Olympic gold medalist Shawn Johnson is back on the writing scene with a new book, but this time she’s reaching out to young adults with a novel in the YA genre. Inspired by Shawn’s experiences as a teen athlete with Olympic dreams, The Flip Side is her first attempt at fiction writing, and she’s hoping to provide a story exclusively for teens, an age group that Shawn holds close to her heart. Justine sat down with Shawn to talk about what inspired her to write the novel and how her own teen years shaped its main character, Charlie. Check out our interview below to see how this successful athlete, writer and philanthropist is hoping to make a splash in the YA genre and share her experiences with teens around the globe.
Tell us about your inspiration for The Flip Side.
“I’ve written two books so far—one right after the 2008 Olympics that was kind of like a picture book and then one right after the 2012 Olympics that was more of a memoir. I just loved the process so much. I knew I wanted to write another one, but I knew I didn’t want to go the memoir route again just yet. I wanted to do something different for kids, and I wanted to write one of those stories that I loved as a kid to read.”
How did writing fiction compare to writing a memoir?
“It’s actually more difficult because, instead of going by the facts, you’re going just by imagination. It was a lot of fun. I got to kind of be a kid again. I think there’s definitely a void out there for good, wholesome, good-messaged books for kids, so I was trying to balance all of that together.”
How did you come up with the plot of the book?
“It was kind of just based off of my life. I had this idea of a teenage girl, or a young girl in middle school or high school going through the dramas of that life and trying to balance the Hollywood and gymnastics world and just kind of finding her identity. So it was just piecing a plot together that was honestly just based off of my life.”
What was it like to relive those teen years through your writing?
“It was humbling. Going to the editor and telling her all those stories, it was funny and emotional. It brought back a lot of fun learning experiences.”
Did you have any moments of clarity about challenges you experienced as a teen?
“Oh, everything…from boys, not fitting into the popular group, to being shy and timid, not fitting in. But I look back now and see that it made me stronger. Being that far removed from it now, it’s easier to look back and say I’m glad I went through it. I needed to go through that to become who I am now.”
What inspired you to write about Charlie’s gymnastics as a type of double life?
“That was kind of how I lived my life growing up. When I was in middle school and high school, gymnastics was my life and my identity, but it was never anything I would share with my school friends. I always kept them very separate. I have these memories of being on the playground and being made fun of because I was a gymnast and I had biceps and a six pack. From then on, in my mind, it just became this thing that I was going to keep secret because it was something that was mine. I almost took on the whole Hannah Montana role when I was little. I was going to be this girl in school and this girl outside of school. So putting it on paper and exaggerating it was a lot of fun.”
Was maintaining that type of double life necessary for you in your own life?
“I would say yes. I do look back and think I should have been more proud and been able to express that. But I also think it kept me humble. It allowed me to be just a normal kid in school and fight for respect based off the things I did in school instead of bragging about my gymnastic credits. So I liked it. It made me be normal outside of a very abnormal world.”
What are the biggest similarities and difference between you and Charlie?
“I think the biggest similarity is just the confusion with life in general. I think we can all look back at when we were middle and high schoolers and just remember how confused we were. You don’t even have to be a pre-Olympic gymnast to know that those are just confusing times in your life. Balancing the boyfriend and the secrets—she’s literally me and I love it. I feel like what’s different is that she figures it all out a lot sooner than me. She just figures out life. For me, it was a complicated road that I was on for a long, long time before they actually merged. Honestly, I don’t feel like my lives actually merged until I met my husband because he so wholeheartedly accepted both worlds together. I’m envious of Charlie for that.”
What inspired you to write in the young adult genre?
“I’d say 60-70% of my work is with teenagers now. I coach, mentor, do public speaking. I just do all of these events with kids, and I get to sit down with kids all the time. I get to talk to them and figure out what they’re reading and figure out what the dramas are these days. For me, it hits home because so many of those kids are close to my heart. It’s just sad to see that people are filling their minds with so much negativity. Yes, I wanted to be able to fit into that world and include some drama and romance and things that kids want to read, but I wanted it to have a good message that could get across to them.”
Are there any YA series that you liked growing up?
“There was this book called The Skin I’m In. It was this whole book truly about accepting who you are and the circumstances you’re in and owning up to it and loving it. That was like my Bible back in the day. I read it a million times.”
If you could give your teenage self some advice, either gymnastics related or not, what would that be?
“It would be to not worry as much. I was a worrier. I wanted to be that 4.0 perfect student that got into Harvard. I wanted to be the Olympian. I wanted to be the girl that was accepted by everybody. I cared so much about what people thought and how I looked and what I wore. I would just go back and say stop worrying. Don’t care so much. Work hard, but just be yourself.”
Some fast facts about Shawn:
Playing right now on your iPod: “Ain’t Got Far to Go” by Jess Glynne
Instant mood booster: Her dog, Nash
Most used app: Spotify
Last movie you watched: “How to Be Single”
Favorite place you’ve ever visited: Bali