The Bookshelf: YA Novelist Chelsey Philpot

Oct 28, 2016

The Bookshelf from NHPR is New Hampshire Public Radio's series on authors and books with ties to the Granite State.  All Things Considered host Peter Biello features authors, covers literary events and publishing trends, and gets recommendations from each guest on what books listeners might want to add to their own bookshelves. If you have an author or book you think we should profile on The Bookshelf, send us an email. The address is books@nhpr.org.

This week, The Bookshelf features young adult novelist Chelsey Philpot. Part road trip, part love story, part exploration of one’s purpose in life, the novel, Be Good Be Real Be Crazy, takes us from Florida to New Hampshire and puts its young protagonists face to face with people from a world much different from the world they grew up in. Scroll down to read Chelsey Philpot's top five reading recommendations and read the transcript of her conversation with Peter Biello. 

Chelsey Philpot's Top 5 Book Recommendations: 

1.   To the End of June: The Intimate Life of American Foster Care by Cris Beam. "Beam's work of nonfiction shines a harsh light on America's foster care system, exposing its inadequacies and failures with deft research and the biographies of kids who know the system from the inside. Beam ends the book with hope by exploring an example of what foster care can be. I cannot recommend this book enough to educators."

2.   The Death of Rex Nhongo by C.B. George. "George uses multiple characters' perspectives to create a suspenseful story about marriage and lies, power and corruption. I love stories about ex-pats, and the fantastic writing and Zimbabwe setting make this novel unputdownable."

3.   The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern. "Le Cirque des Rêves is housed in a black-and-white tent and is only open at night. Its performers are as magical as they are strange. Against this wonderfully spooky backdrop, two illusionists are, unbeknownst to them, competing in a lethal game. Morgenstern's haunting novel is the kind of book that can be read over and over again. I love it!"

4.   Gratitude by Oliver Sacks. "This short essay collection is Sacks final gift to the world. Even in the face of terminal cancer, Sacks created humorous meditations on mortality, love, and what it means to have led a "good life." Read each essay slowly. They don't last as long as you'll want them to."

5.   American Girls by by Alison Umminger. "On one level, this new YA novel is about 15-year-old Anna and the summer she spends researching the 'Manson Girls,' the women who followed serial killer Charles Manson, while living with her actress half-sister in Los Angeles. On another level, Umminger's story is a poignant meditation on the tribulations and uncertainties that come with being a girl in America. I could not put this book down."

Tell us about the duo at the center of the book, Homer and Mia.

Homer is a sheltered 18-year-old who’s trying to figure out what he wants to do with his life.  Mia is a free-spirited whirlwind of a personality—just kind, gregarious, outgoing—who wants to do right by Homer.  And somehow this odd couple comes together. 

It’s worth noting that Mia is pregnant. And that is, I think, what you meant when you wrote that first line “this unknowable mystery who did not, could not, love him back—at least not in the way he loved her." 

I think a lot in terms of concepts when it comes to writing, particularly with books. And I fell in love with the idea of how love can be lopsided—unrequited love, or love where one person is loving a little bit more than the other person. So that’s actually what I’m referring to in the first chapter, just the dynamic of Homer and Mia’s relationship that changes for the better.

For the better, sure. And it certainly develops as they make their way north in an old car that they refer to as The Banana—this ugly, stinky, yellow car. So you talk about unrequited love as inspiration for this. Tell us about the other aspect of the book, the road narrative.  This is a time-honored tradition in American literature, of course. What drew you to this particular structure for a story about unrequited love, or lopsided love? 

I think it’s an author’s rite of passage, you must write a road trip story at some point or you get kicked out of the American canon or something. But I love road trip stories. I always have. And I wanted to write a road trip story that was as much about the freedom of being on the open road as it was a pilgrimage. I’ve had so many strange and varied inspirations for this book. The parables are meant to echo Canterbury Tales, and Pilgrim’s Progress, The Wizard of Oz was an inspiration. And I mean road trip books broadly here.  Of course On The Road, a lot by Bill Bryson.  There’s just something so tempting about a road trip narrative, particularly teenagers because you have coming of age themes, and any trip – road trip, plane trip, boat trip – changes you in some way. 

Credit Peter Biello / NHPR

Road trips are something at least when I was a teenager was always something I wanted to do because my freedom as a teenager, rightly so, was constricted.  My parents didn’t let me do everything I wanted to do. This is something that teenagers love to think about. When you’re writing for a teenager are you attempting to deliberately think about what are the things that teenagers want to do, and then write a novel about that? Is that where that goes?  Or is it something you’re naturally curious about? 

It’s something I’m naturally curious about.  I love writing for teens because I feel like I’m never done myself, and by that I mean I think we’re always becoming the person we want to be—the people we want to be.  And that theme, that exploration is conducive to YA literature.  It does draw on my own experience: a road trip I took with my best friend that went the length of Oklahoma and involved the worst Thai food I hope to ever eat.  And I once took the train from Washington DC to San Francisco and got stranded in the Mojave desert for a few days.  And the crazy stories that came out of those experiences were ones I had as an adult but I felt could be encapsulated in a road trip narrative. 

You wrote on your blog, I’m going to quote you here, “I used to think writer’s block was a myth, and then I started working on my second book. Now I know that writer’s block is real and it’s the worst.”  You were referring to this new book, right?  This is your second book.

Yeah, this book nearly killed me.  I’m exaggerating, but only a little. 

Well, tell us the story. I’m curious about how it went down.

I started to right Be Good Be Real Be Crazy in earnest after the publication of my first book Even in Paradise in Fall 2014. It was the worst because I had to write this book, and yet I just wasn’t feeling the motivation. I don’t know what it was. It was the schism that opens up after you accomplish a dream. I had published my first book, so what now? The idea of a second book just seemed kind of a letdown.

So [it was] that, combined with "Second Book Syndrome," where you’re stifled about writing the second book because you know too much and you also know what you don’t know in terms of the publishing industry, reviewing, what it means to put your work out in the world.  

That and just the news.  It seemed like—maybe because I was in such a lull after Even in Paradise, I guess—I just noticed the news more. Everything was terrible. There were earthquakes in Nepal, and riots in Baltimore, and every headline stuck out in capital letters. So I think eventually I was able to turn that writer’s block into questions that became the questions I wanted to explore in Be Good Be Real Be Crazy.

What advice could you give to someone who is facing their own version of writer’s block?

Be kind to yourself.  You can beat yourself up because you’re not writing your 1,000 words per day or you can just put yourself in front of your laptop and write whatever you can, even if it’s terrible. Most first drafts are.  I’m multi, multi, multi draft. I think through writing, so in order to think through a story, even to know what my story is, I have to write it out.  So for anybody struggling with writer’s block, I would just say be aware of the immediate, which is at your desk. You’re going to write something, even if it’s bad. And then the bigger picture. It will get done.