I was lucky enough to meet Terra Elan McVoy (the author of Pure, After the Kiss, and the forthcoming The Summer of Firsts and Lasts) at the NYC Teen Author Festival signing at Books of Wonder back in March. After talking a bit about her latest book After the Kiss (and the numerous pages I had flagged in my own copy) Terra graciously agreed to an author interview as part of my month-long National Poetry Month celebration here on the blog. I’m very, very excited to share that interview here.
Miss Print (MP): Before we start discussing After the Kiss, which is amazing, can you tell us a bit about yourself and your writing?
Terra Elan McVoy (TEM): Thank you so much, Emma! The story about me and writing is that I’ve been doing it ever since I learned how to, at about the age of four. My whole life, I’ve been surrounded by books, and have been encouraged to read and write as much as possible. English was always my favorite class all the way up through high school. I studied creative writing and poetry in college. I got a Master’s degree from Florida State University in Creative Writing. Most of my jobs have had to deal with writing, or books, in some way. (You can read more about that at http://terraelan.com/bio.php.) So writing and reading are huge parts of my life. It’s what I like to do in my spare time. Even if I weren’t a professional author, I’d be writing in some way. Maybe I’d be working on poems and stories no one ever saw, but I’d be doing it!
MP: What was the inspiration for After the Kiss?
TEM: After I finished Pure, I got antsy to start something else but didn’t know quite what. I was talking with my editor, and she tossed out some ideas, including a novel in verse (because she knew I’d studied poetry), and maybe something about a love triangle. There were other ideas in the pot too, but about a half hour later I was working on a decoupage project, and suddenly I got struck by this idea of writing a love triangle book from three different perspectives, using three types of poetry to distinguish the voices.
For the love triangle part, I thought about all the cheating we see in the media. Every time there’s a new headline, we’re all so eager to judge. We tell ourselves: “This other woman must be a complete sexpot maneater, if he cheated on his wife with her.” Or, “She must be a harpy of a wife.” Or else the wife/girlfriend is a saint and the guy’s a total dog. We think we know what’s going on, even though we’re not at all a part of it.
But I’ve been the girl who’s been cheated on. And I’ve been the girl someone else has cheated on somebody with. I know none of it is easy or clear cut. Everyone involved contributes, in some way. Everyone has different feelings about what’s happening. I wanted to tell a story that tried, at least, to take all three sides into consideration, fairly.
So, it was a combination of those two things—poetry and infidelity—that got me going on the book!
MP: Your first book, Pure, is written in traditional prose. After the Kiss is a novel in verse. How does writing a novel in poems compare to writing a traditional novel? What was the hardest thing about writing a novel in verse? What was the easiest?
TEM: On one hand, writing a novel in verse is easier because you get a chance to focus on specific moments, instead of having to go through the play-by-play of an entire day, or month, or year. Poetry, by its nature, often concentrates on emotive specifics, and I enjoyed doing that. On the other hand, you do still have to have a plot. Things have to happen. And I found it was a little harder, making things happen through poetry, instead of just writing a bunch of emotions or observations.
MP: Becca and Camille narrate the story. Both girls use different styles of poems and even Becca’s boyfriend, Alec, writes haikus. How did you decide on the form for each character’s poetry?
TEM: Well, like I said, I was sitting there doing this decoupage when the whole idea came to me. Immediately I thought “One of the girls has to be a serious poet.” That was Becca. So she was taken care of. And then, because haiku involves more structure—and is so simply beautiful—I thought that would be the mode of writing for the guy. For Camille, at first, to be honest, I thought she would write mostly traditional rhymed stuff, maybe some sonnets. But after about five minutes I figured out I didn’t want to write that way—and that she, as a character, wouldn’t write that way—so I was in trouble. Then I remembered reading a bunch of really incredible vignettes by TS Eliot in college, and I thought this would be a good way to keep Camille distinct from Becca. It allowed for motion in her work, too—none of those line breaks—so that seemed the best fit.
MP: Much of Becca’s story deals with putting together a literary magazine at her high school. As someone who worked on a lit mag, those sections seemed very real. Did you have experience on a literary magazine in school?
TEM: Hmmmm. Could you tell?? :) Absolutely, all my past similar experiences came into play in these scenes. I was the President of Writer’s Exchange in my high school, and while we didn’t have a lit mag then, we did have an important poetry contest. In college I was involved in writer’s groups, too, and was even on the staff of a literary publication (The Duck & Herring Pocket Field Guide) when I first moved to Atlanta. Now, in the summer, I help with a program that the Decatur Book Festival does with The Wren’s Nest, where we mentor teens through the entire literary magazine process, from calls to submissions to publication. So, definitely, life informed me here!
MP: Becca’s poems include several “with apologies to” famous poets including Wallace Stevens, Gertrude Stein and William Carlos Williams. How did you decide which poems Becca should emulate?
TEM: As a student, one of the most repeated bits of advice I got was to find writers I liked, and mimic their style. We did this with Eliot, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.—everyone. I knew that Becca was going to be a serious writer, so I figured this would be advice she’d get too. Using established poets as influence was really helpful too, especially if I ever got stuck. I’d pick up my Norton Anthology and try to find someone I thought Becca would know from her studies. Then I’d look for a poem by this person that matched what she was feeling at the time. After that, I’d just focus on Becca—what she was feeling, what she’d see in this poem and how it might echo her own feelings—and we went from there.
MP: In addition to modeling after famous poems Becca makes some references to Shakespeare with “Being Hamlet” (page 178 paperback) and “Iago’s Daughter” (page 212 paperback). Did you always plan to work in those references or were they a surprise?
TEM: You have such a good eye, Emma! I have to say that the Shakespeare stuff wasn’t planned ahead of time, but it wasn’t a surprise, either. Becca is very serious about her English class (which is her favorite), and when poems made connections with that aspect of her life, it just totally fit. The Hamlet poem came up because I remembered reading that play out loud in high school, and how powerful it was for my entire class. Everyone was just . . . electrified. So, with what’s going on with her right then, it was a natural fit. And you can just see Becca reading all of Shakespeare’s plays on her own, right? So she’d know characters and scenarios from other plays, too.
MP: Camille’s family has moved around a lot, which really shapes her character throughout the story. Did you move around as much as Camille? Do you share her desire to travel abroad?
TEM: I graduated high school in the same town I was born in. But after that, I went away to NC for college, and then I moved around a bit—San Francisco, New York, even Austin, TX for a month. Consequently I got the flavor of both things: what it’s like to be in one place for a really long time, and what you gain and lose by moving around. I did spend a semester in Italy while I was in college, which was one of the best experiences of my whole life, and since then I have taken many trips abroad. I love to travel. But I think it’s probably important to have a balance: a place where you’re at home and grounded, and other places where you’re always discovering and challenging yourself. I still love going back to my hometown, but I also love a new city!
MP: Do you have a favorite poem in this book? (I really loved “Nostalgia” at the end although almost every page had something worth remembering.) Was any poem more or less fun to write than the others?
There was no poem that wasn’t fun to write, because the entire thing was a source of discovery for me. Some of them were more purely emotive (“In the Volcano’s Wake,” “Amputation,” “hooking up”), some were more plot-driven (“inbox surprise #2,” “Hypocrites Don’t Make Good Friends”), and others were a nice marriage of both (“Recipe for a Confrontation,” “the coffeecounter girl,” “Thursday Night Latrine Duty”). Maybe I’m proudest of the ones that were both poetic and plot-helpful, but each one helped/made me focus on my writing in an important way, and that was great. Picking a very favorite is so hard, mainly because every moment with each girl, to me, is a small little needle in your heart. Sometimes I would write and think, “Oh god, Becca—you’re killing me.” Or, “Camille, stop being so hard-hearted!” Every time I flip through the book I land on something and go, “Oh god I love this moment.” And I guess that’s a good thing!
MP: What can you tell us about your forthcoming book The Summer of Firsts and Lasts?
TEM: I’m very excited about The Summer of Firsts and Lasts, which releases May 2nd. It’s a sister book—about the importance of the bond between sisters—but it’s also a really fun summer camp romp. The book is narrated by the three Winthrop sisters: Calla, Violet and Daisy, and each one has her own thing going on in the course of the novel. Calla is getting ready to go off to college, and is trying to figure out how to tell her best friend, Duncan, her real feelings about him. Violet, about to be a senior, is experimenting with limits and boundaries—both in a friendship with “bad girl” Brynn, and her romance with camp counselor, James. Daisy, the youngest, is trying to assert her independence from her sisters, to handle a weird-feeling romance herself, and also has to deal with a bunch of Mean Girls. There’s so much I love about this book, and I can’t wait to share it!
MP: Do you have any advice to offer aspiring authors and poets?
TEM: My main advice is so boring, but it’s also important: read, read, read, and read. Read authors you love and want to emulate. Read outside of your comfort zone. Read magazines, and newspapers, and blogs, and graphic novels . . . read everything. And as you read, ask yourself, How is this writer doing what s/he is doing? Beyond that, of course, write. And don’t be afraid about results. Write as much as you can, and understand that every time to sit down to write—even if it is just a letter to a relative, or a story you end up abandoning in the middle—you are exercising your writing muscles and making them stronger.
Thanks again to Terra for taking the time to answer all of my questions for this great interview. Remember you can read my review of After the Kiss on the blog.
I also have a bit of a surprise: Thanks to Terra I have signed copies of After the Kiss to give away. Check back tomorrow for contest details!