YA Wednesday: Margaret Stohl Interviews Jennifer E. Smith
In case you missed it, we're pretty much snowed in here in Seattle, which means two very wonderful things: working from home and catching up on my reading list (not at the same time of course). So early this morning, as the flakes piled up, I burrowed under my covers with The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight by Jennifer E. Smith. Both quick (it takes place over 24 hours) and romantic, I devoured the story of Hadley and Oliver, who meet in an airport waiting room and end up sitting two seats apart on a flight to London.
Recently Margaret Stohl, a co-author of Beautiful Chaos who knows a thing or two about writing a romantic novel herself, asked Jennifer a few questions about love at first sight, bad in-flight experiences, and how to best layer a believable character.
Margaret Stohl: Okay, Jen, it has to be asked: What’s your own take on the statistical probability--or even the vague possibility--of love at first sight? More to the point, has it ever happened to you? Would you know if it had? Would any of us? I wonder...
Jennifer E. Smith: I’d like to think it exists. I’m an optimist and a romantic--both key ingredients for believing in this sort of thing. But for me, time is also such an important part of any relationship--time to get to know each other, time to share stories, time to grow--so it’s hard to imagine that kind of instant connection. That said, I do know people who have experienced it firsthand, couples who have been together happily for a very long time, so it’s hard to argue with that. I guess that anecdotally--if not statistically--it seems to be possible, and since I’m in the business of telling stories rather than compiling statistics, that’s good enough for me!
Stohl: Your boy-meets-girl-meets-world happens on a flight across the Atlantic to Heathrow. My own teens are fencers, and we spend half our lives making that same flight for European tournaments. But why did you pick such an unusual setup? What’s the backstory there for you?
Smith: I suppose it could have been set on a flight headed anywhere, but there’s something about flying at night that seemed like an interesting backdrop for this type of story. Unfortunately, I have a complete inability to fall asleep on planes, so I’ve spent plenty of trips wide awake as the rest of the passengers doze off, and the cabin is always so hushed and dark and dreamlike during those hours. It seemed like the perfect setting for two people to get to know each other.
Stohl: I’ve had some of the strangest encounters of my life on planes. I’ve met people who have read my books or drawn me a map of recommended towns in Southeast Asia or recounted their entire life stories. How about you? Was there an encounter that inspired this story?
Smith: A few years ago, on a flight from Chicago to Dublin, I was seated next to a man from Ireland. He was reading a book that I loved, and we started chatting, and ended up talking for much of the flight. He was older--probably in his sixties--and there was nothing romantic about it, but it was nice to meet a kindred spirit, someone who loved books the way I do, and it made the hours pass quickly. When we arrived in Dublin, we walked off the plane together, but we ended up in separate lines for customs, since he was an Irish citizen. We didn’t exactly say good-bye; I think we both thought we’d see each other on the other side, but my line ended up being really slow, and when I finally made it through, he was gone. It was obviously a much different situation than the one in my book, but it definitely provided some of the initial inspiration for the story of Hadley and Oliver.
Stohl: What about your worst in-flight experiences? Perhaps not involving children and bodily fluids…?
Smith: Well, that narrows it down quite a bit! I’ve had a few harrowing experiences involving turbulence, one emergency landing, and a couple of awfully long flights to places like South Africa and New Zealand. But I can’t really complain too much. My worst experiences usually have to do with the fact that I can’t sleep on planes, and while there’s nothing quite like being wide awake for nine straight hours in a middle seat on a red-eye flight, I’ve actually been pretty lucky in the grand scheme of things.
Stohl: So much of our life is conducted in transit. We read on the subway or watch movies on trains or text someone on the way to work. What is Statistical Probability saying about the speed or the connectivity of modern life?
Smith: I definitely think it’s about slowing down and recognizing the possibilities. I’m as guilty as anyone of moving too fast. If the love of my life sat down next to me on a plane, I’m honestly not sure I’d give him much of a chance. When I’m traveling, I have my book and my music, and I’m in my own little world. It’s a good thing to remember to look up every once in a while.
Stohl: I loved the imperfect, fumbling family relationships in your novel; there was something so honest about your protagonist and her father. I identified with her fragmented emotions, with feeling two ways at once. How did you go about crafting such a layered character? Who do you identify with, on the page?
Smith: I definitely identified the most with Hadley, the main character. It kind of amazes me how easily I’m still able to see the world from the point of view of a seventeen-year-old. Maybe that’s true of everyone. Maybe we all carry around a little piece of our former selves, the teenagers we once were. But I think YA authors must be particularly attuned to this; perhaps our inner seventeen-year-olds are just a little bit closer to the surface.
Stohl: How is it, setting a story in modern-day London? Did you feel an obligation to get everything exactly "right"? Did you travel to the UK for research?
Smith: I did my graduate degree in Scotland a few years ago, and while I was there, two of my best friends were studying in London. I went down to visit them pretty often, and spent a lot of time wandering around the city on my own, taking it all in. It was a few years before those experiences worked their way into my writing, but if I’d never lived in the UK I probably wouldn’t have ever written this book, so I feel very lucky to have had the opportunity, in more ways than one. I was also lucky to make some great friends over there, and one of them was nice enough to read a very early draft for me. I managed to get most things right, but she definitely caught me out on a few Americanisms--using yard instead of garden, for example--so I was happy to have a Scottish consultant!
Stohl: Most writers are passionate readers; I know that the Dickens book Our Mutual Friend plays an important role in your story, just as To Kill a Mockingbird is significant in Beautiful Creatures. How often do books you’ve read feed directly into books you write?
Smith: I have a friend who refers to these as "book chains"--where you read one book and it leads you to another. As a passionate reader, I love when that happens. And as an author, what better way to highlight the books that have meant a lot to you? In college, my senior seminar was on Dickens, and so I read a lot of his work, but for some reason Our Mutual Friend was the one that really stuck with me. The quotes that I used in Statistical Probability are ones that I underlined in my old paperback edition of that book almost ten years ago, and I guess they never quite left me.
Stohl: What’s the statistical probability of another young adult romance from Jen Smith? Anything we can do to improve the odds?
Smith: The statistical probability is very, very good. I’m actually working on another one right now, a love story called This Is What Happy Looks Like. So stay tuned!