Swanky Seventeener Katie Nelson recently spoke with Sweet Sixteen debut author Natalie Blitt, author of THE DISTANCE FROM A to Z (Epic Reads Impulse/HarperCollins, January 12, 2016).
Originally from Canada, I grew up on a steady diet of loyalist adventure stories. It wasn’t until I moved to Chicago after completing an English degree from McGill and a journalism degree from the University of King’s College, that I learned that not everybody sees the loyalists as the heroes. Now living in the Chicago-area, I dream up young adult novels of a different sort: more kissing, less guns, but always a lot of loyalty. When I’m not writing, I’m working at an education think tank and living with my husband and our three sons. I know a lot about baseball. I have no choice.
Where to find her:
Seventeen-year old Abby has only one goal for her summer: to make sure she is fluent in French—well, that, and to get as far away from baseball and her Cubs-obsessed family as possible. A summer of culture and language, with no sports in sight.
That turns out to be impossible, though, because her French partner is the exact kind of boy she was hoping to avoid. Eight weeks. 120 hours of class. 80 hours of conversation practice with someone who seems to exclusively wear baseball caps and jerseys.
But Zeke in French is a different person than Zeke in English. And Abby can’t help but fall for him, hard. As Abby begins to suspect that Zeke is hiding something, she has to decide if bridging the gap between the distance between who she is and who he is, is worth the risk.
Katie: How did the idea for this book come about? Any particular inspiration?
Natalie: The idea for the book first came from my husband. I always say that I get ideas for stories by daydreaming during family dinners. With 3 sons and a husband who all love sports, there’s a lot of talk that goes over my head. He suggested I engage the kids by writing a book with baseball. I don’t think this is what he was talking about…
The French is actually thanks to Pandora. I daydream a lot in the car also, and my Pandora mix started playing some French Canadian pop music that I couldn’t stop listening to. And I started getting nostalgic for all the years I spent speaking and studying in French. And the story was born.
Katie: One of the things I loved about your novel was Abby’s passion for learning French, and the way you described what it feels like to learn a foreign language. When and where did you learn French? Other than English, is it the only language you’ve studied?
Natalie: I actually attended a small private French school in Toronto from the time I was a small child until high school graduation. (Though while I am fluent, my French is so rusty that I needed a lot of help from my amazing French copy editor at HarperTeen.) At school, I also studied Russian and German, and later Hebrew. But none of those other languages ever sunk in. Learning a language is really hard — and I’ve often been amazed by friends who’ve built their lives in a country or with a partner who doesn’t have the same mother tongue as them.
But I do love the moment when you start thinking in a different language. It feels different somehow.
Katie: One of your characters struggles with anxiety. What prompted you to explore this conflict in your novel? Did you do a lot of research or rely on personal experiences or some combination of both?
Natalie: Anxiety is something I definitely face, not in the same way that Alice does, though I know many who do. But that feeling of wishing you could fold your body into itself to be as small as possible — that you had a shell to protect yourself — is definitely all mine. There’s one moment that is really personally important to me in Alice’s story: the tiny comment that Abby makes about Alice taking meds and Alice’s reaction to it. It’s such an innocent comment that Abby makes, but I needed Alice to tear into her and for Abby to understand the effect of what she did. There’s such a stigma about taking medication; I think it stops a lot of people from getting the help they need. I’m so proud of Alice for owning what she needs.
Katie: This is your debut novel. What have you learned about writing/the creative process/yourself as you’ve gone through this whole experience?
Natalie: So many things. I feel like I could fill the internet with them.
The number one thing for me is that you can’t be afraid of what you write. I wrote a whole book more than 10 years ago and I was so afraid that people would read it and see me that it was awful and flat. I was writing scared. When I wrote my next book, years and years later, I told myself that I would write the book that needed to be written, and I would deal with other people reading it later, and change what needed to be changed. You can’t write a book if you’re afraid of people reading it.
Lightning Round Questions
Coffee or chocolat chaud?
Really Mexican Cafe Mocha. It’s got the chocolate, the coffee and the spices!
Favorite snack when writing?
Chocolate covered blueberries.
Favorite baseball team?
I have to say the Detroit Tigers because otherwise my kids would never talk to me again.
Early bird or night owl?
Night owl. Early is … too early.
If you could travel anywhere in the world, where would you go?
Definitely France. Especially after writing this book, I really want to go back to Paris and explore more of France.
Describe your 17 year old self, in three words.
Scared. Longing. Hopeful.
Katie Nelson has always loved words and stories. Formerly a high school English and Debate teacher, she now lives in Northern California with her husband, four children, and hyperactive dog.
She is the author of THE DUKE OF BANNERMAN PREP (Sky Pony, Spring 2017)
Tanner McKay is recruited to an elite prep school to bring their debate team a victory at Nationals, and is soon drawn into a glittering world of parties and after-curfew bonfires, only to discover that the thrill-seeking playboy who’s taken him under his wing is more conman than caviar.