When my editor Sarah at Atom Books (Little, Brown) first told me my book had the Nick and Norah vibe, I squealed with delight. Music and fiction do not make comfortable bedfellows, a fact highlighted in one of my rejection letters (ouch) but also in the vast array of awkward as hell TV fiction being made right now. I’m looking at you, Vinyl.
But, when it works, it really works.
I asked lovely Rachel Cohn a few questions about her process and how her and co-writer David Levithan made it work so brilliantly.
I was reading that you said you only reference music that can stand the test of time. I had that issue too – what was your litmus test? And how did you keep their tastes feeling ‘current’?
I think the music choices came down to gut feeling about what stood the test of time — whether because it was that good or that bad. I don’t remember the particular litmus test other than David and I discussing each individual music reference while editing the manuscript together (which I don’t think we’ve ever done since, go through a book of ours page by page together in the same room), and making the calls then of what could stay or go. Like, The Smiths and Abba. Both stand the test of time for very different reasons. (You be the judge why. )
OMG I love both. The Smiths is referenced in This Beats Perfect, actually. Couldn’t squeeze in Abba though! Those times are so good. Music and boys and girls. Dancing on tables. Sweaty cramped gigs with bands before they were famous. Was that you?
It really wasn’t me, sad to say. I was and am very introverted and a homebody. I hate going out! So the characters I write like Norah are very much projections of the adventurous person I wish I’d been at that age. That being said, I did go to college in New York City, and I certainly had my share of late nights going to hear music. But the dancing on tables and daring behavior…I WISH! I’ve never liked beer, so I often joke that my teens and 20s would have been so much more fun if I’d drunk beer. Alas, I was always the sober driver or the sober person getting everyone home in a cab.
Is that what made you choose to make your leads sober? In the UK it would be considered pretty unusual (although that’s changing) but I always think Americans are much more relaxed about sobriety.
I have two British half-sisters, and the younger one, Martha, was 16 at the time we were writing Nick & Norah, and she was very much an inspiration for the character. She was proudly straight edge at the time, so that’s why Norah was also. It was fun for me to write; my natural instinct is to go the other direction with characters, so not being able to fall back on that made Norah come alive in more interesting and surprising ways for me, because I couldn’t hide any “wild” behavior behind alcohol or drugs.
What do you think makes music and fiction being such difficult bedfellows? It seems to be exacerbated by TV as well…. like I feel like Vinyl should have been awesome, and Nashville should have been awful, but I enjoyed the latter much more. Nick and Nora totally worked, as a book and as a film: what do you think helped Nick and Norah feel so authentic?
I am so with you on Vinyl and Nashville!
As for authenticity with Nick & Norah, I really don’t know why it works in both mediums. It’s a subjective thing — some people like it, some don’t (and believe me, they let us know when they don’t). I can only say the writers of the book and the people involved in the movie all shared that experience of being young and music-loving in NYC at that age, so I hope what trickled into both mediums was sincere appreciation for and memory of that particular kind of experience!
Can you give some examples of books (or movies or television) that weave music in and out that you love?
Book: I loved Eleanor & Park‘s use of music. Music was so alive and IMPORTANT not to just the characters connecting, but to them surviving.
Movie: I’m the person who loved the Marie Antoinette movie by Sofia Coppola, especially the use of music completely not of that era to establish the tone and punk of that crazy, sad story.
Fan girl moment: What was it like when they told you Michael Cera was going to play Nick?
Best day ever! I found out it was a possibility the weekend that Superbad was released in movie theaters, so of course I went to see the movie that Friday night, and saw it with a packed audience who howled through the movie. I was beside myself with glee that he’d consider the project, but also filled with dread and doom. No way could someone that cool and talented choose this project based on our book! But on that Tuesday, my lovely film agent Alicia called to tell me that he had accepted the part, and what was a remote possibility as a movie happening was suddenly going into production like immediately. Smiling now all these years later remembering that thrilling call.
And so if writing a bunch of amazing novels wasn’t enough, you’ve just put out a YA cookbook -Veganish! Some of my favourite musicians are vegan (hello Morrissey). And it’s a little bit of a dream of mine to write a cookbook. I’m so jealous. Tell us how it came about.
I am the “ish” in The Book of Veganish with Kathy Freston. I’ve been vegetarian for ten years, but I’m not entirely vegan, though much more so since writing this book. (Cheese! Always the last to go!) Kathy is one of my food activist heroes, and we share an amazing book agent, and I would jokingly say to Jennifer (our agent) that if Kathy Freston ever wanted to write a book for young adults, I’d love to talk to her. And then one day Kathy e-mailed me, and we got together for coffee, really hit it off (she’s so down to earth and passionate about animal and health advocacy, she totally inspires me), and we put together a proposal for a book to help young people (and the young at heart) who are interested in going plant-based to do it in a fun, healthy and affordable way. The book is part how-to advice (which we wrote) and part cookbook with simple, healthy recipes provided by the great vegan chef Robin Robertson. I am so proud of this book and hope it finds an audience!
What is the best thing about talking to an YA audience for you? What do you get out of it?
The books people cherish as a teen really stay with them as adults, and it’s been so gratifying to me to meet so many readers who read my books as teenagers and still re-read them every year, or name their kids or pets after characters. It’s an honor to play a part in people’s lives like that!
Lastly, a bit of fun.
What is the last record you bought?
D’Angelo — Black Messiah. LOVE.
Last book you read?
The Unexpected Everything by my dear friend and office mate Morgan Matson. Such a fun and satisfying read.
What do you get most tired of about publishing? (me: the waiting! ALWAYS WAITING!)
You got it. THE WAITING!
How quickly do you draft a book?
Each one is different — some have taken me as long as one or two years, but generally 3-6 months for a first draft is my average.
Aaaand… Are you ever done editing?
Yes, because I rarely re-read my books after they’re out in the world. Specifically because I would want to edit them!