The lovely Luisa Plaja, UK author of two teen novels and mastermind behind the YA blog Chicklish, answered some questions for me, to coincide with the release of her new book Extreme Kissing.
She talks about differences in US and UK fiction, the blogging world, her books, snogging, and the all-important Buffy debate.
Hi Luisa! Can you start by telling us how you got into writing teen/YA fiction?
I started writing for teenagers when I was a teenager myself. In those days [cue cheesy-movie wobbly fade] UK teen magazines published short stories and photo love stories, and I wrote both. I sold my first one when I was 14 - a handwritten, scrappy, illustrated story about a girl who got obsessed with fruit when she fell in love with the greengrocer's son. Writing these stories was great fun, and you could say I haven't really moved on from the themes of love, obsession and bananas. I like writing stories about identity and self-image, and about figuring out your place in the world as a girl in a so-called post-feminist society. And snogging.
When I was a teenager, I used to write regularly to my favourite authors, telling them I wanted to be a writer like them and asking for advice. I got some wonderful replies, but they all said the same (realistic) thing: you need a 'real' job; you can't make a living out of writing, and it's very difficult to get published. So I got lots of proper jobs, in wordy fields, and I almost gave up writing because I was sure having a novel published was an impossible dream. And then I wrote Split by a Kiss, and discovered the dream wasn't quite so impossible...
How long did it take you to get published? Was it a long process?
No, it all happened quickly and painlessly and I was swept off my feet and constantly pinching myself. (So, OK, there was some mild pain involved.) It took about two years for the book to come out after it was sold, though. Random House Children's Books are housed in a building that I used to press my nose against when I was younger. I used to wish I could go in and see what a real publisher's looked like. Well, I've been inside now, and you know what? It's as exciting as I thought it would be. There are books everywhere! The walls are practically made of books instead of bricks, and because they're children's books, it's all so colourful. *happy sigh*
Your debut novel, Split by a Kiss, saw main character Jo moving from the UK to the US. Was this based on a personal experience? If yes, what was the thing you found most different about America?
Yes, I've had quite a few Jo experiences! Well, really, I was Jo's mum. I went from London, where rented accommodation was usually furnished and I knew how everything worked, to Boston, where I had to start again completely, including renting a bed and accepting donations of cutlery from my colleagues. When I was looking for a place to live, I didn't even understand half of what the "real estate" agent was saying - it was a whole new vocabulary. Plus I wasn't remotely interested in the things that were supposed to impress me - I was just there mumbling like a Londoner, "But where are the shops? Where's the public transport? Is there a cinema in walking distance?" In the end, I settled in the heart of a medium-sized suburban Boston town (though they called it a city) which is roughly the setting for Split by a Kiss. (I changed the name of the town/city, but I kept the wonderful charity/thrift shop. And the ice rink!) The real estate person told me, "You'll like this city - it's really European and there's a theatre near the property." "Great, but is there a cinema?" I asked, and she gave me my thousandth alien stare that morning. (See Split by a Kiss for a full description of the 'alien stare'.) Anyway, she was right about the town, though I didn't fully appreciate its Europeanness until I saw other parts of the USA. And the theatre turned out to be a cinema after all. Go figure!
So, back to your question. I'm not sure what I found most different, apart from the linguistic differences that it was (and still is) one of my jobs to record. In general, I think there was an odd mix of complete familiarity - especially when I visited cities that are constantly on our screens, like New York and Los Angeles - and bizarre differences that would hit me when I least expected them. But I shouldn't have been surprised. It's a foreign country, after all!
Your new book, Extreme Kissing, has a great plot based around Extreme Travel. How did you come up with the idea?
I first read about Extreme Travel in an in-flight magazine, but it was talking about a grown-up kind of travel - like sticking a pin in a map of the world and flying to that country - things that wouldn't exactly be possible for Bets and Lots. (Though I guarantee that Lots would find a way!) It vaguely reminded me of the days out in London I had when I was in my teens. My friends and I used to buy Travelcards and then hop on random buses and trains and see where it took us. Invariably, though, it didn't take us anywhere very interesting, and we'd end up going round the Circle Line for hours or standing outside Elephant & Castle Tube going, "Now what?" I spiced things up a bit for Bets and Lots. The idea of using the magazine for challenges was born out of Carlota's magazine obsession. She thought magazines were the answer to everything... and, in a way, on Extreme Saturday, they were. When I wrote the book, I used my large pile of teen magazines for inspiration, so I went on my own kind of extreme journey at the same time as the girls.
Extreme Travel was also partly inspired by Extreme Ironing, an international sport where people iron their clothes in exciting places, such as up mountains and underwater. I love the idea of taking an ordinary activity and adding risk, although it did occur to me that ironing in your own house could be pretty risky too, depending on your attitude! Extreme Kissing (the novel, not the activity) is a lot about attitudes to risk-taking and safety, especially in relationships. And snogging.
Now that Extreme Kissing has been published, what's next for you? Are you working on anything at the moment?
I'm working on a sequel for Split by a Kiss, where there are major shakeups for many of the characters. But that's all I'm going to say at the moment, because I mistakenly think that makes me sound mysterious and interesting.
You run the UK teen fiction site Chicklish. What inspired you to do this?
I was talking to fabulous writer friend Keris Stainton one day about how and why teen fiction isn't as big in the UK as it is in the States. One of the differences is the wealth of online information about US titles compared with UK ones. We decided to try to redress the balance a bit, and we started Chicklish. The site's been going for three years and we now cover all types of teen fiction from all countries, with fabulous contributors including Alexandra Fouracres, Karen Saunders, teen reviewers Hannah and Sasha, and plenty of guest reviewers.
You obviously love teen fiction, can you tell us about some of your favourite books and authors?
I'm rubbish at this question as I love so many books and authors and I have so much trouble narrowing it down! I'm going to cop out totally and say: Check out Chicklish (oh, and Wondrous Reads!) for great recommendations! Hee hee. Sorry. But I will say that I've just finished reading Girl Meets Cake by Susie Day and it is brilliant.
US and UK teen fiction is very different, both in tone and style. Why do you think this is?
Ooh, interesting question. I wish I knew the answer. I think a major difference is in the market and the attitude to teen fiction - in the UK, it tends to be for younger teens, whereas in the US I've heard it targets readers through to their late teens and twenties. I think things might be changing, though. I see (and read) signs of change all the time, and I'm holding my breath for a possible Twilight-induced teen fiction revolution in the UK.
Do you think book blogs and sites like yours have a positive impact on authors and book sales? Is the internet the way forward in terms of publicity?
I don't know! The truth is, I love blogging about books and reading and commenting on other people's book blogs, and I'd do it anyway, whether it made a difference or not. But it would be nice if it did help to spread the word about how fabulous teen fiction is! When I finish reading a book I love, I always Google it to see what others have said and join in any possible discussions of it. Before book blogs, it was hard to find anything, and even now it's difficult to find much about certain UK titles - often the type of books I love most! You know, books that will probably never win awards but they touch hearts and make people laugh, and think, and realise that they're normal. Or rather, realise that there's no such thing as 'normal', and they should be happy about that! Those are the kinds of books I love reading - and writing, hopefully. Um... what was I saying? Basically, I love teen fiction and I think everyone should read it, so I'll promote it however I can!
Lastly, seeing as you're a huge Buffy the Vampire Slayer fan like me, I just have to ask you one question: Angel or Spike?
Noooooooooo! Not *The* question! I can't answer this honestly or Amanda Ashby will never forgive me! And, if you know Amanda Ashby, that kind of gives it away... (She's the author of Zombie Queen of Newbury High, which is brilliant and recommended. More info: Amanda Ashby Blog.)
Let's just say that Angel and Spike both have their appeal, and clearly the Angel/Buffy combo is True Love Forever. But Spike... That utter devotion for Dru, and then for Buffy, the way he cares for Dawn, the striding about, the bad-boy passion... Nah, I'm not going to answer this. I love them both. :)
Hmm... good answer, Luisa. It's difficult to choose between two of the most amazing vampires ever, but if I had to, I think I'd go with Angel! Though, if I wanted a laugh, I think I'd call Spike. Or maybe just visit his crypt. *shrug*
For more info on Luisa and her extreme love of teen fiction, visit her official site or her YA blog Chicklish. And for my thoughts on Split by a Kiss and Extreme Kissing, you can read my reviews here and here.