Leila Sales and I met about a year ago during a publishing party at an outdoor bar in Soho. We bonded over our shared love of blended drinks in mason jars and indie pop music, and although we didn't see each other for another three months (time enough for her to sell her debut novel, "Mostly Good Girls"-- out October 5th), I remembered her being unnervingly funny.
Her wit is as sharp in person as it is on paper and she speaks about topics with a mix of real, grown-up wisdom and youthful spontaneity. It's these sweet-spot contradictions that make her such a loveable author -- with perfect comedic pitch she hits at the heart of what it means to strive, and the ways in which we all struggle to meet our own definitions of success.
Interview with Leila Sales:
So much of young adult books today is dystopian angst but "Mostly Good Girls" is a refreshing, hilarious departure. Do you consider yourself a comedic author?
Yes, absolutely. I don't like writing things that aren't at least a little bit funny. If something isn't funny, I lose interest in it. That's just how my mind works. Plus, I grew up with a mother who always said: "when you've lost your sense of humor, you've lost everything." I believe that.
At its heart, "Mostly Good Girls" is about the pressures we put on ourselves to live up to ideas of perfection. Were you like Violet in high school?
I was a little like Violet in high school, but not exactly. This is the thing about writing: every character has to be a little bit like you, even the bad guys, because how else would you write them with any truth? She's not supposed to be a fictional embodiment of me, though.
But you understand that environment.
Yes, I do. If I had to come up with a thesis statement for the book, or the question I'm trying to explore, it would probably be "Does success equal happiness?" Or even: "Can success equal happiness?" I think the answer I came to is no. That's easier said than actually internalizing, but it's what Violet learns over the course of the book.
A lot of twenty and thirty somethings say "Mostly Good Girls" really resonates with them. Defining success is an ongoing challenge.
I think you have to remind yourself of it constantly. I'm an adult and I have this published novel, but I'm still not happy all the time. I guess I imagined or hoped that I would be, but it just doesn't work that way.
All of Violet's pressure is self-inflicted, too. Her parents aren't pushing her to succeed. She's really battling her own daemons.
Have you seen Empire Records?
Yes, but not since high school.
Oh, it's my favorite movie. You should borrow it. Honestly, you don't even have to watch it, I could just sit here and recite it to you, I know it that well. But anyway Liv Tyler's character is this perfect specimen of a high schooler and it's strongly implied that the only reason she is in quest of perfection is because of parental pressure. There is this idea that if she was just a person saying, "I want to be a success," it would make her unlikable. I find that to be so ridiculous because in the real world some of that pressure is going to be external, but a huge portion of it is self-motivated. And that's really much more interesting.
I've heard you say that "Mostly Good Girls" is about how we always measure up in life, never down. I think there is so much truth in that, and it doesn't end in high school.
No, it doesn't. I think in a lot of ways it actually begins there. Look, you don't even develop theory of mind until you're about four or five-years-old. Before that you're not even aware of "the other." It takes a long time to get a handle on and until you have a strong sense of that, you can't really be jealous of another person's life.
There is this psych study, don't quote me on the source, but basically it talks about how people who win the silver medals in the Olympics feel worse than people who win the bronze medals. It's because we always measure up. The silver medalists are so close to the gold, and they feel like they've lost, whereas the bronze medalists are just happy to have placed at all. All the girls in "Mostly Good Girls" are silver medalists. By real-world standards they are complete winners, but there's always something right above them.
Her school is an institution that Violet believes in and really wants to belong to, but in a way, it fails her. I find myself wishing I could tell Violet that her critics are wrong. What advice would you give yourself if you could go back to age 16?
Hm. That's a complicated question because I think everything what happens in your life helps turn you into the person that you are.
In my own prep-school period my friends and I wrote this parody of our high school. We got in so much trouble for it. It was really traumatic and while what happened to us isn't reflected in "Mostly Good Girls" it colored my whole high school experience. It put me off writing for a long time. It gave me this sense of "you can write things that you think are good, and true and other people will read them and hate you for it." I just thought no one will ever get my voice and tone, I better just not do it. Ultimately if it hadn't happened there'd be no "Mostly Good Girls" -- both in plot, and experience.
So would I go back and say, "dude, cool it, don't do this thing. It's going to make you miserable for the next two years"? Maybe, maybe not. Probably not.
What's next for you?
I'm working on a second novel now and supposedly it is going to come out in Fall 2011. It does not have a title yet, although I keep coming up with horrific ones such as "living history" and "anachronism." It's about a girl who is a colonial reenactor and she falls for a boy who is a civil war reenactor and they can't be together because "they come from different times."
That's brilliant. I like that.
You do? Good. That's my elevator pitch.
I always have a lot of side writing projects going on, as well. I just wrote an article in "Publisher's Weekly" and I'm doing a blog tour for Traveling to Teens beginning October 25th: (http://travelingtoteenstours.weebly.com/index.html)
As we say goodbye I notice she has a copy of "Mostly Good Girls" on her bookshelf sandwiched between "Jellcoe Road" and "The Great Gatsby." I start to ask her why it's not out on display, but I stop myself. Despite everything I think Leila, like Violet, believes in community. She would probably tell me that the point is never the book, but the book on the shelf. It's about being a part of this collective consciousness. The good news is, she's great company.