Author Interview! <em>Red</em> author Alison Cherry talks about her writing career path
I'm extremely pleased to introduce Pub(lishing) Crawl's special guest today, Alison Cherry. Her debut YA novel, Red, is our Book of the Month! Here's the summary for this fabulous read from Goodreads:
Felicity St. John has it all—loyal best friends, a hot guy, and artistic talent. And she’s right on track to win the Miss Scarlet pageant. Her perfect life is possible because of just one thing: her long, wavy, coppery red hair.Having red hair is all that matters in Scarletville. Redheads hold all the power—and everybody knows it. That’s why Felicity is scared down to her roots when she receives an anonymous note:
I know your secret.
Because Felicity is a big fake. Her hair color comes straight out of a bottle. And if anyone discovered the truth, she’d be a social outcast faster than she could say "strawberry blond." Her mother would disown her, her friends would shun her, and her boyfriend would dump her. And forget about winning that pageant crown and the prize money that comes with it—money that would allow her to fulfill her dream of going to art school.
Felicity isn’t about to let someone blackmail her life away. But just how far is she willing to go to protect her red cred?
What I LOVE about Red is that it is a fun, smart take on discrimination and elitism. It's rare that you find an intelligent satire that reads like a cute contemporary, but that's what Red is. The characters pull you in, especially Felicity, and the mounting drama keeps you turning pages. It's a witty read, but between the grins and giggles you will find yourself thinking about the pressure to conform and the struggle for self-acceptance. I enjoyed every minute I spent in the town of Scarletville, and I know you will, too.
After reading this unique debut, I was dying for the chance to talk to author Alison Cherry. I had the good fortune of meeting Alison about a year ago, and I was thrilled when she agreed to an interview! I had also learned that her life had changed a lot since the sale of Red, so I had a ton of questions I wanted to ask. So without further ado...
Welcome Alison! *cheers and applause* Let's get right into the questions:
First, I'd love to know a little about your background. When did you first know you wanted to be a writer? What inspired you to write?
I've always loved to write, but I’m definitely not one of those people who always knew I wanted to be a writer. For most of my life, my writing was limited to school assignments, diaries, and random short projects I’d work on for a couple of days before losing interest. But when I moved to New York City in 2004, I lived with a literary agent, and she started bringing home young adult books for me to read. I was skeptical at first; these were books for kids, so why should I, a grown-up, college-educated woman, read them? But she kept after me, and I’m so glad she did—once I started reading them, I couldn’t stop. Something in the voice really struck a chord with me, and after about a year of devouring all the YA I could get my hands on, I decided I wanted to write one of my own.
Can you tell me where you were in your writing life when you first began working on Red? Was this the first book you wrote?
No, Red wasn’t my first book. The first thing I wrote was a contemporary YA that focused on a toxic friendship between two girls. It was quite autobiographical and very light on plot, and the first draft was 135,000 words long. (For context, that’s nearly twice as long as Red.) I had absolutely no idea what I was doing, but I spent three years writing it, rewriting it, and sending it to my poor, unsuspecting friends for critiques. That book never ended up going anywhere, but by the time I finished it and started working on Red, I’d given myself a pretty thorough trial-and-error education in novel-writing!
I LOVE your attitude toward that first book! It can be very difficult to learn and move forward, but it sounds like your first book taught you a lot. So with that experience behind you, what was it like querying Red? Can you talk about your path to signing with your agent and sending Red out on submissions?
I spent most of 2010 querying that first book I wrote with no success—I sent it to about 20 agents in batches of four or five, and though I got a lot of full manuscript requests, everyone thought it was “too quiet.” (It was.) But in January of 2011, Holly Root responded to my query and said that although she didn’t feel like she could sell that particular book, she loved my writing and wanted to know if I was working on anything else. I had drafted about a third of Red at that point, so I sent her a few chapters. Holly said she was “smitten” with them and told me to finish the book and send it straight to her. After about six more months of work, I did, and she signed me four days later. Moral of the story? When an agent says a project isn't for her but she wants to see more work from you, she’s not just trying to let you down gently. Send her the next thing you write!
Red's submission process was incredibly fast, though it didn't seem like it at the time. We sent it out to a bunch of editors just after Labor Day, and it sold five weeks later. I've been through a much, much lengthier submission process since then...I didn't realize how lucky I was the first time!
Tell me about the day you learned you had an offer!
I had left work early that day because I had to take my cat to the vet, and Holly called to tell me about Delacorte’s offer just as I was trying to stuff the cat into her carrier without getting mauled. I had about four minutes to jump, scream, and call my mom, and then I spent the next hour and a half dragging the cat to the doctor and learning to give her eye drops. The whole time, I wanted to scream, “I don’t care about eye drops! I just sold a book!” But somehow I managed to keep it together!
Such a great story! I can just see you juggling the phone, the cat, and the carrier!
I know you "quit your day job" sometime after you sold Red. Was that the happiest day of your life, or the scariest day of your life? How has your life changed now that you write full-time?
It was terrifying! I had never quit a job before. I was a freelancer for my first four years out of school, so no job ever lasted long enough to quit, and then I’d spent four years working at the same place. But it was becoming very clear that keeping my day job and trying to be a professional writer at the same time wasn't terribly sustainable—in April of 2012, I had to take all my vacation days for the entire year in order to get my revisions done on time. There just weren't enough hours in the day to do my job, revise, and write the second book included in my contract.
My life has changed pretty drastically since I quit! I used to spend at least two hours a day on the subway, and now I “commute” down the street to my favorite coffee shop (or on particularly lazy days, I commute across the bedroom to my desk.) I function best when I go to sleep around 1:30 AM and wake up around 9:00 AM, and I’m much less tired and annoyed all the time now that I’m allowed to do that! But motivating myself to work is often a struggle, now that I don’t have a boss looking over my shoulder. I've gotten much better at it over the last year, but there are definitely still days when I give in to the siren song of Netflix.
If you could give one piece of advice to aspiring writers, what would it be?
In the words of the great Maureen Johnson, don’t be afraid to suck. Your first draft will probably be terrible, and that is totally fine. You can’t fix the words until you write them.
Great advice! Lastly, a question that is a PubCrawl favorite! If you could share a drink with any three writers—living or dead—who would you choose?
Oh god, that’s really hard. I could give you a list of fifty! But for now I’ll go with:
J.K. Rowling, provided she’d agree to dissect all the Harry Potter books with me and answer my hundreds of questions. Maurice Sendak—watching interviews with him delights me to no end. He was a fascinating and amazing human being. Kelly Link—from reading her stories, I suspect she and I have exactly the same weird sense of humor. If she didn’t live all the way in Australia, I probably would've tracked her down and forced her to have a drink with me by now!
What great choices! I couldn't agree more on Maurice Sendak—definitely someone I wish I could've spent some time with. Thank you so much for stopping by, Alison!
Readers, do you dream of quitting your day job to be a full-time writer? Or do you shiver at the thought of giving up a steady paycheck? Please share your thoughts (and any other comments or questions for Alison) in the comments!