Margie Gelbwasser is the author of “Inconvenient” and the upcoming novel, “Piece of Us,” which hits bookstores in March, 2012. Her debut novel “Inconvenient” chronicles the life of Alyssa, a Russian Jewish teen trying to navigate life in a town where the “American” Jewish kids think of her as too Russian, while the Russian community’s penchant for vodka-fueled helps turn her mother into an alcoholic. Alyssa just wants to run cross-country and hang out with her best friend Lana — maybe even hook up with her teammate Keith, but her family troubles are making everything complicated. Margie spoke to Teen Lit Rocks about the writing process, contemporary YA, and her fabulously nuanced protagonist. She also picked her personal top five YA books for us!
TLR: Tell us about your writing process. How long did it take from realizing you had a particular story to tell to having it published? Did you have an agent ready to work with you when you got started, or did you write your story and then worry about getting it published?
MG: The process for INCONVENIENT was loooong. It started out as my MA thesis in 2003. Back then, it was a story of three generations of one Russian-Jewish family. After I got my MA, I finished it—all 300+ pages of it—and began revising (or what I thought revising was back then). Took a writing class to get it workshopped, met some great friends, and they helped me revise more. I thought it was ready and sent it to agents, and….got a BUNCH of rejections. Turns out it just wasn’t working. And I saw that after awhile, but I had no clue how to fix it. The teen voice in one of the sections worked best, though, and spoke to me, so I scrapped the whole thing and channeled that voice. Then, I wrote 150 pages of the earliest draft of INC, but the characters were too one dimensional and it had problems too, so I scrapped that and started from scratch. Again. THAT became INC (or the first draft of it as we know it). I found my first agent (this is 2007 now) who gave me amazing feedback for revisions. I revised for about six months, and we went on sub. When she left the agency, my current agent took over, and she sold it to Flux. I did some revisions for my editor and almost 2 years later (in Nov. 2010), it was on the shelves. So, only 7 years form start to finish. Not long at all. Haha.
TLR: How hard is it to pitch a story without supernatural elements or a dystopian setting these days?
MG: I think there are many agents and editors still looking for contemp YA, and a good story is a good story. But I do think the market is better for paranormal and such. The thing is, it doesn’t matter because I write what I write and just hope people connect with the stories like I do. And that’s what I think other writers should do too, regardless of the genre. They should write to their strengths, be it paranormal, mystery, dystopian, contemp, etc. and the rest will work out.
TLR: Your background is similar to Alyssa’s; how much of the story is autobiographical?
MG: Well, Glenfair is very similar to the town I grew up in, Fair Lawn. Some of Alyssa’s high school experiences (like boys making fun of her for being Russian) parallel mine and the Russian-Jewish stuff like that mentality, the Russian restaurants, etc. are based on what I know. But Alyssa, herself, is more mature and confident than I was in high school. Also, my parents were not alcoholics. And, unlike Alyssa, I did not kiss anyone until I was 17. 🙂
TLR: I grew up with “Jewban” friends in Miami who said they were too Jewish for Cubans and too Cuban for American Jews… Do you feel the Russian Jewish experience is similar?
MG: That’s so interesting! I did not know people who were just Russian (minus the Jewish), but I know this was definitely the case for my parents in Russia. For me, the too Russian for the American Jews did ring true. Like Alyssa, I felt that some American-Jews I knew only saw the Russian part of me and did not consider me to be the same kind of Jew as them.
I tried to just make it real, but there are readers who think it was a little too steamy. I definitely did not want them having sex—not because I think that’s the wrong thing for a character to do—but because I didn’t feel it was right for Alyssa. I felt she had enough on her plate without dealing with losing her virginity too.
TLR: As a freelance journalist, I could relate to Alyssa’s mom struggles writing for various outlets (although I thankfully have never had such a hard-to-please editor!). Have you worked as a freelance writer? You describe the process so well.
Yes, some of Alyssa’s mom’s experiences came from my own. Like editors saying to make the writing “sexier.” What does that mean in regard to fungus?! And I did have one really pain-in-the-butt ed for a certain magazine. However, compared to the one Alyssa’s mom had, mine was an angel.
TLR: How did you research what it’s like to be around an alcoholic? Where do you see the line between “hard partying” parents and a parent who truly needs help? I imagine there are many Alyssas in the country wondering about that “line” as well.
The interesting thing is that after the book came out, I had one Russian woman tell me, “Well, yes, she drinks, but she’s not an alcoholic. Maybe to Americans, but not really.” So I think people raised a certain way still may not see the problem. To me, if the drinking interferes with how you are living your life, how you treat yourself and others, if the thought of not drinking is unbearable, if you can’t stop, that’s a problem. And, if a teen is wondering about the “line”, that in itself may be indicative that there’s a problem.
For research, I attended AA, Al-Anon, and Alateen meetings (I always asked permission first and explained my intent). I also interviewed children of alcoholics and recovering alcoholics and researched the stigma of being a Jewish alcoholic. There’s this myth that there is no such thing as a Jewish alcoholic and the fact that many AA meetings take place in churches make it easy for people to pretend it’s a disease that does not affect Jews.
TLR: Have you had any feedback from readers who sadly saw themselves in Alyssa’s place? What’s your advice for teens who aren’t sure if their otherwise loving parent is a substance abuser or not?
I have heard from a few readers who said their experiences mirrored Alyssa’s and who thanked me for writing this book. That meant a lot because, when dealing with a serious topic like this, you definitely want to portray it accurately since it’s a real pain so many feel. As for advice to teens, I think if there’s any question whether a parent is a substance abuser, teens should talk to their school guidance counselor, a clergy person, or call Alateen and speak to someone there. You can find Alateen and the correct contacts online.
TLR: The Alyssa and Lana story arc really moved me. The scene with the “popular kids” in the hot tub really gutted me and made me remember the awful parts of adolescence. What made you want to take their relationship there instead of have them be the stereotypical “BFFs” that are so commonplace in YA stories?
Thank you so much for that. The early draft (that 150 page one dimensional mess) had Lana acting all mean girl. There was nothing redeeming about her. One of my writer friends asked why Alyssa would be friends with her, and I couldn’t answer that. I realized I had to rework her because Alyssa would not be friends with someone completely awful. Further, no one is all bad or all good. And, in high school, I think it’s easy to just make someone “the bad one” but friendships—especially female ones—are complicated. I wanted to show that.
TLR: Tell us about your next book.
My next book is called PIECES OF US, and it will be published by Flux in March 2012. It is written inf 4 POV (one of them second person) and tells the story of 4 teens—2 brothers and 2 sisters from two separate families. It deals with digital abuse (sexting, sextual harassment, cyberbullying), sexual abuse, and how one teen’s actions affect the other three.