Author Claire Kann has just published her first book, Let’s Talk About Love, a contemporary YA novel about dating, friendship, and the challenges of teen love.
Angelina Lee: The main character of the book, Alice, is a young black woman who identifies as asexual. Did you ever feel pressure that your writing had to be politically correct?
No, not at all! There’s a distinct difference between being “politically correct,” which has taken on a very negative connotation, and wanting to be “inclusive.” It is important to me that my books reflect the diverse world we live in and to create inclusive stories that feel as authentic as possible to readers.
Alice sees the difference between romantic attraction, which she feels, and sexual attraction, which she does not. In popular culture today, do you think we tend to focus on one more than the other?
I can only speak from an American culture standpoint, but I would say the two are intrinsically linked. In media, it’s common for dating/romance to lead straight to sex – like a goal couples work toward achieving. In real life, it’s far more nuanced than that. Some people are like Alice who want romance without sex. Others may want to have sex without any romantic attachment. And then there are some who aren’t interested in romance or sex. All of those instances (and many, many more!) are entirely valid ways to feel and exist. They all deserve a chance to see themselves represented.
In the book, I love how texting is represented by little graphic blurbs, the way actual texts look. How do you think social media, and instant connection through phones, has changed the way we communicate, especially in romantic relationships? Has it affected how you write?
I think constant communication, as well as the ease of communication, really encourages shortcuts to intimacy, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s so easy to bare your secrets to complete strangers, and sometimes those strangers just get it. They understand you better than anyone else. Personally, I have never met some of the people I would consider my best friends because I met them online and they live thousands of miles away from me. The fact that we’ve never met IRL doesn’t change how strongly I feel about them. It’s definitely affected how I write because my books are contemporary. My stories have to reflect what’s happening now. Otherwise, readers will notice. Honestly, it can be super hard to keep up with technology at times, so I tend to keep it vague. Since writing LTAL, I’ve learned to stop naming apps like Vine or Twitter and instead create an app that has a similar function. That way it’s familiar to the reader, but doesn’t make the book seem outdated.
Relationships with best friends also play a large role in Alice’s journey. How do you think best friends help us through moments of self-discovery? Was it challenging to write about these relationships in a way that felt authentic?
When you’re feeling lost, and in the dark, a good friend is right by your side with a flashlight until you find your way together. Growing up, I considered myself so lucky because I had such a strong group of friends. I’m a loner by nature, and yet my girls always stuck with me. Even to this day, a lot of us are still friends. When crafting my characters, I routinely draw from that experience. If my books don’t start with the main character having close friends, by the end of the story, they absolutely will have at least one person who means the world to them, who they can count on to always be there.
What’s the most exciting part of writing a story about love?
I suppose this question depends on what kind of love I’m writing about. For example, LTAL explores three kinds – familial, romantic, platonic/friendly – and they’re all exciting in their own way. Romance allows me to indulge in my slight obsession with flustering my characters with banter. Friendship is the most fun when I get to play around with the dynamics between characters. And family … well, that one usually makes me cry, or cackle, because I tend to pull from my own experiences and dig into those scenes.
When you knew you were going to write this book, were there any love-story clichés that you wanted to steer clear of, from the start?
Not really. At the start, I always have an outline to lead me, but I allow the characters to steer themselves. I don’t worry about eliminating or reducing clichés until I start editing.
When you were first creating this book, did you start with characters? Relationships? A specific idea?
LTAL was and remains one of the few books where character came first for me. Alice appeared before everything else.
Do you personally identify with the main character, in terms of personality, insecurities, hopes, experiences? How has that influenced how you write her story?
I don’t have much in common with Alice, apart from the fact that we’re both incredibly private and cry often.
What surprised you the most about the process of writing a book?
I’ve never been adverse or afraid of hard work. That being said, writing a book is A LOT of work. Editing and publishing is a whole different beast designed to break you. It takes an obscene amount of drive and dedication to complete a book – you have to want to write it because it certainly isn’t going to write itself. I know that because I’ve tried and waited for the words to magically appear and NOPE.
After coming out of this process, is there any advice you’d give to teen writers aspiring to become novelists?
Start early! Like right now! One of the great things about writing (and publishing) is it’s never too early or too late to try your hand at it. You also need to read. Read widely and read everything, not just your favorite books over and over. The more you expose yourself to different genres, themes, and writing styles, the easier it will be to develop your own style and find what you’re most passionate about. Lastly, don’t be afraid to put yourself out there. So many online writing sites exist, like Wattpad, where you can post your work a chapter at a time for free, get feedback, and join a community. If you’re not ready to post, try finding writing partners you can trade chapters with on sites like Twitter or Tumblr who have large writing communities as well. (And … once you have a completed manuscript, if it’s young adult, you’re happy with it and think it’s good, consider submitting to Swoon Reads. That’s how I got published – the editors read and loved my book while it was on the site.)
Do you think there are any common misconceptions about writing a book?
The biggest, most enduring misconception I’ve come across is that writers have all of this “free” time to spend literal hours writing a book. A lot of writers are students, have full-time jobs, families to take care of – sometimes a combination of all those things. I worked on the first draft of LTAL from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Friday as if I had to go to a night class and for 12-14 hours on Saturday and Sunday. I gave up any semblance of a personal life in the 40 days it took me to write the draft. We make time to write our books by sacrificing other things we like doing/have to do because we’re passionate about storytelling.
Aside from novels, do you do other types of writing, like poetry, short stories, etc.? If so, how are writing those pieces different from this?
Short stories are my great white whale. They’re so difficult for me to write, but one day, yes, one day I’m going to conquer them.
What was your favorite book or author to read as a teen?
I have a terrible memory so anytime I can recall something in great detail is a miracle. In 10th grade English class, we had to choose any book we wanted and present a “creative” book report to the class. There weren’t any bookstores near me, so my mom took me to Wal-Mart. Now, this was back when the store actually had decent sized book aisles, and I picked up a mass market paperback book that I almost didn’t buy because of the tiny, tiny font called The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman. My life has never been the same since. TGC and Lyra Belacqua were my Harry Potter.
What was the most influential book you read as a teen? How does it still inform your writing?
The His Dark Materials trilogy, which includes The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass. LTAL is an outlier – I struggle to write contemporary stories that don’t have any magic or supernatural elements. I much prefer contemporary fantasy, where it’s the world as we know it but with a strong undercurrent of impossibility that allows anything to happen. I internalized that preference after reading TGC.
Do you think we are influenced by the love stories we read about, especially when we’re young? Do you feel a responsibility to portray them in a certain way?
Absolutely! Growing up, I was devoted to fairy tale loves stories, especially the Disney variety. I think that’s why my personal brand of romance always starts that same: very cute, sweet, and adorable. But, there will always come a point where it has to grow beyond that. Crafting a believable romance takes skill, effort and a touch of realism.
What was your favorite genre to read as a teen? Do you write in that genre?
I had several: contemporary fantasy, paranormal, urban fantasy, and romance. I still write contemporary fantasy and paranormal, but none of it is published … yet. What do you look for in a good book? Wonderful, complex characters and a story line I can lose myself in for a few hours/days.
Would you ever be interested in a movie or TV adaptation of Let’s Talk About Love?
Yes! Of course! But a book to movie adaptation is exceedingly rare. I don’t have my hopes up or anything.
What is the most exciting part of releasing your first novel? The scariest?
The most exciting part so far has been seeing LTAL in actual stores, next to books belonging to some of my favorite YA writers. The scariest part has been knowing people are actually reading it and there’s nothing I can do to change it if they don’t like it.
No spoilers, but are you planning on an upcoming project? If so, how do you think it will be different or similar from this novel?
I am always working on a project. Always. Right now, I’m working with my publisher, Swoon Reads, on my sophomore novel. So far, the only similarity is the genre: contemporary. In my free time over on Wattpad (@ClaireKann), I get to be as weird as I want to be. All of my stories on my profile are experiments in genre, narrative style, and world-building. I have everything from teenage vampires and their magical fat girlfriends to college kids with severe god complexes. I don’t expect any of those stories ever to be published so there’s no pressure to conform.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.