Amy Zhang is the author of Falling Into Place (Greenwillow Books), a 2014 Summer/Fall Indies Introduce New Voices title for middle-grade readers and a top 10 pick on the Autumn Kids’ Indie Next List. Zhang is a recent high school graduate and is in her first year at Hamilton College.
“Liz is not very likable. She’s a mean girl who manipulates the people around her. And even she starts to think the world will be better off without her in it. But no matter how mean, or how manipulative Liz might be, there are people in her life who love her,” said Sara Hines of Eight Cousins in Falmouth, Massachusetts. “In Falling Into Place, Zhang has composed such a fascinating and captivating investigation of character and humanity that readers will find themselves actively rooting for Liz, desperate for her to realize in time that taking herself out of life is never the answer.”
What inspired you to write Falling Into Place?
Amy Zhang: The book actually started as two short stories: one about a girl who outlined her suicide in terms of Newton’s laws of motion, and one about an abandoned imaginary friend. I wrote both at the beginning of my sophomore year, so the settings — and the setting of Falling Into Place — looked a lot like my own town and high school. I drew things from my own high school experience: the things that made me happy, the things that made me unhappy, the things I felt powerless to change.
Your book deals with some serious issues (depression, suicide, teen pregnancy, bullying, addiction, death). Why do you think these themes are so important and popular for YA books?
AZ: I think people often don’t realize how relevant these topics are to teens — every teen, not just the ones who get labeled as troubled. I guess when I thought of Liz, the characteristic that stood out was her loneliness. One of the first things I saw when I first began outlining the book was the image of Liz sitting in her closet on the night before her suicide attempt, and that isolation is what made me understand her. You’re always isolated as a teenager. You feel alone in your thoughts, as though you’re the only one to ever think, really think — you’re afraid to have the opinions you’re developing and you’re afraid to share them. You also feel sort of isolated in time, because you’re not thinking about consequences. You only exist in the moment. I think high school can feel like one of the loneliest places in the world, and I think that reading books that feature these serious issues reminds teens that it doesn’t have to be.
The big discussion in children’s and teen literature right now is about diversity. What are your thoughts on diversity in children’s/YA books?
AZ: When I started writing, I had just moved from a fairly large, diverse city to a tiny, predominately white town in my last year of middle school. Honestly, I had kind of taken diversity for granted until I moved, and all of a sudden, I was one of three or four non-white people in my grade, and studying a curriculum that didn’t feature protagonists like me. I stopped wanting to be different. I remember being in the library once and looking at the display and thinking that very, very few covers featured models of color. A lot of them had white people almost kissing. I was not a white person almost kissing, and I couldn’t help but feel that these books just weren’t for me.
While writing one of the stories that would become Falling Into Place, I decided to avoid physical description — not to ignore the issue of diversity, but out of curiosity. It was an English assignment, so I wanted to know how my peer critique partners would picture my characters. It got discussions going. I made the same decision in Falling Into Place, and for the same reason — I wanted to get discussions going. I wanted diversity to be a relevant topic. I wanted people to think about it.
How does it feel to have a book published right out of high school? Can we ask what your after-graduation plans are?
AZ: Crazy. Exciting. Unreal. Terrifying. It’s the best feeling in the world.
My after-graduation plans mostly include drinking coffee, writing, and spending as much time with my friends as I can before we all head off to college. I’ll be going to Hamilton College this fall, but other than that, I have no idea what my plans are. I’m signed up for English classes and history classes and philosophy classes, but I have no idea what I’m going to major in yet.
Are you working on anything now?
AZ: Yes! I’m working on a book tentatively titled This Is Where the World Ends right now, which is about a boy who’s obsessed with apocalypses and a girl whose goal in life is to make the entire world fall in love with her. There’s spray paint and a coffee shop full of origami cranes and a dictionary of made-up words, and I can’t wait to share it with everyone!
Were books an important facet of your childhood? If so, what book had the greatest impact on you, as a child? How about as a young adult?
AZ: Definitely! I’m not sure there was one in particular that had the greatest impact on me, but The Magic Tree House series were probably the first books that I fell in love with, the first books that made me beg my parents to take me back to the library to get more. After that, I read everything I could get my hands on. I loved Harry Potter, obviously. Charlotte’s Web was the first book that ever made me cry. My copy of Holes by Louis Sachar is riddled with holes and falling apart from use. And for a while, I had the entire first chapter of Ella Enchanted memorized because I read it so often. I loved imperfect heroes. I wanted to know that I could be a klutz and a dreamer like Anne Shirley, or face stacked odds like Ponyboy Curtis did. I guess the kinds of books I fell in love with were the ones that taught that adventures aren’t a privilege, that I deserved one, that anyone can be a hero.
As a young adult, the first book that comes to mind is Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief. I cried for days after I read it, and it had a huge impact on me because it put things into perspective. I read it around the time I moved from St. Louis to Wisconsin — I hadn’t really made any friends yet, so I was constantly angst-ing about how much my life sucked, and how insignificant it was. The Book Thief made me feel like I could make a difference, and it was definitely one of the books that made me want to write.
What books are on your nightstand right now?
AZ: I don’t have a real nightstand, actually, but the books around my bed right now are: Say What You Will, by Cammie McGovern; Let’s Get Lost, by Adi Alsaid; Code Name Verity, by Elizabeth Wein; I’ll Give You the Sun, by Jandy Nelson; Midnight Thief, by Livia Blackburne; The Queen of the Tearling, by Erika Johansen; half of the Harry Potters; and The Young Elites, by Marie Lu.
If you were a bookseller for a day, what book would you want to put in every customer’s hand?
AZ: The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood. Besides just being a beautiful book that highlights so many societal issues, it was the book that taught me to have an opinion, and more importantly, to not be afraid of it. I think it’s a book everyone should read.
If you could invite three authors (past or present) to a dinner party, who would they be? What do you think would be the topic of conversation?
AZ: Definitely Margaret Atwood — I have so many questions! Some of the margins in my copy of The Handmaid’s Tale are practically black with my (totally illegible) notes. J.K. Rowling, because, I mean, duh. L.M. Montgomery, because she was one of the authors that made me fall in love with reading. As for the topic of conversation … I think I might be too focused on trying to remember how to speak English and fangirling and blushing tomato red. Honestly, I don’t know if I’d be capable of doing much more than gawking!
Falling Into Place, by Amy Zhang (Greenwillow Books, Hardcover, 9780062295040). Publication Date: September 9, 2014.
Learn more about Amy Zhang at amyzhangwrites.com.
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