Born and raised in New York City, our current author found plenty to love about her hometown and has happily remained a resident of the Big Apple. With a BA in English and in Theater from Georgetown, Rachel Vail can use her background in writing and directing for the stage to craft her thirty-plus book (and counting); as well as her in-house critics (aka her two young sons and husband). Focusing on characters and relationships, this award-winning author has a well-earned reputation for taking big issues and making them relatable. As Rachel’s most recent book was published only a few months ago, teens, adults, and Lightning (the Vail family pet tortoise) have already begun waiting (im)patiently to read what happens next!
SH: When I was a teenager, people would describe me as a: (jock, band geek, popular, goth, other, none?)
RV: I think they’d probably have said: Yeah, Rachel Vail. I know her. She’s nice, kind of bookish I think? A little intense? Does theater maybe or something? Who does she hang out with?
SH: The best/worst thing that happened to you in high school?
RV: The worst thing was probably the braces/perm/onset of puberty simultaneously. Maybe in a way that was best, too, in that a lesson in humility is always useful.
SH: Favorite childhood book?
RV: In roughly chronological order: A Silly Story by Mercer Mayer; Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing by Judy Blume; The Pushcart War by Jean Merrill; The Great Brain by John Fitzgerald; The Cat Ate My Gymsuit by Paula Danziger; Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck.
SH: Favorite food?
RV: Fresh raspberries from the garden, bread right out of the oven, or Irish Breakfast tea with milk.
SH: Favorite band or album?
RV: Too many to list but a playlist for my current book definitely includes: Lyle Lovett’s “If I Had a Boat,” Old Crow Medicine Show’s version of “Wagon Wheel,” The BoDeans’ “Angels,” Paramore’s “Still into You,” Mick McAuley’s “To Make You Feel My Love,” James Blake’s “Limit to Your Love,” and Scott Hoying’s very weird “I Should Tell Ya Momma On Ya” but not Ed Sheeren’s “Supermarket Flowers” because I have to stop and cry when that comes on.
And of course, both the Hamilton Original Cast Album and most of the Hamilton Mixtape, but not while I’m working (especially “Quiet Uptown”).
SH: Favorite television show?
RV: The West Wing and Friday Night Lights.
SH: Is there a story from your childhood that is told most often, either by you *or* about you?
RV: Well, I do talk a lot about my first kiss.
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?
RV: I probably should have tried harder in math classes and band. I really wish I had ever practiced the piano, though that was outside of school lessons but I still think it counts. I also wish I had learned to play guitar. I wish there were more civics/current events classes in schools – I felt like, since I was about to be able to vote and be counted as an adult, I should probably be able to understand and discuss what was going on and put it into some sort of historical and political context. Also, more contemporary fiction classes, especially in middle school. There should probably also be more sudden dance parties in the middle of classes in middle and high school – everybody up and dance full out for two minutes. It would wake everybody up and make them all happier.
SH: Who was the first person who told you should be a writer?
RV: My second-grade teacher, Mrs. Sudak. My brother and my parents just assumed I would be, I think, despite my adamant instance that I would not be a writer, never, no way.
SH: Is there a book, besides your own of course, that you think everyone should be reading?
RV: All writers should immediately read Story by Robert McKee and The Dangers of a Single Story by Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche. People who like meta-humor and kids’ books should read Battle Bunny by Jon Scieszka. If you are just in the market for a book that’s going to take you away from the incessant news these days (and maybe take your breath away, too), I’d suggest When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi, An Enlarged Heart by Cynthia Zarin, or Robert Caro’s Johnson books or any of Tana French’s mysteries. And obviously, Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt if you missed it.
SH: If you could be a character from any book, including your own, who would you want to be? Why?
RV: Wow, tough one. I wanted to be Pippi Longstocking when I was a kid. As I teenager, I thought maybe it would be cool to be James Bond, maybe as a woman though. Now I have ambitions to be Professor McGonagall.
SH: One of your books has been selected to be made into a movie, which book would you want it to be and who would want in your cast?
RV: If it’s Well, That Was Awkward, I would want Tavi Gevinson to play the ghost of the older sister and a young unknown smart actress with great comic timing to play the lead (Gracie). For her parents, I’d want Marc Rylance (because of the sadness in his eyes and his amazing quality of watchful attentiveness) and Marisa Tomei (because she brings such humor and authenticity and a great non-mawkish quality of love to her roles).
SH: What did you buy with your first paycheck as an author? Was it a planned or an impulse purchase?
RV: I bought my parents a new rug. I had lived with them for a year after college/quitting my job, not making any money, not paying for anything, and they were saving up for a new rug for the upstairs. BOOM, I bought it for them. That was a great day.
SH: Do you have any favorite family traditions that might need some explanation to outsiders looking in? Do you remember how they started?
RV: So many. We have a lot of inside jokes. A good one is if we are out in public like on the subway and one of us is talking and needs to stop saying that for whatever reason – maybe some stranger is clearly eavesdropping or out of context the story could seem horrible or there are too many proper nouns/who knows who knows whom in this small town of NYC – the other person can say “and scene” and you have to stop talking immediately.
There is also a squidgy bit where the kitchen counter connects to the wall. You are only allowed to touch it on your birthday. But that’s probably self-explanatory.
SH: Is there one moment in your life you’d love to live again? To either change it or to enjoy?
RV: I’d happily relive any of those moments when my family is all together and my sons are cracking up.
SH: What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever gotten, at any age?
RV: Meg Cabot told me that her grandmother used to say “You’re not a hundred-dollar bill. Not everybody’s going to want you.” I think about that all the time. The relief of not having to win everybody over is so liberating. Doesn’t mean they’re wrong or I’m bad. I’m not everyone’s cup of tea? Okay. On we all go.
The other two most valuable bits of advice were:
“The first draft of anything is shit.” – Earnest Hemingway
“Don’t be humble. You’re not that great.” – Golda Meir
SH: What three words would you use to describe yourself? What three words do you think other people would use to describe you?
RV: I’d say I am lucky, curious, and loving.
I hope others would say I’m brilliant, gorgeous, and hilarious.
But maybe they (at least the people I’d ask) would say caring, funny, authentic.
SH: What’s your biggest pet peeve?
RV: People jabbing me in the head with their umbrella spokes.
People stopping as soon as they walk into a subway car even though we are right behind them
Inconsiderate behavior generally, I guess. Be a person, you guys. Come on.
SH: If you could have any superpower, what would you choose?
RV: Omnipotence. Why mess around?
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?
RV: I’d go for living people because corpses put a damper on any party, I have found.
Maybe though if they could be alive for the dinner I’d invite Shakespeare, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Dorothy Parker, and my husband and kids. I know that’s 6 plus me but we could squish because we don’t mind and there’s always room for another friend here. The food could be sushi or tapas, excellent wine, and plenty of bourbon.
SH: Do you have a phrase or motto that inspires you?
RV: When we were in Ireland last summer, an innkeeper said to my sons, “As your mother would say, go grab that day before you lose it.” That’s a good one I think.
SH: A series of choices:
RV: Comedy, Action, or Drama? Probably drama.
Ballet, Soccer, Science Olympiad, or Social Butterfly? Oh gosh – I guess social butterfly by elimination/lack of talents in other areas.
Cats or Dogs? DOGS.
Phone, email, or text? Text (email for long-form; phone only for emergencies, come on people).
Sweet or Salty? Combination: dark chocolate with sea salt is perfection.
Early morning or late night? Late night.
Spend or save? Spend on experiences; save rather than stuff.
Elevator, escalator, or stairs? Stairs! (and I live on the eighth floor).
Board game, card game, or video game? Board game. Unless it’s Wii boxing. Then Wii boxing.
SH: Finally, is there a question you wish someone would finally think to ask?
RV: Maybe somebody would ask if I would please accept this huge award? Or would I be embarrassed to cash this really obscenely large royalty check for the chart-busting success of my books? (No, is the answer; I’ll be fine, thanks, off I go.)
Well, That Was Awkward
SH: Were you more like Gracie, given the task of finding out who the cute boy had a crush on? Or were you more like Sienna, the girl who found out the cute boy had a crush on her instead? Which do you think is easier, to be Gracie or Sienna?
RV: Such an interesting question. I have been in both positions; both are excruciating.
SH: Were any of the revealed secrets or misunderstandings inspired by real-life school (or adult?) friends? Have you ever heard from a stranger that it was like you went to their school (and they’re sure those are their secrets!)?
RV: Yes, I’m always inspired by real life stories and memories, though the details are always changed to improve the story and make it just right to happen given a particular character’s personality, desire, needs, and flaws. And YES, I love when kids tell me that exact thing happened to them; how did I know? On the other hand, I cringe when people I knew growing up assume they know exactly which high school person I am very obviously exacting my revenge on – because that is never true. I’ll get my revenge in much better ways. Just kidding. I have no revenge urge honestly. I deeply, honestly believe we are all jerks sometimes, especially while we are growing up, and we all deserve a lot of slack for the most horrid garbage we pulled when we were shot through with hormones and stress.
If We Kiss
SH: Have you ever had a major crush on the same guy as your best friend? If she said something about her crush first, what do you think you could/should do about it?
RV: Luckily, my best friends in high school and I had very different taste in romantic partners so that made things easier. I did have some weird and occasionally awful both liking the same guy moments with more distant friends and I can’t say any of us acted as paragons, including me. What I wish someone had told me was: best to step back – you don’t want him if he doesn’t want you; be kind to all, and remember things change fast but memories and hurt feelings can last.
Kiss Me Again
SH: If you were Tess, what would you have felt (and done)? Did you always know you would write a sequel for Charlie, her friends, and family?
RV: I love the character of Tess. She was so confused and hurt, even while knowing on some level that she was not being a great friend at all times. I did not intend to write a sequel but Charlie and company stuck with me, and readers too.
SH: What was the “luckiest” thing (bad or good) to happen to you in middle school? Did you recognize the moment when it was happening–or only long after it was over?
RV: My family went through some rough times when I was in middle school – financially and with my brother having trouble navigating school, life, and everything. It certainly didn’t feel lucky at the time but in hindsight, maybe the rough spots really do teach us resilience and empathy. My brother’s different ways of behaving and perceiving taught (and continue to teach) me that not everybody is living the same story; that our version of any experience is unique to each of us. That is a real gift. Finally, the fact that my parents were stretched so thin dealing with all that stuff meant I had a bit more room to maneuver than I might’ve had otherwise and the fact that they let me know I had earned their trust and confidence was an amazing responsibility and gift. I knew even at the time that I was pretty lucky in my relationship with my parents.
SH: What would you be willing to make a deal with the devil for–both gaining and giving up.
RV: It would take a lot to get me to trade my soul for anything – that tends to backfire every time so it would have to be something huge. Like, be a rock star is a cool thought but nah. Honestly, it probably it would have to be the health, safety, and happiness of my family. (I can hear my younger son groaning “Ugh, you are such a MOM.”)
SH: What was the most rebellious thing you did in middle or high school? Do you look back with satisfaction, or wonder that you got away with it?
RV: The getting into a car with a dangerous, possibly drunk driver was taken from an actual memory and it was terrifying. I held hands with my friend Jill in the back seat and tried not to panic. The driver would not slow down until we got chased by a police car and he pulled into a driveway. Jill and I got out on shaky legs and the police weren’t interested in us so we walked home to my house from there. I am lucky I survived it. It didn’t feel at all cool or rebellious, just terrifying.
The Friendship Ring Series
If Only You Knew
SH: What were you best known for in your friend group? If you were the sporty one, what sport would have been a good showcase for your skills?
RV: I played soccer and skied, but I was more of the theater kid. And, I hope, a good one to talk with about your feelings.
Please, Please, Please
SH: Would you be willing to give up everything to focus on improving just one select area of your life, either in school or now?
RV: When I started writing my first book, I gave up everything just to focus on doing it for a year. Before that, I had never wanted to specialize – not just because I wasn’t feeling super passionate about one thing and liked doing lots of stuff, but also because putting all my eggs in any one basket meant taking a huge and potentially humiliating risk: What if I tried my hardest and still sucked? So much more comforting to be able to tell (lie to?) myself that if I really tried I could probably be pretty good at . . . saxophone/skiing/singing/acting/playwriting/school. So, I did everything kind of half-way, last minute, slapdash and I did fine. But when I decided to quit my job at Arena Stage in D.C. and move home with my parents, I gave myself one year—no other part-time jobs, no boyfriend, no volunteering, no traveling the world. Butt In The Chair was my rule. It was excruciating and the best gift I could have given myself (and that my parents could have given me) because only by doing it full out and risking failure did I teach myself how to write.
Not That I Care
SH: Did you ever surprise a boy by letting him know you liked him? What was his response?
RV: Oh, golly, yes, and it was terrible. More than once. Well, the worst was when I told a boy I was finally over him. I went to his house and told him it was over between us. He was so confused. I think he had no idea there had been a whole drama going on between us at all. He probably thought we were just casual friends. Oh, the horror.
What Are Friends For?
SH: Who was the “boy who got away” in school? What would tell your younger self to do about it?
RV: A very sweet, smart, kind boy named David, in middle school. I blew it trying to be cool in front of my friends (who included David’s sister, who was awesome and a year older than us). I would tell myself: be kinder and more honest than you feel able to be, always. Before you talk, ask yourself, if this is something a jerk would say? If yes, shut up.
The boy who got away in high school was named Mitch. I had such a crush on him, though he seemed a bit out of my league. He was a year ahead and was the boy everybody’s mom would be proud to have her daughter date. You know that guy—good-looking, smart, mature, kind, athletic, president of the class, valedictorian, captain of the soccer team, and super cute to boot; the whole package. We hung out one day in a snow storm when the ski meet was canceled – I gave him and my friend Bea a ride home in my mom’s convertible with the top down so we could fit our skis in the back, and I drove with my goggles on. We went to my house and listened to music and he stayed even after Bea left and it was fun and maybe romantic, how he smiled at me. My family was going skiing the next day so I invited him to come along and he said yes. But my parents got stuck in the blizzard overnight and didn’t make it back until morning so they canceled the trip – I was not understanding or considerate or interested in hearing about their adventure being stranded. I was mad. Had to call and cancel with Mitch. And then that was that. Nothing came of it. Until seven years later when we reconnected and fell in love and now we’ve been married for over twenty years and I still think it’s romantic when he walks in and smiles at me. So, I guess what I’d tell my younger self about that it: don’t stress. Work hard, dream big, build your life—and love will come.
Books by Rachel Vail
Well, That Was Awkward. Penguin, 2017. 314p. $16.99. 978-0-6700-1308-1. VOYA February 2017. 5Q 5P M J
Unfriended. Penguin, 2014. 282p. $16.99. 978-0-6700-1307-4. VOYA August 2014. 5Q 4P M J
If We Kiss. HarperCollins, 2005. 259p. $15.99. 978-0-0605-6914-3.
Kiss Me Again. Harperteen, 2012. 248p. $17.99. 978-0-0619-4717-9.
Avery Sisters Trilogy
Lucky. Harperteen, 2008. 233p. $16.99. 978-0-0608-9043-8. VOYA August 2008. 3Q 4P M J
Gorgeous. Harperteen, 2009. 282p. $16.99. 978-0-0608-9046-9. VOYA August 2009. 3Q 4P M J
Brilliant. Harperteen, 2010. 249p. $16.99. 978-0-0608-9049-0. VOYA August 2010. 5Q 3P S
The Friendship Ring series
If Only You Knew. Penguin, 2014. 151p. $7.99. 978-0-1475-1118-8.
Please, Please, Please. Penguin, 2014. 170p. $7.99. 978-0-1475-1119-5.
Not that I care. Penguin, 2014. 145p. $7.99. 978-0-1475-1120-1.
What Are Friends For? Penguin, 2014. 142p. $7.99. 978-0-1475-1121-8.
Rachel Vail Online
Author Website: http://www.rachelvail.com/
Stacey Hayman may not be a young adult (librarian) anymore but she loves to read (just about) all the books written for teens. Reading and reviewing teen and adult books for VOYA, Library Journal, and Booklist, Hayman has also been chair of VOYA‘s Nonfiction Honor List, a member of ALA’s Notable Book Council, and AAUP Book Selection Committee. She’s also co-authored a book, Better Serving Teens through School Library-Public Library Collaborations (Libraries Unlimited, 2013). When she’s not waiting for her next review book to arrive, you might catch her looking for trouble in all the wrong (or right?) places. (Suggestions on where to look next are always welcome!)