Skip to main content

Author Interview: September 2007

September 2007

Gabrielle Zevin is the author of the critically-acclaimed teen novel ELSEWHERE, as well as a book geared toward adult readers, MARGARETTOWN. Her latest work of fiction, MEMOIRS OF A TEENAGE AMNESIAC, explores themes of self-discovery and second chances through the story of a young girl who loses her memory in an accident and must find a way to regain her bearings.

In this interview with's Norah Piehl, Zevin discusses the literary inspiration behind her book's protagonist, Naomi, describes the difficulties she encountered while creating this complex and flawed character, and even assembles a hypothetical iPod playlist in honor of Naomi's love "quadrilateral." She also explains her childhood fascination with typewriters, shares a cherished memory from her high school days, and reveals what she hopes readers will take away from this novel. How did you get the idea of using amnesia as a way to explore memory and identity?

Gabrielle Zevin: The ideas for my books usually come from a question I’ve been asking in my personal life. With MEMOIRS, I had been thinking about my grandmother’s memory loss from Alzheimer’s Disease, and the question that inspired the book wasIs a person more than his/her memories and experiences? The other thing that happened was my 10-year high school reunion --- I couldn’t go, but it got me thinking about who I was in high school, and who people thought I was, and who I thought I was, and who I am now, etcetera, etcetera.

TRC: Naomi is not always the most likable character --- she's dealing with a lot of difficult discoveries about herself, and her confusion causes her to make some bad choices. What was it like to develop this particularly complex character?

GZ: Naomi was born from the last line of the Rilke poem, “Archaic Torso of Apollo” –-- the line (in translation from the German) is: “for here, there is no place that does not see you. You must change your life.” The poem was my favorite poem when I was Naomi’s age, but it isn’t anymore. A professor and poet I once knew told me that you can only love Rilke when you are very, very young. But I still think about that line --- I think about that moment in everyone’s life when we decide that we want to be better than we have been before. Not for our parents or our friends or the world, but because something within us compels change. So, yes, Naomi may not always be likable, but that is because she is a person in transition.

As for Naomi’s bad choices? I think one of the worst things that can happen to a young person is being labeled BAD because she or he has made a couple of poor decisions. You know, I have made (and make) bad decisions; I do and say things that are unlikable and unsympathetic; I’m prickly and moody and jealous and vain and easily hurt; but I also know that I am good-hearted and generous and my impulses aren’t toward meanness. And multiply all of those qualities by 100, if you’d met the teenage me. Sometimes, it seems that the worst quality teenage girls are allowed to have in novels is, like, a charming clumsiness. In any case, since we spend the whole book in Naomi’s point of view (and really the book is about the evolution of this point of view), she needed to be as real and complex as possible.

Incidentally, I HAD to like Naomi, otherwise I wouldn’t have been a very good novelist to her. But the truth is that she was an incredibly difficult character to write. Because of her memory loss, there was always the problem of what she knew and when she would reveal it. So, as a narrator, she was often unreliable without meaning to be. Let’s just say I spent a lot of time revising this one. When I was researching names for the book, I found out that the Japanese characters for the name Naomi translate to “beautiful correction,” which turned out to be very, very appropriate.

TRC: As Naomi learns to adjust to her amnesia, she realizes that it may in fact have been a blessing in disguise, as it gives her a chance to rediscover who she really is. Have you ever taken the opportunity to rediscover, or reinvent, yourself?

GZ: I feel like, as a person, I’m fairly fluid. I reinvent myself every time I write a new novel. I reinvent myself every time I do an interview. I reinvent myself every time I get my hair cut or buy a skirt. I reinvent myself every day I’m alive. And in a way, this is what I hope readers take from the book: you don’t have to wait to be hit on the head to change. Every day you’re alive is an opportunity to be better and do better.

TRC: Naomi's dad gets to deliver one of my favorite speeches in the book, about how we all eventually end up forgetting pretty much everything from high school, even though all those emotions and details once seemed so completely critical. Do you think we're all amnesiacs in a way? What memories from high school do you hold on to?

GZ: Thank you. Indeed, the true conceit of the story is that Naomi’s amnesia is beside the point. The older you get, the more you forget anyway. And what you don’t forget, you tend to revise, or so I’ve found. The beauty of living is the realization that your life really is this amazing work of art --- by which I mean, the great story you tell is the life you lead. So, yes, I do think living necessitates forgetting and also choosing what’s worth remembering. Life, like novel-writing, requires a great deal of revision. 

I hold on to very little of high school. From that period, I have one friend. I don’t speak to any of my boyfriends, though I think very fondly of all of them. My favorite memory of high school won’t seem particularly memorable, I suspect. The summer before I left for college, I remember driving with my three best friends down A1A, which runs along the Atlantic Ocean in Florida. We weren’t driving with any destination in mind, just driving. It was late at night, and I remember feeling like life was about to begin.

TRC: The love story plot in MEMOIRS OF A TEENAGE AMNESIAC is particularly rich and complex. Without giving too much away, can you tell us how you constructed this love triangle, or quadrilateral, or whatever it is?

GZ: It IS a quadrilateral, maybe even a pentagon, if you count Old Naomi and New Naomi separately. 

The truth is, I’ve been incredibly lucky when it’s come to boyfriends. Mine have all been basically kind and good, and I suspect this colors how I see men and the world in general. It bothers me in books (or films) when one guy has to be the villain just so the other guy can be Mr. Right. Or when a story only introduces one viable love interest for a girl, as if she’s meant to marry the first guy to cross her path. Life is more complex than that, I think. Sometimes, you don’t end up with someone who is perfectly wonderful… not because he’s flawed, but because the timing isn’t right, or he isn’t right for you, or you change, or he changes, or any of the infinite combinations of things that can happen between two humans. I believe that who we choose to love reveals many interesting things about ourselves --– Naomi’s evolving love interests were meant to parallel the story of her personal growth. Talking about this reminds me… I just finished ON BEAUTY about a week ago, and in the acknowledgments Zadie Smith quotes her husband, the poet Nick Laird: “Time is how you spend your love.” Isn’t that so lovely and true?

TRC: I read that you've long been fascinated with typewriters. Were you playing with this interest of yours when you wrote about Naomi's origins (she was an orphan who was found abandoned in an empty typewriter case)?

GZ: Yes! The book for me was so much about writing and the idea of the narrative we create from our lives. So, the typewriter case seemed a good metaphor for that. Naomi, when she’s found in that typewriter case, is a story that hasn’t yet been written --- both to herself and to me as the author. Actually, that’s why I think I’m drawn to typewriters --- they seem so ripe with possibility. That monkey really could write Shakespeare. But typewriters are also a lost thing, aren’t they? Two or three decades ago, everyone had a typewriter. In 1999, I lived near a typewriter repair shop in Cambridge, MA, can you imagine? It closed before I moved. For pretty obvious reasons, I liked Naomi being found in a lost thing.

TRC: Music plays a very important role in this novel. Do you listen to music when you write? If you were to make a mix CD for Naomi, what would you put on it?

GZ: I don’t usually listen to music when I write, but for this novel, I did. Music is sort of like a time machine --- it can take you back to a time and a place in a way that very few things can. I needed a time machine with this one. 

I also tell people that this is my iPod novel. Because iTunes and iPods have totally changed the way people listen to and experience music. I still love the “album” experience, but I also love the participatory, democratic aspects of the mix --- you truly can create the soundtrack for your life, as corny as that probably sounds. 

The book takes place in 2004-2005. So, by now, Naomi would be in college, and the following mix is one she makes for herself to remind her of that crazy year when she was in love with three boys and had amnesia. (Apologies, I revised the assignment a little…) 

Part the First: Songs for Will 
“Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels) – Arcade Fire 
“Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots” – The Flaming Lips  
“A Certain Romance” – Arctic Monkeys 

Part the Second: Songs for James 
“First Day of My Life” – Bright Eyes 
“Vindicated” – Dashboard Confessional 
“Angeles” – Elliot Smith 
“World Spins Madly On” – The Weepies 

Part the Third: Songs for Ace 
“Wigwam” – Bob Dylan 
“Ripchord” – Rilo Kiley 
“Better Man” – Pearl Jam 

Part the Fourth: Songs for Myself 
“Foux de Fa Fa” – Flight of the Conchords (in honor of Naomi’s French class)  
“Life on Mars?” – David Bowie (“Changes” can be substituted here.) 
“1979” – Smashing Pumpkins 
“That’s the Story of My Life” – The Velvet Underground  
“Your Ex-Lover is Dead” – Stars 

And then shuffle it.

TRC: In addition to MEMOIRS OF A TEENAGE AMNESIAC, you've published two other books --- ELSEWHERE for young readers and MARGARETTOWN for adults. Why did you decide to return to a young adult audience for your new novel? What do you enjoy about writing for young readers?

GZ: After ELSEWHERE, I really wanted to write a LIVING 16-year-old. For a while, I thought about MEMOIRS as ELSEWHERE if Liz had woken up from that coma and had to go on from there. So really, MEMOIRS is a kind of sneaky, thematic sequel in that it’s the continuation (and conclusion) of a thought I’d been having about being and life and all of that good stuff… 

Writing for young readers is an unexpected pleasure. I’ve been overwhelmed by the mail from them, and nothing makes me happier than hearing either 1) your book makes me want to read more books, or 2) your book makes me want to be a writer. 

TRC: ELSEWHERE drew a lot of comparisons to Alice Sebold’s THE LOVELY BONES, which was published around the same time and also explored the afterlife. In fact, I know a number of adult readers who preferred your novel to Sebold's. What do you think adults might find to enjoy in MEMOIRS OF A TEENAGE AMNESIAC?

GZ: Although adults have more life experience than teens, I think people of all ages grapple with same sets of questions: What is my place in the world? How can I be happy? Who and what do I love? So, Theoretical Adult Reader, if you’re interested in ruminating about any of this, by all means, give my book a go. Also, I tried to make the adults’ stories in MEMOIRS just as rich as the kids’ stories. And actually, the adults share some of my own biographical details. For instance, Naomi’s mother, Cass, is mixed race like me. And Naomi’s father, Grant, is the first author I’ve written, and he came from a lot of what I was experiencing with being published for the first time and the writer’s life in general. The adult stories in the book really do mirror Naomi’s --- they’re about love and second chances and change. Grant has had to reinvent himself as significantly as Naomi --- he’s become a primary caregiver, he’s changed his work, and he’s in a somewhat new relationship. I think it can be harder for an adult to undergo (or even conceive of) such a great, great transition.

TRC: You've written several screenplays. How does the process of writing a novel compare to that of a screenplay? What can you accomplish in your fiction that you couldn't explore in a screenplay, and vice versa?

GZ: Screenplays have rules. They are 90-110 pages, usually three acts, and the story is told primarily through obvious external actions and dialogue. Consequently, you know a lot about a screenplay before you’ve even typed a single word. Books have no rules --- the formal possibilities are infinite. I enjoy writing books because you have the opportunity to delve into the inner life of a character in a way that screenplays just don’t allow. I enjoy writing screenplays because sometimes the presence of rules can be creatively liberating. Of course, the life of a screenplay is much different from the life of a book. A screenplay is just a map or a blueprint for other collaborators. It’s not, in any sense, the end product. If it becomes a film, it will be interpreted by actors, the director, the cinematographer, the art department, the editor, etc. --- and this collaboration can be a joy. A book is its own end, and this, too, is a joy.

TRC: What authors or books do you enjoy that you think might also appeal to your teenage readers?

GZ: My first recommendation is JOHNNY GOT HIS GUN by Dalton Trumbo --- it’s about a soldier who wakes up in a bed without his arms, legs, mouth, nose, eyes and ears. I may have left out some parts, but you get the idea. It’s not necessarily my favorite book, but I recently re-read it and it’s just extremely topical and provocative. My second recommendation is OLD SCHOOL by Tobias Wolfe. I really love that novel. It takes place in a prep school in the ’60s. It’s about writing, honor, gender, class, and for me, it’s everything a good novel should be. 

TRC: Your interest in writing (or at least in typing) began early in life. What advice do you have for aspiring authors?

GZ: All the usual advice, I’m afraid. Read a lot. Write a lot. Read a lot. Assuming that’s out of the way, here’s what I’d suggest. In the instantaneous world of the blog and the Internet, sometimes it is wise not to share everything. In order to allow beautiful things to develop, you must believe that your work-in-progress is a secret worth keeping. Secondly, the worst thing I think can happen to a young writer (or a writer of any age) is when he/she, for whatever reason, loses the ability to recognize the good in other people’s work. You must be fiercely critical of your own work and extremely generous toward everyone else. And by “generous” I don’t necessarily mean saying everything is good --- rather, a good writer attempts to understand a fellow writer’s intent before passing judgment.

TRC: What are you working on now, and when might readers expect to see it?

GZ: I’m just about finished with a novel for adults. It’s completely different from anything I’ve done, and I’m really excited about it. I’ve completed a screenplay for ELSEWHERE, and there’s a bit of movement with that, though one never knows. Also, I’m learning to speak Japanese, and I want to learn to play the banjo. These skills may come into futures projects. Again, one never knows..