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Between the Covers with Amy Zhang

posted by: September 9, 2014 - 7:00am

Cover art for Falling into PlaceHigh school author, Amy Zhang’s first book Falling into Place is filled with twists and turns, taking readers inside the head of high school student Liz Emerson and some of her closest friends. Liz is an unlikable character, a mean girl who has decided that she is going to take her own life, making it look like an accident by driving off a cliff. The book goes back and forth between before and after the crash, unravelling the mystery of what led Liz to such a drastic choice. Before starting Zhang’s book, read what she had to tell Between the Covers about her first novel.
 

Between the Covers: The book shifts back and forth between before and after Liz’s crash, how did you handle writing a book that shifted in time so frequently?
Amy Zhang: Lots and lots of outlines. I drew diagrams and color-coded and made charts before I started writing, I did it again while I was writing, I did it before I revised, I did it after I revised and revised again. The last chart had something like seven colors on it for all of the different “time zones” of the book, and it reached from ceiling to floor when I hung it up.
 

BTC: Liz is such a complex character, where did you draw your inspiration for her struggles?
AZ: I guess when I thought of Liz, the characteristic that stood out was her loneliness. One of the first things I saw when I first began outlining the book was the image of her sitting in her closet on the night before her suicide attempt, and that isolation is what made me understand her. You’re always isolated as a teenager. You feel alone in your thoughts, as though you’re the only one to ever think, really think—you’re afraid to have the opinions you’re developing and you’re afraid to share them. You also feel sort of isolated in time, because you’re not thinking about consequences. You only exist in the moment. I think high school can be one of the loneliest places in the world. For me, being alone was sort of at the heart of Liz’s character, and her other struggles all stemmed off of that in some way. Liz, Kennie and Julia were all hiding some really serious issues, but it was pretty easy for me to relate because it was my reality. I think a lot of parents would be shocked if they knew what their kids were really going through every day, and what they feel the need to hide.
 

BTC: Were you able to draw on your experiences in high school to write about Liz’s high school experience?
AZ: Definitely. The scenes that stand out are Liam’s, which were especially hard for me to write. My school has this horrible tradition of voting people on to dance courts as jokes, and I remember sitting in class and hearing courts announced and just kind of wincing every time. And how do you stop something like that? I was pretty average in high school—I was never really bullied, and I hope I never bullied anyone like Liz did. I had great friends and great Amy Zhangteachers, but up until junior year or so, I never really thought about the fact that I sat around a lot. I watched a lot of crap happen and I didn’t do much to stop it, except push a pencil around, and Falling into Place is an apology for that.
 

BTC: What is your writing process like, as a younger writer who’s still in school?
AZ: Late nights, early mornings, and enough coffee to drown out desire for sleep until the book is done. I write a lot during summer, and, um, during school. At least half of my notes for Falling into Place were scribbled in the margins of my physics notebook. I guess it really just comes down to making a schedule and sticking to it. I have a jar of chocolates on my desk to bribe myself when I need to — one piece per thousand words!
 

BTC: Who are some of your influences as a writer?
AZ: Music is a pretty heavy influence on my writing—before I start a project, I put a lot of effort into tailoring a playlist. For Falling into Place, it was a lot of Bon Iver, Imagine Dragons and Keane. For my current project, I actually have two: one of classical music, and one of mostly Birdy, Regina Spektor, Iron & Wine and Vincent James McMorrow.
 

For Falling, though, I think my biggest influence was the death of a classmate during my junior year. For my grade in particular, I think that was the moment we started realizing that we weren’t invincible, and all of the emotions from that were very influential while I wrote the book.
 

BTC: This is your first book; do you have anything else planned?
AZ: I’m currently working on a project tentatively titled This Is Where the World Ends, which is about a boy who’s obsessed with apocalypses and a girl who’s trying to make the entire world fall in love with her.


 
 

Amy Zhang sounds like such a remarkable young woman and I truly enjoyed Falling into Place. I love this interview - thanks so much for this inside look!

I'm glad you enjoyed the interview!



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