Author Feature: Olivia Birdsall

Olivia Birdsall on Olivia Birdsall: “I was born and raised in Orange County, CA, the second of ten children. (People always ask me, ‘Sooo ten kids, how was that?’ like my parents must have been cousins, or lived on a commune or a dirt farm, or something…

“I really loved having all of those brothers and sisters. They’re all amazingly smart and beautiful and funny. That’s probably the most annoying part about it: too many superstars.)

“My family moved to Utah while I was in high school, which was difficult, but interesting. Growing up, I never thought I’d be a writer; I always thought I was destined to make lots of money and be very important, but beyond that, my career aspirations weren’t very consistent.

“I decided to major in English in college when I realized that I really loved reading, and talking about books and stories more than almost anything. I graduated from NYU with an MFA in Creative Writing in 2005, and I now teach writing at NYU full-time (which means about two or three days a week, seven months a year–it’s a dream job!).

Could you tell us about your path to publication, any sprints or stumbles along the way?

I began working on Notes on a Near-Life Experience (Delacorte, 2007) during my last year as an undergraduate. Back then it was a book about a dancer with an eating disorder whose older brother ran away and was living in a video arcade (I still want to write the story of the kid who runs away to live in a bizarre place like that).

I took a year off from writing it to work full-time and apply to grad school, and I worked on it off and on for two years at NYU. I sent it to the 2004 Delacorte contest (without an ending, but with a note that said I’d be more than happy to write a really great ending if they published it), and it was rejected. I re-submitted it the next year with a different first scene and with a pretty weak ending, and they took it. That made me a big believer in the importance of first scenes/chapters.

Was there anything during your apprenticeship that you felt was especially helpful? Was there anything you wish you’d skipped?

I really, really valued the encouragement and advice of my workshop groups and professors. I think I would have given up if they hadn’t told me time and again that I wasn’t a complete loser. I wish I hadn’t been so scared and critical of myself. I still feel as if I am my own worst critic and that the constant criticism and doubt that comes from my own brain prevents me from writing more, writing better, and taking bigger risks.

Congratulations on the publication of Notes on a Near-Life Experience (Delacorte, 2007)! Where did you get the initial idea for this book?

I wanted to write about redefining and reconstructing family because my own experiences with an evolving concept of family (divorce, the death of a sibling) were the ones that shaped me the most as a person. I think one of the most difficult things we face as we’re trying to figure out how to grow up is making sense of things that don’t look the way they do on TV, that don’t turn out the way you expected them to.

What was the timeline from spark to publication, and what were the major events along the way? In particular, could you tell us about your experience with the Delacorte Press contest?

I think I did that in the publishing question above… But, I do love to talk about myself, so…. Winning Delacorte was like having a dream fall out of nowhere into my lap. I didn’t feel like I had earned publication…. I thought I’d have to send out my manuscript to every publishing house on the planet and be rejected by all of them twice before I’d ever have anything published.

What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, logistical) in bringing it to life?

I’m not a very consistent writer. If I sat down and wrote, even for an hour, every day I’d churn out thousands of pages (albeit mediocre ones) a year. However, I am lazy and most often write under the gun (which is why having a workshop group, deadlines, etc. is still SO crucial for me); my biggest challenge is my own laziness and fickleness.

What is it like to be a debut author in 2007? What moments already stand out?

I really loved my book party. I organized it as a combination thirtieth birthday party and book party–it had a prom theme (in honor of the book)–we had a balloon arch where we took Polaroid pictures of all of the guests, a punch bowl, cookies, music from when I was in junior high and high school; my friends read anecdotes about their own high school experiences; we even ended it with a cheesy, awkward slow dance. It was pretty much the awesomest book party I’ve ever attended.

Are you doing anything special to promote your new release?

I’ve tried talking to everyone I know in journalism to get them to talk about my book and say nice things about it. I’ve offered free kissing lessons to anyone who’ll buy the book, but, come to think of it, no one has taken me up on it…strange. If you have any promotional suggestions, or if you know of a place that will let me a stage a Notes on a Near-Life Experience bake/book sale or car wash, please let me know. Seriously. Call me.

What do you love about the writing process and why?

I love what the process has the power to illicit from me. I love it when an especially beautiful, powerful, or hilarious turn of phrase shows up on my screen out of nowhere, like a gift. I love it when my characters refuse to do what I want them to, and ask me to tell a different story than the one I was planning on. I love all of this because it says writing really is about something more than self-gratification and self-indulgence; it can transcend the writer.

What about do you wish you could skip and why?

I wish I could skip the Internet surfing that I do to distract myself from writing, and the lack of confidence… I love the writing; I even enjoy revising to some degree, what bothers me is the time that I waste, that I just can’t bring myself to stop wasting.

How about publishing? What do you love about it? What do you abhor? And again, in both cases, why?

My experience with publishing is so limited. I wish that it moved faster, I guess. I wish that the publicity/promotion stuff was easier to figure out.

What advice do you have for beginning writers?

Write, write, write. Get a great workshop group. Give yourself deadlines. SUBMIT your work. And don’t beat yourself up; everyone sucks sometimes, and plenty of people who are writing worse books than yours have been published. Louise Plummer used to tell our class: “Good writers borrow; the best writers steal!” I think that’s great advice.

How about those interested in writing for the young adult audience in particular?

Don’t preach or moralize. Try to find out how teenagers live, talk, and interact NOW rather than relying solely on your own experience. Remember how smart your readers are.