Corey Ann Haydu on Making Pretty, NYC Love, and Moving (Temporarily!) to Middle Grade

Haydu and Making PrettyEvery once in a blue moon, a book comes along that rocks your worldview. For me, the book that’s done that most memorably in the past five years was Corey Ann Haydu’s debut, OCD Love Story. I knew after reading it and having it completely change the way I saw anxiety and mental health that she would forever be an author to watch for me, and now that her third book is nearly out in the world, that feeling has been 100% validated. Though every one of Haydu’s books has its own magic (I describe OCD Love Story as the one I periodically needed to put down, Life by Committee as the one I couldn’t put down, and Making Pretty as the one I never wanted to put down), one thing remains the same—her tremendous skill in depicting complicated relationships rife with both beauty and flaws that reflect true human emotions, including the uglier ones, with incredible depth and honesty. Making Pretty touched me so deeply I literally hugged it when I was done, and I had to jump at the chance to ask Haydu about the book, the setting, the relationships, what’s next, and more.

I went into Making Pretty expecting a wonderful sister book, and certainly got that, but I was really surprised and intrigued by how much I loved the depiction of Montana’s father as well. Writing parents who are truly fleshed-out characters is something you do so well that we don’t see nearly as much in YA as one might think. What drives you to focus on them as well as the teens in your books?

When you’re a teen you’re still living in your parents’ home, living the consequences of the choices they made, and having to interact with them, their values, their rules, and their mistakes. I find that to be one of the most compelling things about teen life. It’s also the part of being a teenager I think I’d have the hardest time returning to now. There’s something scary and suffocating about the reality of living with your parents when you wish you could escape the decisions they’ve made and the lives they’ve chosen. You’re sixteen or seventeen and you’re not quite allowed to choose your own life yet. You can’t really draw real boundaries, even if you might desperately need them with your parents. It gives me anxiety just thinking about it!

I know you’ve said Bernardo is probably your favorite love interest of all the ones you’ve written. What is it about him you connect with so strongly?

I loved writing Bernardo. He’s so New York to me—someone with many different identities, and not fitting into a particular category of person. He’s a Mexican American hipster who loves to read and loves his sisters and is sort of emo and moves too fast in relationships and knows how to have a ridiculously good time. He’s not a type. As soon as I gave him a scarf to wear in the brutal NYC summer, I felt like I knew him so well. I’ve never really written a super romantic guy either, and I feel like he’s romantic in this misguided way that feels right to me. Often a romantic teenager is looking for something something else. There’s something a little off and a little overwhelming and a little out of place about his style of romance. I think I wrote Bernardo like I write my female characters—he has wonderful qualities and dangerous qualities and I’m glad I finally wrote a male character who is complicated and filled out like him.

One of my favorite things about Making Pretty is that it’s such a love letter to NYC. How did you choose the places that are special to Montana, and what are some places in the city that are particularly special to you?

I situated Montana’s life right where my life was when I first moved to the city. I was eighteen when I moved to NYC and I lived right on Washington Square Park, so I very much associate that part of Manhattan with being young and experimental and brokenhearted and brave. Montana’s story isn’t anything like mine in terms of plot points, but I think her relationship with the park, with getting her coffee, with staring at the arch, with sitting on a stoop and watching the city is very much how I came to be an adult, too. Montana is looking for a place to belong, and NYC was the place I needed when I was looking for a place to belong, so it was not only natural but full on joyful to revisit that location and what it meant to me. I’ll always keep that bit of the city in my heart—it’s part of me.

The relationships between Montana and both her sister, Arizona, and her best friend, Karissa, are of course worth noting as well. What do you think makes the relationship between a girl and her sister so different from that between a girl and her best friend? Is there one you find more compelling to explore than the other?

I’ve always been fascinated by and obsessed with sisters, since I don’t have one. I love writing female friendships as much as sisters, I think, but sisters have that permanence that parents have. You can leave a friendship. You can’t leave your sister, even if you stopped seeing her, she’d always still be your sister. I’m always interested in those permanent relationships. They make you who you are.

The idea of a sister actually scares me a little—I wanted one so badly when I was younger, but I think in same gender sibling relationships things like jealousy and competitiveness can be quite intense, even though I think the support and warmth can be incredible as well. I think in general with our siblings, we have a desire for them to be “like us.” I wanted to give Montana and Arizona that struggle. It feels so good to feel “the same” as your sister (or friend), and then it feels so painful to see that you’re not. It’s a real grief, to have to come face to face with that. I think the feeling is purer between sisters, and that the different ways you live your life have the potential to be even more painful than they would be between friends. That loss could feel enormous.

Making Pretty is your third book. What, if anything, do you feel like you’re learning about the process along the way?

This is such a hard question. I think publishing is one of those the more you know, the more you don’t know type situations. I know that everything I think will happen will be entirely different than what’s in my head. I know that I don’t know how my books will be received and my predictions are wrong. I’ve learned thinking too much about other people’s journeys is dangerous and I’ve learned I have a long way to go in that regard. I’ve learned that writing gets harder, not easier, with experience.

Maybe the best actual things I’ve learned are about what I want from writing. I want to be challenged and I want to stretch myself and I don’t want to do what’s easy or comfortable and I want to try new things. I want to feel a nice wide open imagination and play in it. I’ve learned that’s what matters to me on my good days.

And that really stupid things matter to me on my bad days.

In addition to writing, you also have a background in theater. What effect, if any, does it have on your books?

I think it has a HUGE effect on the way I write and how I enter a story. One of the best things I learned in theatre was empathy. It always resonated with me that to successfully play a character, you had to be on their side. This was true for “good” characters and for villains. A great, great Javert in Les Mis is going to be on Javert’s side. He’s going to work to understand the insecurities and passions and life stories that make Javert do things the audience hates. The person playing Javert? He can’t judge him or hate him or feel disappointed in him.

That’s true for me with writing. Even characters the readers are rooting for—I have to find a way to take their side. People don’t do things they can’t justify to themselves, so for a character to ring true, they have to believe they are in the right, and the writer has to have sympathy for them, has to be able to see things from their point of view.

I spent almost 20 years in theatre—I started when I was a little kid—and I think that ability to inhabit someone else’s point of view is the best thing it taught me.

They say YA writers generally lean in one of two ways—they can write YA and NA, or they can write YA and MG. I would’ve picked you for a YA/NA type, but your next novel is actually your first middle grade book, Rules for Stealing Stars. How was your experience writing that after writing three relatively “upper” YAs?

That’s so interesting! I’ll be honest—writing MG came sort of naturally for me. I think because MG ages are when I really fell in love with books. More than that, actually. If I’m honest, that’s the time in my life I loved reading the most and I am on a mission to reconnect to that  kind of love. It was my IDENTITY and my world and my hope and everything I loved. It was all I needed, reading. I want to feel that way again. And writing for that audience feels like a way to connect to that part of my heart, that totally pure bliss that I’m missing. I really have fallen for writing for an MG audience. It opened something up in me—I feel very free there, which is funny because in terms of content I’m somewhat more restricted, I supposed, but something in terms of story I felt liberated.

Luckily, I’ve been able to bring that feeling into my latest YA, I think. I took the lessons I learned from exploring MG and have been working on a YA that is very different than my other YAs. I think writing MG helped me find a new way to write YA, too. It’s one of the best things I’ve done for my writing—trying something new and taking the risk.

All of your books really feature things I think we haven’t seen nearly enough of in YA, and in particular I think Making Pretty will strike a lot of chords in that way. What are some things you still feel you haven’t seen enough of and might like to explore in future novels?

I don’t think I’m done talking about a lot of the things I’ve been writing about—bodies, shame, perfection, fear, loneliness. I think there are more ways to write about love than we’ve done so far (impossible to imagine, I know!), and I’m interested in finding new ways to look at love and what it means to be in love. I’d like to read more and write more about how communities work, how communities affect an individual.

As a reader I’m happy to see diversity being talked about and I hope we see many more books with intersectionality (see Brandy Colbert’s wonderful post on Stacked about this!).

I’d like to write more about mental health—I think there are a lot of untold stories there.

I’d also love to read and write books that feel structurally creative.

I think there are still so many topics we consider “taboo” or unsellable. Abortion, for instance, is something that feels scary to tackle, I think. I would love to see stories like that told more, so we can fill out how diverse those stories can be.

And I think we have so much more to say about friendship. It’s still underwritten in YA in my opinion, although of course there are some beautiful friendship stories. Friendship is every bit as huge as romantic love—I think we could fill libraries with books about teen friendships.

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