By the time Lauren Myracle’s first novel, Kissing Kate, was published in 2003, she and editor Susan van Metre had been corresponding about her writing for years. Back then, van Metre was an editor at Dutton; now she is executive editorial director at Walker Books US, where she has just signed Myracle to a three-book deal that will start with Swag Boy (fall 2019), a fictional memoir and the first book Myracle has written entirely from the perspective of a teenage boy. It will be their 16th collaboration in a body of work that includes the Internet Girl series with Abrams—three books written entirely in text speak that have sold more than two million copies.
How well do the author and the editor know each other after two decades working together? Bookshelf invited them to interview each other—via text—and, surprisingly, they each learned something new!
Myracle: Hi, sweet Susan! Here we go. What stands out as a highlight from our first interactions, way back when? (How long ago did we first correspond?)
Van Metre: Hi, beloved Lauren. I think we first corresponded in 1997? I know that I saw a manuscript of yours before Kissing Kate. About a cult. I remember being so impressed with your dialogue. It was the first YA writing I had read that really sounded like teenagers, which I felt pretty expert about, being not very far from teenagehood myself then.
Myracle: Yeah, that cult novel. The main character was named Shady. I remember thinking that was such a cool name. And… her brother was in a cult? And she wanted him back? But as always, I wrote the book from waaaaaay far back, as in, I removed my main character from all the real action. That’s one of the things you taught me: “Lauren. There is no such thing as a ‘happy novel.’ You have to be mean to your characters.”
Van Metre: Well, you definitely learned that lesson! You are a master of finding the jeopardy in the every day. What kept you so distant then? Fear?
Myracle: Yeah, definitely. Like, fear that… it’ll be too painful. The writing. Which doesn’t make sense, really? Because with words… well, words aren’t dangerous… usually. I still have to remind myself that I can’t just let my characters sit around chatting, though.
Van Metre: I think the ttyl books really taught you that, ironically. By giving into your temptation to write all dialogue you learned you had to work twice as hard to create a sense of action.
Myracle: The ttyl books that you came up with? I remember that conversation pretty much word for word. I was still a total newbie. You sent an email saying, “This new trend of IMing would be interesting to explore. It would require a writer who knows girls and who is good at dialogue. What do you think?”
Myracle: And of course I said without hesitation, “I’m in!!!”
Van Metre: That was the luckiest three-pointer I ever sank! As colleagues will tell you, I am always lobbing ideas inspired by my newspaper reading but most go nowhere.
Myracle: That one came from a newspaper article?
Van Metre: Yes, it was a cover story in the New York Times Magazine. I was fascinated by the idea of online bullying—a new problem for kids back then. But you took the idea and made it something so much richer. You explored both the possibilities for real connection/intimacy online and abuse. You saw that girls would open up in that space in a way they didn’t IRL.
Myracle: I still think that for many of us (definitely myself), it’s easier to be vulnerable when we’re not in face-to-face situations.
Van Metre: And you got in big trouble for allowing them to be so open.
Myracle: By “open,” do you mean their legs? Heh. Kidding. Ish.
Van Metre: I do mean that. From the first pages the girls talk about orgasm!
Myracle: Yep, those books gave me my first taste of, “Oh crap, people actually read these things.” Sometimes. Or even if they don’t read them, they pass judgment on them anyway.
Van Metre: I remember a mother phoning the office to yell at me about her preteen reading the books, and thinking you must be getting 10 times as many calls and e-mails.
Myracle: No calls, thank goodness, but yes, plenty of emails. But more emails from the girls themselves, and they said things like, “I HAD NO IDEA WHAT A __ WAS”—oh, so many ways to fill in that blank! Queef! Period fart! Dingleberry! Inverted nipple!—“UNTIL I READ ttyl. Thank you!”
Van Metre: I remember having to look up “dingleberry.” You have taught me so much!
Myracle: The books really were about far more than queefs, etc. The part that mattered, I think, was showing these three girls—Angela, Maddie and Zoe—going through high school together, falling out of sync and coming back together, holding themselves accountable. Loving each other.
Van Metre: You touched on what I love about the books the most. The high regard they have for female friendship.
Myracle: Yeah. I was never one of those girls who scorned female friendships. I feel as if that’s one of the many horrible by-products of our culture, that girls sometimes internalize the idea of “I’m only friends with guys. Girls are too much drama.” Nothing wrong with having guy friendships! But we females, we need each other.
Van Metre: Omigosh, I feel the same. For me, work and personal life really bleed together. I care so much about what I do and by extension really care about the people I do it with. You are not one to keep a professional distance and I love that we can work from a place of real friendship.
Myracle: I… don’t think I know what “professional distance” is. Hmm. I should have boundaries. I’m sure I do in some situations. But usually, when I’m out and about, Sarah Mlynowski is kicking me under the table to get me to hush up, or Emily Jenkins is catching my gaze and silently shaking her head. 🙂
Van Metre: Have your kids read the ttyl books?
Myracle: No, my kids don’t read my books. In fact, other than Al [Myracle’s son], those rats don’t read, period. BREAKS MY HEART.
Van Metre: I love Al. I think the book we’re working on together now, Swag Boy, is inspired by your sons, right? And it maybe will surprise folks used to your writing so frankly about being a girl. It’s such a funny and honest and warm book about being a teenage boy.
Myracle: Aaaaah, must finish! Deadline looming! Swag Boy is about my sons, yes. I mean, let’s throw in the obligatory and true disclaimer that all the characters are fictional, blah blah blah, but secretly, oh wow. Secretly my younger son’s dream is coming true, in nightmare form.
Van Metre: ????
Myracle: When Jamie was little, he knew that sometimes things he did showed up in books I wrote, like how he made himself an outfit out of aluminum foil, and then a little dude named Ty (in the Winnie Years books, which you started!) went and made himself an outfit out of aluminum foil. So Jamie, who loves attention, would start saying things to me like, “Mommy, I think I just cracked a tooth!? You should put that in a book!” And now I have a whole file of texts and messages from Jamie that I draw on as I’m writing about Paul, the main character in Swag Boy. And I’m always stealing Jamie’s expressions. Lit, savage, big fact. Things like that. And yes, he’ll say something, and I’ll run to my computer and add it to the file. Or I’ll ask him about porn, say. As in, “So, JoJo, how often do teenage boys look at porn, would you say?”
Van Metre: Does he answer?
Myracle: Sometimes. Sometimes he gets pissed. Often he tries to tell me what I’m allowed to say/think/feel when it comes to him, and I have to remind him that I get to be my own person, actually.
Van Metre: While at the same time you’re creating a version of him on the page that he has no say over…
Myracle: Er… hmm. Whose idea what it to bring my sons into this convo?
Van Metre: Oops?
Myracle: Nah, it’s all good. The whole book is really about a son and a mom calling each other out on life in general, and trying to figure out how to move through life, and trying to figure out how to accept themselves as “good enough,” even after all the mistakes they make. And no way in hell would I feel free enough inside of myself to write this book, which I hope is honest and loving and very very raw, if I weren’t writing it for you. I know you’ll be tough on me. You’ll make me make the book better. But also, you’ll keep on loving me despite all the tricky places I go with this one.
Van Metre: I’ve got your back! I wanted to ask you about the highs and lows of our working together. A high for me was writing the ttyl activity book together, curled up on your couch in front of your fireplace, between episodes of that show about Mormons. What was it called?
Myracle: “That show about Mormons”!? Really? Have we strayed so far?
Van Metre: I totally wanted to live on a compound with you and be sister wives.
Myracle: Big Love!
Van Metre: Yes!
Myracle: Highs: When you called me (on the phone! terrifying!) and said in your sweet tiny voice, “I’d like to buy your book.” That was huge. That was transformative. Another high was surviving some of those scary confrontations over Milla’s two moms, when I wasn’t willing to turn them into “her mom and her aunt” in the Flower Power books per Scholastic’s request.
Van Metre: That was a fraught time because the right thing to do and the business thing to do weren’t really aligned, were they? I think we both tend to push against anything that is silencing. And you were so gutsy to speak openly about why Scholastic’s suggesting we change the books was so problematic.
Myracle: Yes, it pissed me off that Scholastic Book Fairs didn’t want the books as they were. Surely they would now.
Van Metre: Yeah, I think times are so different now for representation. And these conversations are out in the open now—online!—and making real change.
Myracle: Okay, let me ask you a question. As an editor, how the hell do you figure out how to walk the line between guiding an author to make her book as good as it possibly can be and guiding the author to make the book into the book you think it should be?
Van Metre: You mean her book vs. my book?
Myracle: Yes! Exactly! You editors really do have so much power. Do you make a conscious effort to wield that power… appropriately?
Van Metre: Donna Brooks, one of my first mentors, told me to keep the pronoun “I” out of my editorial letters and comments as much as possible, and that has really helped me take myself and my personal preferences out of it.
Myracle: Is there an “editor school,” the way authors can get an MFA?
Van Metre: No, it’s really an apprenticeship where you learn through on-the-job mistakes, which is a painful way to learn, trust me.
Myracle: Aye-yai-yai. I can imagine!
Van Metre: I remember overzealously correcting the grammar in the dialogue of one of the first picture books I worked on and the author writing to me in disgust: “This is not the way people speak.” So embarrassing.
Myracle: Hahahahahaha. My dad still wants my teens to speak with proper grammar.
Van Metre: That is adorable.
v: Hee hee. KK, my sister wife, I must go. I have to get something turned in to another of those pesky editors. Always wanting stuff! Sheesh!
Van Metre: You didn’t share your lowest low. But we don’t want to end on that.
Myracle: Oh. Well. You know my lowest low. Let the others Google it. (Hint: type in Shine.) MWAH! (followed by a zillion emoji hearts!)