Julie Halpern has a knack of taking you back to high school by pulling out our best and worst memories of that time through her writing. Her spot on comedic tone and skilful weaving of a story, perfectly channels the essence of the high school experience. She has been recognized on YALSA’s Best Fiction for Young Adults lists twice: in 2010 for Into the Wild Nerd Yonder and 2013 for Have a Nice Day.
The F-It List is Halpern’s fifth novel for teens, and it has laugh out loud humor while at the same time delivering an emotional punch to the gut. The F-It List hit bookshelves this past Tuesday, November 12, and centers on the friendship of Alex and Becca. When Alex’s father passed away, her best friend Becca made a poor choice and slept with Alex’s then boyfriend. Needing a break from the drama, Alex spends a summer keeping away from Becca. When she is ready to forgive at the start of the next school year, Alex discovers that Becca has cancer. Together they rebuild their friendship while trying to complete Becca’s bucket list, or as they call it the F-It list. Through this process Alex discovers a lot about grieving, love, friendship, and even herself. Visit Julie Halpern’s website, juliehalpern.com, to learn more about her work.
This is your fifth novel for teen readers. Has your writing style or writing process changed since your first novel was published? What has stayed the same?
I don’t know how much my style has changed, except that (hopefully) it has improved! Practice makes perfect, and all. I have had a similar writing process for all five books, where I tend to write the first few chapters and then let them sit for a bit before I continue writing the book. I don’t outline, but I do make a list of important events (sometimes the list looks neat, sometimes it’s randomly-placed post-its) that I need to include. I tend to write my books on a schedule, meaning that the events in the book take place over a certain amount of time and I need to figure out how to make the schedule work in order to keep the book organized. Otherwise, I write my books through the eyes of the main character, and the characters dictate the words. Also, in terms of process, I hand-write all of my books into notebooks with a pen, and when I finish the first draft I have to type it all in (which becomes my second draft). By now I know that I usually require two or three revisions after the second draft before I’m comfortable sending it to my editor. No one sees it before then.
Your main characters are high schoolers and I have noticed that a lot of what you write about is something that is more relevant to older teens’ lives. Is this something that happens naturally in your writing process or is it something that you set out to do intentionally?
Actually, I feel like most of my characters have been on the more immature, inexperienced side compared to today’s teens. I remember reading teen reviews of Get Well Soon (2008 Quick Picks for Reluctant Young Adult Readers), and some of the complaints were that Anna was naive. I think the age ends up being dictated by whether or not I need the characters to drive. In The F-It List, I knew college was looming, and I also wanted driving and sex. I made the characters older, so those things weren’t new experiences for them.
How would you describe your teenage self? Was there anything that you experienced as a teen that you think made you the writer you are today?–or that made you the person that you are today?
I was funny and depressed and music obsessed. Get Well Soon is very much based on my own experiences, so that’s pretty much how I was as a teenager (without the revelatory parts. I think I needed age to reflect on what was really going on in my life). I don’t think I’m all that different than from when I was a teen, except that I am much more confident and certain about what it is I want to do with my (half over) life.
What is it that you like about writing for teen readers? Is there anything you dislike about it? Have you ever thought about writing for younger readers (Halpern has published a children’s picture book, Toby and the Snowflakes) or adults?
I like the straightforward nature of teenagers and books for this audience. I don’t feel like I have to froof around with format and pretty sentences to make it â€œliteratureâ€. It feels more direct and immediate than that. If I wrote adult books, they would feel very similar to my teen books except they would probably be extra vulgar. I have tried writing more books for younger readers. It’s not easy, although I would love to write more pictures books so my husband (Matthew Cordell) could illustrate them. And so I could get more school visits. I love interacting with my readers!
One major theme in The F-It List is the main character Alex is trying to support best friend Becca through her cancer treatment, and Alex struggles with feeling guilty about going on with life while Becca is so sick. What made you take on the subject of a best friend dealing with cancer? What was your research process when tackling this theme?
I have a good friend who had cancer, so I was coming from that point of view. I was going through a lot of my own health problems before and during the writing of the novel, so I channeled that for the questioning of why and who gets sick. I also spoke with a teenager, a friend of an old student of mine, who was going through cancer treatment. She and I met several times and built a friendship while I wrote the book. She is doing great, by the way, and so is my good friend.
You often tackle some pretty heavy themes in your writing. Does writing ever take its toll on you? What do you do if you need a fun break?
I use humor in all of my books which is how I survive writing anything heavy. In my new book, I added a bunch of sex scenes because they were so fun to write compared to the scenes about cancer! Plus, I chew a lot of fun-flavored gum while I write.
Main character, Alex, is a huge fan of horror movies and she uses them to escape from the horrors of her reality. Did you have to do research for this part of Alex’s life or are you a fellow horror movie buff? If so, what are some of your favorites and why?
I did no research whatsoever, since I’ve been a huge horror fan since I was a teen. The only new research I did was attend ScareFest in Lexington, Kentucky with my friend, Tracy (the Tracy featured in my books Get Well Soon and Have a Nice Day). I used some of the experiences there when Alex and Becca go to Dead of Winter Con. I actually list all of my favorite movies in the book! I’d have to go back and re-read it to give you the full list :)
Do you have an F-It list? If not, what would be something you would put on it?
Nah. I’m a believer of wanting to do something and doing it. Of course, I’d love to travel more, and I would like to try the flying trapeze. Both of those would require time and money. Lots of money. I suppose that’s on my F-It list: acquire lots of money. So I can travel. And fly on the trapeze.
To feed off that last question, what are some things you’ve done in your life that are F-It list worthy, or that someone may not have yet crossed off on their bucket list?
I lived in Australia after college. I worked on my favorite TV show, The Adventures of Pete and Pete, and I’ve written five novels. I was a really good school librarian. Do people have that on their bucket lists?
There are a lot of great themes running through The F-It List, and in the end I think the reader really gets a sense of hope and that you should never hold yourself back in anything that you do in life. Was there a message that you wanted your reader to leave with when they turned that last page?
I don’t know if I want to talk about the last page, as that gives a hint about the future for the characters. But I do want people to take away that there are choices in life to do interesting things or to sit around and think about doing interesting things. I have to remind myself of this more often the older I get.
Before you became a writer full time, you were a middle school librarian. I had the pleasure of being your assistant for a couple of years and it was while working with you that I discovered the awesome-ness of working with teens in a library setting and decided to become a teen librarian myself. Knowing what I know about working with teens, I was wondering if you thought that having that insight of how teens read and why has helped your writing? Also, do you think you’ll ever return to working as a librarian?
You were a great assistant! That’s a good question, but I don’t really know the answer. I’m not working with teens anymore, so it will be interesting to see if I still have that insight. Or maybe I have more freedom, since I don’t have that daily interaction. I never would have written a sex scene if I were currently working in a middle school library. Will I ever go back? I’d like to. We’ll see where life takes me! For all I know, I could join the circus.
Thanks, Julie, for taking the time to participate in this interview. I strongly encourage readers to pick up The F-it List!
–Colleen Seisser, currently reading Relic by Renee Collins