Sweet Sixteener Brittany Cavallaro recently spoke to Fearless Fifteener Michelle Falkoff about her contemporary YA novel PLAYLIST FOR THE DEAD (January 27, 2015 from HarperTeen/HarperCollins).
After living on both coasts, Michelle Falkoff has most recently traded Iowa winters for Chicago winters, which may not have been the most effective life strategy, though so far she’s been really happy in Chicago. She loves em dashes, semicolons, parentheticals, and the serial comma, but when she teaches writing to first-year law students (her day job) she often tells them that if they need more than one comma, their sentences are too long. Trying to stick to the word limits in Twitter is killing her, but she’s trying: @michellefalkoff. Michelle’s YA debut, PLAYLIST FOR THE DEAD, will be out from HarperTeen on January 27, 2015.
There was a party. There was a fight. The next morning, Sam’s best friend, Hayden, was dead. And all he left Sam was a playlist of songs and a suicide note: For Sam—listen and you’ll understand. To figure out what happened, Sam has to rely on the playlist and his own memory. But the more he listens, the more he realizes that his memory isn’t as reliable as he thought. And it might only be by taking out his earbuds and opening his eyes to the people around him that he’ll finally be able to piece together his best friend’s story. And maybe have a chance to change his own. Playlist for the Dead is an honest and gut-wrenching first novel about loss, rage, what it feels like to outgrow a friendship that’s always defined you—and the struggle to redefine yourself. But above all, it’s about finding hope when hope seems like the hardest thing to find.
Brittany: When and how did you know that you wanted to be a writer?
Michelle: I started writing when I was really young, but it was mostly very bad rhyming poetry and knockoffs of books that I found unsatisfying. I’d always been very practical, and I thought in order to be a “real” writer you had to be hit with the lightning bolt of genius, so I figured I’d write for fun on the side but would always have some other job. And even though I’ve gotten over the whole genius thing (I’ll never be one, but hard work ends up counting more than I realized when I was younger), I’ve also come to realize that these days writers also still need jobs.
Short version: I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was a kid, but I didn’t take it seriously until many years later, after my first full-time job.
Brittany: At the beginning of Sam’s story, his world is defined not only by his friendship with Hayden but by their shared obsessions: certain bands, certain movies, video games. What were your obsessions as a teenager? How have they shaped you as a writer?
Michelle: I was always a giant bookworm, but that wasn’t the kind of obsession I shared with my friends. I was also into music as a kid and thought it was cool to shun the top-40 stuff, like Sam and Hayden, which I’ve somewhat gotten over. I had (and still have) a great friend who introduced me to the world of independent and foreign movies. But the books were always paramount, and that’s really what had the biggest influence on me. The idea that for the space of a period of hours or days or weeks I could be someone else, somewhere else, has always been the thing that drove me to want to create that experience for other people.
Brittany: I was surprised (and delighted) that PLAYLIST FOR THE DEAD read so much like a mystery novel. At its heart, Sam is trying to understand what happened to Hayden the night before he died. How did you come up with your novel’s structure?
Michelle: I wish there was an easy answer to that question! Lots of layers here—I’ve always loved mysteries, and I’m inclined to think that all plots in some way have an element of mystery to them, where the characters are looking to discover something. A lot of my background is in literary fiction, both in reading and training, so I’m comfortable with the idea that resolving the mystery doesn’t necessarily mean providing clear answers; the world is rarely as simple as we want it to be, and it was important to me that Sam, my narrator, start to understand that a little better than he does at the outset. I knew the playlist couldn’t possibly answer questions in and of itself, so I wanted to use it to structure Sam’s quest for answers. Lining up the music and the party and the present action ended up being the architecture for the book as a whole, but it took some doing (and multiple drafts).
Brittany: How do you think your training and experience in writing literary fiction affects your young adult writing?
Michelle: At the most basic level, it’s made me very attentive to the technical aspects of writing: structure, language. It does mean I tend to overthink some stuff—for example, writing in first-person present is very popular in YA, and I’ve loved many books that use that voice, but I don’t know that I’ll ever be able to do it myself because I’m very hung up on the literal impossibility of it. It’s also made me comfortable with a certain amount of ambiguity, though never at the expense of clarity if I can help it. Other than that, I’m not writing particularly differently than I did when I was writing for an adult audience; the main difference is that so far all the YA stuff has been in first person, and my adult writing was mostly in third. Some of my writer friends find that surprising, but I don’t—I think the YA readership is quite sophisticated, as are YA writers.
Brittany: What was your revision process like for this book?
Michelle: Extensive. All writers have their own processes; mine is to power through a very messy first draft and then use it as material to figure out what I really want to write about. The book went through multiple revisions and changed substantially from the first draft to the final. My editor was really fabulous in helping me figure out ways to dig deeper into some of the characters’ motivations, which shaped much of how the story ultimately developed.
Brittany: What’s your next project?
Michelle: I’m working on a book about a high school valedictorian who gets blackmailed into being part of a prescription drug ring. Or at least that’s how it’s starting—who knows where it will end up?
Lightning Round Questions:
Favorite writing snack?
Can coffee be a snack?
Oddest job you ever had?
Being a lawyer was pretty odd at times.
Big brother, little sister, in the middle, or one and only?
Oldest of three: I have a younger brother and sister.
Music to write by?
I write in silence! Or whatever’s on at the coffeehouse.
Any previous titles for your book?
This was the one and only.
What were you reading when you were 16?
Probably Stephen King and John Irving, along with constant rereading of Susan Cooper’s THE DARK IS RISING series.
About the Interviewer:
Brittany Cavallaro is a poet, YA writer, and avid Sherlockian. She’s received fellowships and scholarships from the National Endowment from the Arts, the Vermont Studio Center, and the Bread Loaf Writers Conference. GIRL-KING, her first book of poems, is forthcoming from the University of Akron Press in early 2015. Her YA debut, A STUDY IN CHARLOTTE (Katherine Tegen Books/HarperCollins), is a Sherlock Holmes redux in which the descendants of the master detective and Dr. Watson must unravel the mystery of why they’re being framed for a murder at their American boarding school — while Jamie Watson fights to understand the brilliant and damaged girl beneath Charlotte Holmes’s barbed-wire façade.