I had the wonderful opportunity of chatting with Liza Wiemer about her debut YA novel HELLO? ( November 10, 2015 by Spencer Hill Contemporary) It is such a great novel and I highly recommend it. Read on, and you’ll also see how lovely Liza is and gain wonderful insights about this special novel.
Hi Liza! I just loved HELLO? for so many reasons!
1) an emotional pull gripped me from the first pages to the last.
2) the alternating POVs are expertly done and, with their varying style, made the novel feel like a genuine mirror of five distinct adolescent characters.
3) your concept of serendipity (I read some of your comments on other interviews and in the back of the book) and the role it plays in our human lives is not only touching, but truly thought-provoking.
4) the messages in this book (and in your letter to the reader at the end) are critically important (more on that later!)
First of all, let me say welcome and I am truly thrilled to be picking your brain!
Thank you so much, Jennifer, for this wonderful invitation! Love your questions.
1) Did you begin this novel with a particular character or set of characters in mind? Or were you focused on a topic/idea and the characters grew from there?
From moment one, I knew this was going to be a novel about how one phone call would create a chain reaction of events and impact the lives of others. As the story idea developed, it became: Hello? is a novel about five Wisconsin teens whose lives intertwine when a grieving girl dials her deceased grandma’s old phone number.
In the beginning, I considered eight characters. For my first draft, I narrowed it down to six (Tricia, Brian, Emerson, Angie, Jordan, and Brenda.) Now, Jordan is a secondary character.
2) I am in awe of your ability to switch POVs so deftly, which is further underscored by your creative flair in doing so in several different styles. (narration, poetry, screenplay, sketches) Did you begin the novel with these alternating styles or did they become evident/necessary after getting to know your characters better?
Thank you! This means so much to me. I spent a tremendous amount of time revising, revising, and revising to make sure the chapters flowed into one another and that the voices were distinct. This was particularly challenging when I pulled Jordan and went to five narrators.
Almost from the very beginning, I knew these characters would express themselves in their own unique ways. Angie was the toughest. The last time I had written poetry was in middle school, but Angie’s voice was so strong that nothing else but free verse would do. I wrote one chapter for Brenda in play format. It didn’t work, so I switched to screenplay.
3) Do you have a favorite character from this book? I just loved Emerson — and I really liked watching Angie’s evolution through her poetry.
One of the reasons why I wrote Hello? was to open the curtains, so to speak, and allow readers to see inside teens’ lives. Even though it’s fiction, the stories needed to be authentic. So it’s hard for me to pick a favorite character, because each one feels real to me. I relate to Tricia and her connection to her grandma, because I was extremely close to mine. I absolutely adore Emerson—his need for perfection is something I could definitely relate to and his kindness, compassion. I loved Angie’s transformation and how she expressed herself. A part of me really sympathized with Brian. Some of his scenes cut my heart out. Brenda’s desire to move on from the past was something I really could respect.
Some of my secondary characters also stand out as favorites: Police chief Jeremiah Johansson, Dr. Shale!!!, Jordan, and Brenda’s father!
4) The flashback scenes from Brenda’s POV (regarding her past abuse) are so painful (I won’t include spoilers). Your choice to have her share her POV in screenplay format helps to temper these scenes. I felt it helped me (and Brenda) disconnect a little from the pain. Was this your intention?
I am SO glad you picked up on that! Yes. Screenplay format keeps readers at a distance, and Brenda is an actress and writes screenplays. It enabled her to keep the curtain closed for a long time. The reader only sees what she wants you to see. There are no inner thoughts that come through in screenplay format. What the reader learns about Brenda has to play out in scenes. It has to be verbalized or acted out. I loved the challenge of this. It wasn’t easy, but it conveyed Brenda’s story the way she wanted it revealed.
5) In the letter to the reader at the end of the book, you make a passionate plea to help others, whether they are victims of abuse or contemplating suicide and offer helpful resources. Your novel is full of intense moments, but in the end there is a strong message of hope and perseverance. I believe your words will touch lives in a positive way, I truly do, because while worry and despair are universal, so are hope and compassion — you do a great job of bringing the good to the forefront and reminding young people to never give up and to ask for help if needed. Have any readers already reached out to you?
Beyond anything I could have ever have imagined, and I am so profoundly grateful. Whether it’s a message on Instagram, a DM on Twitter, an instant message on Facebook, Goodreads, or email, one of my biggest personal goals is to respond as quickly as possible.
6) As a writer, I’m always interested in learning about the habits of other writers. What does your writing day look like? Do you create a writing schedule and stick to it? Morning? Late night? What does your workspace look like? Do you outline?
When I write, I am often so focused that I work until I drop. I’ve had weeks when I’ve put in 110 hours. There have been times when I’ve turn down parties, going out to movies, and other events because I need to write. My husband is incredibly supportive, so that makes a difference. It’s not unusual for me to work until midnight, then get up at 3 am and start my writing day. It’s not necessarily healthy—sitting that long—but I’m working to change my habits and take small breaks to walk around the house or to get on the elliptical.
I don’t outline my novel, but I will extensively interview my characters and I will think through a chapter, visualizing it, running through conversations and scenes before I write, often before I get out of bed. In some ways, it’s a mental outline one chapter at a time. I also have a solid idea on what will happen and how the story will end before I begin writing.
I do a lot of work at my kitchen table because I love the view. But I will also write at Starbucks.
7) I love hearing query success stories. Did you get plucked from the slush pile? How and when did you find representation? What would you say to those of us still in the trenches?
Before I started working with the talented and insightful Carrie Howland, I was with another agent. We were together for nineteen years (I had several non-fiction books and he sold Hello?). His area of expertise is adult non-fiction and adult fiction, not YA. After a thoughtful conversation, we agreed that I needed an agent who has a passion for YA and connections within the YA publishing world. Looking for a new agent was some of the toughest months of my life.
My best advice? Persevere! Persevere! Persevere! NEVER GIVE UP. Keep writing. Revise. Revise. Revise so that your manuscript is a clean as it possibly can be. I received many rejections. But author Kristina McBride helped me see things from a different perspective. She told me not to look at a “no” as a rejection, but as a pass. That helped. Another thing that helped me get through this part of the journey was taking action—writing, revising my query, reaching out to a few trusted friends. I’m a private person, so I never posted this part of the process on social media.
8) This is a hard question, I know, but what authors/books do you enjoy reading in your spare time?
Outside of YA, I am a J. D. Robb addict. Eve and Roarke are my favorite series couple of all time.
Thank you so very much!
For more information about Liza Wiemer:
Liza’s debut YA novel, HELLO? available now everywhere books are sold—A Goodreads YA Best Book of the Month, November 2015