Thursday, December 04, 2008

Author Interview: C. K. Kelly Martin on I Know It's Over

C. K. Kelly Martin on C. K. Kelly Martin: "C. K. Kelly Martin graduated from York University in Toronto with a film studies degree. She moved to Ireland in 1992 and began writing there in 1999.

"Her first book, I Know It's Over, was published this September with Random House. It has been nominated for the ALA Best Books for Young Adults 2009 list and the Quick Picks for Reluctant Young Adult Readers list.

"She currently lives in the greater Toronto Area with her husband."

How would you describe yourself as a teen? Who were your favorite authors? What were your favorite books?

As a teenager I was introverted, independent-minded and big into music. Any money I had went on tapes (it was the 80's!). My best friend and I would write notes forging our parents' signatures and excusing each other from class when our favorite bands/musical artists were in Toronto so that we could head downtown and meet them when they did TV appearances before their gigs.

This was long before the Internet so we'd camp out overnight for concerts tickets. In line for Paul Young tickets, we made friends with the four girls in front of us and ended up hanging out with them at a lot of gigs around that time.

My grades ranged wildly--very strong in English and barely scraping up a pass in math. I don't think I ever truly applied myself fully while in high school; I just wasn't into it.

I had kind of a Luke Skywalker complex in that I always thought there was something more exciting going on elsewhere--England, specifically.

My best friend and I saved up summer job money to go over to London for two weeks when we were seventeen, and it was amazing. I didn't want to come back.

I devoured the Adrian Mole series when I was a young teenager and loved all of Judy Blume's books too.

I remember being really into John Wydnham's The Chrysalids (Michael Joseph, 1955) and I reread it a year or two ago and had all the same feelings about it that I'd had in the 80's.

In my later teenage years, I became very interested in the 60's and read lots of nonfiction about that time, while listening to its music. One of my favorite books back then was Ray Coleman's John Lennon biography (Futura Publications, 1984).

Craft-wise, could you tell us about your apprenticeship as a writer?

I've always been a big reader, and in second grade it occurred to me that I could write down my own stories. I wrote my first books when I was seven and kept writing all through childhood.

I did a bit of writing (reviews mostly) for the school paper when I was in university but generally thought it was something I’d get more serious about in the future. I think I just wanted to concentrate on living first, but I always believed I'd get around to writing eventually.

It wasn't until 1999, after several years of living in Ireland, that I discovered I specifically wanted to write YA. I hadn't read any young adult literature in years--the realization came from watching "Party of Five."

Then I started snatching up all the teen books I could get my hands on. The process of becoming a writer was largely an unconscious one--just doing what felt right at the time, learning things by osmosis from reading.

From a business perspective, could you tell us about your path to publication? Any sprints or stumbles along the way?

The first thing of note that happened to me as a writer was having my website named one of the top ten best author sites by Writer's Digest in 2001.

I don't know if it really scored me any agent interest, but at a time when I had no writing credits, it gave me an emotional boost to include that in my query letters.

In 2002, I landed my first agent who started shopping the YA book (the first in a trilogy) I'd begun while living in Ireland.

I finished I Know It's Over in 2003, but unfortunately my agent didn't like it and suggested drastic changes I didn't agree with.

I knew then the partnership wouldn't work. We parted ways, and I kept writing and querying other agents.

I finally had a major sprint in January, 2006 when an agent at Curtis Brown in London offered representation after reading I Know It's Over. She submitted it to British publishers, and when she couldn't find a buyer there, teamed up with an American agent.

That agent negotiated a sale with Random House in the U.S. in June 2006. About a year later, Random House signed up another two of my novels.

On either front, did you have mentors or peers who made a major difference for the better? If so, who and how?

In 2005, I discovered The Blue Board (writer Verla Kay's Children's Writers & Illustrators Message Board), and it's great to be able to share info there and have people sympathize over your latest rejection or celebrate your successes with you.

But my biggest continual supporter is my husband, who is also pursuing a career in children's writing. He just gets it all and never once said "maybe this isn’t going to work." In fact, he always said the opposite.

Having that level of understanding helped immeasurably. As hard as it was to get I Know It's Over published, it would've been exponentially harder without him.

Congratulations on the release of your debut novel, I Know It's Over (Random House, 2008)(excerpt)! Could you tell us a bit about it?

I Know It's Over is about a sixteen-year-old guy who discovers on Christmas Eve that his ex-girlfriend, who he's still in love with, is pregnant. The history of their relationship and what happens from the moment he hears the news is revealed through his point of view.

It started out as a short story, and when I found out there weren't many places printing YA [short] fiction, I decided, rather than abandoning it to a drawer, to flesh it out into a novel.

What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?

The Third Eye Blind song "Ten Days Late," which is about a guy learning that his girlfriend is pregnant. At that point I hadn't read any books which handled pregnancy from the guy's point of view and wanted to explore that.

After finishing I Know It's Over, I did go on to read Hanging On to Max by Margaret Bechard (Roaring Brook, 2002)(excerpt), The First Part Last by Angela Johnson (Simon & Schuster, 2003)(excerpt) and more recently, Slam by Nick Hornby (Putnam, 2007), which are all very different books. I'm sure there's room for yet more novels dealing with the topic from a male point of view.

What was the timeline between spark and publication, and what were the major events along the way?

In 2002, I wrote a short story called "Happy Families," which morphed into the novel I Know It's Over in 2003.

During my in-between agents period, I also submitted I Know It's Over, along with One Lonely Degree, to the Delacorte Press contest. I received rejections for both of them at the end of April in 2005 but I Know It's Over sold to Random House a little over a year later.

What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, and logistical) in bringing it to life?

Emotionally the story was incredibly draining. I felt completely swept up in it and basically just followed Nick and Sasha's lead to what felt like a natural conclusion given their personalities and situation.

I'm constantly reading nonfiction about young people--whether books, newspaper articles, questions/discussions at sex ed sites--in an effort to understand what their lives are like and what kind of challenges they face.

But personally, I think the biggest challenges related to this book were mostly after the fact, worries that publishers wouldn't want to touch the book because of some of the things that happen in the story. And judging by the reaction from some of the British publishers, the subject matter was indeed a problem for them.

One thing I do remember having difficulty with during writing and revising over the years was keeping up with the availability of emergency contraception in Canada, where the book is set.

When I first wrote I Know It's Over, you needed a prescription for morning-after pills, and then its status changed to behind the counter access.

I called up pharmacists a couple of months after the change and inquired whether they would give Plan B pills to a sixteen-year-old girl if she requested it, and the answers varied. Some pharmacists told me that they would dispense the pills to a teenage girl; others said she would have to come in with a parent or guardian.

Obviously this isn't the kind of confusion you want when dealing with something as time sensitive and important as preventing pregnancy!

Also, many of the young people (and even people in their thirties) I spoke to weren't aware the availability had changed so it wouldn't occur to them that they could bypass a doctor and go straight to the pharmacy, even if they didn't feel too intimidated to talk to a pharmacist.

So in the end, I decided to just leave the way Sasha and Nick deal with the emergency contraception scenario as I'd originally written it.

Incidentally, in Canada, emergency contraception rules changed yet again in May, making the drug available on pharmacy shelves with no minimum age requirement. But when I phoned around locally recently the pills were still being kept behind the pharmacy counter, although now they will give them out with any consultation.

You did an amazing job of writing across gender! How did you get into the head of a teenage boy?

Personally I don't see gender as binary, although society does its best to put us into male and female boxes.

Definitely there are very different social rules and expectations assigned depending on our gender (and race, age, religion, class, etc.) and a core personality underneath that which reacts to those rules and expectations.

As a writer I think you have to be aware of all those things and get the specific details right for each character. For instance, I was reading an article in Shameless Magazine the other day about a sixteen-year-old straight guy who hates sports, likes knitting and is really into fashion.

If I wrote I Know It's Over with a guy like that as a main character he would've had a different mindset to get into than Nick's, at least in some ways.

But it's an interesting question--I don't really know how you get into anyone else's head. Usually I have a few basic details in mind about a character, and from there, I just listen for his or her voice. I spend a lot of nights lying in bed with this voice crystallizing in my head before I even try to write anything down.

It doesn’t feel like an active thing; it really does feel like it's just something I'm picking up on.

Your novel revolves around a teen ex-couple dealing with an unwanted pregnancy. In terms of process, how did you approach that aspect of character/plot?

I have tons of files on things like emergency contraception, condom accidents and the early stages of pregnancy still saved on my computer.

An unwanted pregnancy is something that many people have to deal with at some point in their lives (according to The National Campaign to end teen pregnancy, half of all pregnancies in the U.S. are unplanned and a third of girls in the U.S. get pregnant at least once by age 20), and usually that's an even rougher situation for young people, who would ordinarily have fewer resources and be less emotionally prepared.

I think Sasha and Nick do the best they can, but that it's exceptionally tough, probably even more so because, although they've broken up, they still have deep feelings for each other.

I didn't want to judge them or be melodramatic; I just wanted to be true to the fact that they're both intelligent, sensitive people who are also very young and in a lot of emotional pain.

Aside from that aim and the general research, the process is mostly an unconscious thing to me. The story seems to flow from the characters--I feel like I'm more or less transcribing it.

Your protagonist is a hockey player. Do you have a background in hockey? If not, how did you integrate the sport into your story/character?

I don't have a hockey background but I wanted Nick, on some level, to be a typical Canadian guy. I read Face-Off! by Don Smith (Galahad Books, 1973), The Game by Ken Dryden (Macmillan Canada, 1983), and other hockey books and watched the Canadian reality show "Making The Cut" (about aspiring hockey players).

My brother, who grew up playing hockey, was the assistant couch for a team of fifteen-year-olds at one point, so he was the single biggest help. I sent him my hockey scenes, and he made sure they made sense.

What's the greatest thing about being a debut author in 2008?

Hands down, the coolest thing is how easy it is for readers to get in touch with you and share their thoughts about your writing. It's also been great being able to make contact with libraries and other writers through MySpace (C. K. Kelly's page).

I find it inspiring to see all the young reviewers out there setting up their own book review blogs, making technology work to their advantage.

What has surprised you most about being a published author?

I think the big surprises are yet to come. I still feel like I'm just getting my feet wet.

If you could go back and talk to yourself when you were beginning writer, what advice would you offer?

I didn't have any idea how good you have to be to get published when I started, and I think if I stuck to just trying to tell myself that, my past self still wouldn't understand.

I think the best thing I could do for myself would be to go back and press copies of books like Tyrell by Coe Booth (Scholastic Press, 2006), Before I Die by Jenny Downham (David Fickling Books, 2007), Boy Toy by Barry Lyga (Houghton Mifflin, 2007,) and Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan (Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2006) into my hands.

Of course, none of them would've been written yet, but since I'd be crossing the time-space continuum anyway, I guess the books could come too.

You're based in Toronto! Could you tell us about the YA writing community there?

I'm quite solitary so I can't answer that. I'm lucky to be married to my first reader, and any other socializing with writers happens online.

As a reader, so far what are you favorite YA novels of 2008 and why?

I'm always behind on my reading. Our apartment is small (all the bookshelves are already teeming) so I'm dependent on the library for new reading material and am on the waiting list for quite a few books.

I'm sure I'll be adding to the list, but three of my favorite books from 2008 are Cracked Up To Be by Courtney Summers (due out at the end of December - St. Martin's Griffin, 2008), The Dead and the Gone by Susan Beth Pfeffer (Harcourt, 2008)(author interview) and Sweethearts by Sara Zarr (Little, Brown, 2008).

I read Life As We Knew It (Harcourt, 2006) a couple of years ago, and The Dead and the Gone is just as riveting. The scenario--an asteroid hits the moon causing catastrophic changes on earth--terrifies me, and Susan Beth Pfeffer's description of the devastation, and how her young characters deal with it, felt totally realistic. I couldn't put it down and was tearing up when I finished it off while getting a tune-up at a car dealership.

In Sweethearts, I loved the relationship between Jennifer and Cameron--how tender and deep it was, and how Sara Zarr didn't try to pin it down and simplify it but just let it be this amazingly profound, almost indefinable thing.

Cracked Up To Be is almost unbearably tense, but that and main character Parker, who is one of a kind, are what makes it so good. For most of the book you're hurtling towards the moment where you'll find out what's screwed her up so badly. Parker's pretty unlikeable in many ways, but you can sense the extreme amount of pain she's in and forgive her a lot.

For the most part my favorite books are ones that provoke strong emotional reactions and these all do that. I'm also really keen to read My Life as a Rhombus by Varian Johnson (Flux, 2008)(author interview) and Living Dead Girl by Elizabeth Scott (Simon Pulse, 2008).

What do you do when you're not in the book world?

I was a film major in university and am still a big movie buff. I'm also a big theatre fan (dramas and comedies but not really musicals) and have been catching lots of productions at this fantastic Toronto theatre company called Soulpepper over the past few years.

I like snapping photos, but I'm a complete amateur, and I love doing design stuff for my website.

Aside from that I blog about all of the above--and politics, human rights and issues like sexual violence and reproductive and sexual health that inordinately impact young women.

What can your fans look forward to next?

One Lonely Degree's coming out on May 26th. It's about a fifteen-year-old girl named Finn who considers herself an outsider in a world of pack animals, a feeling that's amplified by something that happens to her at a party. The only person she really trusts is her best friend, Audrey, the only other person who knows what really happened that night. When a childhood friend of Finn's moves back to town, she develops feelings for him she's not ready to deal with. Eventually, he starts going out with Audrey, which Finn doesn't have a problem with because it allows her to be friends with him. But then Audrey goes away for the summer making this guy the only person in town Finn feels she can depend on, which wouldn't necessarily be a problem either, only she still has those other feelings for him, too.

The following May, I have another book with a sixteen-year-old male main character due out. It's called The Lighter Side of Life and Death and focuses on a theatre guy who gets swept into a relationship with a twenty-three year old woman while he's also in love with his female best friend (who no longer wants anything to do with him).

IKIO trailer

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