Author Interview: Hilary Weisman Graham on Reunited

Hilary Weisman Graham author photoToday I have a really special author interview. As some of you know, I worked briefly as a bookseller at a children’s bookstore. Last year, shortly after Book Expo America, the store was having a signing with a lot of great authors. (One even had the same color nail polish as me.) One author attending the signing was celebrating her book’s recent release and we started talking. That author was Hilary Graham and the book was Reunited. We talked about the release and my book blog and I ran out and bought a copy of Reunited the very next day. Fast forward to March when I attended another signing–one where Hilary Graham was signing. I was really happy to meet her again and completely flattered that she remembered our earlier encounter. We started setting up details then and now I’m happy to share our interview here on the blog.

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

Hilary Weisman Graham (HG): I started off my career as a filmmaker and TV producer, but writing was always a big part of my job. Even in my free time, I’d find myself participating in poetry slams or composing humorous essays to share with my friends.  But for many years, I considered myself a “filmmaker who writes” as opposed to a writer.

Then, in the summer of 2007, I was selected to be a contestant on the Mark Burnett/Steven Spielberg-produced reality show On the Lot, which, if you never saw it, was like American Idol for filmmakers, and aired on Fox for only one season.  The goal of the show was to find “America’s next great director,” and I was handpicked out of a pool of 12,000 applicants.

It was during that summer in Los Angeles, in the midst of an intense filmmaking competition, that it suddenly became very clear to me that it was the writing part of filmmaking that I’d always most enjoyed (and was best at) only I’d never realized it before. Needless to say, it was a huge epiphany for me.  After that, I made it my goal to become a working screenwriter and novelist—and I’m happy to report that with the help of my amazing manager and agent, that dream has now come true!

MP: What was the inspiration for Reunited?

HG: The idea for REUNITED actually came from my editor at Simon & Schuster who came up with a two-sentence concept about ex-best friends getting together to see a band they once loved. Since I’d experienced a friendship break-up of my own freshman year of high school, I really connected with those feelings, even though my story is very different than Alice, Summer, and Tiernan’s. For most 14-year-old girls, their best friends are the most meaningful relationship they’ve had at that point in their lives, apart from their family, so I thought the idea of ex-best friends reuniting at the end of high school, when they’re older and wiser, would make for an interesting story.

MP: Alice, Summer and Tiernan all have a chance to tell their part of the story as you shift the perspective (in third person) to voice each girl’s motivations for going on the road trip. As a reader I loved getting to see the story from all sides, but how was it as a writer? Going in did you know the story would shift perspective (or have a plan who would “tell” which parts)?

HG: My agent warned me that I was making my job a lot harder by writing my first novel in three alternating perspectives and he was definitely right! But I think my background as a screenwriter made it a bit easier for me. Plus, it helped that I’d made a detailed outline, including a breakdown for which chapters would be in which character’s perspective. But I the decision to write REUNITED in the three characters’ alternating perspectives was essential to the telling of this particular story.

MP: Was one character more fun to write than the others? Was anyone harder to write?

HG: Alice, Summer, & Tiernan were all fun to write, but if I had to choose, I’d say my favorite character to write was probably Tiernan because she’s so snarky.

MP: Reunited is as much about the three ex-best friends as it is about, Level3, the band they’re traveling to see. In fact, it’s almost impossible to talk about this book without mentioning Level3 thanks to the book’s awesome launch and Level3’s web presence. Can you tell us how you went about making Level3 a reality?

HG: The funny part about Level3 was that each time I found myself writing the lyrics to one of their songs—an event that happened frequently, since lyrical excerpts open each chapter—I became aware of the fact that I was also composing the melodies to these songs in my head.

So even though I don’t have a musical bone in my body, I thought it would be fun to bring my fictional band to life. Luckily, I have some very talented musician friends who helped me do this.  And winning the 2011 SCBWI Book Launch Award didn’t hurt, since the cash prize enabled me to get a bit creative with REUNITED’s marketing.

While Level3’s songs were being recorded, I got to work creating a robust online presence for the band.  Today, www.level3theband.com is a place where fans can read blog posts by the band members, download two free Level3 songs, peruse photos, watch a Level3 music video and a behind-the-scenes “pop-up” documentary, and follow Level3 on Facebook and Twitter. Whew. And Level3 even went on tour last summer at libraries from Boston to Austin! http://hilarywgraham.wordpress.com/reunited-the-book/press-kit-for-reunited-level3-tour/

[MP: You can also read about Reunited’s clever launch promotion with Level 3 in the Publisher’s Weekly article: “Fictional Band Rocks Promotion for ‘Reunited‘”]

MP: Working off the last question: I loved the inclusion of Level3 song lyrics throughout the novel. Which came first—the lyrics or the story? How did you decide which songs to quote? How did you decide which songs to actually record for fans/readers?

HG: I came up with the idea of Level3 right away, but I wrote their lyrics as I wrote the chapters. When it came to recording their songs, I picked the two songs that played the biggest role in the book.

MP: There are a lot of twists and turns as Alice, Summer and Tiernan make their way to Texas. Things go wrong. Things go right. Mayhem ensues. Were any parts harder to write than others? Are there any parts that were extra fun to write?

HG: I can’t think of any scenes that were harder to write than others, but my favorite scene to write was the kissing scene!  But I don’t want to include any spoilers here, so I won’t tell you which one of the girls gets kissed.

MP: Before writing Reunited you had a (very impressive) background as a filmmaker. Did your experience making films influence how you approached writing this story?

HG: I think my background as a filmmaker helps me to create scenes that are inherently visual and easy for the reader to “see” in their mind’s eye. As a write, I think I’m really lucky to be able to go back and forth between fiction and screenplays because I’m constantly discovering ways each medium informs the other.

MP: Speaking of past experience, did your own travels influence the route and final destination of the road trip?

HG: Yes! I’ve had to good fortune of having been on many road trips in my life—backpacking through Portugal and Spain with my sister and a friend during college, wandering around the Irish countryside with four of my best girlfriends in a very small rental car, and driving from Boston to Juarez, Mexico (on a route similar to REUNITED) with a group of friends while shooting a documentary. Though thankfully, I’ve never been stuck in a van with any of my ex-best friends. ;)

MP: There was a lot to love to Reunited but is there anything you particularly hope readers will take away from the book? Is there any scene you were especially excited for readers to see for the first time?

HG: Hopefully, readers will connect with the characters on an emotional level, which, I guess, is what reading’s pretty much all about.  But also, I think the concept of ex-best friends getting back together could be a useful jumping off point for girls and women to look at their past and present friendships, and to reflect on what it takes to be a good friend and keep a friendship strong.

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

HG: I’m working on a few different things right now in books and TV, so I’m not sure which one will end up being next—either a very heavy TV drama, a contemporary YA novel currently titled GIRLS LIKE ME, or a brand new comedic middle grade book. How’s that for a diverse slate of projects?

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

HG: Probably the best piece of writing advice I’ve gotten came from Robert McKee, the author of “Story,” a popular (almost cultish) book on screenwriting.  And I have the audiobook, so it feels like McKee’s talking directly to me (which, if you’ve ever heard McKee speak, comes off more like a reprimand, but that’s part of his charm).  Anyway, Robert McKee insists that you not write dialogue or scenes prior to having worked out the structure of your story first, because if you do, you’re in danger of falling in love with your own words and keeping a wonderful bit of dialogue that ultimately, doesn’t belong in your story.  I think I fell victim to this a lot when I was first starting out as a writer.  But sadly, we all must learn to kill our darlings.  There’s really no other way.

Thanks again to Hilary Graham for a great interview! You can also read my review of Reunited here on the blog and visit Hilary Graham’s website for more info about her and her books.

Also don’t forget to enter my giveaway for the Reunited Road Trip mix CD!

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