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Ann Brashares Embarks Into Fiction

The day before splitting up for their first summer apart, four best friends discover a pair of pants that just might be magical - how else to explain a pair of jeans that fits each of them so perfectly? That night, they gather in the gym where their mothers first met (okay, technically, they break into the gym) to take the vow of the Traveling Pants.

Ann BrasharesIn the morning, Carmen will reunite with her father in South Carolina. Bridget will set out for soccer camp in Mexico. Lena will board a plane to spend two months with her grandparents in Greece. Tibby, alone among the four, will stay home and work at Wallman's drugstore. The pants will circulate among them, making two rounds by summer's end if their calculations are correct.

The rules, however, took a while to sort out:

  1. You must never wash the pants.
  2. You must never double cuff the pants. It's tacky.
  3. You must never say the word "phat" while wearing the pants. You must also never think to yourself "I am fat" while wearing the pants.
  4. You must never let a boy take off the pants (although you may take them off yourself in his presence).
  5. You must not pick your nose while wearing the pants. You may, however, scratch casually at your nostril while really kind of picking.
  6. You must follow the procedures for documenting your time in the pants.
  7. You must write your sisters throughout the summer, no matter how much fun you are having without them.
  8. You may only possess the pants for the specified length of time before passing them on to one of your sisters. Failure to comply will result in a severe spanking upon our reunion.
  9. You must not wear the pants with a tucked-in shirt and belt. See rule #2.
  10. Remember: Pants = love. Love your pals. Love yourself.

"The pants are just pants, and life is just life, full of joys, sorrows, living, and dying," Frances Bradburn of Booklist raved. "This is the charm of The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants. Carmen, Lena, Bridget, and Tibby are growing to adulthood, and Brashares accurately portrays one glorious, painful summer in their evolution."

The author, a seasoned editor of children's books, stole away from her own kids for a few minutes to talk about her first novel, one of the hottest young adult titles of the season.

Dave: After working in the publishing industry for a while, writing some nonfiction and organizing various projects, what made you try a novel now?

Ann Brashares: I've done a lot of things, but not one totally full-on. For instance, the children's biography of Steve Jobs came out of an editing project. I hadn't at any point considered myself an author of nonfiction. It was more a question of who was going to write those books, and I decided to try it. I was wearing a certain hat to do that project, and it was really fun, but I was functioning more as an editor, trying to come up with ideas for children's projects.

With The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, I've made a career shift. I really want to write fiction now. I love doing it. Fiction was my first love as a child and it's where my heart is. All along, I thought if I could do anything it would be to write fiction. Finally, I'm trying to get a toehold.

Dave: So how did you start with The Sisterhood?

Brashares: It started with a conversation. A woman I used to work with, a dear friend, Jodi Anderson, talked about a summer where she and her friends had shared a pair of pants that wound up being lost. It was sad, but I loved the idea - a concrete thing in the middle of a great big, amorphous, rich world of fiction.

We talked about it a little more, and with some of her ideas and her blessing I went off and developed it into an outline, got characters, and got Random House on board. I just went from there.

Dave: The girls are spending their first summer apart, so each time the pants arrive with one of them in some distant part of the world they really do serve as a connection to home.

Brashares: That's how I was hoping it would work, as a repository of friendship - love, hope, challenges, all of those things.

Dave: In the beginning of the story, there's a lot of talk about them being "magic" pants, but they certainly don't turn out to be lucky.

Brashares: There's not so much luck along the way, no.

Dave: Why are the prologue and the epilogue from Carmen's point of view?

Brashares: She has a bigger consciousness of their friendship, I think. She's less in the moment than the others.

Dave: Carmen, Bridget, and Lena are away from home for the first time. It's ironic that Tibby, who stays home, is the one who learns the most.

Brashares: She's the one who's shaken up the most. The idea that that can happen at home was something I wanted to present.

Dave: That's something I found very true to life. There's so much going on in your hometown, but a child's life is circumscribed by his or her immediate contacts. Tibby, by staying home without her friends, is the first person in her group to see that. The others...Lena, for example, goes halfway across the globe and learns about herself, but not a whole lot about the world.

Brashares: No, she doesn't. That's quite true.

Dave: When you think about this book's readership, who do you imagine it will be?

Brashares: I'm assuming that it will find its way into the hands of girls. I'd love it if boys read it, too, but being realistic I think I was certainly imagining female readers.

I love the idea that it will appeal somewhat broadly. An eleven year old will enjoy it and it doesn't feel too sophisticated, but it's made me happy that people who are my age, in my thirties, and others in their twenties, are saying they like it. Of course most of them know me so maybe they're just being nice, but there's been a genuine response from people of different ages. I like to think it will have some broader appeal.

Dave: Something that jumps out, as far as appealing to adults, are the quotes that begin each chapter - everything from James Joyce to Henry Rollins to Seinfeld. They bring an older generation into the story.

Brashares: I wanted the quotes to be completely random, a total mix. New stuff, old stuff, from here, from there. A lot of it is more about my age group than anybody else's. You can't try to pretend to be another age than the one you are. I wrote this book firmly as a person who's in her thirties, with powerful memories of being in my teens.

Dave: Is the quote from the Sears catalog actually true? "If you don't find it in the Index, look very carefully throughout the entire catalog." Did you really lift that directly?

Brashares: I've seen it in a couple of places. I haven't verified it beyond a shadow of a doubt, but I think it's true.

Dave: How big is Carmen's butt?

Brashares: I don't know! She thinks it's bigger than it is, but it's still a good-sized butt. Not quite Jennifer Lopez.

Dave: Speaking of children's books, and being a boy who really didn't read much when I was younger...

Brashares: That's such a boy thing. Girls, particularly as middle-graders, read a lot more than boys do at their age. That's a generalization, of course.

Dave: I'd like to think I'm not a complete anomaly, but I spend my days around bookstore employees who all seem to have been reading since they were prenatal so I'm never quite sure.

Were there books for you that served the role that this one might for a girl growing up now? Are there books you'd associate it with?

Brashares: I don't know if it falls into a particular category. As far as books that I loved when I was this age, I loved Judy Blume. She felt like the first author who would tell it to me like it is, expose the sensitive, painful, awkward side of things. I remember really loving that, reading those books again and again. I hope this book will have the same feeling of honesty.

I haven't read as widely in current young adult fiction as I would like, but I feel as though there are a lot of books trying very hard to deal with social issues - illness or social ills, all kinds of shocking things - and in some part of my mind I knew that I didn't want to do that. I wanted to write a book that wasn't insubstantial but wasn't really issue-driven, either. I hope I did that.

It ended up being more serious than I'd imagined. Bridget's story was meant to be fun, and it turned quite dark, though I don't know how it happened. Carmen's story was sadder than I thought it would be. That may just be my way. But I wanted it to feel accessible.

Dave: Near the end, Carmen says, "What happened in front of my friends felt real. What happened to me by myself felt partly dreamed, partly imagined, definitely shifted and warped by my own fears and wants."

Brashares: That's it for me. I remember feeling that so dramatically when I left for college. Out of context, I just didn't know who or what I was. It scared me. I could only see myself reflected in other people. It's a feeling that I related to then and I relate to now.

Dave: Do you see yourself writing more children's books?

Brashares: I have a desire to do a lot of things. There's a part of me that likes writing fast paced, adventure stuff that I can imagine boys enjoying more, and younger kids. I think it's fun to plot and invent that kind of stuff. But I guess I'd like to do some more young adult fiction, and I'd like to try my hand at some adult fiction at some point. I'm hoping I'll grow into that.

Dave: Maybe by your fifties.

Brashares: Right, when I'm truly an adult. I think if you have a not-totally satisfied childhood, as a writer, you go back over it again and again until you get it right. Then you can move on to other stuff.

Dave: What do you read?

Brashares: Since I was twelve or so, I've loved nineteenth century novels. I'm a complete sucker for those. I still read them. Every few years when I've forgotten enough Jane Austen I read them all again. I love Dickens, Thackeray. I love the Russian novelists; I went through a phase of devouring those books. I got into a Trollope phase.

I haven't read a lot of contemporary fiction, to tell you the truth. I'd like to read more. With young children, I've read so much less than I'd like to in the last few years. I have a young baby, too.

There are some children's and young adult writers that I admire particularly. I love Karen Cushman's Catherine, Called Birdy. It's so wonderful. I love Katherine Paterson. Rob Thomas, who's gone on to a lucrative career in television, has written some YA books that I admire enormously. And Katherine Applegate, whom I worked with a bit as an editor, has gone on to great success; having worked with her and seen her progress as a writer, I think she's immensely talented.

Dave: With kids' books, people seem to take for granted that they're targeted toward one gender or the other. So why aren't adult books taken seriously when they're aimed at a gender?

Brashares: I don't have a good answer for that. It's taken for granted that you provide different reading material for those ages, you're right. But there's a lot of great crossover now. Harry Potter is an absolutely cross-gender phenomenon. There are certain categories, like Fantasy, generally. Even Scary Books - take the huge popularity of the Goosebumps series.

I think that's sort of the Holy Grail if you're in children's books, that you will be the person who'll come up with something both boys and girls will like. But for the most part, it's split; people assume that's how it is and there's not much comment.

Dave: As big as unbound by demographics as Harry Potter has become, I'm curious to see what happens when the movie comes out. It's hard to imagine it selling more books, but I know it will.

Brashares: Who doesn't already have it, right?

Dave: Right. Harry Potter and The Sorcerer's Stone has been among our bestselling books every week for years.

Brashares: Adults are the ones who've made that happen, don't you think?

Dave: They've certainly played a large role. The other day on the bus I saw two people, both adults, reading Potter books. Since Book 4 was published, the media attention has done a lot to bring non-parents to them. Also there's always a steady supply of kids entering that age group - I'm going to read Harry Potter as soon as I'm old enough, that kind of thing - whereas with adult fiction, there's inevitably some new release stealing the spotlight.

Brashares: It's more stagnant. With kids' books, there's a sense of fluidity. You're always getting new potential readers.

Dave: Judy Blume is a good example. Generations of kids have read those books.

In The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, there are references to various contemporary items - stores like Express and Bed, Bath, and Beyond, for example - but not too many, nothing that would deter a child ten years from now from reading or enjoying it.

Brashares: I hope not.

Dave: Whereas Harry Potter is completely made up. A total fantasy.

Brashares: Although it does have the great attribute of being internally consistent. But no, this book is pretty grounded in reality. What magic there is isn't even very lucky, so what's with that? I don't know.

Dave: Considering J.K. Rowling's massive success, we haven't seen as many imitators as you'd expect.

Brashares: Typically, when a children's book really succeeds you soon have a million imitators, to the point where it gets a bit shameful. But I think it's partly because Harry Potter is such an author-driven, unique project, so much about how she's done it and her character. Although I think it's brought a lot of energy to the Fantasy genre.

Dave: It's brought energy to the whole industry.

Brashares: Do you think there's a backlash now?

Dave: Not when you consider how big it is and how long this has been going on, not since The New York Times removed children's books from its Bestseller list about a year ago so Harry Potter would stop dominating. Along with Oprah and Internet bookselling, Rowling has helped reestablish the place of books in popular culture.

There's been a lot of talk in the book industry lately about book reviews disappearing from mainstream news outlets; newspapers and magazines aren't reviewing as many books, and when they do it's a short, thumbnail sketch. Yet I can't help but feel like more people are reading and talking about reading now than in a long time.

Brashares: Arguably, they're reading fewer things, but in greater numbers.

Dave: Books have become part of our national dialogue. It's fascinating to be standing behind the curtain, so to speak. For example, we don't take any money from publishers for placement on the web site....

Brashares: That's an honorable thing. I remember I was so shocked, in a naïve way, to know that all that space is paid for, and all the placement in stores. I remember thinking, "Wait, they're not just picking the stuff they really like?"

Are you finding ways around that?

Dave: It's a challenge, particularly in the last year or so as more and more people new to Powell's visit our site. But it speaks to the idea that people are reading a fairly concentrated selection of titles: if we feature a book that a publishing house is promoting heavily elsewhere, it's going to sell well at Powells.com simply because people are familiar with it. They've seen it in other stores and they've seen ads for it in magazines. Whereas if we like a smaller-budget book and decide to stand behind it, we may sell some copies but people are less likely to buy it because they're hearing about it for the first time.

Once you get past the top five percent of books printed by the major publishing houses, very few people will ever hear of them. As promotional dollars sneak into more and more places, you have to find new and creative ways to generate interest in otherwise unsupported titles.

Brashares: It does perpetuate, and it's a little bit sad. So many things don't get the attention they deserve.

Dave: When Ann Patchett was here over the summer, she said, "One of the most horrifying things about book tours is being in bookstores every day and just thinking, Oh, why bother? Look at all the fantastic, brilliant books."

Brashares: Every time I go to a bookstore, it's a shattering experience. There are so many people trying so hard to do so many things. It can destroy your confidence. How can you have anything to say that would add to it? Yet we all persist.

Dave: And of course the flipside is that the centralization of that promotional power is largely responsible for the resurgence of books in mainstream culture. It's no different from millions of people watching Survivor every Thursday, then talking about it at work or school the next day. Well, now that everyone's reading the same books - Harry Potter, Bridget Jones, and the like - they can talk about books, too. And that momentum helps booksellers move inventory.

Brashares: I see it in my own life. We're so brand-oriented. Life is big and complicated, and you want to simplify. You want to know what's good, what you can depend on. But a lot of books are lost. You see so much work and so much thought going into books that aren't being read.

Dave: I really should give you back to your kids. Is there anything else you want people to know about yourself or the book? I apologize for asking this question. Every time I do, I'm met with complete silence, but I can't help asking.

Brashares: It's like the end of a job interview: "Do you have any questions?"

Dave: But you'd have one, right?

Brashares: Well, I hope people find their way to this book and read it. Wouldn't that be great? Wouldn't it be fun? I wrote the book in an isolated way; I didn't know what people would think of it. The response so far has been such a happy surprise. I feel like it's being taken seriously, and that makes me so happy. I hope it finds its way to readers who'll like it and who'll take themselves seriously, too.

Heartfelt thanks go out to Ann Brashares, who literally had to put her baby down to conduct this interview, by phone, from her home in Massachusetts on the afternoon of September 7, 2001.

÷ ÷ ÷

Dave interviews authors for Powell's. He created our Out of the Book film series. He likes cats and dogs.


Books mentioned in this post



Dave is the author of Out of the Book, Volume 3: State by State

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