Debut author Christina June interviews Judy Sheehan about her debut YA magical realism, I WOKE UP DEAD AT THE MALL (Delacorte/Random House, March 22, 2016).
Last night, Sarah was a bridesmaid, dressed in hideous mango chiffon. Today, she woke up dead at the Mall of America, where she must work through the unfinished business of her unfinishable life. But Sarah is tied to life and the living in ways that surprise her, especially when she learns that the one person she loves back on Earth is in grave (yes grave) danger.
Christina: I’ve read that IWUDATM isn’t your first foray into publishing. When and how did you know that you wanted to be a writer?
Judy: In fourth grade. I remember the teacher (Miss Michaels) asking each of us what we wanted to be when we grew up, and my overly confident answer was “writer.” A few years later, I was drawn into the world of the theater and decided that I wanted to be an actor. I was lucky in that I got to act for a while, and then realize that I was done with that. I needed to go back to my first love. I eased in by writing plays for some wonderful theater companies. The good news: all that time spent studying dramatic literature really helped me understand story structure, character, and the importance of fun dialogue. Also, I made great friends in the theater!
Christina: How has writing for young adults differed–or not–from writing plays and adult novels?
Judy: Playwriting is much more collaborative than novel-writing. Out of respect for the other artists, the playwright has to step back a bit, and let them bring their stuff to the party. Actors hate it when you try to choreograph their every blink, and I can’t blame them. Directors and designers need to bring their creativity, too. When I first tried writing a novel, people told me that it was much too bare bones. I needed to describe the faces, the voices, the places in much more detail. It was an Ah-Hah Moment for me. Now, when I write, I get to be the actors and every other artist involved. It’s daunting, but great fun.
Writing for young adults or older adults feels precisely the same to me. A good story is a good story. My fascination right now, and for the foreseeable future, is in the teenage universe. I’m mesmerized by a world of people becoming who they are. It shakes me out of my routine, and forces me to look through my characters’ eyes with freshness and newness. I kind of love it. Can you tell?
Christina: This is such an intelligent, different, and humorous concept. The Mall of America setting is genius. How did you come up with the idea for your novel?
Judy: Well, first of all, thank you!
I was riding the NYC subway home, and reading LIFE AFTER LIFE, by Kate Atkinson. No spoilers, but there was a funeral scene for someone relatively young. Atkinson observed that it was frustrating to have a party thrown for you when you definitely couldn’t attend. As I let that sink in, I looked up to see a group of teenage girls, huddled around an iPhone and giggling. I started to imagine them in the afterlife, wondering whose funeral got the most Likes on Facebook. And then, the whole book fell into my head, more or less. As soon as I reached my stop, I sprinted home and wrote down the idea. The original title was SCHOOL FOR DEAD GIRLS.
The original draft of the novel didn’t take place in the Mall of America. Instead, I gave the afterlife its own special mall. Things were getting very complicated and confusing over there. The Mall of the Dead bogged down the plot. My agent suggested that I have the characters haunt a real mall, and my thoughts leapt to the Mall of America because, well, it’s larger than life. So to speak. I took my teenage daughter on a trip there so that I could study it. At the airport, we chatted with a friendly Minnesota gentleman who helped us get shuttle transportation to the Mall and its hotel. When my daughter explained that we were there to do research. He rolled his eyes and said, “Sure, you are.”
Christina: Imagine your perfect reader. How would you describe that person?
This question is so hard! Ack! Here goes: this reader leads with a sense of humor, but sometimes uses that humor to shield a sensitive heart. They’re definitely smart, but not focused on smarts as the most important thing. There is a kind of righteous nobility in their world-view. They’re romantic, maybe even reluctantly or secretly so. They are deeply loyal to their friends. They know how it feels to love someone, but if you ask about their broken heart, they might answer with a joke.
1. Favorite writing snack?
Starbucks reduced-fat cinnamon swirl coffee cake. I have a Pavlovian response to cinnamon.
2. Oddest job you ever had?
Summer janitor at my high school. I’m still traumatized.
3. Music to write by?
I have a playlist specifically for writing. The songs are so old and familiar, they don’t command my attention—with all apologies to the musicians! Instead, they create a wall of sound that forces me to focus and write. Iron & Wine. K’s Choice. Meiko. Patty Griffin. Sarah Bettens. The Shins. You get the idea.
4. What were you reading when you were 16?
CYRANO DE BERGERAC by Edmond Rostand. DEATH OF A SALESMAN by Arthur Miller. THE MIRACLE WORKER by William Gibson. LONG DAY’S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT by Eugene O’Neill. I was deep into great plays.
5. Favorite Broadway musical?
HAMILTON. I got to see it at The Public, and have been obsessed ever since! Chickaplao!
I was fortunate to have the sweetest, most loving grey-mackerel tabby cat named Leah. She was tiny, with big green eyes, and she looked like a kitten for her whole (very long) life. She died two months after my mother died. I was wrecked that summer. Absolutely wrecked.
CHRISTINA JUNE writes young adult contemporary fiction when she’s not writing college recommendation letters during her day job as a school counselor. She loves the little moments in life that help someone discover who they’re meant to become – whether it’s her students or her characters. Christina is a voracious reader, loves to travel, eats too many cupcakes, and hopes to one day be bicoastal – the east coast of the US and the east coast of Scotland. She lives with her husband and the world’s most rambunctious five-year-old. Her debut YA novel IT STARTED WITH GOOD-BYE will release from Blink/HarperCollins in 2017.