An Interview with Debut YA Author Marcy Beller Paul
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I’m still thinking about a recent read–the young adult book, Underneath Everything (Balzer & Bray, October 2015), by debut author and former editor Marcy Beller Paul. Besides being very well written, I found Underneath Everything both haunting and psychologically stimulating. It got under my skin in the best possible way, and it’s not a book I’ll forget anytime soon.
Here’s a description of Underneath Everything:
Mattie shouldn’t be at the bonfire. She should be finding new maps for her collection, hanging out with Kris, and steering clear of almost everyone else, especially Jolene. After all, Mattie and Kris dropped off the social scene the summer after sophomore year for a reason.
But now Mattie is a senior, and she’s sick of missing things. So here she is.
And there’s Jolene: Beautiful. Captivating. Just like the stories she wove. Mattie would know; she used to star in them. She and Jolene were best friends. Mattie has the scar on her palm to prove it, and Jolene has everything else, including Hudson.
When Mattie runs into Hudson and gets a glimpse of what could have been, she decides to take it all back: the boyfriend, the friends, the life she was supposed to live. Problem is, Mattie can’t figure out where Jolene ends and she begins.
Because there’s something Mattie hasn’t told anyone–she walked away from Jolene over a year ago, but she never really left.
Poignant and provocative, Marcy Beller Paul’s debut novel tells the story of an intoxicating—and toxic—relationship that blurs the boundary between reality and fantasy, love and loyalty, friendship and obsession.
Beller Paul was kind enough to answer a few questions via email about writing and her debut novel.
EZ: How did your work as an editor prepare you for writing and working with other editors on your debut novel?
MBP: I’m not sure if anything can prepare you for working with an editor on your debut, because it’s YOURS, which means that even though you know the editor is there to help you and your story, you will most likely become either catatonic or emotionally explosive in response to your first editorial letter. What I mean to say is, nothing about working in publishing prepared me for being a writer. What it did do was make me more comfortable with the publishing process. Since I’d sat in acquisition meetings, created P&Ls (profit and loss statements), and seen a managing editor’s schedule before, I didn’t have anxiety about what was happening behind the closed doors of the publishing house. I thought this was normal until I met more authors and realized how opaque the whole thing can seem from the outside.
EZ: What was your process in writing Underneath Everything?
MBP: I started writing the book when my daughter wasn’t quite one-year-old and my son wasn’t quite three. I’d left publishing to be home with my kids, thinking I would write when they napped. Every new mother is laughing at me right now, because I obviously had no idea how exhausted, busy, and unpredictable my life would be for the next few years. But when both kids finally started napping at the same time in the afternoon, I decided to make good on my promise to myself. Though I never let myself believe anything would actually happen with the writing. Remember, I’d been inside the industry. I’d seen how hard it was to get published—how manuscripts I loved would get passed over, and things I didn’t connect with would get bought for tons of money. It made the whole thing seem impossible. So from the very beginning I told myself it was okay if this book didn’t get published. It was okay if this book didn’t get me an agent. It was, after all, the first time I’d ever tried to write a book. All I wanted was to finish a draft. So I signed up for a YA Writing Class through Mediabistro, and in the last few weeks of that class Underneath Everything was born.
I did, eventually, finish the draft. Since I was only doing it during my kids’ naptime, it took me about a year. But I was really proud of myself…for a few minutes. Until I started thinking: How on earth was I going to fix it? I gave myself a few weeks away from the manuscript on the advice of a very smart friend, then read the entire draft. That’s when it became clear to me that my love triangle book was actually about female friendship. I had a massive amount of work to do. I ended up rewriting the second half of the book and heavily revising the first. That took me another year.
After that I had my critique partners read it, made some small changes, and sent it out on submission to a few agents. I was thrilled to get relatively quick responses and two offers—one from my dream agent. After I signed with him, we did some work on the ending. It took a few tries, and a few months, but eventually we figured it out. After that it went on submission to publishing houses. It was bought within two weeks, which was quite quick! However, the pub date they wanted for the book was over two years away. So I waited a few months for my editorial letter, then did about four rounds of drafts over the course of the ten months. I turned in the final, copyedited version a year before publication.
EZ: Did you have a specific experience that triggered you to want to write a complex and nuanced story that really got to the heart (and guts) of female friendship?
MBP: I had a very difficult friendship in middle school and high school, and just like Mattie, one day I walked away. Unlike Mattie, I never looked back.
In my first draft, Jolene was not a main character. I think I wanted to tell Mattie and Jolene’s story, but I wasn’t quite ready. Part of me still wanted to bury it. But during the revision process Jolene took center stage, as those kinds of girls often do. I could no longer look away. I wanted to know why girls like that do the things they do. I wanted to know why we let them.
Mattie’s story isn’t mine but it’s one I needed in high school.
EZ: How long did it take you to write Underneath Everything from start to finish including your last rounds of edits?
MBP: It took four years from first words to the last round of edits.
EZ: In the book, the backstory of Mattie deciding to abandon all of her friends except one unfolds steadily and authentically. What was the rationale behind the use of italics to convey this? (Or were the italics mainly used to show specifically what happened between her and Jolene throughout their friendship?)
MBP: Well, there are some flashbacks within the text that do not get italics. That’s because we reserved them for memories of Jolene. Those memories are so alive, so present, for Mattie, they often slip in to her thoughts in small and large bits, right in the middle of dinner with her family or lunch with her friends. Without the italics this would have been extremely confusing. (I know because we had a bound manuscript printed without the italics by mistake, and even I had trouble reading it!) Hopefully our use of italics not only made the transitions between the past and the present easier for the reader, but helped to convey the feeling that although Mattie had cut Jolene out of her life physically, their emotional connection had never broken.
EZ: In your book, you do a masterful job of painting a complex and believable picture of female friendships and budding romantic relationships. How did you balance the need to tell the story you wanted to with wanting your book to be accepted and encouraged to a teen audience (I personally think you handled sexuality in the book so wonderfully and appropriately and I wouldn’t have any issue recommending the book to teens).
MBP: Thank you! I worked so hard on getting to the truth of female friendship and first love, even if it was ugly and embarrassing and scary. Sometimes that meant working on a scene through six or seven drafts to uncover it. Sometimes it meant admitting something—even to myself—that was uncomfortable. But that was my main goal—getting to the truth of the character and the story. I figured if I could do that, then teens would connect with it. To be perfectly honest, I didn’t think much about wanting the book to be accepted and encouraged to teens. I think that’s a really slippery slope to go down as a writer. When you let your characters and story get swayed by one outside thing, everything else comes in, and then there’s just so much noise in your brain it’s hard to figure out what to do at all. (Or maybe I’m the only one who hears voices?)
So many things in publishing are out of your control. It’s impossible to predict what will hit, connect, be recommended. So I’ve learned to try and focus on what I can control, which is the writing. More than anything, I want to do right by my characters, and live up to my story.
EZ: How much of Mattie (and any of the other characters) is similar to you, and vice versa?
MBP: Unlike Mattie, I am awful at reading maps and never had an interest in them. Like Mattie, I grew up in Westfield, NJ and have an older brother (two actually!). Where Mattie is shy, I’m outgoing. And I had a friend like Kris. We didn’t isolate ourselves the way Mattie and Kris do, but she stuck with me through some really tough times when other people didn’t.
In terms of the story, Mattie’s backstory is very close to mine—I had a toxic friendship and walked away—but where her story starts is where mine ended.
I think there’s a little of me in all my characters, though. Like Jolene, at that age I could be mean and flirtatious (though I never lied or physically hurt anyone, and I was never physically abused by a friend). Like Kris, I took journalism and kicked ass at parallel parking, but unlike Kris I felt comfortable in my routine and didn’t want to leave.
EZ: What kinds of books are you drawn to, and how do you divide your reading and writing time?
MBP: I’m drawn to dark, edgy, lyrical, realistic YA that has an element of suspense or magic. Some of my favorites are Jo Knowles’ Lessons from a Dead Girl, Laura Ruby’s Bone Gap, and Laurie Halse Anderson’s Wintergirls.
In terms of time—I have very little. I’m home with my kids, which means school pick ups and drop offs, grocery shopping, diorama-making, homework-helping, dinner-planning, and school volunteering, not to mention hockey practice, dance class, and playdates. I write when the kids are in school and sneak my reading in at night or at odd times. I tend to read more when I’m writing more for some reason—I’d like to think it’s for inspiration and camaraderie.
EZ: What’s next for you?
MBP: I’m working on two manuscripts right now, both standalone YAs! They are not related to Underneath Everything, or each other, but I think they’re both dark and edgy with a dash of suspense.
Marcy Beller Paul is a young adult author, former editor, and full-time mom who still has all the notes she passed in seventh grade (and knows how to fold them). She graduated from Harvard University and lives in New Jersey with her husband and two children. Underneath Everything is her first novel. You can learn more about Beller Paul on her website here.
Some other reviews of Underneath Everything:
Today in YA: Underneath Everything (Food, Fitness & Fiction)
Book Review: Underneath Everything by Marcy Beller Paul (Books. Blog. Bake.)
Book Review: Underneath Everything by Marcy Beller Paul (TheYoungFolks.com)
Review: Underneath Everything by Marcy Beller Paul. (Book Baristas)
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