Sweet Sixteener Dana Elmendorf recently spoke to Fearless Fifteener Kris Dinnison about her contemporary YA novel, YOU AND ME AND HIM (July 7, 2015, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt).
Kris Dinnison learned to read when she was five years old. She grew up reading books nobody else had read and listening to music nobody else had heard of and thinking she was weird, which she kind of was. She spent nearly two decades as a teacher and librarian working with students from kindergarten to graduate school. The bulk of that time she spent teaching high school English while dreaming of becoming a writer. Nowadays, when she’s not writing, she helps run her family’s retail and café businesses. She lives in Spokane, Washington with her husband and two cats named Moon Pie and Raymond.
“Do not ignore a call from me when you know I am feeling neurotic about a boy. That is Best Friend 101.” —Nash
Maggie and Nash are outsiders. She’s overweight. He’s out of the closet. The best of friends, they have seen each other through thick and thin, but when Tom moves to town at the start of the school year, they have something unexpected in common: feelings for the same guy. This warm, witty novel—with a clear, true voice and a clever soundtrack of musical references—sings a song of love and forgiveness.
Kris: I think I always wanted to be a writer, but I let a lot of things get in the way of believing I could do that. I always loved books and stories, and I really thought that was the most magical thing anyone could do for a living, but I didn’t think that I could do that.
I got feedback early on in my life from a couple of adults at school that my ideas weren’t very original. Unfortunately, I let that keep me from writing fiction for a long, long time. I did some freelance writing in my twenties and thirties, but it wasn’t until I was in my thirties that I started to think I might be able to tell stories. Just like everyone else, the first stories were terrible and unfinished and embarrassing. But I think as I wrote more I got braver and I was able to hear my own voice as a writer more, so they got better.
Dana: How did you come up with the idea for your novel? Were there real life events that inspired the story?
Kris: The story started as just a note in my writing notebook: “A girl who works in a record store.” Then when I started writing, the main character, Maggie, just started talking my ear off. A lot of the things that happened to her and other characters have happened to me or people I know. For instance I got mooed at in high school like Maggie did, and I moved and had to be the new kid like Tom. But the actual scenario (the two friends who like the same guy) is not one I’ve lived through myself.
Dana: What was your revision process like for this book? What was the hardest part? The easiest?
Kris: I did a lot of revision on this book. There were several revisions before my agent saw it. Several revisions with my agents before we submitted, and revisions throughout the year and a half submission process. Then the real work began once my editor had it and we started making it into the book you see today. The hardest revising for me is around plot. I’m not a master of the plot thing. This book started as characters and relationships for me, so the plot was always a little more elusive. The easiest revisions were around dialogue for me. Some thing would be sort of clanging in the manuscript, but I wouldn’t change it right away. Pretty soon I started trusting my instincts whenever I heard the clang.
Dana: YOU AND ME AND HIM is set up around a friend/relationship dynamic. What was the challenging part of writing those relationships? And did you let the relationships drive the plot or vice versa?
Kris: I think one of the challenging parts of writing those relationships is that you have to make your characters do stupid or infuriating stuff to create conflict. But those mistakes also have to be true to who the characters are. They have to be believable stupidity. So for me establishing each character as a three-dimensional, solid, real person was really important, and was the most important work of the novel. I wouldn’t have known how they would act unless I’d done that work ahead of time. So really I think the characters ended up driving both the relationships and the plot. I definitely started with getting to know the people who inhabit the book, then setting them loose to see how they would behave.
Dana: Quinn is Maggie’s employer at the record store but he’s also the cool adultish character who gives her sound life advice. Did you have a Quinn in your life at sixteen? If not describe the sixteen-year-old you’s ideal.
Kris: I didn’t have a Quinn in my life. I had some great adults to talk to, teachers and coaches, and even my parents, who respected me and gave really good advice. But there was no one person like Quinn, who was so cool and wise that I trusted them with all the stuff Maggie trusts Quinn with. There was no adult that I turned to like she does with Quinn.
Dana: In the book Maggie is a fantastic baker, are you? What is the perfect cookie recipe?
Kris: I am not a fantastic baker. I can bake, and I like to, but I don’t have the creative chemistry gene I think all great bakers have. The perfect cookie recipe for me is one someone else bakes! But if I’m baking cookies, I usually bake this chocolate chip cookie recipe I got from my friend Randy. It has vanilla pudding in it. I like to sprinkle a little salt on top of the cookies.
Lightning Round Questions
Favorite place to write? I love my tiny writing office in my house. It’s in the part of the house we call “the tower”.
Your celebrity crush? Gosh, when I was younger: Leif Garrett. Now I get crushes on writers I admire. Kelly Link and David Levithan are probably the two I have right now. Both of them write stuff that just completely draws me into the worlds of their books.
What is the perfect cookie? I’m a fan of a frosted sugar cookie. Or oatmeal scotchies.
The one vinyl record you have to have? The Police, Ghost in the Machine. It was the first vinyl I ever bought.
A song you could play on permanent repeat? Cannonball by The Breeders
A band you loved when you were 16 that you still listen to. The Smiths. Definitely. Still love them.
Born and raised in small town in Tennessee, Dana Elmendorf now lives in southern California with her husband, two boys and her tiny dog. When she isn’t exercising, she can be found geeking out with Mother Nature or scouring the internet for foreign indie bands. After her family’s needs are met, you can find her dreaming up contemporary YA romances with plenty of kissing. Her debut novel SOUTH OF SUNSHINE, a YA LGBTQ contemporary romance, comes out April 2016 with Albert Whitman and Company.
Find Dana on her website.