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Monday, July 27, 2009

My most influential book when I was a teen

As a teen, my go-to triumvirate of authors was Judy Blume, Paula Danziger, and Lois Duncan. I read everything by all of them. Of those books, this one was not my absolute favorite--I would be hard-pressed to choose a favorite--but it was my most influential, because of what I did with it.

For those of you who think this book looks vaguely familiar but you can't quite place it...back in the day it was called Five Were Missing, and it's by the same author as I Know What You Did Last Summer, which was later made into the movie starring Jennifer Love Hewitt, but this one is so much better! The last five teens on a school bus get kidnapped for ransom. They include (1 and 2) a perfect couple, (3) the perfect boy's younger brother, who needs to break away and become his own person, (4) some girl I don't remember very well because she is sketched vaguely so readers can identify with her, and (5) a lost soul-type boy. I think he has a shriveled arm? And an attitude. He and the Vaguely Sketched Girl form an unlikely bond and fall in love, and then OMG HE GETS SHOT TRYING TO SAVE EVERYONE OMG and she has to take care of him!!! This book was nearly perfect. All it needed was me, my BFF from high school, and [cute boy's name removed for reasons of extreme embarrassment].

My BFF loved Five Were Missing too. And when we were teens, she had her own crush on [another cute boy's name removed so my BFF does not kill me]. She would spend the night with me and we would stay up most of the night, jumping on the bed, hopped up on Coke (a-cola), rewriting Five Were Missing starring us and [cute boy] and [other cute boy]. We were the last ones on the bus and were kidnapped for ransom, and of course the kidnappers held me in a room alone with [cute boy] and held her in a separate room alone with [other cute boy], and she and I were so much wittier than Vaguely Sketched Girl, and [cute boy] and [other cute boy] had attitude problems but their arms were not shriveled, because what was up with that Jane Eyre nonsense, Lois Duncan? In other words, we were writing fanfic before the internet existed.

This exercise taught me a couple of things. First, I learned so much about how to write a novel. I credit this experience with jump-starting my nascent novel-writing career. It forced me to think about the process of forming a plot. WHY were we kidnapped instead of somebody else? WHY did the kidnappers force me to stay alone in a room with [cute boy], other than the fact that I was fifteen years old with a hopeless crush? WHY did he have an attitude problem even though his arm was not shriveled? My BFF and I had to talk these things out in order to make our version plausible and satisfying--and that's exactly what I'm going to do this afternoon when I sit down to revise the proposal for my next novel.

Second, I learned that the writing business is more fun when you have friends. My BFF and I had been friends since we were three years old, but this exercise brought us closer. Today she is not a novelist, but she's had jobs that she says are sort of like being a novelist, but for an extrovert. She's had one of her indy films shown at Sundance, and currently she's the artistic director of The Moth, a super-cool show at The Players Club in NYC in which five people stand up and tell a true story about their lives. A typical line-up might include Ethan Hawke, a retired pickpocket, Erica Jong, some little kid, and Moby. Nowadays my BFF and I see each other only once or twice a year. We try to talk on the phone more often, but sometimes it's hard to get hold of her because she's playing phone tag with Julia Stiles. We lead wildly different lifestyles, but we remain close friends and really "get" each other's artistic pursuits.

Thank you, Lois Duncan.



Steph Su said...

Amazing post, Jen! It made me laugh out loud. Who knew that such dark-fantasy-fulfilling '90s fiction would propel the start of a great writing career? I think I want to check this Duncan book out now...

Carla Swafford said...

You're so totally rad, girlfriend. LOL!

I can imagine you talking 100 mph while you and your BFF figured it all out.

The book that did it for me was The Bridge of San Luis Rey. Until then I never knew a book could actually have "hidden" meanings.

Stephanie Kuehnert said...

What a cool story!!!! I really want to check this book out now too!

Danielle Joseph said...

Great story and I'm a huge Lois Duncan fan. I taught middle school for a few years and she always got my reluctant readers to read!