Born in the Philippines, a childhood in Hong Kong, college in the United States, and living in Canada have all helped make our current author a master of observation—a skill that is completely obvious in her fabulously funny debut novel. Not content to be a world traveler, Stephanie Tromly has an equally diverse collection of higher education degrees including a bachelor’s in economics and urban studies from the University of Pennsylvania and a bachelor’s plus a master’s in English literature from the University of Toronto. Stephanie’s experience as a writer of screenplays comes shining through and would make it so easy to adapt her novel(s) onto the screen (hint hint!) Currently living in Winnipeg with her husband and young son, readers can all be grateful for the chilly northern weather keeping the author inside (i.e., we can look for a new Zoe and Digby book in the very near future!)
SH: When I was a teenager, people would describe me as a: (jock, band geek, popular, goth, other, none?)
ST: I think I was more of a floater . . . somewhere near “brain,” maybe? I got in trouble with the teachers a lot, for some reason, though, so my grades had a “come from behind” flavor to them.
SH: The best/worst thing that happened to you in high school?
ST: My answer for Best and Worst Incident I Survived During High School is (dun-dun-dun): the same incident. The deputy principal of my school had an irrational dislike for me and one day, she found a note I’d written to my friend in which I went to town making fun of a bunch of my teachers. The deputy principal called me into her office and threatened me with expulsion (during my junior year when I was starting to think college applications). She tried the same thing with the friend to whom I’d written the note. My friend wasn’t very easily scared, though, and very coolly asked the deputy principal what she was doing reading private notes. I didn’t have that kind of moral courage so I was in agony over my blown future. I hid all this from my parents for a few days until finally, when I couldn’t take the stress of waiting for my punishment anymore, I told them what had happened. I thought they’d get mad at me but, instead, they realized I was being bullied by my insane deputy principal. My father came into school, yelled at her, and then came to my classroom to tell me, “It’s done. I took care of her.” And, yup, that lady left me the heck alone for the rest of my high school career.
SH: Favorite childhood book? Favorite food? Favorite band or album? Favorite television show?
ST: While it pains me to single out any one Nancy Drew from the classic series, I’d have to say that Password to Larkspur Lane was the book I reread the most times. Read that book and then watch Chinatown!
My favorite food . . . that changes all the time. In general, I love Korean food and I love elaborate and unhealthy salads. Chips are my addiction. I celebrate with Flaming Hot Cheetos.
Favorite band . . . that changes all the time, too! Duran Duran is a band I’ve loved for decades, though. And as for picking just one album, well . . . let’s just say, my fingers have been frozen above the keyboard for minutes now.
Like everyone else, I watch Game of Thrones. However! The TV show I’ve been most impressed by recently was The Night Manager. It was such a straight, unfussy plot but the characters were just boom. I don’t have the words.
SH: Is there a story from your childhood that is told most often, either by you *or* about you?
ST: There are a few but the one that stands out is the one about a conversation I had with my grandfather when I was almost four years old. He was leaving for a trip to Hong Kong (we were all living in Manila at the time) and I asked him to stay home with me. He said he had to go but asked if I wanted to go with him instead. I told him that, no, I couldn’t because I was just a kid and I had to go to school. Then, while everyone was laughing at that, I said, “Don’t go to Hong Kong. You won’t come back if you go.” And sadly, he died of a massive heart attack on that trip. He was only sixty years old so everyone was shocked.
SH: Was there any class in high school you regret paying too little, or too much, attention? If you could add one class to high schools across the country, what would be the topic?
ST: I wish I’d continued taking science classes! I went to a British school, so after a series of public exams (on eight subjects which we took when we were the equivalent of high school sophomores), we narrowed our focus to only three subjects for the last two years of school. At the end of those two years, we took exams in those three subjects and then went on to university to take degrees in things directly related to those subjects. I didn’t go to university in Britain and went to a U.S. college instead so I did get a chance to take electives but I wish I’d gotten a more general education at the high school level. Even electives felt too high stakes in college.
As for the one class I wish people would be offered in high school? I will sound so unoriginal here but I think all students should be offered a class on financial literacy. People need to be able to manually work out how much they are spending on interest, for example. May I make a second wish? I wish high schools would offer ethics classes, too. Or, at the very least, a class on social responsibility.
SH: If you could be a character from any book ever written, including your own, who would you want to be? Why?
ST: Nancy Drew. Every day. I wouldn’t wish my mother dead but Nancy Drew “had it all.” I mean, for example, in Password to Larkspur Lane, Nancy not only foiled an elder-abuse-swindling ring, she also had time to win a gardening competition. She had it all.
SH: Is there a book, besides your own of course, that you think everyone should be reading?
ST: I can’t think of any one book that I think of in that way . . . but! The book I will be sure to give my kid if/when I feel like school pressure is getting to him and he’s starting to take the idea of capital S Success too seriously is Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast. I acknowledge that nowadays, there are serious issues of inequality and a total lack of security for people who aren’t firmly in the 1 percent, so, yes, kids today have to hit the ground running. Hemingway’s memoir is a great reminder to young people, though, that they shouldn’t just think about storing financial nuts for their old age and they should also remember to live.
SH: Do you have any favorite family traditions that might need some explanation to outsiders looking in? Do you remember how they started?
ST: My family is Fukienese (Chinese) by way of the Philippines and Hong Kong: these are three extremely superstitious communities and we observe all the superstitions of each of them. One of the ones that other people think is weird is our inability to accept shoes as gifts. So, when we give shoes to each other, the recipient gives the gifter, like, a quarter or something so that the shoes were technically “bought.”
SH: What’s your biggest pet peeve?
ST: I hate when people litter. I feel like that since it’s neither necessary nor enjoyable, why do it?
SH: Is there one moment in your life you’d love to live again? To either change it or to enjoy?
ST: Hands down, it’d be the ten minutes right around when my kid was born. I wouldn’t change a single thing.
SH: If you could have any superpower, what would you choose?
ST: I’d love to wake up one day and suddenly have self-confidence. That isn’t a superpower that would sell comic books but I’ve been wishing for it to no avail for so long, it may as well be the ability to fly.
SH: What’s been your favorite place to live so far, and is there one place you dream of living in the future?
ST: You know what? I love different things about different places and there’s a lot I love about living in Canada but . . . London. I don’t know how happy I’d be actually living there because wealth inequality is basically the bedrock on which the city’s culture is built but as a thing to behold? London.
SH: What three words would you use to describe yourself? What three words do you think other people would use to describe you?
ST: I’m an awkward person and I don’t do well in a crowd. Or with people who I’m not already close with. Actually, let’s be honest, I don’t do well with people in general.
People would probably say, “She’s so weird.” And I would agree. My own three words change with my swinging moods but today, I would use the words worried, ready, and hopeful.
SH: You are sitting down to dinner with five people, living or dead, who you find fascinating. Who is at the table and what are you eating?
ST: I’d call back my grandfather from the grave. No one had a chance to write down his experiences from when he was a guerrilla fighter during the Japanese occupation. Only a handful of those memories survive.
A lot of the people who I’d like to talk to are monsters, but of the non-monsters, I think I’d like to have a conversation about art with Virginia Woolf, Marguerite Duras, and Prince.
My fifth guest would be General (Ret.) Stanley McChrystal, the guy who once commanded the U.S. Forces in Afghanistan. Unlike the rest of us, who would be eating normal stuff like pizza and nachos, General McChrystal would be eating nothing because he famously only eats one meal a day. He also runs eight miles every day and only sleeps four hours. I don’t agree with all his politics but I’d like to ask him about discipline. But then, I feel like he’d learn that my ideal length of sleep time is ten hours a night and he’d slam down his glass of water and walk out on me.
SH: When asked what you wanted to be when you grew up, what did you say? Were you telling the truth?
ST: At times, I told people (and myself, to be honest) I wanted to work in finance or a finance-adjacent job because that’s what I thought I should do to be responsible. I’ve always had daydreams about being a reporter, though, and I wish I had it in me to write at that high a level all the time . . . but, yes, writing has always been my secret dream.
SH: What did you buy with your first paycheck as An Author? Was it a planned or an impulse purchase?
ST: I bought more books! Not kidding.
SH: When you sit down to write, what do you need around you? Do you prefer a certain time of day or is it more spontaneous? How do you approach the creative process?
ST: I like having painted nails for some reason. Bright red nail polish. I hate writing at night because it depresses me but I almost always end up writing all night. I think I need everyone else to go to bed, otherwise, there’s always the temptation of conversation with my husband or kid.
How do I approach the creative process? I ponder failure until my panic makes my fingers move. I know. I need a better way to get going.
SH: Do you have a phrase or motto that inspires you?
ST: I don’t know that I feel inspired all that much . . . I mostly have to work to corral my anxiety and for that, I do have a mantra: enough. That word does it for me.
SH: What one thing makes you feel happiest? What makes you sad? What scares you? What makes you laugh?
ST: Do you know what? My kid makes me feel all these things all at once. Seriously. But I can go door-to-door and give you less sappy answers.
Happiest? Seeing my family—my parents, sibs, my husband, and kid—together at the table. This happens more often that we deserve to expect since we all live in different countries but I’m never not grateful when we can get back together.
Sad? Artists like David Bowie and Prince dying. We’re not really replacing them at the same rate that we’re losing them.
Scares me? That I’ll never be a good writer.
Makes me laugh? Andre Braugher as Captain Holt on Brooklyn Nine Nine. Watch him in scenes with Wunch (Kyra Sedgwick!).
SH: If someone wrote a book about your life, who would you want as the author, what kind of book would it be, and what title would you give it?
ST: If a wretched book like that were to ever exist, it would be a depressing parable by Herman Melville type that would have the title, I Would Prefer Not To.
SH: What is one (or more!) of your favorite features about yourself? It can be anything from an impeccable sense of style to your sense of humor to crazy long toes that can pick up a variety of objects.
ST: Ha! Funny you mention it because my husband has what his family calls a “prehensile” big toe that can “do things.” It’s weird.
My favorite feature about myself? My ability to work (at least) two days straight with no sleep. You asked me before about superpowers; this one is mine.
SH: A series of choices: Coffee, tea, or soda? Cats, dogs, fish, birds, or none? Board games, card games, or online games? Salty or sweet? Morning or night? Elevator, escalator, or stairs? Phone call, hand written letter, or email?
ST: I hate to be that dude but I need coffee (I drink it non-stop) but I love diet soda (I limit my intake). I’m a cat person. I love card games. Salty, salty, salty. I wish I were a morning person but I’m an owl by nature. I take the stairs to offset my awful chip habit. I write everything by hand but nothing beats the immediacy of email. Phone calls? I could do without phone calls.
SH: What’s the best surprising question you’ve been asked so far?
ST: I think the tail of the question “When asked what you wanted to be when you grew up, what did you say? Were you telling the truth?” is great because I was always conscious of never telling people the truth about my ambitions.
SH: Is there any question you wish someone would finally think to ask?
ST: I feel like you’ve asked all the good ones. Seriously.
Trouble Is a Friend of Mine
SH: If you ate at Olympio’s—what would be your standard order? What if Henry offered to name a meal in your honor, what would be on the plate?
ST: It’d be a plate of hash browns and eggplant moussaka. I wouldn’t be sad if they made a gyro out of the hash browns and moussaka and doused it in tahini and hot sauce and named it after me. Fries on the side. With more hot sauce. Exactly zero people would order it. I’m getting heartburn just imagining it.
SH: Digby thought Zoe sounded like his grandmother’s cockatoo when its wing was caught in the vacuum. Have you heard that noise before or was it more of an educated guess?
ST: I have heard something almost as awful. The angry and hurt cry of a people-loving parakeet being batted off someone’s head.
SH: I enjoy that Digby successfully referenced The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants in conversation with Henry and Zoe. What inspires you most about that Ann Brashares book? Do you believe there are real pairs of traveling pants for teens to share? Or, more importantly, how about any traveling pants for adults?
ST: I love that book. Sadly, I don’t think actual magic pants exist . . .
Here’s the dark side of the metaphorical pants, though. The people who find out about the magic pants and can see the magic pants but are excluded from the magic pants club (like Effie and Bailey) are kind of . . . sad. I mean, that’s why social media makes people feel bad.
SH: Digby is so wrong in so many ways, it makes him completely right! Do you know a Digby in real life? How can a person (like me, maybe) get invited to hang out with you guys sometime?
ST: Let me save you some tears by telling you that real life Digbys aren’t nice to be around. Trust me. They are interesting but you know . . . they are work.
SH: Digby has a lot of seemingly random knowledge but it turns out to have a purpose. Where did you find some of the serious (child custody laws) and less serious (how many pizzas per car in the driveway) facts?
ST: I always discuss the legal stuff with my sister, who, conveniently, is a lawyer. Things like the pizza approximation, I learned from a lifetime of hanging out with the wrong people.
SH: Was it easier or harder to write the second Zoe and Digby book?
ST: It was painful. I knew them so well so whenever I was having an off day and I wrote something that wasn’t true or consistent . . . those were really bad days, let’s just say.
Books by Stephanie Tromly
Trouble is a Friend of Mine. Penguin, 2015. 334p. $17.99. 978-0-525-42840-4. VOYA August 2015. 5Q 5P J S
Stephanie Tromly Online
Twitter: https://twitter.com/stephanietromly