BookPage Icebreaker is a publisher-sponsored interview.
Three things to know about high school junior Jessie, the protagonist of Julie Buxbaum’s debut young adult novel, Tell Me Three Things:
1) It’s been barely two years since her mother’s death.
2) She doesn’t fit in at her fancy new Los Angeles private school, which she must attend since her father has eloped with a woman he met online.
3) She’s lost and confused—but from page one, she’s oh-so-wry and funny.
The list of things Jessie doesn’t know is far longer: Who is the person emailing her as “Somebody/Nobody” (SN for short), who claims to be a male student at her school and offers kindness and advice? Why would her father uproot her like this? What’s the deal with her new study partner, who recites “The Waste Land” from heart, wears the same shirt every day and always seems so tired?
Readers discover the answers in this heartfelt, tender novel about love and loss. Like Jessie, Buxbaum (whose next YA novel, What to Say Next, comes out in July) lost her mother when she was much too young. She’s written about grief in her previous adult novels, but her first book for teens is the most vulnerable story she’s ever told.
Cat: I wish, more than any other interview I’ve probably ever done over the phone, that we could be doing this face-to-face. It’s such a personal story, and I feel like the only way to talk about it is as friends or at least as someone who has met you! Have you found that readers are comfortable talking to you about Tell Me Three Things?
Julie: Yeah. I feel like the author-reader relationship has changed in recent years. Readers are super comfortable, actually. People think they get a glimpse into your brain when they read your book, and so they’re more comfortable asking questions.
I also think that your voice for Jessie is so frank, right off the bat talking about zits and sex and being comfortable with awkwardness and weirdness. That helps strip away any distance between you and your reader.
Thank you! It’s funny: My husband calls me Full-Disclosure Buxbaum, FDB [laughs]. Maybe I should change what I said earlier—I don’t know if that author-reader relationship has changed. I know that I am a full-disclosure person. I’m an open book in my personal life and out in the world, and maybe that comes through in my writing. Maybe it makes people comfortable asking me questions. I don’t know.
I definitely think that you’re probably onto something, considering the wonderful interactions between authors and readers we see everyday online. An author’s popularity can have as much to do with their book’s ability to connect with readers as the actual author’s ability to connect.
We have all these different ways for people to get in touch with us, and they get glimpses of our lives. I’m on Instagram, and you see pictures of my kids and how I blew up an egg in my microwave [laughs].
You blew up an egg?
I blew up two eggs, recently! It’s sort of a funny story. We’re going way off topic, but yeah, I’ve been eating a lot of hardboiled eggs, which I hate, but I eat them anyway. I recently blew one up in the microwave when I heated it. So the next day, I put one in the microwave—it was already cooked—but I put it in the microwave for less time, thinking, if I put it for less time, it won’t blow up. But then I took a bite and it blew up in my face.
Oh my gosh!
[Laughing] It was like a bomb. I had yolk shrapnel burning my lips. It was ridiculous. My son screamed. It was literally an explosion. I looked it up later. Apparently this is a thing, that ophthalmologists think should be [included on] warnings on microwaves. The heat gets trapped in the spaces of the egg, so if you don’t pierce it like a potato, they explode. PSA: Be careful if you microwave your hardboiled eggs.
I am totally derailing this interview. See? There you go! Full-Disclosure Buxbaum.
There it is.
“I was writing to that version of me that didn’t get to go to the bookstore and see myself reflected on the page.”
To move back to a more sobering subject, you’ve written about loss before in your two adult novels, but this, your first YA novel, is clearly your most vulnerable. How did writing this story begin, and did you always know that you would tell this story—about first loss and first grief and its aftermath—from the perspective of a young person?
As sort of an aside, I’ll tell you, yeah, I have written a lot about loss. I wrote my first book [The Opposite of Love], which is about a girl who loses her mother. In my second book [After You], I killed a mom, which is when you’re like, Julie, go to a therapist. [chuckles] My third book, Tell Me Three Things, again, all about mother-loss. And so when I sat down to write What to Say Next [coming July 11 from Delacorte Press], I told myself I was not going to kill any more moms. It was getting embarrassing. And then of course, on page two, I killed the dad [laughs]. So clearly, I am working through some grief issues with my fiction.
Tell Me Three Things, to get more sober for a moment, was the first time I felt comfortable actually going back to the time when I had lost my mom. Everything else is sort of from a distance. All of my other writing was from the perspective of an adult looking back and having some emotional space from the loss. I think I wrote Tell Me Three Things when my mom had been gone 22 or 23 years. So it took me a good 20 years, at least, to feel comfortable to go back and revisit that particular time, which I think was a different experience for me. There’s comfort in writing from a distance. When I had to go back and unpack the feeling of being 16 and my mom had just died, and I was living the life of a teenager and feeling all those fresh feelings—that was much tougher. I think it took me a really long time to feel comfortable to go back.
You’re obviously addressing your teenage self through this story, but at what point did the story become about your readers? When did you realize Jessie’s story wasn’t just about you, but about sharing yourself with your reader?
When I was creating Jessie, I purposefully didn’t write a character who was 16-year-old me. I wrote the character that 16-year-old me would want to see in a book, which is a really important distinction. If I wrote a character like 16-year-old me, she’d be definitely more of a disaster [laughs]. I didn’t experience half of what Jessie did. My dad didn’t quickly remarry a woman he met on the internet. We didn’t move halfway across the country. I did not have to start over with a new stepfamily. I had a brother who’s a great support system. I had totally different circumstances.
Jessie deals with her loss with such grace that I definitely did not have, and I thought it was important to see that modeled. When I was 16, there wasn’t this huge YA section where you could easily pick up a book about this stuff. I was writing to that version of me that didn’t get to go to the bookstore and see myself reflected on the page.
“When something that weird and wonderful and magical happens in real life and you’re a fiction writer, you use it.”
You’ve said you were also inspired by an anonymous email you received. What was that?
I’ve been talking about this book for a year, and I get asked this question all the time, and I never have a short, easy way of answering it. It’s a long, complicated story. But the gist of it is, I once received a secret admirer-type email, and it came at the time I needed it the most. I had just graduated from law school and started working at a law firm. I was working 80 hours a week. I had put on a ton of weight. I felt disgusting, not because I had put on weight, but because it was my first dose of real adult life. I felt completely overwhelmed and depressed. It just wasn’t a great period in my life, and out of nowhere, an anonymous email showed up in my inbox.
It wasn’t asking for anything. The person said that they lived in a different city, but we had gone to law school together. It was just a sweet email in which they mentioned that they always noticed me across the room. I had never, ever, ever thought of myself as someone that someone would notice across a room. It was so beyond the bounds of what I imagined my existence in the world to be like, that it completely changed my perception of myself. It was this great gift that was given to me, and when something that weird and wonderful and magical happens in real life and you’re a fiction writer, you use it.
Speaking of feeling noticed and being noticed, this is absolutely a book about grief and change, but it’s also about family and first love and, my personal favorite, navigating friendships with other young women—and when all these different pieces come together, it really is about being noticed. It’s about finding hope and sanctuary where you least expect it. SN is the obvious example of that, but there are others, like Jessie’s stepbrother, Theo, who’s this totally surprising character who she can confess really dark things to, like wishing that the living parent was the one who had actually died. And then Mrs. Pollack, the teacher, who’s just this wonderful person who pops up. Talk to me about being noticed as a young person.
That’s the seed of the idea. When I sat down to write this book, I was thinking, what would 16-year-old me want more than anything else? And it wasn’t just circumstances. Obviously I didn’t want my mom to have gotten sick. [It wasn’t that I wanted] a boy to notice me. It’s more about, at the core, I wanted someone to see me and recognize me. I think that’s a universal feeling of adolescence, or even adulthood. We all want to be recognized. We all want to feel that we’re not invisible in this world. It’s a huge theme in my first book as well, which is sort of a late coming-of-age story, set during her late 20s. It’s always something that I’m fascinated by, the ways in which other people see us and whether they recognize what makes us, us.
So I love the idea, first of all, of an anonymous email noticing her, but also all those opportunities for connection where we recognize shared feelings or emotion. Like that scene with Theo [you mentioned], they both have in common the loss of a parent, and they’re able to get past this sort of awkward, weird, artificial family dynamic to talk about that, and recognize their own grief in someone else.
“We all want to be recognized. We all want to feel that we’re not invisible in this world.”
There are a couple turning points for Jessie, but one of my favorites involves Ethan. We don’t, as a reader, necessarily trust him. We don’t understand him because we don’t have the access to him that we have with Jessie. We can’t see him. But there’s a moment during one of their “Waste Land” discussions, when he pushes through any potential awkwardness, is straightforward about her mom and apologizes for Jessie’s loss. And it’s a moment when he goes from being a crushable character to being an actual human. But even before and after that, you don’t make their connection easy. Why not?
I don’t love stories of insta-love, where two characters who look at each other across the room, and that’s it. Done. I mean, Ethan recognizes something in her, which is why he reaches out, but I think true connection takes time and it takes sharing. It’s funny—whenever I write a book, I don’t always know what it’s about until later. I mean, I knew what it was about in the sense that I wanted her to feel noticed and to satisfy that need of 16-year-old me. But my husband and I, when we first started dating, he got the flu. So for the whole first month we were dating, our conversation were all on the phone or online. We had met already, but that initial growth period was all over the phone, where we didn’t have to look at each other. I think it really helped to build our relationship. I don’t even know if we’d married now if that hadn’t happened.
You know, you mentioned that you would prefer to have this conversation in person, but I’m one of these people who is so much more comfortable writing than anything else, and then secondarily on the phone and third in person. When you’re in person, you have to figure out how to hold your body and how to make eye contact. There are all these other distractions, but when you’re on the phone or writing, it’s just pared down to the basics.
Why did you frame their friendship through “The Waste Land”? Why was that their project?
I love the poem, first of all. I think it was the perfect opportunity for them to dig in and talk about some of the grief. The language lends itself to that. Also, I love a good English project [laughs]. Obviously there are a million poems to choose from, but that’s the one that stuck for me.
My grandma was an English teacher. She used to quote “The Waste Land” to me all the time.
And so I’m assuming, it stuck that way. It’s funny how things just come up in your fiction that mean something to you, but you don’t know why or how. In fact, it didn’t even occur to me until just now how much my grandmother love “The Waste Land” until you asked.
I imagine it’s always really surprising and maybe a little unsettling when someone, some reader, connects strongly with something that seems very personal to you, like “The Waste Land.”
When you write a book and put it out into the world, at least I’m of the belief that it’s no longer yours. It belongs to the reader, and so they bring whatever feelings and emotions and experiences to your book that they carry with them. That’s what’s so magical about the process. I don’t want to dictate how anyone feels about anything when they read my book.
You did mention your next book coming out, What to Say Next, which is the perfect title for a next book. What are you saying next?
The book is about two people who don’t know what to say next, and that’s why it’s called What to Say Next. It’s about two people who unexpectedly connect and find the person they need the most in the person they least expect.
And I have to ask the obvious question last: Tell me three things your readers might not know about you.
You know what’s so funny? Every time I get asked this question, something different comes up and I always fear what’s going to come out of my mouth. Full-Disclosure Buxbaum! It’s an embarrassing affliction I have [laughs]!
OK, things people might not know about me: I spent 12 hours yesterday fighting a pantry moth infestation. So that was fun.
It really was. It’s disgusting and horrible. So that’s number one. Number two, I have the world’s worst handwriting. I never learned to hold the pencil properly, so my handwriting is atrocious. And number three, I married my first love.