Posted on June 30, 2015 at 6:00 am
One of the best things about having bright, talented literary friends is getting to read their work and celebrate with them when their novels are published. I’m especially excited in the case of Kris Dinnison, longtime friend, community builder, and emerging YA voice. Her debut novel You and Me and Him is the story of two engaging outsiders: overweight, secretly hip Maggie and her gay best friend Nash, and what happens when they both fall—hard—for the same guy. Dinnison has been getting rave reviews in everything from Booklist and Publishers Weekly to Romantic Times. In advance of her book’s release and launch party at the Bartlett on July 7, Kris took some time to answer a few questions for the District.
You and Me and Him is, among other things, about feeling like an outsider. As an adult, I think of you very much as an insider: you co-own two beloved and successful Spokane businesses and you’re on a number of community boards and committees. How much of Maggie and Nash’s sense of being “outsiders” comes from your own experiences?
I think there’s a part of me that will always feel like an outsider, no matter how many ways I try to connect and be a part of things. Growing up I felt different almost all the time. I moved a couple times; I was my current height by sixth grade; I listened to weird music; and I read constantly. I always felt like whatever time I got on the “inside” was temporary—that eventually they’d figure out I didn’t belong. I still feel like that most days. I sometimes wonder if everyone feels like that a little bit.
You have a phenomenal playlist for the book on your website. How much of a role did the music play in your writing of the story?
The beginning of the book was just an idea scrawled in my writing notebook: a girl who works in a record store. When I started to think about that girl, one of the questions I asked myself was: Which albums would be for sale in that store? Vinyl is making a bit of a comeback, but really the consistent production of vinyl started fading in the 1980s when cassettes sort of took over. So I thought the music she would be listening to would be a lot of the stuff I grew up with: The Smiths, The Cure, Donna Summer, The Scorpions, Blondie etc. The role of Billie Holiday’s music in the story has to do with the deep longing for romance and connection the main character feels.
How long did it take to write You and Me and Him? Is it your first foray into YA writing?
It was my first foray into any kind of fiction writing. I’d done some freelancing for The Inlander but not for a long time. This was the first piece of fiction of any length that I finished. It’s hard to say how long it took to write since there were so many revisions over the last five years, but the first couple of complete drafts, which are what my agent ended up seeing and liking, took about eight months. But it was still impossibly rough. Sometimes I still can’t believe she believed in the book in that raw state.
You’ve had positive reviews in Booklist, Publishers Weekly, School Library Journal, and Romantic Times! Were you surprised by the Romantic Times review? Do you think of your novel as a romance?
I was really excited to see the Romantic Times review. They really liked the book, so there must be something satisfying for romance readers in there somewhere. I can’t say too much about who ends up with who and who gets kissed (and who doesn’t) in the book, but I will say that for me the story started and ended as a story of a friendship more than a romance. However, the love triangle is a storytelling classic that seems to draw people in. I also think that the idea of unrequited love is also a compelling story for readers; so, there are definitely elements of romance in the novel.
Do you think it’s easier or harder to be a teen now than it was when you were a teen?
I think it’s harder now for sure. The wonderful access to information and access to connections and relationships 24/7 can also be a burden to teens in some ways. At a time when they need to be learning to listen to their own inner voice, they are getting bombarded by thousands of other voices all the time. When I was younger we had books, phones with cords, record players, and tape decks in our cars. But we could unplug and be alone and not miss out on too much.
Now everything’s accelerated and keeping up with your friends’ Instagrams, Snapchats, and Tumblrs is a full-time job. All that noise can make it hard to sort out who you are and what you want for yourself in the world. I recently watched this documentary called Sexy Baby that explores women’s self-perception in the age of social media. It was really disturbing in a lot of ways. It made me grateful I grew up before all that hit.
Your story takes place in the fictional town of Cedar Ridge. Did you have a real-world community in mind as you were writing the story?
I think I was just thinking of all the smaller lake towns in the Northwest, places where things are small enough for people to notice your weirdness and big enough that belonging isn’t a given. I was definitely thinking of the Pacific Northwest as Maggie’s landscape, and of course the locations in Seattle are real.
How did your characters grow and evolve as “people” while you wrote the story?
That was an interesting process. I really had that experience of the characters surprising me. They would do things and say things I didn’t expect them to. I did these long written interviews with each character so I would know them and they would feel three-dimensional to me and to readers. So when they showed up in the story, they felt pretty real to me.
My characters were also sort of bossy at times. I would try to make them do stuff or say stuff and they would sort of go limp and clam up because it wasn’t something that was consistent with them as a character. When that happened I’d have to backtrack and try something else. It was very intuitive in a lot of ways, which surprised me. The process was a little tough on me at times because I am a bit of a control freak, but the writing was better when I relaxed and let the characters speak.
YA and Children’s publishing is the only segment of the publishing industry right now that’s experiencing a bit of a boom. Why do you think that is? Will we ever see a boom in Adult Fiction?
I’m not an expert on the business side of things at all, but I think a lot of the success of YA fiction can be attributed to the communities it creates. There are these amazing and supportive communities of YA writers, readers, and bloggers. They support one another, feed off one another, and really unapologetically act like the fans they are. All you have to do is look at one of the big YA book festivals like YALLWEST or Rochester Teen Book Festival and you can see there’s this amazing enthusiasm for YA books and their authors. I think this is different from a lot of the Adult Fiction world where people can seem more concerned about being taken seriously rather than connecting with readers. I understand both impulses.
I’d like to write something important and literary someday, but I also love the idea that my book is part of a world where teenagers stand in line for hours to meet an author and create whole Instagram accounts dedicated to the books they read and love. And there are so many YA authors who are doing both—writing beautiful, important literary fiction and connecting with readers at a rockstar status.
I recently heard YA writer Justina Chen talk about how her books are often “message books”, and that she’s unapologetic about that because young people need to hear the message that they’re valuable, capable of overcoming adversity, or have more strength than they realize. Would you agree? Do you find that writing for young people is a bit of a mission and that there’s more to it than just telling a great story?
I don’t know that I necessarily have the idea that I want to write books with the intent to inspire or send a message; however, I do agree that kids benefit from seeing characters going through the tough stuff. There’s value in them seeing characters they can identify with or that have the same experiences that they do.
Delilah Dawson, author of Hit, had a great blog post about this a few weeks back on Book Riot. She talked about how kids have access to everything through the internet, including: porn, cruelty, abuse, drug culture, violence etc. If they’re looking for it, really anything and everything can be on their phones in a matter of seconds. Dawson said the important thing YA lit provides is an emotional and social context for that raw, and sometimes disturbing, information. They don’t just see violence, they see how violence affects a character and how that character works her way through the tough stuff. I think that’s the real strength of YA lit. When you can write a story that feels big “T” true and that people connect to, it can help them in their lives even if you haven’t consciously embedded a message in the book.
You are very involved in the writing community, both online and locally. You’re on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. You’re also a member of the Inland Northwest chapter of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators while still making time to attend other writers’ book launches and workshops. Do you feel that this involvement is a necessary part of the job for any writer?
I don’t know if it’s necessary for all writers, but for me it’s an important part of my process. The actual writing bit is just me in a room by myself with my story. That can feel pretty insular and isolating. I need to feel connected to other writers and support their work as a way to keep the voices in my head from taking over. I’m only sort of kidding when I say that because there are the voices connected to a story or characters, and there is also the voice of my inner critic that tells me I’m wasting my time or that I’ll never be good enough. Being connected to a larger community of writers helps me realize everyone has those moments, and also that those moments pass, so I should just keep writing.
I kind of have the Golden Rule mentality about the communities I’m a part of; I behave toward others the way I hope they will behave toward me. That means being involved, being supportive, going to events, buying other people’s books, and sending the message into the world that those books are out there and worth looking at.
What, if any, advice would you give to would-be writers?
It’s the same advice you hear all the time from all kinds of writers: read a lot and write a lot. Do these things every day, even if it’s only for a few minutes. Volume and variety are important in both endeavors. The more you read, the more the language and constructs of stories will be embedded in your mind and heart. The more you write, the more you will understand and believe in your own voice—what it sounds like and what you have to offer the world that nobody else can.
You and Me and Him will be available in print and digital formats at SCLD libraries on July 7 (click here to place a hold). The release party for You and Me and Him takes place at The Bartlett, 228 W. Sprague, on July 7 at 7pm.
You can read more about Kris at her website, krisdinnison.net.