Author Conversation: Rebecca Johns interviews Michelle Falkoff about making the switch from adult fiction to YA fiction

Michelle Falkoff was born and raised outside of Boston. She pretty much spent her whole childhood reading and then went off to study literature at the University of Pennsylvania. After that, she attended Columbia Law School in New York and went on to be an intellectual property litigator in Silicon Valley. She quit practicing law to study fiction writing at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and ever since, she’s been teaching legal writing and fiction writing and writing novels. She currently serves as Director of the Communication and Legal Reasoning program at Northwestern University’s Pritzker School of Law and teaches fiction on the side at the University of Chicago and elsewhere. She’s the author of Questions I Want to Ask You (2018), Pushing Perfect (2016), and Playlist for the Dead (2015).

Chicago-area native Rebecca Johns first intended to be a journalist because she thought that would allow her to support her fiction-writing habit. Later, she left the magazine business to attend the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she wrote her first novel, Icebergs, a finalist for the 2007 PEN/Hemingway Award. Her second novel, The Countess, was a Target Discovery pick and published in ten languages. Her work has appeared in Ploughshares, StoryQuarterly, Mississippi Review, Harvard Review, Printer’s Row Journal, the Chicago Tribune, Mademoiselle, Ladies’ Home Journal, Self, and Seventeen. She is the director of the MA in Writing and Publishing program at DePaul University in Chicago.

Tell me a little about where the idea for QUESTIONS I WANT TO ASK YOU came from.

I so wish I had a better answer for this, but here goes: the line “The letter arrived on my eighteenth birthday” kind of popped into my head one day, and that doesn’t usually happen to me, so I tried to figure out what it meant. Somehow, I knew that the point of view was male, and that the letter came from his mother, and from there I figured out that he hadn’t realized he had a mother, or at least not one who had any interest in him. The idea went through a lot of iterations before I figured out who she was, why she was gone, and why she was writing to him, but it was fun to explore the story that way, and it’s pretty different from my usual process, so I was glad to know I could try something new and still get a book out of it.

Pack is so different from your other protagonists, Sam and Kara. For one thing, he’s content–maybe a bit too content–when trouble comes looking for him. Why were you drawn to him as a protagonist?

It was his differences that made him fascinating. My first two books are basically about different versions of me as a kid, albeit with some obvious differences. I also wrote them with kids like me in mind—readers who were a little more comfortable living inside their own heads than in the world. But I was weird growing up, and most kids weren’t much like me at all. I wanted to write a book for and about them, to try and understand them a little better than I had when I was younger, and to show those kids that books could be for and about them as well. And kids like me could read a book like this and maybe have a little more empathy for the people around them.

This is your third novel, after Playlist for the Dead and Pushing Perfect. All of your books are mysteries at the core, and all of them feature young protagonists who have placed their trust in adults who may not deserve it. What makes this one different from the others? What about it interested you?

To me, the biggest difference is that the mystery itself matters a lot less. I tend to think of my books, and mysteries generally, as having two threads—there’s the plot-based mystery arc, which is about the events of the book, but then there’s the emotional arc, which is the impact solving the mystery has on the protagonist. It’s not so much about the outcome as it is the journey, but in my other books, those two arcs were very much aligned. In this one, the mystery of why Pack’s mom left him gets resolved eventually, but Pack’s emotional arc is more about him learning to be curious, to be flexible, to accept changing his sense of family—there are so many things he has to figure out, and to me those things were so much more interesting than unraveling the mystery itself that the balance of the book tipped in favor of the emotional arc. Whether I pulled it off is an open question, but the process was fascinating to me.

I know you love puzzles, especially math puzzles. How does that affect the way you work?

You should see how hard I tried to make chapter headings that formed an actual logic problem for Pushing Perfect! It’s probably for the best I never made it happen. I do love puzzles, and I do think my love of those kinds of projects helps with mystery writing, though I wish I were a little more methodical about it. I don’t always know all the steps of the mysteries when I’m writing, and while some people can write out beat sheets and have the pieces in place beforehand, I like to figure things out while I’m writing, and that means I have to write so very many drafts before I can get everything to fit. It’s not efficient, and I like to be efficient, but maybe that’s something I’ll get better at with time.

You’ve also written and published fiction for adults. How did you make the turn toward YA? What do you like about it?

I’ve always loved YA books, and I also frequently go back and reread the books I loved as a kid, so I’d had it in my head that I’d write for teenagers someday, but I was encouraged to do it after I basically wrote a YA book without realizing it—a project I’m still playing around with started with four narratives, three of which were teens, and it took me a while to figure out the book wouldn’t work until I got rid of the grownup. I love writing YA for lots of reasons, but the two most important ones are that the readers are beyond amazing, and the category of YA isn’t yet carved up into as formal genres as fiction is. That means I can write books that could be described as literary mysteries without having to answer the question of whether they’re literary or mystery.

Who is doing work that excites you right now?

In the YA world, I love E Lockhart’s work, especially her last few books, including We Were Liars. I’m just finishing up Kristin Cashore’s Jane, Unlimited, which is blowing me away with its fluidity in moving between mystery, science fiction, and maybe even choose-your-own-adventure, to a point. Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give is tremendous and represents, to me, the best of what YA can do that adult fiction isn’t yet pulling off, and I can’t wait for her new book, On the Come Up.

What direction do you think your writing might go in next?

It’s so hard to say! The ideas I have are still mysteries, but they’re getting more complicated, with a louder cacophony of voices, so I’ll likely be playing around with point of view and structure (I do love thinking about structure).


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