By Hareem Shafi
What’s a typical working day like for you? When do you write? Do you set a daily writing goal?
Now that I have a son, Griffin (17 months old), I have two days each week where I can devote the bulk of the day to writing. Otherwise I chip away at my writing projects for a few hours every night, after everyone else has gone to bed. As for daily writing goals, if I’m writing the rough draft of a novel, I try to write around 10 pages a day, but it varies wildly.
How do you deal with criticism, especially from those who don’t stick to constructive criticism?
I have a thick skin when it comes to criticism (which is surprising, because my skin is practically translucent with regards to anything else). I just can’t take a harsh review seriously, because it seems crazy to me that someone could feel that malicious about a stranger’s work and go to the length of writing a nasty reader review or something. As for constructive criticism, I embrace it fully. What I’m looking for is a reaction, positive or negative —mild indifference is what really crushes me.
What is that hardest part of writing, for you?
The hardest phase for me is when I’m in between projects (i.e.: brainstorming). I prefer being in the thick of a project.
Your characters and your writing both display a keen sense of humor. Do you have any tips for those attempting to add humor to their story? Do you feel that certain kinds of humor suit you better than others? Is there any kind of humor you don’t like to see used in a novel?
Trying to add humor never works for me. I can insert more description or flesh out characters after the fact (that is, after I’ve written a raw draft), but trying to invest a voice with humor that previously didn’t have it feels impossible; it has to be there from the start. I tend to be sarcastic, verging on obnoxious when I feel most comfortable—rarely do I feel this way when talking to someone, but sitting in front of a computer I feel a freedom to be a wiseacre. The stuff that makes me laugh is humor that is emotionally honest, coming from a source of pain, usually. Humor doesn’t work for me when it feels like the author’s trying too hard/too nakedly to be funny.
There are many references to pop-culture from the ’80s and ’90s in Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One Before, and Albert (the protagonist’s)story is often reminiscent of an ’80s teen film. How has pop culture influenced your work?
With STOP ME, I specifically pictured the story in my head taking place in the early 90s. With young adult fiction I draw from my own experiences quite a bit, and my memories are tethered to new wave songs from the 80’s and a miniature version of Ralph Macchio crane-kicking me in the back of the head.
With that in mind, was Albert, orwere any of your other characters, created in response to stereotypical Asian male characters, like Long Duk Dong from Sixteen Candles?
Yes and no. Growing up there weren’t any portrayals of Asian American teens that remotely resembled me. Just those wacky, stereotypical foreign exchange students (I’m also thinking of Revenge of the Nerds). And so there is a part of me that wants to create characters that add to the decidedly narrow cumulative portrait of Asian American teens. I don’t actively try to bust stereotypes, though—simply presenting an authentic portrayal of an Asian American male means offering a non-stereotypical type, sadly…
Masculinity —its perception and what it means to be a “good” manor the “right” kind of man —are themesin both your young-adult novels and your short story, “A Fistful of Feathers.” Where does your inspiration for these themes come from, particularly for characters such as the effeminate Sam?
Well, the topic of masculinity is something all boys constantly think/stress about. It all boils down to male characters trying to find their place in the world, and that means negotiating/coming to terms with masculinity. With Sam, I was trying to capture what it’s like to feel hopelessly unmanly and how that insecurity drives boys to do things they wouldn’t think of doing on their own volition—that the standards as they see them dictate how they act.
Do you feel that enough authors are delving into the theme of masculinity in stories of young-adult males coming of age? Do youfeel that, currently, there is a greater emphasis on feminism and female protagonists grappling with gender issues, andthat this derailed the conversation on male gender issues?
There are far less YA stories about boys than there are about girls and their issues, in no small part linked to the fact that girls, frankly, read more than boys. “A Fistful of Feathers” is part of an anthology directed at getting more boys to read, which is a cause I support wholeheartedly, yet at the same time it feels a little strange given how unfairly girls have it otherwise. It’s an important objective, to be sure, but it feels at the same time a bit like lobbying for a Men’s Studies major at a college.
Nick, from Girls for Breakfast, says about girls, “Drumstick legs, cherry-colored lips, dumpling cheeks . . . everything about them he wants to eat up.” Throughout the book Nick often compares girls to foods he would like to eat. Were you ever concerned about alienating female readers?
It was a concern to a degree, but I’ve never considered censoring myself to try to appease any particular demographic of reader. Try to please everyone and you’ll please no one, goes the saying, and it’s true. More important to me is presenting an authentic teen male voice, warts and all. Yes, it may turn off some readers, but I’m trying to reach those savvier readers, I suppose—who trust the character when they see all sides of that person. Furthermore, Nick in GIRLS FOR BREAKFAST isn’t misogynistic for thinking these things—he’s just a typical confused young boy grappling with masculinity, etc. He’s grasping at straws trying to embrace what he thinks he should be embracing, really. That he’s a teenager thinking these things is different from a 40-year-old male character thinking these things.
What is the best thing about being an author?
You can wear sweatpants to work. I go weeks without ever putting on a belt.