I’m so happy to feature one of my favorite YA Contemporary authors on the blog today. Amy Spalding is the author The Reece Malcolm List, and the recent release Ink is Thicker Than Water, a story about family, school, love and tattoos that you should totally check out. Please welcome Amy to The Reading Date.
Thanks for answering a few questions about INK, Amy! I just finished the book and now I’m itching for my own tattoo.
Thanks for having me! And, yes, I can barely discuss tattoos without craving more of them. I warn you: they’re addictive!
After reading INK and Reece Malcolm, I really enjoyed the unconventional families featured in your books. Many times in YA we see the absent parent syndrome, but in your books the parents are well rounded and interesting in their own right. What draws you to focus on family relationships? Is that something you see lacking in YA today?
It actually wasn’t a conscious choice for me, so, thank you! It’s been fun to have people notice my YA families. Really, when I write, I just set out to portray the reality of the book’s world. I’m drawing more from my family and my friends’ families growing up, and the families I know now. And for me, and most of the people I knew, even when we weren’t getting along with our parents and/or siblings…they were around. So I never even thought it was an option NOT to write about them!
As for keeping the parents well rounded and interesting–again, thank you–I think in some ways it’s very easy because the truth is, I’m closer in age to the parents than I am to my main characters. (In fact, I am older than Reece Malcolm…which is terrifying!) And I also am a huge believer that while it’s sometimes easy or convenient to think of teenagers and adults as separate species, I think there’s more overlap than not. We all have hopes and dreams and fears and friendships and relationships and responsibilities and anxieties and joy. So as long as I strive to portray every character fairly, I don’t worry or distinguish much between grownups and kids.
That said, my editor Stacy Abrams definitely gave me a note on the first draft of REECE which was essentially, I think we’ve gone way too long with only grownups–can we get to kids her own age? And, point taken! I do REALLY love writing adults so sometimes I need a little nudge back.
I think the adult readers of YA enjoy reading how you portray adults as well. And yes, I can tell you respect your adult and teen characters equally and that’s part of what’s appealing to me as a reader.
I always like to get book recs from favorite authors. Can you tell us what were your favorite books growing up, and what YA books are you digging now?
Growing up, the books I read as a tween were the ones that still really stick with me. Ann M. Martin’s The Babysitters Club was huge for me. I loved those girls, and the series taught me so much about writing friendship, family, and shifting changes throughout adolescence. I know people write them off–and, sure, the later ghostwritten ones are not great–but I learned so much about what kinds of stories mattered to me from how Martin clearly respected all kinds of girls.
My other favorite was A Summer to Die by Lois Lowry, which is a beautiful book about life, death, sisterhood, feminism, and family. I cannot recommend it to readers of all ages highly enough.
I’ve been writing and editing so much YA this year I’ve actually been filling my reading breaks with tons of nonfiction as sort of a literary palate cleanser. But two books that really stood out to me in 2013 were Leila Howland’s Nantucket Blue and Stephanie Kuehn’s Charm & Strange. I also loved beyond all reason Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt, which is not technically a YA book but is about teenage characters. I read it months ago and I still think about it constantly.
Ooh I loved Tell the Wolves I’m Home – such a haunting book. I like your taste in books!
Tattoos are very important in INK. The tattoo shop is the family business, and Kellie’s mother says her first tattoo changed her life. Is that similar to your relationship with tattoos? What is your favorite tattoo?
It’s definitely similar, though not as dramatic as Kellie’s mom’s story! My first tattoo was very small, and not very meaningful. But as I got older, I realized that for me, there was great and deep emotional resonance with the images I chose to have inked on me forever. Therefore many of my tattoos have very personal meanings to me.
It’s tough playing favorites with my tattoos, but probably my favorite is a line from a song in the musical Hair on my right bicep that was designed and inked by Stephanie Tamez. It’s actually not one of my more personal tattoos but the design work blew me away, and I love how it looks on me.
Humor plays a role in both of your books, and I loved Kellie’s humor column for the school newspaper. Since you do improv, I’m wondering if the two worlds intersect and you get inspiration from improv for your books, or vice versa.
Believe it or not, I’d written the entire first draft of INK and nearly all of the first draft of REECE before I started taking improv classes. I actually never thought of comedy as something that was for me. I grew up in the early-mid 1990s, and I was very much into being SERIOUS…which is so weird to look back on now because I was definitely a lot like Kellie, making wisecracks and having a hard time not being a smartass.
That said, once I got into improv, it really changed a lot about how I approach writing. Improv forces you to make quick decisions, to invent solid justification, to work with others, to be open to new ideas. And all of that is fantastic for writing, whether or not you’re writing comedy. And of course because I am a writer, there were definitely things about improv that came more easily to me, just because I’m used to creating characters and coming up with plot, etc.
My editor Stacy asked me after reading the first draft of INK if I could make it funnier, and what was exciting about that is I loved being set loose to do that on purpose. And so that really informed Kellie’s newspaper columns, as well as some of her inner observations I’d been trying to reign in just a bit before.
My third book KISSING TED CALLAHAN (AND OTHER GUYS) is the first time I actually sat down to write a comedy, and it was a very weird but fun experience. Normally I was going for more of an organic feel within a scene if something happened to be funny, so this was the first time I’d actually call up friends and say, “Is this funny?” and get all comedy nerdy with trying to find the game of scenes and such. I’m excited to see what people think, but I’ll have to wait until Spring 2015 to find out!
INK is set in your hometown of St. Louis, while REECE is set in your current stomping ground, Los Angeles. I personally loved seeing familiar landmarks in REECE. I’m wondering what the setting for your next book will be, or is there anything else you can share about it?
TED is set in L.A. as well, but on the eastside in Los Feliz, Silver Lake, and Echo Park, as opposed to the Valley, which was fun because I live in Los Feliz. I love including real landmarks in my books, and INK was so fun for me because a lot of Kellie’s hangouts are where my high school best friend and I logged countless hours (and even a few where we like to hang out now when I’m back visiting). It felt like such a natural fit to write about high school in the general area where I actually went to high school. (To be fair, Kellie lives in a much cooler part of the city than I did!)
Moving forward I’ll probably revisit St. Louis, and then back to L.A. as well. I love writing about cities I know inside and out, so I’m not sure if I’m confident to tackle somewhere I’ve never actually lived. But we’ll see. I like giving myself challenges.
It’s a treat for us Angeleno’s to read about our home city!
I really respond to the tone of your novels. Your books are witty, engaging and smart, and the teen dialogue is very realistic. Have you always been a writer, and what inspires you to write these stories?
Yes, I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was very young, and I was constantly working at it. But for a long time, I thought if I were going to write books, they had to be Important and Serious and Literary, and that was frustrating because it just didn’t come naturally to me, and my stories came out wrong when I forced it.
Then I discovered YA lit, back in 2007 or so, and I flew through about a billion Meg Cabot books in a few sittings, and I realized…I could write friendships and family and relationships and sexism and all of that stuff that comes up in life…and still have fun! I didn’t have to shoehorn my voice into something more serious. And that really changed everything for me. I wrote INK the next year and I’m so glad I let myself just create the story and characters with my natural writing voice.
That’s good advice for any budding writers out there to write what they know.
Sexuality is portrayed in a positive way in INK, with Kellie deciding when she’s ready, and taking responsibility for birth control. Is “sex-positive” something you strive to show in your books?
Yes, absolutely! This is something I really believe in, and it is very important to me. If you look at real-life statistics, the majority of people have sex for the first time in their teens. And yet in many books, sex is presented–especially with girls–as this fully serious, terrifying, life-changing event. There’s also often a subtext of “bad boys want it from you, and good boys don’t mind waiting”, whereas the realities are so much more nuanced than that.
Of course sex should be taken seriously. People should be educated about birth control, and no one should ever do anything they aren’t comfortable with. But lots of girls want to have sex! And lots of good guys want to have sex! And sometimes people wait to know they’re in love, and sometimes people don’t, and sometimes people don’t want to have sex yet at all, and if everyone is being careful and respectful, it’s all OK!
I felt like, growing up, a lot of the YA books I read would portray, like, a boy trying to touch your boob as like the least respectful thing someone could do to you. And of course, boys, ASK TO DO THAT, but also, there always seemed to be such a striking divide between what girls I knew were going through and what girls I read about were going through. It’s important for me at least to write toward reality, but definitely with a sex-positive message.
Yes! And as a parent to a teen, I also appreciate the realistic approach to writing about sex.
The ending of INK is hopeful but open ended. Why did you decide to end the book where you did?
I always try to think about reality versus “book reality”. Obviously I always want to craft endings that are satisfying and answer as many questions as possible. But the thing about writing about real life is often real life is not that tidy. So I try to find the balance, and that’s why INK ended as it did. I definitely asked my editor if she minded that some ends were still loose, and I was pleased to learn she didn’t mind at all.
It’s nice to leave something to the imagination, rather than to see everything neatly tied up. Though at the same time, it’s natural for readers to get attached and want more 🙂
Kellie is into oldies music and vinyl in INK. Is there a classic tune that sums up INK for you?
I don’t have one sum-up song, but here are a few of Kellie’s (and my) favorite early-mid 1960s songs!
“Bus Stop” – The Hollies
“And Your Bird Can Sing” – The Beatles
“I Only Want to Be with You” – Dusty Springfield
“Got to Get You into My Life” – Cliff Bennett & The Rebel Rousers
“The Kids Are Alright” – The Who
You can give these tunes a listen on the playlist below. (Sorry, The Beatles are not on Spotify yet, so Matthew Sweet had to sub in)
Thanks for the chat, Amy and Entangled Teen! I can hardly wait to read Kissing Ted Callahan.
Amy Spalding is also the author of The Reece Malcolm List. She grew up in St. Louis and now lives in Los Angeles with two cats and a dog. She works in marketing and does a lot of improv.
Ink is Thicker Than Water is on sale now:
Check out my reviews of Amy’s books below: