my book was. I kept saying it was too painful to revisit, but, without my knowing, he showed my book to his publisher, who saw potential in it and made an offer. I was given a year to rewrite it and I rewrote it three times before I had something that I loved. It was a high-pressure way to learn how to write a good book, but I cared so much. I wasn’t letting that chance go.
What is your hope for this new story as it enters the world amid a pandemic?
Love & Olives was originally supposed to come out in July, but it got pushed back like so many other books. I was worried about that because this is a book that you want to take to the pool or the beach. I wondered if readers would want to read a book set on a Greek island in November. But, now that we’re here, I think: yes. Who doesn’t need a mental vacation right now? I’m hoping this book provides the escape readers need and some normalcy. I’ve been finding a lot of solace in reading lately, so I hope Love & Olives does that for others.
What’s next for you?
It’s very early in the process, so this might not even be relevant in a year, but I’m writing a book that is set in the United States, which is new to me! Setting is still very important to me, so I found a new place that I’m intrigued by. This one also has a strong family element and I’m doing a lot of witchy research, too.
Do you have any upcoming virtual events or promotions to share with readers?
My main event for the release of Love & Olives is a virtual release party with two of my favorite fellow contemporary YA authors, Stephanie Perkins and Julie Buxbaum. We’ll be talking about our writing processes and what’s coming up. The virtual event is being hosted by the independent bookstore The King’s English on November 10 at 6 p.m. MST and is a free event open to all. I also do a lot of livestreams on my Instagram!
Love & Olives by Jenna Evans Welch. Simon & Schuster, $18.99 Nov. ISBN 978-1-5344-4883-4