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Interview with Megan McCafferty, author of Fourth Comings

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Many people recognize the name Megan McCafferty from the headlines that swept the literary world in April 2006 with allegations that McCafferty’s work had been plagiarized by a young Harvard under-grad, Kaavya Viswanathan. McCafferty, however would prefer that people focus on her books. Her newest novel, the fourth in The Jessica Darling Series, should accomplish that.

I recently had the chance to speak with Megan McCafferty about her book, her life and being a mom.

JH: Hi Megan, I’m so excited to have the chance to interview you. If you don’t mind tell me a little about how Fourth Comings came about. It’s a little more adult than your first three in the series.

Megan McCafferty: When people ask me what I do, I say I write books for teenage girls and now I’m like…that’s not really accurate anymore. It’s a series that is kind of an unintentional series, it’s a bit of an untraditional series, it’s not what people think of when they think of a series.

Usually in a series you know what to expect in each book, the characters are sort of formulaic and that’s part of the comfort to a series – you know what to expect. And that’s not what I’m doing really. The way I see it I’m chronologically a woman’s coming of age. I do intend to write a fifth book and jokingly I’m calling it fifth and final with a period. The idea being with this book I haven’t even begun writing yet will take place around her 26th birthday so then the whole series will have spanned a decade of her life.

I like the idea that I followed this character for a decade. I feel like each book, the way in tone and in content, and in format, reflects that time.

JH: The 20s are very tumultuous. I hit 30 last summer and a lot changed for me just having that big 3 on the beginning of my age and I decided who cares what anyone else thinks. I’m 30 now I can do whatever I want.

Megan McCafferty: It’s true. I’m 10 years older than Jessica, I’m 34. I have that decade of life experience where as me, I’m looking at the things that she does in this book (and all the other books) and I cringe and I almost want to stop her, but I can’t because those are the mistakes that you make at all those different stages. Yes, I’ve learned from my mistakes fortunately, but unfortunately for Jessica we have to watch her suffer from them and hopefully come out better for them.

JH: That is so true. That’s how you learn, that’s how you grow. But it is painful both in person and in print. On that note, what do you think are the most important issues that face today’s early 20 somethings?

Megan McCafferty: I think that there is this idea that once you graduate from college that that’s your automatic entry into adulthood. Like you are supposed to know what to do now, but if anything, getting your diploma heralds this new and confusing time of life. It’s also like a semi-autonomous time of life because you are on your own, but a lot of times you are so poor that you have to rely on the kindness of others, often parents or in Jessica’s case, her sister.

In my life, and in Jessica’s life, you grab onto the life lessons, and the lessons that apply in Sloppy Firsts are not relevant in Fourth Comings, the rules change over time. I think that’s true for all of us. I think part of the struggle in this book, and Charmed Thirds, too, I would say is the letting go of those old rules and those old ways of life that used to work for her but don’t anymore and letting go of friendships and other relationships that used to work but don’t work anymore. That’s a really difficult process but a necessary one for I think growing into the person that you want to be or aim to be.

JH: I can definitely relate to that. What personal experiences do you draw from when writing your novels?

Megan McCafferty: Jessica is definitely becoming more of her own person with each book. There is nothing that has happened in any of the books that happened to me in the same way they are depicted in the book. I’ll start with a grain of truth from my own life and then I start lying my butt off and making stuff up, because that’s the beauty and freedom of fiction.

So if you look at her and look at me you think oh it’s like her auto biography and it’s really not. In many many ways Jessica takes the roads that I didn’t take. In some ways I’m living through her.

JH: Why do you think that your characters are appealing to both older and younger than Jessica?

Megan McCafferty: I wrote the type of book I like to read. I wrote the type of story that appeals to me. I love comic, coming of age stories. I love teen angst, and I love all the John Hughes movies. So even though I’ve read a lot of books that were well written and entertaining I didn’t feel like there were any that reflected my high school reality. So I decided I want to try and write that book.

I was 26 when I started writing the first one and I remember thinking at the time that if I write it with enough humor, honesty and heart then I should be able to appeal to those girls (and I do have some boys) who are still going through all these things but also appeal to readers like me who graduated years ago that still can relate to it, but in that cringing kind of way. I think that’s the key.

I don’t think the issues of adolescents changed all that much over time. I talked to my mom and she said she was bored in school, she was distracted by crushes on guys and stuff like that so those emotions of feeling confused and feeling like nobody understands you don’t change that much.

So I think that’s what gives it its universal kind of appeal. If it’s the type of humor you are into, then I think that also makes my book special. A lot of books promise to make you laugh out loud and very few do (and I would only say that because I get emails every day that say, “Your books made me laugh out loud”).

JH: What do you think are the strongest media influences on young adults of today?

Megan McCafferty: For young adults, I’d say even by like 13, 14, and 15 it’s all about “texting”. I’m fascinated by texting because I don’t text. I have no interest in it, I have email, and I’m even getting way fewer emails from that age group. It’s too slow for them. Most of the emails I get now are from college age or older teenagers whereas the younger ones think email is too slow.

I think the speed of communication is changing young adults. The younger, like how now high school students, will text a friend across the room rather than walk across the room to talk to them face to face.

JH: Oh, no…what are our kids going to be like?

Megan McCafferty: That’s what I wonder. I think the changes in technology and communication technology are just having a tremendous impact on everything. On social issues, on dating, and just how are these kids going to talk if they are not used to talking to each other? I’m going to share a fascinating book, one of the best I’ve ever read called Feed by MT Anderson. It’s a novel set not too far in the future where everybody elects to get a feed of the internet implanted into their brain and its about what that society is like. I read that book and I was like, I can totally see that is where we are going.

Like as we walk along you see pop-ups, like you have pop-up advertisements that are suited for you. So I do wonder, what is going to happen in the future of books, future of all types of entertainment. That’s when I start feeling like I am this curmudgeon, back in my day I wrote in my handmade journal and I mailed letters.

JH: Just briefly, are there any messages that you want to get across to teens or anybody about plagiarism or are you just ready to move on?

Megan McCafferty: I’ve always been ready to move on. I went out of my way not to talk about it publicly. I knew the more I talked about it the more it would keep the story alive. It was a huge distraction for me and I ended up not writing for about three or four months after it happened.

JH: I’m still a bit in shock that it even happened.

Megan McCafferty:
That’s how I felt about it. It was shocking that it would happen to anyone. I knew that with this book coming out that I was going to have to talk about it a little bit more. I totally understand. If it hadn’t happened to me, and I actually know some of the other writers involved whose books were not as a big of an influence on the book as mine were (I know them all three of them). If one of them had been the primary like me in the situation I would have been just as fascinated as everyone else, I would have been just as curious and wanting to know about it. So I get where the curiosity comes from.

JH: I get where you are coming from. I can see how it would be totally irritating.

Megan McCafferty: The thing now is that it’s been more than a year since the time has passed and what did I do in that year? I wrote another book because I’m a writer and all I wanted to do was get back to work so that’s what I did.

Jill Hart: One last question. As a mom, how do you find the time to write?

Megan McCafferty: Writing the last two books has been completely different than the first two books. The first two books I wrote whenever I wanted to, day or night, when inspiration struck. I quit my job in magazines and I was working at home. I was still doing freelance assignments but they didn’t really take up too much of time so my fulltime job was pretty much to write this book, Sloppy Firsts. Then my son was born. I found out I was pregnant just as I was finishing Second Helpings and so I was like I’m going to take a break.

Writing Charmed Thirds and Fourth Comings was just so different than the first two. It was like he’s in preschool from 8 in the morning until 1 and that’s when I work, whether I’m inspired or not. It forced me, I had to be so much more structured with my time and how I use my time but I have to say Fourth Comings I wrote most of this book in a much shorter amount of time than Charmed Thirds and so I was working at night too.

I would work every morning while he was at school and then when I picked him up from school (I don’t work when I pick him up form school so I’m in mommy mode) then my husband would do the bedtime stuff so I could start working around 8 and then I would work from like 8 to 11 or midnight or just couldn’t look at the computer anymore.

I have to be a lot more focused and not waste time. I think in some ways its better now because then if I get enough work done I feel totally fine with being mommy. Although I have to admit there are days I would be coming up on 1 o’clock, it would be 12:45, and I would resent having to shut down the computer. I would have a hard time getting out of Jessica’s head for a little bit.

I’ve learned that if I have to pick him up at 1, to stop working at 12:15 to give myself some personal space so when I do pick him up I’m focusing on him.

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  • http://philobiblon.co.uk Natalie Bennett

    This article has been selected for syndication to Advance.net , which is affiliated with newspapers around the United States, and to Boston.com. Nice work!

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