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October 3, 2010

U of C alum shows the ordinary side of "Gossip Girl"

Before Leila Sales (A.B. ’06) was an author of young adult fiction and an assistant editor for Viking Children’s Books, she was a cast member of Off-Off Campus and a humor columnist for the Maroon. Before that, she was a student at a girls’ prep school in Boston. So when she writes about Violet Tunis, a junior at Boston’s renowned Westfield School, who no doubt will be accepted to Harvard next year—or if that falls through, Yale, or Columbia, or the University of Chicago—Sales knows of whence she speaks. Violet, the protagonist of Sales’s first novel Mostly Good Girls, has more than college visits to contend with. She’s also busy revamping Westfield’s lit mag, winning Scott Walsh’s love, and when time allows, doing awesome projects with her best friend, Katie Putnam. This summer, Sales talked to the Maroon about dreaming up Violet and Katie and then getting the duo and their adventure into a bookstore near you.

Chicago Maroon: Is it difficult being in your mid-twenties and writing for people who are much younger than you?

Leila Sales: Right now I’m finding it pretty easy. High school isn’t that long ago. It’s 10 years ago, but presumably what kids think about hasn’t changed that much in 10 years.

I started writing another book after Mostly Good Girls, and it’s about this teenage girl who learns she’s going to be alone for the rest of her life and that she’s never going to get married. And my editor was like, “With all due respect, I think this is something people in their twenties are concerned about, but I don’t think teenagers are. They know that even if no one at their high school is right for them, they’re going to grow up and meet people who are right for them.”

And there are parts in Mostly Good Girls, like a scene at a high school dance where boys are grinding with girls, and I thought, “I wonder if they still call it grinding?” We called it grinding, but does that change?

CM: Did you google it? Urban Dictionary?

LS: I Urban Dictionary–ed it. My other plan was finding some teenager in my neighborhood and saying, “Sir, do you talking about ‘grinding?’”

CM: One unusual aspect of Mostly Good Girls is that, with maybe one exception, nothing big happens—no catastrophes, no major crimes. Violet and Katie actually talk about how exciting things aren’t happening to them. Why did you choose to avoid those sorts of plot points?

LS: It’s not new to write a teen novel set in an elite prep school. People love doing that because there’s this aspirational appeal, but when you read books like Gossip Girl, or watch The O.C.—these representations of kids at exclusive schools—that isn’t what it’s like to go to an exclusive school.

I went to a kind of fancy prep school in Boston, and it was more like things are in my book. You’re stressed out all the time, you’re thinking about studying and issues with your friends. It’s not the Gossip Girl world of constant drugs and sex.

CM: But a lot of things do happen in your book, even if they are relatively normal. Was much of it inspired by stuff you saw or did at your prep school?

LS: All the people in there are made up, but some of the weird stuff absolutely happened at my school.

Like the bit where, during fire drills, the girls have to wave at the building next door. We had to do that, when we lined up for fire drills and we had to wave at the building next door. Or Maintenance Man Appreciation Day, the day where they’re supposed to be really nice to people who they otherwise pretend don’t exist? That was real. We had Maintenance Man Appreciation Day. Some of the stuff you couldn’t make up.

CM: Would you ever write a book that does something similar with your experiences at the U of C?

LS: I don’t know. Maybe someday. I’m really into doing the young adult thing now, teen novels. You can’t set teen novels at college because most of the readers aren’t there, and they’re not that interested in it, as a general rule. But maybe someday. What would happen in a book like that about the U of C?

CM: Yeah, I was wondering if there’s anything on campus you’d be tempted to skewer a bit, like you did in Mostly Good Girls with the high school lit mag or the yearbook meetings.

LS: I was really into Scav Hunt. I was a judge, and I would love to set a book during Scav Hunt. But I keep thinking about it, and there’s no way to do that and represent Scav Hunt as it actually is. Even if you could represent Scav Hunt, there’s no room during Scav Hunt for relationships or interpersonal interactions. It’s all about the items. It’s a really great event, but I feel like it would be a boring story.

CM: “Published author” is definitely one of those jobs that gets romanticized. Now that you are one, has it lived up to the hype?

LS: Being a published author is one of those things like being a supermodel, or being a rockstar, where even if you’re not actively pursuing it, if someone offered it to you and said, “I’ve done all the work, all you have to do is sign on the dotted line and you’re a model,” you’d say, “Okay.”

In some ways it definitely lives up to the expectations. To hold in your hand an advance reader copy of something you’ve written is amazing, and it’s something I wanted to do my entire life. It’s a really intense experience.

When I told her the story of selling my novel, one of my friends said to me, “I hope you appreciated it, because that’s the most exciting thing that’s ever going to happen to you. You can get married, you can have a child, but this is it. You just had the most exciting week of your life.”

CM: Of the people you’ve told about the book, who has it been most satisfying to tell?

LS: I most wish that I remembered the names of anybody I went to middle school with, so I could somehow let them know: “Hey, remember when you were totally bitchy to me all the time because I read so many books and reading is lame? Uhh, I’m an author, so suck it.”

But actually I’ve blocked from my mind the names of everyone I went to middle school with. Telling my friend Ally was great. She’s my best friend from high school, and our friendship is the basis for Violet and Katie’s in the book. And some of the conversations in there are conversations that we’ve had. She was like, “This isn’t fair, these are things I said and now you’re making money off it.”

I was like, “Well, I wrote it down first. You could’ve written it down too.” But she’s really proud of me, and it’s great to share it with someone like that.

CM: As a writer, do you think there are benefits to working in publishing and interacting with other professional writers?

LS: Yes, absolutely. There are benefits and there are also drawbacks. For getting published, it makes the business side of things a lot easier. I met my agent because I knew him through mutual friends who I knew through working in publishing. If you're trying to get a book published and you don't know an agent, and you don't have any friends who know agents, it's harder to make that personal connection.

The hard part is stepping away from it. I'll be like, "Do I do that with my book?" Have you heard that saying, "The problems you have with other people are really problems you have with yourself"? I find this all the time when I'm editing books.

I was just writing a rejection letter to an aspiring author, and I said, "There's just not enough emotional arc here, you story feels really episodic, just a lot of isolated events, and what do they build to?" And that's basically the editorial letter I could write myself everyday.

CM: Did you take any creative writing classes at the U of C?

LS: Not really. I was a psychology major, and I did one screenwriting class. But I wrote for the Maroon for a few years, and I was in Off-Off Campus. That's improv, but it's also really intense training in writing sketch comedy.

For the Maroon, I used to do these 600-to-800 word humor pieces, and that was how I started writing Mostly Good Girls. I wrote a series of 800 word humor pieces that were all set in the same location, and then wove them into a plot. But I knew how to do that from writing for the Maroon and creating these humorous themes. And you take some people, you put them in a place, you see what happens, and you hope it's funny; I learned to do that in Off-Off.

CM: I think a lot of U of C students will be similar to you in that they'll have to get a job after graduation, but they'll also want to take on some substantial side project, whether it's writing a book or something else. Was it difficult to follow through on writing the book while having all the normal stuff, a job, social life, etc.?

LS: Yeah, it was hard. I worked at Penguin for about six months before starting writing the book, and it was amazing. When you're at the U of C, there's always something you're supposed to be doing. If you're not in class, you are supposed to be studying. If you're at a party, or play rehearsal, or shopping, you know there's studying you could be doing. There's always more. There's that constant nagging stress.

So for six months when I wasn't writing anything, I would work until 5 p.m., and I would leave and there was literally nothing else I was supposed to do. I could do anything I wanted to do in the evenings and I didn't have to feel guilty at all. That's not an experience you've had since you were 10 years old. And then I started writing and that went away.

But now if I didn't write for six months, if I just hung out and did other things, eventually I would find some other writing project to do. I think that's true of a lot of people at the U of C, they just have a lot going on in their brains, and work doesn't cover it.

CM: How did you make Mostly Good Girls from a series of standalone humor pieces into a novel with an overarching story?

LS: There are some chapters in the book that really seem to standalone, like the one where Violet is talking about the literary magazine she edits, and the kids keep coming up with these horrific poems about anorexia. You could take that one out of the book and still understand what's going on. Those are the chapters I wrote first.

And then more of the plot started to fall into place, and there was a period of time where I'd done all of the funny vignettes that I could, and it still wasn't a book. I had to come up with the plot, and that was hard. I live in New York and take the subway to and from work everyday, and I stopped allowing myself to carry books on the subway. All I was allowed to carry was a sheet of paper on which I had written, "plot." And so I pretty much figured out the plot because I was so bored of riding the subway without reading.

CM: Katie and Violet, the main characters in Mostly Good Girls, are definitely a bit outside the mainstream at their high school—do you think they'd like it at the U of C?

LS: I like to think so. I definitely think Katie would, she's really brilliant but also wants to do her own thing. I think the U of C is welcoming of people like that. As long as you're smart enough, you can stay outside the norm.

I don't know where Violet would go to college. I assume she wouldn't actually get into Harvard. It seems like she'd be unable to deal with the devastation of being rejected, and then she'd go to Swarthmore or Amherst and be like, "Oh. This is also totally fine."

CM: You signed a two-book deal. Is a sequel an option for you?

LS: Not this time around. I love the high school and the girls in Mostly Good Girls, but I'm sick of them right now. I'm trying to do something different. Maybe someday, if my writing career goes on long enough.

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