by Sophie Schmidt
I had the chance to sit with author Jilly Gagnon before one of her book events and it was super fun getting to know her. Jilly is the author of #famous, a story about a girl whose picture of a cute boy goes viral on social media overnight.
SS: This is one of my favorite questions to start off an interview; tell me something I can’t find in your bio.
JG: Oh, you can’t find in my biography… I don’t talk about it a lot in my biography, but I have OCD so a lot of little weird things I do in my life, like pick up every penny I see on the street you would only know if you spend a lot of time with me. I do think it’s important for people to talk about mental health, so I will say that I am a person since I was maybe 13 who has struggled with that stuff. If you’re going through it, I feel you, guys, you can hang out with me and we’ll pick up pennies together.
SS: That’s really cool! I admire that you’re an advocate.
JG: Yeah! It’s not something that comes up in my books a lot so it’s not a natural thing that comes up in my biography a lot. There is nothing to be ashamed about with mental health anyway. You wouldn’t be ashamed to take an allergy medicine, you know?
SS: Yeah, I totally agree with you there. What made you want to tell this story?
JG: I just thought it was fascinating. Obviously, it was inspired by Alex from Target. So, you see this kid, and he’s just a normal kid. What’s so interesting to me is that teenagers get famous, I mean that happens, but [they’re] usually trying for it. Just to be a normal kid one day, working in a Target in a tiny town in Texas and the next day everyone knows who you are. I can’t imagine what that must feel like. I was just like, “What is happening?!” I was fascinated by it. But then you didn’t hear much about the girl who took the picture, and I thought it was really interesting that he got all of this attention, but I guess she must be the next fashion photographer. She makes this person look so appealing that every teenage girl wants a part of him overnight, and she just disappears. You can still find her Instagram; it’s got like 500 followers total. Certainly not Alex. Then I read a story about it in the New York Times a couple of weeks after it had happened, and they spoke to his girlfriend, and she started getting death threats within 24 hours from people. I just thought it was a really interesting tension between how different people would experience this and what it must be like to go from regular, normal teenager to someone everyone knows without even trying.
SS: I can’t even fathom that! Did you have any other inspiration for this?
JG: Well, if you have been on social media, it’s inevitable that you see or are the target of, at some point, some of that bullying and the different ways that people can be thoughtless and callous so easily. It’s so easy to forget that there are people on the other side of those social media profiles. I thought that was a part of the story that really needed to come in. For all of the moments that we are excited about someone, there are the people that everybody’s piling onto, and sometimes for something as little as writing a Tweet. Seeing that and experiencing a little bit of that myself, knowing people who have experienced it was another inspiration for that story. That feeling—it’s crap. It’s garbage.
SS: I know how it feels, too. People are really careless sometimes when it comes to social media. I wanted to talk a little about my favorite parts of the book. Mine was the fry scene. It was the perfect touch at that moment! Do you have a favorite one that you wrote?
JG: I really liked the bowling scene, partly, I think, because that was what I used to do in high school. I would sometimes try to escape by going to coffee shops way downtown where no one would know us with a couple of my friends, or going to these dingy bowling alleys well outside the suburbs of Minneapolis where no one knows you and you’re just another group of teenagers with the high school politics a million miles away. I also really liked writing Mo. Anytime I got to write Mo’s dialogue was one of my favorites. She makes me happy.
SS: Yeah! I really like how she came around and how her character developed. I love how she always stood by Rachel.
JG: Exactly! Thank you! Well, at the end of it, they’re very different people, but very good friends. Their loyalty is to each other.
SS: Of course, I love the girl power in it. I also read that you write humor; how is it different from YA?
JG: Well, I would say they’re basically like different sides of my personality. Writing for teens, one of my favorite things about it is that there’s a lot of hope and possibility. You still have this chance to become any kind of person you want and it’s really exciting to write about characters who are like that as well. They are at the outside of their lives and everything is still theirs to decide. Humor is the cynical adult part of me that is like, “Well, if things are gonna be crappy let’s laugh about that rather than cry about them.” I get some of my sunshine and hope out through my YA and then I get some of my old lady-ness out in my humor.
SS: Do you prefer one over the other?
JG: No! They’re totally different parts of my brain. I write young adult on my own so it feels more personal than when I write humor. I write humor with a partner and we talk to each other the whole time and that’s how it gets written. I don’t think I would say I prefer one, but my young adult writing feels more personal to me, more like it’s a story that I need to tell as opposed to trying to make someone laugh, which isn’t the same thing.
SS: I’ve never thought of it that way. I like how you describe the different aspects of your personality. Which writers influence you as an author?
JG: Oh gosh, so many. Obviously everyone’s got John Green behind them if you’re writing YA contemporary. My close friend Jesse Andrews has been a big influence on me. I find his writing so funny, and being able to talk about serious things and be that funny is really inspirational. Looking further into the past, Roald Dahl. I like the darkness that’s in all of his books. I like P. G. Wodehouse, who is a humor writer. If you’ve ever heard of a butler being called Jeeves that was him. He created that idea. Though I don’t write fantasy, I adore Lord of the Rings. Also, Catcher in the Rye. It’s your first angsty teen [book] ever.
SS: Oh, Salinger! Holden is probably the most angsty teen ever. How did you figure out how to write the tension within your book between the characters?
JG: What I found most interesting was trying to switch between the two perspectives and write their different experiences of the same moments. A lot of the tension came in without me even trying when you say, “Well, if Kyle is getting all these people loving him up on the internet, what might it be like to be on the other side of that?” I know what it feels like, and especially if you’re a woman you see it in a different way. Being able to say that right after it happens and having their scenes mash up right against each other, how different their experiences were created the tension for me. I think once you figure out who these characters are, the idea that their experiences could be anything other than that to me is kind of crazy.
SS: Yeah, I’m sure that was quite a split to think about. How did you figure out Rachel’s life in the story? How did you want social media to influence her?
JG: I definitely wanted it to rattle her because I don’t think it’s possible to have bullying stuff happen to you and not have it get to you. You can be as strong in yourself as you want, but hurtful things hurt. That’s the goal and it works. I wanted Rachel to be the kind of girl who is the person I wanted to be in high school—totally comfortable in her own skin, actually okay with who she is, which was liking the same kinds of things I did, but I wasn’t there yet. I wasn’t okay with it. I wanted her to be okay with it, but the bullying really messes with her and she has to fight to be this person she was all along. She has to learn over the course of it that you can be more open and still let people in, and have bad stuff happen and not let it destroy you. I didn’t want it to destroy her because I don’t know if this message gets out there a lot. A lot of people go through crappy stuff when they’re teenagers and it does get better on the other side. It doesn’t destroy you. It feels all-consuming at the time, but the bully on the other end moves on really quickly. Trying to hold on to who you are after that kind of experience; I wanted her to be able to do it. That was really important to me in the end.
SS: I like how her character shaped up in the end. I feel like she was so much stronger because of what she went through.
JG: I’m really glad that came through for you. I really wanted to convey that going through the crappy things will make you a better person, and stronger because of it.
SS: I agree! I think the message comes through well. Just to wrap things up here, do you have any closing comments or advice you’d like to give?
JG: I can give some writing advice! Okay, I know that most of your readers have probably heard this already, but keep writing! You’re gonna learn how to write by writing and putting yourself out there for criticism, which is so hard and it hurts. At the moment it hurts, but then you get better and you’re like, “Oh my gosh, how did I not know this on my own?!” Don’t give up! It’s a tough path but you’ll get there!
Huge thanks to Jilly for sitting down with us! It was truly amazing getting to talk with you about books and life. We can’t wait to see what’s to come from you in the future!