Joel Higgins has 901 unsent text messages saved on his phone.
Ever since the thing that happened, there are certain people he hasn’t been able to talk to in person. Sure, he shows up at school, does his mandatory volunteer hours at the soup kitchen, and spends pretty much every moment thinking about Eli, the most amazing girl in the world. But that doesn’t mean he’s keeping it together, or even that he has any friends.
So instead of hanging out with people in real life, he drafts text messages. But he never presses send.
As dismal as sophomore year was for Joel, he doesn’t see how junior year will be any better. For starters, Eli doesn’t know how he feels about her, his best friend Andy’s gone, and he basically bombed the SATs. But as Joel spends more time at the soup kitchen with Eli and Benj, the new kid whose mouth seems to be unconnected to his brain, he forms bonds with the people they serve there-including a veteran they call Rooster-and begins to understand that the world is bigger than his own pain.
What inspired Words We Don’t Say?
When I started writing Words We Don’t Say I had just finished writing a book about a white teen, gun violence, and race in America that got great feedback but ultimately didn’t sell. So my agent suggested that I write something else—something about everyday life—saying the book didn’t have to be about a “big issue.” So that’s what I set out to do. Write a book about the day to day.
I failed spectacularly.
In my defense, for teens today, day to day life is filled with big issues. So I ended up with a book about the day to day and tough issues—freedom of speech, banned books, veterans, loss, PTSD, homelessness, food insecurity, sacrifice and the power of the individual. That experience taught me something about myself—I wanted to write a book that matters.
Do you feel like your characters are your friends or are they more like extensions of yourself?
The characters became very real to me—we spent a lot of time together with me crawling around inside their heads—so I think of them as my fictional children. So much so that when the book was finished it was hard to say goodbye and see them head out into the world on their own. It’s scary because as a “parent” you want everyone to like them—even though in your heart you know not everyone will.
If you could be a character in Words We Don’t Say for one day, who would you be?
I’m not nearly as optimistic as she is—I align more closely with Joel’s frustration and angst. The wrongs in the world feel so devastating and defeating and incongruent and unfair, and Joel is trying to find a way to positive change through that mess. I think I’ve felt that way for most of my life. So to be Eli? A girl who sees a clear path through the fray? To have her enduring optimism and certainty and faith even for one day? That would be a dream.
What authors inspired you to start writing?
Definitely middle grade and young adult authors.
I’ve always had a deep love for books. A reverence even. Not only because of the beauty of language or because books provide an escape and can tap into our emotions, but for the power books have to change lives. When a book is that good—especially a young adult book—it can stay with you for the rest of your life. So the books that inspired me the most were the ones I read to my children when they were growing up. Full disclosure: I read books out loud to my kids everyday until they were midway through high school, so I saw firsthand the impact that books can have on childrens’ lives.
I think Stephen King said it best when he described the impact that Lord of the Flies had on him as a teen in an introduction he wrote for an edition of that book decades after he first read it. Feeling something was missing from the books he’d been reading as a kid—“sanitized” books like The Hardy Boys—King said that he asked a librarian where he grew up in rural Maine if she had any books about “real boys.” She handed him Lord of the Flies. Seeing the authenticity of character—the acknowledgment of a moral dark side—was revelatory for him. And validating.
We now have lots of books about real boys and real girls – which I’m grateful for. I want to write books with real characters where kids can say, I feel like that! That’s me. When an early reviewer of Words We Don’t Say wrote, “I think I might secretly be Joel Higgins,” I thought, That’s it. I’ve accomplished my goal!
What are your rituals just before you start writing a new book? What would you recommend to anyone who wants to start writing but is not sure how to begin?
I love a blank page. And beginnings of books. Editors often tell writers to delete the first few chapters to start more “in the story.” But I think often those first words that hit the page are important. For me a story is organic and takes on a life of its own. So I never outline. When I start a project, I don’t know how a book will end. Or even what it will be about—other than loosely. Characters always surprise me. As I’m writing they say and do things I didn’t expect—just like real people you’re getting to know. I think there’s a level of our subconscious brain that can lead us to the most interesting places. So for someone who wants to write, I would suggest, start with a blank page. And a kernel of something—a situation, a setting, a premise, a character—and just start typing and see where it takes you. It’s like a trip you don’t plan. No agenda. No GPS. Just heart. And authenticity. But first, understand that there’s craft and there’s art. And to be a successful at writing, you have to be able to do both well. So study craft first. Read. Be analytical. And before you write, decide on a genre. Then decide, will I write in first person or third? Present tense or past? Single or multiple narrators? How about plot, pacing, chapter length? Then hone your art. Find voice. And see where it takes you.
Any book recommendations?
On the adult side, A. J. Finn’s The Woman in the Window. It’s the most well-crafted literary thriller I’ve read in a long time. From plotting and pacing to twists, character development, and visual, visceral language. It wowed me.
In the young adult/middle grade/ageless genres – there are so many. But as a writer, it’s hard to read without an analytical eye. I’m always asking, why is the book in third person vs. first? Why multiple narrators? How is the pacing? I look at the believability of plot points, uniqueness of voice and the value of the message.
Being a writer steals something from you as a reader. As a writer I’m there at a book’s birth. It’s joyous. But as a writer reading other peoples’ work, I’m conducting an autopsy. It’s the books that are so good that I’m able to leave that clinical eye behind that are my favorites. Here are just a few that pop into my head—some old, some new, and in no particular order:
The Giver, Ender’s Game, Charlotte’s Web, My Side of The Mountain, 1984, Winnie the Pooh. Nick Stone’s Dear Martin, Jason Reynold’s Long Way Down, The Catcher in the Rye, Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz. Neal Shusterman’s Challenger Deep. Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli. Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie. Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. Everything ever written by Toni Morrison. I Was Amelia Earhart by Jane Mendelsohn. Night by Elie Wiesel. Everything by Roald Dahl. Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones. The Stand by Stephen King. Wonder by R. J. Palacio . . .
INTERVIEW : YA SH3LF
Expected publication: October 2nd 2018 by Disney-Hyperion