The PEN Ten: An Interview with Marisa Reichardt
1. What was the first book or piece of writing that had a profound impact on you?
When I first picked up Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld, I felt like my creative world shifted. I was finally reading what I wanted to do—what I wanted to write. The prose was stunning and succinct and brimming with the raw honest truth of being a teenage girl in all its messy glory. I had always written stories about teenagers, and something about that book validated things for me, which I think is a little bit sad in retrospect. I shouldn’t have needed to be validated. Is it that society somehow trains us to think stories about girls—particularly teenage girls—matter less?
I can think of multiple times as a teenage girl when I was made to feel that what I loved, or what I was passionate about, was silly or trite or not good enough. I’m sure I carried some of that insecurity with me into adulthood and into my art. How sad that is. But now I embrace it. The need to validate pushes me to be as authentic as possible in my portrayal of teen girls, and I’m fully invested in telling their stories. Prep was the jumping-off point. I’m so grateful I found it and took the leap.
2. What does your creative process look like? How do you maintain momentum and remain inspired?
A lot of my creativity, momentum, and inspiration happens when I’m not sitting at the computer. I’m not married to the idea that you have to stay in the chair or that you have to write every day on a schedule to be successful. That’s not to say I don’t try to do this most of the time, but writing every day is also a luxury life doesn’t always afford. When I do get stuck in my writing, I have to get up. I have to lose myself in a Netflix binge. I need to swim in the ocean. I want to connect with a friend and laugh or complain about a million things. It’s essential that I refuel emotionally and physically to keep momentum and find inspiration. Of course, there are times when I must push through, but I’ve gotten better at recognizing when I’m truly burned out versus being lazy.
“I can think of multiple times as a teenage girl when I was made to feel that what I loved, or what I was passionate about, was silly or trite or not good enough. I’m sure I carried some of that insecurity with me into adulthood and into my art. How sad that is. But now I embrace it. The need to validate pushes me to be as authentic as possible in my portrayal of teen girls.”
What I’ve recognized is that my creative process is always happening. I’m constantly taking things in, making note of something I overhear in the checkout line at the grocery store or what someone being interviewed on the local news has to say about a bad thing that happened or what someone is wearing while cruising past the beach on a skateboard. There’s a constant filing system running through my mind, tucking away information and tidbits of personalities, and eventually, they’ll come out in a story.
I’ve actually been dealing with some health issues with my mom over the last few months. I was lamenting to a friend that I wasn’t writing as much as I felt like I should be because all of my energy was focused on her. I was feeling guilty. He told me, “You are writing. You’re just not putting it down on paper.” That was so true. I know I have things to say about what is happening right now, but I’m still processing it. Eventually, it will come out on paper. It will live and breathe. And that’s also when it won’t be mine anymore.
3. What is your favorite bookstore or library?
There is a special place in my heart for my college libraries. Specifically, Geisel Library at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) as an undergraduate and Doheny Library at the University of Southern California (USC) for graduate school. It’s interesting because the architectural styles of each building could not be more opposite. Geisel looks like a futuristic spaceship, with its six stories rising like a beacon above campus, as its mirrored windows reflect images of sunbursts and eucalyptus trees. While Doheny stands regally in the center of the USC campus in a classic nod to Romanesque Revival architecture, looking the way I imagined a college campus should look when I was a teenager. The only thing missing is a tangle of ivy vines creeping up the concrete walls.
I spent a lot of time in both of these libraries, either tucked into a corner writing or combing through the endless shelves of books for research. They were a sanctuary—a place to escape the constant activity of bustling campuses. I loved getting lost in them. I’d love to get lost in them again.
“I think my identity reveals itself in styles, themes, and messages. Where I grew up, the sports I played, the people I loved and loathed, these all show up in my writing. I’m constantly trying to get answers about grief and guilt, and it surfaces—as well as isolation and the idea of being on the outside looking in—time and again in the stories I tell.”
4. How does your identity shape your writing? Is there such a thing as “the writer’s identity?”
My brother once said of my first book, “This book isn’t Marisa’s life, but Marisa’s life is all over this book.” I think a writer’s identity can’t help but seep into the work at least a little bit, but if I actually wanted to tell my own story, I’d write a memoir. I think my identity reveals itself in styles, themes, and messages. Where I grew up, the sports I played, the people I loved and loathed, these all show up in my writing. I’m constantly trying to get answers about grief and guilt, and it surfaces—as well as isolation and the idea of being on the outside looking in—time and again in the stories I tell.
I’m seeking answers to these questions in real life, too. I don’t think there has ever been a time when I didn’t think of myself as a writer. My first grade teacher told my parents I was a writer. So did my fourth grade teacher and my sixth grade teacher. And every English teacher in high school. It was an identity that followed me throughout my life. I was “the writer” in high school. Journalism class and working on the newspaper saved me in my teen years. I don’t mean this hyperbolically. When I was close to failing altogether, my ninth grade English teacher took me aside to say, “Whatever you do, sign up for journalism next year. You need to be writing.” I’m grateful others saw my potential even when I didn’t. And by the time I was a senior, it was a given that I’d pursue creative writing in college and graduate school.
Yet, somehow, I spent a lot of time writing things that weren’t what I wanted to write. I worked in academic publications. I tried my hand at poetry and screenplays. I freelanced. Once I finally sat down to write a book, I realized I was a novelist. And I’ve never looked back.
“There’s something really special about writing YA because everything during that time of life just feels so much bigger. So many rites of passage are happening. So many experiences are first-time experiences. That inspires me.”
5. What advice do you have for young writers: both those young in age and those who might be older, but young in the craft?
Finish. Get yourself from beginning to end. Until you have a full first draft, you don’t have anything, and if you do have a full first draft, you are way ahead of most people who say they want to write. Once you’ve seen something all the way through, the real work can begin. You can cut and add and shape and mold. You can polish and shine.
In addition to this, read widely. Find trusted critique partners, and be open to honest critical feedback from people who understand the story you’re trying to tell as opposed to the one they’d tell. Be gentle with yourself and selfish with your creative time. Consume the things that inspire you, whether they be other books, movies, or music. Be aware. Know that there is inspiration to be found in the most ordinary things because being a writer is a full-time experience that can take place beyond the keyboard.
6. Why do you think people need stories?
To feel seen. To be heard. To process emotions. To find hope. To feel less alone. Stories open up worlds and experiences we might not know otherwise. They’re a bridge, and we’re better humans for having them.
7. What inspires you to write for a YA audience? How do you think the craft of YA storytelling differs versus writing for the mainstream literary audience?
I’ve yet to come up with a story idea that wasn’t one for a YA audience. There’s something really special about writing YA because everything during that time of life just feels so much bigger. So many rites of passage are happening. So many experiences are first-time experiences. That inspires me.
But I never set out thinking, “I have things to say to teenagers and this is how I’m going to do it.” I’d be in trouble if I thought like that. The last thing I ever want to be is pandering or cautionary. I’m not here for that, and neither are the teen readers I know. For this reason, I believe writing for a YA audience comes with more responsibility than writing for a mainstream literary audience. Not just a responsibility to give teens a space to process, but a responsibility to give them the truth. I have a deep respect for teen readers. They’re smart, they’re engaged, they’re passionate, and as a result, they’re the best fans. But they also know when they’re being talked down to, and I never want to be an author that does that.
8. The protagonist, Juniper, and her friend/love interest Nico bond over pop culture. Apart from books, what other media (movies, music, etc.) influenced A Shot at Normal and your writing in general?
Music is always a huge influence on my writing. One of the things I do with each book is craft a music playlist. When I sit down to write, I put in my AirPods and press play. Once I listen enough times, those songs and the repetitiveness of the playlist trigger the part of my brain that knows it’s time to work and tell stories—to tell that specific story. As I relate a specific playlist with whichever specific book I’m writing, the two things work together in a really wonderful way. I can also listen to the playlist when I’m cleaning the house, working out, or driving around town. If I’m stuck on something in the story, just listening to my playlist makes me think about the story again and maybe—hopefully—figure out how to fix it.
In addition to music, movies also played a big role in writing A Shot at Normal. Having Nico be a film buff was a fun challenge. To think of his character, and what he would respond to most, was a joy. I watched a lot of Nico’s favorite movies. I was inspired by them. Additionally, having Nico be involved with the school’s film club meant I could reference movies that might not be typically found in YA books. I do think people sometimes sell young adult audiences short when they say writers should remember teens weren’t born before this song came out or that film came out. With all the streaming platforms available these days, teens are accessing swathes of music and films.
My daughter is a senior in high school, and there is not a single movie or song mentioned in A Shot at Normal that she doesn’t know—and many of them came out before she was born. That being said, I still try to be mindful of modern-day consumption and trends. The beautiful thing is that the core experiences and universal truths of being a teenager haven’t changed exponentially from decade to decade.
9. Questions about vaccination and public health ethics are very timely in light of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. How do you see your book fitting into this conversation? Has anyone told you that A Shot at Normal feels prescient?
I actually have been told that A Shot at Normal feels prescient. It’s an honor to hear that. I first came up with the idea for this book in 2018, and I drafted it in 2019. It seemed timely then, but now it was released in the middle of a global vaccination effort as we try to get a worldwide pandemic under control. To say that’s surreal is an understatement.
“What happens when we discover that we disagree with our parents fundamentally? Morally? Politically? Religiously? This is what really drove me in telling Juniper’s story.”
While the measles is at the forefront of A Shot at Normal, I do believe the book fits into the current conversation around COVID-19. One of the driving forces in Juniper’s push to get vaccinated is that she wants to take responsibility for the role she plays in protecting the health of others, particularly the more vulnerable around her. That is what our last year has been about. “Wear a mask. Stay home.” So much of this messaging is about protecting the health of others.
Additionally, with the COVID-19 vaccine rollout, vaccine hesitancy and the conspiracy theories—and false and misguided information efforts that come along with them—are getting a lot of attention. I’d love to see Juniper’s story inspire conversations for anyone who has grappled with the issue of vaccination, especially the teens who don’t have a voice in the decision. Ultimately, I hope this book will be even more meaningful because of our current situation.
10. How did you balance the more traditional coming-of-age plotlines (e.g., Juniper’s relationship with Nico) within this book versus the overarching societal commentary (i.e., the question of vaccination)?
While Juniper tackles some big questions, at the story’s core, her struggle with her parents is universal. It’s very teen. “What happens when I no longer agree with my parents? What happens when I find out they’re not perfect?” Most of us can remember the first time we found out our parents didn’t know everything like we thought they did. (I mean, my own mom still insists on putting two spaces after a period.) But what happens when we discover that we disagree with our parents fundamentally? Morally? Politically? Religiously? This is what really drove me in telling Juniper’s story. That the issue was about something bigger than putting two spaces after a period is what made it compelling.
But I think that because the core of the story was so universal, the balance came naturally. Juniper not having her vaccinations means she’s legitimately not allowed to do very specific things, like attend public school. Because of this, it’s easy for Juniper to conclude that she’s missing out on every rite of passage of teenagerhood by not being vaccinated. So when she opens the door to challenging her parents, one step equals two equals three. Juniper continues to push the boundaries, and thus, sets off on a journey of self-discovery as well.
By having Juniper experience all of these very typical teenage experiences for the first time, I was able to offer a nice balance to the heaviness she’s dealing with in her legal fight to be vaccinated. And writing those typical teen moments for someone who is experiencing them for the first time was emotional and heartfelt, and a good reminder to not take typical things for granted. The irony is that this book was written pre-COVID. To have it come out at a time when so many high school students are longing for and missing out on the same experiences Juniper does is bittersweet. I never could’ve imagined how much more relatable Juniper and her story would be.
Marisa Reichardt is the critically acclaimed author of the YA novels A Shot at Normal, Aftershocks, and Underwater. She has a master’s of professional writing from the University of Southern California and dual degrees in English & American literature and creative writing from the University of California San Diego. Before becoming a published author, Reichardt worked in academic publications, tutored high school students in writing, and shucked oysters. These days, you can probably find her huddled over her laptop in a coffeehouse or swimming in the ocean.