I just had the pleasure of reading 'Something Like Normal', from debut author Trish Doller. This was such a fantastic, heartfelt novel about a marine returning home for the first time after a year of duty in Afghanistan, during which his best friend died.Doller handles a serious subject with finesse and care for her breaking protagonist, Travis Stephenson. I really enjoyed the book, and truly believe that it's a very important new edition to the young adult genre. So I was really happy when Trish agreed to a Q&A with me . . .
Q: How did you get published, agent or slush pile?
I actually found my agent using the "check the acknowledgements of a book you like to see if the author mentions his/her agent" method. My first book (not Something Like Normal) was a contemporary YA romance that resembled a Maureen Johnson novel, so I tracked down the secret identity of Daphne Unfeasible and queried her with the manuscript. And the rest is history...including that book, which sold, but was cancelled by the publisher.
Q: Are you a ‘plotter’ or ‘pantser’? That is, do you meticulously plot your novel before writing, or do you ‘fly by the seat of your pants’ and let the story evolve naturally?
I am a total pantser. I've tried to plot and outline, but since I tend to let my characters lead me where they need to go, it doesn't usually work. That said, I do usually have a general idea of what I want to happen. Sometimes it does, sometimes something better happens.
Q: How long did it take you to write ‘Something Like Normal’, from first idea to final manuscript?
It took me just shy of a year, I think. I was kicking the idea around while my first book was back out on submission, but when Travis took up residence in my head, it kind of took off. I wasn't done when we sold Something Like Normal to Bloomsbury, but once I had that incentive, it didn't take me long to finish it up.
Q: In your acknowledgements you thank: ‘The 3rd Battalion 6th Marines, whose experiences in Afghanistan shaped this book.’ – could you please walk us through the sort of research you did for ‘Something Like Normal’. And if you interviewed marines, do you know if they’ve read the book yet (and what their reaction was?)
I did so much research for Something Like Normal, including reading books about Afghanistan, war, Marine boot camp, and PTSD. I watched hours of YouTube videos shot by Marines in Afghanistan--not only in combat, but goofing around and having fun, as well. I downloaded hundreds of pictures and articles about the 3/6, who were deployed to Afghanistan's Helmand Province while I was writing. I even joined an internet forum for Marines, so I could ask questions. One of the most helpful was a guy from the 3/6, who helped me shape the scenes that take place in-country. I couldn't have done it without him.
After my edits were complete, I shared the book with a few of the Marines and they all seemed to enjoy it. Those who have been deployed to Afghanistan (or Iraq) said Something Like Normal is a pretty accurate depiction, and even those who have not deployed at all said they remembered the feeling of coming home from boot camp and not fitting in anymore. So it feels like I got it right.
Q: I really liked Travis. He was such a lovely, messy character to get behind. And, honestly, if I hadn’t known about you I could have sworn Travis was written by a male author! What were you tricks for delivering such an authentic male voice – who’s not just your typical guy, but a marine to boot!
I sometimes joke that I was a guy in a former life, but I think the true answer lies in the fact that I have a 21-year-old son. I've spent his entire life watching and listening to the way he and his friends interact with each other--and really just being fascinated, entertained, and occasionally horrified by them. I think it bears saying that I don't think there's a wrong way to write boys, but I think the best ones reflect the way boys are, rather than the way we wish they'd be.
Q: I mention in my review of ‘Something Like Normal’ that I've been surprised at how the young adult genre hasn’t really been exploring the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, fictionally. What’s your take on how Gen Y and YA have been examining the war in popular culture, including film and TV as well as books? Am I wrong in suggesting that there hasn’t been a whole lot of YA fictional exploration into this decade-long war?
I'm not sure what the answer is, but I do wonder if the length of the wars--particularly in Afghanistan--has desensitized us in a way that didn't happen in the world wars and Vietnam. We don't hear much about Afghanistan in the news, so it's pretty easy to forget that our soldiers and Marines are still deploying, fighting, and dying. It may also be that because we still have a presence in these countries that we can't really look back at them yet. I don't know.
However, when I looked into it a little deeper, I was surprised to realize there are more published and upcoming YA titles about Iraq and Afghanistan than I initially thought. The Things a Brother Knows (Reinhardt), What We Keep Is Not Always What Will Stay (Cockrell), Somebody Please Tell Me Who I Am (Mazer/Lerangis), Purple Heart (McCormick), While He Was Away (Schreck), In Honor (Kirby), If I Lie (Jackson), and Personal Effects (Kokie) all deal with the effects of war, whether it be on the soldier or someone close.
Q: I loved Harper. She was such a fantastic girl for Travis to fall for and so ballsy! Is she inspired by anyone in your life? Any why Charley Harper over Harper Lee?
There really isn't any real life inspiration for Harper. I knew when I started writing that she was going to have a really great relationship with her dad, that she'd be stronger than Travis, and have a generous capacity for forgiveness. There have been complaints that she's a little too good to be true, but honestly? I can live with that.
As far as her name goes, Harper's mother is an artist, so I figured she'd be more inclined to name her daughter after an artist than an author. Also, Charley Harper is one of my favorites!
Q: In your bio you say: ‘I've been a writer as long as I've been able to write, but I didn't make a conscious decision to "be" a writer until fairly recently.’ Can you tell us what triggering event or light bulb moment made you want to “be” a writer?
I work in a bookstore, and one day I was walking past the teen section when I noticed the cover of Maureen Johnson's 13 Little Blue Envelopes. I liked the little stamp of Big Ben and the airmail paper border, so I picked up the book and read the summary on the back. Sounded good. I took it home, read it, and when I finished I remember thinking, "This is the kind of book I've always wanted to write." As it turns out, Something Like Normal is nothing like 13 Little Blue Envelopes, but I don't think I'd ever have gotten to SLN if I hadn't decided that being a writer was something I could do.
Q: Favourite author(s)?
A strange mix, I think: John Steinbeck, Jack Kerouac, Douglas Adams, Neil Gaiman, Patrick Ness, Kirsty Eagar, and Melina Marchetta.
Q: Favourite book(s)?
I never get tired of rereading Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman, and my absolute favorite YA is Raw Blue by Kirsty Eagar.
Q: What’s the hardest thing about writing for a Young Adult audience?
I think teens have a more finely tuned bullshit meter than most adults. You can't cut corners or they will call you out.
Q: What advice do you have for budding young writers?
It's been said before, but it remains true: read everything you can get your hands on, and don't stop writing.
Q: When can we get our greedy little hands on your next novel, and can you tell us a little bit about it?
My current project is about a seventeen-year-old girl named Callie who returns to Tarpon Springs, FL after being away for most of her life. I don't want to give too much away, because it's not a book yet, but I will say that there is Greek culture, some family drama, and a very hot boy. Which sounds far more simplistic than it actually is, but as soon as I have more to share, I will.
All images are from 'weheartit'