18 March 2010: Megan McCafferty interviewed by Sarah Reagle
Megan McCafferty is the author of the Jessica Darling novels, which include Sloppy Firsts, Second Helpings, Charmed Thirds, Fourth Comings and Perfect Fifths. She also edited a collection of stories entitled Sixteen. Megan is currently working on a new novel called Bumped. This interview was taken before a lecture at the University of Pittsburgh on March 18, 2010.
Sarah Reagle: Narwhal or unicorn?
Megan McCafferty: Narwhal.
SR: What’s your favorite animal?
MM: Narwhal! No. I like the platypus.
MM: Because it’s just so bizarre. It shouldn’t exist, but it does. And my son is fascinated with the platypus.
SR: What inspired you to write for a living?
MM: I never wanted to do anything else. And I would be writing even if I weren’t making a living doing it. I would just be another blogger putting stuff out there, hoping for comments, you know? Basically I started making up stories from the time I started to talk. And then I started writing them down as soon as I learned how to form my letters and make words. And so telling stories is just always something that I’ve done. I’m very, very fortunate to be able to make a living doing what I would do for free.
SR: For the Jessica Darling series, did you develop Jessica as a character first or the plot?
MM: I think the plot is driven by character. My books are definitely character-driven books, to the point where I could plop them down in any scenario and see how it would play out, you know what I mean? I think the voice came first, and then actually plotting the book was the challenging part because I think a lot of my early fiction was kind of slices of life or just kind of funny scenes—not a story and not a narrative that would be sustained over 300 pages. And that was something that I had to learn how to do.
SR: In hindsight, would you change anything in the novels?
MM: No. Actually, yes. There is one thing I would change. I would change Paul Parlipiano’s name because it is very, very close to the last name of someone with whom I graduated high school. And it has become like, an albatross. And I’ve had to state many, many times that the character was not inspired by him in any way. [...] But as far as the books are, even the flaws in the books, they’re what I wrote at the time. I think all writers can go back and read their earlier work and go, “Oh, God...” But I think they are what I wrote and what I wanted.
SR: What’s your favorite word or phrase that you’ve used in your novels?
MM: I like the words that I’ve made up, like “interwencheon” and “jackassinine.”
MM: Crustache. I didn’t make that one up though. But you know, “assplosion.” I like having fun by coining new words.
SR: How about your favorite word in general?
MM: I get that question a lot, and the answer that I say—because I do like the word—is “sublime.” I like the word, and I like the idea of it.
SR: Who is your all-time or current favorite author?
MM: Probably my all-time favorite author—only because of how profoundly influential she was on me as a kid—would be Judy Blume. Reading Judy Blume’s books when I was a kid made me want to tell stories that were read by girls all over the world. And she was from New Jersey, and I had the Judy Blume diary. I would say she was my first idol, and I think because she was my first, she’s the most significant.
SR: What is the last good book you’ve read?
MM: I’m reading a book In the Land of the Believers [by Gina Welch] right now, which I find very interesting, about a non-believer, atheist woman who went and became part of Jerry Falwell’s church just to see what that kind of belief is all about. And I find that very interesting. And because I’m obsessed with all things relating to my novel—Bumped—that I’m writing right now, it’s very hard for me to read fiction for pleasure right now. The last book that kind of blew me away—I really enjoyed Going Bovine by Libba Bray. And that was such a departure and so out there and weird. If I’m going to read anything, it has to be totally different from anything that I’m reading right now. And that was just a really remarkable book.
SR: Do you have any non-writing related hobbies?
MM: Is exercising a hobby? I need to work out, and when I work out, I watch TV. That’s actually when I get to watch most of my TV. I work out and watch crappy, terrible TV while I’m at the gym. But I also like to go hiking and be outdoors. The thing is, I don’t have a lot of hobbies because I’ve made my two hobbies into my career — writing and reading were my two hobbies. And now both of those things are my job. I often joke: I’m not a good hobbyist. I’ve given up on every hobby I’ve ever tried. I haven’t stuck with any of them except reading and writing.
SR: What is the great and/or most beneficial thing that you’ve done in college?
SR: Where did you transfer to and from?
MM: I started out at the University of Richmond, and I transferred to Columbia. And those colleges could not be more different from each other. And I would say that I don’t think I would’ve gotten as much out of Columbia had I been there all four years. So I think the experience of transferring was incredibly beneficial to me because it made me appreciate what I had once I got there. And also by that time, I knew what I wanted, and I made the most out of every class that I could take in the two years that I was there. I learned a lot about myself, and I learned about my perception of who I was and what I thought would make me happy versus the things that really do. And I don’t think I would’ve learned that had I not had the experience of transferring.
SR: What advice would you give to college students now?
MM: Try new things. Take classes in different areas. If something interests you, just try it. Because college is the time when you can do that. And you might find a passion that you didn’t even know you had. Once you get out of college, you’re never going to be around this many people your own age; you’re never going to have the same opportunities that you do now. So take advantage of it.
SR: Do you think your next novel, Bumped, will be more suited to both genders?
MM: Honestly, I would love to say yes, but I don’t think so. I think it will appeal more to girls than to boys. Basically, the story is set about 25 years in the future, and it asks what would happen if there was a virus that rendered most of the world infertile at the age of 18. So teenagers are responsible for repopulating the planet.
SR: Sounds like a nightmare.
MM: Right? But it’s comedy. It’s like The Handmaid’s Tale meets Heathers. And it’s about the girls getting pregnant, and the choice is more about their choices and the way the boys are actually marginalized. Which is something that I think that if I was going to write about, then it would be a separate book. I think it would be interesting to get more of a perspective from boys who maybe aren’t as valued in society as girls are and also as the more virile boys are. And it is something that I could write about in a different book that would appeal to boys. And at one point, I thought part of this book was going to be about that, until I realized that I had way too much going on already. And it would just be focusing on the two female characters that I’m focusing on. So I think it might be something that I could explore elsewhere. But I hope that guys will read it. I get e-mails from guys who say that my books aren’t as girly as they thought they were going to be. But I think that trying to butch it up just to try to get a male audience is silly. For me, the story comes first. And if I happen to write a story that has a wide appeal across genders, then that’s great. But I can’t tailor the narrative just for that.
SR: I was going to ask if you wanted to say anything more about Bumped?
MM: This is a book that I started thinking about when I was writing Perfect Fifths. I’ve been researching and reading and wrapping my head around this book for almost two years, even though the actual writing has only been since the Fall. It made leaving Jessica Darling a lot easier, knowing that I had this other thing. It’s a real challenge. I’m taking risks while I’m writing it.
SR: Would you say M.T. Anderson is an influence?
MM: When I read Feed, I was not influenced but inspired. I did re- read Feed as I was thinking about this book. What I really love about his book is that I could see that. I could see every scenario in that book. The roots are already here. I think the best dystopian novels are the ones that are not such a leap. I made sure that everything in Bumped has roots—no matter how absurd it might sound on the surface, oh, paying two 16-year-olds to have sex, to make a baby that you’re going to sell to an affluent couple who can’t have one. But the roots of that exchange are already here. Whether it’s in different countries or different ages, all of it has its roots in reality. But making it believable is the challenge. And also making it fun to read. I don’t want it to be a book that’s a chore to read.