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Writer Alyssa B. Sheinmel MAG
First-time novelist and Hemingway fanatic Alyssa Sheinmel made her debut in young adult fiction last month with the novel The Beautiful Between, in which average girl Connelly Sternin develops a friendship with the “prince” of her New York high school, Jeremy Cole. And through sharing family secrets, she finds that fairy tales aren't always what they seem. Sheinmel, a California native and a graduate of Barnard College, works in the publishing industry, and firmly believes that writing comes out best when it's done purely for the fun of it.
What caused you to start writing?
I've been writing for as long as I can remember. I think even before I knew how to write, I was making up stories in my head. It kept me entertained; I was one of those kids who was never, ever bored. In that way I think I am a lot like my main character, Connelly. I've always liked to tell stories.
When did you decide you wanted to be a writer?
As soon as I figured out that it was a job you could have! It's actually not my “real” job; I have a day job. That's part of what I like about writing: I don't have to approach it like a job, because I have a job that I love a lot. That way, getting to write is more my playtime rather than work time.
What inspired the idea for The Beautiful Between?
I actually knew someone whose father, like Connelly's, died when he was very young, and he didn't find out how until years later. Since writing the book, I've heard of other people who've had the same experience. I was just fascinated by that question: how do you live without that information? Moreover, I wondered how you keep quiet, how and why you would keep yourself from asking your mother “How did my dad die?” I wanted to know what that would be like, so that's why I wrote it.
Your book deals with the very serious, yet common, issue of leukemia. My grandfather died of the disease when I was little. Do you have any personal connections with the disease?
I had a friend when I was in college whose little sister had leukemia. Even though Jeremy is definitely not based on him, that's kind of where I got the idea to write about a girl who is sick. His little sister happened to be this remarkably wonderful girl, and it was incredibly tough to see my friend go through that. So that certainly inspired it.
Are there any real life counterparts to any of the characters?
Connelly is definitely not based on me, but her fantasy world was inspired by my childhood fantasy world. Jeremy is kind of an amalgam of the boys I knew in high school; he is somewhere between a friend I had who was like a brother and the guy I had a huge crush on.
Did you intend for the relationship between Connelly and Jeremy to be platonic or romantic?
I intended for it to be platonic. You can't get around the fact that Jeremy happens to be very good-looking and Connelly is very pretty, so there is going to be a little bit of tension there, but I don't think they'll ever get together – I like to think they'll always be friends. Jeremy is like Connelly's big brother in lot of ways, and she needs a big brother, a best friend, a lot more than she needs a boyfriend.
Would you mind describing your writing process?
I tend to write in fits and spurts. Sometimes I will go weeks without writing and then I'll write one sentence and it feels like a huge accomplishment. Or sometimes I will sit down and write three pages in 20 minutes. I jump all over the place with how I write. I'm a pretty slow writer – The Beautiful Between took me two years and it's a pretty short book to take that long! I think it's partly because I have a full-time job, but I also think it's just the way that I write, because I only write when I'm in the mood. If I'm not in the mood, then what I write just comes out terribly.
I've been like that my whole life. In high school, I couldn't do homework unless I was in the mood; I would be watching TV or reading and my mother would think I was procrastinating but I wasn't; I just knew that I wouldn't do a good job if I wasn't in the mood. I know some writers write all day long. I am definitely not one of those.
I tend to find the middle of a story to be the worst part of writing. I know others who just can't write endings at all. What was the hardest part of your novel for you?
The hardest part was definitely the first draft. The way I write, I try to power through that first draft, so it's not good at all, and usually it's really short – much shorter than the book should be. For me, the process is about spitting out that first draft as quickly and painlessly as possible, even though that takes me a good year or so.
The real work happens when I go back in and rewrite it. I am a big, big re-writer. I tend to cut a lot, too – I'm very big on tossing bits and pieces of what I write, or saving them for something else someday.
What experience helped you gain confidence with your writing?
I don't know if I am confident with my writing! It's a really strange thing to be a writer, because in theory, you have to believe that other people will want to hear what you have to say, but at the same time I'm a pretty shy person. When people began reading this book at Random House, where I work, I was so nervous and embarrassed. But you have to be okay with the fact that people are going to be reading your book and strangers will be reading it. Actually, I think I feel better about strangers reading it than people I know. I've asked everyone in my family not to read it, but of course I can't stop them!
Many Teen Ink readers are aspiring writers, myself included. What advice do you have?
Just keep writing – but don't force it. A few years ago before I wrote The Beautiful Between, I took a good year off writing and I didn't do any writing except in my journal. I think that break was just what I needed to be able to write The Beautiful Between.
My other advice is keep reading. I know some writers don't read while they are writing. I can't imagine that! I think the more you read, the more you learn about how to write. Whether you read fiction or nonfiction or textbooks, just keep reading. That's what inspires me most, and I think it's the best education you can have as a writer.
How did you get the book published? Did you find an agent or did you send it straight to your publishing house?
I found an agent. I asked a few agents to take a look at the manuscript, and I actually had a really nice experience – so many of the agents I queried gave me amazing notes and help for revising it. There was one agent I really liked – I found her e-mail address and wrote to her, hoping she would perhaps ask one of her associates to look at it, but she looked at it and offered to be my agent. I was thrilled! She gave me a lot of notes, so before it even went out to publishers I did two or three more revisions based on her notes. And then she sent it out to a few publishers.
I think I always secretly hoped it would end up at Random House, where I work, because I already knew what a wonderful home it is – and I was thrilled that's where the book ended up.
What you do at Random House?
I work in the marketing department. Whenever you see advertisements for books in magazines, or displays in stores, or posters in malls or movie theaters – that's what I do. I've been doing it for five years, and it's the best job I could imagine. Everybody is different about whether they want to write to make a living. Personally, I love having another job, I love being at an office, I love having a community. I've always thought that working at an office is remarkably like high school, but instead of lockers, people have offices and cubicles. You have to do work, but in between you hang out with your friends. It's so much fun to work with my best friends every day. I would hate to give it up.
Did your desire to be a writer come more from working at Random House, or did working at Random House come from your desire to be a writer?
I think that at first, working at Random House quelled my desire to be a writer, because I had a job that I loved. When I started working there, I wasn't writing. For one thing, my new job took a lot of my energy and time, and at the same time, it satisfied me in a way that previously, only writing had. But after a while, I missed telling stories. So, even though I took some time off, I couldn't help coming back to writing.
What was it like realizing that The Beautiful Between would someday end up on bookshelves?
You know, it was really strange! It didn't feel real. My editor bought it in July 2008, so I've had a couple of years to get used to the idea. It's strangely anti-climatic: you have this thing that you have wanted to do since you were five or six years old, and then you just get a phone call or an e-mail and it's happening. It's very strange and wonderful.
The very best part of it for me was everybody's reaction – getting to tell other people that it was happening – because everyone was so unabashedly excited, while I was nervous and worried and embarrassed. But everybody thinks it's cool – my friends and family have been so supportive.
Where did the title come from?
The title was the last thing that I came up with for the book. When I was writing it, I called it High School Royalty. When I submitted it to agents it was called A Fairy Tale for the Lost and Found. When it was submitted to my editor it was called A Different Kingdom, and it had about 20 other titles in between.
Finally, the week before the book was due to be presented to the company, my editor said, “You have to come with a title that you like.” I narrowed it down to two and I ended up literally flipping a coin. I love this one, though, because The Beautiful Between has a number of meanings for me. For one, it's the beautiful place Connelly has created for herself in between fantasy and reality. She's certainly not completely cut off from reality, but she also has a very elaborate fantasy life. So she lives kind of in between. But mostly, I think that The Beautiful Between is all the different relationships in the book: everything that goes on between Connelly and Jeremy, Connelly and her mother, Jeremy and Kate, and Kate and Connelly. Relationships in which you allow yourself to be vulnerable enough to let people know things about you that are very not beautiful – like that you can be a brat or that you're sad – but that turn into something beautiful because of the friendship.
What inspired the parallel of high school to a fairy tale?
That was kind of how I started the book – even before I knew what else was going to be in it, I knew there would be fairy tales. I love fairy tales, and I try to put little bits and pieces of magic into what I write. I knew that I wanted to make that part of the story – and I do think that high school is kind of like a fairy tale in a lot of ways.
What caused you to write young adult fiction as opposed to other genres?
I'm not sure I chose it. I think that this was just the story that I wanted to tell and it happened to be a young adult story. I think you have to write the story that you have to tell. Certainly, I was aware of my audience as I wrote it, but I wrote it mostly for myself. I do a lot of work with YA books in my day job, and I think it's a wonderful genre. I certainly want to continue to write for YA readers.
What are your plans for future novels?
I have a second book coming out in 2011. I don't talk about anything I am writing until I know that it's going to be published. I'm pretty secretive about it. I'll be sitting at my computer at home and my husband will come in and ask what I'm doing, and I won't admit that I'm writing. Even if I'm obviously sitting there typing, I'll say I am playing on the Internet. But I am happy to tell you about the book that's coming out in 2011. It's called The Lucky Kind and it's from the perspective of a 16-year-old boy. I totally recommend that every girl try to write a book from the perspective of a boy, or even just a short story or an essay, because it's so much fun to play ventriloquist.
Is there any question that you'd like to answer but haven't been asked?
Who are my favorite writers, who inspires me? I am an Ernest Hemingway geek. I don't leave my house in the morning until I read some Hemingway. I am also a huge fan of fantasy books. I try to find magic in little details in my books. I have read The Lord of the Rings over and over again.
To me those books are the literary equivalent of curling up with a cup of hot chocolate – I just feel at home when I read them. I read lot of Alice Hoffman and I think she brilliantly combines fantasy and reality in such beautiful ways. Most of the inspiration I get as a writer is from reading books and seeing writers who have managed to do what I hope I will be able to do someday.
In fact, I would definitely describe myself as a reader before I would describe myself as a writer. I think if I had to give one of the two up, I could give up writing more easily. I just couldn't give up reading; it's such a huge part of who I am, and even of how I write. I write a first draft, but it's not until I read it that I can figure out how to write it well; for me, reading is kind of the key thing.
Whenever I see someone on the subway or the street reading a book that I love, I assume they are reading it for the first time, and I'm jealous that they get to have that experience. I remember what it was like for me when I read it for the first time – how excited I was, how much I learned from it, how much it surprised me. When you read a book that's different from anything you read before – there's nothing like it. And even though you can re-read it over and over, you never get to have that first magical experience again.