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Interview: May 2010

May 2010

Alyssa B. Sheinmel’s debut novel, THE BEAUTIFUL BETWEEN, incorporates two classic fairy tales into the story of a teen struggling with loneliness and loss, not to mention her fair share of typical adolescent hardships.

In this interview with Teenreads.com’s Sarah Rachel Egelman, Sheinmel discusses the significance of these fables to both her main character and the role they played in her own personal life, and elaborates on the book’s unconventional lack of a romantic plotline. She also explains the meaning of the novel’s poetic title, shares a list of her favorite authors, and talks a bit about her upcoming book, THE LUCKY KIND, set to be released in 2011.

Teenreads.com: THE BEAUTIFUL BETWEEN is framed with the story of Rapunzel. Is that a favorite fairy tale of yours? Did you have a particular inspiration for this story?

Alyssa B. Sheinmel: I love fairy tales: I love the roles they played in my childhood, I love modern retellings of them, I even love reading criticism and essays about them. But my two favorites are probably Rapunzel and Sleeping Beauty; and those are the two princesses in whom Connelly sees herself, though the latter, not until the end of the story. When I started THE BEAUTIFUL BETWEEN, I thought that maybe it would end up being a funny, tongue-in-cheeky sort of novel, a critique of how high school really can be very much like a made-up fairy tale kingdom. But that was never really what the story was about; instead, the fairy tales came in at a much deeper and more subtle level. They’re the tools a lonely girl uses to keep her loneliness at bay.   

TRC: Connelly and Jeremy's relationship is not a romantic one. Do you think readers will be surprised by this platonic friendship between a teenage boy and girl?

ABS: I hope not! I know a lot of YA books out there center on romance, and I didn’t set out to try to do something different; this was just the story I wanted to tell. And I had a lot of platonic guy friends in high school and college --- actually, it was probably the period in my life when I had the most platonic male friends. There’s definitely a little bit of tension between Connelly and Jeremy --- you know she has a crush on him, you know that Jeremy is a bit of a flirt --- but their relationship is about each of them being for the other exactly what he or she needs. Connelly needs a best friend much more than she needs a boyfriend.

TRC: From the way they talk to the way they act, Connelly and Jeremy are portrayed in a very real manner and never feel like “characters” or, worse, caricatures. How important was this kind of realism to you in writing the story?

ABS: I think that was very important to me; I wanted to write a story that was true, even if it was also entirely made up. And at the heart of the story are these two characters, so they had to be the most true of all, in order for anything else in the book to feel real.

TRC: There are two significant deaths in this book, but the tone is far from morose or depressing. Was it important for you to achieve that?

ABS: It was. I never wanted to write a depressing book; I just wanted to tell this story. I like to think that there’s some humor in it, and that the novel ultimately ends on a hopeful note: hope for Connelly’s relationship with her mother, and with Jeremy; and hope that maybe, now that she’s learned what she’s learned and been through what she’s been though, she’ll break out of her shell.

TRC: You end the book with a simple and lovely quote from Ernest Hemingway. Why did you choose to include it, and what does it mean in relation to the story?

ABS: Ernest Hemingway is one of my very favorite writers; in fact, I begin every day reading a letter from a book of his selected letters. It was important to me --- as a kind of private treat --- to end my novel with a Hemingway quote. And I do kind of believe that there is a Hemingway quote --- from his stories, his novels, his letters, his articles --- for nearly every situation. And the one that I chose for the end of this novel just fit, somehow. It’s from A FAREWELL TO ARMS, and Connelly refers to the passage from which I pulled it a few times in THE BEAUTIFUL BETWEEN. It’s about two people who are so close that, although the world can hurt them, nothing can break them as long as they have each other.

TRC: Can you discuss the title? What does it mean, and how did you come up with it?

ABS: “The Beautiful Between” has a few meanings: It’s the place Connelly has created somewhere between fantasy and reality --- she has an elaborate fantasy life, but she’s not cut off from the real world either. And “The Beautiful Between” refers to the relationships in the book --- between Connelly and Jeremy, Connelly and her mother, Connelly and Kate, and Jeremy and Kate --- the things that go on between people.

TRC: This is your debut novel. What was your writing process like, and what did you learn about yourself as a writer in creating this book?

ABS: Mostly, I think I learned that I actually could write a novel! Actually, my process is a little strange; I tend to write in fits and spurts, so weeks will go by during which writing a single sentence feels like an enormous step forward, and then I’ll have a day where I write three pages in quick succession, and the story will take off again. For me, the process is about spitting out my first draft. My first draft is usually not very good, and it’s the hardest part for me to write. The most fun, and the best part for me, is when I re-write that first draft, as many times as it takes, to try to make it into a real book. The only thing that works for me is just pushing through that first draft: once I get the story down on paper, I can always fix everything later.

TRC: Who are your favorite authors? Do you have a favorite book about friendship?

ABS: First of all, let me thank you for asking for my favorite authors; I am always so tongue-tied when anyone asks me for a favorite author, singular. I have so many favorites, but I usually narrow it down to Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Alice Hoffman, and J.R.R. Tolkien; although, even that doesn’t seem like a long- enough list. When I write it, I feel so guilty for all the authors I’ve left out, all the writing that’s inspired me and taught me --- like Beryl Markham’s memoir WEST WITH THE NIGHT, or Flannery O’Connor’s short story “Everything That Rises Must Converge,” Norton Juster’s THE PHANTOM TOLLBOTH, which I must have read a dozen times, or Joan Didion’s first novel, RUN RIVER, with its brilliant and breathtaking first paragraph.

As far as a favorite book about friendship, I think I might have to go with The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and this is why: my father and I have an ongoing debate about fantasy novels and movies. He can’t get into them, can’t take them seriously, no matter how much I beg him to give this book or that movie a try. And when he says that he can’t suspend disbelief enough to believe in Middle Earth or a galaxy far, far away, I always tell him that the relationships in these stories are no less real and moving because they happen to be between, say, two hobbits, or a dwarf and an elf.  Gimli and Legolas’s friendship is relatable to me; I can see myself and my friends in it. So it doesn’t matter that it takes place in a world I can only imagine. It still rings (ugh, no pun intended!) true, and friendship is, for me, the heart of that story.

TRC: Your second novel is slated to come out in 2011. What can you tell us about it?

ABS: Thank you so much for asking! THE LUCKY KIND will come out next year, and it was a really fun book to write. It’s from the perspective of a 16 -year-old boy named Nick, whose life seems pretty idyllic until he discovers that his father has had something of a past, then falls in love for the first time, and finds himself feeling much more vulnerable than ever before. I loved writing from a guy’s point of view; it was a pleasure to play ventriloquist. When I would hit a rough patch in the story, and didn’t know exactly how to get to the other side of it, I would just play in that voice and it would help me find the way out.