Today's Elevensies interview is with Emily Howse, whose tween novel, ZITFACE (Marshall Cavendish) is out now! Here's a description from the book jacket:
Thirteen-year-old Olivia Hughes knows what she wants to do with her life—be an actress. And she’s already on her way. She just landed a national ad campaign that should get her noticed.
But then her luck runs out. A little pimple turns into a full-blown case of acne, with serious side effects for her career, relationships, and budding romance with J.W., the new guy at school.
Now all Olivia wants to do is hide, but she can’t. She goes from being the girl at school everyone wants to be…to Zitface, a girl who is teased, dumped, and even fired.
What do you do when you’ve lost control of everything in your life? Olivia has to find out the hard way. And maybe, what she finds isn’t so bad after all.
And I got to interview a fellow Texan! Sure, we're about a 6-hour drive apart, but we're practically neighbors. Read on to find out about Emily's road to publication and her inspiration for ZITFACE.
In the Author's Note you wrote that like Olivia, you suffered from acne, although you were in college when it hit you. Did you decide to make Olivia so much younger because that's when most kids are going through this problem?
I made Olivia 13 mainly because writing about tweendom was therapeutic for me! When I was in eighth grade I struggled, emotionally. My family had recently moved to Dallas, and I went from being a well-liked student at a small Catholic elementary school to a social outcast in a large public junior high setting. It was a rude awakening (though getting signed by a talent agent eased some of my angst). Writing-wise, I felt a younger teen might have a harder time handling acne, and I wanted to capture that. Olivia’s TV commercial acting is jeopardized by her ‘problem skin.’ For her, acne is truly a bigger problem.
In what other ways are you similar to Olivia?
Like Olivia, I wanted to be an actress—though I lost interest when I started high school and discovered dating. I also felt very self-conscious at her age…but then, I think most middle-schoolers do. The transitional preteen years really trigger insecurities. There’s so much going on, developmentally—physically, mentally, and socially. But Olivia’s pretty grounded. Unlike her, I disliked school and got into more trouble!
What were the challenges in writing for a tween audience?
The main challenge was making Olivia likeable while exploring her negative reaction to the acne. There are way worse problems than acne, of course, but for self-conscious tweens an onset of bad acne is daunting. Also, tweens tend to live ‘in their head.’ They may seem self-absorbed, but that’s because they’re busy learning about themselves…and typically feel embarrassed by their problems. Tweens often think no one understands what they’re going through and may, as a result, feel lonely.
Some of Olivia's experiences came from your own--like with acting and acne--but did you still have to do some research for the novel?
I researched acne and TV acting. My dermatologist served as a medical advisor—I grilled him with questions during skin exams. There are numerous acne treatments, but my editor and I didn’t want to bog the story down by over-explaining them. Same with TV commercial production—there are many details that could have been included, but didn’t add anything, plot-wise.
What character (other than Olivia) was the most fun to write?
Wendy (Olivia’s controversial friend). Wendy’s high-maintenance, but her intentions are good. I like her chutzpah…she’s a girl who gets things done! And she’s misunderstood—beneath her bravado, she has her issues and insecurities. Wendy has a story to tell, which is why she’s the main character in the sequel. I also particularly admired Theo, a teen suffering from juvenile rheumatoid arthritis. Having a chronic medical condition shapes his personality in a positive way.
Did you know all along how the story would turn out, or did that come to you after you started writing it? (Plotter or pantser?)
I’m a flexible plotter. Like many writers, I knew exactly how the story would begin and end—but the mid-section was murky. I wrote a general chapter outline, but changed chapters (and subplots) along the way. When you’re entrenched in your characters’ heads, their words and actions hijack the story. And it helps to have a great editor to prune it! (a shout-out to Robin Benjamin at Marshall Cavendish).
Anything that surprised you along the journey to publication?
How long it takes. Marshall Cavendish acquired my book in March, 2009—now, two years later, it’s about to be published. When I consider the years it took to write, edit, revise and market the book (not to mention obtaining an agent and publisher), it boggles my mind. It was a satisfying, worthwhile journey…just a longer one than I realized.
What are you reading now?
Are You My Guru? by TV writer Wendy Shanker. I love memoirs penned by ‘regular people.’ It details Wendy’s struggle with a rare autoimmune disease, and her attempts to heal it through yoga, Eastern medicine, her obsession with Madonna, etc. OK, it sounds new-agey…but it’s a very funny read.
What's a typical writing day for you?
Today is typical—I’m idly sitting at my computer in my comfy robe, sipping hot chai tea. Oh yeah, and trying to work. I don’t religiously write for a prescribed amount of time daily (wouldn’t that be nice), but I write/work most weekdays, starting in the morning before I get distracted by life. My daughter’s in kindergarten—it’s paramount that I complete whatever needs to get done by 2 pm because once she’s home, all hell breaks loose (in a good way).
What's the next book we'll see from you?
A ZITFACE sequel—though not a traditional sequel, since Wendy’s the protagonist. But Olivia (and many of the same characters in ZITFACE) is in it. In this story, Wendy roars into high school, ready to take the world by storm as a confident junior varsity cheerleader. But during the freshman fall semester, Wendy experiences serious difficulties that make her view life differently. She becomes a more reflective, thoughtful Wendy…while maintaining her energetic spirit.
And since 2012 is approaching, we should end with an apocalypse readiness question. What three items would you want in your cosmetic bag when the apocalypse hits?
1) lip balm (because I’m always applying lip balm, and the second the moisture wears off, I reapply more lip balm—it’s a vicious cycle)
2) Altoids (because I’m addicted to them)
3) zit concealer (because I still get them sometimes!!)
Wise advice! Thanks so much for the interview, Emily, and happy book birthday!