What if you fell in love with someone but could never physically touch that person? That’s the big question at the heart of the new YA novel Five Feet Apart by first-time author Rachael Lippincott, written with Mikki Daughtry and Tobias Iaconis (Simon & Schuster) which debuted on the December 9 New York Times bestseller list after its first week on sale.

The book is Lippincott’s adaptation based on Daughtry and Iaconi’s screenplay for the feature film of the same title, set for release on March 22, 2019 from CBS Films and Lionsgate and starring Cole Sprouse (Riverdale) and Haley Lu Richardson (The Edge of Seventeen).

One big bump for the title is surely the official movie trailer, released November 2, with nearly 5.5 million views on the CBS Films upload alone in addition to views on other YouTube uploads. Other early sales drivers include social media graphics used by S&S to promote the book, a three-week author blog tour for Lippincott, a launch event at a local bookstore, and a mention for the book in the December issue of Seventeen magazine.

The New York Times attention has helped push Five Feet Apart into its fourth printing for a total of 110,000 copies in print to date. S&S will additionally publish a movie tie-in edition in February, which is currently scheduled for its own 90,000-copy initial run.

In the story, teens Stella and Will both have cystic fibrosis. They meet at the hospital where they are each receiving treatment and soon a romance sparks. However, it’s crucial that CF patients remain at least six feet from each other to avoid any cross-infection/contamination, so the couple grow closer emotionally while staying physically apart.

As a lead-up to the film, Five Feet Apart the novel had a lightning-fast turnaround in terms of book publishing. Alexa Pastor, who was recently promoted to editor at Atheneum Books, edited Five Feet Apart in her role as associate editor at S&S Books for Young Readers. She explained how everything came together. “When CBS Films and [director] Justin Baldoni started developing the screenplay for Five Feet Apart,” she said, “one of the producers pitched the idea of publishing the story simultaneously as a YA novel to my publisher, Justin Chanda. Once the S&S team read the story, Pastor noted, “We fell in love with these characters and couldn’t have been more excited to partner with the film group.”

Finding a writer was the next big—and urgent—hurdle to get over. Lippincott came onto S&S’s radar screen via her credentials as a 2017 graduate of the English/writing program at the University of Pittsburgh, where she studied under fellow S&S and bestselling YA author Siobhan Vivian. Vivian and Lippincott related the specifics of how they connected for the project during a December 2 event at year-old indie Riverstone Books in McCandless, Pa.

Back in March 2018, Lippincott said during the event, “Siobhan let me know about this opportunity where S&S was looking to take a screenplay and make it into a book and she sent me the information. It was literally two weeks before I was set to open a food truck with my partner.” After reading through the screenplay, Lippincott knew she wanted the job—and that the heat was on. “I basically had a week to put together a first chapter,” she said, “and I was lucky enough to get the position based on that.”

For her part, Vivian had every confidence in the writer she fondly calls her “student/third daughter. I knew immediately she’d be perfect for it,” Vivian said, basing her assessment on what she came to know of Lippincott’s talent, coursework and discipline, and personality.

Pastor felt the same way about offering Lippincott the job. “I knew right away Rachael was the perfect choice. She instinctively understood these characters and her writing is just so spot on for the teen audience.” After all the contractual paperwork was in order—Lippincott is repped by Rachel Eckstrom Courage of Folio Literary Management—the ball began speeding down the hill. “This was a crash-course deadline,” Lippincott said, which her editor let her know from the get-go, asking if she would be able to deliver under the constraints. Lippincott believed she could. “At first I was a little intimidated, to be honest,” she recalled. “But there was another part of me that had this confidence that if I sat down and gave it my all there was a real chance I could get the position.” After she won the assignment, Lippincott said, “I wrote a complete first draft in 14 days, then I passed out for two weeks.”

From Script to Manuscript

The screenplay—which typically does not contain copious detail—served as a skeletal outline, but Lippincott says she definitely had leeway in terms of adding depth to character voices and scenes, and creating her vision of what getting around the hospital might look like, for example. She colored some of this writing by recalling her familiarity with hospitals when she had spinal fusion surgery for scoliosis during her sophomore year in high school. “I remember that entire hospital experience, all the nurses and the people I interacted with when I was learning how to walk again and go up stairs.” One of the scenes she wrote for Stella was “almost identical to my experience,” she said.

Early on, Lippincott knew she wanted to frame her story as a dual POV book; the screenplay was not structured that way, but all parties were on board. This left Lippincott with the task of also “creating more of a world for Will, which was not present in the screenplay.” She also said the first thing she did was divide the entire screenplay into sections, determining “whose voice was louder where, and then I just went for it.”

Lippincott added that she freely exchanged notes with the screenwriters as needed and that the partnership went smoothly. Pastor was also very pleased with the writers’ give-and-take. “Rachael and the screenwriters, Mikki and Tobias, clicked from the start and worked collaboratively, bringing the story to life simultaneously on the page as it was being shaped for the screen,” she said.

Lippincott wrote four drafts of the book between March and August, which included incorporating fast-flying revisions of the screenplay that were happening since the movie began filming in June. Time was also required along the way for editorial consultation with CF advisors so that the medical information was accurate, and the characters’ experiences realistic. Most important for Lippincott in this process was learning about the CF community. She said she was particularly struck by the social media postings of Claire Wineland, a CF advocate and activist and popular figure on YouTube who founded the nonprofit Claire’s Place Foundation. Wineland discussed the difficulties of her disorder with humor, and had more than 200,000 YouTube followers. She sadly died September 2, 2018, suffering a stroke just a week after a successful double lung transplant.

The finished novel hit shelves on November 20 and started selling immediately. “I was checking Amazon every now and then, thinking, ‘people are liking this!’ ” Lippincott said about her book’s first days on sale. As for what might be enticing readers, Pastor shared some of her insights on the book’s appeal. “I think what readers are really connecting with is the unusual and heartbreaking question at the center of the story: how do you love someone you can never touch?” she said. “Will and Stella have such a unique love story because the one person who really understands what they’re going through is the one person who’s the most dangerous to them, and they have to decide if that emotional bond they have is worth never being able to close the physical space between them and have a normal relationship.” But she believes there are also characteristics of the book that set it apart from other tales of ailing teens. “There’s this real, relentless sense of hope to the story that lifts it out of just the ‘sick lit’ realm,” she said. “Rachael does such a great job of balancing the realities of cystic fibrosis with humor, the ‘squees’ of first love, and figuring out what you want your life to mean, which are things that all readers can relate to.”

Lippincott said the book’s cover represents something special to her and the screenwriters as well. “You find out about it on the very first page of the book,” she said. The jacket artwork is based on a drawing of lungs that are fashioned out of intricate flowers with a background of stars. It’s one of many drawings that Stella’s sister has created for her to decorate her hospital room.

Five Feet Apart’s debut on the New York Times has been a pleasant surprise for both author and editor. “I was on the food truck for a shift on a Wednesday and it was snowy and freezing,” Lippincott recalled. “Then I got a call from Alexa around 5 [p.m.]” When Pastor said she had some good news, Lippincott noted, “I thought she was going to tell me I got to go to an advance screening of the movie or something. But she told me that the book made the New York Times list and I just cried. I wanted to bolt off the truck but I had to work. It made the five-hour shift go quicker!”

Pastor said that it was a happy experience all around to see the book land on the list. “As an editor it’s always such a joy to see readers really coming to a book you love and connecting with it so quickly,” she noted. “It’s very special. But I think for this project in particular it’s so gratifying because this was truly such a team effort. From Rachael, to the screenwriters, to CBS, Justin Baldoni, and the entire S&S BFYR team, so many people worked to make sure this story got told.”

And she said that everyone involved is grateful for another aspect of Five Feet Apart’s success. “For all of us, to see a book about characters with cystic fibrosis, a disease that affects so many but that so few people really know about, become a bestseller feels like we accomplished our goal of bringing more awareness and representation to this community.”

Lippincott is still basking in all the positive attention, but that doesn’t mean she’s taking any kind of break. “I’m still shocked,” she said. “I hoped the book would do well, but never in my head could I even fathom this would get on the Times list.”. After the bestseller list news, she said, “I woke up the next morning and did a 1,000-word power hour. This experience has been a validation that this is what I should be doing.” To that end, she’s about 40% done with a new project, also a YA novel.

This heady experience also has Lippincott reflecting on how she chose her path to becoming an author. “I think I’ve always wanted to be a writer. If it wasn’t writing, it was reading, growing up. I would always carry around a composition notebook. It wasn’t until high school until I started taking it seriously.” Lippincott recalled a writing workshop in her Philadelphia high school when her classmates applauded something she had written. “I remember in that moment thinking, ‘This is what I want.’” After a detour into pre-med studies at college, she signed up for Vivian’s course, “Writing Youth Literature,” as a general education course. But Vivian’s powerful speech on the first day of class, asking that only serious students stay on, left Lippincott feeling uncertain about going back. Fortunately, she did.

Five Feet Apart by Rachael Lippincott, with Mikki Daughtry and Tobias Iaconis. Simon & Schuster, $18.99 Nov. ISBN 978-1-5344-3733-3