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Interview: July 2010

July 2010

Stephanie Morrill’s latest book, SO OVER IT, is the final installment in theReinvention of Skylar Hoyt trilogy, which centers on a confident, popular high school senior looking to turn over a new leaf.

In this interview with’s Alexis Burling, Morrill explains why she decided to create a protagonist so different from herself when she was in high school and addresses some of the “controversial” topics covered in her books. She also reveals the real-life counterparts of her main characters, describes which scenes were the most difficult to write, and reveals why she’s taking a well-deserved hiatus between projects. Where did the idea for the Reinvention of Skylar Hoyt trilogy come from? Did you plan on writing a trilogy, or did you finish writing the first book and knew there was more to Skylar’s story?

Stephanie Morrill: The original idea for the series was the character of Skylar. Until that time, I’d always written main characters who were similar to my high school self --- quiet, bookish, uncomfortable in groups but comfy with friends. I’d hit a lull in my writing and wondered what would happen if I created a main character who was nothing like me. I wanted to write about a girl who was completely comfortable with who she was on the outside --- how she appeared to those around her --- and yet knew there was something lacking on the inside. The rest kind of unfolded from there.

Because I read mostly single-title books, that’s what I’d always anticipated writing. But when I finished ME, JUST DIFFERENT, I felt a definite tug that there was a lot more to Skylar’s story.

TRC: Throughout a large portion of the first two books, dating and sex are technically off-limits to Skylar and Abbie as far as their parents are concerned. But Abbie and Skylar clearly broke both rules. As someone who is a parent herself but who also married her high school sweetheart, what prompted you to add this dichotomy to the trilogy? Do you think your readers are likely feeling this pressure?

SM: I imagine my readers aren’t too different from the people I knew in high school. Some felt like they needed to be dating, that there was something wrong with them if they weren’t. Others were comfortable having a boyfriend/girlfriend, or not. Some felt like dating in high school was pointless and seemed to look down on those who chose to. And then I knew some students like Skylar and Abbie, who wanted to date but had parents who, for various reasons, wouldn’t allow it.

I’m fairly new to the mom thing, but it’s been my experience that rules parents make out of fear often backfire. As Skylar’s story unfolds, we learn her mom regrets a choice she made in college, and instead of walking alongside her daughters and empowering them to choose differently from her, she makes a rule rooted in her fears.

But regardless of how bogus a rule may feel at the time, I think there’s wisdom in teens respecting the rules their parents set.

TRC: Skylar’s parents are very estranged from each other in these books. Why did you create this element of friction in the series?

SM: That unfolded naturally as I started writing. In the opening chapters of the book, we first see how disconnected the mom is from what’s going on in the lives of her girls. Then we see that Skylar and Abbie aren’t very close. After I’d written all that, it only seemed natural to me that their father had drifted away as well, that the whole family had fragmented.

TRC: In all three books, Skylar really struggles with her faith. What efforts did you take to make this type of soul-searching seem authentic?

SM: If Skylar’s struggling with something, you can bet it’s something I’ve struggled with at some point. Her faith questions are my faith questions.

TRC: Religion and churchgoing are an integral part of these books. But you also write openly about partying, pregnancy, etc. Were you worried that some of your potential audience (or the parents of your potential audience) would be offended or shocked by these topics?

SM: I never worried about my audience being shocked, but I knew my books had potential to offend parents. I was right. I’ve received a couple of complaints from parents who don’t think my subject choices are good things for teenagers to be reading, but I’ve received far more emails from teens saying how much they appreciate the quality of realness in my writing. You’re never going to make everyone happy, and I’m comfortable with that. Most days, anyway.

TRC: Very early on in the first book, ME, JUST DIFFERENT, readers find out that Abbie is pregnant and that she plans to have the baby. Did you ever toy with her having an abortion, or was that storyline too risqué?

SM: Had Abbie been the main character of the book, abortion definitely would have been discussed more, because it was on her mind early in the pregnancy. But by the time she told Skylar about the baby, she’d already decided against it. I wondered if it needed to be talked about more, but every time I tried, it felt like controversy for the sake of controversy.

TRC: Skylar and Connor’s relationship is so complicated. At first, Skylar can’t stand Connor. Then it seems that she likes him. Then she’s angry at him, then jealous… all the makings of some kind of love. Connor, on the other hand, is quite the opposite. At first, it’s hard not to think he’s obsessed with Skylar. But then he gives her the brush-off. I won’t even get into what happens when they start dating! Why did you decide to write their relationship this way?

SM: Emotions are complex things, so naturally, relationships tend to be as well. Especially for someone like Skylar, who’s just moved into this really strange time in her life and has all these new trust issues. And even though he doesn’t realize it, Connor battles his pride for a lot of the first book. He thinks the other guys are shallow for their interest in Skylar, and that he’s above falling for a girl like her. And when you factor in issues like Skylar already having a boyfriend and Connor having recently broken up with her best friend… well, it gets complicated.

TRC: The second book, OUT WITH THE IN CROWD, focuses a lot more on Skylar’s parents’ separation. At one point, the girls were going to have to choose which parent to live with. Divorce can be pretty tricky to write about. How did you go about making these scenes seem genuine? I guess the same question also applies to unplanned pregnancy and the choices involved in that situation.

SM: Those were definitely some of the hardest scenes in the whole series. During the first draft, they felt flat and cliché. I think it’s because the first time through, I was only thinking about everything from Skylar’s perspective. Those scenes came alive once I started thinking things like, What’s Abbie feeling about what Skylar just said? Or, Where was their mom right before she showed up at the house? I feel that thinking through the conversations in that way really enriched the dialogue and emotions.

TRC: Both Amy (Connor’s mom) and Heather (Skylar’s youth group leader) seem to be excellent role models for Skylar, not to mention humble and overly generous people. Are they based on anyone in your life?

SM: Heather is a mix of youth coaches I had growing up. I was really fortunate to have a group of adults who took the time to invest in my life and express how much they cared about me.

Amy is based on a group of women I met when my husband and I moved to Florida --- far, far away from our families in Kansas City. I was 21 at the time and joined a women’s Bible study that met Wednesday mornings. Almost all the women in that group had kids my age or older, and they really took me in and made Florida feel like home. Of all of them, Amy is most like my friend Christy. She had five kids and was full of Southern grace.

TRC: I don’t want to give too much away about the third book, SO OVER IT, but a lot of exciting stuff happens, including a stint in Hawaii. Have you been to Hawaii? Why Hawaii for Skylar’s change of scenery (and partial heritage)?

SM: A few years ago, I was lucky enough to spend three weeks in Hawaii. At the time, I was working on ME, JUST DIFFERENT and had wanted Skylar to have an exotic look that set her apart from other girls at her school. While in Kauai, my husband and I fell in love with this little breakfast place. As soon as we started interacting with our waitress, the pieces fell into place, and I knew this was Skylar’s heritage.

In SO OVER IT, I liked the idea of Skylar escaping to Hawaii because it’s such an easy place to get captured by. Not only is it beautiful, but it’s completely different from the manicured, somewhat stuffy neighborhood Skylar lives in. Having the opportunity to spend a couple years in Hawaii would be tough to pass up.

TRC: Did it get easier writing the second and third books? Did your writing habits change throughout, or did they stay pretty consistent?

SM: Each book was difficult for its own reason. With the first, ME, JUST DIFFERENT, not only was I trying to figure out who Skylar was and what her life looked like, I was also trying to figure out the mechanics of putting together a novel. I wrote draft after draft after draft. For four years.

The others went much quicker because I’d figured out my writing process, but for OUT WITH THE IN CROWD, I had a six-month-old baby who didn’t particularly care that I preferred to work in the mornings. Plus I’d never written a sequel before, so I was trying to figure out that difficult balance of how much backstory needed to go in.

With SO OVER IT, I’d gotten used to writing in whatever snatches of time my daughter allowed, but the story ended up focusing on the attempted rape in the first book. It became a much heavier story than I’d anticipated.

TRC: In addition to being a writer, you’re also a mother. How do you balance the two jobs?

SM: With lots of help. Both my parents and my husband’s live here in town, and all of them have flexible working hours. On Tuesday mornings, my parents watch my daughter, and on Thursday mornings, it’s my in-laws. It’s an arrangement everyone’s been happy with. And it’s the only way I manage to stay semi-sane when I’m on deadline.

TRC: Of course I have to ask this question. Is Sheridan’s Frozen Custard, Skylar’s favorite hangout, a real place?

SM: It’s real and oh-so-yummy. The summer I had the idea for ME, JUST DIFFERENT, my husband and I were there about once a week. There were always tons of teenagers hanging out, and it naturally worked its way into the story.

TRC: Are you working on any new projects at the moment?

SM: At the moment, I’m taking time off from writing because we’ve just welcomed our second child into the family. But I’ll get back to work soon. I don’t feel quite like myself when I’m not taking time to write, and I continue to love writing for teens.