What could be dreamier than a post-graduation trip to Europe filled with art, mouth-watering pastries and boys with accents? Seventeen-year-old Nora Parker-Holmes just wants to become an artist like her world-renowned grandfather. She can’t wait for her summer of freedom at a prestigious artists’ colony in Ireland and the whirlwind Euro-tour beforehand. But her ideal solo adventure veers off course when her overbearing mother, Alice, spontaneously decides to tag along.
Although Alice claims she wants to fit in a mother-daughter bonding experience before Nora heads off to college, their jaunts through Paris, Amesterdam and Brussels are filled with bickering and awkward silences. When the pair finally set foot in Ireland, Nora finally gets a little taste of the summer she dreamed of, as she makes fast friends with the other teens in her art program. And when a charismatic Irish boy named Callum asks her out at a pub, it seems like her trip might not be ruined after all. But expectations almost never match reality, and eventually Nora comes to be (mostly) glad to have Alice by her side.
Writer Dana Schwartz has crafted a laugh-out-loud, winning summer read with her debut novel, And We’re Off. We asked Schwartz a few questions about her own globetrotting adventures, her hilarious Twitter accounts, her best advice for teens and more.
Describe your book in one sentence.
A teenage girl who wants to become an artist gets to go on a whirlwind trip through Europe, which sounds like a dream, until it turns out her high-strung, Type-A mother is planning on tagging along.
You’ve written for quite a few high-profile publications. Was it difficult to make the jump to writing a novel?
It was definitely a challenge writing a novel. The vast majority of my writing had been personal, from my own perspective, and so the first challenge was keeping my writing in the brain of my protagonist, Nora. This was also the longest thing I’ve ever written, and it took far more discipline and focus than writing a 140-character tweet.
Your Twitter handle @DystopianYA points out some pretty hilarious themes in YA. What makes And We’re Off unique?
I think the biggest constant with the dystopian YA I’m lovingly mocking is that the main character is just a generic placeholder for the reader to project herself onto: YOU are the most important person in the universe, and you have two handsome boys fighting over you, and even though you’re ordinary, everyone is always in love with you. I tried to make my main character distinct and imperfect—she’s bitter and awkward sometimes, hopefully funny and frequently crabby. Also, there’s no world that needs to be saved; there’s just one girl, hoping to figure out what she’s meant to do, and trying to become confident enough to pursue her dream.
Have you ever been to Europe? How did your expectations and experience compare to Nora’s?
I have! I’ve been lucky enough to get to go over to Europe a few times. I didn’t study abroad when I was in college, and so after I graduated, I made the decision to go away for as long as I possibly could before I had to come back and get a job. I was a little bit older, and I went with a friend from high school, not my mom, and I also didn’t get to go to an awesome arts colony, but I definitely took the texture of the cities and a few experiences directly from my trip.
The mother-daughter relationship between Nora and Alice isn’t very pretty (there’s lots of yelling, resentment and exasperation), but it feels honest. Why was it important for you to focus on their journey as a team instead of letting Nora run off to Europe by herself?
I think if this had just been a story about Nora in Europe, it would have been more about wish-fulfillment than an actual honest, difficult journey. Alice’s frustration with Nora, and her doubts about whether Nora can actually make it as an artist, is an externalization of something that Nora also thinks about herself: Alice externalizes the kernel of Nora’s self-doubt and insecurities. Nora is also 17, and before a kid leaves for college, tensions between parent and child are always at a high. The kid is nervous and beginning to feel independent and pushing against a parent who’s feeling sad that their baby has grown up. I wanted to capture that dynamic in a way that felt honest and relatable. Teenagers do have to deal with parents; this isn’t one of those kids’ books where the main character gets to be a hapless orphan on an adventure.
Nora’s fantasies about meeting a gorgeous guy and having a European fling actually come true, but it doesn’t end the way some readers might expect. Why was it important for you to break the typical YA romance formula?
I don’t think I was consciously breaking the formula—I think I was just trying to write the experience of a young crush in an honest way. I’ve fallen in love with boys I’ve only just met and imagined entire futures with them, and then had to move on. Sometimes love works out, and sometimes it doesn’t. It always struck me as strange and artificial when books and movies acted like a person you meet when you’re a teenager is automatically the love of your life.
You’ve got a large Twitter following and are super active on the platform. Who’s your favorite person on Twitter that you’d like to meet in real life?
Oh gosh, this is a really good question. I adore @jonnysun but haven’t met him in person yet. In terms of just super famous people—Michelle Obama is on Twitter, right?
Dream cast for a TV or movie adaptation of And We’re Off?
Kiernan Shipka for Nora, and Kathryn Hahn for her mother, Alice. Kiernan Shipka totally has the sarcastic-teen bit down, and the world always needs more Kathryn Hahn.
Best advice for surviving your teenage years?
Nothing is as big of a deal as you think it is. Really. Nothing. It will all work out. Chances are, 75 percent of things you’re stressed about will not matter in five years.
What’s next for you?
I’m working on a second book, a memoir, about moving to New York. And hopefully I’ll keep writing after that. In the long term, I plan on moving to the cottage Kate Winslet lives in in the movie The Holiday and falling in love with Jude Law.