BEAing me

Souvenirs of my time at BookExpoAmerica 2011: A bunch of craveable galleys, several hideous blisters, one enormous totebag, and the everlooping memory of that half-hour when I handed copies of “The Beginning of After” to many lovely readers who didn’t seem to care how much my handwriting sucks.

Being a debut author at BEA is a bit like getting to go to the senior prom when you’re just a freshman. You feel thrilled and lucky, but also can’t help but be anxious. Will my date/publisher want to spend any time with me? Should I have worn a more stylish dress/written a dystopian trilogy? In a few years will I also shine and sparkle like those cool upperclassmen/bestselling authors?

Maybe someday I, too, will have my own promo food truck at BEA. Instead of red velvet whoopie pies, I'm thinking chocolate covered pickles on a stick.

BEA is also like the prom in that for a blip in time, it seems like the end-all and be-all. You get caught up in the whirl at the center of the book universe, and a sense that everything that happens here will make or break the future. It’s not, of course. It’s a big deal and loads of fun, but then it’s over and all that matters is that hopefully, a ton more people have heard about or have their hands on your book. The only previous time I’ve gone to BEA was in 2003, when it was a much smaller gig. I’d just recently started writing the novel that would become “The Beginning of After,” and as I stood in those lines at the autographing tables, I daydreamed that one day it might be me with the Sharpie. So BEA11 was a real Mary Tyler Moore, throw-your-hat-in-the-air kind of moment over here.

Just go on with your meeting, important HarperCollins people. Pay no attention to the crazy chick lurking for ten minutes with her camera pointed at the revolving screen display.

On Tuesday evening, after a day of anonymous wandering and book-hoarding and basic survival on the Expo floor, I attended the HarperCollins party for staff and authors. This is where I got to meet many of the people who’ve been working so hard on behalf of TBOA, especially sales reps whose passion for the book was purely levitating. Meeting other Harper authors like Lauren Oliver, Rita Williams-Garcia, and fellow debut’er Marianna Baer went a long way toward making me feel like yes, I do belong here.

Wednesday morning it was go time, and I was grateful they scheduled my signing for an early slot because my day started at maybe 4am, too wired to sleep much, too nervous that nobody would show up. I headed to the Autographing Area at 9:30, stopping to check out the sign on my aisle and…wait a minute. There are people waiting. They must be there for the person next to me…but wait a minute. They’re in front of MY table. Eep! (Take a picture, then scurry into the author green room to quietly freak out.)

Early-line-waiting-type humans. Holy crap!

And then it was 10:00am, and I was sitting down across from all those strangers. It’s a surreal feeling to take a bound pile of pages full of words you’ve written, and rewritten, over many years, and sign your name and give it to someone. To feel their excitement, their anticipation. Maybe they’re just happy to get a free book months before it hits the stores, but I don’t care. Take it, read it. If you like it, shout about it.

The line was so long that I couldn’t even see the end from where I sat. They had to turn people away eventually, due to time. After it was all over, my editor and publicist and I looked at one another, tickled and stunned. I mean, this is not a book that’s ever been mentioned in the trade press. There were no banners, no swag, no panel discussions. It’s an un-hypeable contemporary, literary novel about “real” people experiencing, you know, true life stuff. It’s set in the present. The dead characters stay dead. But what I heard from readers, over and over again throughout that line, was that they’re hungry for more of exactly this kind of thing, and the buzz (BUZZ!) is that “The Beginning of After” has got the goods.

Gulp. Well sh*t, I certainly hope so.

Back to my prom analogy. I’ll say that in the end the freshman geek/debut contemporary YA author was…what? Not crowned prom queen, because that’s far off and totally cliche anyway. No. She simply came home on the Trailways bus and hung up her dress. She lay on her bed, staring up at the ceiling but seeing stars. Letting the magic of the night pulse through her, keeping it fresh and precious under her skin, eager for more.

The sad and curious tale of my 15th summer

Something about this week’s familiar panic of seeing bathing suits in stores makes me want to share this story about the summer I was fifteen. Actually, the story starts recently, when I’m sitting in the waiting room of a dermatologist’s office, bored out of my mind and annoyed that I’m still dealing with breakouts at, you know, my age. Fortunately, there’s a travel magazine nearby, and I pick it up, and open to a page that feels like the middle.

I land on a photo of the port in St. Tropez in the south of France, and something at the back of my neck melts just a bit.

I have walked through this photo. I’ve sat in the cafes along the water and shopped in the stores whose awnings create a patchwork quilt of stripes and colors from above. I have climbed onto the rock jetty that runs along the bottom of the magazine page,  where fireworks exploded over my head in a hazy sky because it was Bastille Day.

The July after my sophomore year in high school, I spent three weeks here with a French family hosting me as a summer exchange student. Their daughter, Alex, was my age, and wherever we went, she referred to me as “ma couresse Americaine.” She didn’t like me very much. But I was a girl from Westchester County spending her vacation on the Riviera instead of the town pool. I drank Gini lemon sodas and wore mini-dresses so short they barely covered the curve of my butt cheeks. I grew fluent in the language and developed a deep, unapologetic tan that made the whites of my eyes pop like bleach stains. Two days into my stay, I traded my one-piece Speedo swimsuit for a bright turquoise string bikini decorated with tiny pearls.

In the mornings, breakfast with fruit and croissants and hot chocolate in small bowls at a long table on the balcony draped in a red and white checked tablecloth. Then, the beach until lunch, the pool all afternoon. At night, we’d hook up with a dozen or so other teens from all over Europe and make our way to a club in town.

These memories overtake me as I sit in the dermatologist’s waiting room, and I have to catch my breath. How awesome that I had this experience! I feel suddenly so lucky and nostalgic. At home, later, I look for and miraculously find the thin brown steno notebook I used as a journal that summer. On the front is my name — spelled “Jennie” with an IE like I did back then — in tiny script handwriting that’s half the size I use now. I stretch out on the sofa with a diet Dr. Pepper and begin to read. I may have problem skin that the doctor can’t do much about, but today, this hour, I am going back to being Fabulous Fifteen in St. Tropez.

And so I read. I read about being on the plane and feeling nervous and excited and sweetly hopeful about my summer. I read about meeting the family and settling in to my room, and the strangeness of putting ketchup on rice and how couples actually danced together at Alexandra’s end-of-school party. Ah, memories. So far so good.

But then I’m reading about how one day Alex is friendly, the next she’s cold and snotty and thinks I take too many showers. I’m coaching myself about being more relaxed and outgoing, and to ask for things that I want even if I can’t find the right French vocabulary words. I buy a copy of Saul Bellow’s “Seize the Day” because it’s one of the few English language books in the nearby bookstore, and make it my new “motto” so that these European teens will like me and maybe, just maybe, I’ll kiss a boy before summer’s over. SEIZE THE DAY!, I write in big block letters across the top of one page.

Worst of it all, yet so tenderly familiar, is how I can’t stop talking about how fat I am. I’m using words like “thunder thighs” and “cellulite” and trying to diet — DIET! — during my month in France. Every second or third day, I berate myself for losing my willpower and swear to start again in the morning. I’m looking in the mirror nightly and searching for where the pretty might be. All the other girls go topless on the beach because it’s normal here, but I just can’t do it, too ashamed of what I don’t have.

By the time I’m done, when the journal has taken me through St. Tropez and up to Paris for a week with my mother and then ends abruptly, that melty feeling at the back of my neck is gone. Instead, I’m overcome with ironic regret, and my heart…my heart breaks with a type of sadness you can only feel many years after the fact of something.

Because you know, I have always looked at photos of myself from that summer and thought it was the most attractive I’ve ever been. The thinnest, the fittest, the most poised on the edge of a fabulous young adulthood I have ever been.

Now when I think of St. Tropez, the memory is spiced bittersweet and forces me to look at the insecurities I had then, and the ones I have now, and whether any of them have really changed (judging from my trip to the dermatologist, I’m thinking, not really). I still have that damn hot turquoise bikini. It’s so tiny, I could gluestick it onto a scrapbook page. I’ll never get rid of it because it’s a part of me and everything that summer was, and continues to be.

It wasn’t exactly the stuff of juicy romantic YA novels, but it was all mine for better or worse, and that alone makes me want to hug this girl:

Me, the beach, the bikini. Feeling "fat." Sigh...

A few unimportant things

Yay for Petra aka Safari Poet for winning the ARC giveaway!

And thanks to everyone who entered because it’s still such a cool and quietly amazing thing to me that there are people out there who are looking forward to reading “The Beginning of After.” I hope that novelty never wears off. I thought about really promoting this giveaway, asking HarperTeen to tweet about it and whatnot, but then decided I just wanted it to be a fun little whirl for those early adopters already in the know. Your enthusiasm and help spreading the word about TBOA means the world to me.

There will be more opportunities on the horizon, I promise. I hope to do another giveaway at the three-months-to-go mark. If you have not already requested an ARC directly from HarperCollins, now is the time to do it! I wish I had some to distribute myself. If it were up to me, I’d probably get a boxful and stand on a street corner, handing them out like half-off sushi coupons. Maybe begging people to take them. Which is why it’s not up to me.

Thanks also for checking in on the blog — what there is of it so far. I’m still finding my way on that front. There’s no real news yet about TBOA to report and I’m not a fan of posting just for the sake of throwing stuff online, but I like to think of this is an outlet for anything I want to express that doesn’t fit into the other writing pockets of my life (the Second Book Pocket, the It’s My Life Pocket). Plus I hope to be able to have a real dialogue with readers and writers about, you know, reading and writing.

So on all fronts, stay tuned. Things will start to get good now.