Author Interview: Gabrielle Zevin on All These Things I’ve Done

Gabrielle Zevin is the author of several books including Memoirs of a Teenage Amnesiac as well as the screenplay for Conversations With Other Women. Her latest book, All These Things I’ve Done came out earlier this week (September 6, 2011). In addition to being a catchy, clever twist on dystopian futures and organized crime, All These Things I’ve Done was one of my favorite reads this summer. I’m delighted that Gabrielle was able to fit an interview into her schedule to answer some questions about this latest novel.

Miss Print (MP): Can you tell us a bit about your path as a writer? How did you get to this point?

Gabrielle Zevin (GZ): I was an avid reader who became a writer because it turned out I had an aptitude for both lying and solitude. In terms of my career… I think I got to this point through willful self-delusion and lots of caffeine. Seriously though, there’s much discussion about the end of conventional publishers in the wake of e-books. I can honestly say that I probably wouldn’t be a writer if there hadn’t been conventional publishers when I was starting. I learned my craft by working with professionals at the top level who knew more than me about everything from content to design to promotion. Some writers, by the way, have no gift for self-promotion, but they still write beautiful and worthy books. In fact,  it could be said that the kind of introspection it takes to write a really original novel can be in direct opposition to the ability to self-promote. My point is, I’m lucky that I came up when I did. I’ve had a lot of support. It takes a village to raise a child, but it also takes a village to publish a book.

MP: All These Things I’ve Done is your third young adult novel. You have also written two novels that were marketed to adults as well as the screenplay for Conversations With Other Women. What is it like writing for these different audiences/formats? Does your writing process change in these different areas?

GZ: I suspect I would have quit writing a long time ago if I hadn’t been able to move around among genres, kinds of characters, styles of writing. There’s nothing as creatively freeing as trying something you haven’t done before. In terms of process? It is just as difficult and painful to write a young adult novel, a screenplay, or a “serious” work of literary fiction. (I’ve never read anything as absurd as that piece in Slate.)

MP: What was the inspiration for All These Things I’ve Done?

GZ: I’ve always loved organized crime stories — despite the fact that the women characters are usually wive or hookers — and I wanted to tell one where the girl tries to rise to the power.

MP: All These Things I’ve Done is the first book in a series. Do you have a set arc for Anya’s story or know how many books will be in the series?

GZ: I absolutely have a set arc. Anya is going to grow up and go through so much and travel to so many places, I’m kind of dying for readers to get to the next book. (The one thing I want readers to know is that sometimes when a boy looks too good to be true, it’s because he is. And, for the record, most of us don’t end up marrying the boy we loved in high school.)

There’s going to be four books. I know that some places say three, but I’ve always planned for four.

MP: The book is set in 2083 and a lot of things are scarce (like paper) and some are illegal (most notably chocolate and coffee). Did you always know chocolate would play such a big part in the story? What is your favorite kind of chocolate or coffee?

GZ: I chose chocolate very early on. I’d watched the documentary Food Inc., and after seeing it,  I’d gotten kind of obsessed with the business of food — i.e., the extent to which large corporations play a role in what we consume. Chocolate appealed to me because, as it turns out, cacao is a fascinating  crop. It’s extremely difficult to grow, and really only thrives in a handful of places around the world. The Mayans believed cacao had healing properties and even used it as currency. The DSM doesn’t go so far as to classify it as a drug, but they do note that it is one of the few foods that people experience withdrawal-like symptoms from. I also found it interesting the way chocolate is packaged with a cacao percentage on the label, not unlike the way alcohol is packaged with a proof number.

The weird thing is, I’m not the biggest chocolate person. I’ve grown an appreciation for it from all the research I did for the book, but I don’t crave it and I could live without it. (If it was a society that banned bread, I’d be a lot more upset!) I once read an interview with Ralph Fiennes (who plays Voldemort) in which they asked him if he was a big Harry Potter Fan. He replied that he wasn’t, but that the man who played Voldemort probably shouldn’t be. I guess it’s like that for me and chocolate. I do love coffee however — I’m an espresso girl. Don’t know how to write a book without it.

MP: How did you approach writing a story about such distinct future? Did your vision for Anya’s New York start with a specific place or aspect?

GZ: My approach was to not write the future like it was the future. Because if you are a person living in the future, you’re not thinking how amazing and odd everything is, and you’re not going to explain the world as if the reader is living in the past. I absolutely didn’t put anything in the book that didn’t come plausibly through Anya’s point of view. Anya is not a history teacher or a political scientist, and her knowledge of how the world works is pretty shallow in a way, especially in the first book.

I’ve lived in New York City most of my life, but this is the first novel I’ve set there. So writing the world was easy, or as easy as these things ever are. I just imagined what would happen if the economy never picked up, if we stopped funding the arts and the parks, and if everything got a little worse each year, instead of a little better. I think it might have started with a docent at Metropolitan telling me that I should give more than the suggested ticket price, because the museum needed it. Despite how bad the economy was/is, I really had never thought than institution like the Metropolitan Museum of Art would ever be in jeopardy. But you start looking into it and things are bad everywhere, and especially for the things that are considered non-essentials like, you know, culture.

MP: One of the things that I really enjoyed about All These Things I’ve Done is that it is set in New York City—albeit a New York of the future where a lot of things are different. How did you decide what details to include in Anya’s version of the city? Are you particularly fond of any details? (I was especially struck by Little Egypt and Liberty Island.)

GZ: As I mentioned, I only included details that were absolutely relevant to Anya’s point-of-view. Anya really won’t tell you anything that doesn’t concern her. Beyond that, I guess I probably chose the places I thought I’d miss the most if they weren’t there any longer. Little Egypt definitely came from that museum trip. Liberty Children’s began from a news story I read about the cost of maintaining the Statue of Liberty.

In terms of favorites? The New York Public Library (referred to as The Lion’s Den) makes a very brief appear in the book, but it ends up being extremely important in the series.

MP: Can you tell us anything about your next project?

GZ: I’m finished with the sequel, which right now is called All the Kingdoms of the World. I’m writing a screenplay, an adaptation of a book (not by me). And I’m seriously flirting with writing a middle grade novel.

MP: Do you have any advice to offer aspiring authors?

GZ: Be ruthless with yourself. Be kind to other writers. Remember that books do occasionally have  goals besides making you “like” them. (In fact, I’d argue that the books you truly hate can be better writing teachers than the ones you love.) Finally, invest in a good chair.

You can also read my review of All These Things I’ve Done