Hi everyone! Today, I've got an interview with Katie Pierson, author of '89 Walls. Her novel is amazing, you can read my review here if you haven't yet. I hope you'll enjoy reading this interview!
Hello Katie! Thank you for being here today to answer some questions about yourself and your latest novel, '89 Walls.
Thank you so much for having me, Laurence!
Can you explain what the book is about?
College is not in the cards for Seth. He spends his minimum wage on groceries and fakes happiness to distract his mom from the MS they both know will kill her. It’s agony to carry around a frayed love note for a girl who’s both out of his league and beneath his dignity. I, personally, have a crush on Seth. He’s the smart guy with the dry sense of humor that makes a girl trust herself.
Quinn’s finishing high school on top. But that cynical, liberal guy in her social studies class makes her doubt her old assumptions. Challenging the rules now, though, would a) squander her last summer at home, b) antagonize her conservative dad, and c) make her a hypocrite.
What inspired you to write this story?
A conversation with a friend in 2006 about the pros and cons of potentially attending my 20th high school reunion brought to mind the random people you run into at those things: old crushes, old “frenemies.” I suddenly had the idea for Seth and Quinn’s reluctant romance. I thought it would be fun to introduce young readers to the concept of Star Wars as more than just a movie, and the good old days of writing notes in cursive and getting by on 12 cable channels.
Halfway through the first draft, I realized I was also writing a partisan allegory. Seth is the Democratic Party in the late 80’s: reactive, angry, without a compass. The successes of the 1970s’ social movements had been dampened by Vietnam. Quinn’s father, Tom is the Republican Party: optimistic, smug, and still grounded in a true small government philosophy but underestimating the rising Religious Right. Mr. Levine, the teacher, is the moderator who allows two strong points of view to talk it out respectfully. Quinn is all of us, trying to find her way when tidy theories crash into reality.
Was it hard to write a story set years ago? How did you deal with it?
It helped that I was a young adult in the late 80s but I still had to do a lot of research on political events and pop culture. I found that a lot went down in 1989: divestiture in apartheid South Africa, the Tiananmen Square protests, the Webster decision, the Iran-Contra scandal, the Exxon Valdez oil spill, the savings and loan crisis, the growing AIDS epidemic, the end of the Cold War, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the premiere of Seinfeld.
In a way, setting the book in 1989 was an itch I needed to scratch. That was the summer that changed everything for me. The Supreme Court’s Webster decision gave states the power to limit abortion access and opening the door for waiting periods, procedural bans, and state-scripted woman shaming. It marked the first time in 26 years that the court failed to affirm Roe v. Wade. It set up a system of Jim Crow for women.
At the time I was volunteering as an abortion counselor at the Planned Parenthood affiliate in downtown Philadelphia. (This was before the Freedom of Access to Clinics Act.) I was already spending every Saturday pushing through hostile, screaming crowds to help my patients get in the building. Webster felt like a huge betrayal and the Republican Party with which I’m grown up didn’t put up much of a fuss. That was the point in which I changed parties and thought that maybe those of us who are not privileged white males need big government to guarantee our basic rights.
My dad also died during the summer of 1989. Writing this book let me imagine the adult conversations with him that would have helped me make sense of the huge shifts in the political landscape in the late Eighties.
Who created your book cover and what exactly inspired it?
I worked with a freelancer from Random House, Jessie Sayward Bright, who really listened to my ideas about my target audience and similar titles. It’s a total coincidence that the cover features all of my favorite colors. The skyline is Lincoln, Nebraska.
How did you come up with your characters' names?
This sounds strange, I know, but my characters came to me already named.
Who do you relate to the most in your characters and why?
While nothing in this book’s plot actually happened much of Quinn’s perspective is emotionally and politically true, I relate to her (and, therefore, also judge her). But I’m proud of her for making her way.
Your characters grow up a lot in your novel from being with each other and from experiencing many things in their lives. What would your advice be for teenagers who are Seth and Quinn's age, and faced with many important decisions?
Adolescence can feel so overwhelming. You never have another period in your life when you change so fast and learn so much. I think it’s important to connect now with a trusted adult. Then when you find yourself in doubt or in a hard situation later, you have someone to whom you can say, “Here’s what I need. Can you help me?” Unless they’re in crisis themselves, there’s a 99% chance they will help you—and will be incredibly flattered you asked.
Your novel is about many important subjects, such as politics, diseases and abortion. Why did you want to talk about these subjects? Do you think you could have dealt with them the same way if your story had been set in the present?
I have a couple of degrees in American history and my work background is in public policy, specifically women’s reproductive rights. I did write about what interests me. But ’89 Walls is also a response to the fact that so few YA books out there deal with politics or teen sexuality. I’m annoyed that the publishing industry underestimates the intelligence of teen readers so much. By default, they censor your books.
Young adult fiction is the fastest growing genre in publishing now. Yet very little of it discusses sex in a realistic way or abortion at all. Given that 2/3 of high school seniors report being sexually active, and that over a third of all women have at least one abortion, the lack of YA literature on the subject seems odd in a creepy, censored sort of way. And when abortion is depicted in YA, it’s almost always a trauma, a painful, heart-wrenching decision.
I tried to write the kind of book that I’d want my own daughters to read; one that shows fun, safe sex in the context of a trusting, respectful relationship. There are plenty of YA books out there with sex scenes but very few showing female pleasure or a female orgasm. Is it me or is it totally sexist that writing these scenes is “controversial?”
I also wanted to show what the research proves is the much more common abortion experience: a young woman chooses her own future, has the abortion, and thinks, “Whew. Thank god that’s over.” She’s made stronger and happier by the self-affirming decision she’s made.
I was surprised to hear from agents and editors that “teens don’t care about politics.” That’s not what I observe of the Obama generation. While I have my gripes about social media (the way it makes you feel like you’re not living your life unless you’ve posted it online, for example) it’s an amazing political tool, too. Young people have enormous power and potential now to organize, contribute to the dialogue, and change the system. That’s pretty cool.
What is your writing process? Do you have any funny habits?
I have a quote by Ernest Hemingway taped to my desk that says, “The first draft is always shit.” It’s so true. But Anne LaMott says go ahead and write that “shitty first draft.” So that’s what I do. My first drafts are painfully earnest and rambling. Revising is way more fun.
As a writer, I’m basically the most boring person you know: I write for two hours in the early morning. I do all of my writing in my office. My dog sits on the red sofa behind me all day and stares at my back. I put my daughters on the school bus. I work out at the YMCA at 9:00. I write for another two hours. I read a section of the Sunday New York Times while eating lunch. (It takes me a week to read the whole paper). Then I write for another two hours before ramping up for after-school craziness and the dinner hour. (Is it me or does literally everyone call my house at 4:00?) I work in my yoga pants and t-shirts, usually with my hair sticking up.
What would be your best piece of advice for young writers?
Everyone feels like a fraud. Seriously. It’s not just you. When you call yourself a writer and act like one, you are one. There’s no coronation, but no one can take that piece of you away either.
What do you think is the definition of an author and when did you first consider yourself one?
I’ve heard others say that writing a novel is like opening a vein and letting it bleed. I agree. And then you have to get it published. If my long and detoured road to publication taught me anything, it’s that you only get to call yourself an author when you put on your big girl pants and act like one.
Digital copies of your novel were offered through NetGalley for review. Do you think this process helped with your novel's publication? What are your favorite and least favorite things about it?
NetGalley is a great service for authors, especially first-timers and indie authors like me. For a fee, they advertise your digital title to people who review books in your genre. It really helped with my marketing to get endorsements from librarians and book bloggers like you. Those early reviews helped me get on the radar of publications like Cosmo.com, Foreword and School Library Journal. My favorite thing about NetGalley is that the feedback belongs to me—it’s not for public consumption. I can’t think of a downside.
What is your all-time favorite quote?
“The secret to being boring is to say everything.” --Voltaire
If you could've only read one book in your life, which one do you wish it had been and why?
Persuasion by Jane Austen is my favorite. She builds a world that you can practically taste, and makes you privy to all those simmering feelings that no one admits to.
What's your favorite thing about writing?
The flexible schedule and being able to work from home. The downside is the isolation. I depend on my hip-hop class for my daily social life and “colleagues.”
Can you tell us about some of your current/future projects?
I'm toying with a memoir of my family's sabbatical year in London during the final year of the Bush administration. The working title is, Acting Canadian. I loved writing '89 Walls and read as much YA as I do adult fiction. I would love for another idea for a YA novel to drop in my lap.
Thanks again for having me, Laurence. This was a fun interview!