Novelist Tara Altebrando could be the Next Big Thing in young adult fiction. Her first YA novel, The Pursuit of Happiness, was published by MTV in the Spring and got more kudos than just a mere mention on the PopGurls summer reading list. The story, about a teenaged girl going through the first lonely summer after losing her mother, is both witty and incredibly touching.
Under the moniker Tara McCarthy (her maiden name), she’s published the wonderfully creative and surprisingly dark Love Will Tear Us Apart, a novel about a rock-n-roll reporter sent to cover popstars Flora and Fauna Sparks. The sisters are primarily distinguished to the world by their status as Siamese twins, which in different hands could have made for one campy novel. Instead, Love is a sobering – though often amusing – story about setting expectations for yourself and living up to them, and what can happen when you aren’t allowed to carve out a niche for yourself.
We subjected Tara to the PopGurls 20 Questions, where we learned that as a teen she dug on Judy Blume, was forced to read Ethan Fromme, and preferred the depressing music of The Smiths and New Order. She dated (and married) a guy in a band, and though her enjoyment of Young Adult fiction is just blooming, she’s not shy about how much she enjoys peers like Sarah Dessen.
1. What was the plot of the first story you can remember writing back when you were a child?
I have a very strong memory of standing in the basement of the house that I lived in up until fourth grade, showing my mother a picture book I’d made about a girl named Jane. But I can’t for the life of me remember what the plot was, if there even was one! I imagine it had something to do with being a ballerina. I also had this weird little ‘doll,’ for lack of a better word, made of yarn. It looked a bit like Cousin Itt from the Addam’s Family and lived in a small jewelry box. I used to write stories about it.
2. When you were a teen, what were the books or authors that captured your attention? What are some authors you really dig today?
I read everything that Judy Blume put out, of course. But I also went to a school that had a HUGE amount of required reading for English class so there wasn’t a lot of time for ‘fun’ reading. My friends from high school and I will still get together and find ourselves talking about weird books we had to read back then, like Ethan Frome and Rebecca, the latter of which I especially liked. So dramatic and gothic.
My favorite authors now are probably Ann Patchett, Richard Russo, and John Irving. As far as YA authors go, I’d say Sarah Dessen is my favorite. I’m only really beginning to explore that genre as an adult reader, but it’s amazingly diverse and cool.
3. Speaking of YA, which character from Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants is most like your teenaged self, and why?
I think I was sort of a blend of Bridget and Tibby. On the one hand, like Bridget, I had these fierce flashes of confidence when it came to boys. But I was also really introspective and ‘arty’ like Tibby, and could spend hours writing in my journal or writing stories – and at one point I did actually make a film, like she does. I think the brilliance of that whole series is that a lot of girls can see a little bit of themselves in each of the characters.
4. Your first book, Been There, Haven’t Done That: A Virgin’s Memoir, got an amazing amount of press – not all of it good. What was the one moment in that madness that made it all worth it, and what was the moment that most made you think twice about your chosen career path?
I got some nice letters from readers, so that’s always validating, but I’m not sure there was ever a moment that made it all worth it. I’m pretty sure I was thinking twice, or thinking ‘what was I THINKING?’ the whole time. When I was in Howard Stern’s green room, I did get to meet the band Live really briefly and at the time that seemed cool – and I still think it’s great that Jay Leno made jokes about the book in his monologue – but the whole experience was really harrowing. I just wasn’t ready for that kind of media blitz.
Mostly I was glad when it all wound down and I could get on with my life. Every once in a while I can still hear this idiot Boston radio DJ saying, ‘She wants to know why she’s still a virgin, look at her!’ Boggles the mind, really, the things people said.
5. What’s your reading guilty pleasure? Your guilty musical pleasure?
I can’t think of any books I read as guilty pleasures, but I definitely visit some snarky websites, like Gawker, on a regular basis. And I watch The Hills on MTV. Music-wise, I have to cop to actually liking that song by Rhianna that rips off “Tainted Love,” [“S.O.S.”].
6. Your writing is all over the board, genre-wise: young adult, chick lit, memoir. Is there a genre in which you feel most comfortable, or are you still looking for the perfect fit?
Well, the memoir was, I think, a one-time thing, and it was a long time ago now. These days I just consider myself a novelist. I never considered Love Will Tear Us Apart chick lit, I just think of it as a novel, and I sort of feel the same about The Pursuit of Happiness. I think the packaging and marketing and genre-ing is something that publishers do and I don’t concern myself with it too much. So in a sense I feel like I have found the perfect fit, in that I’m currently contracted to write two more novels that I really want to write. One happens to be more of an adult book and the other happens to be more of a teen book. So be it.
7. You’ve expressed surprise that the idea of popstar Siamese twins – the main characters in Love Will Tear Us Apart – gave readers pause in adding the novel to their reading lists. But was it really such a surprise? Along the way, did no one say to you, “hey, this is…strange”?
I guess I thought that more people would react to the idea with pleasant surprise, not skeptical surprise. I had someone who works in publishing tell me that my book, which she’d read, was creepy and that she didn’t know why ANYONE would want to read it and that sort of shocked me. Conjoined twins are always headline news – when they’re born, when they’re separated – so that fascination does exist within our culture, big time.
Then again, I’m not drawn to ‘wacky’ books either and I guess Love Will Tear Us Apart comes across as wacky, until you read it. I wrote that book because I thought it was the kind of book I’d want to read – something that took on the subject of being single in your thirties in a real way (without pricey shoes or pat ending) and did it with a pop culture/satire twist. If I hadn’t written it and someone else had, it would’ve shot straight to the top of my reading pile. But I guess all authors feel that way about their books, right?
8. The Sparks Sisters have their own website. Who is responsible for that content?
Oh, I came up with that whole thing, like the tour of Flora’s garden and stuff. Seemed like a fun idea, to have a real website for the Sparks Sisters since if they existed they’d obviously have a web presence. I roped some friends into doing the design work. I think that sparkly flash animation is genius.
9. You wrote actual music for Flora and Fauna with a friend, and had another friend record them. Is publishing music a career that you ever considered, or still consider?
I would’ve loved to be a rock star, but I’m not musically talented enough. So no, I’m content to just listen to music I like and to occasionally offer input if my husband’s working on a new song and asks my opinion on something. But it was a lot of fun to collaborate on a song. I really do think that “I’m Beside Myself” is a pretty awesome pop ballad, but I’m really responsible only for the lyrics.
10. The band Travis’s cover of the Britney Spears song “Baby, One More Time” was instrumental in giving you the push you needed to get started on Love Will Tear Us Apart. Did Britney’s special brand of teen pop grow on you after repeated listens, or have you sworn her off now that the book is complete?
I have extreme affection for Britney, especially her earlier stuff. And I think that repeated listens did alert me to a certain brilliance in the progression of her songs, lyrically, and in the creation and marketing of Britney in general. I have a Britney concert t-shirt that I know my friends think I wear ironically, but I think I may have lost the irony somewhere along the way.
Except that now, well, now she’s just hard to look at – or at least she was during that Matt Lauer interview. I hope she comes through the other side of her current tabloid troubles stronger than ever and is somehow able to reclaim some of her lost glory. Having said that, I haven’t listened to her since finishing Love Will Tear Us Apart. I might have overdone it at the time.
11. Is there a boy from your past on which the love interest from The Pursuit of Happiness was based?
There was a guy who worked at the colonial village I worked at that I sort of had a crush on and he did, in fact, carve me some things out of wood in the carpenter shop. We went out a few times but that was it. He was older, already in college and just home for the summer, and I was just going into my senior year of high school and we just didn’t have enough in common somehow. I never saw him again after that summer.
12. What’s your favorite factual tidbit from the historical farm you worked on as a teen? Did any of the stories from your summer job make it into Pursuit?
I remember being blown away when I learned that the phrase “sleep tight” derives from old beds that had ropes as support. The ropes would stretch out over time so if you yanked them tight, you supposedly got a better night’s sleep. So I wrote that into the book. Truthfully, though, the village in the book is way more exciting and interesting than the one I worked in. I don’t think we had a jail cell and if we did, I never got thrown in it!
13. How many paper-cut silhouettes have you received from fans due to the role they play in Pursuit?
None! And now I feel cheated! Some readers have posted images of silhouettes on my MySpace page but I haven’t received any actual cutouts. It’s my secret wish, though, that some girl out there has started plastering her bedroom walls with them. I’d like to be single-handedly responsible for the rebirth of the art of the silhouette.
14. You and your character Betsy both lost your mothers when you were young. Did that autobiographical angle make this book easier or harder to complete? Easier or harder to promote?
I think there’s a reason I didn’t write this book until I was 34 and happily married and generally in a good place in my life. I’m not sure I was ready to revisit that summer, those emotions, before then. The response from friends and fellow writers and reviewers and teen readers out there has been overwhelmingly positive, so the book has truly been a joy to promote. I know that my mother would be proud of it and of me and I just want Pursuit to do as well as it can out there in the world, as sort of a tribute to her.
15. When you’re asked to read from Pursuit, what’s the chapter you normally choose and why?
I’m partial to the scene where Betsy and James and Liza are trying to come up with a name for a bar that would cater to the ‘colonial scene’ and just joking around about how the grass they’re laying on is probably covered in duck crap. I think it really captures the boredom of teenage summers, the thrill of new friendships, and also highlights the colonial angle of the book in a funny way.
16. Music plays an important part in your writing. How would the soundtrack of your teen years compare to the soundtrack of your current life?
I think the soundtrack of my teen life was much more angsty than my current soundtrack. I listened to a lot of Depeche Mode and The Cure and New Order and Joy Divison and The Smiths. Not exactly happy happy joy joy stuff. Current faves like Eels and Built to Spill and Tegan and Sara aren’t nearly as depressing!
17. You ended up marrying the lead singer of a rock band. Does he have groupies?
There are some! And I am their leader! But we’re always looking for more!
18. Is there a sorority of sorts for YA writers? Online, at least, it seems like you’re pretty supportive of each other.
There is, and I’ve been thinking a lot lately about why that same kind of sorority doesn’t exist in the adult fiction world. My best guess is that it has to do with the fact that YA writers get a lot of enthusiastic support from their readers, since teenage girls are often naturally effusive and open, so we get satisfaction from that and don’t necessarily need validation from the so-called literary community. Adult novelists are all competing for reviews and reputations. I’ve struck up a few relationships with YA writers just within the last month and have found the sharing of advice and information to be refreshingly open. In the YA world there seems to be more of a sense that high tide floats all the ships. People aren’t worried about having the biggest boat.
19. On MySpace you confess to collecting spoons from around the world. Which one’s your favorite?
I have a spoon from Germany that has moveable parts. There’s a dancing girl who sort of twirls under a boy’s arm, which is pretty neat. My most recent purchase is a spoon from Venice, which has a gondola on top of it, so that’s kind of cool, too.
20. You’ve got another couple of books in the pipeline. What can fans expect from you next?
Next up is Wouldn’t Miss it for the World, about two indie rockers who decide to have their wedding in Belize. Some of their friends and family – and bandmates – go with them and the trip seems to bring out the best and worst in all of them. After that I’ll be writing another teen book, set in Las Vegas, for MTV. I figure Vegas is about as far as you can get from a colonial village.