“You Look Different in Real Life” is out. In the world. That’s cool. (I’m masking how utterly verklempt and grateful I am.)
On Release Day you’re supposed to, you know, talk up your book in a whole lot of different places in a professionally sanctioned me-a-thon. I’ve done some of that. It feels unterrible. I’ll do just a bit more with this list of “story behind the story” notions I would like to share with you.
1) There’s much of me in Justine, and vice versa. While I gave Laurel from “The Beginning of After” my good-girl-itis and the instinct to keep emotions pressure-cooking inside, Justine got my snark, my body image struggles, and my love of sneakers. I adore her. I adore that she’s not perfect, and that readers may not fall for her right away. Because I believe a character has got to earn that, dammit.
2) I watched a lot of documentaries for research, especially ones about teens. Here are five which had particular impact and still stay with me:
–“7 Up,” “14 Up,” and “21 Up.” Michael Apted’s brilliant series, now clocking in at “56 Up,” obviously inspired this book’s premise. These first three movies are plain stinkin’ fascinating, and they include the cutest accents and haircuts.
–“The Education of Shelby Knox.” Shot over the span of several years, Texas teenager Shelby Knox evolves from a conservative Southern Baptist to discovering her voice and calling as a liberal women’s activist. I was riveted.
–“Billy the Kid.” Filmed “character” portraits don’t get much better than this. I watched this long after Rory was alive and breathing on the page, but you might notice a resemblance of quirk.
3) The character of filmmaker Lance is named for Lance Loud, from the 1971 PBS documentary series “An American Family.” You can’t see this series anywhere but in a few bootleg YouTube videos (although you can enjoy “Cinema Verite,” the HBO dramatic film version), but I did a lot of research on it as I was developing the story. If you’re unfamiliar, “An American Family” is widely considered a precursor to reality TV in America, documenting several months in the lives of an upperclass Santa Barbara family called the Louds. It was pretty epic. Bill and Pat Loud broke up on camera. Their oldest son Lance was one of the first openly gay people to appear on U.S. national television (and went on to be a magazine columnist and musician). Thinking about the Loud kids, who were mostly teens when the series was shot, and how this experience might have shaped their lives, drove a great deal of my early brainstorming. I also learned some intriguing stuff about the filmmaker-subject relationship and you see some of that with Lance, Leslie, and the gang in the book.
4) I love that because of the book’s premise — that these teens were chosen by documentary filmmakers when they were six years old — I could hand-pick certain character “stereotypes,” because that’s what the filmmakers would have done in order to maximize their range of subjects. The fun part was shaking those stereotypes up, then breaking them open to see what was really inside.
5) When I was writing this, I didn’t expect to later be writing a companion short story from Keira’s point-of-view. But Holy Character Development, am I glad to have been given this opportunity. Read “Playing Keira” before you read YLDIRL and you’ll have inside information that Justine does not; read it after, and I think it’ll close a nice circle. Either way, it’s only 99 cents and you’ll never look at a pineapple the same way again.
6) And finally. Documentary film premise or not, for me this book is about two things: self-identity and friendship. Probably because they’re two things I thought I’d have all figured out by now, but…well, sh*t. So what can I take, for myself, from the experience of writing this book? I’ve learned that the insecurities and drama of friendship don’t go away when you “grow up.” They get even more complex, actually, and that sucks. But I think, with experience, you just get better at recognizing which relationships are worth fighting for. And also, every person you get close to, no matter how long she or he stays in your life, has something to give. Sometimes we have to dig a little for that, but it’s always worth the dirty fingernails.
When it comes to identity, I look at this book and my journey with it, and am reminded that (fortunately) the way we see ourselves is not the whole picture of who we are. We’re slightly different to each person we share the world with, whether it’s intimately or casually or randomly online. Put all those versions together, and it’s still not anything absolute. It’s just information. I guess the trick is to stay curious about who we are, to never stop trying to figure it all out. In the end, that’s what keeps us spiritually alive.
Justine, Felix, Rory, Nate, and Keira belong to you now. Go forth and read! But first, enjoy the brand new “You Look Different in Real Life” trailer. It makes me smile and tap my toes, and I hope it does the same for you.