Long before it reached a bookstore shelf, the novel by Gayle Forman, If I Stay (Penguin, 2009), was creating a powerful stir.
Her work of young adult fiction posed a disquieting question: In the face of utter loss and disaster, walking the thin line between life and death, which direction would you choose? Would you stay? Would you go?
Set in Oregon, the novel tells the story of Mia, a seventeen-year-old cellist from a quirky-but-hip family living in a mossy university town, much like Eugene. The narrator’s life has just begun to blossom with rich possibilities when a harrowing accident leaves her in a coma. The tragedy threatens to destroy everything she cherishes—hardly traditional lighthearted teen fare.
Yet the question struck deeply, with a resonance that would stir readers young and old. And long before the book landed in the hands of the teens who would create YouTube tributes about it, before New York Times bestsellers lists and Paris book signings and a tumble of literary awards, came a powerful bit of validation.
Hollywood came calling.
The book hadn’t yet been released when it was optioned for development into a screenplay by Summit Entertainment, the movie-making force behind the Twilight franchise. Soon, Twilight director Catherine Hardwicke’s name was also attached, and the movie buzz was humming from literary and entertainment blogs to The Huffington Post.
Though delighted, Forman could have never predicted the fervor.
This was, after all, a book inspired by a darkly somber incident that unfolded ten years ago on a damp stretch of Oregon highway—a real tragedy that still haunts Forman—and posed the central question to her story.
“If you could choose . . .”
* * *
There is very little pretense to Gayle Forman.
Oh, please. What’s the point? Frankly, she doesn’t have the time.
She is a Brooklyn-based wife and mother of two. And she is a writer, actively cranking out everything from books and blogs to occasional segments for National Public Radio. She juggles home life and writing against a brisk schedule of book readings and signings and literary festivals—all the hallmarks of an up-and-coming author on a roll.
Most days, she is deeply humbled by that fact.
Other days, she’s bemused by the incongruity of the demands that it brings. Like trying to film a video that takes readers to key locations around New York City featured in her just-released sequel, Where She Went, while coping with the real-life rigors of, say, a head lice outbreak in her six-year-old daughter’s classroom.
This is simply her life. She is busy and blunt and laughing about all of it. She takes lots of things seriously. But the happy chaos of her world is not one of them. Try to reach her by e-mail, and her automatic response quips:
“I’ll answer your e-mail. But sometimes it takes me a little while to do so.
This is because:
I have kids.
I have books to write.
I have dinner to cook.
I misplace e-mails in my inbox.”
It’s that frankness and easy humor, the lack of stuffy grown-up filters, and down-to-earth accessibility that draws teen readers. It helps that there is a part of her that, quite honestly, still feels sixteen.
“I never really stopped being a teenager,” the forty-year-old author acknowledges.
If the tumult of her teen years seems tangible, that’s a good thing for her YA readers, primarily tweens through young adults. She understands their passions, frustrations, and raw insecurities, their heightened sense of justice, and their quiet yearnings. And when pressed, okay, yes—she can still talk like a Valley Girl.
It helps, too, that she meets young readers where they live. Much of her marketing presence wisely unfolds online, whether answering reader queries via YouTube, advancing appearances at the New York City Teen Author Festival on her website, or being interviewed online by a teen book blogger.
Through it all, her exuberance shines through. Slim and animated, with a tumble of unrestrained red curls and lively dark eyes, Forman speaks to teens with the ease of a close girlfriend. She’s also not at all afraid to let down her guard and be goofy—a YouTube clip shows her joining a group of young women at a bookstore to perform “Let’s Do the Time Warp Again” from The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
Arrested development? Writing for the thriving YA book market—one corner of the publishing world that has actually seen growth in the past decade—maybe that’s a good thing.
There was a time YA novels were considered something of an afterthought within the publishing industry, a training camp where authors toiled until they could learn to write for the adult market. Today, that impression is evaporating.
Although book publishing in the United States has seen a slump in recent years, YA fiction has remained a strong performer, according to the Association of American Publishers. Sales of hardcover YA books jumped 30.7 percent in 2009 alone. Teens are buying books at the fastest rate in decades.
Today, virtually every American publishing house offers a teen imprint. And libraries and bookstores have caught the fever, hosting teen reading groups, book clubs, and blogs. With more talented writers, a surge in readers, and an eagerness to quickly translate teen books into film, some say that this may well be the new golden age of young adult literature.
“It’s such a fertile period, with such great YA fiction being written,” Forman says. “The way young people will get the word out about a book they love is awesome. It gives a book legs and it blows my mind. You find such a passionate, engaged readership.”
No question. Teen lit is rocking it.
* * *
When Forman writes for young people, she’s tapping into what she knows.
Skinny girl. Music nerd. Drama geek. She felt the sting of labels. She survived.
Raised in California’s San Fernando Valley by a loving, but admittedly unconventional, family gave Forman the starch to be independent and permission to go her own way.
“Growing up, I was the weird girl. When you are the one weird girl in school, you know it. I was teased for it, endlessly. My family was always a little off-kilter. I think other kids can smell that,” Forman explains. “I can very readily tap into that alienation.”
After graduating from high school, she put college on the back burner to travel for three years. In Amsterdam, she worked as a maid in a backpacker motel—which sounds cooler than it was, Forman admits. “I was a very annoying eighteen-year-old,” she says. “I wasn’t going to go to college. I was going to attend the University of Life.”
By the time she was twenty-one, she was finally hungry for college, with plans to study medicine and work for Doctors Without Borders. Intent on majoring in premed, she arrived in Eugene. It wasn’t an easy fit. “I was a big city person, didn’t like the Grateful Dead, didn’t like hiking, didn’t like the rain—I hated it,” she admits. She never planned to be a writer. But inspired by a “crush on a guy,” she took an information gathering course at the University of Oregon’s School of Journalism and Communication, where she fell deeply, irretrievably in love—with the class, not the guy.
“I did my big research project on HIV-AIDS and pharmaceuticals and the crazy path it took to get drugs to those who needed them,” she recalls. “And I loved it, the way you pull a thread and things open up and become loose and then you pull them back together.”
Some students attend journalism school determined to see their byline in The New York Times, Mother Jones, or Vanity Fair. Forman wanted to write for Sassy—a now-defunct teen magazine aimed at girls with a leaning toward indie rock and alternative music.
As a magazine, it was gleefully subversive in a way that shattered the mold of traditional teen publications, with articles such as “A Day in the Life of Miss America: Indentured Servant” and “Power: What It Is and How to Get Some.”
“It was the most delicious, irreverent, intelligent magazine. Even though it didn’t last, it changed other magazines,” Forman says.
Teen girl magazines didn’t carry much clout among her peers but Forman didn’t hesitate to point out their potential.
“Gayle was extraordinary, with great talent and personality,” says UO journalism professor Tom Wheeler, who teaches courses about the magazine industry. “I remember that she would drop by my office and we would have these great discussions about teen girl magazines. It was wonderful to talk to a young woman who had grown up reading those magazines, who could speak to how that magazine could be so important to women of her generation.”
Forman believed most teen girl magazines were selling their readers short. Young people not only cared deeply about bigger issues, but yearned to have their voices heard. She was ready to help.
Beyond her passion, Forman could also tap her playful side.
“One of the manuscripts that I had my magazine students edit was a piece on killer bees. On the day that we were to review our insights and go over our edits, Gayle came to class literally dressed as a giant bee. Wings, the works,” Wheeler recalls, laughing.
“With Gayle, you have a person operating at a really high level in terms of talent and meticulous detail, at the same time willing to have fun and brighten the classroom,” he says. “That’s just who she is.”
* * *
Oregon grew on her.
Forman made peace with the rain, sank her teeth into journalism classes, and began exploring the burgeoning Northwest music scene that was exploding during the early 1990s.
Nirvana. Crashbox. The Spinanes. Some Velvet Sidewalk. The Clorox Girls.
From Seattle and Olympia through Portland, Salem, and Eugene, punk, indie, experimental, and alt-rock bands were finding hungry audiences. “Musically, it was this incredibly fertile time,” she recalls.
Forman began waiting tables at Cafe Fandango on Eleventh Avenue in downtown Eugene, where she could catch shows next door at John Henry’s, a popular live music venue. “I managed to find my niche,” she says. “Music was part of my emotional core. I just became part of it all, eventually met my husband, Nick [Tucker, ’95], and also met some of my dearest friends.”
By the time Forman graduated in 1995, Sassy was in decline—the magazine stopped publishing under its own title in 1996. Instead, she moved to New York to work for Seventeen magazine, where she carved her own niche, specializing in heavy-hitting social-justice issues, from the plight of child soldiers in Sierra Leone to the struggle to educate women in Afghanistan.
“Not only were they serious, interesting stories, they were stories our teen readers could relate to. They understood disenfranchisement no matter where it was happening,” she says. In time, she stretched into broader freelancing opportunities. Glamour. Jane. Details. The Nation. Budget Travel. It was the career that she had hoped for.
After seven years of freelancing, Forman and Tucker decided to pursue a travel adventure of their own—research that would become her first nonfiction book, You Can’t Get There from Here: A Year on the Fringes of a Shrinking World, a lively travelogue that met with a tepid response. “It came out to giant yawns of nothingness,” she jokes.
Forman returned home to some serious soul-searching. “I had my first daughter and just didn’t want to travel like that anymore. Then I had three freelance stories killed in one month. We had bought an apartment. Something had to happen.”
When it was suggested that she write a young adult novel, it was like a great cosmic light bulb coming on over her head. “I’d been writing for and about teens all along,” Forman says. “Behavior modification camps had really bothered me at the time [I wrote about them]. That’s where the first book was born.”
Sisters in Sanity (HarperTeen, 2007) told the story of a girl from southeastern Oregon enrolled at a treatment center designed to cure rebellious teenage girls.
It was creative storytelling anchored in the truth. And it worked.
Forman could write at home, tapping into past research and experiences, “taking the most amazing journeys of my life without ever leaving my desk.
“When my first book came out—I actually got a little scared. Suddenly, I knew what I wanted. I remember writing to my agent, ‘This is what I want to do.’”
It wasn’t a job change so much as a homecoming.
* * *
The news arrived on an answering machine.
A friend from Oregon had left the message. Something was unsettling about the tone of his voice. Forman feared one of their friends had cancer.
The actual tragedy was unfathomable.
On February 8, 2001, a former Eugene family—Robert ’97 and Denise ’94 Christie, both thirty-eight, and their sons, Ted, eight, and John, one—were killed in a two-car collision along a damp two-lane road that ran from Clatskanie to the Oregon Coast.
The family had left Eugene only six months earlier, when Robert Christie had taken a job teaching at Clatskanie High School near Astoria. To Forman and Tucker, they were dear friends woven tightly into the core of the vibrant local music scene they all loved. Robert had played drums, written songs, and performed vocals with many of the bands they’d followed in the early 1990s, helping found Oswald Five-O, which also included Tucker.
Within days, and with no prearranged plan, many of the Christie family’s closest friends instinctively returned to Eugene to grapple with the tragedy.
In a search for clarity, Forman wrote about her own spiritual fumblings around the deaths in an essay for Oregon Quarterly (Summer 2001), “The Way We Mourn”:
We live in a bizarrely disconnected and conflicted world, one in which, I believe, it is still thought that unhappiness is something best kept private. We step gingerly around tragedy, not wanting to poke too far and increase the pain. . . . As we were licking our wounds and rushing headlong into the hell of our loss, we found something there that looked a little like wisdom. From within the depth of our grief, many of us felt a sense of being part of something divine.
“That was something I had to write, right after the accident and that spontaneous wake. Then I never wrote about it again. At least I never planned to write about it,” she says.
But Forman would still be haunted—in particular, by one nagging detail: After the accident, one of the Christie’s sons had been airlifted to Oregon Health and Science University, where he’d lived only a short time.
Forman couldn’t shake a stubborn thought: Had he somehow known that the rest of his family was gone? Did he choose to go with them?
“Seven years later the question was still in my head,” she says.
That was when she met Mia—a seventeen-year-old fictional character who came to her out of thin air one day full of her own thoughts on the subject.
Forman decided to listen. And write.
Three months later, she had completed a manuscript for If I Stay, which follows Mia’s out-of-body reflections and observations as she lies in a coma, balanced between life and death.
Strong elements of the book relate directly to the Christies.
The story unfolds in an Oregon university town much like Eugene. Mia’s younger brother is named Teddy. Like Robert Christie, Mia’s father is a former punk rocker committed to living Ozzie-and-Harriet values of home, family, and simplicity.
Writing at a desk in the corner of her Brooklyn apartment, Forman was amazed at how naturally the story spilled out. It was as if Mia—and the Christies—were right there.
“Ten years later I can still hear their voices clearly. In a way, they are so alive, so present,” she says. “That’s been the surprise. I think of them so much that I wanted to be at my computer every day so this story could get out.”
Music saturates the story—from Mia’s rocker boyfriend to her father’s past band escapades. Forman’s website (www.gayleforman.com) includes a playlist to accompany the novel, with artists ranging from the Ramones, Flaming Lips, and the Clash to Frank Sinatra and Yo-Yo Ma.
Even Mia’s name has Pacific Northwest roots, inspired by Mia Zapata, lead singer for Seattle punk band the Gits, whose brutal 1993 murder stumped investigators for a decade.
The persistent musical threads only became apparent to Forman after the novel was done. But in many ways, it was no surprise. “To me, Oregon and music are integrally connected,” she says.
* * *
With a completed manuscript in hand, Forman began looking for a literary agent.
First came the blanket rejections. Five months later, she heard from Sarah Burnes, a literary agent with Gernert Co. Not only did Burnes love the story, she couldn’t wait to sell it.
“I just found it incredibly moving, thought it was beautifully written,” Burnes recalls. “An editor commented to me recently, ‘You cry, you buy.’ The first five times I read the book, I cried. When I pitched it, I cried. It’s rare that you find something that powerful.”
The book was scheduled for a spring 2009 release. In December 2008, just before Christmas, it was optioned to be developed into a screenplay by Summit Entertainment. This spring, the studio renewed its option on the book—a good sign, according to Burnes. “It means they’ve committed a lot of time and thought to it and they’re sticking with it.”
In addition to the powerful, provocative story, Summit was attracted to the book’s early word-of-mouth buzz and ability to draw both teens and adults. In the United Kingdom, the book was actually marketed to both audiences.
“No question, for any author that’s a dream come true,” Burnes says. “Young adult material is popular right now among the movie studios. The passion for the project was great.”
Though Forman found the news “mindblowing,” she tries to remain circumspect. “It’s making me practice my Zen,” she laughs. “It’s the movie business. I’ve read the screenplay, and that’s exciting, but I have so little control over it. I’m so out of the loop. I actually try not to think about it.”
She chooses to focus on what she can control. Or what controls her.
Like those nagging, wake-you-in-the-middle-of-the-night questions:
Then what happened? . . .
The characters simply wouldn’t leave her alone. “I did not want to write a sequel,” Forman says. “Then I was waking up at four in the morning asking myself what had happened to Mia and Adam [her boyfriend].”
The result is Where She Went, a much-anticipated sequel that was released in April and hit The New York Times bestsellers list within weeks. Months before its debut, Forman began revealing clues about the new novel through a “teaser tour” on YA websites, where young fans and bloggers gush over her work as maybe the best they’ve ever read.
“Just read If I Stay—it was amazing. I cried so much I stained the book!” confesses one young reader.
“If you haven’t read If I Stay by Gayle Forman, I don’t know if we can be friends (well, we can be friends, but we can’t be best friends),” another blogger advises.
That’s really the best part, Forman admits—igniting the passions of young readers, which she finds both energizing and nourishing. She can never imagine outgrowing YA novels.
And so, she writes. From a laptop in her living room, balancing her writing life against grocery shopping and double ear infections and “all the mom stuff,” she puts together words that touch young lives. Forman writes because she must. She also writes because of young people, with all of their hopes and drama, pain and imperfection. They rock her world.
And she writes, too, for their parents, who occasionally like to pick up that book a son or daughter raves about to their friends.
It gives her pause to think that stories created amid the happy chaos of her own life and the fertile folds of her imagination are now reaching people on other continents. That her words are embraced so fully, that they matter so deeply in the lives of young readers.
Unbelievable. Delightful. Perfect.
“I’m baffled and grateful at the same time.”
—By Kimber Williams
Kimber Williams, MS ’95, makes her home near Atlanta, Georgia. Her last piece for Oregon Quarterly was “Maps for the Times” (Summer 2010).