Jarrad Jinks and Matt Wilce sit down with new young adult authors Cecilia Vinesse ’05 and middle school teacher Mike Currinder to read between the lines of their debut novels, discussing inspiration, the writing process and publishing.
Cecilia Vinesse ‘05 sits on the tatami mat floor of an izakaya in Shibuya, recalling quirky outings with her family and confused waiters that always ask “where are you from?” It’s a good question. Cecilia’s mother, from the UK, speaks with a Scottish accent and her French father speaks French-accented English. Although Cecilia was also born in France, her multicultural family moved to Japan, living between Tokyo and the United States, when she was only two years old. She speaks a neutral US Midland accent. Despite having lived in three countries by the age of six, Cecilia doesn’t feel a displaced sense of home. For seven of her most formative years, Tokyo was home. During that time she attended ASIJ from grade eight until her sophomore year of high school when her family moved back to their place in South Carolina. The leadup to that move felt different, impending, and Cecilia could not shake the thought that she may never return to Tokyo. “All the stuff I couldn’t deal with—packing my room and saying good-bye to my friends and leaving Tokyo—all that hovered at some indistinct point in the indistinct future. So I ignored it.”
Cecilia channeled those emotions of loss and leaving the place she calls home into her first book, a young adult novel titled Seven Days of You. Tokyo’s neon city lights form the backdrop to the books’ teen angst and a story that overflows with Japanese pop-culture references. Published in March, her debut novel follows Sophia as she says goodbye to Tokyo, her best friend, and her semi-secret crush in seven, perfect, final days before leaving for the States. Much of the story takes place in Cecilia’s old haunts of Yoyogi-Uehara and Shibuya—“a whirlpool of energy. A thunderstorm of sounds colliding and humming.” Naturally, the book draws heavily from Cecilia’s own experience of leaving Japan as a teenager, when the only thing she knew how to do was “to hold on as tightly as possible and count every single second until I reached the last one. The one I dreaded most. Sudden, violent, final.”
In the end, Cecilia would return to Tokyo once again nine years later, briefly, on her way to teach in Sapporo. “It was a very different experience from living in Japan as an expat kid, but my time in Tokyo was starting to feel really distant...It ended up being a great excuse to do lots of sneaky research for Seven Days of You.” Tokyo’s hold on Cecilia’s memories and nostalgia again proved inescapable. On September 12, 2017 she revisited her alma mater to catch up with campus life and culture. During her visit, Cecilia took the time to speak with the high school book club and middle school classes about her book and becoming a writer.
Seated opposite Cecilia in one class is middle school teacher Mike Currinder, who also recently published his debut young adult novel. Much like Cecilia, Mike draws inspiration from his own life, referencing experiences he had growing up with an older brother who suffers from cognitive disabilities. “Basically, I took our collective life experiences and compressed it into one year.” His novel, Running Full Tilt, explores the challenges of living with a sibling with disabilities, introducing readers to 16-year-old Leo, who has a complicated, but close relationship with his older brother Caleb. “I wanted to write a story about a sibling relationship with a brother who has some significant issues, and some of the challenges that presents to the younger sibling.” Among those challenges, Caleb’s violent outbursts begin to wear on Leo as he searches for a way to cope. Mike also wanted to use his experience as a competitive runner and for both Mike and Leo, running is an outlet that they use to channel the stress that is involved in turbulent times with their older brothers. “I wanted to use running, ultimately, as a tool and means for reconciliation for the siblings.” Mike’s novel and its core themes even inspired this year’s Community Fun Run cause as students ran in support of the Autism Research Institute.
Following Cecilia’s class visits, director of communications Matt Wilce spoke with her and Mike on becoming authors and their writing process.
I heard you say that you are interested in going to new places and having new experiences but you chose to rather write about leaving somewhere that you love. Why did you made that choice?
Yeah. That particular move was difficult for me because when I left the States I knew I was going back there at some point, but when I left Japan I had no idea if I would ever be back. I had no ties to it outside of just living there with my family for a little bit. So I think that move in particular I found really devastating because it just felt like I was closing this door that I didn’t know if I could ever open again. And the build up to that move are some of my most vivid memories because I knew I was going to have to close that door. I knew I was going to have to leave it all behind so all of my senses were on extra alert and I was extra aware.
So were you trying to purposely create memories, do things to capture that?
Yes. I tried to mentally capture as much of it as I possibly could and tie up all my loose ends and make sure my friends and I were still, you know, on really excellent terms and that I could just kind of leave it as perfectly preserved as possible. And then maybe in some way I’d be able to keep it.
Do you feel you still have a sense of something missing?
Yes, but maybe that’s just part and parcel of living in a bunch of different places. When I was writing the book I felt I was dealing with a lot of my saying goodbye to Tokyo and what that meant at that particular age and what it meant for the relationships that I had, even though obviously it’s completely fictional—nothing that happened in the book happened to me. But just that sense of saying goodbye to people and figuring out what that means in terms of what your relationship will be like after you leave and what place this experience will have in your life after you leave. Writing the book felt like I was sort of coming to terms with a lot of that or making sense of it. But then it still doesn’t go away. So many of us have that background, that there’s never one place that feels like home. There is always something at the back of your mind saying “oh I feel comfortable in this way and that place and I feel comfortable in another way in this place.” I think that just follows most of us around.
You worked in children’s publishing. How did you find that transition to go from one side of the desk to being the author on the other side?
I worked in marketing so I had a slightly different experience than an editor, so I was looking at a book when it was a finished product. And I was looking at it considering,”How does this fit into the book world? What place does this have? Who’s it going to appeal to? How are they going to find it? What’s going to make it interesting?”
Lessons I learned doing that helped me when I was putting together my own book because I knew what someone down the line would think: “Where does this fit? What other books does this fit in with? Who is who is going to like it? Who’s it going to appeal to?” So I had a little bit of my marketing hat on as well when I was putting it together and it helped me clarify and maybe simplify what I wanted to do with the book. Instead of aspiring to create a treatise on living abroad I was able to say, “well what’s a really simple, clean, clear way to get my message across?” That training, being on the other side of the desk, was really helpful in the writing part of it.
This book draws on your experience although it’s not directly autobiographical. I’m curious as to what your second book is about.
Well everybody talks about second novel syndrome which is when you spend all of this time quietly and privately, for years, searching for your first novel and writing and revising and trying to find a story that you want to tell and then you feel like you’ve used it all. And you used it all in one book and you’ve told the story you have been trying to tell for so long and the story that you’ve been building up toward. And then, in a much shorter frame of time, you have to do that again about something completely different. What I did with the second one was what everybody does, which is panic. And I felt like I was never going to figure it out, felt like it was never going to feel right. It was a much different process than the first one. I think what most authors say is that every time you write a book, you’re not learning how to write books, you’re learning how to write that particular book because every book has its own set of challenges and its own path to existing.
[MIKE ENTERS ROOM]
Grab a seat we’re just chatting about writing.
Writing! Everything you [Cecilia] said in class made me feel so much better—about the process and how long it takes because to me that was the part that was just like “really? It takes that long?”
I just asked about Cecilia’s second book. Your first book Running Full Tilt draws on your personal experience and your brother’s autism. Are you writing a second?
Yeah, I’m working on something right now which is also personal, because I do believe that the best stuff comes from what you know. I’ve also heard that quote over and over that your first five are going to be autobiographical before you go on, so I am drawing upon an experience that my wife and I had when we first met. We led a community service trip down to Central America where everything that could have possibly gone wrong went wrong. Basically, exploring the whole idea of community service and whether or not humans are really capable of doing these projects. I think that’s something worth touching upon, if your heart is in the right place, ultimately, you learn from experience—it could be really rich. But was it really a worthwhile endeavor to begin with? I’m kind of exploring that.
Cecilia made the transition from working in publishing to being a writer. You teach middle school. Is that why you went for a young adult novel or was that just naturally the right fit for this story?
I’ve always loved coming of age stories. I’ve always liked the young adult genre. I’ve always like that character—the teenager who has got something in their life that doesn’t make sense to them, that’s crazy and they’re trying to make sense of, coming to terms and having those critical moments where they’re they’re making sense of their world. And not being secure enough to know what’s legit, what’s not. I think I’ve always liked that. I have always gravitated to those types of stories.
What’s your classic go-to for that genre, one that you would go back and re-read?
I love Sherman Alexia [Reservation Blues]. I liked Tobias Wolf’s This Boy’s Life. I read several times and also watched What’s Eating Gilbert Grape. I like that type of family dysfunction mixed with that age in terms of “what the hell’s going on?”
I was saying in the first class that I did with you that one novel that changed how I looked at books was The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E Lockhart. He wrote We Were Liars which was a big hit in recent years. I really like that book a lot, but Frankie Landau-Banks is one of my absolute favorite books ever because, though it’s told in a really wry voice—it’s this girl who goes to this quite prestigious boarding school in the northeast and it’s very male—there’s a male secret society and they’re the ones who run the pranks and run the show and she decides she’s going to take over the male secret society and start ruling it. It’s so unbelievably funny and smart, and it was about young women. That was what changed my mind because I think I was sort of pushing away from that idea. I thought that if I was going to be serious and a real writer and a real intellectual person I couldn’t, even though I was a young woman, tell stories about young women or that stories about young women were frivolous. Once that book opened the gate for me then I just started reading all of these books by authors for young women, Stephanie Perkins, Jennifer E Smith, Sarah Milknowski, Meg Cabbot, and that was when I started to realize that these were the stories that I gravitated towards and I didn’t have to be embarrassed about that. There was nothing wrong with that even though I’d sort of been telling myself that they were in some way second class stories. I was locked in that conversation that people have about those kind of books and now I’m on the other side of the fence. You know, realizing that it’s all literature.
I’m curious as to when and how you write, because I know there are people who treat it as a nine to five—you get up, you do your certain number of hours. Do you have a word count in your head that you have to hit each day?
Listening to writers talk, it makes me feel so much better to hear they may only do five pages a day. What was interesting listening to Cecilia talk about her process, because I pounded Running Full Tilt out in like eight months. And when I did, yeah it was a piece of crap. Then I went back and worked on it for another four months. You know, when I queried I thought they were only asking for 10 pages and I think I was fortunate to find an agent who could work with me on it.
Well they know good material when they see it. It’s their job.
Yeah, she liked the arc of the story but we went back and it was just brutal in terms of the feedback I received, regarding actual writing craft. But to answer your question, I had a summer during which we had two old dogs and so my wife and I took turns travelling and I spent the bulk of summer here with nothing to do—it was like 110 degrees outside— so I had this story that was kind of eating at me and just pounded it out. Then it was a lot of just waking up at four in the morning to try to get a couple hours in before work. Now, I have aspirations for a certain number of words, but I never meet them. But it’s like you said—it’s putting in the time, saying “I’m going to sit here here for 90 minutes.”
I’m so impressed because getting up at four in the morning is something I could never do. I just can’t do it. I could never fit it in around my job either. I was really bad at that. Now I write full time but that has its own challenge in that when I started writing full time I thought “well great, that’s nine to five all writing hours that I’m going to sit there and write and I’m going to take a break for lunch.” And then of course you burn out so incredibly quickly and you cannot keep it up. I’d be like, “I found Instagram, I wrote two sentences” and then I would realize I’ve now been on Instagram for three hours because I don’t want to go back to writing because it’s too much time to fill. So, I feel like the past year has been a lot of experimentation and figuring out what schedule works best for me and what I’ve figured out is that I do a four hour writing block in the morning before I check email or anything. And I have internet turned off and I try to do it as early as possible but, let’s be real, I start around 9am. I finish around 1pm— I break it up so I have five minute breaks every hour— and whatever gets written gets written.
I don’t push myself to hit particular word counts unless I’m rough drafting, in which case I do. But if I’m just trying to make progress I don’t put a word count. And then in the afternoon I do admin email, any blog post or articles that anyone is due, any emails that need doing, any working stuff that I need to do and then I take my evenings off. I’m trying to be more structured about it because I wrote the first book around a job at a library—I was writing it around my library hours, late into the night. And it was really fun and quite romantic sitting up all night by moonlight writing books but there was just no way I could keep up as a profession.
So how would you feel if you couldn’t write? Do you feel pressure to write?
I don’t know about you but I’m kind of feeling a little bit pressured to get something done. I never thought I would see this, and so even though they said it’s going to come out on a specific date, I just thought I’m not going to believe it until I see it. And also all the energy that went into getting this done and even putting edits on it two or three months ago, it took away from me having opportunity to really think about what I want to do next.
It’s like the hill you never think you’ll crest and then you do and you’re like “oh what do I do now? What does this look like? This is really weird.”
Sitting down this summer, I met with my editor and she was said, “well, when am I going to see the next thing?” And so now I feel like I have to push it out. And then listening to people talk, you know in terms of some of the writers who are just pumping stuff out every eight weeks, you’re thinking, what’s that about?
Yeah. The last one I did, I wrote it in a year and a half, and that was also me taking some time added on to what they’d given me. I like having my rough drafts private and not thinking that that anybody has to see them in process—if it’s totally terrible nobody has to look at it and that’s fine. But then having it on a contract and having somebody being like “I’m going to see this really terrible draft and there’s nothing you can do about it you have to give it to me on this day and I’m going to give you comments on it” and I’m sitting there thinking “no, no, no, no, no, it’s really terrible, I know it’s terrible, I already know.” So that was a completely different experience writing with that eye on you rather than writing alone. But I think it’s that thing I was saying before where you learn to write that book—you don’t learn to write books in general. You learn to write, “Ok this is the book I have to write now and I’m going to learn how to write this book.” It’s not anything like learning how to write Seven Days of You.
So when you get that feedback, do you take it well, does it knock you back a little? How do you move forward with feedback from an editor, agent or beta reader?
I had a friend who’s been through the process a couple times, he never did get anything published, but his only advice to me was if you want to get something published, basically he said “do whatever they tell you to do.” But I felt I had some really kind people that were working with me that said, “we really want it to go in this direction.” And I got lots rejections from publishing houses that wanted to see a revision of it, but based upon the first round of feedback I got from them it was pretty harsh, but it was all really, really good. I mean, they were absolutely right. Everything they said made it a better book and I felt like the reason I got this novel published was because, in the end, my agent was able to say to this particular publishing house, who was trying to launch a new line of young adult books “Mike listens to feedback and he meets his deadlines.” But like I said, I really respect people that gave me feedback along the way.
I think as long as you trust the person’s perspective and you don’t think they’re coming out of nowhere, and if they connect with your book in some way, more likely than not you are going to trust their feedback because they connect with something that you’re doing and they see what you’re doing and they want to supplement that—they don’t want to take away from it. So I think nine times out of ten, hopefully, you feel like the person giving you feedback really knows what they’re talking about and they really can see things from a slightly different perspective and they can help you pull it apart and put it back together in a way that you would like better than what you currently have.
I also have to say too, you have to understand that this is what they do for a living and they’re really good at giving feedback in a constructive way. I never felt like I got feedback that was just like, this is worthless. And that was the thing that blew me away, going through the process for the first time, was working with my agent. I worked with her for a year and I heard that now a lot of agents will work closely with you for your first novel and get it to a pretty polished state before they start selling it to an editor. And what I thought was so surprising was how much time and energy she invested into it without receiving a nickel—she was just as invested in it as I was.
And also, I think too, one of the things I want to echo is when you said...what my agent said up front, “this is how long it’s going to take.” At first I thought “I’m done with this thing, here.” She basically set me straight—this is going to be for three or four year process. It could be five. “But this is the way I plan to do it.”
Do you feel distanced from it now that it’s out?
I’m kind of over it, in a certain sense. I haven’t opened it that much, it’s just weird, you know, looking at it. Yeah, I feel distance from it.
So when you see the final product, like today when you open it to do a reading, do you still think “I wish I could change that” or have you done that and moved on to the next project?
I look at what I wrote and, in some ways, I think “Well, why didn’t I combine these two sentences” or “why didn’t I...” but I know my editor, too, had a certain age group in mind and a certain demographic of readers. And so she kind of always would say “you know, his character wouldn’t talk this way” but I wanted it to be more sophisticated than that.
I correct some sentences when I’m reading because there’s a couple of sentences that I just did so many variations of and I never quite decided what was my favorite but I had to submit my final pages and that was it. So sometimes when I’m reading it I’ll go back and use a different version or I’ll have different experiences and I’ll think I wish I used that in the book or I wish I’d done more with that character—those thoughts will come up but then you just have to think it’s a time capsule of that experience of writing this book and I can’t correct for that. You could keep perfecting it on and on, but it may no longer have the essence that it has or be the thing that it is.
It’s evident that Mike and Cecilia’s hard work and perseverance paid off as both their debut novels were published to positive reviews. School Library Journal called Cecilia’s writing “highly readable” and compared her to young adult authors such as Stephanie Perkins. Publisher’s Weekly featured Seven Days of You as one of their children’s publisher’s favorite reads of 2016, saying “I’m still marveling at how Vinesse made me feel nostalgic for something I’ve never experienced.” They also called Running Full Tilt “both tender and unabashedly honest,” praising Mike’s execution in expertly navigating the complicated relationship between brothers Caleb and Leo. Horn Book Magazine agreed that the novel’s strength was the depiction of its relationships.
Both authors have also received critical acclaim from their peers. Jack Gantos, author of Dead End in Norvelt, creator of Rotten Ralph and Joey Pigza, who visited ASIJ in 2010 and 2013, described Running Full Tilt as “a fast-paced convincing drama of a young runner whose legs circle him back to the many conflicts he is trying to escape—but he can’t outrun himself. A quick read with a kick at the finish.” Jennifer E. Smith, author of The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight said Seven Days of You is a “dazzling and genuinely romantic story” while Katie Cotungno, New York Times bestselling author of 99 Days, offers high praise in calling the novel “a deliciously fizzy, neon-bright romance: a swoony tangle of past and future, love and friendship, and what exactly it means to be home.” With plaudits like these, it’s clear that both writers’ future work will be eagerly anticipated.