Interview With Author Lauren Emily Whalen

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Thank you so much for sharing your book with me and agreeing to do a Q&A for my readers. Give us a quick summary of your new novel.

Satellite is a contemporary YA novel told from the perspectives of two Chicago teenagers, Levon and Harmony, who’ve grown up together as their fathers are in love. Levon and Harmony’s relationship is complicated: they’re not quite stepsiblings as their dads never got married, but they’re a lot more than best friends, and a few different times over the years, their friendship has crossed a line into something potentially romantic. Everything changes when their dads split up and Harmony’s father takes her to Los Angeles to live with him. Levon gets more serious about his ballet career and Harmony finds herself dealing with an unexpected new crush. As they cope with the distance from one another, Levon and Harmony uncover a family secret that could lead to them losing each other forever.

What was your process as you wrote Satellite and worked to get it published?

I came up with the idea for Satellite while I was a writer-in-residence at Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts in Nebraska, in the winter of 2010. I made a lot of notes and did research, but because I was working on other projects, and working full-time, I didn’t write the first draft until November 2010, for NaNoWriMo. (I’ve found NaNo is the best possible way for me to complete a first draft!) In 2012-13, I completed the second draft as part of a yearlong novel workshop at StoryStudio Chicago, led by author Rebecca Makkai, as well as a second residency at KHN. I finished the final draft in 2014 and then started submitting it to agents before I signed with one in November of that year.

Satellite was on submission to major publishers for about a year, and then two things happened: 1) it was pretty much rejected across the board, and 2) my agent retired. Rather than try to get a new agent with a book that had already received a lot of rejections, I started submitting it to smaller publishers on my own, as many of those don’t require agents. However, since literally anyone can submit to small houses, they are flooded with submissions and the process takes even longer. In the meantime, I’d stopped writing YA in favor of more adult-oriented fiction, and was even getting my stories and personal essays published, both online and in magazines like BUST and SELF. One morning when I was at a friend’s house, I checked my email and saw I had an offer from World Castle Publishing, which I forwarded to two of my friends to make sure I wasn’t misreading!

How long did it take you to get this book published, from its initial conception to the release date?

Eight years! This involved several drafts, putting the book aside (for other writing projects, jobs and life in general) before picking it back up again, and most of all, waiting (publishing is a very slow process). Hopefully the next book – I’m working on two others – won’t take that long!

A lot of your novel revolves around classic rock. Is that something you’re passionate about or did you have to do some research?

Both! I grew up on classic rock, and both of my parents are die-hard Elton John fans and have been since the seventies. When I decided to make that music a big part of Satellite, I went back to the songs and artists I remembered hearing on the radio on the way to school or dance class. (We always had the radio on, and like Levon’s dad Gary, my mom worked in radio for many years, though she was a news reporter and not a DJ.) I also worked near a library when I was researching and writing the first draft, so I would go through their CD section on my lunch hour, which is how I rediscovered Creedence Clearwater Revival. I made a playlist on my phone (old and new music) and listened to it constantly, and I’ve recreated it on Spotify, with a few updates!

Your novel deals with some difficult coming-of-age questions and complications. What inspired you to write this story and did anything your real life contribute to the characters?

I pretty much had the exact opposite childhood from Levon and Harmony. I grew up in a small farm town, with two hetero parents who are still married. Many different inspirations went into Satellite: my best friend moving from Chicago to LA and the grieving process I went through after he left; watching my friends and coworkers raise their kids in the city; and most of all, the concept of family and how that can grow and change over time. I live in the same neighborhood Levon and Harmony grew up in, and have watched the area evolve over the past decade. Of everywhere I’ve lived, the Lakeview/Boystown neighborhood has always felt the most like home, and I wanted to convey that in the book, as well as explore what “home” means to my characters. I wrote the first draft of Satellite shortly after I turned 30, and I found myself asking what Levon and Harmony ask themselves: who am I now, and who do I want to be going forward?

What other books and authors inspire you?

I absolutely love Stephen King’s IT – I read it earlier this year and was struck by how realistically the kids are portrayed, and how it’s a novel about growing up as much as it is about fighting evil. The first chapter is genius, full stop. I’ve been a fan of Jen Lancaster since the beginning of her career: I love her voice and her humor, and her recent YA novel The Gatekeepers was very moving. Stacey Ballis, who writes women’s fiction, is another favorite: all ten of her books are set in Chicago, where I also live and where Satellite is set, and we share a love for our home city. And finally, my good friend Stephanie Kate Strohm writes some of the funniest, sweetest YA I’ve ever read!

There’s a fun and eclectic cast of characters in this story, which do you relate to best?

Photo by Greg Inda

Photo by Greg Inda

I really love Sara! She’s tough but caring, and I like to think I am as well. I also relate to Levon and Harmony in different ways. Levon and I share a passion for dance and performing, and Harmony and I both say what we think, but we aren’t always as careful or sensitive toward others as we should be. As I get older, I see more of my friends become parents (fun fact: Harmony’s little sister Annelyse was named for my friends’ daughter), and it’s the toughest job in the world, so I have a lot of respect for the adults in the story – they’re all trying to do the best they can for their kids, even if their decisions aren’t always the right ones.

A part of the story that really drew me in was Levon and his relationship with dance. Is this something you knew much about before writing Satellite or did you have to do some research?

I studied dance from ages four to eighteen, though I was never on the professional track Levon is in the novel, and continued to take classes through college and graduate school, and as an adult. At this point I’m more focused on training in aerial arts and contortion, but having a dance background has been advantageous in many ways. I’m a huge fan (borderline groupie) of the Joffrey Ballet in Chicago, and like Levon and Harmony, I was once in the party scene in a production of The Nutcracker, though I was 22 at the time and I played a parent. The Nutcracker has many different forms and adaptations, but the dance Levon is in (the Russian Trepak) was inspired by a version I saw the Boston Ballet do many years ago. It was three male dancers, and their jumps were insane – the orchestra had to stop playing because the audience went wild (well, as wild as a ballet audience will get!).

What is the first book that made you cry?

Bridge to Terabithia, by Katherine Paterson. I was so invested in Jess and Leslie’s friendship and the world they created for themselves, so by the end I was a mess. I first read the book in grade school and I still tear up when I think about it!

What is your writing Kryptonite?

The Internet. I love social media. It’s a problem. Also my cat, Versace, who loves to climb on my keyboard. She’s figured out how to minimize screens and pause Netflix. I’m in trouble.

What advice do you have for aspiring writers looking to publish their first novel?

Write. All the time. You don’t have to write every day unless that works for you (I don’t, unless I’m on a deadline), but like any other skill, you will improve with practice, so practice a lot! Many people think they don’t have time to write a novel, but the majority of Satellite – and most everything I write – was written and edited on lunch breaks, slow periods at my day job, and even on public transportation. Also, Satellite is my first published novel, but it’s the fourth novel I’ve ever written – sometimes it takes more than one try to get it right!

Read. All the time. See what genres and styles you like best, and try to keep an eye out for trends. That said – and I know this is going to sound corny – write “the book of your heart.” I heard this advice from bestselling author B.A. Shapiro a few months ago, and I realized that’s what I did with Satellite. It’s not a typical coming-of-age story in a lot of ways, but it is absolutely the book of my heart.

What is your favorite book to recommend to others?

Oh goodness, it depends on the person! I’m a voracious reader, and I also read very fast, so the Chicago Public Library is my best non-human, non-feline friend. I find myself recommending Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic a lot, as most of my friends are creative types. The book helped me get through a writing slump a few years ago and start having fun with the artistic process all over again.

Make sure you order Lauren's book, Satellite, which is available on Amazon and Barnes and Nobel. You can also visit Lauren's website, Goodreads page, Facebook, Twitter & Instagram