Into YA with Zan Romanoff
I'm so excited to have Zan Romanoff on the blog today to talk about her fabulous book, Look. Before I read it, I'd heard tons of amazing things from other authors and fellow bookstagrammers. When my library hold finally came in, I fully understood why. It's by far one of my top books for the year. I've been gushing about this book to everyone who will listen. It's a completely unique experience. If you haven't gotten a chance to read it, check out my review from earlier in the week to get some context for our conversation (here). Knowing how many of you already love the book, it was extra exciting to get to work on this interview. I hope you find it as interesting as I did.
I want to thank Zan for taking the time to answer my questions. This is the longest interview I've ever done for Into YA, but I was bursting with questions by the time I finished the book. Her answers are fascinating and so thoughtful. Links to her website are at the end of the interview if you want to check out her past articles or find all the links to buy the book!
1. One part that struck me from the beginning was the intense sense of atmosphere. Each setting, particularly The Hotel, felt like a character in itself. I’ve never been to LA, but it really came alive for me. Was that an important element for you? Do you have tips for writers looking to develop their settings more?
Setting is super important for me. There’s a saying that writing a book is like starting a fire—you need more than one stick to rub together, and for me, setting is a crucial stick in the process. (This feels like a clumsy metaphor, but I’m sticking with it.) So before I start, I need to understand where the characters are, but also, and maybe more importantly, how it makes them feel to be there. It was fun to write Lulu because she loves Los Angeles as much as I do—the city strikes her as beautiful and romantic and mysterious.
So that’s probably my number one tip for writing setting: don’t just imagine what it looks like, think about what it feels like to be there. A place can be beautiful and intimidating, or beautiful and exciting, and there’s a real difference between those two things! Also, what might strike one character as exciting might be intimidating for another one. (Cass, for instance, is intimidated by a lot of places that Lulu kind of takes for granted.) Setting isn’t just backdrop—how a character interacts with it can help fill in a lot of detail about what they find interesting, or unusual, or comforting.
2. Flash is an element that dominates every part of the plot. Your book has one of the best dissections of social media and how it impacts all of us I’ve seen in YA. A central conflict Lulu faces is deciding how much and what parts of herself she wants to give away online. The end result almost obscures her entire personality. Towards the end, she comes back to it with a plan to craft a different image more on her own terms. She exemplifies how we can show so much of our daily lives without actually revealing anything. Do you think specific platforms limit how we can express ourselves? Is it possible to remove the some of the toxicity that Lulu faces?
I think social media is inherently a limited way of expressing ourselves—which isn’t necessarily a bad thing! There’s just no way to convey a whole personality or life through curated little snippets of photos, videos or text posts. (Unless you’re livestreaming 24/7, but then you’re always on and that’s a whole other can of worms.)
So the most important thing, in my opinion, is to keep it in perspective—social media is part of my life, but I try not to make it too big of a part. I have fun sharing stuff with readers and friends, but as soon as it stops being fun, I try to just put my phone down and go do other things. My life doesn’t have to be on display or publicly validated for it to be important and worthwhile to me and the people I know and love.
As to how to remove some of the toxicity that comes with social media, I’d recommend checking out Jenny Odell’s book How to Do Nothing, which is so so smart on this subject. She writes really well about how social media and the internet offer us amazing ways to connect and share knowledge, but how the way they’re constructed now tend to encourage people’s worst behaviors. I always get cranky when people write about the internet like it’s all one thing—good or bad—and that book is the best thing I’ve ever read about how it’s both, and also how we can start to make it better.
3. The exploration of how we treat women in society, particularly in the media, was super fascinating on a variety of levels. I really appreciated the detail that Lulu is watched so closely and that the video stuck around because all her accounts were getting archived on a fansite for Owen’s rockstar dad. Girlfriends of famous people are often the worst treated, most scrutinize women by fans and tabloids. Did your experience with fandoms and writing by pop culture inspire that? What sparked your interest, and do you have a theory on why it’s so common?
You know, I hadn’t really thought about it but of course you’re right that that part of the book is related to my writing about fandom—particularly my second book, Grace and the Fever, which is about a girl who finds herself kind-of dating a pop star.
As to why it’s so common, I think celebrity culture and social media both encourage us to objectify people, to see them as public property instead of private individuals. And then we’re already culturally preconditioned to believe that about women particularly, that they belong to the world, or should, and so it just compounds.
I also think there’s just so much discomfort around women who are close to power, women whose beauty might make them powerful. Women who have sex, women who have what they want, women who are having fun in public—the list goes on and on.
4. One part of herself that she never chooses to share or answer to online is her sexuality, even after the video leaks. It’s something that she comes into and discovers slowly as the book progresses, and I really appreciated seeing a character that doesn’t already know everything. She doesn’t put pressure on herself to explain or choose a label. Was it a conscious choice to have that be something Lulu keeps private? Did the video leaking impact her view of herself or how she wanted to portray herself online?
Having Lulu keep her sexuality relatively private was definitely a conscious decision. I wanted to write about someone who has grown up in a pretty open, queer-friendly culture, who isn’t afraid to come out, per se, but also just isn’t sure how she wants to do it or what she’d even say when she does. It blows my mind that we expect teenagers to like, define themselves that way while they’re still in high school. Don’t get me wrong, some people just know and that’s great! But I feel like I know so many people whose sexualities evolved over time and are still evolving. And while the explosion of language we have around sexuality now is amazing and wonderful, it can be a lot to navigate when you aren’t even sure what you’re feeling yet. So I wanted Lulu to just be kind of swimming her way through all of that.
I do think Lulu starts seeing herself and her sexuality differently after the video leaks. For a long time, she’s thought of her queerness as something that kind of doesn’t fit in with the rest of her life or personality, that would confuse people around her—that confuses her! And this forces her to recognize that it’s all just a part of her, that she doesn’t have to be any particular kind of queer girl, she’s allowed to just be who she is and like girls and that’s fine.
5. The book focuses very much on how we’re not just who we are but what we’re taught. Lulu deals with tons of learned internal biases against herself that makes it hard for her to deal with being wronged. In Ryan’s case, it makes him believe that he’s entitled to the world and can hurt others without consequences. It’s perpetuated in their homes, by teachers in school, and by the wider world. How do we fight this? Like the question Lulu finds in the end, how do we live in this world that has so many issues deeply woven in its fabric? Do you think there’s a path to lasting change and accountability?
Man, what a question! I have to hope that there is. And I know that the world has changed for the better, even in my lifetime. (Not to mention, my mom remembers when it became legal for unmarried women to get their own credit cards—previously, your husband had to sign you up for one. Every time I think about this my brain explodes with rage.)
But that change is incremental and piecemeal and slow and weird and insanely frustrating. You never know what it’s going to look like, and it almost never looks like you want it to. I’ve been heartened by parts of the #MeToo movement, by how women are starting to talk to each other more and more about these kinds of deeply rooted systemic issues. I’ve been heartened by things like #BlackLivesMatter and the ways that communities of color are able to connect with each other and speak out online. (See, there’s a good use for social media!)
Basically, the world we inherited is a mess. The best we can do is try to understand why that is, and undo the parts of it that we can in ourselves, and in the world around us. And then maybe we raise a generation that’s slightly less messed up, so that they can raise another one, etc. It probably doesn’t happen in our lifetimes. But maybe eventually it happens? All we can do is try to keep the ball moving in the right direction.
6. Most of YA is written in first person, so it was interesting for me to find Look is told in third person limited. Was that a conscious choice or how it naturally came out? Do you think point of view impacts voice?
Hah, yes, a very conscious choice. I tried to write fiction in the first person for years and I could never make it come out right. I think in part it’s just some mysterious brain-wiring thing, but also I think it has something to do with the fact that I write a lot of first person non-fiction. So I have a first-person voice that I’ve been working on for years, and it’s… mine! It helps my brain to have that separation: first person is actually me, third person is imaginative, is fiction.
One of the editors who was interested in my first book, A Song to Take the World Apart, asked me to re-write it in the first person. I did a few chapters and then stopped—it just didn’t feel right. Both that book and this one are, in some sense, fairy tale retellings, and it lost the fairy tale magic when I put them in first person. So that decision can definitely impact voice and the feel of a story.
7. For everyone who was left wanting more of your writing after Look, do you have any upcoming projects you can share about?
Yes! I sold Look in a two-book deal, and my editor and I are working on the next one right now. We don’t have a release date or even a title yet (sometimes titles are easy for me, and sometimes they are very hard) but it’s about female friendship and natural disasters, and I hope you will be able to read it sooner rather than later.
(And if you’re interested in the non-fiction, there’s tons of it at zanromanoff.com as well as tinyletter.com/zanopticon.)
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