Role Call is a Petal + Sass blog section featuring interviews with professional young women occupying diverse careers – and their advice to teens.
Name: Katie Coyle
College & major: Marymount Manhattan College, English Literature
Graduate school & concentration: University of Pittsburgh, MFA in Creative Writing
Past jobs: I have worked at a movie theater, a boardwalk bookstore, a video store, as a personal assistant to a very wealthy woman’s personal assistant, a babysitter, a resident advisor, a writing tutor to student athletes, and as a temporary receptionist at various investment banks and non-profits.
Current occupation: Writer, Vivian Apple At the End of the World
When did you decide to become an author – specifically a YA novelist? I’ve always written stories for myself and my friends, but for most of my childhood and adolescence I really thought I was going to pursue acting. I even picked my college mainly because of its excellent theater program. But in my senior year of high school, our fall play was a production of The Hobbit, and I was cast as Thorin Oakenshield who is, if you are at all familiar with the book, a) a dwarf and b) male. I had to wear a Viking cap and a beard and speak in an Irish brogue, and as I stood up there on that stage, mortified beyond my wildest dreams, I realized: I did not want to act anymore. So I started taking my stories seriously instead. I’ve always written stories about teen girls, and it was in graduate school that I realized this was an actual thing, and that it was called YA.
Do you feel that your college experience prepared you for your career in any way? Absolutely! I took every writing class I could while I was in college, and it was there that I began to hone my interests and my voice. Probably the most important thing I learned about writing in college was how to be criticized. In workshops, I started to understand how to sort out good advice from bad, and how to apply it. This is a pretty essential step in making your writing as good as it can be.
What is life really like as a writer? How do you launch a writing career and gain a reputation in the literary world? Most of the time, writing is a very quiet and fairly boring process. The first step to getting anywhere as a writer is to write something good, and that takes a lot of time: thinking and planning and writing and editing draft after draft. This takes a lot of time. And for most people, launching a writing career takes even more time. The standard way to do it is to write a book, make it as good as you possibly can, and then send it out to many agents, one of whom will hopefully like it and want to represent you. The agent then tries to sell the book to a publisher, and then, to gain a reputation in the literary world, you basically throw everything at the wall and see what sticks: tweet constantly, plan events and readings, give copies of your book away for free to anyone who will accept them. My process was a little different only in that when I finished writing Vivian Apple, I submitted it a contest called the Young Writers Prize, sponsored by my UK publisher, Hot Key Books. I didn’t have an agent when I entered the contest, although the contest helped me get one. The prize itself was publication in the UK, and the rights were sold to the US from there.
Your popular novel, Vivian Apple at the End of The World, deals with a teenage girl on the brink of the Apocalypse – particularly popular genre with young adult readers today. Why do you think teens are intrigued by – or even relate to- the idea of distopia so much? I can’t speak for teens, but I know that for me, dystopian novels have always been about preserving and protecting one’s own individuality in the face of a society that would rather everyone look and think and act the same. That’s a struggle that is as vital in high school as it is in adulthood, and it can be cathartic to read about it dramatized on a large scale.
Vivian Apple, the protagonist in the novel, is a 17 year old girl who is described as brave but also selfish; not a particularly ‘good’ or ‘bad’ character per se. This is an interesting yet rarely explored duality – do you think girls are often forced into one box or the other? Can this be harmful to their self perception? There are any number of stereotypical identities that I believe teenage girls get shuffled into, and pretty much all of them suck: prude, drama queen, hysteric, slut. I’ve always believed that girls are so much more intricate than these stereotypes. When you’re working to understand yourself, as I think most people still are at the age of seventeen, finding yourself labeled one or the other of these identities can be incredibly harmful. It’s hard to understand your own full complexity when you’ve been whittled down to a personality type.
What advice would you give to a young girl considering a career path in writing? Read as much as humanly possible. Figure out your own tastes and respect them, even if nobody else does. Write books that you yourself would want to read, featuring characters you’d want to read about. It’s hard to get published and it’s impossible not to get at least a couple of bad reviews, but all of the rejection and criticism is a lot easier to bear when you’re writing stories you love and believe in.
Have you experienced any double standards in your career as a female writer that male writers might not have to think about? I’ve been very lucky so far in terms of the people who have helped me get my books onto shelves, as well as the ones who have read them. But I do think there are double standards. For me, probably the most confusing one is just the way a woman writing about a teen girl as a subject is perceived versus a man writing about a teen boy. The latter is usually marketed to an adult audience, while the former is marketed to, specifically, teen girls. I wrote Vivian Apple with that audience very much in mind, but that marketing quirk still bugs me. I think there’s a tendency for men writing about men to be considered a universal subject that both genders can understand, whereas women writing about women tends to be treated as a niche that only women can appreciate.
Looking back, what general life advice would you give to your former high-school self? The boy you sit next to in Statistics class is never going to be your boyfriend, so you might as well save yourself the energy.
Any favorite websites particular to your field (or ones you just love for fun)? Most websites seem to exist just to keep me from writing as much as I should, but the ones I love to procrastinate most on are The Toast and Rookie.
Learn more about Katie Coyle at katiecoyle.com, and be sure to check out her recent interview with Hello Giggles. You can find Katie on Twitter and Instagram @krcoyle. Find books by the author here.
Are you a young writer and avid reader considering a career in literature? Check out these Role Call interviews in publishing, blogging and writing.