Wednesday, August 24, 2016


I met Kim Culbertson during Barnes and Noble's Teen Book Festival in June, and she gave a great writing workshop that transformed my writing process and how I thought about craft. Her newest book, THE POSSIBILITY OF NOW is out now from Scholastic:

Mara James has always been a perfectionist with a plan. But despite years of overachieving at her elite school, Mara didn't plan on having a total meltdown during her calculus exam. Like a rip-up-the-test-and-walk-out kind of meltdown. And she didn't plan on a video of it going viral. And she definitely didn't plan on never wanting to show her face again.

Mara knows she should go back, but suddenly she doesn't know why she's been overachieving all these years. Impulsively, she tells her mom she wants to go live with her estranged dad in Tahoe. Maybe in a place like Tahoe, where people go to get away from everyday life, and with a dad like Trick McHale, a ski bum avoiding the real world, Mara can figure things out.

Only Tahoe is nothing like she thought. There are awesome new friends and hot boys and a chance to finally get to know Trick, but there is also still massive amounts of schoolwork. Can Mara stopping planning long enough to see the life that's happening right now?

Currently, you are at work on your third novel for Scholastic. What has been your experience juggling different projects and what ways have you found to prioritize your work?

I’m sure it’s the same for many writers but, for me, the biggest “juggle” has been trying to find time for writing while working another job, having a family, being a friend, and generally just fitting life into each week. Recently, I committed to my writing full-time and that has obviously helped with the scheduling, but, before that, I was a high school teacher for eighteen years, some years full-time and some years part-time. I loved my years teaching and therefore had two jobs to which I was deeply committed (which made the juggle more complex than it is now). I’m grateful for my years teaching. Those years deeply informed my writing and they taught me that writing was a priority because I continued to make time for it. Writing time has always been sacred for me and I have attempted to create space for it as much as I could. Sometimes, it meant the laundry didn’t get done or I had to miss out on an evening with friends or I didn’t exercise as much as I probably should, but that’s true for any creative pursuit. You only have so many hours and some of them have to be for the life stuff and some have to be for the creative work. The key for me was actually scheduling the blocks of time during my week and then sticking to them. It’s so easy to say “it’s just writing time” and shove it to the side. I had to treat it as a priority in order for it to become one.

Makes sense. In THE POSSIBILITY OF NOW, you confront perfectionism (something many of us struggle with). What do you hope readers might gain from Mara's story?

It’s funny – I’ve been asked this question a lot and I always sort of freeze up. I worry about not saying the right thing. Ha! Talk about perfectionist issues. I think ultimately I spent many years worrying too much about things being perfect and I watched so many of my teenage students doing that in their lives – trying to have a big, elaborate, perfect vision or plan, and it has caused so much pain and stress. As a young person I was told to “do my best” quite a lot and I certainly said it to students at times, but somewhere along the line, it has morphed culturally into something really damaging because the “best” isn’t always possible. We can’t all be the best at everything. And it’s impacting our kids. As a writer, I was interested in exploring this cultural obsession with “best” but I also really wanted to explore the idea that even when we do our best, we can still fail. And that is fine. It’s good, actually. Failing is good. My daughter’s teacher says fail stands for First Attempt in Learning. I like that. So often, we are afraid to try anything new for fear of not being any good at it, which is a recipe for never trying anything! It’s just a vicious circle. I started skiing in my mid-thirties. I was awful (I’m still pretty awful), but I have so much fun doing it. I used to tell people I didn’t like to ski, but the truth is I didn’t try it for so many years because I was afraid of being bad at it. Thank goodness my daughter told me to just have fun with it. She looked at me with her seven year old eyes and basically told me that being good wasn’t the point. And she was right. This culture is obsessively goal-oriented, which, don’t get me wrong, I think goals are great, but when we get so fierce about them, so competitive, I wonder if that’s taking something away from the daily experience. Wow, that was a really imperfect answer. I’m going to leave it that way.

It was a perfect answer, as far as I'm concerned. I loved that you referred to a story's title as its "North Star." How have you used this tip in your own writing?

I want to give credit to that saying where it’s due: David Levithan, who is the senior editor at Scholastic and a brilliant author himself, is the one who introduced me to the idea that the title is the “North Star” – for a writer but also for your readers. I love that concept – that the title is there in the sky of the writing and reading experience, glowing, lighting the way. I also love that as you write and rewrite a novel, the title can keep shifting and changing shape on you. My titles change a great deal over the course of writing a novel – and that’s a good thing – because as a book evolves, so does its central focus. But the North Star is there, all along, guiding you, and at the end of the process, it truly comes into focus.

A beautiful way of putting it, and yet another reason to love David Levithan! What are some of your current projects?

Scholastic will publish my next novel THE WONDER OF US in May of 2017. The book is the story of two friends, Abby Byrd and Riya Sharma-Collins, who have always been inseparable despite (or maybe because of) their dynamic differences and they spent a childhood thoroughly devoted to each other. But the summer after their sophomore year of high school, everything changes. Riya moves to Berlin, Germany with her parents and Abby is left in their small Northern California town. After a falling out, the girls end the year barely speaking to each other. The novel opens on the cusp of the summer after this ruined year. Abby sits on a plane bound for Florence because Riya has invited her on a “multi-city grand tour” to rebuild their teetering friendship. I love travel and road trips and stories with multiple points of view, so I had a great time writing this one.

Can't wait. Thanks for sharing such wonderful insights with us!

To grab THE POSSIBILITY OF NOW, or Kim's other fabulous books, feel free to click the links below:

Buy: BookPassage ~ Barnes & Noble ~  IndieBound

Buy: BookPassage ~ Barnes & Noble ~  IndieBound

Buy: BookPassage ~ Barnes & Noble ~  IndieBound

Buy: BookPassage ~ Barnes & Noble ~  IndieBound

No comments: