Emma Chastain On Her Debut Novel, Confessions of a High School Disaster
We were beside ourselves when Emma Chastain, former SparkNotes editor 🙋🏽 and writing advice expert, announced that her debut novel was out there on the bookshelves awaiting us. Confessions of a High School Disaster takes shape around the life of Chloe Snow, whose daily journal entries catalogue the defining moments of high school (ratio of moments, awkward to graceful: 10:1). Chloe's life is no exception to the universal wackiness of freshman year: she juggles schoolwork with boys, friend dynamics with DMs, a mom who moves to Mexico with sweaty auditions for the school play. Emma nails Chloe's voice, and it was a DELIGHT to find out that she got writing inspo from her own, actual high school diary. Excerpt:
“He didn’t call. I didn’t want him to, but he didn’t, and that kills me. I love him so much. I remember the way he looked at me on the way out to the car, with those sad and loving and intense eyes. Why doesn’t anyone love me back?”
Raise your hand if you just covered your face and thought, literally that was #me.
When I like a book, I return it to the library or keep it on my shelf. When I love a book, I immediately pass it off to a friend and add a sticky note: "MUST READ. NOW." My friend has my copy. Emma's writing is funny, sharp, charming, and terribly smart (just like herrrr), and I know they say not to judge a book by its cover, but the cover is pretty great.
Did you always want to be an author? Was there a book you read growing up that influenced you to write?
Always! I used to write these terrible “stories” that were just physical descriptions of characters. They were plotless and pointless, but I thought they were publishable. I loved Anastasia Krupnik; Anastasia’s father was a poetry professor, and at one point in the book he does a close reading of “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud.” That passage was my introduction to the serious study of literature. I also loved Harriet the Spy, which is about an odd, nosy little girl who wants to be a writer and takes mercilessly honest notes on her classmates and neighbors. I identified with her as a kid, and still do.
What was the YA book or author that made you fall in love with the genre?
Is it cheating to say Eleanor and Park? I realize every human being who’s read it loves that book, but I am one of those human beings.
What is your writing process like?
Generally I tell myself, “This time, I’m going to get right to work! No dilly-dallying!,” then waste an hour online, then start writing. I aim to write for at least 20 minutes a day—a tiny amount of time, but I make it tiny on purpose, so that I’m embarrassed if I don’t manage to pull if off. If I get my 20 minutes in, I highlight that day’s box on my writing calendar. If I don’t, I cross it out in black pen. I also outline! I’ve started and abandoned many novels; Confessions was the first one I outlined before diving in, and that made all the difference.
Your novel naiiiiils the tone of the high school theater scene. Were you in school plays/is there a Chloe moment that was based off of your experiences?
Um, are you saying you haven’t heard of the world-famous 1996 Acton-Boxborough Regional High School production of Oklahoma! starring moi as Laurey?!? Yes, I was a giant musical theater dork, and would still be one today if I had more than a small smidgen of talent. There’s a part in the book when Chloe is too excited to speak, so to express herself she sings and does some choreography from the show she’s in. I know it embarrasses some people to watch actors bursting into song, but to me that’s what’s wonderful about musicals: they capture those moments when you’re so emotional that mere words don’t suffice.
Chloe mentions a few of her English assigned reading books. Do you have a particular memory of reading a classic in HS and completely loving it, or absolutely hating it?
I was electrified by The Catcher in the Rye in high school. As a public school kid, I was fascinated by prep school. I also thought Holden was an impossibly cool rebel. Rereading the novel a few years ago, I realized he’s actually seething with anger. I also loved The Great Gatsby, with its sentences like jewels and its lovesick protagonist.
“If only I could see into the future, I could relax and enjoy being a bachelorette.” This was one of my favorite Chloe quotes in the whole book. Can you speak to it a little more, in terms of advice to high schoolers?
I wish I’d enjoyed my teens and twenties more. It should have been fun, dating various inappropriate people and dealing with dramas of my own creation, but I could never stop and appreciate my youth and freedom because I was so busy panicking about dying alone. I worried about that in high school! I wanted every single dude I dated to fall desperately in love with me, even the ones I wasn’t too interested in myself. WHY? I knew I wasn’t going to marry any of these guys! I’m the last person who should be doling out advice, but I guess I’d say, if you’re someone who wants to get married, you’ll almost certainly get married, so try to put it out of your mind, especially in high school. You’re not going to turn into Miss Havisham. You’re beautiful and cute and interesting, and so many people are going to love you. Also, don’t waste one iota of energy or thought on someone who’s not nice to you. (I must have spent ten years of my life trying to get guys who didn’t even like me to like me back. Again: WHY?!?) It sounds so obvious, but when you’re feeling sick with love and uncertainty about someone, ask yourself, “Is this person nice to me?” and if the answer is no, well, that’s your answer.
Chloe’s mom is absent from Chloe’s life at a pivotal moment. Her mom comes off as self-centered, and it's difficult to watch Chloe go through this as a reader. Was it difficult emotionally to write and develop the character of Chloe’s mom?
It was not difficult to develop the character, because she’s me! I have way more in common with Veronica than I do with Chloe. Like Veronica, I picked up and moved to Mexico in an attempt to get serious about my writing. I didn’t have a family when I did this, so the stakes were lower, but I was similarly deluded and self-centered. It was difficult to write her, because I had to spend a lot of time thinking about what a moron I was when I abandoned my real life to sit in a tiny rented room for hours a day, trying and failing to write the Great American Novel.
Early on, Chloe notes that she likes doing things by herself because it’s easier to observe the world when you’re not trying to keep a conversation going (I love that she’s independent/comfortable with herself in this way.) Later, Chloe also talks about being addicted to her phone, a feeling to which most of us can relate. What would you say is your/Chloe’s message to high schoolers about reconciling personal independence with dependence on social media?
We should probably all throw our phones in the garbage. I love mine, of course, because I love taking pictures with it, and I love listening to podcasts on it. And my brain thinks it loves social media, but in fact I almost never feel anything but stressed out and upset after looking at Twitter or Facebook. After Chloe gets slut-shamed online, she deletes all of her accounts, which is something I wish I could bring myself to do. I don’t think Chloe realizes this explicitly, but I do think it’s good to try to be alone in the world sometimes without resorting to your phone. It can feel deeply awkward to sit by yourself in a room or cafe or park or wherever, looking around instead of into the internet, but in fact it’s not awkward, because despite what you fear, no one is judging you or wondering what you’re doing sitting there by yourself. And if you happen to want to be a writer, observing the real world, and the real people in it, is an essential task, and one I’m going to get around to as soon as I pick the right Instagram filter for this photo of my nails.
What I loved about Chloe is that she’s not perfect, and doesn’t need to be—that’s what makes her so real and relatable. What’s your favorite thing about Chloe?
That’s such a nice compliment! Yes, Chloe is a piece of work. Some readers have said they don’t particularly like her, and I get that. She’s narcissistic and confused and unaware of anything outside her bubble. But she’s also funny and honest, and most important to me, she means well. She may be flawed, but she’s trying her best to be a good person, and I think she’ll get there eventually, maybe even before she graduates from high school.