Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Weekly Rec: The Summer of Jordi Perez + Q&A with Author Amy Spalding!

One of my favorite new books of 2018 is OFFICIALLY OUT TODAY: The Summer of Jordi Perez (And the Best Burger in Los Angeles) by Amy Spalding. I'll tell you a little bit about why I like it... and then we'll hear from Amy herself, who was kind enough to come answer all my very nosy questions!

From Amy's site: Seventeen, fashion-obsessed, and gay, Abby Ives has always been content playing the sidekick in other people's lives. While her friends and sister have plunged headfirst into the world of dating and romances, Abby has stayed focused on her plus-size style blog and her dreams of taking the fashion industry by storm. When she lands a prized internship at her favorite local boutique, she’s thrilled to take her first step into her dream career. She doesn't expect to fall for her fellow intern, Jordi Perez. Abby knows it's a big no-no to fall for a colleague. She also knows that Jordi documents her whole life in photographs, while Abby would prefer to stay behind the scenes.

Then again, nothing is going as expected this summer. She's competing against the girl she's kissing to win a paid job at the boutique. She's somehow managed to befriend Jax, a lacrosse-playing bro type who needs help in a project that involves eating burgers across L.A.'s eastside. Suddenly, she doesn't feel like a sidekick. Is it possible Abby's finally in her own story?

But when Jordi's photography puts Abby in the spotlight, it feels like a betrayal, rather than a starring role. Can Abby find a way to reconcile her positive yet private sense of self with the image that other people have of her?

I was lucky enough to read this early, and I just loved it. Abby is a great lead, and her relationships and dreams and struggles all feel very real. The central romance is swoony but complicated, as anyone who's read Amy's other books will expect, but Abby's relationships with her parents and her friends are also vitally important to the book. (I always like that. Romance plots in which the characters don't have much else to worry about just don't seem realistic enough for me.) And Abby's career ambitions are also paramount here; she's a plus size fashion blogger and she's very serious about her aspirations in the industry. I'm not particularly into fashion but I loved the peek into that world and Abby's focus on her goals.

I mentioned how much I liked the friendship plots, so to expand a little on that: there's a character named Jax who is coded very much like YA love interests often are, and when I was reading the beginning of the book, I was intrigued and honestly a little confused by this - I knew Abby wouldn't be interested in a guy, and yet this guy read like a love interest. And that became one of my favorite things about the book - that he was such a fully drawn character and became an important person in Abby's life in a strictly platonic way. (Bonus: At one point Jax tells Abby something that I have repeated to myself as advice FREQUENTLY since I read the book. I don't want to spoil but you should read this if only to learn this very important life lesson from this fictional lacrosse bro.)

But enough of my gushing... let's hear from Amy Spalding herself!

It feels so revolutionary to have a book about a fat girl that is NOT about her losing weight, but also doesn't just pretend weight is a non-issue she never has to think about because her world is magically free of judgment. Did you specifically set out to write something on that theme and develop Abby from that idea, or was that just the (awesome) way this character and story unfolded?

I definitely wanted to write about a fat girl, but the rest of it was borne out of the story. Once I established Abby as a style blogger, it all started to fit together. It was important to me to write a fat character who didn't hate herself, but I also didn't want to act like that makes the rest of the world treat fat people with only kindness. The fun thing is that giving Abby a love of style made a bunch of decisions for me in the book. In a world where fat people are often not encouraged to love themselves as-is, and where awesome plus-size clothing is still a relatively new offering at many shops, I loved writing a character who cared about how she looked and styled herself. There's a great deal of self-love that can go into that. I didn't want to write about a fat girl who looked in the mirror to hate herself. I wanted her reflection to be of style, color, and fun. I think there's also something declarative about having bold style like Abby, particularly if you're fat. No matter how Abby worries about how others see her, the people in her life think of her as a girl with a great look. I personally think that fat/plus-size style is helping change the way thinner people see fat people, for the better. Not that you should have to have some defined and perfect look to be accepted, but it sure does challenge what fashion says is goalworthy or aspirational when the people with defined looks have different bodies than what's been traditionally put in front of us.

Are you into fashion like Abby is? (I know you have a ton of amazing dresses because I see them on Instagram!) What kind of research did you do to make sure the fashiony stuff rang true? Do you follow a million amazing fashion blogs now?

I care a lot about my own style, and I spend far too much money on dresses and wingtips (my two weaknesses), but I'm not into fashion nearly as much as Abby is. She lives and breathes it! She thinks about trends and ways to adapt pricey styles on a budget. So I had to spend some time looking at blogs similar to Abby's to get a feel for what hers would contain. I will say that the thing about being fat is that you often have to work a lot harder to find certain pieces, and while it's getting better as more stores add more sizes, I spent many years Googling frantically trying to match a look with something in my size. So even though I don't have Abby's level of fashion devotion, it wasn't a world I was unfamiliar with either. And I got some notes from a blogging friend on some of the realities of actually growing an audience to make sure it rang true. Believe it or not, I do not follow a million fashion blogs now, but I do follow some Instagram accounts whose styles I love, and take part in some Instagram style challenges like #NoPantsNovember and #AllDressApril.

As I mentioned above in my review, I LOVED Jax, and at the beginning of the book I was sort of confused by him because he felt coded very much like YA romantic interests often are, but I KNEW that wasn't where the book was going. And that made me think about how refreshing it was to have a guy character who was awesome and fully developed WITHOUT being a love interest, because finding good friends is difficult and important too! How did you coordinate the friendship arcs with Jax and Maliah along with the romantic arc with Jordi to make one coherent character arc for Abby? Did you want these different relationships to illuminate different things about her?

I think a lot about the safety of "new" people. A new friend doesn't have preconceived ideas about you and isn't holding onto anything from five years ago. Sometimes there can be a real freedom in this, especially when you're having new experiences. Abby doesn't necessarily feel like she can be completely open about her new feelings for Jordi with her longterm best friend, Maliah, and therefore the freedom of Jax's new friendship gives her a "safe" person to confide in. I also think a lot that some of the people I've befriended as an adult would have blown my mind as a teen. Yes, I too have bonded with bro types. I have friends who were pretty and popular and happy in high school! So I liked the idea of giving Abby the kind of friendship that wouldn't necessarily immediately make sense to her. Why just deal with a new crush when she can also have to deal with this brand new friendship? You've gotta throw a lot at your main character, even if it feels a little mean sometimes!

Social media is very important in this novel, not just in how the characters communicate but also to Abby's work and her project with Jax. Whenever I start writing about characters using social media, I freak myself out thinking "What if no one's using Instagram anymore by the time this is published? What if someone picks it up in 15 years and doesn't know what Twitter is?" Do you do anything specific to make sure these passages make sense to readers unfamiliar with the medium mentioned, or do I just worry too much? (Yes.)

I was at a book event once (not my own) where a man in the audience said he liked the book because not putting social media in it gave it a classy and timeless feel, and he could therefore take it seriously. And of course I fretted and went home and reread my manuscript and was like "I'LL NEVER BE CLASSY AND TIMELESS" but, like, all I can do is write what life is right now. And I don't know anyone - teen, adult, senior citizen - who doesn't use social media and texts and such for a whole heck of a lot of their communications. Look, I can read an old classic where everyone wrote long letters to one another and had them taken around by horseback WITHOUT EVER HAVING DONE SO IN MY OWN LIFE to understand what these things are. Social media is constantly changing - communications keep shifting and that is only probably going to speed up more. But if your story makes sense and it's clear why your characters are taking the actions they are, I just can't worry about it. I can't stop time, but I also can't write a presently-set novel where no one's heard of, like, Instagram.

You've now written and published a BUNCH of books while retaining a whole separate non-writing career. Have you developed any particular techniques for making this balance work, or do you just have to... do the work?

Yeah, you just have to do the work. I think for me, the biggest thing that's helped is accepting that you really cannot control either. Sometimes my dayjob is so demanding that even on the weekends, my brain feels shot and like it's used up all its available power for the week. I used to agonize over this. "How can I ever write another book if I feel this way?" The good news is that it waxes and wanes; before long, we're through a tough campaign and I get that piece of my brain back that's necessary for daydreaming about meet cutes and adorable banter. It is not easy accepting that you can't always do both, but as long as you're meeting deadlines, I feel like a balance will work out naturally. It's about taking your responsibilities seriously but also giving yourself a break. Back when I had a less demanding career, I could write books a whole lot faster. But that's OK! After all, publishing is a slow-moving machine. I've actually managed to fit into its timing quite well.

Anything you can tease about what you're working on NOW? Honestly, you told me about it while I was driving down a windy mountain road in snow so I didn't absorb much other than that it sounded really complicated.

My next book, The Last Year of James & Kat, is the story of a senior year told by two best friends in two different timelines about the end of their friendship. This sounds super depressing but I promise there are plenty of rom-com moments in there too. Two POVs mean two love interests, and I may have hit my swoony peak with these two! It won't be out until spring of 2020, though, so no one get TOO excited yet!

Jasmine Guillory wrote a great piece for Slate about your friendship and how it sparked her to pursue a writing career. (Everyone go read The Wedding Date, it's great!) What do you think you get out of friendships with other writers, including those at different points in their careers? I've seen talk lately about supposed cliques and jealousy issues but my impression is that those are often just friendships that can be great and helpful.

Publishing is a very specific industry and writing books is a very specific career. And it's wonderful to have friends who know exactly what it's like. I am very fortunate to have somehow landed, as an awkward goober, a whole bunch of supportive, funny, genius friends. But there is so much in this world that's tough to talk about with others. Sometimes you just need someone who already understands the ins and outs of it, and has potentially already lived through situations you need advice on. I remember that there was a small snafu with ARCs of one of my first books that I worried was a huge deal, and in a panic I tweeted "IF YOU ARE AN EXPERIENCED YA AUTHOR WHO HAS MY NUMBER, PLEASE TEXT ME RIGHT NOW BECAUSE I'M NERVOUS ABOUT SOMETHING" and nearly immediately I got a text from a more experienced author friend and she talked me down from my fear. Also it's wonderful to read incredible books written by the people I care about. That's the life I wouldn't have even dreamt about when I was younger!

Thanks so much for coming by, Amy! The Summer of Jordi Perez (And the Best Burger in Los Angeles) is available now.

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