More About the Author
Rachel Vail Author Biography
1. What is your favorite childhood memory?
Can't say I have just one, but here is one among many: My father, an avid amateur gardener, had determined to get rid of a rock in the middle of his flower bed in our backyard. The rock turned out to be the size of Tennessee, but he just kept digging for a few years, trying to budge the thing, which created an ever-changing landscape for backyard adventures. My younger brother Jon was my constant companion out there, and our favorite game was "Time Machine," which involved a mysterious metal thing sticking up from the ground - obviously a gear shift for moving into the past or future. Jon was the pilot, in charge of bringing us to different times, depending on how he moved the mysterious metal thing. I was the "teller": I would tell the story of what time period we landed in, what was happening, the dangers we faced, which bad guys were chasing us around the back, the rock, and the Way Back (where we weren't even supposed to go but we did; don't tell!), what we needed to collect around the yard -- a magic gem, a twig from the tree of wonder -- and how we would be able to get back to our time Machine to get back to home and the present when my Mom called to us to come in for dinner.
My younger son was complaining yesterday that the problem with grownups is that they don't play as runny-aroundy as kids. He is absolutely right.
2. What is your favorite memory from when you were a teenager?
How about my least favorite but most useful? I was at a dance at the Rye Golf Club with my best friend, Jill. We had decided to really go for it, get all duded up and mascara'ed. I wore my hottest outfit -- a one-piece, strapless pantsuit. (It was the early 80's; that's what was hot. Trust me.) We had practiced dancing all week: step-together-clap; slightly bored expression combined with slight head-bobbing. Luck was with us at first -- two cute boys came right over to ask us to dance. I looked slightly bored while repeating my mantra internally: step-together-clap, nod. The boy was smiling at me, checking me out. I was succeeding! Jill step-together-clapped her way to my side and said, "Don't panic, but your top fell off." I looked down and there for everybody to see was my white strapless bra, looking like an ace bandage across my lack-of-anything to hold up my wilted outfit. I ran straight to the Ladies' Room with my arms crossed over my chest. Jill was right behind me, and sat beside me on the cold linoleum as I cried. "I was naked," I wailed. "Only briefly," Jill assured me. "I am never leaving this Ladies' Room," I told her. "Okay," she said. "I'll stay here with you." "Forever?" I asked. "Sure," she said. "We'll be two little old ladies here when they come to wreck the building, but we still won't leave." "I'm serious," I said. "Me too," she answered.
I recall that moment whenever I am writing and my character needs to feel the soul-burning humiliation of being exposed in front of the world -- whether figuratively or literally. I can still feel the cold shivers in my fingers, still smell the disinfectant in the restroom, still hear the distant echoes of the disco beat beyond as I sat there feeling utterly stupid and naked and embarrassed. But I also use it when I want to feel how reassuring it is for a character to realize a friend is willing to stick with her forever, no matter what.
3. How did you end up becoming a writer?
What I always loved to do was read, tell stories, imagine being other people, eavesdrop, and not wear shoes. What else could I end up becoming?
4. What other jobs have you tried?
I worked in a book store, which I loved except when people interrupted my reading by trying to make purchases. I was a really good babysitter and a lousy magician but kind of a fun clown at kids' birthday parties. I worked in theater -- acting, directing, selling tickets, dressing and undressing actors (!), ironing costumes, sewing stuff... I still can't make buttons stay on all that well, but I am a pretty decent ironer. I also tutored for SAT's, and GRE's, as well as regular school subjects from bio and algebra to English and writing, and specialized in working with kids who have learning troubles.
5. What first appealed to you about writing for teens?
Well, I started writing my first book when I was 22, so I'd had some recent experience. But really there were two things. I had always looked young for my age, and used to vow to myself that I would remember what it really felt like to be a kid and NEVER condescend when I grew up but rather bear witness to and show respect for the struggles of metamorphosis experienced by a teen going through it. Also, a brilliant playwrighting professor I had in college told us that drama exists in the life-or-death moments: those instances when the character's life is at mortal risk are the scenes you should write. I realized that he had just described pretty much every moment of being a teenager. Just a walk down the corridor in eighth grade can feel like a death march, if somebody looks at you sideways, then slides her eyes away and bends to whisper to somebody else, who turns immediately to look at you -- and snickers. Oh, dread. Life could end or begin at any moment, beside your locker, and the murder weapon, like your pride, might never be recovered. That's what continues to appeal to me about writing for teens: metamorphosis. It's so awful and wonderful and public and extreme.
6. Where do you get your ideas for your books?
Mostly, honestly, in my head. I pick up details of phrases or styles of sitting from watching people all the time, and listening, eavesdropping, on the subway, in the market, in the changing room of a department store. Kids write to me about what they are going through, and of course I have my own journals to re-read, so I mine my own memories and fears and hopes. But mostly my ideas come from wondering: what would happen if my parents suddenly lost all their money? ... if I always thought of myself as kind of funny-looking and suddenly I was chosen for being gorgeous? What if I discovered I was profoundly gifted in some way? What if I learned something shatteringly disappointing about my mom? What if I fell in love with somebody I shouldn't? What if I lied to my best friend and then had to keep lying so she wouldn't find out? What if my best friend lied to me and I found out? What would be the worst thing that could happen to me? What would be the best? But I am not asking those questions of myself, Rachel Vail. I build a character over the course of many months, and then ask those kinds of questions of her - until I get to the start of an answer that is so interesting to me that I have to write a book to find out what happens.
6. Who in your life has especially inspired or motivated you?
So many people have motivated and inspired me -- teachers who asked for revisions and edits and focus; librarians who found books for me and communicated their passion to me; friends who are funny and honest about whatever they are going through and so articulate about expressing their frustrations and ambitions; my husband who believes in me and laughs at all the right moments; my kids who come home with stories and ask to hear mine, again and again, and then give me harsh but loving (and smart) editorial feedback. My brother taught me to tell stories by wanting to play them with me; my parents were my first and most enthusiastic audience (before my kids came along, at least.) Now editors and my agent, who are some of my first readers, press me to think deeper, go further, try new challenges. I'm also inspired by great writers: when I read something I love, I read it again and again, trying to figure out how did he or she DO that? I want to move people the way my favorite writers (from John Steinbeck to Judy Blume to Bruce Springsteen) move me. And finally, readers who write to me with their honest and powerful reactions to my books, asking for sequels and for clarification of what happens after the book ends, who let me know that my characters live on beyond the page, in them -- they are my greatest current inspiration.
7. What do you consider to be the most fun part of your job?
The absolute most fun thing for me as a writer is getting to the point in a book, usually about 20 or more drafts in, when a sentence is changed, sometimes by cutting three words or substituting one phrase for four -- and suddenly the character has just said something so right for her, so true and funny and wise and so unique to that character that nobody else could've said it. That just makes my whole day. Man, I could be happy for a week off one great sentence.
8. What part of your job do you find the most challenging?
The first 19 drafts.
9. If you had to assign a book title to your life, what would it be?
I'm not sure. I'm hoping there will be many more years before that book is done. Maybe, by then, it will be: The Most Brilliant, Happy, Successful, Generous Person Ever. But for right now, I think I would have to go with the title of my new paperback book, which could apply with perhaps less irony to my own phenomenally blessed life: LUCKY.