Interview with Corey Ann Haydu

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Corey Ann Haydu is the author of YA novels, Life by Committee and The Careful Undressing of Love, as well as the middle-grade novel Rules for Stealing Stars. A graduate of The New School’s Writing for Children MFA program, Corey also teaches YA and Children’s Novel Writing for everyone from kids to graduate students. She has worked with Arizona State University, Rosemont College, Mediabistro, and Writopia. Up next for Corey is the middle-grade novel Eventown, coming in Winter 2019 and the YA novel Her Stillness, coming out in 2020. Corey lives in Brooklyn with her husband, her dog, Oscar, and a wide variety of cheese.

Julia Shelton: Do you brainstorm with other people when writing a story?

Corey Ann Haydu: So much has shifted over the years for me in my process. Currently the main people I brainstorm with are my agent and editor. There are times when I reach out to my writer-friends for help, but at the moment my agent and editor are my main sources of creative collaboration. And it truly is a collaboration! My agent is great at helping me identify early issues and gives me incredible input, often really jumpstarting my brain.

My editors have all always been extremely collaborative, often helping me translate a vague idea into something more concrete or pushing me to be more thoughtful and deliberate with world-building. These are true collaborative relationships, where the bones of my books come from three minds, not just one. I’ve been really lucky in this respect, as collaboration is an important part of my personal creative process.

JS: Who are your author inspirations? Are there any books or characters that have influenced your writing?

CH: I’m hugely influenced by other authors! The books I fell the hardest for in my teen years were Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar and Sandra Cisneros’ The House on Mango Street. I think I draw on both of these incredible texts. Plath showed me the power of vulnerability and how beautiful it can be to write about the ugliness of life. And Cisneros showed me how moving specificity is, how important it is to storytelling. She also really opened doors for me into form and how varied and creative storytelling could be.

JS: Did you ever consider writing under a pseudonym?

CH: I haven’t thought about it for any of my current books, but I do love tackling projects outside of my comfort zone, so I could see a scenario where I might be interested in writing under a pseudonym, for the purposes of exploring stories that really don’t fit with what readers expect from me. That said, so far, I have certainly challenged myself in terms of age, genre, and storytelling strategies, and haven’t yet needed to use a different name for any of that!

JS: How do you feel that your writing has most improved from your first book to now?

CH: Probably in almost every way. OCD Love Story wasn’t the first novel I ever completed, but it was very early on and there is SO much to learn when you are writing novels. Most of all, I think, confidence. Confidence is what helps you not rely on writing ticks, and helps you challenge yourself, and helps you take risks in your work. So, to me the biggest improvement in my writing is actually a shift in myself—confidence, less fear, more willingness to take risks.

JS: Do you have a favorite character or one that you relate to the most?

CH: Silly from Rules for Stealing Stars is probably the character I feel the most connected to. That book is the most personal book I’ve written, and Silly was the first time I wrote in a middle-grade voice. Reconnecting to the world of an eleven-year-old was really valuable to me and I think I drew on a part of myself I hadn’t spent much time thinking about before. I love the gentle way she sees the world, and how hard she tries to find her way.

JS: Do you have any scenes or types of plot that are your favorite to write? Or perhaps do you prefer to write dialogue or descriptions, etc.?

CH: I used to be an actor and playwright, so I have a particular interest in dialogue. I love trying to inhabit my character’s brains and authenticity is always important to me. I think authenticity is the biggest challenge with dialogue—how to make it sound both real and original to your characters. And anything that’s a challenge is extra-fun for me!

JS: What is it like having other established authors like Katherine Applegate, Lauren Mryacle, Anne Ursu, etc. write blurbs for you?

CH: Oh gosh it’s about as big an honor as you can imagine. The idea that they’re even reading my work is such a thrill, and then that they’ll offer their names to go on my book is just such a generous act. So much of writing is a solitary business, so getting to connect with other’s in the industry—especially those you look up to and admire—is a real joy at the end of a long book-writing process.

JS: Are there certain themes that you are passionate about writing?

CH: I would say all of my books have a feminist slant. I write about what it is to be a girl. I think there’s endless ways to explore that question and that it’s especially important in this moment in time. I’m especially interested in expectations placed on girls and young women, and all my work has to do with those expectations, with the desire to be perfect, to be able to save or help or fix the people and things around you. The big conflict in most of my books is the same big conflict I’ve come up against over and over—the very things the world wants from me are the same things that are painful or hard or impossible for me to do while still being true to myself. My books explore navigating that space—between who you are and what the world expects of you.

JS: Was it difficult writing about subjects that you have experiences with? Like writing about mental illness struggles in OCD Love Story?

CH: I mostly find it really exciting to write about things that I have experience with. With OCD Love Story, the response was much trickier than the writing. I was shocked to find so many readers turned off by a character that I felt I had so much in common with. It was difficult hearing reader feedback that framed mental health issues as something “scary” or “gross” or “weird.”

The book I had the hardest time writing, from a personal place, was Rules for Stealing Stars, as I also have a parent who has struggled with alcoholism. My original intention with that book was to write a situation that felt very different than mine, something I could have a lot of space from. But ultimately, to make the book compelling and the emotional journey more complete, I had to draw on my personal life much more than I expected, at a time when I wasn’t necessarily excited to do that.

That said, I’m so happy I did it. I know now that I wrote something really true and honest, and I’m a big believer that shame and hiding and lying about mental health and addiction struggles are what hold us back the most from recovery. So, I’m proud that I went there and that I told the truth about something that hurt.

JS: What advice would you give yourself when you first started out writing? What kept you motivated to finish that first draft?

CH: Keep finding the joy. I’ve loved writing my whole life. And writing from a place of joy is what works best for me and what keeps me motivated. Of course, there are hard writing days, but I always try to connect myself to my love of stories and words and writing. I try to remember journaling in my closet when I was ten and writing a picture book with my best friend growing up when we were eight and making a homemade book of angsty vignettes when I was a senior in high school. As long as I can connect to the joy of writing and the joy of the writing life, I can stay disciplined. I wish I’d focused on that more when I was first starting out, so that I could have avoided all impulses to compare myself to others or get caught up in the business side of things.

JS: Do you have a love for snow like Clover and Danny do in The Someday Suitcase?

CH: I do! I’m from a family of Vermonters, and I’ve always been a winter girl. I like a nice summer day, but I’ll take sweaters and coziness and trudging through the snow over all the beaches in the world. I loved writing a character who shares that passion, but for whom snow is still a mysterious, unreachable, magical thing.

JS: The Someday Suitcase definitely made me cry, but in a good way. What was the last book that made you cry?

CH: I just read Shannon Hale and LeUyen Pham’s Real Friends, and that made my cry. It’s a beautiful graphic novel about the pain of childhood friendships and it’s written with such specificity and texture that it reminded me of how hard those grade school years are. And how worth it is to get to the other side, where your friendships as an adult can be positive and intimate and beautiful. I felt grateful for that journey. Also, I’m pretty pregnant, so almost everything makes me cry right now!

JS: Clover seems to really struggle between her love of science and her fascination of magic before accepting a world where they both coincide. Do you think the world is made up of both magic and science?

CH: Absolutely! I love both perspectives of the world. I’m a learner, so I love learning about how things work from a science point of view—my husband is in the medical field and is science-minded, so I’m always interested to learn from him. But I also have a dreamy side, and think the world is pretty magical and special and lovely. I think it’s exciting that there’s so much we don’t know.

I also think there’s magic within science. Just because we understand why something is the way it is doesn’t make it any less spectacular. Sometimes that just adds to the magic for me.

JS: Were there any parts of The Someday Suitcase specifically that were hard for you to write? How was it navigating the theme of grief and loneliness for a young audience?

CH: Certainly, the end of the book was a challenge to write. I don’t want to give anything away but suffice to say it’s hard to deliver pain to a character that you know has worked hard to have things work out. And with a middle grade novel, I want to show both the truth of things and the hope in even the most painful moments. I’m a big believer that hope and wonder grow out of pain, so finding a way to access both of those things is challenging.

JS: I really appreciated how you portrayed Clover’s deep fear of being the only person who could save Danny. I would be afraid now as an adult if I thought I was the magic cure to someone’s mysterious illness. I can’t imagine my fear as a fifth-grader, but it was so inspiring to see Clover push that all aside because it was Danny and it didn’t matter if she was afraid. That is an extremely powerful message. Is their relationship based on reality and if not, how did you give life to their incredible bond?

CH: I’ve been lucky to have really incredible friendships in my life, so in some ways I drew on all of those friendships to give life to Danny and Clover. But more than that, I wanted to write about codependency in a new way. And I think for Danny and Clover, they have a magical, beautiful friendship bond, but a lot of the book is also about Clover having to learn that she matters on her own too. That’s definitely a lesson I’ve had to learn over and over in my own life. When you love the people in your life, sometimes you want to do anything for them, even if it hurts you. Clover’s real lesson is that you can have that big hearted love for your friend… AND for yourself.

JS: Were there any parts from The Someday Suitcase that you were disappointed that you had to cut out? Or were there any parts that were added in later that you were really excited about?

CH: I revise so much over time that I actually find it pretty easy to let go of things. One of the themes that came up in later drafts, thanks to my editors, was symbiosis. I hadn’t seen the obvious connection between that scientific term and Danny and Clover’s relationship at first, so drawing that out was incredibly satisfying and exciting for me, because I knew it was such a perfect way to connect science and friendship.

JS: What advice do you have for switching between multiple points of view in a story?

CH: This isn’t something I’ve really done in my published books, actually. All of my published books have been in first person, so I’ve stuck with that one point of view. In some of the projects I’m currently working on I have played a little with different POVs and I don’t have any concrete advice except that it’s hard and you need to find ways to differentiate your characters, but without veering into something that feels forced. The more you know about your characters, the more easily their natural voices will come out.

JS: What do you think is the best way for an aspiring author to grow in their writing?

CH: Experiment with different writing routines and processes. There are so many ways to approach writing—outlining vs. not-outlining. Writing 1000 words a day vs writing in big long stretches once a week. Revising as you go vs. getting out a very messy first draft. And then even things like writing at home vs. in a café, morning vs night, longhand or on the computer. I think with so much variation in what works, it’s worthwhile to see what works for you by trying things out. Don’t assume that your gut is right on how to best approach the writing process. Give yourself a chance to surprise yourself and discover how creativity flows for you. Even if outlining sounds awful—try it! I’ve always been a “pantser”—flying by the seat of my pants—but as my career has evolved there’s been many reasons for me to write synopses for my editors of books I’m going to write. This has been wonderful for my messy process. I’ve found that having a loose roadmap is better for me than no roadmap at all (and better for me than a detailed, intricate roadmap). And I wouldn’t have discovered that reality if I hadn’t been forced to write a synopsis that I was dreading writing. Give yourself a chance to learn new things about yourself and your brain. That’s how you grow!

Missed our review of The Someday Suitcase by Corey? Check it out now!

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