The year was 2008. I was querying my first manuscript, which was set on a college campus, and being told, “There’s no market for this.” I took it like a big girl (ish), and after a handful of similar responses, I gave up.
Around the same time, I went into a bookstore and picked up SECRET SOCIETY GIRL by Diana Peterfreund… which was very definitively set on a college campus. I read it one Saturday… and promptly ordered the remaining three books in the series that night. I of course devoured them as soon as they arrived.
“How are there not more of these???” I whined. Obviously, something was working. But alas, it seemed the secret wasn’t the setting – it was the awesome writing of Diana herself.
Fast forward five years later and in addition to those four books, which would now squarely fall under the newly established category of New Adult, she has two YA books about killer unicorns, a gorgeous Dystopian YA retelling of Jane Austen’s PERSUASION entitled FOR DARKNESS SHOWS THE STARS, and a companion to the latter releasing this October entitled ACROSS A STAR-SWEPT SEA.
With that kind of catalog, I obviously had a billion questions, and she was kind enough to answer them. So join me, won’t you, in getting to know the fabulous Diana Peterfreund!
1. As you may have gathered from my raving about it constantly, your Secret Society Girl series is one of my absolute favorites. It’s also one (well, four) of the rare “New Adult” books published before “New Adult” was an actual thing. What was it like trying to get books set in college published back in 2006?
Thank you so much! I really appreciate how supportive you’ve been of those books.
I sold my book back in 2005, which was an insanely different market, both from a technical perspective (I still had to print out copies of things and include SASEs with submissions) and from the perspective of what publishing was looking for. I was lucky as I sold basically at the peak of the “chick lit” phenomenon and just as YA was heating up, so there were all of a sudden a lot of publishers looking for both (and several publishers who had very little experience with YA and so were willing to look outside the box). I had six offers on Secret Society Girl, from both YA and adult houses. We went adult, and part of the reasoning is that a few of the YA houses that offered had made the stipulation that I change my characters from 21 year old soon-to-be-seniors into 18 year old very fresh freshmen, which would have significantly changed the characters, plot, and flavor of the book. To be true to the story, they had to be adult books, and I think that’s what a lot of the “New Adult” we’re seeing now is finding, too.
YA is about teens, so I understand those reserves, and I think it was around that time that YA houses discovered that their readership really wanted stories set in high school. For years after my series came out, I’d get an email a month from writers trying to write a college set series like mine, but weren’t having any luck with publishers, or had YA houses ask them to “age the books down” to “boarding school lit.” And with the death of chick lit that happened when the economy tanked, it was suddenly very hard to get any kind of lighthearted contemporaries published. Even in romance, for a while, it was all vampires, all the time.
All my books are still in print, but sadly, they appeared for a long time to be the exception that proved the rule.
2. Obviously New Adult is far more prevalent now, which is something you’ve blogged about before. What do you think has inspired this sudden change, and where do you hope to see the category go?
From what I can see, the change is due entirely to the ebook revolution. A few years ago, an editorial assistant put a name (“New Adult”) to college-set stories that made a lot of aspiring authors think, erroneously, there was a strong market for it in traditional publishing. (Wow, the letters I got!) Some of them who wrote very good books failed to find a publisher, but luckily, that when Kindle and other self-pub outlets started coming up, which let them bypass the gatekeepers who told them no one wanted to read those kind of books.
Clearly, in this case the gatekeepers were wrong, and ebooks are particularly well-suited to marketing to a passionate niche. And now the big pubs are waking up to the fact that there ARE readers who love it – like me! (My favorite of the new batch I’ve read is EASY by Tammara Weber.) I think it’s great that romance publishers are waking up to the fact that a lot of people do find their life partners in college – I did! (Blogger’s Note: I did too!) and for a long time, that was absolutely not something you’d see in a romance novel.
The thing is, despite the articles you may have read (like that one describing NA as “Harry Potter meets Fifty Shades” – whaaa…?), I still think what we see for “New Adult” is mostly college-set romance, and if you look at the self-published ones that are doing very well, and the houses that have put out calls for them, they are contemporary romance stories being told and romance houses who are looking. These books are often focused more directly on romance, even, than my series was.
I think romance, as a genre, is particularly suited to opening up to “college romance” since it already has so many clearly defined flavors (military romance, sheik romance, cop romance, Amish romance…). I don’t think you’re going to see terms like “New Adult” catch on as much in a genre like sci-fi, which, unlike romance, didn’t formerly eschew publishing books with characters of that age. I do not think in the future bookstores will have a “NA” section like they have a Teen section now, but maybe romance houses will have imprints devoted to it (and judging from the panels at the RWA conference this summer, there’s a lot of interest!)
3. You’re quite the genre chameleon, moving from contemporary to fantasy to dystopian… is there one genre you call your favorite, or consider a specialty? Any others we might expect to see you breaking in to?
I have always read all over the map, so I don’t find it all that unusual. I write where my heart is (and where my publishers are willing to publish). I’d probably get bored otherwise – or caught with my pants down if the market hunger changes. I think most writers with longevity have written lots of different types of books (look at Nora Roberts or Stephen King), but there is a core of what makes it THEIRS, and I think my readers know that though the genre may change, I’m always going to write books about strong, smart women making their way in the world.
The idea of author-as-limited-brand is a recent thing. Nature novelist Jack London wrote post-apocalyptic science fiction. So did E.M. Forster (best known for HOWARD’S END and A ROOM WITH A VIEW). George Orwell during his life was better known for his political and social non-fiction than his science-fiction. I think if my brain didn’t work this way, I’d never come up with wacky ideas like “post-apocalyptic Jane Austen.” You have to read and love both kinds of books to make a combo like that work.
I really want to write an adventure story – I always love reading those. I actually wrote my college thesis on Lost Horizon, which is a great adventure story with a paranormal twist, by James Hilton, better known for the boarding school drama, Goodbye Mr. Chips.
See? It’s not just me!
4. You’ve said FOR DARKNESS SHOWS THE STARS was written with the original intention of being a standalone, which would’ve made it your first. What differences have you noticed between writing for a series and writing for a single title?
I actually haven’t noticed much. There’s a saying out there that “writing a book teaches you how to write that book” – every book comes with its own set of challenges. A book I write in one series is going to have its own challenges than another. I’m also the kind of series writer who wants each book in her series to be its own story. With Secret Society Girl, there was a big mystery/problem to solve in every story that belonged to itself. I don’t hold anything back when I’m writing a story in a series – I got the advice long ago that you don’t “save” things. You put everything in. There will always be more when you need it. I hate reading series where some books are just filler, and I get the sense that author is saving the “good stuff” for future books, or has been pressured to drag out a story into several books that could have been wrapped up long ago.
5. FOR DARKNESS SHOWS THE STARS is a retelling of Jane Austen’s PERSUASION, and your next book, ACROSS A STAR-SWEPT SEA, is a retelling of Emmuska Orczy’s THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL. As someone who’s recently written a retelling, I’m especially curious to know – do you find that working from a set plot makes it easier, or is it overall more of a challenge? How true to the story do you like to stay, and what’s important to you to change?
I think it’s challenging in a different way. I want to stay true to the source material while still providing a fresh perspective for fans of the original. I want to make the story stand on its own, for those who aren’t familiar with the original. I want to make something that Austen or Orczy would like. But changes sometimes have to be made for the good of the story – I personally love the character of Mary Musgrove, Anne Elliot’s younger, married, hypochondriac sister – but there are reasons that didn’t fit into my story, so Mary had to go. Of course I’m willing to make changes – I will even flip genders if that’s what makes the heart of the story beat for me. Oh wait, I did that. 🙂
With ACROSS A STAR-SWEPT SEA (out in October), I was lucky that Orczy had so much source material to work with – she wrote a Pimpernel play even before the novel, and then she wrote a whole series of his adventures (little known fact: “The Dancing Cavalier,” the film-within-a-film from Singing in the Rain, is based on a book from the Pimpernel series). So I had lots of delicious capers to choose from in the source material. When I’m doing a retelling, I’m thinking, what is the heart of this story, what makes me love it – and that’s characters and storylines and themes and defining moments and—I don’t know—soul.
6. I was privileged to meet you in March of this year as part of NYC Teen Author Festival, which is a really fantastic annual event bringing together tons of incredible YA authors. Can you tell us a bit about the events you participated in, and your favorite parts of the week?
It was an amazing festival – NYPL and David Levithan put together a really extraordinary collection of panels and events – laugh-out-loud stuff, from a “gender flipped classics of YA” that included such howlers as “The Bro-hood of the Travelling Condom” to a dramatic group reading from GO ASK ALICE. One day I went up to the Bronx with a few other authors to speak to a great group of middle-schoolers at M.S. 254. They were so eager and excited. I also spoke on a panel about alternate realities at the NYPL on 42nd Street (you know, the one with the lions). I did a reading at McNally-Jackson bookstore with another group of authors (Michael Northrup, A.S. King, Sharon Cameron, Nova Ren Suma, Victoria Schwab, and David Levithan), and also the big mass signing at Books of Wonder on Sunday, where I was awed and humbled to meet readers of my last book and my first. In between I had a writing date with Leanna Renee Hieber and even went to a children’s film festival with Alaya Dawn Johnson. I don’t know if I can pick a favorite. Could you? (Blogger’s Note: Ummm, meeting you was pretty damn cool, so…. :))
7. You’ve published at a number of different imprints and houses. What sorts of things do you notice vary from place to place?
Every house has its own personality, but the biggest difference I’ve noted has been between adult publishers and children’s publishers. The lead time is way longer in kidlit (STAR-SWEPT went into copyedits more than a year before it will hit stores), and the school and library market takes on a much bigger role in marketing. In the end, I feel like it’s so important to have a publisher and an editor that believes in you. I was really lucky at Random House to have a truly supportive editor for all my books there (Kerri Buckley, who has sadly left publishing), and at Harper, I’ve also always been with Kristin Rens, who really gets me and doesn’t even blink when I send her emails like “So, for my next book, how ’bout a gender-flipped futuristic Scarlet Pimpernel?” (She probably figured if I could pull off killer unicorns, I could manage this.)
8. As someone people might call an outspoken blogger, I definitely appreciate your willingness to write about topics authors rarely touch, such as whitewashing on covers. What other issues out there in publishing do you think need to get more attention?
Many of the authors I’m friends with are similarly “outspoken”–Justine Larbalestier, Cassandra Clare, Sarah Rees Brennan, Malinda Lo, and Maureen Johnson all blog at length about issues I think are important to our community. Shannon Hale is another author who writes really insightfully about publishing and craft. I just try to be honest with my readers about what I’m doing (so they don’t think, for example, that I’ve abandoned the killer unicorn series mid-stream) and with writers about my take on the industry. It’s a “do unto others” strategy – I like it when content creators keep me apprised of what’s going on with their projects (like Rob Thomas and his updates about the return of Veronica Mars), and I have always devoured publishing blogs (like yours) and want to give back the way people helped me when I was starting out by talking about the issues facing me as a career writer and how I’m handling them.
Also, I’m a big loudmouth, so, you know…
Speak of the marshmallow… Kind of like with books, for me it’s not so much about what genre it is, but whether or not it’s good. Parks & Rec is my favorite thing on TV right now. I sometimes wish I lived in Pawnee so I could be their friends. I’m also obsessed with Game of Thrones. I started with the show, but now I’m reading the books, too and they are just as good. Other faves: Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Wire, Avatar: The Last Airbender, The West Wing, How I Met Your Mother, Arrested Development, and early seasons of The X-Files. I love shows with intricate plotting, unusual storytelling techniques, fascinating characters, and complex women.
10. You’re obviously a well-established YA author at this point, but is there anyone debuting in the next year or two that you’re really excited about?
Ooh, am I? I love hearing that! I actually don’t know a lot of debuts coming up right now – a year or so ago, I knew a ton. I recently blurbed Shana Mlawski’s YA debut, HAMMER OF WITCHES, which is this really cool fantasy about a young Moorish boy searching for the truth of his family history set during Columbus’s expedition to the New World. It’s out in April from Tu Books, which is a publisher focusing on fantasy about people of color. Mlawski is currently best known for her articles on Overthinking It, like “Why Strong Female Characters Are Bad For Women”. I also just met Lauren Miller, who has a YA sci-fi out from Harper in a few months called PARALLEL that I’m excited to read. (Totally by coincidence, all three of us were at Yale at the same time and did not know one another.)