Interview with Jennifer E. Smith at Decatur Book Festival
This past weekend at the Decatur Book Festival, I had the wonderful opportunity to sit down with Jennifer E. Smith, the author of several well-known YA, contemporary novels, including The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight, This is What Happy Looks Like, and most recently, The Geography of You and Me. I really love her books (you can check out my review of her most recent book here on the site), and I was very excited to talk to her about Scotland (we both got our Masters degrees in Scotland!), new books, distance, festivals, book crushes, and more. Jen was absolutely lovely, and I can’t wait to see what comes next from her.
I wanted to talk to you first about Scotland because I went to the University of Stirling for my Masters.
It’s the best place ever, isn’t it?
Yes! I am in love with it.
Yes! I went to St. Andrews for my Masters. Stirling I’ve only driven through, so I’ve seen the castle but I’ve never really spent much time there. But I love Scotland so much, which you can tell if you’ve read [The} Geography [of You and Me]. I was basically looking for an excuse to set a book in Scotland.
It made me really happy. As I read all the Edinburgh pages, I was like, “It feels like home!”
It’s sort of a magical city anyway. I just fell hard for it. I love that place. I’ve only been back twice since I graduated from grad school, but I made so many good friends who are Scottish, so it’s so nice when I go back there and I can go around and visit them. It’s a nice excuse. I was just there a few weeks ago at the Edinburgh festival.
You were? I worked there last year. That’s so cool! Well, I just wanted to mention that.
I am always happy to talk about Scotland.
Can you describe yourself in three words?
Nose in book.
Oh, that’s good. Can you give me a one to two sentence intro to your books? The big three.
Yes. Statistical Probability [of Love at First Sight] is about a girl who meets a boy on a flight to London. She’s on her way to her father’s wedding to a woman she’s never met before and is not too happy about it. She sort of meets this boy Oliver at the exact right moment, then they get separated going through Customs and have to spend the second half of the novel trying to find each other again.
This is What Happy Looks Like is about an email that goes astray and connects two strangers on opposite ends of the country. It turns out the boy is a teen movie star and he ends up moving the location of his next movie to her small town in Maine. It takes place over the summer as they grapple with fame and the things that brings.
The Geography of You and Me takes place in a blackout in New York City when Lucy and Owen get stuck in an elevator together. Once they get out they kind of spend a magical night walking around New York City getting to know each other. Then circumstances happen such that they end up both moving to other locations. It’s kind of asking the question: you have these brief, instantaneous connections and then when time and distance become a factor, how long can those really last?
You probably know that your books are kind of known for their really creative and brilliant titles. If you had to come up with one for your life, what would it be?
I’m having a hard time even coming up with a title for my next book, so coming up with one for my life seems really hard. I think I’ve sort of set up this pattern for having very long, intricate titles, so it’s getting harder every time to come up with one. For my own life: This is What the Statistical Probability of Happiness Looks Like.
I like that a lot. Can I sneakily ask you to tell me about your next book?
Yes! So the next book will be out next fall. It’s about a couple who’s been together for two years, and it’s the night before they leave for college. They’re going to schools on opposite ends of the country, and they haven’t decided whether or not to break up yet. They spend their last twelve hours on the night before they leave revisiting all the places that were important to their relationship, like the sight of their first kiss, their first dance, that sort of thing, as they try to decide whether they should be optimistic or pragmatic about their chances of staying together through college.
That sounds really great! So I was going to ask you about fate, but now I want to ask you about the distance you put between the characters in your novels.
With this one it’s a little bit different. I keep joking that my last three books have been one big hello and this book’s one long goodbye. It’s been all kind of meet-cutes. It’s sort of a spark and then following what happens at the start of a relationship whereas this one is tracing what’s happening at a big crossroads in a relationship. They’ve been together for a lot longer; in this one, they’re together the whole time so they’re dealing with looming distance versus Geography, where I felt it was kind of the point to do this. I write and I read a lot of these books where there’s that instant connection. It’s one thing if you’re in the same place or you’re in the same school or the same town and you can let that play out, but it’s a whole different matter when big obstacles like distance get thrown at it very quickly. I wanted to show them, in very realistic situations…it’s natural that you spend one night with a stranger, and even if it feels so right, you’re going to meet other people in new situations and you’re going to think, “How long am I supposed to hold onto this? It did feel so right but there are so many odds against us. Does it make sense or is this the craziest thing ever to still be thinking about him?” I wanted to play around with that. Plus it was just an excuse to visit all my favorite locations.
I think what I really liked about The Geography of You and Me is that with that distance both of the characters got to know themselves first, but no matter what happened, they kept realizing they wanted to be with each other.
I think it’s so important to have the characters figure out their issues themselves, and the love story is almost secondary to that. It’s not like a boy is going to solve all the problems, so they’re all dealing with their own things. Sometimes it’s about meeting the right person at the right moment, but you have to do the hard work of sorting out your own stuff yourself.
I also like that the cities that they visit or live in almost become characters. They influence the characters much as a human character would.
Thank you. They’re all places I’ve been I’ve been before – except Portland, Oregon. I’ve never been there before, but I needed them to be moving up the west coast. It was such a fun way to do it, and there is a section of the book where they’re kind of short sections and they’re going to all these different places. It was so much fun to write and, like I said, get to revisit places that I love going to. Especially with Lucy – she’s always reading a book that’s by someone who’s from that country or is about that country. It was a fun way to trace their journey and have them literally, physically moving in opposite directions and emotionally they’re doing the same thing.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received from another author?
I didn’t receive this directly from the author, but the best thing, and the quote that I use all the time, is a quote that Meg Cabot wrote in a blog post, which is, “Your book is not a hundred dollar bill. Not everyone is going to like it.” I think about that all the time when I’m writing, when I’m reading reviews – not everyone is supposed to like it, not everyone is going to like it, and I think, as a writer, it’s such an important thing to bear that in mind otherwise you can get so tied up in worrying about what other people think. There’s a lot of noise out there, and you need to just write the book you want to write and hope it’s received as best as possible by as many people as possible, but it is not a one hundred dollar bill.
If you could introduce any two of your characters from separate books, who would it be and why?
That’s such a good question! I was joking with someone recently that I want to write a short story where there’s a party and all of my characters are randomly at the party. I do think that all of my characters would get along well, that they’re all similar types of people. I think it would be really fun to see what Oliver from Stat[istical Probability of Love at First Sight] and Graham from [This is What] Happy [Looks Like] would get up to hanging out together. I feel like they’re both witty and banter a lot and they would get up to some hijinks.
I can kind of picture that.
Yeah. It would be fun.
What is your favorite and least favorite part of festivals?
My favorite part is meeting readers. It’s such a nice way to do it because there’s such a great concentration of people and there’s such a good energy. Anyone who’s going to spend their Saturday at a book festival is the type of person I want to meet and the type of person who’s going to be really excited about your books and reading. It’s so much fun to get to meet people.
Do I have a least favorite part? I don’t really. I get nervous a little bit right before I go onto a panel, but the thing that I like about book festivals is that you generally are doing panels and it’s so much more fun than standing up there by yourself talking to people versus making it very conversational and having a lot of good banter between the authors. I love festivals. They’re so much fun.
Are you looking forward to your panel with Stephanie Perkins and…
I am! I had never met her before. I just met her last night for the first time. She was lovely and I’ve heard so many great things about her, so I’m excited. Our books often get spoken of together, so it’s nice to finally do a panel with her.
I think that’ll be an interesting panel because a lot of your books include travel and…
Yeah, and sort of fate.
I think I probably know the answer, but what’s your favorite place you’ve ever been?
Yeah! That’s the right answer. (Laughter from both).
Yeah, if I were ever going to live anywhere…when I sit around daydreaming about living anywhere but New York – I feel very lucky to live in New York – I am constantly dreaming of Scotland.
Me, too! I want to live in Edinburgh.
Yes! It’s a fairytale city.
Do you have an author crush?
On them or on their book?
You know, I love John Green – his books and him. In terms of just loving other people’s books, I’m such a huge fan of David Levithan, Rainbow Rowell, Gayle Forman, Jenny Han, so many great contemporary writers. The book that I just wish I had written, that I read and was like, “I love this so much. I am so jealous that I didn’t write this book,” is Wonder. I am obsessed with Wonder. I don’t know if you’ve read it.
I’m listening to the audiobook right now.
It is so brilliant. I’ve read it three times, and I just can’t get enough of it. That’s my book crush of the last year or so.
Cool. So what book are you reading right now?
I’m reading The Cuckoo’s Calling, the Robert Galbraith/JK Rowling. It’s really good so far; I’m only about 50 pages in, but I’m really enjoying it. I’ve just finished To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before – Jenny Han’s new book – which I loved. I just finished Grasshopper Jungle, Andrew Smith’s book; it’s wonderfully weird.
Is there anything else you’d like to say?
Just that I’m so happy to be here, and this was a lot of fun. Thanks so much for interviewing me.
Thank you for letting me!
I’m a mismatched socks, overflowing bookshelves, pot of coffee a day, Sonic Screwdriver, paint all over my fingers, rock-paper-scissors-lizard-Spock kind of girl with alopecia. I am a huge bibliophile. For more reviews, visit my book blog at caughtreadhanded.wordpress.com.