Prom Dates to Die For: An Interview with Jenny Peterson

Prom Dates to Die ForToday I’m thrilled to welcome my YA writing friend and fellow Lighthouse Writers workshopper Jenny Peterson. Jenny’s short story, “Tonight, You’re Mine,” has just released in PROM DATES TO DIE FOR, a new paranormal anthology from Buzz Books, and she’s here to dish about the new collection, writing for teens, and of course… prom!

Describe your real-life prom experience (or lack thereof) with seven random words:

Minivan. Masquerade. Late-night. Dare. Skinny dipping. Secret kissing. Friends.

What inspired you and your fellow YA authors Lena Brown, Heather Dearly, Kelly Para, and Aaron Smith to write this particular collection of stories?

Prom is already kind of abnormal to begin with, right? Teenage guys trying to pretend they’re comfortable in a suit, dates picking through fancy dinners when all they really want is Taco Bell. (Actually, all I ever really want is Taco Bell.) It’s a whole bunch of people trying to create this fantasy that doesn’t really exist. So we went ahead and *really* added that fantasy.

For my story, I played around with the idea of a perfect prom. My main character, Rachel, has decided that prom night is the ideal time to also lose her virginity. She’s the type that would have charts and graphs to back this up. Even when some seriously weird stuff starts going down, she charges ahead with her plans. It’s not until she comes face to kind-of face with a hideous pink slug-like thing does she realize prom night isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

Apparently, “adult proms” are a thing now. Seriously. Self-proclaimed grown-ups get all dressed up, rent a limo with their friends, go to a dance with a horrible band, and then get totally wasted and bust out the air guitar and I love you mans and someone always ends up crying in the bathroom, all in some vain attempt to redefine this teen rite-of-passage-gone-awry. Any thoughts on this trend? Healing group therapy for post-prom traumatic stress, or just another case of grown-ups behaving badly?

Okay, so my friends once threw me a “half-birthday”–as in we celebrated like I was turning 13, not 26. We played laser tag and made mix tapes of early ’90s music. It was awesome. (It was also a lesson in stamina. Pre-pubescent boys have a hell of a lot more energy in the laser tag arena than a bunch of adults.)

So adult prom? IN. As long as the updo-sporting adults aren’t, like, flipping tables at Olive Garden, I think it’s a fun way to embrace your inner teen.

Um… will you go to Adult Prom with me?

You bring the Aqua Net, I’ll bring the Zima.

You’re working on at least two other full-length YA projects. What drew you to YA in the first place? Do you write it to cope with the tragic emotional aftermath of your own teen years? Or is it just me? Can I get an amen? Or a drink? Or an adult prom date? Anyone?

I’m mixing you a gin and tonic right now.

Like most annoyingly pretentious teens, I pulled away from YA when I was actually, you know, the demographic. I devoured the classics, but my favorites (like “Pride & Prejudice”) all had young(ish) adult protagonists. Then I discovered Harry Potter at age 17, and it was all over. I don’t think anyone can meet Ron Weasley and *not* want to spend the rest of their life with him. (Ron+Hermione 4eva)

I turned back to YA and realized it was just perfect for me. Being a teen or young adult is all about first experiences–first kiss, first heartbreak, first “real” decisions without Mom and Dad. You’re trying out new skins and discovering who you want to be. It’s such a fascinating, poignant, fun time of life to write about.

If you could give one piece of advice to your teen self on the night before prom, what would it be?

Jennifer Renee Coon, do NOT spend the entire dance hawk-eyeing your oh-so-recent ex-boyfriend. And certainly do NOT position yourself near him while laughing loudly and pretending you’re having the Best. Night. Ever. You’ll have an awesome time without a Capital D Date. I promise.

For you, what is the most challenging thing about writing fiction for teens? I mean, aside from the obvious answer of being forced to relive your own horrific high school memories in the never-ending search for authentic ideas.

This isn’t so much a challenge, but something I’m always aware of: I never want to sound like a Very Old Person lecturing the Young Whippersnapper. I often find that people who don’t read YA automatically think it is simplistic and After-School Special-y, which is totally not true. I strive in my writing to never talk down to my audience.

What’s the best part?

Everything! I get this amazing excuse to read awesome YA every day (for “research”), and I get to jump into all these different worlds where there is limitless potential.

You’re the head of the prom committee, and this time, you get to plan the special super-awesome Jenny Prom with no limitations. What’s your prom theme, song, and color? Are there any other special details or plans we should know about for this amazing event? What are you wearing? And most importantly, what’s in the punch?

If this was Teen Jenny Prom, I’d probably enforce a strict “X-Files” theme and wear a pantsuit with sensible heels (to run away from the aliens, obvs. … and run into Mulder’s arms for a long-awaited make-out session). Thankfully, I’m a bit better at masking my extreme dorkiness today (says the girl who recently went to a Joss Whedon trivia event).

Okay, so Super Awesome Jenny Prom would take place on a boat, because why not. Not a cruise, those are lame. Like a European Lesser Prince’s yacht. (European Lesser Prince included.) The prom theme would be Yachts Are Awesome, Yo. The music would be yacht rock, so brush up on your Kenny Loggins and Toto. The colors would be blue (for the ocean!) and hints of gold to keep the European Lesser Princes in attendance comfortable. Most importantly, there is a lot (a LOT) of champagne in the punch.

Special details? Bring a swimsuit and Italian phrasebook. And try not to be the popular girl. She’ll probably be the first to fall overboard and get eaten by sharks.

Um… will you go to Jenny Prom with me?

I’m swinging the boat around and will pick you up in an hour.

Congratulations on the new release, Jenny! And thanks for making me feel marginally better about myself by accepting both of my prom date invitations. 🙂

Readers, want to learn more? Check PROM DATES TO DIE FOR or visit Jenny on the web.

Monster Cookie Malfunction: Tales from the 3rd Grade Archives

What do you remember most about third grade? Kate Messner, author of the newly released MARTY MCGUIRE, wants to know!

Marty McGuire by Kate MessnerFirst, let’s meet Marty:

Marty would rather spend recess catching frogs in the pond than playing dress-up with the other girls in third grade. So when her teacher casts Marty as the princess in the class play, Marty’s absolutely, positively sure that there’s been a huge mistake! But after a special lesson in the art of improvisation, Marty comes up with her own plan to improve the play. Why use a stuffed-animal frog onstage when a live one would be so much better?

In the end, Marty’s one-of-a-kind performance makes for an unforgettable show. Maybe Marty can live happily ever after, after all!

I loved Kate’s THE BRILLIANT FALL OF GIANNA Z and SUGAR & ICE, so MARTY MCGUIRE is going to the top of my list.

In celebration of Marty’s debut, Kate asks: “So… isn’t that at the heart of third grade? Improvising? Trying out new things (and winging it when something unexpected happens)?” In response, she’s encouraging us to dust off the archives and share a third grade memory of our own.

I’m sure I had a right colorful time of it (and Mom probably has the pictures to prove it), but only one event stands out in my mind as quintessential third grade moment…

Monster Cookie Malfunction

Eight years old. Feathered bangs. Future bride of Michael Jackson. Yep, it was the eighties, and I was ready to take on the world. Or at least the classroom. My teacher, Mr. Vuich (pronounced vyoo-itch), had a full beard but a gentle manner and an endless collection of pink ties, pink shirts, and yes, even pink pants. You could call him a trailblazer and you wouldn’t be wrong. I thought he was super old, like fifty, but he was probably only marginally old, like thirty.

Mr. Vuich was always planning clever little non-lame school activities for us which, as a creative person-in-training, I totally appreciated. One morning during Halloween season (yeah, it’s a whole season when you’re that age), Mr. V. surprised us with a new twist on the craft closet:

“Class, today we’re going to make…” he said, pausing for dramatic effect, at least that’s how I remember it, so, wait for it, “…monster cookies! Yeah!”

Yeah is right. Monster cookies? Yeah, yeah, hella-yeah!

Our wily brood spent the entire morning making sugar cookie cutouts in the likeness of our favorite scary monsters. And of course by scary I mean deformed, but you know, we were only eight. We put them on trays and then picked out our planned decorations from the sugary buffet before us. There was frosting — white, pink, yellow, and blue, but I swiped some additional red and blue food coloring to hand-tint my own special shade of screaming purple. There were black and red licorice ropes for hair, M&Ms and gum drops for eyes, candy corn which nobody liked but made the best pointy noses, and raisins which no one touched because Brian Sours (real name) told us they were dead flies with the wings pulled off, which unleashed a slew of “Hey Brian Sours, can we use your face as a scary monster mold?” jokes.

All in all, it was a great idea. Score one for Mr. V.!

He loaded trays of our raw cookies on an AV cart and shipped them to some mysterious place for baking — probably the school cafeteria which was filthy and smelled like Spaghettios — and then sent us out to the playground with another class for fifteen to eighteen minutes.

Sadly, during those precious few minutes, all of our monstrous hopes and dreams were dashed on the sad rocks of reality.

We returned from the playground, rosy cheeked and eager to decorate or creations. But as we filed into our seats, we noticed the classroom did not smell of fresh baked monster.

Mr. Vuich perched his pink-panted little bottom on his desk and sighed.

“I have good news and bad news,” he said. “The bad news is… our monster cookies burnt.”

Nearly thirty years later, I haven’t forgotten those four little words, the utter defeat in his voice, the guilt in his eyes, the despair on his shoulders like a yoke. The class gave a collective gasp. Mr. Vuich slumped further. And then he rose, crossing to the back of the room where a row of Super Duper (real name) grocery bags glistened on a windowsill in the high afternoon sun. Well, they more likely just stood there not doing anything because they were still brown paper back then, which doesn’t glisten. But in my mind they glisten.

“The good news is that we can improvise.” Mr. V. fanned his arms out over the stash, a smile finding its way home to his face. “I picked up some graham crackers and marshmallows, and even though we can’t cook them, we can still decorate and eat them. Yeah!”

Yeah is right. Yeah, yeah, hella-yeah! We spent the rest of the afternoon decorating and eating. Trading and eating some more. And laughing, because monster grahams? Win!

I still remember my square-headed, purple-faced monster grahams. And I still remember Mr. Vuich and how he saved the day with a little improvisation and quick thinking. That was probably one of the best lessons he ever taught us. So Mr. Vuich, if you’re still out there, I hope you know that I never forgot that. And I hope you’re still rockin’ those pink pants. 🙂

And readers? I hope you’ll check out more third grade antics, improvisation, and of course, charm in Kate’s new release, MARTY MCGUIRE! If you have your own third grade story to share, head on over to Kate’s blog for more details on how you can enter to win a signed copy of her latest book.

By the way, does anyone else want a monster graham now? I totally want to make them…

Sad Songs Say So Much

[tweetmeme source=”sarahockler” only_single=false]I was just tweeting about this and decided to turn it into a blog post.

So, we all have a secret mental cache of those sad songs from high school, right? The ones that we can hear now, five, ten, or *cough* almost twenty *cough* years later and be right back in that moment, that raw craziness, as though no time has passed. I’m talking about the ballads and sad songs that got us through the breakups, sang us to sleep as we sobbed over an unrequited love, and reminded us that yeah, sometimes you’ve just gotta cry it out. I don’t know what it is about songs and smells that can trigger memory so powerfully, but man. Whenever I hear the opening chords to some of these, my heart squeezes up and I’m lying in my bed in my teen room, pouring my heart into my journal, listening over and over and looking for someone to tell me things are gonna be all right. Music is poetry and understanding, and it got me through a lot.

So here’s my list, for your late 80s/early 90s retro enjoyment, and at the end, please share yours!

When I See You Smile, by Bad English (aka Bad Hair)

I Remember You, by Skid Row

Love Hurts, by Nazareth

It’s So Hard To Say Goodbye To Yesterday, by Boyz II Men

Good Feeling, by the Violent Femmes

One, by U2

Without You, by Motley Crue

I’ll Be There For You, by Bon Jovi

Pictures of You, by The Cure

There it is, the video diary of many a sad and lonely night. *sniffle*

Now it’s your turn. Post yours in the comments or do a post with videos and link back.

Poet Michael Henry to Read in Buffalo: Join Me!

No Stranger Than My Own, by Michael J. HenryDenver poet, executive director of Lighthouse Writers Workshop, and Buffalo area native Michael Henry is coming to town! Before I tell you the whole long story of why this is so exciting (because you know there’s a story, right?), here is the event information. Consider this an official invite for all you Buffalo peeps to join me as Mike reads from his collection of poetry, No Stranger Than My Own, at Talking Leaves next week.

Reading Event Details:
Michael Henry at Talking Leaves Books
Thursday, May 13, 7:00 PM
3158 Main Street
Buffalo, NY, 14214

Now, for the whole long story…

Why Twenty Boy Summer Fans Should Show a Little Love for the Lighthouse Poet

Mike Henry is the reason I write young adult books.

I mean, yeah, I know was born to do it and everything, but if it wasn’t for Mike, I don’t know that I would’ve found my way to the YA section in time to figure that out. Judy Blume aside, most of the books I read as a teen were the stuff of nightmares: V.C. Andrews, Mary Higgins Clark, Stephen King, Robin Cook, and the few adult romance novels I could sneak from the library into my room in a doubled-up Super Duper grocery bag. I’d spent my entire young life reading and writing everything but YA, hiding behind marketing communications jobs that skirted the edge of writing without forcing me to bare my creative soul in public. It was never enough, though.

Here’s the part where the movie voice-over kicks in…

In a world where artists are afraid to bare their creative souls in public, a formerly closeted writer pulls off a death-defying stunt to get her work noticed, and in facing her very public humiliation, discovers the path to her literary dreams…

It was 2003. We’d just moved from New York City to Denver and, in keeping with the new beginnings theme, I’d promised myself I’d sign up for a writers workshop. I Googled “Denver writing groups” and stumbled onto an excerpt about growing up in Buffalo. The author was a Buffalo area native who’d relocated out west and co-founded Lighthouse Writers Workshop, an independent creative writing program in Denver. Well, you all know how I am about signs, right? Right. So I signed up immediately for Mike’s next class: a memoir and personal essay workshop. I was 27 years old.

This is the part where the VH-1 voice-over kicks in…

But then things turned tragic for the band…

I was the youngest person in the class and, in my own opinion, had no business writing a memoir. I’d never done a critique workshop before. Never reviewed anyone’s writing and never willingly put my own out there for public response. All of the writers in that room were so talented, especially Mike, and he’d kick off each class with a 15-minute freewrite during which group members produced better stuff than I could cull from two decades of poems and journals. I lost a lot of weight that semester—I was totally on the nerve diet.

On the day of my critique, I thought I might pass out. Maybe I did, and I just hallucinated the whole thing. Writers weren’t allowed to talk during their own critique, so I just had to sit there and take whatever came. Was I immature? Did I lack style and substance? Was I a no-talent hack? I held my breath and prepared for the attack. But the writers in my class—the ones I’d spent the first half of the semester alternately admiring and feeling unnecessarily intimidated by—were so supportive, encouraging, and amazing. They liked my stuff. They actually liked my stuff!

When I left class that night, I was overjoyed. My smile was fixed; my head was in cloud central. I guess that’s how it happened, just as I waved goodnight to Mike Henry in the parking lot. Well, I was waving. Turns out Mike’s gestures loosely translated as, “Dude! You’re about to hit that telephone pole! STOP!” And here I thought his semi-jumping, two-handed flailing was just a little extra encouragement for the ride home: “See you next time, you shining, literary superstar!”

Ugh. I dented and scratched up my car, and I nearly died (of embarrassment, anyway), all because someone whose writing I’d admired had complimented mine. Ah, the things we do for art!

After class the following week, Mike pulled me aside to discuss one of my pieces—an essay I’d written recounting some trouble my BFF and I got into when we were fifteen involving some makeup and two power-trippy store security guards. He said the essay had a great teen voice and asked if I’d ever considered writing for young adults. Nope. I hadn’t really considered anything at that point—I just knew that I loved writing, had to write, would write anything. Mike told me that Lighthouse had a YA novel class with Jenny Itell starting up soon; he encouraged me to check it out. So I did. Four times in a row.

Looking back on the night of the telephone pole incident, I like to think that Mike saw a lot of unrefined potential in me. A wayward writer with a natural talent and passion on the page—someone who just needed a little guidance to find her true artistic footing. Maybe he just saw me as a liability and wanted me out of his class. Whatever his motives, Mike set me on the path to YA literature—something I’d never before considered. In the Lighthouse YA class, I read Laurie Halse Anderson, Deb Caletti, Sarah Dessen. I wrote and revised. I read and critiqued. I practiced. Under Jenny’s guidance, I wrote Twenty Boy Summer, and I found my voice—my right place on the bookshelves.

And the rest, says the movie voice-over, is literary history.

It’s been seven years since the telephone pole incident and my first class at Lighthouse, and almost three since I last saw Mike. And now he’s coming to Buffalo, and I won’t miss it (or drive into it. Maybe I should walk, just to be safe)!

I can’t wait for Mike to share his latest collection of poetry, No Stranger Than My Own, at our hometown indie next Thursday. If you’re in the area, please join me at Talking Leaves Main Street to show your support for this talented writer and artist. See you there!

Thank You For An Incredible 2009!

Happy New Year, friends and fellow book lovers!

I’m back from my little unplanned blog/social network/online communication hiatus (unplanned hiatus sounds better than procrastination, forgetfulness, laziness, and too-busy-eating-holiday-chocolate-ness which is closer to the truth of it) and ready to make a whole bunch of promises (which may or may not hold up) about being a better blogger this year.

But instead of documenting all my lofty and unlikely resolutions, I’d rather use my slightly overdue 2010 inaugural post to thank all of you for giving me such an amazing, unforgettable year. You’ve welcomed me and Twenty Boy Summer into the world with love, encouragement, and unending enthusiasm, and I couldn’t have asked for a more spectacular debut.

Though I sold Twenty Boy Summer in late 2007, seeing it on the shelves in the summer of 2009 is what made it real. What made me understand that yes, I really did get to achieve this dream. Deep down, I know that what brought it to fruition wasn’t magic—it was hard work and perseverance and dedication (and a bit of neurotic desperation, if you really want to know). But walking into my local book stores and seeing something I created sitting on the shelves alongside the works of authors I’d admired for years—well, it sure felt like magic to me.

I will never forget that day or any of the days and weeks that followed. I will never forget decorating cupcakes to match my book cover and eating them with friends and family until my tongue turned blue at my launch party. I will never forget meeting some of my favorite “veteran” YA authors at ALA, NCTE, and ALAN. I will never forget the camaraderie I found among fellow authors in the 2009 Debutantes community. I will never forget the support I received from my home town media, schools, bookstores, and librarians. I will never forget the dedication and hard work of my agent and the entire team at Little, Brown. I will never forget all of the reader emails and blog comments and waking up on my launch day to find this surprise video making the rounds (and yeah, I still get all choked up when I watch it):

Okay. On second thought, I guess it really was magic. All of these moments, all of these events, all of you made 2009 truly magical for me. And for that, I thank you.

I’ve no better way to show my gratitude than to keep writing, to keep pushing myself creatively, to keep telling stories and sharing them with you. So that’s what I intend to do. In 2010, I’m looking forward to the paperback release of Twenty Boy Summer in May, followed by the hardcover release of my second YA novel, Fixing Delilah Hannaford, in the fall (for now, check out an excerpt online). I’m also working on a few new projects, which promise to be… well… nerve-wracking, as usual! I can’t make any reliable promises about this blog, but I can promise that as long as you keep reading, I’ll keep writing. Books. Blogs. Napkin poetry. However I can get the words out to tell those stories.

Happy new year, friends and loved ones, librarians and booksellers, bloggers and teachers, readers of all genres. Here’s to an incredible, exciting, peaceful, happy, successful, magical, dreamy, fabulous, prosperous, healthy, and just plain ol’ good 2010.