"I have met and known a lot of assholes in the short time that I’ve been on Earth, and they have always fascinated me."

from a conversation with Thu-Huong Ha
 

Q: Hail Caesar centers around a white male senior in high school who is a basketball star and has a certain disdain for the people around him. You are neither white nor male, started writing the book as a ninth-grader, are not (to my knowledge) a basketball star, and have the close friends that Caesar lacks. Clearly, you’re not relying upon autobiography here. Where did the idea come from?
A: I’ve always been really interested in what I like to call the “asshole phenomenon”—that is, guys who get away with being jerks simply because they are jerks. And I’ve always wanted to write a story that was sort of an asshole-meets-girl redemption story, but it turned out to really be the first part. I have met and known a lot of assholes in the short time that I’ve been on Earth, and they have always fascinated me. What keeps them going? What keeps the girls going? What are they really like—are they different inside all? Why don’t they just call girls back? How do they feel about love? This book is my attempt at answering some of these questions.

Q: How did you get inside Caesar’s head so well?
A: I have no idea. I guess from my experience with assholes. In scenes with Caesar’s friends or any of the girls, I tried to think like an asshole would think, tried to put myself in a mindset of selfishness and the desire for instant gratification. For the scenes with Eva, it wasn’t too hard to imagine that feeling; I think everyone knows what it’s like to fall for someone they know they shouldn’t fall for. Probably the scenes that were easiest to get into Caesar’s head for were the ones with Kelly. I do have an older brother and our relationship is a lot like theirs (except I’m not as good at giving him advice as she is) (and I’m also less sassy…I think). Honestly, I’m not sure what I did, but I guess it worked out well.

Q: Can you describe what your writing process was like?
A: When I was fourteen, I went to the Barnes and Noble by my house and saw an ad in the back of Fighting Ruben Wolfe for the PUSH novel contest. To enter, you are required to send in 15-50 pages of the manuscript, as well as an outline for the rest of the novel. I worked to write three chapters from then to March, and I was writing up to the very day that I had to send in my manuscript. And then I waited.

On May 5, I got the life-changing phone call and started screaming like an overly excited teenager (which I was). I revisited Caesar several times within the next year but it was not until the summer after my sophomore year (I was fifteen by then) when I was given the opportunity to work as the PUSH writing intern at Scholastic’s New York office. That summer, with my own office space and seven hours a day to write, I cranked out the majority of my draft. I got to work, put in a CD, put on my headphones, and started writing. At my best, I wrote a chapter in one day. At my worst, I stared at the screen for 7 hours and listened to some really good music. Occasionally I would pop my head into your office and stomp my feet in frustration and rant and rave and then get reassured and then go back to writing. I also kept a separate document open just for notes, a different one for each day. Filled with curious speculations (“is this—lie—a bold-faced lie?”), lyrics (“Call your mom on the telephone / Tell her you’re coming home / Tell her there’s not a chance / You’re ever gonna change the world”), plot details that never panned out (“Caesar’s dad? Chef? Cynical?”), and other random thoughts (“Lay/lie, toward/towards, farther/further” and “I want gummy fruit snacks”). My notes were often longer than the actual writing I got done for the day.

The next summer, I returned to Scholastic and finished my first draft within the first or second week of being there. After that, it was just a matter of mass editing (mostly cutting a lot of Caesar’s unnecessary thoughts ) and tightening. By the end of the summer, I had an offer on the book and by the next spring I was contracted for Spring 2007 publication. And here I am.

Q: You are the youngest winner ever for the PUSH Novel Contest. What was your reaction when you found out that you’d won?
A: I screamed like a girl on the radio who had just won ‘NSYNC tickets.

Q: How did working on this novel affect your high school life?
A: As a biologically programmed overachiever, I couldn’t devote a lot of time during the school year to work on the novel. I really only worked on it during breaks and during the summer. It did, however, affect my high school mindset in that when I was studying for the SATs I just thought, “Hey, this isn’t so bad.” Working on the novel was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. After I had finished it, I felt as if I had accomplished something much bigger than high school. It felt like I was much, much closer to breaking free of my jersey girl life and being something more. Of course, ironically, I am now looking at another four years of college in the wonderful Armpit of America. But alas.

Q: You worked on this novel over two summers in New York at the PUSH office. How did that go? What did you learn about the editing and publishing process?
A: I wish I had gotten to be more involved in the actual publication process, but I was mostly isolated in an office for a better writing environment. I’m very glad to have met the rest of the PUSH team as well as the other two interns, with whom I still keep in touch. Probably the most intern-y thing I ever did was make a copy of my 300 page manuscript. I wrestled with the copy machine a bit and ended up with a paper cut, but I showed that hunk of 20th century technology what’s what.

Q: What authors inspire you?
A: Authors that inspire/have inspired my writing: Tim O’Brien, Laurie Halse Anderson, Markus Zusak, David Levithan (=D), Tolkien, Shakespeare, and Burton Raffel (his translation of Beowulf). Authors that inspire/have inspired my life: Kerouac, Robert M. Pirsig, Louisa May Alcott, Chuck Klosterman, and Shakespeare. Again.

Q: In your author photo, you’re wearing a big ol’ pair of headphones. What were you listening to when you wrote Hail Caesar? What are you listening to now?
A: When I worked at Scholastic, I listened to a lot of Wilco, Guster, Ben Folds, Death Cab, John Mayer, Cake, Fiery Furnaces, and Magnetic Fields. At this very moment I’m listening to a mix I just made, but in general I’m listening to: Stars, TV on the Radio, Yo La Tengo, Modest Mouse, the Shins, Mates of State, Jens Lekman, Neutral Milk Hotel, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, Blonde Redhead, Imogen Heap, Spoon, Mirah, Rachel Yamagata, Iron & Wine, the Flaming Lips, Sufjan Stevens, Belle and Sebastian, Arcade Fire, Coldplay. And still listening to the great bands that kept me going at the office, too.

Q: How has your family reacted to the book and to you being an author?
A: My family has been extremely supportive/nosy/excited/nosy. My sister and brother-in-law in particular have been there for much of the ride since they let me stay with them the two summers that I wrote the bulk of the book. When Caesar got a job, they knew about it. When Kelly got drunk, they knew about it. Of course, I didn’t tell them very much about what was happening with Eva, because I didn’t want to ruin anything. But the point is, my family, like most, is both incredible and crazy so the reaction has been completely positive. My entire extended family and all my parents’ friends have been kept informed to a point of absurdity, but that’s how these things go in a huge family like mine, I guess. As the youngest of my immediate family, I’m really excited to have done something to make my parents so proud. It’s a very rewarding feeling.

Q: What tips would you give to other aspiring writers?
A: As they say, it’s not always what you write but how you write it. As a particularly uncreative person, these words are especially important to me as a writer. Being a writer is one of the hardest things in the world; sometimes it seems like you’d rather be doing anything else than writing, including (but not limited to) reorganizing your entire closet, learning calculus, and watching all 11 hours of the Lord of the Rings Extended Special Edition DVDs. But at the end of the day, writers write. We’ve got no choice.

All of that said, my advice is to listen and watch what’s going on around you. A lot of people think they have to come up with zany plots that are totally original, but so much happens all around you. And it can be the simplest little thing, something barely noticeable, that makes for a great story. Human interaction and connection, even on the most fundamental level, is what compels a reader. And a writer, for that matter.

Q: I know that you’ve had a chance to hang out with some of the other PUSH authors, and that you and Chris Krovatin in particular have formed an author bond. What is it like to be among other authors? Do you admit to yourself that you’re an author now?
A: Being among other authors is really exciting. Working in the office when I was only fifteen made me feel like I was cool and mature but at the same time I felt like I was totally in over my head. A lot of times when I was frustrated, and I looked at the types of books or people I was surrounded with, I just thought, what am I doing? Who am I to think I am a writer? But then when your book is on the shelf and people are reading what you’re writing, it’s hard not to think that. And at the same time I’m going through my pre-quarter-life crisis and just wondering what I want to do with my life. I’m wondering if writing is what I want to do, so thinking of myself as an author is both hard, exciting, and disconcerting all at once.

Q: As we do this Q&A, the book is just hitting stores, the tour hasn’t yet started, and the book hasn’t yet gotten any reviews. It’s all about to begin . . . what are you looking forward to the most, and what are you the most nervous about?
A: I’m most looking forward to hearing from fans who can relate to the story. I wasn’t going for something that was universally true or felt like “the” high school experience;” it’s a very specific story about a very specific thing involving very specific characters. And that being said, if someone says that they had a personal reaction to the story or characters, I would be very glad to hear it. Even though I feel as if I’ve changed a lot since I wrote Hail Caesar, it still is very personal to me and has a lot of my heart in it. If just one person says that a little bit of their heart is in it too, that’s what I’ll be excited to hear.

I’m most nervous about the critics. I’m not asking for any kind of mind-blowing reactions involving words like “brilliant” or “revolutionary” or anything like that at all; something like “good first attempt” would be music to my ears and greatly appreciated. What I’m most afraid of is words like “mediocre” or “contrived”. I just want someone (besides my best friend) who thinks what I’ve done here is worthwhile. The prospect of something less is terrifying.

In the book, there is a scene in which Caesar and Eva are talking and he says he feels as if he has handed her his heart and she is just sitting there, holding it, reflecting on it. That is what this feels like. I’ve taken my heart and mass-produced it and now people can go to a store and buy it and take it home and hold it and talk to it and poke it. And hopefully they decide to love it. But they can also decide to hate it and smash it to pieces or they can decide to never even look at it and put it away to collect dust. It’s quite an overwhelming feeling.

Q: What’s been the highlight so far?
A: Going to the Barnes and Noble near my house, asking for the book, and getting the question “Who’s the author?”