This month, I’m pleased to have Simone Elkeles, Simone is a Young Adult author. Simone is a past President of the Chicago-North chapter of the Romance Writers of America. She coordinated the Chapter’s highly successful Spring Fling Conference. In 2005, she won the prestigious Stiletto contest (in the YA chicks category) run by the Chick Lit Writers of the World, with her YA novel HOW TO RUIN A SUMMER VACATION (which will be released in October, 2006). Visit her website at www.simoneelkeles.com.
Questions for Simone Elekes
Simone, glad to have you here this month.
Q:When did you start writing?
A: I started writing in 2000, after I sold my manufacturing company to “retire” and be a stay-at-home mom. I started reading a lot, but thought “I can write a book instead of just reading them” so I sat down at the computer between 10pm and 1am and started writing my first novel. (It’s not as easy as I thought, that’s for sure) I had no previous experience and had no recollection of taking a creative writing class. I did complete a minor in English at Purdue University before transferring to the University of Illinois, though. Probably due to my competitive nature and workaholic genes (thanks, Dad) more than anything else, I didn’t give up and kept writing manuscripts until an agent liked one of my books enough to sign me. She sold How to Ruin a Summer Vacation to Llewellyn Flux (along with two more books to be released in 2007) and I couldn’t be happier.
Q:Why do you write Young Adult? What led you to this genre?
A: It was a fluke, actually. I had started out as a historical romance writer, because I love reading historical romances-living in a different time and place fascinates me. Because it was hard to sell historical novels at that time, I started writing adult contemporary romances but I never actually got into a groove with them. A friend of mine, Ruth Kaufman, brought a newspaper article to a Chicago-North Romance Writers of America meeting about Latina/Latino books being a hot market. It outlined an author who wrote an adult book with Hispanic characters. I thought about it a lot…because as much as different times and places fascinate me, so do people from different cultures. But I wanted to be different, so I didn’t want to write an adult book with Hispanic characters. I chose to write about high school characters and focused the book on a relationship between a white girl and Hispanic boy. There are always romances in my books, I think it’s the most exciting time in one’s life. So the reason I changed from writing adult books to young adult books was because I wanted to be different. How to Ruin a Summer Vacation was my second YA novel I wrote, but the first one I sold. I absolutely enjoy writing YA novels now, I feel like I’ve found a home for my “voice”.
Q:Could you define Young Adult?
A:Oh, man. Me, define something? For a book to be considered a young adult novel, I would say the characters need to be between 13 and 19 years old. Authors of YA novels have to be super-conscious of the fact that these teenage characters are going through more “stuff” than at any other time in their lives. Peer pressure, puberty, sexual experimentation/questions, sexual identity, acne, body image issues, school, parents, etc., are all things YA authors need to remember when writing novels for young adults.
Q:How would you say Young Adult books have changed over the past twenty years?
A:I remember reading Young Adult books when I was in school and totally being into them. I remember a favorite of mine, Cute is a Four Letter Word. I don’t remember those books having a ton of edgy language or touching on topics like homosexuality and drugs. Drinking alcohol, maybe, (Sooner or Later was popular-it touched upon sex and alcohol- and it eventually became a made for t.v. movie with heartthrob at the time Rex Smith) but the “edgier” topics weren’t touched upon as much. Judy Blume’s novel Forever was scandalous at the time for dealing with first time sex. She was definitely a pioneer who paved the way for authors to touch on previously taboo topics.
Q:What is the age range of the readers? Could you provide some demographics about them?
A:I think my readers will range from 12 years old to 18 years old. Although I have to say that my adult friends who read my books love them. One adult book club I know has already chosen to read How to Ruin a Summer Vacation after it’s released later this year. Even though How to Ruin a Summer Vacation is about a girl who goes to Israel for the summer, I really was conscious of making the book universal for everyone to read and enjoy.
Q:Who would you say buys these books, the parents or the readers?
A:Since my book will be released later this year, I can only guess on this one. I’m going to say that it’s probably parents who buy the books. As a parent myself, I’m happy any time my daughter wants to read. When we go to the book store, I usually tell her to pick out one or two books and am happy to purchase them for her. I do make sure they are age-appropriate for her before I go to the counter.
Q:What are the main issues dealt with in Young Adult books?
A:Some YA books are “issue” books, and others are not. Sometimes the author tries to teach lessons to the readers, and some are purely written to entertain the reader. I’ve read YA books on peer pressure, parental relationships, student/teacher relationships, sex, homosexuality, death, drugs, physical abuse, emotional abuse…you name it. My books so far are not purely issue books, they are meant to entertain and amuse. But I’m sure if you look hard enough you’ll find a few issues speckled in between the pages of my novels.
Q:And the reverse, what issues are not dealt with in Young Adult books?
A:I’m sure you can find a YA book on every issue or topic out there. But if you find an issue not being dealt with in YA novels, quick, email me and maybe I’ll write about it. Or, better yet, dust off your keyboard and start writing your own story.
Q:Sex and language are big issues in music young people listen to and watch on cable television, how are these dealt with in YA books?
A:This really depends on the author. Some authors totally ignore the sex, sexual comments, and sexuality of their teenage characters, and some totally embrace that part of their characters and even go into great detail. Some authors don’t use any edgy language or slang and some authors use it as a tool to shock readers. I am not one to censor myself (if you met me, you’d know this), so I just let the characters guide me. I don’t curtail strong language if my character would speak that way. On the other hand, I don’t use strong language just for the sake of using it. When it comes to sex, some of my books deal with it and some don’t. How to Ruin a Summer Vacation is pretty tame compared to my first YA book I wrote, Zero Tolerance.
Q:What do you read?
A: I read the Young Adult novels that are popular so I can get a taste of what teens like to read, although if they’re too depressing or “issue” driven I shy away from those. (some YA favorites: Twilight, Flipped) I also read YA novels that are suggested to me by my agent, editor, and other teens. Since I started out as a romance writer, you can always find a romance book on my nightstand. (some favorites: Coyote Dream, anything by Susan Elizabeth Phillips or Julia Quinn–note: these are adult books)
Q:Where do you draw your ideas?
A: Seriously, I think we all have a muse. Some ideas just come to me suddenly; I might be washing the dishes or driving my car when an idea pops into my head. In How to Ruin a Summer Vacation, it was easy because a lot of experiences my character goes through in Israel I’ve been through myself. I met my husband in Israel between my junior and senior year in high school on a summer trip to Israel. We remet six years after the trip and married three years after that. Israel is not at all what is portrayed on television and I try to convey the real life of Israelis in my book.
Q:What type of research have you done for your books to make them realistic to readers?
A:For my second release, Caleb Becker is Back (or Leaving Paradise, I think the publisher just changed the name of it), due out in February 2007, I actually went to a juvenile detention facility to see what the cells look like (I actually got locked in a cell there-only for a few minutes but you don’t know how long a few minutes are until you’ve spent it behind a locked cell door) and spent over two hours there with the “residents”. For How to Ruin a Summer Vacation, less research had to be done because I’d been to Israel so many times throughout my life (my father was Israeli and my husband is Israeli). I think if you can experience what your characters experience, your book will be that much richer to the reader.
More questions for Simone and her answers on writing Young Adult books
Q:Simone, how do you write dialogue for teens? Is there a dictionary? Do you listen to what teens listen to?
A: Dialogue for teens is tough. Sometimes if you’re too authentic and have your characters say what teens would say “today”, tomorrow – when your book comes out – the dialogue can seem outdated. Teen slang seems to change almost daily, it’s hard to keep up. So I’m careful not to use too many slang terms. I used the term NOT in a book and my editor told me to take it out saying it was outdated. (Ex: I love cauliflower-NOT!) Listen, we’ve all been teens and can remember what it was like. I seriously think as I would have as a teen when I write. I admit, I loved my teenage years…writing teen is absolutely fun. I grew up in the 80’s, which was a blast (outdated word, I know). My kids say “grody, dude and fab” because I say it. It’s comforting when I hear my kid say, “Mom, picking up the dog doo-doo is grody.”
I love listening to the radio and probably play my music too loud. Okay, I’m still a teen…on the inside.
No dictionary. I do go to the skateboarding park with my kids to listen to how guys talk. I know how girls talk because I’m a girl…but I’m working on guy talk. Male dialogue is harder to write because guys talk and think in short sentences and typically don’t overanalyze stuff or give too much information. Example: What’s your favorite food? A girl: “Oh, I like pizza…with no sauce but extra cheese.” A guy: “Pizza.”
Q:Role models for teens, who do you think they should be and why?
A: Am I supposed to be politically correct here? Umm…sports heroines, because they persevere and live primarily healthy lifestyles. They’re also dedicated. I’m amazed at the stamina of sports heroines. I also am a huge fan of teachers. They get paid so little for taking our kids all day and teaching them to be intelligent human beings. Gotta love the teachers. Oh, yeah, mom’s too. They get way too little credit and they carry the weight of the world on their shoulders (all this while they do a million little things throughout the day). A mom who goes out of town for two days has a list of 50 things for the person taking care of their kids to do…overwhelming? Oh, yeah. But the mom does it all without blinking. Mom’s get an A++ in my book.
Q:What is your editing process like?
A: I’m one of those people that can edit and edit and edit and read my “perfect” manuscript and still have tons of editing to do. Even masterpieces can be edited. A book is never perfect. There are always going to be mistakes or things we could have done better. Just write the best book you can. I am a seat of the pants writer and am surprised when my characters do things I never expected them to do (or say). I won’t go back a lot until I’ve finished the book. Then I go back and edit. And do it a few more times before I hand it off to my editor, who then makes his comments and makes me edit some more.
Q:What is your favorite color and why?
A: Blue. Because there’s so many pretty shades of it. My favorite is that bluish-green which is almost a turquoise but has more blue than green. Even though it’s my favorite, I don’t wear blue. I wear black (because it’s supposed to be slimming).
Q:On your website you say you try to answer the question, “Who I Am?” What does that mean?
A: Does anybody really know who we are? Here’s me on paper: Simone has two children, a husband, two dogs, a nice house in the Chicago suburbs, and three books coming out in the next year. Here’s what people don’t know about me: I love laughing and making people laugh. I will make a fool out of myself just to put a smile on someone’s face. I always look for the bright spot in things, so I have trouble being with people who are always moping around. I love being around my friends and will pretty much drop anything to hang out with them/I will also drop anything to help out friends or family if they need me. I’m also competitive, to a fault. The bad things about me: I hate housework, I’m a terrible accountant, I hate grocery shopping and I think I’m turning into my mother. In a nutshell, that’s who I am.
Q:How and can YA books be appealing to teenagers without sounding ‘preachy’?
A: I read a YA book recently where the author was obviously trying to preach to the reader. But, to be honest, I enjoyed the book anyway. I think readers can “skip over” unnecessary preaching in books if the rest of the book is amazing. Again, it depends on the authors’ agenda. In my book about Israel, I introduce a Palestinian boy in the book. But I tried (and hope I succeeded) to pose both positions (the Israel side and the Palestinian side) and left it up to the reader to make their own opinion. Authors (including me) obviously come to the table with our own biased views of the world when we sit down to write. It’s up to each author to inject their own views to sway readers or decide to show different views and let the reader make their own judgments. Ah, the power of the written word. How can YA books be appealing? By writing a kick-butt story about something interesting to young readers.
Q:Your first book, How To Ruin A Summer Vacation, coming out this year, is set on an Israeli farm community, a moshav. Can you give a brief synopsis of the story and why you chose this?
A: Short version: How to Ruin a Summer Vacation is about an American teen who has to go to Israel for the summer with her estranged father.
Long version taken directly from the www.fluxnow.com website: Going to Israel with her estranged father is the last thing Amy wants to do this summer. A spoiled American teenager with an attitude that matches her killer Jimmy Choo slides, she’s got a serious grudge against her dad, a.k.a “Sperm Donor,” for showing up so rarely in her life. Now he’s dragging her to a war zone to meet a family she’s never known, including her ill grandmother who’s the only source of comfort in this strange land. Sharing a room with her unfriendly cousin, igniting a brawl at the local disco, and having her Ferragamo sandal stolen by a mutt . . . one hilarious humiliation after another tests Amy’s fierce spirit. Finding her place in a foreign culture isn’t easy, but as Amy learns to shed her tough-girl persona, she discovers that making friends, falling in love, and connecting with her family and heritage isn’t impossible after all.
It’s funny, I never really wanted to write about my “own” people or Israel. I guess when you’re so immersed in a culture you think it’s not unique. So when I was on a writing retreat and my friends told me to start writing about “what I know”-Jewish people and Israel-my response was, “Nobody wants to read about Jewish people or Israel.” Their response was, “Yes, they do.” And they actually made me sit down and write about it for our next critique session two hours later. I sat in front of the empty screen wondering what story about Jewish people or Israel would be interesting to teens. Then it came to me…a book about an American teenage girl who doesn’t consider herself Jewish having to travel to this strange land she’s only heard about on the news. I wrote the first scene and read it to the group. They loved it, urged me to keep writing, and the rest is history.
Q:Could you give some idea as to how you prepare to write a YA book? As an adult, how do you get into the minds of teenagers?
A: Okay, dare I say it…I’m immature. Or maybe I just loved my teenage years and relive that time in my life through my books. Getting into the mind of a female teenager isn’t difficult, but getting into the mind of a teenage boy is something foreign to me. When I take my son to the skateboarding park near our house, I’ll see what the teens are wearing and try and pick up new slang. I’ll also ask questions to teenage guys…you’d be surprised how much they open up.
Q:You just stepped down as the President of Chicago North, an RWA Chapter, and wrapped up a very successful Spring Fling Conference, how do you feel about the work you’ve done over the past year?
A: I love Chicago-North RWA (Romance Writers of America). If it wasn’t for the group, I very likely wouldn’t be published right now. The least I can do for the group is give back and was very happy to be the Spring Fling conference chairperson and chapter president this past year. I will remain a very active member of Chicago-North and can’t wait to cheer all CN members who get published.
Q:Can you give a view into how you write? Any particular schedule you have?
A: I write in the mornings and during the day, whenever I can get a few hours to myself. It’s hard with two kids, though, and juggle my family life and work life as best I can. When I’m on deadline, I wake up super early and write before the kids wake up.
A question for Simone from Sloane Taylor:
Q: How do you find all the time to accomplish everything in your life? You must never sleep. As a new author I need any advice you can share.
A: It is hard juggling everything, but when a book is due I get “on track” and really buckle down. I remember one day in April (I had a book due on Monday and was chairperson for the Spring Fling writers’ conference) I got up at 3:00am and went to bed the next day at 1:00am. It wasn’t pretty and I hadn’t done that since college. And when my husband said he was exhausted of taking care of the kids that day I looked at him wide-eyed…I kept my mouth shut, though, which is probably a first for me.
Normally I do sleep a good 6-7 hours. It’s hard getting motivated at times, but then at others I’m rearing to get “on track” and write. Sometimes I wish I could do what they do in New York, a bunch of New York writers rent office space to write. Being at home and getting “on track” with writing is hard because there’s so many distractions…the laundry, the phone, cleaning the house (which I hate to do), and friends who want to shop (I’m always up for it) or go out to lunch (I love to eat and hang out with friends). And you can never forget the internet, the biggest distraction of them all. When I have a book due and I’m in crunch time, I turn off internet/email access so I can write.
But it’s not easy. I’m sure every writer feels the same-it’s really hard to juggle family, writing, friends and other “stuff”. I haven’t mastered it. I’m hoping this summer to get more organized and schedule out my day. Does it work? I don’t know. But I’ll keep you posted!