An Interview with Shari Goldhagen by B. Lynn Goodwin
Revision is Key
Shari Goldhagen’s 100 Days of Cake is complex, sometimes funny, and sometimes disastrous, just like the life of almost any teenager. The narrator, Molly Bryne suffers from depression despite the fact that she often makes funny cracks and seems average. Frankly, she just wants to spend the summer watching reruns of the Golden Girls and crushing a bit on her Fish Topia co-worker Alex. She has lots of time for it; business is not good there.
At home her mother is trying to bake a new cake every day in the hopes that this project will cure Molly’s depression. We know her heart is in the right place, even if her methods are … umm … unusual. We learn more about her attempts to cope than we do about the initial cause of her condition, but most people will be too wrapped up in her relationship with her sister and the fate of Fish Topia to notice.
Author Shari Goldhagen understands teens and recognizes the dangers of depression. In this Q & A she shares her experience, her good luck, and the preparation that made her ready for that luck.
BLG: Given your background writing pop culture, what made you decide to try YA?
SG: I’ve always loved YA and still read YA; I just never really thought I was that kind of writer. But an editor at a Simon & Schuster imprint seemed to feel otherwise. She’d read my adult novels—both begin with a major character as a teenager—and thought I’d be a good fit for some of the projects they interested in doing. So she reached out to my agent and things just kind of fell into place from there.
BLG: What draws you to teen characters and why are they fun for you to write?
SG: In some ways being a teenager is always optimistic because so much is possible, but it also feels like every thing is super important because so much of it is new. There are just so many firsts.
I really love the immediacy of everything, which is one of the reasons I wrote 100 DOC in first-person present tense. Like a character isn’t going to compare a new relationship to one from a decade ago because a decade ago the character would have been in the sandbox. So much of what a character experiences is unchartered. That isn’t to say that younger charters aren’t smart or worldly, or jaded. They can certainly be all of those things, but it’s a time where so many things are shifting, which is exciting and scary.
BLG: How do you make a character with depression likeable?
SG: I don’t know if Molly is likable, certainly not for everyone, but it was important to me that she be real. Depression has ups and downs, and I wanted to make sure that came across. Things can still be funny and wonderful when you’re depressed, you can still have an amusing world view and sense of humor, it’s just sometimes you get stuck cycling over some of the bad stuff.
And I say this all the time, but I’m a novelist not a doctor, so character is always going to trump biology for me. I was more interested in creating a fully realized character dealing with her issues in a way that is true to her than I was in writing a textbook case study of a girl dealing with depression and anxiety.
BLG: That makes sense to me. How did the storyline in 100 Days of Cake evolve? Where did the sister’s and mother’s actions come from?
SG: I talked a lot with my editor about where we wanted the story to start and end. We knew we wanted it to take place over one summer and we had some of the major set pieces in mind, but the story really just kind of took over. There were a lot of days I ended up cutting.
Molly’s mom and sister were kind of secondary characters when we were just developing the book, but they really started to pop for me as I was writing. They both love Molly and would do anything to help her, but they’re not entirely clear on how to do that. Molly’s mom solved her own problems through self-help books, so she’s willing to try this cake thing because it’s the kind of thing she knows.
And both of them, but especially Molly’s sister Veronica are also trying to deal with their own stuff. V’s actions might infuriate Molly on occasion, but if you look at things from her perspective, you can understand why she behaves the way she does.
BLG: What made you decide to write about mental illness and crushing on a therapist?
MG: I’ve dealt with depression before and I wanted to write a book about depression that wasn’t all doom and gloom. . .you know depressing. I wanted to write something so that people dealing with these issues might not feel like they’re the only one who feels that way.
Molly’s crush on her therapist makes sense considering where she’s coming from. For a year or so Molly has felt like she has to hide some of her darker feelings from people in her life; her old boyfriend even broke up with her when she let him in on her real feelings. So then she starts talking with this good-looking, older therapist who is encouraging her to share all of that stuff. Of course that’s going to be attractive and it’s a little hard for her to separate her feelings.
While I’ve never personally had a crush on my therapist, I’ve definitely felt the need to please various shrinks--to tell them things I thought they wanted to hear, especially when I was younger—and it’s not really very helpful.
BLG: “Read in your genre” and “write daily” are good writing tips, but they are very common. Can you give us more original advice, especially advice that has helped you write YA?
SG: I actually would say don’t read in genre too much—it will induce panic attacks--and I certainly don’t write every day, so that’s kind of hypocritical for me to advise that.
To me, revision is key. A lot of people have ideas and some of those people even finish drafts (a small fraction), but the real work, the painful work, is being able to go back and cut and rework something after you get that draft down.
And I’m not sure this is all that different from writing adult fiction, but I think in YA it’s important to really invent your characters from the ground up. Sadly, I haven’t been 17 for a really long time, so I’m not just going to write a character that’s a thinly veiled me. I had to create a person with her own history and quirks and stay true to that.
BLG: How did you find your first agent and your publisher? Are you still with your first agent and if not, why did you change?
SG: I am still with my first agent—though he actually started his own agency, so technically I guess I’ve switched agencies. I found him in the traditional way. When I finished my first novel, I sent out a bunch of queries and then met with the people who were interested and picked the one who felt right for me. He’s good people.
As to my publishing houses, well, yikes. My first editor left Doubleday two weeks before my first novel came out. The editor they assigned me was great, but she was long gone by the time I finished my second novel (it took me a really long time!). My second adult novel was with St. Martin’s and I loved that editor, too, but she left a few months before the paperback release. The person they assigned me to there was lovely, but left a month after we met. And the editor at S&S who worked with me so tirelessly on 100 Days of Cake, well she left the week after the book came out. At this point I’m pretty sure it’s me.
The reality is that there’s a lot of turnover in the industry and I’m learning it’s just something you have to get used to. Sigh.
BLG: Thanks for being honest. I appreciate knowing those details. What makes a YA stand out to a traditional publisher right now?
SG: I’m not sure that I can speak for the whole genre, but I think that the voice has to be really, really strong. There are so many YA subgenres, but what a lot of the successful books seem to have in common—whether they are about dystopian universes, werewolves, or kids dealing with illness—is that a reader can identify with the characters. You’d want to read about these people no matter what universe they’re from or going to.
BLG: What are you working on and where can we learn more about you?
SG: Right now I’m working on a couple of YA ideas and trying to finish an adult novel that I’ve literally been working on for more than a decade. Like I put it aside for a while and when I went back to it a few months ago, I noticed that all the characters were using Sidekicks instead of iPhones—that’s how old it is. There are so many things I like about the project, but I’m still trying to get it to come together. Gimmie another decade with it.
I have a website--sharigoldhagen.com--and you can also follow me on twitter—sharigoldhagen--or you know find me on Facebook. Generally I don’t bite.
BLG: Thank you for the wonderful information and insights. Writer Advice loves sharing the stories of authors who make it all the way through the process and get their books out in the world.
To read a YA whose characters you will love, look no further than Shari Goldhagen’s 100 Days of Cake.