November 18, 2009 | Narrative
the perks of being a young adult author
article by Allison Zimmer
When Hannah Moskowitz ’13 eats pizza at the Gate, she brings her laptop, her headphones, and the phone number of her agent, Brendan Deneen of the New York City literary agency FinePrint. When she sits down on one of the plushy couches in the Gate’s dining area—one of her favorite places on campus to write, along with the Brown bookstore—she transforms herself from a Brown student into a professional author.
Hannah’s first novel Break was published this past summer after selling to Simon and Schuster’s Young Adult imprint in mid-July 2008. Since then, it has received rave reviews from young adult readers and from professional critics, including a starred review from Booklist. Though she had a difficult time finding an agent at first, she found more success when she began sending out the manuscript for Break. “I started sending letters to agents around the middle of November 2007, and I had four offers of representation by February,” she remembers. Part of the success of Hannah’s book could be attributed to her unique understanding of the genre of young adult fiction and the particular demands of its readers. “I write books for young adults because that’s what I like to read, and it’s what I know,” Hannah says. “YA literature exploded when writers started writing real teenagers instead of idealized miniature adults. And that’s huge.”
Break, in its insistence on encapsulating the pain and trauma of high school, the commonplace with a twist, reflects this understanding of audience and character dynamics. In it, Hannah portrays a troubled teenager, Jonah, who is determined to break every bone in his body so that each bone will grow back stronger than it was before. As the novel follows his struggle—the relentless tally of bones broken and bones still to be broken—it also delves into the logic of his decision and the difficulty of dealing with a newborn brother and another brother who suffers from severe allergies.
In her debut novel, Hannah’s voice is genuine and approachable. Her book reads like a personal aside, an intimate reflection of the lives and feelings of its characters. In its honesty, it is like a validation of the experience of living, and its metaphors and descriptions represent a smart sense of humor and an appreciation for novelty. “[Young adult books are] almost like a hand to hold,” she says. “The best YA books, in my opinion, are the ones that tell you that you’re not insane for feeling what you’re feeling.” One of Hannah’s favorite young adult books is the cult classic The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky, which she carries around with her most of the time.
A series of articles in recent years has documented the increasing publishing trend of marketing novels originally intended for adults as young adult fiction. The New York Times July 20, 2008 Sunday Book Review essay, “I’m Y.A., and I’m O.K.” by Margo Rabb, described in personal terms the marketing decisions that turned her novel Cures for Heartbreak into a Random House young adult book, as well as the similar experiences of bestselling authors like Curtis Sittenfeld, author of Prep, and Stephanie Meyer, author of the Twilight trilogy. While many of these authors have found significant commercial success in the young adult market, they were initially insulted by their publisher’s decisions. The idea that novels originally intended for adult audiences have found a home on the young adult shelves of libraries and bookstores strikes some as a downgrade, or at least a sad effect of the market. Yet for Hannah, writing young adult novels is a choice, not an eventuality. When her agent recently suggested she try her hand at writing a novel for adults, she initially felt uncomfortable by the prospect. “I’m 18. I’ve been an adult for all of five minutes.” Her modesty and deep understanding of genre and generation dynamics lend her novel much of its credibility among its audience.
At Brown, Hannah has found it difficult to juggle writing, schoolwork, and a social life. “I don’t like that I feel like I’m being antisocial whenever I need to get a chapter done. It’s hard. It’s a lot harder to withdraw and get that alone time without being an outcast here,” she says. Though she hasn’t yet taken a Literary Arts class at Brown, she is taking a class on the literature of children and young adults. “Unsurprisingly,” she says, “[it] is my favorite.”
While finding time to write has been difficult, Hannah continues to produce more work. Her next book, another young adult novel called Invincible Summer, will be published in Spring 2011, and after that, she has another book in the works. Despite distractions, she maintains an unusually efficient writing schedule. After assembling the proper mood music—“I usually have to build an iTunes playlist for a book before I really feel like I’m going to succeed with it”—and planning out the beginning and the end, Hannah writes quickly, finishing the first draft of her first two books in under a week.
The extent of Hannah’s imagination becomes especially clear when considering the difficulty of her subject matter. Though Break details, in painstaking and often traumatic prose, the process of self-inflicted injury, Hannah herself has never broken a bone. Indeed, in many ways Jonah’s experience is entirely different from her own: “I have all male friends, and my only sibling is an older sister…[The book] is completely fictionalized,” she says. Yet despite differences in details, Hannah has established herself as a writer with an understanding and genuine voice. Though she hasn’t broken a bone, the pain she feels for Jonah is legitimate and sincere, derived from her insistence on portraying characters who are messy and flawed but entirely real.
She finds inspiration for her writing by reading books, watching movies, and listening to songs. “If there are new ideas out there, I don’t think I’m the one coming up with them, but I do a good job combining the moods or feels of two or three disparate pieces of media. And I do seem to luck into thinking of good stories to go with those moods,” she explains. She shares her work with her best friend and with an online writer’s group. “[My best friend’s] only job is to tell me it’s perfect and beautiful and the best book ever written, while my writer’s group rips it to shreds.”
Besides Chbosky, some of her favorite authors include Chuck Palahniuk, John Irving, and Laurie Halse Anderson—veterans of literary pornography, the intense character profile, and the young adult novel. Hannah’s own writing has been described as “trauma porn,” a new genre of young adult fiction notable for the ways it contrasts with theBabysitters Club and Gossip Girl series of our youth. According to Katie Roiphe, author of the young adult novel It Was, Like, All Dark and Stormy, books written for young adults used to depict “a sea of nubile midriffs set against pink and turquoise backgrounds.” Now, they are more like Hannah’s—disturbing, often dark, but ultimately hopeful.
Watching Hannah type on her computer, it is difficult to grasp the importance of her work. Not only do the words on her page generate income, but they also inspire readers from Wisconsin to Washington to write about her book on Amazon.com. Yet beyond that, and maybe even more importantly, Hannah’s words make strangers feel something, which is a tough and impressive accomplishment for anyone—especially a freshman in college