Camryn Garrett made waves with her first young adult novel, Full Disclosure, about an HIV-positive teen navigating love and lust, which was sold when Garrett was 16. In her second novel, Off the Record, Garrett responds to the #MeToo movement while addressing mental health issues and fatphobia. The novel tells the story of 17-year-old Josie, who earns the opportunity to write a profile about an up-and-coming actor for a major magazine, gaining in-depth access during a multi-city press tour, only to discover the open secret that a celebrated director has assaulted and harassed countless women with no repercussions. Garrett spoke with PW about drawing on her own experiences to inform the story, her advice for young writers, and creating a sense of community in the virtual world.
What was the genesis of your sophomore novel?
I wrote the first draft in 2019, which is when there were a lot of #MeToo stories everywhere in the news. I was thinking a lot about my own experiences and reframing them. I was realizing that things I thought were normal or not a big deal actually were a big deal. I wanted to process that [realization] through a character because I think it makes things easier, but I didn’t want the story to be super sad or heavy, so I decided to combine it with my experiences of being a teen journalist.
You sold your debut novel, Full Disclosure, when you were 16—only slightly younger than your main character in Off the Record—and have published dozens of pieces with outlets such as the HuffPost, Time for Kids, and Rookie. How did your experiences inform this story and your main character, Josie, who is a young journalist?
It was fun to look back at emails and stories I had written to use as inspiration! I used to get really anxious before I would interview anyone, like the way Josie freaks out before big interviews, but she is good at what she does. I was good at it, too. I hadn’t really seen that experience represented in YA before because most teens aren’t journalists. Scenes in the novel when Josie attends press junkets and round tables with the cast of the movie all draw on my own experiences.
Josie’s anxiety is a part of her life that she struggles to manage and control. How did you develop this part of her character and ensure that it would ring true with readers?
I based Josie’s anxiety on my own experiences, so writing [that aspect] was really interesting because I tried to stay in that place while writing. It could be pretty intense sometimes. Josie’s inner monologue shows that she is always anxious and always worrying, so I tried to really think about how I felt and how having anxiety impacted me, then I filtered that through her. I think she’s a lot more anxious than I am.
In the book, you do not shy away from having Josie directly address her experience and feelings about being fat. What do you hope readers will take from this portrayal?
Books with fat main characters are so, so important to me! Before I read Julie Murphy’s Dumplin’ and Roxane Gay’s work, I didn’t think that fat was something it was okay to be. I hope my book helps introduce readers to the idea that being fat isn’t bad; it’s just another body type. And, even if you don’t feel absolutely great about your body, it’s fine. I don’t think most people are super into their bodies, even if they look the way we’re supposed to look. Everyone is insecure.
Each chapter in Off the Record starts with a tweet from Josie. Why did you decide to include this detail in the story? How has Twitter influenced your life?
I used to feel so weird to see authors leaving Twitter and wondered “how could you leave?” But I think I understand it more now because it’s just a lot; it can be intense and ridiculous at times. But, when I was younger, it felt different, even if it wasn’t actually that different from now. There were a lot of writers, who have now been published, that I came up with and a lot of authors who were still on Twitter. It didn’t feel so intense to tweet at and talk to them and ask for advice. I really did feel that there was a community. I wanted to include that in Josie’s story because she’s a girl who doesn’t fit in, doesn’t like her town, and doesn’t want to stay there. For people like Josie, social media is a reminder that there is a world outside of their town, especially when they’re in high school. And if you’re an aspiring journalist and an established journalist follows you back on social media, it gives you a glimpse of what could be.
Now that you’re on the other side of the reader-author relationship as, has social media helped you stay connected with readers? Have you done any memorable virtual events?
Yes, it’s definitely been great. There are terrible things happening in the world, of course, but I’ve been sad that I can’t do in-person events right now because I love doing them. People have been so creative with virtual events! I did a slumber party over Zoom with Underlined for YALLFest and it was so cool. Everyone was wearing pajamas and we played games, gave advice, and talked about school. I think a lot of readers really like these events that they wouldn’t normally attend because they live far away or in another country. So, while it’s not the same as in-person events, I think I’m reaching way more people than I did before.
What is your writing process like? Has it changed?
It’s so hard! I don’t know anymore! Trying to write during Covid has messed me up. With Off the Record and my first book, I would write a four-page outline, then I would give myself permission to veer off course and write other scenes. I would usually write a draft within a month because I started out drafting during NaNoWriMo, so I was used to writing a first draft within those constraints, but I haven’t been able to do that in a long time. It has been rough.
You were by no means new to writing and publishing when your first book was sold and published, but has the experience of having a book out in the world changed your approach to storytelling?
The interesting thing is I wrote the first draft of Off the Record before I got edits of my first book. A lot of authors talk about book two being really hard, but I don’t think I had that same struggle. At the same time, when it came to editing this book, I was much more aware that people would be reading it, especially young people, so I needed to get it right. So, for example, I think there’s a lot of wish fulfilment in this story and not all of it is necessarily accurate—like Josie publishing a story with a major newspaper—but I didn’t really want to worry about getting that right. I wanted to get right the conversations around sexual assault, fatness, and identity. Those things are way more important to me.
Did you always know that you wanted to be a writer? Where did your journey begin?
I think I did. I wrote fanfiction for a long time. At 10, I used to write weird sequels to movies that I’d seen. Then, when I was looking up how different authors feel about fanfiction being written about their work, I saw a quote from Stephenie Meyer that said something like, “I don’t mind fanfiction, but I don’t understand why you would spend so much time on my world and not create your own.” That was when I started thinking maybe I could create my own stories.
In retrospect, is there anything you would do differently or something you wish you’d known as you started writing professionally?
It’s hard to understand before you’ve published a book, but I try to remember that publishing is a business, so you can’t take everything personally, [for example] if you don’t get invited to a panel or you’re not on a big list. Writing is so personal, but publishing is a business, so it can be hard to reconcile the two.
What advice do you have for teens who are hoping to follow in your footsteps as a writer?
I used to put pressure on myself to be published by a certain agent or agency, but I really don’t feel that way anymore. And I know it’s easy to say that now, but it really doesn’t matter whether you’re published at 18, 25, or whatever, because your story will reach the people it needs to at the right time. It sounds kind of la-di-da, but it’s true.
I also would say to ask yourself whether you want your writing to be personal or if you’re prepared to deal with the business aspect of it. I don’t mean to be discouraging, but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with deciding that writing is a hobby you just want to share with friends or that you just want to write fanfiction or have your writing be just for you. Because, once you’ve been published, your relationship to writing will change. It’s hard to unsee reviews and other people’s opinions.
You’ve mentioned being a movie-lover, like Josie, and an aspiring filmmaker. Which films or pop culture have brought you joy during the pandemic?
At the very beginning of the pandemic, I watched The Half of It directed by Alice Wu on Netflix. It was so good! I’ve also been watching Dirty Dancing on a loop. I also watched the 2005 Pride and Prejudice a lot when it was still on Netflix and I’m sad they took it off!
What are you looking forward to this year and the next?
I am excited to take a break and go on vacation at some point this summer. I’m also working on a queer rom-com that I’m super excited for, but I can’t say much about it yet!
Off the Record by Camryn Garrett. Knopf, $17.99 May 18 ISBN 978-1-984829-99-3